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Orbán’s Hungary: Illiberal Democracy and the EU

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

Robert Sata, Central European University

Hungary has acquired international notoriety over recent years for leading the wave of anti-democratic and anti-European developments in the European Union (EU). Prime Minister Viktor Orbán skilfully manoeuvred away from all criticism making use of the fact that the EU is not equipped to deal with its members that deconstruct democratic systems, colonize judiciary authorities and disregard the rule of law. Orbán built his illiberal democracy using authoritarian tactics and a dialectic juxtaposition between ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’ in public discourse that justified policy changes as defence of national interest. His political discourse, deep-rooted in populism, rests on definitions of the ‘self’ and the ‘others’ – the processes of ‘othering’ – that delimit the ‘good people’ and their enemies.

Orbán’s deliberate strategy is aimed at excluding the ‘others’ and he has successfully exploited economic insecurity and cultural fears of the people to rally support for his illiberal regime. Many have been puzzled by how quickly and publicly the dismantling has occurred in a country that was formerly a poster-child for post-communist democratisation and once had the most institutionalised party system in Eastern Europe. Despite Hungary’s membership of the EU, Orbán’s discourse presents a fascinating duality: on the one hand it centres on the idea that Hungary is a part of Europe, while on the other, despite profiting of its membership, it demands that the EU “a bureaucratic empire in Brussels” is to be fought in defence of the ‘self’.

Hungarian politics have become bipolarised over the decades following regime change, both sides of the political spectrum having engaged in mutual enemy construction, demonizing each other, thus laying grounds for exclusionary identity politics that Orbán has raised to a level never seen before. Having returned to power in 2010 (he also led a relatively uncontroversial government 1998-2002), Orbán defined the ‘enemy’ as the liberals and the 1990-born system of liberal democracy, while he rearticulated the nation as the sole basis of legitimate politics. The radical reforms introduced were all justified with the need to purge of the country from the ‘political other’, challenging the establishment and the elite, while sympathising with the ‘true’ people. Supranational EU had no place in this world either, and Orbán soon declared that “Hungarians will not live as foreigners dictate“, thus perpetuating sentiments of resentment and distrust of the EU.

Orbán has continued to rely heavily on key elements of populist rule ever since 2010 and he focused on discursively creating the images of existential crises that Hungary must face. While these crises changed over the time, different conceptions of Europe and the EU are at the core of defining both the ‘self’ and the ‘other’: while Hungary is portrayed as part of Europe – or a saviour of Europe – the EU is continuously conceived as the threatening ‘other,’ siding with either international capital, the challengers of traditional Christian values, supporters of migration or liberal intellectuals. Simultaneously, Christianity and Christian traditions, portrayed as a set of values, standards, and behaviours, are adopted as cultural markers of Hungarian-ness and European identity. Yet, although common historical roots situate Hungary within Europe, its support for Christianity or the traditional family also delineates Hungary clearly against the EU, portrayed as secular and liberal.

This opposition between the EU and Hungary was only strengthened with the refugee crisis. In this instance, Orbán’s populist political discourse turned to xenophobic nationalism, portraying refugees as criminals and terrorists. This way Orbán creates another crisis, a Manichean world posing multiple threats to Hungary: cultural threats from non-European migrants; traditional values challenged by globalisation pressures; and the EU and the liberal world order challenging sovereignty, thus endangering the survival of the national community. Internal enemies of Orbán’s system have a similar fate: civic groups and philanthropist George Soros are identified as enemies of the nation in a conspiracy theory resembling very much to the ‘deep state’ narrative in the US. In particular, Soros was described as “the puppet master allegedly pulling the strings of all the government’s foes, including the NGOs, the critical media, the opposition parties, and the EU” – involving then Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, from Fidesz’s own EPP. Yet the EU, and more specifically the Commission, failed to address Orbán’s anti-democratic and anti-EU policies. Some say it was too legalistic or two narrowly focused but it confronted Kaczynski’s Poland – an ardent follower of Orbán – on rule of law issues before it did so for Hungary.

The question that still remains is how long an EU member can continue to define itself against the EU? What the EU’s response will be could be the answer for democracy not only in Hungary, but could determine the future of the entire EU. Poland, Bulgaria or Malta – just to name a few other EU members, seem interested in following Orbán’s strategy to employ populism as a strategic style of politics to create and transform authority and elites; enable constitutional changes; weaken former power holders; promote adversarial politics; and favour majoritarian norms at the expense of minorities. Exclusionary identity politics can be employed to rally support of the people and shield the regime from competition or criticism both domestically and internationally. Mobilizing along the lines of ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’ enables leaders to strengthen their grip on power and exclude the opposition, labelled enemies and traitors or defined as external foes of the national cause. The result can be further democratic backsliding, justified by the continuous ‘battle’ against the various crises that can only be waged with unchallenged power concentration in the hands of the ruler.

Robert Sata is an Associate Research Fellow in the Political Science Department, Central European University.

This post is based on an article published in East European Politics. The full article, "Caesarean politics in Hungary and Poland", co-authored with Ireneuzs Pawel Karolewski, is available here.

Image courtesy of Atlatszo Foto (, shared under terms of CC BY 2.0 License.

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