“The Viktor I saw at the table is not the same person I met eight years ago, who was an open and tolerant person,” Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel told reporters last week. The openly gay politician recalled that around five years ago, Viktor Orbán had dinner with him and his husband in Budapest. It seems Bettel did not understand Orbán or how his regime operates. The debate during the European Council Summit was exactly what Orbán hoped to provoke with his homophobic and cynical law on the ”protection of children”.

Europe’s leaders reacted harshly to the controversial law approved by the Orbán-dominated Hungarian Parliament a week ago banning the dissemination of information to children under the age of 18 that could be perceived as “promoting” homosexuality and requiring organisations to have a government license to carry out sex education in schools.

The purported purpose of this bill was to “crack down on child abuse”, but with a last-minute amendment it deliberately conflated paedophilia with homosexuality. The law follows two recent decisions of Orbán’s government to limit LGBT rights: preventing transgender people from changing their names in official documents, and seriously restricting adoption rights for single people (and same sex-couples). 

Last year, József Szájer, Fidesz’s leading MEP, famously resigned after he attended a “gay sex party” that breached strict lockdown measures in Brussels. Learning about the scandal, Orbán said: “What József Szájer did has no place in the values of our political family… his deed is unacceptable and indefensible.” 

The party chief did not specify what exactly he found unacceptable: the fact that Szájer was gay, the breaking of lockdown rules, or the scandalous way in which he was caught, but I am confident his outrage was motivated by the latter. The Szájer story shed light on Fidesz’s hypocritical attitude towards homosexuality. Being gay is not a problem within the Fidesz party, until it is made public.

When Fidesz transformed from a liberal into a conservative force, it adopted the slogan “God, nation and family”. Mindful that public opinion was becoming more liberal in Hungary, Fidesz set the unspoken rule that people can have any sexual orientation as long as it is not visible.

So why has Fidesz passed such intentionally provocative laws to denounce LGBT people? The important context is Hungary’s parliamentary elections in spring 2022. Unlike the previous two elections, Hungary’s fragmented opposition are closely cooperating to try and oust Orbán. 

With both sides head to head in the polls, Fidesz could lose the election. The disputed bill is not about children’s rights or the LGBT community. 

First, it is part of an ever-growing anti-liberal conspiracy about gay propaganda taking over the world, which is an effective tool for mobilizing rural voters, the “normal people” to be pitted against the liberal-gay Budapest. Orbán needs to mobilise the far-right electorate. 

Second, the bill is meant to divide the opposition, with seven parties struggling to agree on which candidates will run against Fidesz. The fragile coalition incorporates Liberals, Socialists, Greens, and the right-wing Jobbik, which voted for the anti-gay law, while other opposition parties boycotted it.

Finally, the cynical law aims to provoke outrage in Europe’s liberal circles and distract from the other seriously problematic bills voted on that day. Fidesz approved a budget that gives the government free rein to offer unlimited money to Hungarians before the election. It established a public foundation to host the private Chinese Fudan University campus in Budapest, to be built with a Chinese loan that will indebt generations of Hungarians to China, while depriving Hungarian universities of access to government and European research funds.

Fidesz recently established these types of public asset management foundations to outsource state assets and properties – such as universities and highways – to Fidesz-led entities. These foundations, packed with Fidesz appointees, will create a shadow state that will incapacitate the next government’s ability to govern if Fidesz loses the election.

Unfortunately, European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, the State Department, and the German government, stayed silent on these decisions. They only see what Orbán wants them to see: the ideological provocation, the culture war, and the conspiracy theory.

Orbán proudly brands his autocratic state an “illiberal democracy” which, in reality, means less democracy. Over ten years of perpetual constitutional change, Fidesz has distorted Hungary’s democratic institutions so severely that by now Hungarians have lost their freedom to change the governing party if they want to – the essence of democracy. When German chancellor Angela Merkel claims that “the room for manoeuvre to enforce [EU values] is very limited” and therefore “false expectations must not be generated”, I interpret this to mean EU leaders are unwilling to demand free and fair elections in Hungary and unwilling to stop nurturing Orbán’s autocracy. This is devastating for Hungary’s future. It is also devastating for our continent. It will leave a weaker Europe that won’t be strong enough to cope with the challenges of our contemporary society.

Zsuzsanna Szelényi is a former Hungarian politician and expert in foreign policy, who started her career in Fidesz, which she represented in parliament from 1990 to 1994. She is currently a fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy.