Central European populism is not simply a reflection of worrying developments in Western Europe – in fact it is even more dangerous.
And by this I don’t mean the ugly hard right parties of Hungary, and to a lesser extent Slovakia, Serbia, Lithuania and Latvia, which Western media seem obsessed about. The real worry is the ruling populists.
Firstly, rightwing populists – the Greek or Iberian-style leftwing variety is almost invisible – have already taken over in several Central European countries, and are not just barbarians at the gates as in Western Europe. Moreover, this is their second stab at power and they are doing everything they can to make sure they can stay for the long term this time.
Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party returned to power in Hungary in 2010 after the Socialists were discredited by the global financial crisis, and he has so comprehensively hollowed out the country’s democratic structures and gerrymandered the electoral system that it is hard to see him losing power in 2022, let alone at the next election in 2018.
Jaroslaw Kacyznski’s Law & Justice party defeated the centre-right Civic Platform in Poland in October, amid gnawing dissatisfaction with the sharing out of the country’s newfound prosperity. It has subsequently followed the Fidesz playbook of seizing control of all levers of the state, including the highest court and prosecutors, the civil service and intelligence agencies, and state companies and media.
Western hopes that both Orban and Kacyznski had learnt lessons from the failures of their first governments were naïve – the only lesson they drew was not to allow themselves to lose again. Like the restored Bourbon kings after the defeat of Napoleon “they have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing”.
Secondly, populism is spreading much faster in fertile soil, and centrist parties are now on the defensive everywhere, even in sober and well-established democracies such as the Czech Republic, as shown by the popularity of President Milos Zeman and billionaire Finance Minister Andrej Babis. In neighbouring Slovakia, Prime Minister Robert Fico – though nominally leftwing – has also borrowed ideas from Hungary, and he achieved a worrying dominance over the state apparatus during his last government, though he now has to rule with coalition partners.
“The self-correcting mechanisms are weaker in Central Europe than in Western Europe,” says David Kral, head of policy planning at the Czech Foreign Ministry. “The systemic risks are much higher here.”
Orban’s “illiberal state” model is particularly admired in the Balkans, where democracy has much shallower roots and where the promise of EU membership has lost what guiding force it once may have had. Even for those countries that managed to enter the EU before the door was shut, the political progress achieved by the Copenhagen membership criteria has now been shown to have been exaggerated.
“The political landscape is not what we thought it was and it never was,” Sean Hanley, lecturer in Eastern European politics at University College London, tells bne IntelliNews in an interview. “We kidded ourselves about the political forms that were emerging.”
Now authoritarian-minded rightwing leaders such as Aleksandar Vucic in Serbia, Nikola Gruevski in Macedonia and Boyko Borisov in Bulgaria are using some of the same tactics, though their parties are still part of coalitions, making this more difficult.
Thirdly, though Central European populism may share some common features with its Western European variant, it is a fundamentally different beast, and often displays worrying continuities with the countries’ inter-war authoritarian past.
As in Western Europe, both Orban and Kacyznski have directly benefited from general disillusionment with the EU, and discontent with the sluggish economic recovery since the 2008 crisis. Added to this is not so much fear over globalisation, as in Western Europe, but resentment that the benefits of the transition from communism have not been spread fairly.
“In Central Europe, the legacy of communist rule casts a long shadow – but so do the mistakes of the transition period, with its overreliance on technocratic modes of change, often at the expense of social cohesion, inclusive development and democratic accountability,” Lubomir Zaoralek, the Czech Social Democrat Foreign Minister, wrote in Social Europe in March. “It has left too many of our citizens on the losing side of economic transformation, alienated from what they perceive as a closed system shot through with corruption.”
In Central Europe it is the right, rather than the left, that has exploited this discontent with neo-liberalism, and – adding insult to injury – it has often borrowed old leftist statist policies to do so. It has dared to attack business in a way the modern European left never dared to before, for example by hitting big foreign banks with special taxes and compulsory debt relief programmes. These policies have damaged investor sentiment and alarmed rating agencies.
The Syrian refugee crisis has been a godsend to Orban because it has enabled him to bring together all these different fears – of EU interference, of economic migrants, of racial-cultural difference – to bolster his domestic support and strut on the European stage.
Like in Western Europe, immigration has now become a big issue for Central European electorates, but it is important to realise how much this been whipped up by populist leaders such as Orban and the Czech Republic’s nominally leftist President Zeman. There are very few immigrants in the region and the issue was invisible before the migration crisis. Immigration is actually much less important to Central European populism than in the west of the continent.
It is a similar story with resentment against the EU’s strictures. There is growing Euroscepticism among the new member states but even in the event of a British exit from the EU, it is hard to see either Orban or Kacyznski leading their countries out of the bloc. The EU gravy train funds infrastructure, keeps farmers happy and provides manifold opportunities for corruption. The EU is also too useful as a whipping boy; there would be no-one to rail against if Hungary and Poland exited.
Much more important to Central European populism are domestic tropes, namely longstanding historical grievances and conspiracy theories over the continuing influence of communists.
Kacyznski plays on the centuries of Russian and German occupation of Poland. Orban continually whips up Hungarian resentment over the loss of three quarters of its pre-World War I kingdom at the 1920 Treaty of Trianon. Both build a paranoid narrative of the Catholic nation continually under threat. Particularly in Hungary, this has led to the rehabilitation of inter-war dictators, fascists and anti-Semites, and has stoked tensions with neighbours, xenophobia and isolationism.
The rise of the fascist Jobbik party is merely the evil fruit of the seeds spread by this narrative. By focussing on Jobbik, Western observers are being diverted by the effect rather than the cause, and making Fidesz look reasonable by comparison.
Both leaders have also propagated the myth that the anti-communist revolution was stolen by a corrupt liberal-left elite, and that it needs to be completed by purging the country of the communist virus. In Hungary the Socialist Party is the direct heir of the Communist Party, so the charge has some partial credibility; in Poland, Kacyznski has had to concoct a plot between the Communists and Solidarity leaders, which is why the persecution of former president Lech Walesa is so symbolic.
“It is the conservative right with roots in the opposition to communism that has turned into the real danger to democracy,” says Hanley.
What makes this myth at the heart of Central European populism so dangerous is that it means that left-liberal opposition parties are portrayed as traitors who are a danger to the nation-state. Furthermore, Fidesz and Law & Justice claim that they exclusively embody the nation’s common will, even if elections don’t show this. As Orban famously said when he lost the 2002 election to the Socialists: “How can the nation be in opposition?”
This is why both Orban and Kacyznski see it as their mission to seize control of the state, remove checks and balances, and consolidate their power so that the opposition has no chance of being elected again. This is not “illiberal” democracy; it is simply undemocratic. Democracy does not just mean holding elections every few years – even Vladimir Putin (whom Orban admires) does that.
How then should the EU and defenders of democracy respond to this challenge?
The EU has shied away from confronting Orban, who has been protected by his close ties with the dominant European People’s Party grouping in the European Parliament and by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. By contrast the EU has launched a raft of investigations into the actions of the Law & Justice government, which is only a member of the smaller rightwing European Conservatives and Reformists grouping.
This is positive in that it has highlighted the erosion of democracy in Poland, but it also plays into Law & Justice’s narrative that the EU is a conspiracy of Poland’s enemies. Of course the EU must investigate and sanction countries for their democratic failings, but it has to be consistent and cannot single Poland out.
The EU can support the defence of democracy, but fundamental change in Poland and Hungary can only come from within. The only way this anti-democratic tide can be resisted will be if opposition parties and civil society unite to energise citizens to push it back.
In Hungary, democracy is already in intensive care and may soon fall into a coma – Freedom House now ranks it only as a “semi-consolidated democracy”. In Poland, democracy is still very much alive and kicking: Law & Justice does not have a constitutional majority, opposition parties are regrouping, and civil society remains robust as the big protests against the government show. But this is no reason to be complacent – there were big protests in the past in Hungary, and Poland’s Law & Justice is moving even faster than Fidesz to consolidate power in its hands.