馃寠 How Hungary鈥檚 so-called child protection referendum was invalidated through a grassroots campaign

D贸ra Oprics explores the 2X campaign in Hungary, in which 1.7 million Hungarians successfully invalidated an exclusionary child protection referendum. The outcome reveals insights into the mobilising powers of grassroots activism against attempts to demonise the LGBTQIA+ community

Spoiling ballot papers with two Xs

In November 2021, Viktor Orb谩n's Fidesz government called a national referendum for the following spring. The government's aim was to gain approval for its so-called Child Protection Act. The referendum asked voters four questions:

  • Do you support holding lectures on the topic of sexual orientation to underage children in public education institutions without parental consent?
  • Do you support the promotion of sex reassignment treatments for underage children?
  • Do you support the unrestricted exposure of underage children to sexually explicit media content that may affect their development?
  • Do you support exposing underage children to media content showing gender change?

The questions were manipulative, judgmental and implied a predetermined acceptable response. Appalled, Hungarian civil society organisations mobilised, launching the campaign, To Invalid Questions, Invalid Answers, or 2X. Their campaign urged voters to invalidate their ballot papers by responding to each question with two Xs rather than one.

Referendum questions were manipulative, judgmental, and implied a predetermined response

The referendum needed 4.1 million affirmative votes to pass the legislation. In the event, the government got only 3.5 million votes in support. The civil society campaign thus played a critical role in blocking the proposed legislation.

Hungary's illiberal context

The referendum came about as a direct consequence of the 2021 LXXIX Child Protection Act. At first, Hungarians welcomed the Act. It had seemed like an attempt to strengthen child protection with a clear focus on paedophile offenders. But the Act soon became a new means for the government to demonise LGBTQIA+ Hungarians, restricting their representation in the media and in the school curriculum.

Attitudes to the Act swiftly changed, and there was national and international backlash. The Venice Commission published an opinion piece confirming the legislation was incompatible with international human rights standards. In response, Orb谩n claimed that his government鈥檚 illiberal, exclusionary tactics were well within Hungary鈥檚 discretionary authority. To prove his point, he called the referendum.

Orb谩n's illiberal offer

The referendum was a classic example of Andrea Pet艖's illiberal offer. The 'offer' promises social security and acceptance as a reward for following community norms and suggested core values. It reassures the individual that, in their choice of excluding one social group, they are able to stay 'safe' in another.

Referendum questions were designed to reassure the individual that by excluding one social group, they could stay 'safe' in another

Marton Gera calls this phenomenon out-groups and in-groups. He argues that LGBTQIA+ individuals stand in opposition to everything the in-group represents. The referendum questions gave a clear indication of who the in-group is. Child protection is a central element of illiberal rhetoric designed to secure future illiberal voters.

How the grassroots campaign succeeded

The 2X campaign mobilised a huge number of supporters. It revealed how fomenting division between in-groups and out-groups will not resolve the child protection crisis. Contrary to government instructions, 1.7 million voters invalidated their ballots with 2Xs. Several factors explain the campaign's success.

First, it had online and offline presence, guerilla action, and large-scale happenings. There was even a roadshow that visited 20 rural locations in a week. Activists engaged with the older generation and people outside their own political echo chamber. National and international press across the political spectrum covered the campaign. This generated discussion and familiarised people with the option of spoiling their ballot papers.

Second, a recent survey shows that the Hungarian public is becoming more accepting of LGBTQIA+ rights. Many invalid votes were likely because Hungarians refuse to align with exclusionary Fidesz politics.

The grassroots campaign used simple visuals and personal stories. It deliberately avoided the rainbow colours commonly associated with LGBTQIA+ campaigning

Third, the organisations themselves were not at the forefront of the campaign. In the current climate, NGOs are not popular with the general public. Most right-wingers are suspicious of the kind of organisations Orb谩n calls 'Soros agents'. Moreover, the opposition coalition's largely passive behaviour probably helped the campaign. Final numbers reveal that many of those who invalidated their ballots must have been Fidesz supporters.

Finally, the social media video campaign on NGOs' Facebook, YouTube and Instagram pages used simple visuals, easily understandable and touching messages, personal stories, and solid colours. It deliberately avoided the rainbow colours commonly associated with LGBTQIA+ campaigning.

The slogan invites supporters to give an 'Invalid answer to an invalid question', and put two Xs on the referendum ballot paper

The campaign's main message was that regardless of one's position on the queer spectrum, every individual is equally Hungarian and deserves to be treated with equal respect. According to Facebook statistics from H谩tt茅r Society, Hungary's biggest LGBTQ rights organisation, the top eight videos amassed over 1.3 million unique views and garnered more than 180,000 interactions:

Best performing campaign videos

Number of views on a piece of contentHow many times the video was seen by a unique personAfter 60 secondsEngagement
In one boat 2606,489368,386 12,695 29,466 
How could we be happier in Hungary?495,215 307,409 5,090 37,567 
In one boat 1391,991 259,448 4,467 53,642 
Tibi and 脕gi 385,473 186,990 9,955 30,411 
Check in from the roadshow 206,712 116,539 5,174 4,205 
Eszter and M谩ri贸 170,037 101,118 4,180 22,113 
Kinga and Mih谩ly 50,390 42,175 3,935 2,867 
脕gi and Emmett 13,153 11,610 1,153 965 
Total numbers 2,319,460 1,393,675 46,649 181,236 
Source: NGO H谩tt茅r Society Facebook analytics, understood through the definitions of Sprout social

Creating a buzz

The online campaign may have had only minimal reach, but it generated buzz about the issue. The campaign succeeded in sparking conversations, engaging people with the topic, and helping them see LGBTQIA+ individuals and allies in a new light. This enabled activists to bridge the gap the government had created. Indeed, hundreds of people decorated their ballots with drawings and messages about inclusion to protest against the way the referendum had been designed:

The campaign called on Hungarians to exercise their rights. They did so in droves. Standing up for democracy, 1.7 million voters spoiled their ballot papers, and succeeded in making a difference.

No.33 in a thread on the 'illiberal wave' 馃寠 sweeping world politics

This blog piece was written for the course 'Gendering Illiberalism', co-designed and co-taught by Andrea Pet艖 (with TA Irfana Khatoon) and Alina Dragolea (with TA Oana Dervis) sponsored by CIVICA alliance universities Central European University (CEU) and the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration (SNSPA).

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of D贸ra Oprics
D贸ra Oprics
Master's Student in Human Rights, Central European University, Vienna

D贸ra is also enrolled in the Romani Studies advanced certificate program.

Her primary research interests centre on minority rights, specifically the politicisation of gender to further illiberal agendas in Eastern Europe, with a particular focus on Hungary.

She is passionate about examining the influence of social media and cyber activism on human rights advocacy.

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