Understanding Eastern Europe
BSSB.BE Project Syndicate 5/11/2018
Balkans Danube Ex-USSR
* Eastern European populism differs from that in the West in important ways, owing to the region’s weak liberal tradition, which translates into ineffective checks and balances on government.
Populism is continuing to rise across Europe. Be it in recent elections in France and Germany or as part of a general surge in Eastern European countries like Poland, Hungary, and Romania, the influence of populist politicians is increasing. In 2000, populist parties were already able to gain more than 20% of the vote in two countries, however, in 2018, this is the case in ten EU states. Indeed, in Italy, a shocking 50% of people who went out to vote supported populist parties during the elections in March 2018.
How should we understand this surge of support for populist leaders and the growing dissatisfaction with the political establishment in Europe? Why does populism seem to have taken more of a hold in Central and Eastern European countries than in Western Europe? Is it only a matter of time before populist parties come to power in Western countries as well? What socio-political factors underlie the populist turn across Europe and the difference between the factors in Central and Eastern Europe and those in Western Europe?
In the West, there are no populist ruling parties, only junior coalition parties in Austria and Switzerland. And populism in Eastern Europe differs from that in the West in important ways. For starters, Eastern Europe lacks the tradition of checks and balances that have safeguarded Western democracies.
In the US, Trump can’t ignore judicial decisions that he doesn’t like, or simply take control of the courts. Leaders in Poland and Hungary can and do without any hesitation. Moreover, whereas Western democracies have moved beyond concerns about physical security to embrace what sociologist Ronald Inglehart calls “post-materialist values”, Eastern European polities are more vulnerable to attacks on abstract liberal institutions, such as freedom of speech or judicial independence.
And civil society in Eastern Europe is not just weaker than in the West; it is also more focused on areas such as charity, religion, and leisure, rather than social issues or politics. Finally, Eastern European populists’ success is rooted not only in frustrated voters’ economic concerns, as seems to be true in Western Europe, but in the electorate’s need to organize around a leader’s narrative. For popular class voters, populism satisfies a desire for a sense of community. For middle class voters, a leader helps to define yourself in opposition to those stigmatized as inferior – be it refugees, depraved elites, or judges.
With populist parties now securing at least 20% of the vote in ten East European countries, including more than 40% in Poland and Hungary, tough questions await. If Polish or Hungarian politics proves more similar to the politics of Russia than of France, are the European Union’s borders overextended? Could it be that these countries belong with Russia, rather than with Western Europe? Might the EU itself be impossible to maintain? I hope not. There are no easy answers, and only East Europeans themselves can answer them.
- The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: Project Syndicate