In Hungary, the ultra-conservative Orban-lead government called for a referendum on a law….that had already been passed!! As you might expect from such a government, the referendum was totally flawed, but in a way that made it difficult to challenge. This persuaded Civil Society to take some clever action which resulted in the defeat of the referendum. Luca Dudits from the Hatter organisation tells us how!!
Luca, what was happening at the time of the referendum?
The situation was bad. For years, Orban’s reactionary regime had been spreading propaganda and fear-mongering by whipping up misogyny, xenophobia and, of course, LGBTQ-phobia. The government rhetoric lashed out repeatedly at LGBTQ+ parents, comparing them with paedophiles who viewed children as “luxury lifestyle items”.
The regime has backtracked from existing laws allowing legal gender recognition so that our current regulations are now even worse than before.
New legislation inspired by the Russian so-called ‘Propaganda Law’ came into force in 2021, censoring minors’ access to any content related to LGBTQ+ issues. It is now forbidden to communicate on this subject in educational settings, in the media (except in the middle of the night) and in publicly accessible places like bookstores.
Why a referendum?
As the Propaganda Law is highly discriminatory, the European Commission launched an infringement procedure against Hungary. In response, the government announced that they would initiate a referendum to show that the law had the support of Hungarian people. General elections were planned for 2021, so a referendum on this issue was seen as a political tool to divert attention from other issues and, once again, spread fear at the expense of minority groups. In fact, the referendum was scheduled on the same day as the elections.
Did you call for a boycott of the referendum?
As the referendum was on the same day as the general election, an attempt to tell people to boycott or keep away from the polls would have been viewed as an attempt to sabotage voting. The government would have used this as an excuse for accusing us of being unpatriotic and undemocratic, so we had no choice but to accept that the referendum would take place.
To make matters worse, the referendum questions were framed in such a way that made it impossible to campaign against it.. For example, one question was “Do you support the view that content which could be detrimental to development can be shown to minors?”
How could you possibly ask people to vote “no”?
So what was your strategy?
Our only option was to invalidate the referendum, which according to Hungarian law, meant that less than 50% of registered voters would cast their votes. Knowing that the abstention level is high, we calculated thatwe would need 20% of the voting public to spoil their ballot papers. That’s 2 million people! Obviously, to reach that figure we had to target moveable middle audiences.
We decided to call out the fact that the way that the questions were framed was invalid.
Our slogan was “Invalid questions = Invalid answers”
What was your communication strategy to reach these “moveable middle” audiences?
A golden rule in campaigning is that you have to be relatable to the concerns and values of your target group.
Luckily, we had data from Hungarian research dating back to 2020 which showed that family and safety were the population’s top values.
We also knew that Hungarians do not relate to the notion of ‘Human Rights’, partly because it has been vilified so much by the Government for many years. It would not have been strategic to use this frame.
We decided to reclaim the values of family and safety rather than leaving them for the conservatives to use so wecrafted messages that focussed on the right for everyone to live free from harassment and enjoy physical safety. This played into traditional conservative values but also expanded their application to include everybody.
We organised Focus Groups to discuss campaign name and this was very insightful. We learned that our audiences did not consider the referendum as “hate”, whereas we in the community clearly did. So we chose to communicate using the frame of the “Propaganda Referendum”, which our audiences found much more compelling.
You say “we”, who exactly was behind this campaign?
Sixteen organisations had worked together on a political reaction to this law, but we knew that for such a campaign we needed a small, core team to make quick, operative decisions. We proposed that organisations could be part of the steering committee if they could devote one person for at least 20 hours a week to work on the campaign. In the end it was only Amnesty and ourselves at Hatter, who could and this restricted steering committee was the right option. Other participating organisations were regularly consulted and had a veto right on important decisions. In total, fourteen organisations participated.
We were lucky to have technical assistance from Equality without Borders, which helped us design the campaign.
What exactly did the campaign consist of?
The campaign had to be turned around within an extremely short timeframe. The decision to campaign was made in November and the referendum was scheduled for the 3rd of April so we had four months to prepare before the campaign’s official launch on the 28th of February.
Our first decision was to create a straightforward leaflet that explained why people should spoil their vote. This was canvassed all over the country in 83 cities by over 400 volunteers.
We shot four videos of LGBTQ+ people talking to their relatives about what is like to be queer in Hungary. These were disseminated on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram using paid publicity slots.
We also developed eleven photo stories that showcased the diversity of LGBTQ people. For example, we deliberately included Roma people to break the stereotype that LGBTQ+ Roma people don’t exist.
We purchased advertising space that covered the scaffolding of a huge building in front of the biggest railway station in the country and our visual was distributed on 150 billboards. We had funds for more advertising but many companies refused to collaborate with us for fear of political retaliation.
Several flashmobs took place.
What were the results of the campaign?
1.7 million people voted invalidly in all four questions. The referendum did not reach the 50% threshold of valid votes so it was defeated. We can definitely say that we won!
Of course, this didn’t have an immediate impact because, as I said, the law was already in place, but we probably avoided the law becoming stricter and we undermined the government’s strategy of claiming public support for their state-sponsored LGBT phobia.
There were some other positive outcomes. We had taken the campaign out of Budapest on a road trip across the country which helped to impact opinions outside of the capital. We were pleased to see the wide diversity of the volunteers who supported us with both young and visibly queer people as well as elderly people.
These people proved essential to connect to audiences other than progressive young people.
At a glimpse:
Were there any negative consequences?
Indeed one week after the campaign we were informed that all the fourteen organisations participating in the campaign would be fined. The accusation was of ‘sabotaging democracy’. We appealed and the fines against the twelve allied organisations and Amnesty International were overturned, but Hatters’ fine of €8,000 was confirmed. We had to pay the fine, but we are taking our case to the Strasbourg European Court of Human Rights.
How has this campaign impacted your organisation ?
As options for policy advocacy are closing down in our context, it is extremely important that we turn our focus on public opinion. We had already run a major campaign on rainbow families back in 2020, and we saw that support for rainbow families rose from 25% in 2018 to over 50% in 2022.
Today, we have just received the market research data on Hungarians’ attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people and the results show that 78% of Hungarians agree that legal gender recognition should be made possible for trans people and 51% support marriage equality.