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On populists and false alternatives

Dieter Segert about lessons from Eastern Europe

30. May 2018
Magazine > Voices > On populists and false alternatives

Macron or Le Pen? If you follow the tenor of our media, the choice is easy. But before jumping to conclusions, it is necessary to take a closer look and analyse the situation. The events in France are following in the footsteps of similar developments in almost all Eastern European countries, where nationalist populism has had remarkable electoral success in recent years. So what can we learn from the experiences in Eastern Europe?

The rise of populists in Eastern Europe

Eastern Europe also had a time when it looked like everyone knew who to vote for. In the 1990s, there seemed to be only one answer: the opposition. The government had four years to run things, the people had enough reasons to complain, so why not give the other end of the political spectrum a chance? The result was a pendulum that swung constantly from the “conservatives” to the “social democrats” and back. In Hungary, the MDF (conservative) won in 1990, the MSZP (social-democratic) won in 1994, and Fidesz (conservative) won in 1998. In Poland, the Solidarność parties (conservative) won in 1991, SLD and PSL (social-democratic/peasants’ party) formed a coalition in 1993, Solidarność returned in 1997, and the SLD won in 2001. The list goes on. The problem with replacing governments after each election like this, was that it did nothing to quell the rising discontent among the population. This paved the way for the nationalist populists.

Therefore, it would make sense to examine what caused the persistent sense of discontent which eventually alienated voters from their elected representatives. In the aforementioned Eastern European countries, the general reason was that liberal democracy had “failed to deliver” on its promises, as Ivan Krastev put it.[1] As well as political freedom, it had promised a good life for anyone who worked hard. It was largely unable to deliver on the latter in particular. When the ancien régime was in crisis around 1989, much of the population expected to catch up with the West, and adopt its institutions and successful social model – at some stage, at least. By the global financial crisis of 2008, however, it was clear that their expectations would go unfulfilled for a long time. Former Czech prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka recently pointed out that even now, 25 years after the transformation began, living standards are still a far cry from those in the old EU countries.[2]

In addition, there were other unpleasant surprises. The new political class, with all its various groups, whether “conservative” or “social-democratic”, had proved itself to be largely indifferent to the hardships and interests of ordinary people. Many of its representatives personally enriched themselves when opportunities arose – and there seemed to be plenty of them during the transformation, when the region experienced the most comprehensive privatisation of public property in modern times.

Of course, one could ask why so many politicians filled their own pockets. It is certainly not just a matter of character, but rather a result of various factors that would require further analysis. Corruption is a phenomenon that is difficult to examine as a specific offence because none of the people who are involved want the truth to come to light. Austria has also seen some prominent examples (though naturally everyone is innocent unless proven guilty!). However, when dealing with a mass phenomenon, seeking the individual reasons is less important than examining what created the opportunities for it to occur. Why was it possible for a self-serving political caste to develop on such a grand scale? In this case, it was a failure of institutional control. Many countries did not have a fully independent judiciary, and party pluralism was not working because the winners of the transformation had formed a kind of cartel. Protests to counterbalance the out-of-touch elite were initially weak because everyone was busy getting to grips with the radically changing reality of everyday life.

However, the mood in Eastern Europe was also not opposed to this trend. The zeitgeist encouraged everyone – including those outside the political elite – to enrich themselves. Money had become the only benchmark against which performance and status could be measured. It was possible to get rich quickly in business, so why not in politics? In the race between the capitalist West and the socialist East, the West had won – and with this victory came the view that money is the primary measure of personal success.

Populism capitalises on representational deficiencies

As people’s dissatisfaction with their political classes grew, it created fertile ground for the populists. In Bulgaria, this was the time when Simeon Sakskoburggotski, the country’s last czar, built a party from scratch and became prime minister. In Hungary, the former liberal student leader Victor Orbán realised that there was a national-conservative gap in the party system and successfully manoeuvred his party into this corner of the field. In Slovakia, a talented populist created the Smer party, which he adorned with social-democratic symbols but campaigned on both the left and the right. In the Czech Republic, the established party system of the transformation period remained stable for longer, until there was a rupture in 2010 and populist actors began to emerge. The first was a journalist backed by an entrepreneur who was pulling the strings behind the scenes. Then came another businessman, who founded ANO. In Poland, a bipolar party system was built on the ruins of Solidarność.

Overall, Poland is an interesting case with which to answer the question we posed at the beginning. Setting aside the available alternatives that cannot be expected to solve the serious problems, how should we deal with the lack of alternatives in politics? The problematic choice between neoliberal and nationalist-populist policies emerged in Poland in 2005 with the competition between the Civic Platform (PO) and the Law and Justice party (PiS). The first party is backed by social groups that are handling the new system and its coordinates the best; these are the winners of a transformation towards a recklessly uncontrolled, so-called free economy, and of policies that make it hard to practise solidarity. The second party is supported by the losers who are struggling with the new social constellation and seeking refuge in a national ideology and a strong – most likely also authoritarian – state and leader.

Liberal democracy, the political system that triumphed in 1989, was based on groups of politicians who represented the interests, hopes, and fears of parts of the electorate. This system will work for as long as the voters feel it represents them. Once voters feel the abovementioned alienation from the political system, it paves the way for the populists who, while denouncing any shortcoming to increase their own influence, have neither the intention nor the means to fix these faults.

Lessons from Eastern Europe?

A functioning representational system, to which the West added social justice, has never really taken hold in Eastern Europe. Informed by the spirit of the 1980s, only its deficits were fully enforced. In Eastern Europe today, we see nationalist-populist parties in government (in Poland and Hungary), entrepreneurs as politicians (occasionally called oligarchs), entrepreneur parties (Czech Republic, Ukraine) and racist parties in parliament (Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia). In the West, these situations do not yet exist at all, or they do, but to a much lesser extent.

With regard to Western Europe, I am deliberately writing about an unfinished movement. France will probably vote for Macron, thwarting Le Pen. However, the Front National will not disappear. The populists will remain a force to be reckoned with because, and for as long as, representative democracy remains blind to the concerns and needs of a large social class. Perhaps, however, somewhere in Western Europe people will succeed where Eastern Europe failed during the traumatic years of its post-1989 transformation: with the reinvention of a participatory, democratic political system based on solidarity.

[1] Ivan Krastev: Liberalism’s Failure to Deliver: Journal of Democracy, 2016, Vol.27(1), S. 35-38.

[2] According to a report of Radio Prag from 21 February 2016.

Original in German. First published on 6 May 2017 on Eastblog (Blog of the research group for Eastern Europe at the Department of Political Science of the University of Vienna) and on 9 May 2017 on derstandard.at.
Translated into English by Barbara Maya and Jen Metcalf.

This text is protected by copyright: © Dieter Segert. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Billboard of FIDESZ, the party of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, during the election campaign for the parliamentary elections in 2018. He accuses the opposition of being friends with the Hungarian billionaire George Soros. Photo: © iStock/BalkansCat.