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15th ECPR General Conference, University of Innsbruck

Savior of Europe, Foe of the EU – Illiberal Populist Discourse in Hungary

Europe (Central and Eastern)
Contentious Politics
European Union
Robert Sata
Central European University
Robert Sata
Central European University

Austerity due to the financial crisis, the challenge of the refugee crisis and diminished trust in the European project have had enormous impact on everyday politics in Eastern Europe. Hungary has become infamous for leading the wave of democratic backsliding in Europe, Prime Minister Viktor Orban exploiting successfully economic insecurities and cultural fears to legitimize his illiberal authoritarian rule. Using systematic content analysis of the official speeches of the prime minister in 2010-2018, the paper describes the main features of Orban’s discourse of populist nationalism that is not only ethnocentric or anti-migrant but also anti-establishment and anti-EU. The paper highlights how the discourse relies on populist elements to mobilize support of the people/nation. The discursive creation of both Europe and the EU is at the core of this identity-based politics that uses the processes of ‘othering’ to justify extreme policy measures. Although conceptions of both Europe and the EU change depending whether the focus is on the financial (2010-15) or the migration crisis (2015-2018), Orban’s discourse presents a fascinating duality, on the one hand it centers on the idea that Hungary is a defender of European Christian civilization and its traditional values, while on the other, the EU – portrayed as a supporter of international capital or an enforcer of migration that poses threats to Hungary – must be opposed. Europe and European culture/civilization is thus discursively portrayed as intrinsic to the ‘self’, while the EU becomes the threatening ‘other’. This culminates in Orban’s proposed illiberal democracy that rests on the discursive processes of ‘othering’ that stand for a contestation of both liberal equality and cultural diversity. The EU and its common governance systems, liberal foundation, secular organization, and religious tolerance must be opposed in order to save Europe.
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