The politcal challenges thrown up to the status quo in Europe in the aftermath of global recession and the Eurozone crisis has prompted a surge of media and think-tank interest in the concept of populism.
Although a notoriously slippery term – and one often used in a loose, disparaging sense to describe demagogic promise-making by unsavoury extremist outsiders – most academic researchers concur with the definition of the Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde: an ideological construction that sees politics as dominated by immoral and collusive elites who do down a homogeneous and unsullied People – sometimes by promoting the interests of undeserving minorities. Populists thus offer themselves to electorates as truth tellers, tribunes of the People and righters of wrongs.
However, as populism is famously a ‘thin ideology’ whose basic construct needs to filled in and filled out with political ballast from elsewhere. For this reasons populism seems chameleon-like. It can assume many political colourations: from the (much studied) extreme right through regionalism, free marketry and radical left populism.
The academic study of comparative populism and the sense that populist movements have been the main beneficiaries of the politics of austerity triggered by the global recession of 2008-9 are brought together in a new collection edited by Takis S. Pappas and Hanspeter Kriesi European Populism in the Shadow of the Great Recession (ECPR Press, 2015).
The book assesses the political impact of the Recession by examining pre- and post-crisis fortunes of 25 populist parties in 17 European countries, which are grouped in five regional clusters: Nordic (Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland); North European (France, Holland, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland); Southern Europe (Italy and Greece); and Central and Eastern Europe (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia); and the ‘Anglo-Celtic’ pairing of the UK and Ireland.
In Nordic and Northern Europe countries and – with the rise of UKIP – the UK the main populist challengers are radical right or anti-immigrant parties, in Southern and Eastern Europe populism is a more mixed bag comprising conservative-nationalism, radical leftists, technocratic market reformers and hard-to-categorize anti-corruption movements. Read More…
For some time analysts and commentators have understood that all is not well with democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. In the immediate aftermath, the region defied a raft of predictions that the dislocating effect of economic reform and resurgence of nationalist traditions would lead to a Latin American style breakdown of democracy. Democratic change and marketization were – certainly compared to other parts of the post-communist world – peaceful, quick and far-reaching, with the EU membership achieved within a relatively short time.
Indeed, much conventional wisdom has it, that the incentive of EU membership ‘leveraged’ politicians and electorates in some CEE states away from illiberal and nationalist politics. In short, while CEE democracy might have been short on civil society and public engagement and high on corruption and inefficiency, it seemed consolidated and safe.
All this seems to have changed since EU accession. Commentators looked for and quickly found ‘backsliding’ in Poland in 2005-7 as short-lived minority government headed by the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, which included two small populist-nationalist parties as coalition partners, took office. And post-transition fears of breakdown seemed belatedly to come true with onset of the Great Recession in 2008-9 and the landslide victory in Hungary in the 2010 parliamentary elections of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz.
Orbán’s subsequent use of his huge majority to rewrite the Hungarian constitution, strip back checks and balances and entrench his party in deep in the state, media civil society are well documented, as are his questioning of liberal democracy and formulation of a deeply illiberal nationalist project for the future of Hungary.
But discussion of the wider malaise seemingly gripping democracy in CEE has often been stronger on sounding the alarm and itemizing symptoms than on analysis. Indeed, the term ‘backsliding’ was so loosely applied that it covered phenomena ranging from the rise of right-extremism to difficulties negotiating coalitions.
Much writing has simply boiled down to the idea that development across the region simply can be understood as Hungary writ small. Hungary’s illiberal political turn was a ‘cancer’ spreading to the rest of the region and Orbán, to quote the Guardian’s Ian Traynor simply the most prominent example of a new breed of ‘democratically elected populist strongmen … deploying the power of the state and a battery of instruments of intimidation to crush dissent’. Some journalists painting a bigger picture (or airing common geo-political concerns) preferred the term ‘Putinization’.
But such broad-brush treatment would never do. Anyone who knows the Czech Republic, for example, would see a democracy disfigured by corruption, disengagement and distrust. But neither its assertive head of state, president Miloš Zeman, nor ambitious billionaire populist newcomer Andrej Babiš quite fit the bill of a Czech Viktor Orbán. A nationalist turn, a new constitution, a dominant ruling party or a spectacular breakthrough by the extreme right. None of this is on the Czech agenda – or indeed quite on the agenda elsewhere in CEE.
Clearly a much better comparative take on how to understand the travails of CEE democracy is called for, capable of embracing the political realities of both Prague and Budapest and all points in between.
Many commentators saw the governments of non-party technocrats formed in Greece and Italy in 2011 as an ill omen for development of party-based democracy in Europe. Established parties, it is suggested, are turning to technocratic caretaker administrations as a device to manage economic and political crisis, which allows them both to duck (or least share) responsibility for painful austerity measures. Such non-partisan governments of experts, it is argued, can only widen the yawning the legitimacy gap between governors and governed.
Technocratically-imposed austerity backed by big established parties can further undermine party democracy by provoking anti-elite electoral backlashes: the rise of new populist parties or breakthroughs by previously marginal radical groups. This in turn, makes coalition formation difficult and further rounds of caretaker government or awkward left-right co-operation more likely. The success of the Five Star Movement in Italy and its difficult political aftermath, which has finally resulted in an implausible Grand Coalition, seems to illustrate this scenario perfectly. Sometimes, caretaker technocrats themselves even add to the uncertainty, revolting against their erstwhile masters and founding their own new parties.
How has the drift towards technocratic crisis management impacted Central and Eastern Europe? The region is sometimes grouped with debt- and crisis-afflicted Southern Europe states as an economically weak periphery of flawed and potentially unstable democracies, where technocratic crisis governments are the order of the day. Read More…
The constitutional and institutional changes pushed through by Hungary’s ruling conservative-national Fidesz party following its emphatic election victory in April 2010 have attracted increasing coverage – and almost enirely negative – from academic and journalistic observers of Central European politic, foreign governments and international bodies such as the European Parliament and Council of Europe.
As well as making multiple amendments to the existing constitution, the Fidesz government has used its huge majority – it has well over the 2/3 of seats in the National Assembly required – enact a new constitution due to take effect 1 January 2012 and pass new electoral and media laws over the head of other parties, which fundamentally change the rules of the political game, destroying linstitutional checks and balances and embedding its own political influence against future majorities, which puts Hungary on course for at best low quality democracy and at worse some form of semi-authoritarian illiberal democracy.
The new constitution and related chanages, critics say, pares back power of Hungary’s previously
powerful Constitutional Court and made access to it more difficult; engineered a purge of the judiciary and created a powerful National Judicial Office (headed by its own political appointee) with extensive powers to move and (un)appoint new judges.
New media law – already the target of demonstrations earlier this year (2011) – have created new media board – staffed by Fidesz supporters and headed by prime ministerial appointee with a nine year term – which can review all media (including perhaps bloggers) for balance and impose heavy fines, resulting in self-censorship for the sake of commerical survival. Other key public appointees have similarly long terms of office and are only replace-able if new post holders are agreed by 2/3 parliamentary majority.
The charges are summarised here by Kim Lane Scheppele, who concludes that
Virtually every independent political institution has taken a hit. The human rights, data protection and minority affairs ombudsmen have been collapsed into one lesser post. The public prosecutor, the state audit office and, most recently, the Central Bank are all slated for more overtly political management in the new legal order (…)
Fidesz party loyalists …will be able to conduct public investigations, intimidate the media, press criminal charges and continue to pack the courts long after the government’s current term is over..
The new electoral law, ably discussed here by Alan Renwick, makes a number of changes to Hungary’s complex ‘mixed’ electoral system, some of which – such as the introduction of a single round of voting in single member constituencies in preference to a French-style run-off – are arguably unpredictable.
But the net effect seems to be to make a strongly majoritarian electoral system more majoritarian and to provide a probable electoral bonus for the right by allowing non-resident Hungarian citizens, which following changes to citizenship law is now likely to include hundred thousand ethnic Hungarians living in Slovakia, Romania and Serbia, to vote in parliamentary elections.
The boundaries of the single member constitutencies used to elect most deputies have also, oddl, been written into the electoral law – rather than subject to periodic independent review – making the changeable only through further constitutional amendment. Simulations linked to by Alan Renwick and Kim Scheppele suggest these are advantageous to Fidesz. More worryingly, changes to the make-up of the national Election Commission overseeing elections have reportedly seen a politically balanced body transformed into one run by Fidesz supporting appointees.
Party politics in Hungary may be further shaken up if proposed constitutional amendments listing the crimes of ruling party during communist dictatorship pass and the statue of limitations is lifted: any court cases brought against the post-communist Socialists, who are the successor party, may, Kim Scheppele suggests, bankrupt Hungary’s main moderate opposition party, leaving the far-right Jobbik as the principal oppositon to Fidesz.
There is, of course, another side the story. Fidesz supporters note the left-liberal bias to academic commentary on Hungarian politics on Hungary, which has never accepted national-conservative politics of Fidesz as legitimate; that the changes are wrongly described or exaggerated or ill informed due to the language barrier; and that some Western democracies to not meet the implied standards that Hungary is being subject to – US congressional districts boundaries, for example, are extensively gerrymandered. Fidesz is just clearing up the corrupt mess left by the Socialists, whose electoral collapse is entirely down to their own corruption. One eloquent such voice can be found in my former SSEES colleague, now a second term MEP George Schöpflin, writing in the FT, and in video below.
Some of the comments on Kim Lane Scheppele also reasonably dispute some points of fact.
I have tried to look things over from this angle, but even taking these points on board – and some of them are I suspect are valid – they fail to address the substance of the criticism: George Schöpflin’s performance stressing misunderstanding and bad faith is sadly unconvincing. It is hard to not to interpret the changes as, whatever else they are, a very illiberal, ill advised and divisive power grab by the Hungarian right.
It is also one which I suspect will rebound both on Hungarian conservative-national right itself: some of the changes, such as the new electoral system will be rather unpredictable. Even allowing for partisan boundary changes – whose partisan effects can change over time quite quickly as the UK experience illustrates – a majoritarian system favours the right only so long as it is politically cohesive and has majority support. The bad economic weather suggests even with a tame media, any incumbent is likely to see its support rapidly erode.
The other concerns the divided nature of Hungary. As The Economist suggests there is a large liberal and left-wing Hungary: the Socialists and their liberal allies had, after all, until the 2010 meltdown, offered pretty stiff competition. Although the far-right seems to be offering stiff competion for the votes of the economically disempowered, there is no reason to think that in the longer term, over a period of years, that a new centre-left bloc of some kind would not emerge. Indeed, the possible demise of the post-communist successor party might be a boon: in Poland the liberal Civic Platform now fills the space once taken by the post-communist left, while in Slovenia a new reformist centre-left bloc stepped almost effortless into the shoes of the discredited post-communist Social Democrats (SD) and Liberal Democrats (LDS).
But if – or perhaps when electoral support for Fidesz goes South – any left-liberal majority, will either have to come up with a 2/3 majority of its own (perhaps not altogether impossible) and carry out its own counter-revolution, or bump up the constitutional entrenchments now being put in place. (As George Schöpflin explains above, there will be no provision to change the constitution by referendum. ) The result perhaps five or ten years down the line would seem to be some very high stakes electoral politics – with all the temptations that will throw up – and/or the severest of constitutional crises, possibly attended by a very intense politics of civic mobilisation: this, after all, is way change happens when institutional channels to change are blocked and people sense that democracy has been rigged.
How could all this happen? Hungary, after all, was supposed to be one Central and Eastern Europe’s most consolidated new democracies, yet suddenly leaves us dusting off our Fareed Zakharia and contemplating the prospects for a kind of Coloured Revolution on the Danube. Could it – or something like it – happen elsewhere in the region? Weren’t people like me telling you that CEE was a region flawed but basically normal democracies?
There seem to several factors which have enabled democratic derailment:
- Majoritarian electoral system, which, if there is a big electoral win for one side and/or a collapse for the other (Fidesz polled 53% in 2010), would result in a constitutional majority in parliament. In CEE conditions, where electorates are volitile and economies (now) vulnerable, this was, in hindsight, perhaps just a matter of time
- A unicameral parliament, or a least a weak upper chamber. Hungary has no upper house.
- Well organised, cohesive party organisation. Single member districts and majoritarian electoral systems tend to promote this.
- A party with a strong sense of ideological mission: if you are going to seize the chance to remake the constitutional order you need to believe in what you doing. Conservative-national parties in states like Hungary which had a negotiated, compromise transition in 1989, see politics as a part of a ‘thick transition’ – a long-term struggle to finish the revolutionary work of 1989, by eliminating the (ex-)communist nomenklatura from public left.
Elsewhere the region, some other states partially fulfill these conditions: Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) had a similar anti-communist conservative-national outlook, but – like all governing parties – due to PR never had the votes or seats to contemplate giving its vision of a new ‘Fourth Republic’ constitutional form and is now politically on the back foot.
Romania Bulgaria and Slovakia appear slightly riskier propositions: the latter are both unicameral democracies, while the Romanian Senate closely mirrors the lower house. All have strong (soon-to-be) ruling parties seen by some as having illiberal inclinations: however, none seem to have the sense of ideological mission needed – two, Romania’s PSD and Slovakia’s SMER, are loosely social democratic, while Bulgaria’s GERB is a loose knit centrist or centre-right party of power.
None seem likely to come near 2/3 majority required to amend or replace the constitution (3/4 in Bulgaria should you merely want to amend), although Bulgaria’s GERB whose electoral support sits around 40% and is suspected by critics of sporadic electoral fraud might just manage an absolute parliamentary majority.
If we think the worst of such parties, then a more informal strategy of co-optation, corruption and politicisation of the state apparatus, spiced with the odd draconian media law, is perhaps what we should expect.
The lessons of Hungary’s complex and unfolding, but probably unique, situation is that the political and power instincts of CEE parties and politicians are, indeed, be as bad as we feared, but that fragmented and loose parties and PR are like to keep democracy – albeit corrupt and flawed – in most places safe from frontal assualt by the region’s politicians.
David Art’s new book Inside the Radical Right: The Development of Anti-Immigrant Parties in Western Europe (Cambridge University Press) is one of the boldest and most interesting pieces of writing on comparative European party politics I have seen for a long time. Its deceptively simple thesis is that the success of radical right parties in Western Europe is not, as conventionally argued, the combined product of differing opportunity structures (types of electoral system, party system format and so on) and differing social structures (varying levels of ethnic diversity, structural unemployment etc), but of the capacity of the far right to build and sustain political organisations and professional and credible core of activists suited to the demand of electoral politics. Nothing, Art argues – pointing out the contradictory morass of comparative findings is consistent with the reality that social demand for anti-immigrant ethnocentric policies is roughly the same across Western Europe and that countries with similar institutional and social structures often present quite different outcomes for radical right parties: one of several pertinent examples that the example Art offers is that of Belgium where the success of Vlaams Blok (VB) in Flanders contrasts with the erratic and marginal performance of the National Front (FNb) in Wallonia.
Success or failure in organisation building – which Art argues often precedes electoral success – is dependent partly on the presence of sufficient large nationalist and/or radical right subculture, offering a source of recruits and a short-cut to long-term and disciplined party building, and the extent to which the radical right is socially and politically isolated through cordons sanitaire and social ostracisiation. While intellectuals, professionals and local notables pay little price for joining the Danish People’s Party, membership of (say) the British National Party would be a route to social isolation and career suicide. Anti-fascist mobilisation, even of a fairly violent and intimidatory kind, is also found by Art to an effective sanction on far-right recruitment among the well educated and political experienced, if it comes at the right time.
Where there is a broad, established far-right sub-culture reaching into the middle or upper classes and tolerant or pragmatic acceptance of the radical right, the road is open (eventually) for it to succeed in party politics. An alternative route explaining the success of Denmark’s DF and the Freedom Party in the Netherlands is the success politicians, who rise to power at the head of ‘flash’ parties, but realise that serious and early organisation building – and a shift to fill the gap on the anti-immigrant right – is needed if they are to stick around. Transforming an established minor party into a radical right, anti-immigrant actor is a further alternative and shorter route, which swops the advantage of having an existing organisational structure in place with the disadvantage of having wage ideological battles to kick out rival factions. This Art suggests occurred in the case of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) (originally an agrarian formation) and to a lesser extent Austria’s FPO (notionally a liberal party, but always something of a subcultural vehicle for former Nazis).
Art’s arguments boldly put party organisation – normally something of a Cinderella subject -centre stage in explaining the entry and survival of new political parties, although as the book makes clear large amount of private or state cash can, when carefully husbanded, be effective for voting winning, at least in the short term. Gerhard Frey’s German People’s Union (DVU) uses its millionaire founder’s cash for mass mailshot campaigns, while Geert Wilders Freedom Party (PVV) has only one formal member (Wilders himself) backed by a handpicked cadre of loyal followers.
As Herbert Kitschelt’s blurb comments suggest with characteristic Exocet-like accuracy, while the book makes its argument for the importance of organisation and its precursors as an anchor for small, emergent, defeated and marginal parties, it is less clear whether it overturns or merely complements existing explanations based on variations in socio-economic and political opportunity structures. Indeed, in some ways the book offers a very similar, but organisation-focused, structure and agency mix: historical legacies and nationalist sub-cultures take the structure role with established parties’ cordon sanitaire strategies (or lack of them) and anti-fascist mobilisation supplying variations in agency. (Social disapproval of far-right activism may perhaps be a structural factor, so the structure/agency split is not cut and dried).
The book could also perhaps point up more that, while organisation may matter generally (or, at least often,) there may – as my diagrammatic summary hints – seem to be multiple paths to far-right success, rather than one over-arching formula, with Scandinavian cases , particularly, seeming to stand in terms of their origins and conditions of success – a very clear finding of Veugelers and Magnan’s 2005 article using configurational comparison to test out Kitschelt’s theories on the conditions of far-right success.
An interesting question is how well Art’s model(s) travels beyond the eleven West Europe states covered in the book: the Spanish case (and perhaps that of Portugal?), for example, would seem to echo the German pattern of strong historical far-right subculture in a new democracy where the emerging centre-right keeps radicals at arms length politically, while co-opting its more able or more moderate elements.
For me, naturally, the still more interesting question is how well Art’s model might travel to Central and Eastern Europe. Surprisingly, on first examination it seems to cross over quite well: Slovakia, Croatia, Hungary, Romania and, to a lesser extent, Latvia seem to have success radical right parties and nationalist intellectual and social milieux, looking favourably or ambiguously, on interwar fascist movements and/or episodes of wartime collaboration with Nazi Germany. Slovenia, where historical controversy has raged over the role of the role of the wartime Domoobranci (Home Guard) , also seems to fit the model, although the origins and ideology of the Slovene national Party (SNS) seem more eclectic than the kind of party political projection of certain sub-cultures as, for example, with the identically acronymed Slovak National Party (SNS). Poland represents, as so often, interesting case with strong tradition of integral nationalism, but where collaborationist and neo-Nazi traditions are, for obvious historical reasons, marginal or absent.
The Czech Republic, by contrast, approximates to the Dutch/Danish/British pattern of having a weak and marginalised far-right sub-culture, utterly cut off from the political mainstream: the experience of the Republican Party (SPR-RSČ) – represented in the Czech parliament in 1992-8 – also offers a nice illustration of how not to consolidate party organisation – the party leadership did not entirely neglect building an activist base, but was too egocentric and authoritarian to hold the party together. It seems tempting to put Bulgaria’s Ataka in the same category, although as a colleague recently pointed out to me recently, there are radical nationalist traditions and an anti-semitic Orthodox-oriented extremist sub-culture.
The question of cordons sanitaires in CEE is, however, perhaps more difficult : there is little in the way of strong anti-fascist mobilisation in a region where social movements – and especially social movements of the radical left – are weak. To the best of my knowledge there are no formal cordons with radical right parties actually represented in government in Slovakia and Poland, although mainstream parties’ treatment of the Republicans in 1990s perhaps comes closest. Interestingly, however the SNS in Slovakia was a coalition partner for the centre-left, rather than Christian Democratic and liberal centre-right for whom such co-operation seems much less conceivable. In the end, what may matter more than an assessment of party strategy in CEE is whether radical and mainstream are on an ideological continuum, or whether (as in the Czech Republic and Slovakia) they have different political and ideological points of departure.
When all is said and done, however, Art has written a fine academic book which offers some elegant and orignal big picture comparison in an exceptionally clear and readable way interweaving important comparative argument about politics and part development with informative and sometimes close-up accounts of the highways and by-ways far-right activism.
Interestingly, the concrete developments that are flagged offer, as so often, a mixed picture: the Czech communists indeed may gain greater leverage after the Czech election, but they are hardly putting on the votes and this will depend on the electoral arithmetic and the decisions of the Social Democrats if they win (hardly evidence of a ‘wave of extremism’) . A Grand Coalition is frankly just as likely.
Hungary’s election is likely to produce a sweeping win for the right putting paid for would-be reformist, centre left government led by a beleagued centre-left PM called Gordon B. – which sounds disconcertingly familiar, although in this case the wretched incumbernt is Gordon Bajnai and the third party is likely to be the far-right Jobbik. At last some genuine extremists on the up to give all that fire and brimstone some reality… However, although on 12% in the latest poll Jobbik seems unlikely to match the 14% it took in the Euro-elections. A historically good score of 10%, I should think, but the far-right has had electoral presence of around 5% previously and sat in parliament, so we are not in totally new territory here.
Robert Fico, perhaps the one sure thing in Central and East European politics these days, also seems set to romp home in the Slovak elections – and it seems that this bad boy of the European Socialist Group will indeed play the nationalist card and here too there is a far-right competitor of sorts in the Slovak National Party (SNS).
The game plan for anyone inclined to a favourable view of RF is that it’s all in the good cause of dumping the Slovak Nationalists as a coalition partner and possibly out of parliament by incorporating some of their electorate into the political elephant that is SMER. Along with the seemingly unstoppable electoral juggernaut of Fidesz, Poland’s Civic Platform, Bulgaria’s GERB – a kind of centre-right parallel to Fico’s interesting mix of mainstream respectability and edgy populism – SMER is now one of biggests and the highest polling party in the region, althoughs its 40%-ish ratings , which have actually been dipping a bit recently, pale before the 2/3 of the vote Viktor Orbán and his merry men (and women) seem set to pull in.
In any case, the real story seems to be one of big parties sweeping up votes by whatever means works, although yes, there is populism and nationalism about, this year as every year in the same way that there is grass in your garden. It is sometimes under control, n, occasionally grows and gets a big unruly and out of control, changes colour across the seasons and then gets cut again. It’s not very lovely, and everything out there doesn’t always look that rosy, but its part of the landscape and, of course, you don’t have the option of paving it over and replacing the populace with a handpicked citizenry composed of liberal-minded financial journalists and economics PhDs
Happy New Year.
Fidesz‘s smaller ally, the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) has broken away claiming to represent both the historic heritage of the post-1989 Hungarian right (when as much larger grouping, it formed the core of Hungary’s first democratically elected government after one-party rule) and a more market friendly, socially- and internationally respectable civic-minded conservatism.
Despite cobbling together a minority government and squeaking through a parliamentary vote of confidence, fhe Czech ODS faces a similar strategic dilemma: to confront or accomodate (well, at least talk to) the much loathed centre-left. In the CR, however, there are clearer pathways to left-right co-operation and even Grand Coalition arrangements than in Hungary: the Czech Social Democrats are not a communist successor party, despite the ‘communist’ inclinations right-wing politicians and commentators spot when it suits them, and broad inclusive national coalitions have historical precedents in the Czech lands that embeds them better in the political culture
Could an oversized Fidesz, I wondered, start to erode and fragment? No probably not I was told. Too much time spent studying the stable and stolid world of Czech politics, it seems, had left me with a rather fevered political imagination, although a scenario like Orbán’s sudden departure Haider-style in a fit of pique might trigger a party crisis. ODS at least managed to keep going after the departure of its charismatic founder and his occasional efforts at backseat driving from Prague Castle. Well, I wondered, could the Hungarian Democratic Forum come through the middle like Poland’s liberal-conservative Civic Platform making Hungary’s party politics triangular once again (Socialists vs. Liberal vs. Conservative Nationalists). Again unlikely, it seems. Hungary’s mixed electoral systém makes a widespread small party breakthrough difficult because of the need to win many single member constitutencies.