In 2016, the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum, along with the election of President Donald Trump in the United States, created the impression that East European-style populism was engulfing the West. But that analogy missed the mark. In fact, only in Europe’s post-communist east have populists routinely beaten traditional parties in elections. Of 15 East European countries, populist parties hold power in seven, belong to the ruling coalition in two more, and are the main opposition force in three.
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.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.