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Pytlas, Bartek (2018): Populist Radical Right Mainstreaming and Challenges to Democracy in an Enlarged Europe. ECPR General Conference. Panel Populism and Nativism as Legitimation Narratives of Illiberal Politics, Hamburg, 22. - 25. August 2018.

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Populist radical right (PRR) politics became increasingly established in the political mainstream and continues to challenge the values and legitimacy of liberal democracy. In Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), especially the cases of Hungary and Poland showcase the palpable consequences of these developments. Yet, as several scholars note, democratic erosion in these two countries took place despite their performance as role models of democratic consolidation. Concurrently, consolidated democracies in Western Europe are by no means immune to the rising mainstream legitimacy of PRR politics. Thus, despite the varying intensity of these phenomena across Europe, observing how PRR politics is being normalised within the mainstream of CEE democracies can provide important lessons that increasingly go beyond the contextual specificities of this region. Extant research has put increased attention on the impact of populism and nativism on liberal democracy. Yet, there is still need to explore how political entrepreneurs use these narratives in the political process to establish and most especially uphold mainstream legitimacy of illiberal politics and policies. By observing the phenomenon of PRR mainstreaming and the related challenges to liberal democracy in CEE from an actor-centred perspective, this paper thus aims to contribute to complementing the conceptual understanding of these mechanisms and processes. The study shows that while PRR parties continue to pose a major challenge to liberal democracy, political agency of established parties at the same time plays a pivotal role in the reciprocal spiral of legitimation of PRR politics – including the illiberal framing of democracy used to transport its nativist core ideology. The ability of PRR narratives to gain broader mainstream legitimacy thus results not only from mainstreaming strategies by PRR parties, but is also galvanized through the mainstreaming of PRR politics by established parties. Concurrently, where established parties adopted the overarching ultranationalist as well as anti-establishment PRR frame, they fostered its normalisation as an illiberal counter-narrative of both mainstream values and the democratic ideal. Once in absolute power, they ultimately deployed it to legitimize democratic deconsolidation in the name of “democracy” itself.

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