Why Eastern Europe is turning anti-liberal? edit

Nov. 3, 2006

Right wing populists in Poland and left wing populists in Slovakia now run the government in alliance with extremist nationalist parties. In Budapest the main opposition party Fidesz calls its supporters to demonstrate in front of Parliament for the resignation of a government on the very day the Parliament had confirmed in a confidence vote the political outcome of the elections of last May. In contrast, in Prague, a minority right wing government that has not gained a confidence vote in Parliament after five months of bickering and mobilizing against the «communist threat» is carrying out a widespread purge of the upper echelons of public administration. Last but not least, the Bulgarian entry into the European Union has been heralded by turning the presidential race into a confrontation between an ex-communist (who claims to like the EU) and a proto-fascist (who says he hates Turks, Gypsies and Jews).Why is it so ?

-->The first is obviously political instability and the low level of predictability of political actors in the region while elections have just taken place in all the Visegrad countries over the past year. Perhaps more worryingly there is an erosion of trust in democratic institutions. According to a recent Gallup International poll East-Central Europeans appear as the most sceptical concerning the state of democracy (only about one third have trust in the democratic process).

This points to the second feature of the current tide of populist movements. They are not anti-democratic but anti-liberal. If democracy means popular legitimacy and constitutionalism (the separation of powers) then the populists accept the former and reject the latter (i.e. the idea that constitutional norms and representative democracy have primacy over values and «legitimate» popular grievances). The «politics of values» Polish style is, of course, based on the assumption that «moral order» based on religion should prevail over the freedoms guaranteed by permissive liberalism on issues such as abortion, gays or the death penalty. Asked about his intention to repudiate Darwinism from school curricula the Polish minister of education answered «We've managed without tolerance for long enough. And we shall manage without it even now». In Slovakia the anti-liberal reaction applies also to the treatment of national minorities. Although in practice there is no significant shift (yet?) but the discourse has changed: Jan Slota, the leader of the Slovak National Party, was reported saying that he envies the Czechs for having expelled the Germans and that he would not mind sending Bugar, the leader of the Hungarian minority, to Mars «without a return ticket». The legitimation of xenophobia is a major feature of the onslaught on political liberalism.

The common pattern in all the Visegrad countries is one of acute polarization. And this is where the imprint of the communist political culture becomes most obvious: you do not face a political opponent with whom you argue or negotiate but an enemy which you must destroy.

Another aspect of the anti-liberal drive concerns economics. After fifteen years of unabashed free-market policies the populists in Warsaw, Bratislava or Budapest want to bring back the state. In reality, they herald the return of the social question. The losers of the transition cannot really get excited about the merits of the flat tax or the self-serving rhetoric about the «new tigers from the Tatras» (a favourite slogan of the former Slovak government). Since for fifteen years even the socialist parties pushed liberal economic policies, so it is not surprising that the social question returns on the right (Kaczyinski or Orban) with nationalist, protectionist overtones. The populists have destroyed the myth of liberal «new Europe».

The third related feature of the East European populist tide is its onslaught on the elite consensus that has prevailed since 1990. Governments come and go but they have, on the whole, followed very similar market-oriented policies at home and NATO/EU-oriented foreign policy. The populist challenge to the modernizing political and technocratic elites that have prevailed in the 1990's comes in two guises: as an anti-corruption drive, on the one hand, and as «decommunisation» on the other. In Poland we find an interesting combination of the two with the denunciation of the «original sin» of the 1989 compromise between moderate dissident elites and moderate communist elites which had allowed a non-violent exit from communism. This moral and political fault has allegedly allowed the ex-communist to convert their political power into economic power and sled to the widespread corruption which has accompanied the privatisation process. Hence the need for a two-pronged attack: anti-corruption and de-communisation which is a leitmotiv of Kaczynski twins, Orban, and, to some extent of the right-wing (ODS) party now in office in Prague.

The fourth feature of the recent populist tide in East-Central Europe is a reluctance or outright opposition to European integration. The pro-European coalitions have been exhausted and disintegrated in the immediate aftermath of joining of the EU. Significantly, the Polish, Czech and Hungarian prime ministers resigned within days or weeks after fulfilling the «historic» task of «returning to Europe». The populist nationalists present themselves as the only defenders of national identity and national sovereignty against «external threats», as Kaczynski put it. He also never misses a chance to stress that Poland is in the EU only to defend its legitimate interests. The EU is the perfect target since as a liberal, elitist, supranational project it represents a combination of most of the above mentioned grievances. So the assumption that joining the EU is a stabilising the political system of the new democracies seems to work most effectively in the pre-accession phase. After joining the EU seems to prevail the «now we can show them who we really are» posture. In some cases one senses a curious satisfaction at joining Europe in order to oppose those who for half a century build it without us, speaking of Europe (or on behalf of Europe) without taking us into account. Tired of being the European pupils, the populist nationalists seem to have been longing to say at last the kind of Europe the have in mind (a «Europe of sovereign nation-states», a «Christian Europe» opposed to the materialist, decadent, permissive, supra-national.

This raises number of questions concerning the impact of the populist backlash on the EU itself. The first and most obvious implication is that this will do little to help promote further enlargements of the EU which are not particularly popular these days, particularly among its founding members-states. You cannot day-in day-out describe the EU as a menace (as Kaczynski or Klaus do) and at the same time demand that the benefits of membership be extended further East to a long list of candidates starting with the Ukraine. You cannot, as the Romanian president has done, state that your priority number one is the «strategic axes» Washington-London-Bucharest and claim (even before having joined the EU) that Moldova and the Black Sea countries must become members.

The second implication is not a threat of unravelling but the steady erosion of the political bond within the EU. What the East European populists do not fully appreciate is that the great benefits that their countries derive from membership depend on the existence of a political bond. If populists obsessed with the sole defence of «national interests» prevail they may well weaken the will to develop common policies and foster a re-nationalisation which precisely would not be in the «national interest» of the new members-states.

There are at least two main reasons why the situation may be «desperate, but not serious». ne is that that there are cycles of populism. They come to power on an anti-corruption drive «to clean the house» but once you become the house you may yourself become identified with the practices you have denounced. The fall back position then tends to be clientelism and state capture by the ruling parties (as we see in Poland) rather the pursuit of radicalisation.

The Euro-consensus of the last decade has often been accused of emptying the political competition in the candidate countries of its substance and thus contributing to the populist backlash using Europe as a scapegoat. But the EU can also work as a constraint on the populists.