Populism in Central Europe


A specter is haunting the European Union`s new members in Central Europe – the specter of populist nationalism. The Law and Justice Party (PiS) has just won Poland`s parliamentary and presidential elections, while populist and nationalist political forces could gain the upper hand in elections in Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia next year.

These are momentous developments. For 15 years, Central Europe has been a model student of democratization. Now, according to former Czech President Vaclav Havel, the region could become trapped in a „suffocating atmosphere.“ Even Havel`s own successor, Vaclav Klaus, rails against multiculturalism and the decline of the traditional European nation-state. What happened?

Paradoxically, the EU – seen as a guarantee of stability and progress – is itself part of the problem. Attracted by the promise of membership, the countries that joined the EU last year underwent 15 years of social, economic, legal, and political changes whose scope was unprecedented in modern European history. Public institutions were rapidly modernized, political democracy adopted, and a standard market economy created. But ordinary people were put under tremendous pressure to adjust quickly, and sometimes painfully.

As long as EU membership remained only a goal, it had a disciplining effect on the region`s political elites. In fact, the promise of EU membership now seems to have been a more effective means of promoting reform than membership itself: aspiration, unlike membership, gave the EU far greater political leverage.

To be sure, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia have rightly viewed EU accession as an act of political emancipation, and have begun asserting themselves as political equals. At the same time, the political parties that led their countries into the EU all came under pressure, because they were associated with painful reforms.

This cleared the way for politicians with a simple message: our countries have had enough of Western tutelage and belt-tightening; the time has come to return to our national values and interests. Some warned even before EU accession that their nations could lose their identity. As President Klaus put it, the Czech Republic could „dissolve in the EU like a sugar cube in a cup of coffee.“

Tomas G. Masaryk, Czechoslovakia`s first president after its establishment in 1918, used to say that his country was a democracy, but „so far, without democrats.“ Havel reasons along similar lines when he warns of the emerging dangers of nationalism and populism in the region.

In his opinion, the underlying „old“ patterns of political behavior (some a legacy of the pre-communist era) were temporarily pushed to the background by the wave of pro-Western civic liberalism that followed the collapse of communism in the region. Now the old patterns of political behavior are returning to the fore.

But there is also evidence that Havel is right to argue that the re-emergence of these patterns represents a mere „hangover“ from 15 years of sustained – and often traumatic – reform. Unlike before World War II, when democratization efforts were undermined by the rise of authoritarianism in Germany, the region`s countries are now fully integrated into a network of highly stable Western democracies. Attempts by political parties to thrive on nationalism, xenophobia and populism will soon be confronted with the limits set by the EU and other international organizations.

For example, the PiS`s promises to reintroduce the death penalty and return Poland to its conservative Christian roots violate EU and Council of Europe standards. One can predict with a high degree of confidence that the Polish „Fourth Republic“ that the PiS would like to build will have to come to terms with the limited space in Europe for messianic visions and „Christian fundamentalism.“

The same is true of Klaus`s nationalism; it may appeal to a popular streak of Czech provincialism, but even if the conservative Civic Democratic Party, which Klaus founded, wins the parliamentary election next year, EU membership will temper nationalist ambitions. Leftist populists in Slovakia, represented by Robert Fico`s Smer (Direction) party, which is leading in opinion polls ahead of the next year`s elections, will most likely reach a similar conclusion.

Viktor Orban`s Fidesz party, which could win Hungary`s elections next spring, provides a particularly instructive example. In the mid-1990`s, before becoming the governing party, it pandered openly to nationalist and populist sentiment in order to win votes. But by the time its government was replaced in 2002, by the current Socialist-led administration, Fidesz`s record was rather pro-European.

In other words, while populist-nationalist forces could well make further gains next year – even allying themselves, like the PiS, with far-right parties to win support for their policies – Central Europe is unlikely to revert to the virulent nationalism for which it was once infamous. Havel is right that the region will sober up after its political hangover. But, as with real hangovers, it won`t be pretty to watch.


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