>Populism in CEE: an illiberal helping of democracy?

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A recent special issue of Journal of Democracy asks whether Central and Eastern Europe is backsliding on democracy and market reform. The apparent rise of populist forces across the region seen much journalistic ink spilt over the past year or so and in October’s JoD a heavyweight line-up of CEE academics and intellectuals (Martin Bútora, Jacques Rupnik, Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, Ivan Krastev, Vladimir Tismaneanu and others) weighs in to tackle the subject. The irony is that this comes just as the ‘populist backlash’ seems to be waning. Leading populist baddie Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his Law and Justice party were soundly beaten by pro-Western liberal-conservatives in Poland’s election while Robert Fico has successfully and humiliating bullied Vladimír Mečiar into staying in his coalition by making clear that he is prepared to jettison him, kept the far-right Slovak nationalist on a tight rein and is likely to see his party readmitted to the Party of European Socialists early next year. The JoD essays therefore come across as sensible but uninspired and jaded.

All agree (surprise) that there is no post-Soviet slide into authoritarianism in CEE, only questions over the quality of democracy in the region. They are less clear what might be causing this – the factors most cite include the failure and lack of vision of the local political class; the weakness of civil society and lack of checks and balances and ‘counter-majoritarian institutions’; the withdrawal of EU conditionalities now most states in the region are Union members; and – that very old chestnut – the ‘Leninist legacy’ resulting in uncivic mentality and an ideological vacuum filled by populist appeals patched together as ersatz mixture of liberalism, nationalism, fascism and communism. A more interesting question is the relationship of populism(s) in Western Europe and CEE. After all civic disengagement, alienation from politics and populist far-right parties have been a more important feature of wealthy Austria, Belgium, France or Norway than the poorer CEE region? Romania and Serbia are perhaps the key exceptions.

Slightly confusingly (and contradictorily), phenomena such as political polarization and problems building majorities are lumped in by some contributors as symptoms of ‘populism’. The one really truly arresting piece is by Ivan Krastev, who argues that populism is not only part and parcel of democracy – rather than part of a malaise or defect – but is functional and beneficial in representing neglected demands, drawing alienated citizens into politics. Populist concerns about elite accountability are as legitimate as liberal concerns about the governability of society and the tyranny of majorities. The problem says Krastev is that liberalism in the region has been too successful in presenting liberal reform as imperative with no legitimate alternative (necessary as part of the transition from communism, necessary for EU accession etc), leading discontent from losers to well up as an anti-political upsurge of electoral protest against the political establishment – the ‘ritual killing’ of governments as Krastev puts it. Ironically, liberal decommunization and anti-corruption initiatives have fed this process. The biggest problem thinks Krastev is the ideologically distance opening up between elites increasingly sceptical of democracy – presumably inclined to technocratic solutions and free market bypassing of politics – and mass publics increasingly sceptical of democracy.

Less a question of Putin-esque illiberal democracy than an awkaward mix of democratic illiberalism and liberal elitism, it seems.

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