Populism in the CEE

There Was Very Little Chance for any ‘Return to Democracy’

With the crumbling of communism in East-Central Europe, it seemed clear that the prospect of democratic change would depend on the new balance found between the democratic ethos of opposition to totalitarianism and the resurfacing of deeper undercurrents of the region’s political culture.

A “return of democracy” was problematic for anybody who had studied pre-communist politics of East-Central Europe. In 1989, the test case, I thought, would be Poland: Would the mix of Catholicism and nationalism that had made it particularly resistant to communism also be the most conducive to the establishment of a liberal democracy?

The following decade suggested this was possible; Poland was displaying a remarkable combination of “Catholic ethics and the spirit of capitalism.” If Catholics even in Eastern Europe today behaved more like Protestants in Max Weber’s time, and if the experience of the loss of freedom and resistance paradoxically provided the conditions for the re-invention of a democratic culture associated with dissent, then one could dismiss the parallels with the first transition to democracy of the 1920s. With consolidated democracies now anchored in the European Union, a new East-Central Europe (not “new Europe”) was in the making.

Recent developments, however, may lead us to reconsider, or at least nuance, that proposition. Right wing populists in Poland and left wing populists in Slovakia now run the government in alliance with extremist nationalist parties.

In Budapest the main opposition party Fidesz calls its supporters to demonstrate in front of Parliament for the resignation of a government on the very day the Parliament had given a vote of confidence to the political outcome of the May elections.

In contrast, in Prague, a minority right wing government that has not gained a confidence vote in Parliament, after five months of bickering and mobilising against the “communist threat,” is carrying out a widespread purge of the upper echelons of public administration. Last but not least, the Bulgarian entry into the European Union has been heralded by turning the presidential race into a confrontation between an ex-communist (who claims to like the EU) and a proto-fascist (who says he hates Turks, Gypsies and Jews).

While the specifics vary, these situations share certain common features with important implications for the state of democracy and the future of European integration.

The first is obviously political instability, revealed in elections over the past year in all the Visegrad countries. Perhaps more worryingly there is an erosion of trust in democratic institutions. According to a recent Gallup International poll, East-Central Europeans appear as the most skeptical concerning the state of democracy (only about one-third have trust in the democratic process). In contrast to a majority of western Europeans, the eastern Europeans do not consider their elections free and fair. To the question “Do you think your voice matters?” some 22% give a positive reply. Democracy today has no rivals but is losing supporters. Populist movements to some extent express that ambivalence and discontent.

This points to the second feature. The current populist movements are not anti-democratic (indeed they claim to be the “true voice of the people” and keep demanding new elections or referenda) but anti-liberal. If democracy means popular legitimacy and constitutionalism (the separation of powers) then the populists accept the former and reject the latter (i.e. the idea that constitutional norms and representative democracy have primacy over values and “legitimate” popular grievances).

The “politics of values” Polish style is, of course, based on the assumption that “moral order” based on religion should prevail over the freedoms guaranteed by permissive liberalism on issues such as abortion, gays or the death penalty. Asked about his intention to repudiate Darwinism from school curricula, the Polish minister of education answered, “We’ve managed without tolerance for long enough. And we shall manage without it even now.”

In Slovakia the anti-liberal reaction applies also to the treatment of national minorities. Although in practice there is no significant shift (yet?), but the discourse has changed: Jan Slota, the leader of the Slovak National Party, was reported saying that he envies the Czechs for having expelled the Germans and that he would not mind sending Bugar, the leader of the Hungarian minority, to Mars “without a return ticket.” The legitimation of xenophobia is a major feature of the onslaught on political liberalism.

The common pattern in all the Visegrad countries is one of acute polarisation. And this is where the imprint of communist political culture becomes most obvious: you do not face a political opponent with whom you argue or negotiate, but an enemy which you must destroy.

Another aspect of the anti-liberal drive concerns economics. After fifteen years of unabashed free-market policies, the populists in Warsaw, Bratislava or Budapest want to bring back the state. In reality, they herald the return of the social question. The losers of the transition cannot really get excited about the merits of the flat tax or the self-serving rhetoric about the “new tigers from the Tatras” (a favourite slogan of the former Slovak government). Since for fifteen years even the socialist parties have pushed liberal economic policies, it is not surprising that the social question returns on the right (Kaczyinski or Orban) with nationalist, protectionist overtones. The populists have destroyed the myth of a Liberal “new Europe,” challenging the decline and stalemate of the “old” one.

The third related feature of the eastern European populist tide is its onslaught on the elite consensus that has prevailed since 1990. Governments come and go, but they have, on the whole, followed very similar market-oriented policies at home and NATO/EU-oriented policy abroad. The populist challenge to these modernizing political and technocratic elites comes in two guises: as an anti-corruption drive, on the one hand, and as “de-communisation” on the other.

In Poland we find an interesting combination of the two with the denunciation of the “original sin” of the 1989 compromise between moderate dissident elites and moderate communist elites which had allowed a non-violent exit from communism. This moral and political fault has allegedly allowed the ex-communists to convert their political power into economic power and led to widespread corruption, which has accompanied the privatization process. Hence the need for a two-pronged attack: anti-corruption and de-communisation, which is a leitmotiv of the Kaczynski twins, Orban, and, to some extent the right-wing ODS party are now in office in Prague.

The fourth feature of the recent populist tide in East-Central Europe is a reluctance or outright opposition to European integration. The pro-European coalitions have been exhausted and disintegrated in the immediate aftermath of joining of the EU. Significantly, the Polish, Czech and Hungarian prime  ministers resigned within days or weeks after fulfilling the “historic” task of “returning to Europe.” The populist nationalists present themselves as the only defenders of national identity and national sovereignty against “external threats,” as Kaczynski put it. He also never misses a chance to stress that Poland is in the EU only to defend its legitimate interests.

The EU is the perfect target since as a liberal, elitist, supranational project it represents a combination of most of the above mentioned grievances. So the assumption that joining the EU is stabilising the political system of the new democracies seems to work most effectively in the pre-accession phase. After joining the EU the “now we can show them who we really are” posture seems to prevail. In some cases one senses a curious satisfaction in joining Europe in order to oppose those who for half a century built it without us, speaking of Europe (or on behalf of Europe) without taking us into account. Tired of being the European pupils, the populist nationalists seem to have been longing to reveal at last the kind of Europe they have in mind (a “Europe of sovereign nation-states,” a “Christian Europe” opposed to the materialist, decadent, permissive, supra-national one).

The reverberations of this populist backlash will affect the EU itself. For one, this will do little to help promote further EU enlargements, which are not particularly popular these days, particularly among its founding member states. You cannot day-in day-out describe the EU as a menace (as Kaczynski or Klaus do) and at the same time demand that the benefits of membership be extended further East to a long list of candidates starting with the Ukraine. You cannot, as the Romanian president has done, state that your number one priority is the “strategic axes” Washington-London-Bucharest and claim (even before having joined the EU) that Moldova and the Black Sea countries must become members.

The second implication is not a threat of unraveling but the steady erosion of the political bond within the EU. What the East European populists do not fully appreciate is that the great benefits that their countries derive (and will derive according to the new budget for 2007-2013) from membership depend on this bond. If populists obsessed with “national interests” prevail, they may well weaken the will to develop common policies and foster a re-nationalization, certainly not in the “national interest” of the new member states.

However, the situation may be “desperate, but not serious,” and the EU could learn to live with the populists. There are cycles of populism. Populists come to power on an anti-corruption drive “to clean the house,” but once you become the house, you may yourself become identified with the practices you have denounced. The fall back position then tends to be clientelism and state capture by the ruling parties (as we see in Poland) rather the pursuit of radicalisation.

The Euro-consensus of the last decade has often been accused of emptying the political competition in the candidate countries of its substance and thus contributing to the populist backlash using Europe as a scapegoat. But the EU can also work as a constraint on the populists. This, at least, is the experience with populism inside the EU prior to its enlargement to the East.

Austria was the main test case since 2000: ostracism showed its limits, absorption proved more effective. After all, populist nationalists joined (and have since left) government coalitions in Italy, Holland or Denmark. The lesson for the newcomers could be that populism can erode or dissolve thanks to the EU constraint. In other words nationalist populism is a trans-European phenomenon, but, unlike in the 1930s it does not see itself as an alternative to democracy and operates within the context of the European Union.

The premature crisis of democratic representation in the new member-states is defused by its banalisation and the constraints of its European framework. Populism is the ultimate test of EU’s much debated “absorption capacity.”

Political scientist and historian Jacques Rupnik is Directeur de recherche at the Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales (CERI), Paris, and Visiting Professor at the Collège d’Europe, Brügge. His publications include: “Die Dilemmata der Europäischen Union. Anatomie einer Krise”, in: Transit – Europäische Revue (2006); International Perspectives on the Balkans (2003);  Kosovo Report: Conflict, International Response, Lessons Learned (2000). Rupnik is a fellow of the Institute for Human the Human Sciences in Vienna. This article will appear in the next issue of the Institute’s publication, Transit.

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