The Rise of the Populist Radical Right in Eastern Europe

Maria Fernanda García – Colombia

In recent years, literature has achieved substantial progress in understanding the radical right’s rise in Western Europe. On the one hand, we have arrived at a widely accepted definition, formulated by Cass Mudde as the “populist radical right” and centered around three components: nativism (a combination of nationalism and xenophobia), authoritarianism (a belief in the strictly ordered society), and populism. At the same time, we have been quite meticulous in tracing the factors behind the electoral success of this political phenomenon. For instance, we know that globalization processes created a large group of dissatisfied “losers,” while the liberal push and immigration crises of the 1970s and 1980s galvanized these masses’ electoral potential. The convergence of the mainstream parties in the 1990s, the gradual partisan dealignment across all Europe, and the media’s appetite for sensationalism created an empty niche in the political spectrum and brought to light the new fighters for “ordinary people.” Roughly speaking, this is how we see the story of Front National in France, the Freedom Party in Austria, or the Danish People’s Party.

For one reason or another, the “populist revolution” in Eastern Europe has been studied sufficiently and to a large extent still represents a scholarly conundrum. Many of the factors we use to explain its origins in the West simply do not exist in the East. Globalization and immigration were not problems for societies which, up until the 1990s, found themselves behind the Iron Curtain in the tight grip of communism. Thus, it is worth exploring the origins of the populist radical right in Eastern Europe beyond that scholarly perspective. The slow dismantling of democracy by Kaczynski in Poland, Orban’s revolt against the EU and the USA, or the unexpected electoral success of the neo-nazi People’s Party in Slovakia demonstrate that the threat in the region is more real than ever. In other words, it is important to go beyond the shocking headlines, to stop treating Eastern European politics merely as a battleground between Russian and American interests, and to explore in detail the factors behind the radical right in the region.

Although the advance of globalization was not felt particularly strongly behind the Iron Curtain, dramatic transformations of similar magnitude were experienced in the area. Much like globalization created a large group of “losers” in the West, so did the transition to democracy in the East. Those who considered themselves protected by the state during communism felt much more vulnerable in the fast-changing environment of market liberalization and a multiparty system. Unsurprisingly, the “losers” from the transition to democracy were very similar in kind to the “losers” from globalization and the likely supporters of the radical right: the old, those living in small towns and villages, those of lower educational attainment, those in the lower income quartile, and the unemployed.

At the same time, as reforms stalled and the economy’s growth slowed, many felt that democracy had failed to deliver its promises. Before the fall of the Iron Curtain, democracy was seen as the cure for all ills—as the miracle which would bring prosperity and well-being. This was visible in the first surveys conducted by scholars. People in Eastern Europe had a very different view of democracy when compared to their neighbors in the West. In particular, the post-communist societies appreciated democracy for its instrumental value (i.e. bringing prosperity) at much higher levels than the people in Western Europe, who regarded democracy as “an end in itself.” With slow economic growth and widespread corruption, support for democracy and its features began to decrease. By 2010, support for the multiparty system had declined by 24% in Bulgaria and 18% in Hungary, while satisfaction with democracy plummeted to 23% in Hungary, 24% in Bulgaria, and 53% in Poland. In all countries, the winners of the transition to democracy were identified as “the politicians” (97% in Slovakia, 94% in the Czech Republic) and not “the people” (only 21% in Slovakia, 11% in Bulgaria).

This way, by the beginning of the 21st century, the “democratic malaise”  had already produced large masses of angry, unsatisfied citizens who were very susceptible to voting for extreme parties in Eastern Europe. Like anything else in the world, the political scene also obeys basic economic laws—if there is a demand for a good, suppliers will soon appear. In Poland, Self-Defense was campaigning under the slogan that “‘our country should be ruled by the people,” and not the corrupted elites, while The League of Polish Families was on a crusade to defend “the elementary unit of the life of the nation.” The two parties produced a real populist earthquake in the elections of 2001, winning just under one-fifth of the votes. In Hungary, the precursor of Jobbik, the Hungarian Justice and Life Party, was already making advances in the elections of 1998 and 2002, winning over 5% of the votes. At the same time, the Slovak National Party participated in two consecutive governments in 1992 and 1994.

Very quickly, the Eastern European radical right parties were able to tap into their potential and rise in the polls, surpassing their counterparts in the West and even getting into power. Orban’s Fidesz became the biggest party in Hungary as early as 1998, while Law and Justice governed Poland in 2005. A couple of uniquely Eastern European characteristics helped this quick and impressive success. On the one hand, the countries in the region were characterized by much higher electoral volatility than the West, meaning that voters did not have stable attachments to any party and would switch their loyalties often. Hence, new (radical) movements do not face a wall of dedicated supporters which they need to break to achieve success. Similarly, the not entirely developed democratic institutions with checks and balances posed an additional threat to populist and radicals. Weak separation of powers, combined with widespread corruption and accusations for electoral frauds, meant that once in parliament, populist parties could quickly expand their support.

On the other hand, the constant redrawing of borders and the strong nationalist movements in the 21st and 20th centuries have left significant ethnic minorities within the boundaries of almost every country. Although Eastern Europe did not suffer an immigration crisis such as France in the 1980s, the radical right parties in the region also employed the method of Othering—the difference being that the Other was an “insider,” and not an “invader.” Take, for instance, the Slovak National Party’s campaign against the Roma and the Hungarian minorities in the country. In Bulgaria, Ataka gained much of their support thanks to attacks against the Turkish minority. The necessary nationalistic element in Eastern European politics led to many of the mainstream parties also engaging in heavy nationalistic or xenophobic rhetoric. As Lise Herman notes, “because of this trivialisation of populism and nationalism in CEE, centre-right parties do not necessarily distance themselves from or condemn radical right populist parties, and are more open to forming coalition with them.” It is for this reason that scholars often have trouble classifying Eastern European parties as “populist radical right”—although Orban’s Fidesz often engages in nationalistic rhetoric, it seems moderate when placed next to the neo-fascist Jobbik.

Of course, one cannot deny that the recent crises (the Euro-zone debt crisis or the refugee crisis) have added fuel to the radical right’s locomotive in Eastern Europe. The financial crisis exacerbated the division between elites and the rest of the population, and the rejection of refugee quotas, proposed by Merkel, clearly demonstrate the region’s tilt to the right. Nevertheless, the factors mentioned above allow us to claim that the rise of the populist right in Eastern Europe cannot be regarded as an overnight sensation. Instead, it is a story of Democratic fatigue, exacerbated by instability and volatility, and eventually used by political opportunists.

The origins of Eastern Europe’s populism build a remarkable story. A single path to the radical right does not exist. There are many different ways in which democracy can go wrong. The shared lesson, however, is evident—it takes very little to turn the left-outs into angry masses, and, when this happens, the radical right is waiting just around the corner.