BUDAPEST – Hungary's government wants to hold a national referendum in an effort to showcase public support for a new law that the European Union says discriminates against LGBT people.
The government says the law aims to protect children, but many have criticized it as an attack on LGBT rights.
In a video posted on Facebook Wednesday, Prime Minster Viktor Orban said the referendum was necessary to counter strong opposition to the measures by the EU, which he said had “abused its power" by launching legal action against Hungary over the law.
“Brussels has clearly attacked Hungary in recent weeks due to its child protection law,” Orban said. “When the pressure against our homeland is so strong, only the common will of the people can defend Hungary.”
Orban has remained defiant on the issue, even as he faces increasing scrutiny at home and abroad over democratic backsliding and allegations of spying.
The law passed last month by Hungary's parliament bans the depiction of homosexuality or gender reassignment to minors in school education programs and media content.
Its passage set off a heated confrontation between Orban's right-wing government and the 27-member EU, which argued it discriminates against LGBT people and contravenes the bloc's fundamental values.
The referendum, Orban said, will feature five questions. They will cover such issues as whether children should be introduced to topics of sexual orientation in schools, and whether gender reassignment should be promoted or depicted to children.
It will also ask whether gender reassignment procedures should be made available to minors, he said, and urged Hungarians to vote “no” to each of the questions.
The announcement of the referendum comes as Orban, a frequent critic of the EU, faces intense pressure on several fronts ahead of elections next spring that are forecast to be the closest since he came to power in 2010.
His government is currently under fire over findings by an international investigation published last weekend that it used powerful malware to spy on critical journalists, politicians and business figures through their smartphones.
Opposition lawmakers have demanded an inquiry into the alleged spying by the parliament's national security committee, but delegates from Orban's Fidesz party indicated they will prevent the committee from convening, calling the reports “unfounded.”
Other high-ranking officials have refused to confirm or deny that the government used the spyware against Hungarian citizens.
Minutes after the announcement of the referendum, several opposition parties called for a boycott of the vote.
Peter Jakab, president of the right-wing party Jobbik, called the referendum plan a “clear diversion” from the spying allegations. The president of the centrist Momentum party, Andras Fekete-Gyor, said it was “a mockery of democracy and nothing more than gratuitous hate-mongering.”
On Tuesday, the EU's executive commission issued a report on EU members' adherence to the rule of law, where it outlined the erosion of democratic standards in Hungary, including inadequate anti-corruption measures and a deterioration of media pluralism.
The Commission has also opted to withhold payment of billions of euros (dollars) in EU economic recovery funds to Hungary until it implements judicial reform and strengthens anti-corruption frameworks, according to European justice commissioner Didier Reynders.
Orban cast the moves as an attempt by the EU to force Hungary to amend its controversial law on the depiction of homosexuality, though the rule of law report made no mention of that legislation.