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A challenge to reproductive and LGBTQ rights marks the rise of illiberalism worldwide. It is spearheaded by political parties with socially conservative tendencies that promote a mix of traditional values and familialism. However, the intensity of the illiberal backlash against these rights varies across time and countries. When in power, illiberal parties approach them differently, depending on the public’s support for the status quo and the strength of their associations with socially conservative groups.


Petra Guasti and Lenka Bustikova

August 3, 2023


“…[w]hat is happening today in Hungary can be interpreted as an attempt of the respective political leadership to harmonize the relationship between the interests and achievement of individuals […] with interests and achievements of the community, and the nation. Meaning, that the Hungarian nation is not a simple sum of individuals, but a community that needs to be organized, strengthened and developed, and in this sense, the new state that we are building is an illiberal state”.
Viktor Orban
July 26, 2014


Illiberalism is associated with majoritarianism and opposition to diversity and minority accommodation. It often stems from a longing for the “mechanical solidarity” found in traditional communities before the complexities of modern life led to more diverse lifestyles. Illiberalism promotes a view of nationhood and sovereignty based on heteronormative values and communal solidarity. Some politicians have contrasted illiberalism with individualism, cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism, and sexual autonomy.

In the past decade, socially conservative groups have adopted cultural issues that align with traditional Christian values and familialism. These involve opposition to LGBTQ rights and gender equality, ethnic particularism, and various forms of identity politics. And most socially conservative groups pursue their goals through legal means and institutional channels.

In Central Europe, new alliances between illiberal confessional political parties and socially conservative groups have emerged. Their effectiveness in pursuing policy initiatives in the domains of reproductive and same-sex rights, however, has varied greatly. This is the case, for example, across the four Visegrad states: the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. In a recent article, we examine legislative and policy outcomes in the four countries to explain these differences. We argue that the strength of the new alliances between confessional political parties and socially conservative groups determines the degree of illiberal backlash against reproductive and sexual rights. Their success is constrained by public opinion on abortion and same-sex partnerships as well as by competition between confessional parties in the political system.


Abortion and Same-Sex Rights in Central Europe

Alliances between political parties and socially conservative groups, including church organizations, think tanks, and nongovernmental organizations, fuel the political power of illiberalism. These groups ally with political parties to achieve their policy agenda: restricting access to abortion, blocking the expansion of rights of the LGBTQ community, and challenging gender equality.

Among the four Visegrad countries, the Czech Republic shows the highest level of liberalism towards reproductive rights and same-sex partnerships. Hungary is liberal on reproductive rights but is becoming more restrictive on LGBTQ rights. Poland has a mixed record on reproductive rights and tends to be conservative toward LGBTQ rights. So is Slovakia, to a lesser extent.

Poland ranks last in the European Union in terms of LGBTQ equality. The constitution banned same-sex marriage since 1997. Limited cohabitation rights were granted to same-sex couples in 2007 but bills to allow registered partnerships failed several times (2004, 2013, 2014, and 2018). Poland also has one of Europe’s most restrictive reproductive rights regimes. After the end of communist rule, reproductive rights policies were rolled back (1993) – restricting abortion only to cases of rape, incest, severe fetal impairment, and endangerment of the mother’s life. Further restrictions followed in 2016 and 2020.

Since 2010, Hungary has restricted LGBTQ rights, banned changing one’s gender in official documents, and put hurdles into adoption for same-sex couples. The constitutional amendment adopted in 2020 limits marriage to heterosexual couples and no longer includes protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation. Reproductive rights are also restricted, with a pro-life campaign and Family Protection Action Plan implemented. However, abortion remains legal, and Hungary has the highest abortion rate among the four countries.

In Slovakia, a very vocal LGBTQ community has failed to expand LGBTQ rights; on the contrary since 2014 the Constitution bans same sex marriage. But the February 2015 attempt by an ultraconservative group Alliance for Family to constitutionally ban same-sex marriage, registered partnerships, adoption by same-sex couples, and sex education failed. Attempts to introduce registered partnerships failed in 2018, but so have multiple attempts to restrict reproductive rights (2020, 2021, 2022).

While registered partnerships have been recognized in the Czech Republic since 2006, bills to introduce same-sex marriage failed in 2016 and 2021. In June 2023, however two opposing bills advanced to the next reading in parliament, a same-sex marriage bill and a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage bill. Abortion rates have significantly declined since 1989 and there have been no legislative efforts to restrict reproductive rights.

Figure 1. Photo taken at the Bratislava Club Teplaren after the terrorist attack against the LGBTQ community in October 2022. Photo credit: Ales Michal.


Public Opinion

Attitudes toward reproductive and same-sex rights differ across the four Visegrad countries. Public opinion is more favorable in the Czech Republic and Hungary than in Poland and Slovakia. Hungarians were very supportive of abortion rights (63% in favor in 2019) whereas Slovaks viewed abortion on request very unfavorably (only 18% in favor in 2020). Nevertheless, Hungary’s current abortion regime is much more restrictive than the one in Slovakia. In Poland, opinion polls differentiate between attitudes toward different reasons for abortion. Support for abortion rights in case of danger to the life or health of the mother, rape and incest, and fetal abnormalities was significantly higher – in 2020, 86%, 79%, and 64%, respectively, – than in other cases (only 18% in favour in 2020, like in Slovakia). Hence, while support for access to abortion on request is comparatively low in Poland, so is the support for the current, very strict abortion regime. In 2019, 68% of Czechs were in favor of abortion rights.

The level of support for same-sex marriage varies greatly across the region. 2023 data for Poland and Hungary show 41% and 31% support respectively. In the Czech Republic longitudinal data indicate 58% support for same sex marriage (2023), while some surveys indicate 67% support for same sex marriage (2023).  Current data is not available for Slovakia, but 2019 data show only 20% support for same sex marriage. As for registered partnership, the support increased significantly in the Czech Republic reaching 83% in 2023.  Support for registered partnerships has also increased in Poland and Slovakia, but it only reached approximately 50% in Slovakia (2015) and 36% in Poland (2017). Current data on support for registered partnership is not available for Hungary, but 2021 IPSOS data indicate 46% Hungarians supported same-sex marriage, while 20% supported registered partnership, but no same-sex marriage.


Confessional Parties

Immediately after the fall of communist regimes in 1989, Christian democratic parties emerged as representatives of the confessional vote in the Visegrad countries. In the subsequent decades, more extreme and illiberal parties were formed, like the fringe radical-confessional League of Polish Families (LPR) in Poland or We Are Family in Slovakia, targeting the same electorate. Their rise coincided with culture wars over national identity, which led to the emergence of religiously infused parties or shifts in mainstream party platforms toward extreme positions.

In Poland, the LPR and the Law and Justice (PiS) party were both formed in 2001. In the mid-2000s, the LPR joined PiS as a junior coalition partner in government, but this did not last long. The LPR was hostile to pluralism and was considered extreme by moderate representatives of the Catholic Church. It imploded in less than ten years and PiS captured its socially conservative, Church-affiliated voter base. The ultraconservative Catholic Radio Maryja station, threw its full weight behind PiS, helping the party to win the 2005 elections. In Hungary, religion also played an important role in moving the Fidesz party toward radical, socially conservative positions. As a result of the shifts by Fidesz and PiS, and of the absence of new democratically oriented confessional parties entering the scene, there are no independent confessional parties associated with the democratic pluralism of the 1990s and the “return to Europe” in Hungary and Poland.

Christian democratic parties emerged in the Czech Republic and Slovakia in the early 1990s. Despite their small size, they developed strong brands and have survived decades of party-system instability. Today, they are resilient allies of liberal parties, often acting as junior government coalition partners. They offer a rare combination of centrist positions on social conservatism and a strong acceptance of democratic pluralism, which is increasingly appealing to mainstream rightwing voters.

Figure 2. Photo taken at the Bratislava Club Teplaren after the terrorist attack against the LGBTQ community in October 2022. The signs translate – from left to right – as “We all belong here”, “Hatred kills” and “Your child can be queer too”. Photo credit: Ales Michal.


Radicalizing Mainstream Parties and Advances of the Illiberal Agenda

In the past 20 years, identity issues have been at the forefront of political parties’ agendas in the four Visegrad countries. Mainstream parties have moved toward more conservative policies on abortion, national identity, gender equality, and same-sex marriage, while extremist groups compete with moderate and radicalized mainstream parties in all four countries. Except in the Czech Republic, religion also plays a polarizing role in the region. However, the competition between moderate and radical confessional parties makes it difficult for any illiberal party to consolidate the socially conservative vote and pursue policies targeting reproductive and LGBTQ rights.

In Poland and Slovakia, reproductive rights are a polarizing issue but only a minority supports a complete abortion ban as noted above. In the Czech Republic and Hungary, there is strong support for abortion rights, so illiberal parties use socially conservative rhetoric but are unwilling to make unpopular legal changes. Even though socially conservative groups expect the electoral promises of their illiberal allies to be kept, under such conditions, governments fear that unpopular changes to reproductive rights could lead to public mobilization. On the other hand, limiting the expansion of LGBTQ rights aligns with public opinion, making it more politically expedient for illiberal parties to focus on introducing new regulatory barriers and restrictions in this domain.

Besides legislative changes, parties implement policies that erode reproductive rights and curb the expansion of LGBTQ rights in subtler ways. The European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights have repeatedly ruled against the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland for their violation of EU law in these domains.

In the case of abortion, for example, Poland is the only one of the four countries that legally restricts it on request, but two effective alternatives are available to governments. The first is regulatory practices and the second is non-enforcement of legislation. Thus, while abortion is legal in Hungary, the government has de facto limited women’s reproductive autonomy by expanding the “conscious objection” rights and financial motivation of hospitals to limit access to abortion.

“In the last 20 years, reproductive and LGBTQ rights have been hotly debated in Central Europe. However, the situation varies greatly across the four Visegrad countries. New coalitions of confessional parties and socially conservative groups has caused a backlash against liberalism. These groups provide votes, resources, and legitimacy to confessional parties in exchange for changes to the legal and regulatory framework around sexuality and rights.”

Varieties of Illiberal Backlash

In the last 20 years, reproductive and LGBTQ rights have been hotly debated in Central Europe. However, the situation varies greatly across the four Visegrad countries. New coalitions of confessional parties and socially conservative groups has caused a backlash against liberalism. These groups provide votes, resources, and legitimacy to confessional parties in exchange for changes to the legal and regulatory framework around sexuality and rights.

This new partnership has shifted the focus of illiberal parties from ethnic minorities to sexual minorities and women’s rights. However, these illiberal alliances face limitations in pursuing their agenda. As our study found, parties in power take public opinion into account as they contend with other political competitors with similar ideological leanings. They seek to avoid breaking the societal consensus and make electoral calculations. This means legislative changes are limited by party configurations and competition between mainstream and illiberal confessional parties over socially conservative voters.

Overall, the presence of socially conservative groups and their support among voters contributes significantly to the radicalization of mainstream parties.  At the same time, the differences across the Visegrad countries suggest moderate Christian democratic parties contribute to democratic resilience. In Hungary and Poland, such parties are either absent or have been absorbed by Fidesz and PiS, while those in the Czech Republic and Slovakia have a moderating effect on policy outcomes.



For more information, see the author’s accompanying paper entitled “Varieties of Illiberal Backlash in Central Europe” in Problems of Post-Communism.




Petra Guasti is an associate professor of democratic theory at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague, and a senior research fellow at the Institute of Sociology, Czech Academy of Sciences. Petra’s research focuses on reconfiguring the political landscape and revolves around representation, democratization, and populism. In AUTHLIB, Petra leads the work package on minipublics.

Lenka Bustikova is an associate professor in European Union and comparative East European politics at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on party politics, voting behavior, clientelism, and state capacity. Her 2019 book, Extreme Reactions: Radical Right Mobilization in Eastern Europe (Cambridge University Press) won the Davis Center Book Prize in political and social studies.

The AUTHLIB consortium does not take collective positions. Publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Photo credit: the header photo was taken by Aleš Michal at the Bratislava Club Teplaren after the terrorist attack against the LGBTQ community in October 2022. The signs translate – from left to right – as “Hatred kills”, “Your opinion is not more important than my life” and “When will it be enough”?!


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