No Blank Checks for Europe’s Populists

The populist turn in the West since the global economic crisis and the refugee crisis is undermining Europe’s liberal democratic model. But are illiberal ideals really as popular as they seem?

From Donald Trump in the US to Viktor Orbán in Hungary, the forces of illiberal, nationalist populism are on the rise across the West. Trump’s victory has exacerbated fears that France’s Front National and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland will also have the electoral success that seemed impossible just days before his election.

Meanwhile, Orbán’s famous 2014 call for his country to be an “illiberal state” has found an echo among his neighbors in Central and Eastern Europe: Poland, Macedonia, Slovakia, Croatia, and even Austria are all experiencing their own challenges to the model of liberal democracy.

But the game is not over. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe were among the first to take the field in the new backlash against liberal democracy; examining their experience can give some indication of the route for the rest – and some hope for the future.

For many, rejecting liberalism means rejecting unrestrained capitalism

Across the West, the experience of economic crisis has undermined public trust in political systems. One of the major reasons for the economic crash was the financialization of the global economy, but the European response was austerity rather than systemic reform – and the hardships caused by that austerity were experienced by people across Europe as a betrayal by the ruling elites. On top of years of a prevailing ideology that prioritized growth over public welfare, this final step was one too far for many.

With the system apparently discredited in this regard, some have elided its other characteristics together with that supposed failure, and have thus gained support for ideas that previously were (rightly) outside acceptable discourse – and so the rejection of “liberalism” in Hungary and elsewhere is understood to mean a rejection of “permissive” liberal attitudes as well as of unrestrained capitalism.

What is to replace it varies – but since internationalism is suspect because of its links to globalist liberalism, for many the answer is a more nationalist, inward-looking vision, too often accompanied by chauvinism and ethnocentrism. It is no accident that many with this outlook see Vladimir Putin’s Russia as an attractive alternate model to the European one.

As with the Wikileaks affair in the US, the Russian leader has his thumb firmly on the scales in Europe too, providing political and financial support for illiberal leaders such as Orbán and Macedonia’s Nikola Gruevski, as well as other rightist parties across the continent, in an active effort to undermine the liberal democratic model and to help create a global order that is more to his taste.

“Majoritarian” parties are on the rise

Orbán’s Fidesz in Hungary, Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice in Poland, and Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE in Macedonia are all talked about as “populist” governing parties. A more apt term might be “majoritarian.” As the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI) 2016 report, which examines democratic quality and governance in 129 countries, points out,

“In many countries, the restriction of political and civil rights can be seen as directly related to the rise of majoritarianism. Numerous democratic governments with strong majorities have conceived their electoral victories as an absolute mandate to implement political goals uncompromisingly, without consulting with the opposition or civil society, and with a disregard for minority rights.”

So, Orbán used his absolute majority to impose a new constitution and undermine the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. Law and Justice in Poland engendered its own constitutional crisis, and in Macedonia, snap elections were held on December 11, 2016, after two years of scandal over illegal government wiretapping, fraud, and corruption and the president’s controversial pardons (now revoked) for the individuals involved.

All these governments were democratically elected, and thus have a mandate for action – but that mandate does not necessarily cover the systematic undermining of the democratic order. For that reason, all three have attacked the freedom of the media to try to ensure their efforts go unchallenged. The BTI awards Hungary a score of 6 out of 10 for freedom of expression, with Macedonia receiving a dismal 4.

Poland scored better – but Law and Justice’s actions since the BTI report was compiled, taking control of state-run broadcast media and shifting state advertising from private media to government-controlled outlets, would surely have seen that score reduced. If the press cannot fulfill its role of watchdog, and the opposition cannot make its case, future democratic choices cannot be said to be wholly free and fair.

Europe’s illiberal leaders have lately suffered setbacks

But in spite of all this, the people of Hungary, Poland, and Macedonia have written no blank checks: Each government has lately suffered setbacks that should give them pause and provide some comfort to those who fear the unrestricted triumph of their type of rule.

In October, Orbán held a referendum on his signature issue of hostility to migrants, asking Hungarians to reject European Union refugee quotas. Ninety-eight percent of those who voted supported his motion – but the turnout was well below the threshold of 50 percent that would have made the result binding. Those who disagreed simply stayed at home – only his core voters, and those of the rightist party Jobbik, could be persuaded to turn out and vote.

In Poland, mass protests in October caused parliament to overwhelmingly reject legislation aimed at restricting abortion still further in the conservative country, the first major defeat for Law and Justice since its election last year.

In Macedonia polling is sparse, but the most recent survey taken in April shows that 55 percent of Macedonians believe Gruevski has done a bad job, and does not deserve to be prime minister again. However, the rest of that survey points to the wider problem: Gruevski held only a 21 percent favorability rating, but Zoran Zaev, his closest rival, fared still worse, with only 9 percent. In the latest elections in December 2016 Macedonia’s nationalist VMRO-DPMNE (Gruevski) and opposition Social Democrats (Zaev) were virtually tied.

If the illiberal leaders are winning, it may be less that the people have great regard for them, and more that they have even lower regard for everyone else. The challenge for those who champion liberal ideas of fairness and fundamental freedoms is to find a way to make a better case – and to practice what they preach.

The EU does not seem to be under threat of disintegration just yet

They may find help from an unlikely source. The UK will get its Brexit and the US has its Trump – and while both countries have got what they thought they wanted, they may soon find the results are less than they hoped. Within the UK and the US, it remains to be seen whether difficult times will lead to doubling down or a change in outlook. But their experiences may provide a sharp shock for those who could otherwise follow in their footsteps.

There is some evidence that this has already begun, in reaction to the Brexit vote: Across Europe in the weeks after the referendum, contrary to predictions that other states would follow Britain’s lead, support for remaining in the EU rose. In Denmark, for example, support for remaining in the EU rose to 69 percent after the Brexit referendum, up 10 percent from the week before the vote, while in France the number was 67 percent, also up 10, and in Germany it was 81 percent – in both countries the highest figure on record since 2010.

Hungary will have no exit referendum, and if it did, the vote would fail: 68 percent of Hungarians support EU membership. Only fringe parties in Poland have any interest in EU withdrawal, with around 80 percent of Poles in favor of membership, and Macedonia still seeks to join the EU club. However uneasily illiberalism sits with membership of a body dedicated to liberal values, the EU does not seem to be under threat of disintegration just yet.

As for Trump, Europe is still reckoning with the repercussions of his surprise victory, but one thing that seems clear is that the continent will again have to recollect that the US is not Europe, and that Europe must find its own way. The EU, liberal ideals and all, provides the strongest mechanism for Europe to act collectively – and Europeans may well soon come to remember that fact.

Justine Doody writes for BTI Blog and SGI News.

Photo: European People’s Party/flickr.com, CC BY 2.0


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