Éric Zemmour's election campaign, meeting in Cannes,France on January 22, 2022. Photo: Macri Roland.

The impact of the Russia-Ukraine War on radical right-wing populism in France

Ivaldi, Gilles. (2023). “The impact of the Russia-Ukraine War on radical right-wing populism in France.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0019

 

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Abstract

This article examines the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the main actors of the populist radical right in France (i.e., Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National and Éric Zemmour’s Reconquête) as well as Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France insoumise on the populist radical left. It looks, in particular, at the effects of the Ukraine crisis on the French presidential election in April 2022. After the outbreak of the war, French populists (of the left and the right) came under fire for their pro-Russia positions and previous sympathy for Vladimir Putin. However, these parties revealed quite different responses in interpreting the Ukraine crisis. The analysis suggests that Marine Le Pen successfully evaded accusations of sympathy for Putin by toning down her nativism and emphasizing instead her social-populist agenda, which foregrounds egalitarian social protection and economic nationalism. This move allowed her to exploit war-related issues of energy and rising prices. Public opinion data suggest that such issues were paramount to voters in the 2022 election. Zemmour, on the other hand, largely ignored growing socioeconomic concerns while perpetuating a more ambiguous stance vis-à-vis Putin, which may have contributed to his failure to challenge Le Pen on the radical right. Overall, the article concludes that the impact of the Ukraine war in France has been heavily mediated by socioeconomic anxieties, fuelling support for populism at both ends of the political spectrum.

Keywords: Ukraine War, populism, France, Le Pen, Zemmour, presidential elections.

 

 

By Gilles Ivaldi* (CNRS-CEVIPOF-Sciences Po Paris)

Background

The war in Ukraine has presented new challenges for Kremlin-backed radical right-wing populist parties in Europe, putting many under strain for their association with Russia and admiration of Putin’s regime and forcing them to adapt to the new context produced by the war.

This article examines the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the state of the populist radical right in France, looking in particular at the effects of the crisis on the 2022 presidential election, which took place in April. The first section charts the topography of radical right-wing populism in France. The following section presents the international agenda of the populist radical right. The impact of the war—at both the party and voter levels—is subsequently analysed in the third section.

The topography of radical right-wing populism in France

Traditionally, the French Front National (FN) exhibited all the hallmarks of a populist radical right party (Mudde, 2007, p. 41), which forms part of the broader contemporary “far right” party family. The party has always combined three core features: nativism, authoritarianism and populism (Pirro, 2022). However, since her accession to the party leadership in 2011, Marine Le Pen’s strategy has essentially been to “detoxify” the party’s far right reputation, widely referred to as “de-demonization.” A significant step in this direction was taken in 2018 when the party rebadged itself as the Rassemblement National (National Rally, RN). Meanwhile, Le Pen has taken her party further to the economic left to address growing socioeconomic concerns in the French electorate (Ivaldi, 2022a). As a result, electorally, the FN/RN has grown its share of the vote in national elections to over 20%, even winning the plurality vote in both the 2014 European Parliament elections (24.9%) and 2015 French regional elections (27.1% in the second round).

The 2022 elections saw the rise of a new populist radical right party in France, led by Éric Zemmour. A well-known political commentator, columnist and author, Zemmour entered the 2022 campaign trail as the typical anti-immigration politician making nativism and anti-Muslim rhetoric a centrepiece of his presidential bid. Recent research suggests that the Zemmour phenomenon sits squarely within the broader framework of the West European far right, adopting its central ideological tenets of nativism and authoritarianism alongside populism (Ivaldi, 2021).

The international agenda of the populist radical right in France

This section surveys the international agenda of the populist radical right in France, especially changes that have occurred in the FN/RN’s vision of international politics since the mid-1980s. This vision rests on a constructed binary that opposes “patriotism” (virtuous) and “globalism” (threatening), reflecting the party’s nationalism and populism.

European integration

Euroscepticism has been a central feature of the FN/RN in France since the mid-1990s (Hainsworth et al., 2004). The party has traditionally advocated turning the EU into a looser association of free and independent nations. During the 2010s, the FN/RN adopted hard Eurosceptic policies, pledging to pull France out of the Eurozone and the Schengen Area while calling for a French referendum on leaving the EU.

However, the blame for Le Pen’s failure to win the presidential runoff in the 2017 elections was largely pinned on these policies, prompting the FN to moderate its positions and abandon its previous policy of “Frexit.” As a result, the 2022 election campaign saw the RN adopt an ambiguous stance vis-à-vis the EU and attempt to de-emphasize European issues to increase its appeal to moderate pro-EU voters without relinquishing its core Eurosceptic agenda (Padis, 2022).

Similarly, Éric Zemmour’s vision of international relations is dominated by national sovereignty claims and his vehement opposition to supranational institutions. Like Le Pen, Zemmour espoused the concept of establishing the precedence of national law over European treaties and international conventions, signalling his intention to curb the powers of the EU and to engage in the construction of a “Europe of independent nations,” thus adopting the FN’s traditional vision of European regional order.

Russia and NATO

Today, Russia occupies a prominent place in the French far right’s vision of a multipolar world order, which opposes NATO and what it sees as American imperialism. As will be discussed, such positions are also traditionally found in the populist radical left in France.

On the far right, such positions represent a notable departure from the past, however. Anti-communism was a core feature of the ideology of the far right in France during the Cold War. During the 1980s, the FN was generally pro-NATO, siding with the United States in the camp of the so-called “free world” against the USSR. This positioning changed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. As Lebourg (2016) suggests, “the transition to a unipolar world allows members of the far right to impose their interpretation of a world in the process of unification under the leadership of ‘American-Zionist’ and/or globalist capitalism […] which is synonymous with ‘cosmopolitanism’” (p. 106).

In being opposed to explicit alignment with the United States, the current RN follows in the Gaullist tradition in France and opposes both NATO and the EU (Mielcarek, 2018). The party defends an alternative vision of the world, which postulates a complete break with the existing economic, political, institutional and geopolitical order, advocating, in particular, a new trilateral Paris–Berlin–Moscow alliance along with a pan-European association of sovereign states that would include Russia. During the 2022 election, Le Pen reaffirmed her intention to leave NATO’s integrated military command while reiterating the commitment to Article 5 on collective defence. She also confirmed that she would refuse to place French troops under the command of any future independent EU Rapid Deployment Capacity (EU RDC) while foreswearing French “subjection to an American protectorate” and calling for “closer ties between NATO and Russia” to forestall a Sino–Russian alliance (“Marine Le Pen déroule sa vision”, 2022).

The FN/RN’s pro-Russia ‘tropism’ is both ideological and societal (Camus, 2016). Russia is essentially seen as a bulwark against American economic, political and cultural influence and as the leader of a global patriotic insurrection against neoliberal globalization, supranational institutions and post-modernism (Lebourg, 2018). In her 2012 book, Le Pen wrote:

“Relying on Russia today means creating a true European space from the Atlantic to the Urals, a Europe of nations pursuing their national interests and associated in a community of civilization, far removed from the ultraliberal American cosmopolitan model towards which the European Union is leading us.” (p. 225).

The FN/RN has taken pro-Russian stances in the Ukraine crisis in 2014. During the war in Syria, the party called for restoring diplomatic links with the regime of Bashar al-Assad, thus following the lead of Vladimir Putin (“Marine Le Pen et les relations internationales”, 2017). Just before the Russian invasion, Le Pen was still blaming NATO and the United States for the conflict, asserting in an interview on the BBC programme “Hard Talk” in early February 2022 that:

“Today the United States is pushing Ukraine to join NATO with the aim of deploying armed forces on Russia’s border, so the Russians are retaliating, putting forces at their borders with Ukraine […]. But I do not believe at all that Russia wishes to invade Ukraine.” (Sackur, 2022)

We find similar strategic and civilizational views in Zemmour’s writings and statements. He has long professed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin. In 2018, Zemmour portrayed the Kremlin’s leader as “a true patriot” and “defender of European values”, publicly declaring that “he would dream of a French Putin” to stop France’s decline (“Eric Zemmour: ‘Je rêve d’un Poutine français’”, 2018). Such arguments were reiterated in the 2022 election campaign:

“Vladimir Putin is a Russian patriot. It is legitimate that he defends the interests of Russia […]. The Americans want to enslave Western Europe, which only asks for that; it is voluntary servitude […]. I think that the Americans have done a lot to provoke Putin.” (France Inter, 2022)

The FN/RN has also had direct financial links with Russia (Turchi, 2016), something Emmanuel Macron sought to use during the 2022 campaign to pin Le Pen to Putin (see below). In 2014, the FN obtained a loan of €9 million from the Moscow-based First Czech Russian Bank. The negotiations over the loan coincided with Russia’s annexation of Crimea, reflecting the connection between FN officials and senior politicians close to Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin (Turchi, 2014), and the pro-Russian stance adopted by the party.

The populist radical left

Finally, it is worth noting that the French far right is not alone in its strong orientation toward Russia. Such positions are also found in the populist radical left, which, in France, is primarily embodied by Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise (LFI), and they are associated with Eurosceptic and anti-NATO views predicated on the concept of a “non-aligned” France.

LFI’s opposition to NATO and the party’s pro-Russian stance reflect the radical left’s traditional hostility toward the United States, neoliberalism and what is deemed American “imperialism.” Mélenchon’s call for national sovereignty and independence in France’s foreign policy is based on the concept of “non-alignment,” which means, in particular, that the country should leave NATO’s integrated military command.

As Mélenchon asserted in December 2021:

“The Russians are not adversaries […]. We lied to them. We told them that we would not advance the borders of our military alliance and we did. Why is all this happening in Ukraine right now? Because the United States intends to advance the borders of NATO to Ukraine” (“De ‘la menace n’existe pas’ à ‘la Russie agresse l’Ukraine’”, 2022).

During the 2022 election campaign, Mélenchon made several ambiguous statements regarding Russia. During a radio interview, he explained that “we have brought ten Eastern European countries into NATO, which Russia felt as a threat. We have a duty to ensure that Ukraine does not join NATO so that the Russians do not feel threatened, particularly if we station anti-missile batteries in Poland.” (Demorand &Salamé, 2022)

The Ukraine war in the 2022 French presidential election

In this section, we turn to the repercussions of the Ukraine war to the April 2022 French presidential election both at the party and voter levels. Like other European countries, the war in Ukraine has had a significant impact on France’s economy and society, as socioeconomic anxiety has grown from the energy crisis associated with the war and its effect on prices and the cost of living.

Far right strategies and counter-strategies of “performing” the war

After the outbreak of the war, French populists came under fire for their pro-Russia positions and previous sympathy for Vladimir Putin, however showing different responses to their interpretation of the Ukraine crisis.

In a press release published on her campaign website on 24 February, Le Pen sought to put distance between herself and the Russian president, condemning the Russian invasion and accusing Putin of “breaking the equilibrium of peace in Europe.” Calling on France to spearhead a diplomatic intervention under UN auspices, she declared: “No reason can justify the launching by Russia of a military operation against Ukraine […]. It must be unambiguously condemned.” (Le Pen, 2022)

In line with other radical right-wing populists in Europe (Albertazzi et al., 2022), Le Pen strategically adopted a more open stance on welcoming Ukrainian refugees in France, demonstrating her ability to quickly adapt to shifts in public opinion. This also signalled a temporary change from the FN/RN’s traditional demonization of asylum seekers. Le Pen also criticized some of the sanctions imposed on Russia because such measures would disproportionately harm French businesses and workers, thus addressing the concerns of her core working class and petty-bourgeoisie constituency. Meanwhile, the RN binned campaign leaflets that included a photo of Le Pen shaking hands with Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin in 2017.

More importantly, Le Pen managed to somewhat steer attention away from her Russian links by focusing her campaign on domestic socioeconomic issues (Ivaldi, 2022c). Her campaign accentuated social-populist arguments, which foreground egalitarian social protection, economic nationalism, and the defence of “little people”, and she successfully exploited war-related issues of energy and rising prices. At the policy level, her presidential platform offered a generous redistributive package of lower value-added tax (VAT), higher wages and pensions, tax exemptions and free transport for young workers. Le Pen’s social-populist agenda clearly resonated with the many economic fears of the French, particularly amongst the lower social strata most severely hit by the economic repercussions of the war and faced with the rising cost of living, especially in rural areas (Perrineau, 2022).

Like Le Pen, Zemmour came under fire for his long-held admiration for Russia and Vladimir Putin, but he failed, however, to evade accusations of sympathy for Putin. In the weeks before the invasion, Zemmour reaffirmed his support for Russia while blaming NATO and the West. Such arguments were reiterated in a press release on 21 February 2022, where Zemmour made clear that the situation in Ukraine was also the result of “policies led by the West and NATO,” refraining from condemning Putin while pre-emptively advocating against sanctions and suggesting a new treaty to end what he deemed was NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe (Zemmour, 2022).

Zemmour’s ambiguous stance vis-à-vis Russia continued into the period after the invasion. On February 24, he conceded that he had “believed that Vladimir Putin would not cross this red line” and said: “I unreservedly condemn this use of force, and my first thoughts go to the people who are victims of this absurd and fratricidal conflict.” Still, Zemmour renewed his call for a new “treaty to put an end to the expansion of NATO” in response to “Russian demands” (Johannès, 2022). Meanwhile, the far right politician sparked further controversy when he cautioned against what he dubbed an “emotional response” to the war. He initially refused to welcome refugees from Ukraine before changing his position by clearly distinguishing between Ukrainians and those fleeing conflicts in Arab Muslim nations (“Eric Zemmour assume une difference”, 2022).

Finally, on the left of French politics, Mélenchon continued to show an ambiguous stance during the few weeks before the invasion, calling for ‘de-escalation’ while simultaneously pointing to the threat of NATO moving closer to Russia’s borders (“Zemmour, Le Pen, Mélenchon”, 2022). However, on February 6, he was still asserting that Vladimir Putin’s position was “understandable,” adding: “France must be non-aligned, which means that neither the Russians should enter Ukraine, nor the Americans annex Ukraine into NATO” (Mélenchon, 2022a).

Mélenchon dramatically shifted position immediately after the beginning of the war. The LFI leader denounced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a demonstration of “pure violence,” saying in a press release on 24 February: “Russia is attacking Ukraine. This is an initiative of pure violence manifesting a will of power without measure. An unbearable escalation is provoked” (Mélenchon, 2022b). Mélenchon called upon the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to lead international cooperation in the crisis, reiterating, in passing, his vision of a “non-aligned” France (Laïreche, 2022).

Voters and the Ukraine war

How did the Ukraine crisis play out in the 2022 French presidential election? Opinion polls taken in the run-up to the elections—specifically those of the CEVIPOF National Election Panel (ENEF)—suggest that the effect of the war was heterogeneous across different sectors of the electorate in France. In a poll conducted in early April 2022, 41% of French voters said that the positions taken on Ukraine by the different candidates would matter to their vote (ENEF wave #9). Such views were predominant among Macron’s voters (50%) but much less among populists, with 36% of Mélenchon, 31% of Le Pen, and only 22% of Zemmour’s voters saying that the war would be important to their decision.

If anything, support for populism rose during the period after the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, with both Le Pen and Mélenchon making substantial gains in voting intention polls, essentially reflecting growing war-related socioeconomic anxiety among the French (see Figure 1). In contrast, Zemmour appeared to be most affected by the consequences of the war, and he began to lose support in early March, which fell from an average of 13% to about 8% in the final days of the campaign. Meanwhile, polls reported high levels of support for Macron and his management of the Ukraine crisis.

Figure 1. Voting intentions for populist candidates in the first round of the 2022 French presidential election (% support)

Source: data collected from 167 public opinion polls published between January 4 and April 8, 2022, polynomial fit, calculations by the author

Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine was becoming less salient politically as a majority of French essentially expressed their concerns about the economic consequences of the war rather than fears of a wider conflict or even of a nuclear strike by Russia (see Figure 2). While there had been a substantial spike in approval ratings and voter support for Macron at the beginning of the Ukraine war (Ivaldi, 2022c), the increase in his popularity quickly waned as economic fears loomed.

Figure 2. Concerns among French voters related to the Ukraine war (Feb–Apr 2022)

Source: ENEF Surveys (CEVIPOF)

The 2022 presidential election saw a surge in electoral support for populist parties across the political spectrum. Le Pen won 23.2% of the presidential vote, coming in second place behind incumbent centrist President Emmanuel Macron (at 27.9%). While failing to challenge Le Pen’s position on the far right, Zemmour made a significant breakthrough at 7% of the total votes cast in the first round. Finally, Mélenchon came in third place with 22% of the vote, taking the lead on the left from the once-dominant Socialist Party (PS).

In 2022, the electoral vitality of populism was fuelled primarily by economic instability, rising prices, and profound voter disaffection with Macron during most of his presidency (Perrineau, 2022). Economic fears clearly dominated the later stage of the campaign. According to the final wave of the CEVIPOF National Election Panel (ENEF) just a few days ahead of the first round, no fewer than 57% of French voters said that the cost of living and purchasing power would be important to their vote.

While first-round support for Le Pen appeared unaffected by the war, Macron nevertheless sought to leverage Russia’s invasion against her in the second-round runoff. During their TV debate, Macron accused Le Pen of being “dependent on Russian power,” telling her: “You cannot properly defend the interests of France on this subject because your interests are linked to people close to Russian power […]. When you speak to Russia, you are speaking to your banker.” (“Débat présidentiel: Macron attaque Le Pen”, 2022). A survey conducted immediately after the debate suggested that 59% of French voters had found Macron more convincing and that he “had won the debate” (Bulant, 2022). Meanwhile, voting intention polls showed a moderate rise in electoral support for the French president ahead of the second round (“Sondage présidentielle 2022”, 2022). As it turned out, while Macron handily beat her in the runoff, Le Pen captured 41.5% of the vote, a record for the RN in a presidential race. The result suggests that war-related concerns likely played only a limited role in voters’ decision-making.

Discussion and perspectives

Ukraine war-related socioeconomic anxiety has fuelled support for populism in the April 2022 French presidential election at both ends of the political spectrum. Legislative elections in June 2022 further attested to the electoral strength of populism after the RN won an unprecedented 89 seats in the National Assembly. On the left, Mélenchon led the newly formed NUPES coalition—which brought together LFI, the Socialists and the Greens—to a combined 149 seats, leaving the left-wing coalition just short of the majority needed to impose cohabitation on Macron.

As the energy crisis and rising prices have continued to top the political agenda, Le Pen has established herself as the main opposition leader against President Macron. Her popularity has been rising since last September, reflecting her efforts to detoxify her party and the increasing normalization of the RN. As for the left, Mélenchon’s LFI has been weakened by internal factionalism and accusations of physical abuse against Adrien Quatennens, a leading LFI parliamentarian (Carriat & Cassini, 2022). Meanwhile, Zemmour’s party, Reconquête, which failed to win a single seat in the 2022 elections, has faded into political irrelevance.

Overall, the 2022 elections have reflected the mainstreaming of the populist radical right, marking a new phase in the RN’s institutionalization and de-demonization. Together with the waning of the ‘Republican Front’ –consisting of ad hoc alliances of parties and/or voters across the spectrum whenever the RN is likely to win a decisive round– in the presidential runoff and the historical breakthrough of Le Pen’s party in the 2022 legislative elections, this suggests a new phase in the already long history of far right politics in France, possibly heralding a more significant reshaping of the party sub-system of the right in the future, with the RN as its predominant force.

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(*) Gilles Ivaldi is researcher in politics at CEVIPOF and professor at Sciences Po Paris. His research interests include French politics, parties and elections, and the comparative study of populism and the radical right in Europe and the United States. Gilles Ivaldi is the author of De Le Pen à Trump : le défi populiste (Bruxelles : Editions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 2019), The 2017 French Presidential Elections. A political Reformation?, 2018, Palgrave MacMillan, with Jocelyn Evans. His research has appeared in journals such as Electoral Studies, the International Journal of Forecasting, Revue Européenne des Sciences Sociales, French Politics, Revue Française de Science Politique or Political Research Quarterly.


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Sackur, S. (Presenter) (2022, February 8). Marine Le Pen: French presidential candidate, National Rally [Television broadcast]. BBC, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0014cmj.

Sondage présidentielle 2022: après le débat, Emmanuel Macron creuse encore l’écart avec Marine Le Pen (2022, April 21). Le Parisien. https://www.leparisien.fr/elections/
presidentielle/sondage-presidentielle-2022-au-lendemain-du-debat-dentre-deux-tours-macron-accroit-son-avance-sur-le-pen-21-04-2022-S63DH5CXRFES3OASXUSANIDEEY.php

Turchi, M. (2014, November 24). How a Russian bank gave France’s far right Front National party 9mln euros. Mediapart. https://www.mediapart.fr/en/journal/international/241114/how-russian-bank-gave-frances-far-right-front-national-party-9mln-euros

Turchi, M. (2016). L’argent du Front national et des le Pen: Une famille aux affaires. Pouvoirs, 157(2), 31-47. https://doi.org/10.3917/pouv.157.0031

Zemmour, É. [@ZemmourEric]. (2022, February 22). Ma position sur la situation en Ukraine. [Image attached][Tweet]. https://twitter.com/ZemmourEric/status/
1495896711184752653?s=20&t=FRkX1beRpHocft6xORY8Rg

Zemmour, Le Pen, Mélenchon: les ambiguïtés des candidats à la présidentielle face à la Russie de Vladimir Poutine (2022, February 22). Franceinfo. https://www.francetvinfo.fr/monde/europe/manifestations-en-ukraine/zemmour-le-pen-melenchon-les-ambiguites-des-candidats-face-a-la-russie-de-vladimir-poutine_4981164.html

Tino Chrupalla, the leader of the AfD parliamentary group, during his speech at the 75th plenary session in the German Bundestag, Berlin, Germany on December 14, 2022. Photo: Juergen Nowak.

To Russia with love? German populist actors’ positions vis-a-vis the Kremlin

Arzheimer, Kai. (2023). “To Russia with love? German populist actors’ positions vis-a-vis the Kremlin.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0020

 

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Abstract

Russia’s attack on Ukraine and its many international and national repercussions have helped to revive the fortunes of Germany’s main radical right-wing populist party, the “Alternative for Germany” (AfD). Worries about the threats posed to Germany’s traditional export-led industries by spiking energy prices, the country’s historical anxieties over becoming involved in armed conflict in Europe, and hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving in Germany seem to have contributed to a modest rise in the AfD’s poll numbers after a long period of stagnation. However, the situation is more complicated for the AfD than it would appear at first glance. While many party leaders and the rank-and-file have long held sympathies for Putin (and for Russia more generally), support for Ukraine among the German public remains strong, even if there is some disagreement about the appropriate means and the acceptable costs. At least some AfD voters are appalled by the levels of Russian violence against civilians. Like on many other issues, there is also a gap in opinion between Germany’s formerly communist federal states in the east and the western part of the country. The AfD’s leadership has responded by blaming the government and unspecified external actors for the economic crisis, calling for a “diplomatic solution,” and demanding a “return to normal.” While this policy has helped to keep the AfD’s base mobilized, the stated approach is scarcely feasible and has not led to a surge in support for the party among the general population.

Keywords: Germany, Alternative for Germany (AfD), Pegida, energy security.

 

 

By Kai Arzheimer* (Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz)

Background: Populism in Germany

The “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) is currently Germany’s most prominent and influential Far Right party. It is represented in the Bundestag, the European Parliament, and in fifteen of Germany’s sixteen state parliaments. Over the last ten years, it has effectively absorbed the fragmented support that existed for older Far Right parties, most prominently the right-wing extremist National Democrats (NPD). Only recently has the AfD faced some fresh competition from the Grassroots Democratic Party of Germany (“dieBasis”) and “Team Todenhöfer” (a personal party founded by former conservative politician and journalist Jürgen Todenhöfer), which were launched during the pandemic and target Germany’s so-called “Querdenken” (“lateral thinkers”), COVID-19-sceptics and conspiracy theorists. However, at the federal election in September 2021, these outfits groups won just 1.4 and 0.5 % of the votes, respectively.

Founded in 2013, the AfD started as a soft Eurosceptic outfit that positions itself on the centre-right (Arzheimer, 2015). However, immigration and the Muslim minority in Germany quickly became the AfD’s main issues, and by 2016, the party had transformed into a prototypical populist radical Right party. However, what sets the AfD apart from other European parties of this type is that it cultivates ties to openly right-wing extremist actors outside the party and tolerates extremist tendencies among its own members, which have become more pronounced and visible over time (Arzheimer, 2019).

Since 2014, the AfD has drawn up a series of increasingly comprehensive manifestos that aim to address all fields of public policy. As ardent supporters of Germany’s car industry and the internal combustion engine, they are sceptical of climate change and vehemently anti-“woke.” Their economic, fiscal, and welfare policies also place them on the Right, economically speaking. While welfare chauvinists on the one hand and market liberals on the other have long wrestled about the AfD’s pension policies, this conflict contributed little to the public perception of the party, which is framed almost entirely by the interlinked issues of immigration, asylum, and Islam.

The AfD won 10.3% of the list vote in the 2021 federal election, a modest decline compared to their 2017 result of 12.6%. More recently, the party has regained some support in national polls, but considerable regional variation remains. Almost from its foundation, the AfD has been disproportionately successful in Germany’s formerly communist eastern states, particularly in Thuringia and Saxony. In some districts within these states, the AfD has become the strongest political force, necessitating the formation of awkward coalitions across the political spectrum (e.g. the CDU/SPD/Greens coalition in Saxony or the Left/SPD/Greens minority government in Thuringia that has a confidence-and-supply agreement with the CDU).

While the AfD is the most important populist actor in Germany, it is worth pointing out that the Far Left Linkspartei, generally stylized as “die Linke” (“the Left”), is also considered populist, as noted by The Populist (https://popu-list.org/). As a self-professed pacifist party that is also the (indirect) successor of the socialist state party in the GDR, die Linke has long campaigned for the dissolution of NATO, frequently taken a pro-Russian stance and is highly suspicious of the United States, the EU, and Germany’s security apparatus. However, Russia’s atrocities against Ukrainian civilians have proven too much for most members of die Linke. Its parliamentary party condemns Russia’s attack as a violation of international law, portrays Ukraine as the victim of a power struggle between the West and Russia, and calls for Western countries to spearhead de-escalation (Die Linke, n.d.).

Die Linke’s most prominent and controversial member, Sahra Wagenknecht (who has a huge presence in both traditional and social media), takes a more clear-cut pro-Russian position. For years, Wagenknecht has toyed with the idea of forming her own breakaway party, but so far, she has failed to follow through. Nonetheless, Wagenknecht is the frequent object of speculation of her intention to spearhead a “Querfront,” namely, an issue-specific alliance of Far Left and Far Right actors.

German elite discourses on Russia

Before turning to populist demands for and supply of foreign policy, it is worthwhile briefly considering German elite discourse and positions on Russia. During the 1950s, when West Germany found itself at the front line of the Cold War, integration into NATO became a central plank of its political consensus and was deemed essential for West Germany’s political survival. However, even then-Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, a staunch anti-communist, wanted a good working relationship with the Soviet Union and agreed to compromise over the resumption of diplomatic relations in order to free thousands of German POWs who were still detained in the USSR in the mid-1950s.

Not much later, the first scheme to supply Germany and Western Europe with natural gas from Siberia was drawn up. Due to the Cuban Missile Crisis, these plans were temporarily shelved but eventually led to a trade deal that supplied Germany with Siberian gas in exchange for West German steel pipes. Natural gas imports increased from the end of the 1970s. Although the United States put considerable pressure on its West European allies to limit commercial exchanges with the USSR, by the late 1980s, the Soviet Union supplied about 50% of the natural gas consumed in Germany. After the end of the Cold War, Russia’s share of German natural gas imports fluctuated between 30 and 50% but began to rise steadily again after 2013 (Pleines, 2021, p. 2), exceeding 50% once more by 2017.

This increasing energy dependency, epitomized by the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, was seen positively (or at least not as a security problem) by both the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), as it fit into the wider framework of Germany’s policy toward the former USSR after the Cold War. In their analysis of this policy (which was loosely linked to the détente of the 1970s), Meister and Jilge (2022, p. 18) identify several core principles:

In line with this general approach towards Russia, both the CDU/CSU and the SPD brushed aside the concerns voiced by the United States, Ukraine, and the eastern EU members over Nord Stream 2 as late as the 2021 federal election campaign. On the other hand, the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens have taken a much more critical stance towards Russia in recent years. Still, the salience of foreign policy in general (and eastern policy in particular) has remained limited in German politics even after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

Ties between German right-wing populists and Russia

Although the Nazis justified their abhorrent crimes in the east with the supposedly inferior nature of the Slavic peoples, German right-wing extremists began to form networks with their counterparts in Central and Eastern Europe soon after 1990 (Maegerle, 2009). Among the states of Eastern Europe, Russia has held a particular attraction for the German Far Right because it was seen as offering both a check on US hegemony and an alternative to Western liberal democracy, which is increasingly seen as corrosive to Western traditions. The German Far Right also had contacts with extreme right-wing actors in Ukraine, but with the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia became the main focus. For example, after the annexation, the anti-Islam movement Pegida added a demand for “an end to anti-Russian warmongering” to its manifesto (Jennerjahn, 2016, p. 539).

Unusually among West European nations, Germany has also accepted about 2.5 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union over the last three decades. While almost all of them hail from German-speaking communities within the former USSR (Russlanddeutsche), many are not well integrated into the wider German society and rely on Russian (state) media for political information (Sablina, 2021, p. 362). This group reacted particularly negatively to the influx of refugees in 2015 (Sablina, 2021) and was specifically canvassed by the AfD, which draws disproportionate support from Russlanddeutsche voters (Spies et al., 2023).

In 2014, the AfD’s website showed “an unusual degree of sympathy for Russia and distrust” in the United States (Arzheimer, 2015, p. 548). In the same year, one of the party’s most influential leaders, Alexander Gauland, compared a possible division of Ukraine to the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1992 (“AfD für Spaltung des Landes”, 2014). In its 2017 federal manifesto, the AfD demanded (albeit without mentioning Ukraine) “détente with Russia,” an end to the prevailing sanctions, a “deepening of the economic cooperation with Russia,” and even Russia’s integration into (an unspecified) regional “security structure.” The juxtaposition with Turkey is also telling. According to the AfD manifesto, Turkey, unlike Russia, is “not culturally a part of Europe” and should be expelled from NATO. Similar calls for ending sanctions against Russia were presented in various state-level manifestos, including in Baden-Württemberg (in 2016), Western Pomerania (in 2016), and Saxony (in 2019). The 2019 AfD manifesto in Thuringia even demands more electrical power generation from natural gas and specifically mentions “Russia, Norway, and the Netherlands” as “extremely reliable suppliers.”

In 2018, a group of German parliamentarians travelled to Crimea as “international observers” of the Russian presidential election. It later emerged that the Russian state paid at least partially for this trip (“AfD-Politiker”, 2020). One of the lawmakers, Markus Frohnmaier, is married to a Russian journalist and has repeatedly travelled to Crimea and eastern Ukraine. In 2019, the BBC published documents purportedly showing Frohnmaier to be a Russian asset. Nonetheless, he was re-elected in 2021. Another AfD politician, Gunnar Lindemann, also regularly visited the parts of Ukraine illegally annexed by Russia and even attended an “anti-Fascist” congress in Crimea, where he received an award. As late as September 2021, Lindemann and three other state-level deputies travelled to Russia to act as “observers” during the elections for Russia’s parliament, the Duma. As on previous occasions, they had no mandate from any international organization (Stöber, 2021).

In short, while pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian positions were not central to the AfD’s agenda, which remains focused on immigration, they were widely accepted within the party and were enshrined in the AfD’s manifestos. Moreover, the Kremlin made an effort to cultivate individual AfD politicians.

After February 2022, the party initially took a somewhat more nuanced position. Speaking on behalf of the parliamentary party during the first debate of the invasion in March, MP Matthias Moosdorf called the war a “tragedy” and demanded Russia return to the negotiation table. However, he also alleged that Russischstämmige (“ethnic Russians”) in Ukraine had been persecuted since 2014, painted a Russian victory as inevitable, and called for a negotiated compromise that would imply referenda in Crimea and eastern Ukraine (Deutscher Bundestag, 2022, p. 1435). He also repudiated sanctions against Russia and military aid for Ukraine. Similarly, the parliamentary party published a position paper in June that condemned Russia’s aggression as a violation of international law and called for a ceasefire and the deployment of a peacekeeping force under the auspices of the United Nations (UN) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) (“Der unmögliche Krieg”, 2022, p. 16). In the same statement, the party renewed its support for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline as it was essential for a “reliable, secure and cheap energy supply”  (AfD Bundestagsfraktion 2022). By that time, Russia had already reduced the throughput of Nord Stream 1 by 60%. Deliveries would cease entirely in September.

By the end of summer, the AfD reverted to a more hard-line stance and openly admitted that they hoped to capitalize on widespread worries about energy insecurity and economic instability. They did not, however, shift to the left on fiscal and economic policies but rather demanded the return to the “status quo ante,” which serves as the AfD master frame. Shortly before Russia held hastily organized sham referenda on the annexations in September 2022, another delegation of would-be “observers” travelled via Russia to the occupied parts of Ukraine. They only abandoned their trip after a massive public backlash and some criticism from within their own party (Joswig, 2022). In October, the AfD’s co-chair, Alice Weidel, claimed that the “main loser” of the conflict was “neither Russia nor Ukraine but Germany,” which she called the victim of an “economic war.” In the same interview, she denounced the West for “reflexively supporting Ukraine’s maximalist demands,” rejected any form of German involvement, and urged the government to focus on reinstating the supply of Russian natural gas to safeguard Germany’s economy: “what that means for Ukraine […] for a partition, that is not our concern” (Finthammer, 2022). Six weeks later, Wiedel’s co-chair, Tino Chrupalla, doubled down on that position in a rambling statement in which he stated that “American presidents were war criminals, too” while simultaneously refusing to call Putin a war criminal “because I am not in a position to judge his actions” (“Chrupalla bei Lanz über Putin”, 2022).

The demand side of right-wing populism

Insofar as Germans cared about foreign policy at all, the centre parties’ approach to Russia was widely seen as entirely reasonable. Against this backdrop, the positions and behaviour of the AfD outlined in the previous section were certainly radical but not completely outlandish.

The February 2022 invasion was, therefore, a shock to German public opinion. Overwhelming majorities expressed support for the opening of Germany’s borders to Ukrainian refugees (84%), new sanctions against Russia (85%), and even arms deliveries to Ukraine (67%), something that had been almost universally rejected just a couple of weeks before.[1] At the same time, the invasion triggered anxiety about the economy and energy supplies as well as fears about a broader Russian attack on Europe and even a global nuclear conflict.

Over the course of the year and particularly since the summer, support for Germany’s involvement in the war has slowly eroded, and worries about inflation and heating during the coming winter have come to the fore. The rally-around-the-flag effect quickly subsided, and although the new government managed to find new suppliers for natural gas in record time — imports from Russia effectively ended in August — its approval rates are very low. Once more, there is also a marked difference between Germany’s western and eastern states, with easterners being particularly reluctant, worried, and unhappy.

However, there have been no mass protests, and the AfD has not benefited from the dramatic developments as much as one could have assumed. In January 2022, the party hovered between 10 and 11% in national polls, which was very close to their result in the 2021 election. A year later, their support had increased by about four percentage points. Although the arrival of more than a million refugees from Ukraine, the steepest increase in the cost of living since the 1970s, and a major land war in Europe have created an almost perfect storm, the AfD so far remains below its peak of 17–18% public support recorded in 2018.[2]

This is not to say that (right-wing) populism has been sidelined or disarmed during the crisis. On the contrary, the AfD has performed surprisingly well in the western state of Lower Saxony and has become entrenched in many eastern regions. However, there seems to be a ceiling to the AfD’s support, and the party is already operating close to that limit. In November 2019, a polling outfit found that 80% of Germans said that extremist ideas had spread “far” or “very far” through the AfD (Forshungsgruppe Wahlen, 2019), and roughly the same number consistently states in opinion surveys that they would under no circumstances vote for the party. Since then, the AfD’s involvement with the anti-vaccination movement and various right-wing extremist groups, as well as its support for Russia, have further consolidated the party’s negative image. The invasion may have somewhat revived the AfD’s support, but not on account of any specific political innovation of the party. The party simply offers more of the same, packaged in an ever more radical fashion.

Discussion and perspective

So far, the invasion has had a minimal effect on right-wing populist politics in Germany. While the issue was quickly picked up by actors that had been active during the pandemic, there were very few pro-Russian or anti-war protests.

In terms of party politics, the country is currently forced to reconsider its largely failed eastern policy. Like in other areas of political life, the AfD is essentially campaigning for a radical version of what was once considered normal. However, the idea that Germany could somehow disentangle itself completely from the conflict, ignore the system of Western sanctions and simply go back to importing cheap natural gas from Russia must appear preposterous even to many of the party’s supporters. Therefore, the AfD’s leaders’ sometimes almost cartoonish statements are primarily designed to grab the public’s attention and further fire up their (limited) base. They are certainly not aimed at influencing public policy or redefining the AfD’s image.

Therefore, the most likely scenario is that the AfD will continue to focus on the economic crisis while stressing the importance of diplomacy and a peaceful, negotiated settlement, ideas that are generally popular and may even attract some disgruntled supporters of die Linke, which remains in disarray. However, there is no sign of a shift in economic or fiscal policy. The AfD, which is currently led by a former business consultant and the owner of a small building company, remains committed to low-tax, pro-(small)-business, and welfare chauvinist policies.

Were Sarah Wagenknecht ever to set up a (pro-welfare, anti-immigration, and anti-war) personal party, that might be a game changer, as she is currently more popular than any politicians of either die Linke or the AfD and could attract disaffected voters from these and other parties, at least in the short term. However, this would likely break die Linke and seriously weaken the AfD, so it is unclear what the net effect on populism in Germany would be.

Of course, this does not mean that mainstream actors should be complacent: during the pandemic, right-wing populist mobilization, while confined to pockets of society, was associated with lower rates of vaccination and mitigation and hence with worse policy outcomes (Leistner, 2021). On the contrary, politicians, journalists, and civil society actors should dispel misinformation and propaganda, using proven techniques to avoid accidentally reinforcing these messages.

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(*) Kai Arzheimer is Professor of German Politics and Political Sociology at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. He has published widely on voting behaviour and political attitudes and is particularly interested in Far Right parties and their voters.


References

AfD Bundestagsfraktion (2022). Für Frieden in der Ukraine! https://afdbundestag.de/positionspapier-ukraine-krieg 

AfD für Spaltung des Landes (2014, April 4). Frankfurter Allgemeine. https://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/afd-fuer-spaltung-der-ukraine-12888098.html

AfD-Politiker gibt Sponsoring aus Moskau zu (2020, June 25). Spiegel online. https://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/krim-reise-afd-politiker-gibt-sponsoring-aus-moskau-zu-a-4a6c1b1a-e82d-4268-a658-fb78a3fc4ed8

Arzheimer, K. (2015). The AfD: Finally a successful right-wing populist Eurosceptic party for Germany? West European Politics, 38(3), 535–56. https://doi.org/10.1080/
01402382.2015.1004230

Arzheimer, K. (2019). “Don’t mention the war!” How Populist right-wing radicalism became (almost) normal in Germany. Journal of Common Market Studies, 57, 90–102. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcms.12920

Chrupalla bei Lanz über Putin: “Für mich ist er kein Kriegsverbrecher” (2022, November 30). ZDF. https://www.zdf.de/nachrichten/video/politik-lanz-chrupalla-putin-kriegsverbrechen-100.html

Der unmögliche Krieg (2022, June). Fraktion Kompakt: Das Magazin der AfD-Bundestagsfraktion. https://afdbundestag.de/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/fraktionszeitung_ausgabe-5-2022_v7.0.pdf

Deutscher Bundestag. (2022, March 16). Stenografischer Bericht 20. Sitzung, Berlin. https://dserver.bundestag.de/btp/20/20020.pdf

Die Linke. (n.d.). Ukraine. Retrieved February 6, 2023, from https://www.linksfraktion.de/themen/a-z/detailansicht/ukraine/

Finthammer, V. (Host) (2022, October 16). Weidel sieht einen “Wirtschaftskrieg gegen Deutschland” [Radio broadcast]. Deutschlandfunk. https://www.deutschlandfunk.de/alice-weidel-afd-ukraine-krieg-100.html

Forshungsgruppe Wahlen. (2019). Politbarometer November II 2019. https://www.forschungsgruppe.de/Umfragen/Politbarometer/Archiv/Politbarometer_2019/November_II_2019/

Forschungsgruppe Wahlen. (2022a). Politbarometer März 2022. https://www.forschungsgruppe.de/Umfragen/Politbarometer/Archiv/Politbarometer_2022/Maerz_2022/

Forshungsgruppe Wahlen. (2022b). Politbarometer April II 2022. https://www.forschungsgruppe.de/Umfragen/Politbarometer/Archiv/Politbarometer_2022/April_II_2022/

Jennerjahn, M. (2016). Sachsen als Entstehungsort der völkisch-rassistischen Bewegung PEGIDA. In S. Braun, A. Geisler, & M. Gerster (Eds.), Strategien der extremen Rechten: Hintergründe–analysen–antworten (2nd ed., pp. 533–558). VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-658-01984-6_23

Joswig, G. (2022, September 21). Reiserücktritt bei der AfD. Taz. https://taz.de/AfD-Abgeordnete-in-Russland/!5883129/

Leistner, A. (2021, November 19). Je mehr AfD-Wähler, desto höher die Corona-Infektionszahlen – Studie. Euronews. https://de.euronews.com/2021/11/19/afd-wahler-corona-infektionszahlen-studie

Maegerle, A. (2009). Die Internationale der Nationalisten: Verbindungen bundesdeutscher Rechtsextremisten–am Beispiel von NPD/JN–zu Gleichgesinnten in ausgewählten osteuropäischen Staaten. In S. Braun, A. Geisler, & M. Gerster (Eds.), Strategien der extremen Rechten: Hintergründe–analysen–antworten (pp. 461–473). VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-531-91708-5_24

Meister, S., & Jilge, W. (2022). Nach der Ostpolitik. Lehren aus der Vergangenheit als Grundlage für eine neue Russland–und Osteuropapolitik (DGAP Analyse, 2022/6). Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik. https://dgap.org/system/files/article_pdfs/DGAP-Analyse-2022-06-DE-Final_0.pdf

Pleines, H. (2021). Der deutsch-russische Erdgashandel. Die Ursachen der aktuellen Spannungen. Russland-Analysen, 410, 2–8. https://doi.org/10.31205/RA.410.01

Sablina, L. (2021). “We Should Stop the Islamisation of Europe!”: Islamophobia and Right-Wing Radicalism of the Russian-Speaking Internet Users in Germany. Nationalities Papers, 49(2), 361–374. https://doi.org/10.1017/nps.2019.76

Spies, D.C., Mayer, S.J., Elis, J., & Goerres, A. (2023). Why do immigrants support an anti-immigrant party? Russian-Germans and the Alternative for Germany. West European Politics, 46(2), 275–299. https://doi.org/10.1080/01402382.2022.2047544

Stöber, S. (2021, September 19). Wahlbeobachtung auf Bestellung. Tagesschau. https://www.tagesschau.de/investigativ/kontraste/russland-demokratie-wahlbeobachtung-101.html


Footnotes

[1] Support for arming Ukraine depends on the weapons in question but in February 2022, 74% were against delivering any weapons. See Forshungsgruppe Wahlen (2022a, 2022b).

[2] Somewhat surprisingly, support not just for the CDU/CSU (now the main opposition party) but also for the Greens, which are part of the governing coalition, has risen by four to five points over the same period.

Viktor Orban, Hungary's prime minister arrives to attend in an informal meeting of Heads of State or Government in Prague, Czechia on October 7, 2022. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

Politicizing war: Viktor Orbán’s right-wing authoritarian populist regime and the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Ádám, Zoltán. (2023). “Politicizing war: Viktor Orbán’s right-wing authoritarian populist regime and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0021

 

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Abstract

Soon after Viktor Orbán returned to power in 2010, Vladimir Putin’s Russia became a strategic ally for Hungary. This was a somewhat surprising development for a country with a history of mass movements for political freedom crushed with the assistance of Russian troops. Yet, unlike virtually all his European allies on the radical and populist Right, Orbán has supported Putin even during his campaign against Ukraine. As this has not been without political and economic costs for Hungary, the question emerges as to why Orbán has been so loyal to Putin. The report presents three complementary explanations: (1) the traditional animosity Hungarian governments have shown toward Kyiv in the past three decades; (2) blaming the European Union and the pro-Ukraine Western alliance for economic hardship in Hungary; (3) endorsing Putin’s totalitarian turn in Russia to suggest that a similar course of political developments in Hungary is not excluded either. Worryingly, considerable institutional measures in the latter direction in the form of states of danger, continuously implemented since March 2020, have already been taken.

Keywords: Hungary, Ukraine, Viktor Orbán, authoritarian populism, autocratization, macroeconomic conditions.

 

 

By Zoltán Ádám* (Corvinus University of Budapest)

Context

At the time of writing (Spring 2023), Hungary has been under populist rule for 13 years, the longest of any European Union (EU) country. Soon after Viktor Orbán’s right-wing populist Fidesz party returned to power in 2010, Vladimir Putin’s Russia became a strategic ally for Hungary. Having played the sovereigntists card against Brussels and “the West” since the early 2010s, Orbán and his domestic allies have increasingly relied on China, Russia, and other autocratic regimes, such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkey, as sources of alternative economic and political support. For Orbán and Fidesz, this has been a rational political strategy, at least to some extent. They have sought to increase their room for political and economic manoeuvre concerning the EU, the IMF and the global financial markets, on which Hungary has long been dependent.

This political project has been contentious from the start. After all, Hungary — particularly the Hungarian Right — have long viewed Russia as an oppressive regional power and positioned themselves in opposition to Moscow. In 1848–49, Russian troops helped the Austrians put down a Hungarian uprising against Habsburg rule, ending hopes of an independent Magyar state. And while the Red Army liberated Hungary from the Far Right Arrow Cross regime under Nazi occupation during the Second World War, the Soviets troops did not withdraw, backing a local communist dictatorship against the wishes of the majority. Then, in 1956, Soviet troops intervened again when Hungarians took to the streets to champion freedom and independence. This historical litany has reinforced the notion that Russia (or the Soviet Union) was an irredeemably imperialist power intent on suppressing freedom in Central and Eastern Europe. With this historical context in mind, Orbán’s sympathy for Putin’s increasingly autocratic and oppressive regime since 2010 has been a somewhat surprising development.

Having said that, Orbán and Fidesz are certainly not the only pro-Russian populist voices on the European continent. From Alexis Tsipras in Greece and Marine Le Pen in France to Matteo Salvini in Italy and Donald Trump in the United States, a growing number of left- and right-wing populist leaders adopted pro-Russian views in the 2010s. Although the precise reasons for this are unclear (and may well include direct financial incentives), they most probably include admiration for power and the ability to rule without institutional constraints. In the Hungarian case, Fidesz has been joined by Jobbik, another Radical Right party established in 2003, in communicating positive sentiments towards Putin’s Russia. Jobbik was also probably financially supported by Moscow.[1]

When Orbán’s Fidesz was in opposition from 2002 to 2010, the party criticized Hungary’s succession of Socialist–Liberal governing coalitions for cultivating overly cordial relations with Moscow at the cost of Hungary’s Western orientation. In opposition, Fidesz was an active member of the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) in the European Parliament and cherished partnerships with right-wing parties abroad. Yet at the same time, Fidesz relentlessly played the sovereigntist card in domestic politics, something Orbán honed to a fine art, blaming Hungary’s government for “selling out” to Western interests before 2010. Fidesz also toyed with Eurosceptic rhetoric, and for some time, it was unclear whether or not Orbán genuinely backed Hungary’s EU accession in 2004.

Hence, by the time Fidesz and Orbán won a landslide victory in 2010 that handed them the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to amend the constitution, the ideological profile of Fidesz had become a mix of pro-EU Christian democratic, conservative, and Eurosceptic–sovereigntist views. After 2010, Orbán and his party moved progressively toward the European Radical Right, forging ties with Le Pen’s Front National, Salvini’s Lega and the Austrian Freedom Party. Today, Fidesz’s most important regional ally is PiS, the Polish governing party.

After a long, contentious, and drawn-out battle, Fidesz was finally expelled from EPP in 2021, and since then, Orbán has cemented his position as a senior Radical Right leader in the EU. And although none of his allies on the Radical Right—including Le Pen and Salvini—has been willing to openly support the Putin regime after February 2022, Orbán has doggedly maintained a pro-Russian stance. So the question arises as to what explains Orbán’s bold exceptionalism, which has inevitably alienated him (and his government) from his closest European allies, including, for example, PiS.

Authoritarian populism as political strategy

Orbán’s deviant geopolitical stance within the EU is undergirded by his rock-solid political base at home. This is not simply a result of his being exceptionally successful at preserving his power (Orbán is the longest-serving elected prime minister in Hungarian history, although two twentieth-century autocrats, Miklós Horthy and János Kádár, governed Hungary longer from other positions). Orbán can also rely on an exceptionally centralized, stable, and exclusionary system of political institutions partly inherited from the system established after Hungary’s transition to democracy in 1990 and partly developed by himself after 2010. This institutional architecture is organized around a government that the prime minister personally controls. The two-thirds majority Fidesz maintains in Hungary’s unicameral parliament has allowed it to pass constitutional amendments unconstrained and to stack the state institutions with party loyalists. The entire system of political institutions is vertically organized such that Orbán can orchestrate it in a top-down fashion. And Orbán has no viable competition either in Fidesz or in the opposition.

The opposition consists of a cluster of smaller, independent (and often ideologically opposed) parties, which unsuccessfully attempted to replace Fidesz in the 2022 elections by creating a joint electoral list and joint prime ministerial candidate. The extensive intra-party coordination that this required simply disintegrated after the failure to unseat Fidesz at the polls. It is unclear whether a similar joint opposition list and prime ministerial candidate will be created at the next elections. Currently, seven relatively small opposition parties are represented in parliament.[2] Most are politically ineffective and seen as increasingly redundant by the public.[3]

The difficulties of the opposition are exacerbated by the electoral system. Its underlying nature is majoritarian, as most parliamentary seats are gained in single-mandate constituencies (SMCs) through single-round, first-past-the-post elections. Winning a majority of these seats requires considerable financial and organizational resources at the national level that only large parties can hope to muster. However, smaller parties can enter parliament through party lists that provide proportional representation in a minority of parliamentary seats. Such an electoral system creates multiple equilibria for political parties: winning elections requires pooling large amounts of resources (high-level equilibrium), but having relatively few resources can also provide a viable entry into parliament without an effective chance of taking over the government (low-level equilibrium). As voters know this, they prefer to vote for parties seeking the high-level equilibrium, although few such parties are on offer on the opposition side.

This political-institutional architecture fits very well with authoritarian populism as a political strategy.[4] Reproducing the two-thirds parliamentary majority every four years through a customized electoral system, Orbán and his allies have gained popular legitimacy by using complete institutional control over Hungary’s political and economic resources to channel rewards in a clientelist manner. The wealthiest person in Hungary is a childhood friend of the prime minister, and all nationally important officeholders are his confidants. Actions of the governing coalition[5] are endorsed by a pliant mass media that is partly public and partly private. The bulk of this private media is controlled by government-friendly businesses, including the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA), a syndicate into which Fidesz-friendly private media entrepreneurs “voluntarily” transferred their media outlets in 2018.

Authoritarian populism as a political strategy is characterized by contesting competitive but unfair elections under highly skewed conditions (Ádám, 2018; Weyland, 2021). Waging these electoral battles, authoritarian populists typically employ exclusionary ideologies often associated with nationalism and anti-immigrant xenophobia, as well as anti-elitism in one form or another. Where authoritarian populists have been in power for some time (as in Hungary and Poland), anti-elitism is often oriented against powerful external political or economic actors, such as the EU, the IMF, the United States, or the global financial industry and especially one of its most active representatives, the Hungarian-born George Soros. Anti-elite rhetoric against all these actors is a Fidesz mainstay as it exploits fierce ingroup-outgroup dynamics in Hungary, which the party itself has largely cultivated for this very purpose. In this context, any salient political cleavage the government can establish to distinguish Hungary’s friends from its enemies is a powerful political tool. Such cleavages perpetually restructure the political space, and as the sole actor controlling the restructuring process in the media, Fidesz is able to reinforce its institutionally unlimited power symbolically.[6]

However, waging an actual war is a qualitatively different political strategy than employing a strategy of perpetual cleavage creation in ideological space. War can be, of course, also conceptualized as a cleavage, but its human and political consequences reach much further. In war (or in a war-type situation such as “special operations”), governments request unconditional cooperation from citizens justified by the need to defend the interests of the entire national community. Hence, war serves as an effective handmaiden for introducing totalitarian rule. However, once government power has become totalitarian, authoritarian populism ceases to exist and is replaced by outright dictatorship. Such a process started in Russia with the invasion of Crimea in 2014 and culminated in the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. By maintaining its alliance with Russia, the Orbán regime has endorsed Russia’s totalitarian turn as a legitimate course of action. In addition, by introducing and maintaining a legal state of danger, the administration has created extraordinary government powers in response to the war in Ukraine and presented a strategy of introducing openly autocratic rule to replace authoritarian populism.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine: A new turning point for the Orbán regime?

The year 2022: Elections and other challenges for the regime

In early 2022, Orbán and his lieutenants were preparing for yet another electoral battle, this time with a unified (and thus potentially more effective) opposition challenge than before. Economic difficulties, partly related to the COVID-19 crisis and Hungary’s exclusion from post-pandemic European development financing, saw the government’s electoral position deteriorate. Half a year before the April 2022 parliamentary elections, the united opposition was on par with Fidesz in opinion polls. The regime responded to the challenge using its usual arsenal, but this time went even further than before in providing economic incentives for the pro-government vote: aggressive anti-opposition discourse in mass propaganda, broad-based tax reductions, and pension hikes (Ádám & Csaba, 2022). And then came the Russian invasion of Ukraine five weeks before Hungary’s April 3 elections.

The invasion fundamentally changed the political trajectory of the Orbán regime. Right from the beginning, the regime clearly sided with Russia and aligned its messaging with pro-Russian propaganda. Why did they do so? The reasons are not immediately clear, as a pro-Russian position carries substantial political costs for the regime. But the results are all too apparent. Orbán and his allies have found themselves increasingly isolated in the EU and, perhaps even more importantly, also within the group of Central and Eastern European member states. Hungary became a near pariah in the West after siding with the oppressor of the East, betraying all values – and interests – of humanity, freedom, and democracy.

Isolation and international humiliation have seen Hungary’s economic position deteriorate as well. A large part of Hungary’s EU development financing as part of the so-called Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) has been suspended and is now dependent on Hungary implementing anti-corruption measures (an unprecedented decision in EU history). At the same time, the Hungarian forint weakened on currency markets, inflation soared (and became the highest in the EU by the turn of 2022/23), the refinancing costs of Hungarian public debt increased, and Hungarian credit ratings were downgraded. Without firm EU backing, Hungary has become the member state most vulnerable to the global economic crisis, triggered by ultra-expansionary fiscal and monetary policies globally, the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, and the effects of the current war.

As a communication strategy, the government has been trying to shift the blame for all economic difficulties to the EU, claiming that the sanctions against Russia are responsible for high inflation, volatile markets and weak output. Orbán has resorted to his go-to strategy of orchestrating a so-called “National Consultation” (essentially, a direct marketing campaign posted out to Hungarian households seeking their opinions on highly manipulative questions) backed by government-sponsored mass advertising campaigns claiming Brussels is “bombarding” peaceful countries. The government proudly reported that 97% of respondents (which, in the particular case, meant 1.4 million people in a country of about 8 million eligible voters) returned their postal surveys agreeing with the government’s position of criticising EU economic sanctions on Russia.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine also played a role in reinforcing Fidesz’s dominant political position in the electoral campaign. The Fidesz strategy portrayed the united democratic opposition as a pro-Ukraine camp that would drag Hungary into war with Russia. Of course, no opposition candidate suggested that Hungary should enter the war, but some of them, including the joint prime ministerial candidate, Péter Márki-Zay, voiced the view that Hungary should be part of the Western alliance supporting Ukraine. Yet, this was more than enough for the Fidesz propaganda machine to portray them as war hawks endangering the peace and integrity of Hungary. Public opinion data suggest that the government communication strategy was successful: the majority of the electorate, even most of those with pro-opposition and anti-Orbán views, internalized the government-stirred anxiety about the war and wanted to see Hungary remaining neutral and distancing itself from the conflict.

Although opinion polling on wars is notoriously unreliable because polling data itself becomes part of disinformation campaigns, it seems that Hungary has indeed become an outlier in terms of pro-Russian views and reservations about the rectitude and rationality of Western political and military support for Ukraine. In June-July 2022, the Prague-based Free Press for Eastern Europe surveyed internet users’ views on the Russian invasion of Ukraine in six Central and East European (CEE) member states of the EU: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia.[7] This was cited in the Hungarian press, including the leading Hungarian opposition website Telex, whose English-language edition observed, “46% of Hungarian internet users were moderately pro-Russian, 31% strongly pro-Russian, 8% completely pro-Russian and only 15% pro-Ukrainian” (Aradi & Horváth Kávai, 2022). In another online publication that covered the survey in November 2022, Átlátszó, it was revealed that according to 36% of Hungarian respondents, Ukraine should have surrendered to Russia, the highest ratio in the six countries surveyed. The corresponding ratios in the other five CEE countries were between 8% (Poland) and 32% (Bulgaria).

Meanwhile, 34% of Hungarian respondents said the EU should not intervene in the war. The corresponding ratios in the other five CEE countries were between 2% (Poland) and 28% (Bulgaria) (Pete, 2022). Although these figures look broadly reasonable, the survey was conducted online, and information on it is not available on the FPEE website. (Átlátszó presumably covered the survey in November because its coverage was linked to the November 15 conference of FPEE. According to the FPEE website, the conference took place, but little further information on its content is provided.)

Another relevant public opinion survey was conducted by the pro-government think-tank Századvég which published opinion data in October 2022. In this, Századvég proudly proclaims that “nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of Hungarians believe that the United States of America and Joe Biden are more in favour of continuing the Russian-Ukraine way, which is likely related to the fact that the actions and statements of the US president do not contribute to the promotion of peace deal but to the further escalation of the conflict,” (Századvég, 2022).

Századvég, like most pro-government think tanks, pseudo-autonomous civil society organizations and media outlets, engages in notoriously one-sided political discussions to endorse government views. In this context, public opinion data serves explicit political interests. Yet, what they stress and how they formulate arguments provide accurate information on the structure of government propaganda in terms of which arguments are supposed to resonate most with the sentiments of the pro-government electorate.

An (un)easy alliance: Explanations for siding with the aggressor

Why do Orbán and his domestic followers side so resolutely with Putin? There appear to be three roughly equally important explanatory factors. First, Orbán and his friends believe that Hungary is not interested in taking sides in the war. They consider Russian dominance over an institutionally weak Ukraine to be better from a Hungarian point of view than a strategically reinforced, militarily strong Ukraine. In the past three decades, most Hungarian governments have had a degree of animosity towards Ukraine as most Kyiv governments were not particularly respectful of Hungarian minority rights in Transcarpatia. At an early stage of the invasion, some might have even assumed that Hungary had territorial claims against Ukraine when the Russian government was seen to be signalling potential support for such Hungarian ambitions. This was, however, unlikely to become actual Hungarian government policy unless Ukraine completely disintegrated as a consequence of the war.

Secondly, by siding with Putin and against the EU and the entire Western alliance, Orbán can tactically remain on the offensive, blaming EU sanctions and Western policies for sustaining Ukrainian self-defence in an armed conflict, ostensibly imposing economic costs on the entire region. This is particularly advantageous for Orbán at a time of increasing economic hardship on the home front. Blaming the EU and the Western alliance backing Ukraine can reorient some of the Hungarian population’s disenchantment toward “Brussels”. A recurring argument in this context, often endorsed by opinion leaders in the anti-capitalist Radical Left is that supporting Ukraine and extending the borders of NATO to the east serves Western economic and strategic interests and the ‘real stake’ of the war is not Ukrainian (or European) freedom but rather who dominates global capitalism: the United States and its Western allies, or China, Russia, and other emerging economies?

Such an “anti-war” or “pacifist” left-wing disposition is, of course, a usual stance internationally, often appearing at the fringes of the mainstream centre-left, primarily in Western Europe. One example in the Hungarian context is Antal (2023), who presents this disposition in the Hungarian case and criticizes both the “pro-war”, “militaristic” opposition that adopts the West’s pro-Ukraine views uncritically and the government position endorsing Russian imperialism. A meaningful left-wing political response to the war in Ukraine, Antal claims, should create political space between these “two extremes”, but he fails to explain how ”anti-war pacificism” should take on an actual war machine in operation in Ukraine. Hence, in effect, his argumentation reinforces the government’s allegedly “pro-peace” position to the war.

Thirdly and perhaps most worryingly, Orbán’s pro-Russian stance can be interpreted in a way that Orbán uses Putin’s regime as an implicit reference for totalitarian power, as a kind of proxy for his own potentially implemented outright autocracy. Putin decided to escalate the low-profile armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine that had started in 2014 with the Russian annexation of Crimea into an open invasion against Kyiv in February 2022. Military experts agree that the Russians made several strategic mistakes at the beginning of the war, mainly by underestimating the strength of Ukrainian resistance. However, Putin’s most important aim might not have been overthrowing Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s pro-EU government and making Ukraine a Russian vassal state but reinforcing his grip on power back home.

Before the war, Putin had a semi-institutionalized domestic opposition. He attempted to kill (and subsequently jailed) his strongest political opponent, Alexei Navalny, whose organization was able to mobilize tens of thousands of people across Russia in anti-regime demonstrations amidst a generally declining economic situation and growing isolation from the West that has increasingly alienated the middle classes from the regime.[8] However, the assault on Ukraine started a new chapter in Russian history. War means totalitarian rule. No institutionalized opposition operates during war. Everybody is subordinated to the government that rules in martial law-like conditions.

Putin, of course, has provided powerful economic incentives for like-minded political groups and regimes worldwide in the past two decades for being his allies, and the Orbán regime was no exception. Relatively cheap Russian oil and gas and the multi-billion-euro extension of the Paks nuclear power station were the most critical goods Orbán traded with Putin, which he used economically and politically. Putin became a regular guest in Budapest in the 2010s, and Orbán grew to be his most reliable ally in the EU, extending their friendship to the post-February 2022 period. However, the most important reason that Putin and his regime became popular among the worshippers of Orbán (just as he did among the worshippers of Trump in the United States) is not the economic benefits Russia had been able to provide for its allies until anti-Russian sanctions were switched into full gear by the EU. Instead, it is the cult of total power that Putin and his regime exercise.

There are important parallels in domestic political conditions for Orbán to those of Putin, albeit in a different international context and at a considerably higher level of democratization. Economic conditions have been deteriorating in past years (Ádám & Csaba, 2022), and Hungary faces a grim outlook with negligible (or outright negative) economic growth in 2023. Annual average inflation is forecast to stay above 15%, real wages to fall, and the rising refinancing costs of public debt are likely to force budgetary cuts.[9] Meanwhile, due to political radicalization and growing international isolation, important middle-class groups have started to distance themselves electorally from the government in past years. The Fidesz electorate has become increasingly rural and lower educated.

At the October 2019 municipal elections, most urban areas (cities of several tens of thousands of inhabitants and more, Budapest districts, and Budapest as a whole) were electorally dominated by candidates of the united opposition. At the April 2022 parliamentary elections, the united opposition won all but one of the 18 SMCs in Budapest. This was the first time since the foundation of parliamentary democracy in 1990 that the SMCs in the richest Buda parts of the city — the country’s most affluent and educated — were not carried by the dominant right-wing party. According to an April 2022 poll by Median, a leading independent public opinion polling agency, the level of education was the most important determinant of electoral choice: the lower educated were more inclined to vote for Fidesz across types of settlements. As better-educated voters typically inhabited more urbanized areas, they tended to vote less for Fidesz (Median, 2022).

Importantly, the mechanism the lower educated are typically affiliated to Fidesz is rather economic than ideological: having survived the 2008–10 economic crisis under center-left governance, a large part of the lower-middle and working classes learnt that they were better off under a right-wing administration (Róna et al., 2020). Hence, deteriorating economic conditions – the most serious economic challenge for the Orbán regime since its inception in 2010 – threatened the gradual alienation of relatively poorer, lesser-educated, rural parts of the electorate, on which Fidesz has become increasingly dependent in past years. This is the conundrum Orbán needs to solve, and one apparent political solution is growing autocratization.

Putin’s aggression, in fact, was not only ideologically approved by Orbán, but his regime has used it as an opportunity for further institutionalizing autocracy. Importantly, Hungary has been governed by special legal regimes called “states of danger” since March 2020, when the first was introduced due to COVID-19, enabling the government to overrule acts of parliament and replace them with government decrees. The state of danger has also constrained the economic powers of local municipalities and some of the citizens’ basic freedoms, including the freedom to assemble and free expression – back then as measures were taken against the pandemic (Ádám, 2020). In May 2022, the state of danger due to COVID-19 was terminated, but at the very same time, another state of danger due to an armed conflict in a neighbouring state was introduced.[10] Effectively, this implies that outright autocracy can be introduced whenever Orbán decides so.

Conclusions

This chapter tried to shed light on the dynamics of political exposure to the Russian invasion of Ukraine for the Orbán regime. First, I explained why it was a surprising political move by Orbán to side with Putin already well before the invasion, since the early 2010s. Secondly, I discussed authoritarian populism as a political strategy defining the Orbán regime and argued that it was incompatible with the totalitarian rule that autocratic governments exercise during open military conflict. In the first part of the third section, I presented the general conditions among which the regime operated in 2022, including the challenge of a united opposition at the April 2022 parliamentary elections and the deteriorating economic situation, exacerbated by the EU stance of withholding Hungarian development funding that the government could otherwise rely on as part of the RRF. These developments provide context for the situation in which the regime found itself during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The question is why Orbán has sided with Putin since the first moment of the war and has continued supporting the aggressor despite the considerable economic and political costs of international isolation.

My answer was threefold. First, I argued that Orbán and his allies believe that a Ukrainian victory in the war is no better for Hungary than reinforced Russian domination over Ukraine would be. Traditional animosity between Budapest and Kyiv and the particular logic of regional power games may have been instrumental in formulating this policy stance in Budapest. Secondly, and probably more importantly, by siding with Russia, Orbán could stay on the offensive, appreciating the relative, short-term value of his consent to European and NATO policies and blaming the EU and the pro-Ukraine Western alliance for domestic economic difficulties. Thirdly and most worryingly, supporting Putin in the conflict meant the approval of his totalitarian turn at home. By endorsing the Russian invasion of Ukraine and blaming the EU and NATO for not letting Ukraine fall, Orbán politically suggests that he could take a similar totalitarian turn were authoritarian populism as a pseudo-democratic strategy for maintaining his rule to become untenable. He knows that what he claims about the distribution of responsibilities among Russia, Ukraine, and the West would not convince the majority of voters at fair elections and that pushing back against the EU at the cost of losing EU development funds and, potentially, access for other EU cooperation schemes[11] would not sell well politically. What Orbán does against these conditions is a bet on a disintegrating Western alliance behind Ukraine and a weakening EU that itself shifts to the Radical Right, giving room for further autocratization in Hungary, and the potential emergence of the EU’s first outright autocracy. The fact that Hungarians have been living under special legal regimes called “states of danger”, enabling practically unlimited government power since March 2020, underscores the feasibility of this alternative.

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(*) Zoltán Ádám is associate professor at the Institute of Economics at Corvinus University of Budapest, Hungary, where he teaches courses in economics and political economy. He holds a PhD in economics from Debrecen University, an MPhil in Political Science from Central European University, and a Masters in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School. His research focuses on the political economy of institutional change, referencing the post-communist transition in Central and Eastern Europe and the rise of authoritarian populism in CEE and elsewhere. Earlier, he was College Teacher in East European Economics at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London and Visiting Scholar at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University. Most recently, in February-March 2023, he worked as Visiting Scholar at the Department of Economics of Freie Universität Berlin’s Institute for East European Studies. Email: zoltan.adam@uni-corvinus.hu


References

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Ádám, Z. (2020). Ultra‐orthodoxy and selective voluntarism: How did the Orbán regime react to the first wave of the pandemic? European Policy Analysis, 6(2), 277–292. https://doi.org/10.1002/epa2.1103

Ádám, Z., & Csaba, I. (2022). Populism unrestrained: Policy responses of the Orbán regime to the pandemic in 2020–2021. European Policy Analysis, 8(3), 277–296. https://doi.org/10.1002/epa2.1157

Antal, A. (2023, February 2). A béke lehetetlensége. Mérce. https://merce.hu/2023/02/02/a-beke-lehetetlensege/

Aradi, H.Zs., & Horváth Kávai, A. (2022, September 23). According to a recent survey, almost half of Hungarian internet users may be moderately pro-Russian. Telex. https://telex.hu/english/2022/09/23/propaganda-at-work-almost-half-of-hungarian-internet-users-moderately-pro-russian

Bohle, D. (2018, June 8). Hegemonic right and defeated left: lessons from Hungary’s drift to authoritarianism. The Progressive Post. https://progressivepost.eu/hegemonic-right-defeated-left-lessons-hungarys-drift-authoritarianism/

Kim, S. (2018, April 8). Hungary before the Elections: Understanding the Hegemony Project of Fidesz. WZB Democray Blog. https://democracy.blog.wzb.eu/2018/04/06/hungary-before-the-elections-understanding-the-hegemony-project-of-fidesz/

Median. (2022, April 27). Közhely, hogy a választási eredmények látványosan összefüggenek az ország településszerkezetével: a fővárostól a kisebb települések felé haladva egyre nagyobb a Fidesz-KDNP fölénye [Image attached] [Status update]. Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/median.hu/posts/3275767629335146

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Pete, L. (2022, November 25). Kelet-Közép-Európában a magyarok a leginkább ororsz pártiak és EU-szekptikusok egy közvélemény-kutatás szerint. Átlátszó. https://atlatszo.hu/adat/2022/11/25/kozep-kelet-europaban-a-magyarok-a-leginkabb-oroszpartiak-es-eu-szkeptikusok-egy-kozvelemenykutatas-szerint/

Róna, D., Galgóczy, E., Pétervári, J., Szeitl, B., & Túry, M. (2020). The Fidesz Party’s Secret to Success: Investigating Economic Voting in Hungary. Budapest: 21 Research Center. https://21kutatokozpont.hu/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Main_Secret_Fidesz_Success_final-2.pdf

Sebők, M. & Simons, J. (2022). How Orbán won? Neoliberal disenchantment and the grand strategy of financial nationalism to reconstruct capitalism and regain autonomy. Socio-Economic Review, Vol. 20, No. 4, pp. 1625-1651. doi: 10.1093/ser/mwab052 

Századvég. (2022, October 27). The majority of Hungarians are calling for a ceasefire and peace talks. https://szazadveg.hu/en/2022/10/27/the-majority-of-hungarians-are-calling-for-a-ceasefire-and-peace-talks~n3301

Seres, L. (2017, May 24). Német leleplezés: Orbán-párti orosz oligarcha pénzelte a Jobbikot?. hvg.hu. https://hvg.hu/itthon/20170524_Uzovszkij_orosz_oligarcha_finanszirozas_nacionalistak_Jobbik_Magyar_Garda

Weyland, K. (2001). Clarifying a Contested Concept: Populism in the Study of Latin American Politics. Comparative Politics, Vol. 34, No. 1 (October), pp. 1-22

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Footnotes

[1] See, for instance, Seres (2017).

[2] The largest opposition party, centre left Demokratikus Koalíció (DK), currently has 15 seats (7.5%) in the 199-member Parliament.

[3] For opinion polls on party preferences, see: https://kozvelemenykutatok.hu/ 

[4] Populism as a political strategy as opposed to political discourse or ideology is classically conceptualized by Weyland (2001, p. 14): “populism is best defined as a political strategy through which a personalistic leader seeks or exercises government power based on direct, unmediated, uninstitutionalized support from large numbers of mostly unorganized followers.”

[5] Formally, the two-third majority of parliament is held by a coalition of two parties: Fidesz and the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP). The latter, however, is a satellite party of the former: it does not have separate party lists at elections and nor does it represent any separate political alternative to Fidesz on its own right. However, in contrast to Fidesz, KDNP has remained a member party of EPP after Fidesz’ expulsion in 2021 and is still represented in the European Parliament’s EPP group by one MEP.

[6] For further discussions on the interplay between exercising symbolic and ’actual’ power – i.e., the way the effective power monopoly of Fidesz is symbolically reinforced –, see Bohle (2018), Kim (2018), and Sebők & Simons (2022).

[7] According to their website, “Free Press for Eastern Europe (FPEE) is a non-for-profit organisation registered in Prague, Czech Republic, in April 2016. It is supported by the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs Transition Promotion Program. Our mission is to support independent media and journalism in Central and Eastern Europe and beyond” (https://www.fpee.info/about).

[8] Putin’s approval rate in December 2021 according to the Moscow-based Levada Center (https://www.levada.ru/en/ratings/) was 65%, as high as in January 2014, a month before Russia’s annexation of Crimea (His disapproval rates were 34% in both periods). Starting an armed conflict saw his approval rates jump above 80% (and lowered his disapproval rate to under 20%).

[9] In its November 2022 economic outlook for Hungary, the European Commission forecast 0.1% economic growth and 15.7% average annual inflation for 2023 (https://economy-finance.ec.europa.eu/economic-surveillance-eu-economies/hungary/economic-forecast-hungary_en).

[10] In fact, the very same issue of the official bulletin Magyar Közlöny (85/2022) on May 24 contained government decrees repealing the state of danger due to COVID19 and introducing a new one in response to the armed conflict and humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine. On the dubious constitutionality of the second state of danger as a special legal regime, see Mészáros (2022).

[11] In December 2022, the Council of the EU requested the exclusion of most Hungarian universities from the EU’s Erasmus student and lecturer exchange program as well as from HorizonEurope research cooperation schemes. The reason for the Council’s decision was the lack of academic autonomy at formerly state-owned Hungarian universities that had been taken over by newly created foundations, in which government officials and other regime confidants became government-appointed members of board of trustees with unlimited tenures.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni during visit in the Bucha and Irpin, towns close to Kyiv, Ukraine on February 21, 2023. Photo: Shutterstock.

Italy’s multiple populisms facing the Russo-Ukrainian war

Biancalana, Cecilia. (2023). “Italy’s multiple populisms facing the Russo-Ukrainian war.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0022

 

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Abstract

Italy has been defined as a laboratory for populism and a “populist paradise.” Indeed, multiple forms of populism coexist in Italy, covering the entire political spectrum. From the “left-wing” Movimento 5 Stelle to the right-wing coalition composed of Fratelli d’Italia, Forza Italia and the Lega, we can be sure that populism is very popular in Italy. We can be equally sure that, over the last few years, all these parties have had links to the Putin regime. Suffice it to mention the decades-long friendship between Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin or the admiration Matteo Salvini, the head of the Lega, has demonstrated for the president of the Russian Federation. However, the Russian invasion and the extensive popular and institutional support evinced for Ukraine in its wake changed everything, leaving populist parties scrambling to review their positions and modify their discourse. In the report, I will examine the ties between the main Italian populist parties (Fratelli d’Italia, Forza Italia, Lega, Movimento 5 Stelle) and Russia and the shifts in their positions towards President Putin in the aftermath of the invasion. Against this backdrop, the September 2022 elections in Italy can be considered as a “test case” to measure the success of the populist parties’ strategies to negotiate the crisis and to shed light on the changing balance of power within the broad populist field.

Keywords: Italy; Fratelli d’Italia; Lega; Berlusconi; Movimento 5 Stelle.

 

 

By Cecilia Biancalana* (University of Turin)

Italy as a “populist paradise”

Italy has always been considered a Petrie dish for the study of populism, earning it the rubric of the “laboratory of populism” (Tarchi, 2015). A range of types and forms of populism coexist in Italy. The leading manifestations today are the Fratelli d’Italia (“Brothers of Italy,” FdI), Lega (“the League”), Forza Italia (“Forward Italy,” FI), and the Movimento 5 Stelle (“Five Star Movement,” M5S). Together, these four populist parties garnered 59.2% of the vote in the September 2022 election, attesting to the electoral strength of populism in Italy today. During the election campaign—which took place after the collapse of a two-year grand coalition government that all the populist parties (except for FdI) participated in—the FdI, Lega, and FI campaigned jointly and stormed home to a decisive victory.

The FdI was founded in 2012 but follows the tradition of the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), a neo-fascist party founded in 1946 by supporters of the former dictator Benito Mussolini. The FdI made its electoral breakthrough in the 2022 elections, where it obtained 26% and got to the government for the first time, under the leadership of Giorgia Meloni. The party promotes an extreme right-wing ideology based on the Fascist motto “Dio, Patria, Famiglia” (“God, Homeland, Family”). It defends a homogeneous people against everything considered different: e.g., LGBT people and immigrants (especially from Islamic countries). In the same way, it defends national sovereignty against supranational integration, even though its opposition to the European Union can be considered “soft.” It is worth noting that the FdI belongs to the more moderate ECR group in the European Parliament.

Lega, which before December 2017 was known as Lega Nord (the Northern League), was founded in 1991. During the first phase of its existence, it was a regionalist party (Bulli & Tronconi, 2011) that displayed intense ethno-chauvinism vis-à-vis the southern parts of Italy and sought to champion the interests of the north against central political institutions. Since the election of Matteo Salvini as party secretary in 2013, Lega’s hostility to immigration has moved to the foreground. Furthermore, Salvini has forged links with parties of the populist Right, such as France’s Rassemblement National (“National Rally,” RN), with which he shares a form of euro-scepticism and hostility towards the common European currency. 

Silvio Berlusconi’s party Forza Italia was founded in December 1993 after the Tangentopoli corruption scandals, in which judicial investigations revealed an extensive network of kickbacks for government contracts involving billions of dollars and thousands of officials, which rocked Italy’s political establishment. FI took part in the general elections of March 1994, garnering 21% of the vote and joining the first right-wing coalition in office in Italy since the Second World War. From that moment on, Berlusconi became a permanent fixture of Italian politics. Berlusconi is generally positioned as an example of “right-wing populism” (Fella & Ruzza, 2013). A billionaire media mogul, he entered politics as the consummate “outsider,” leveraging his television stations to address his appeals to “the people” in a mode that foreshadowed Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra and Donald J Trump in the United States. In this telling, Berlusconi cast himself as the only true channel of the voice of ordinary Italians (the “common people”).

While there is broad agreement that M5S is a populist outfit, its classification as left-wing is contested (Ivaldi, Lanzone & Woods, 2017; Mosca & Tronconi, 2019). The M5S was founded in October 2009 by the former comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo. The party made its electoral breakthrough in the 2013 general elections, winning 25% of the vote. Support for the M5S was fuelled by the economic crisis and the de-legitimization of the parties, which allowed Grillo’s party to dislodge the bipolar dynamic that had characterized the Italian Second Republic, winning voters across the whole political spectrum (Colloca & Marangoni, 2017). In the 2018 general election, the M5S won the plurality, taking 32.8 % of the vote. It joined the national government as part of a populist governing coalition with Salvini’s Lega. In power, the M5S experienced for the first time the constraints of holding office and the need to challenge some of the internal traits it had championed as a long-standing oppositional movement (Bordignon & Ceccarini, 2019). When the governing coalition collapsed, the M5S partnered with the leftist Partito Democratico (PD) to form a new government. From 2021 to 2022, the party also participated in the technocratic grand coalition government led by Mario Draghi.

Over the last few years, all these parties have had relationships, including formal links, with Putin’s regime. What are the populist parties’ relationships with Putin’s Russia? How did their positions change after the outbreak of the war? The remainder of the report is organized as follows. After sketching the historical background of the relationship between Italy and Russia, I will examine how the positions of the four main Italian populist parties towards Russia and President Putin shifted in the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine. In the last section, I will comment on the results of the national election in September 2022. The election can be considered a “test case” to measure the success of the populist parties’ strategies to negotiate the crisis and to shed light on the changing balance of power within the broad populist field.

Italy and Russia: Dangerous liaisons

Italian populists have long been attracted by Vladimir Putin’s sovereigntism (an ideology that foregrounds efforts to maintain a nation or political community’s sovereign independence). This, in part, reflects a historical ambivalence towards Italy’s post-Second World War security arrangements. Indeed, although for different reasons, parties across the political spectrum have been sceptical of Italy’s close ties with the United States and its membership in NATO. Pro-Russian feelings and hostility towards the United States persist on the Far Left. And even if vehement anti-communism saw the Italian Right oppose the USSR during the Cold War, this did not translate into enthusiastic support for the United States.

Nowadays, there are two main reasons that Italian populists admire Putin’s Russia. First, it is a matter of economic self-interest. Italy imports large quantities of Russian oil. Furthermore, companies in the country’s north, the historical stronghold of right-wing parties, have firm ties with Russia. Second, there is a cultural reason, a sort of elective affinity between the Russian leader and the populist parties. Populists see in Putin the figure of a powerful and authoritarian leader, able to decide and act quickly without the constraints of the checks and balances of liberal democracy. Moreover, while left-wing populist parties have cast their support for contemporary Russia as part of an anti-establishment stance, right-wing populist parties appreciate his defence of Christian values and his opposition to Islamism. Finally, they share criticism towards the European Union and other supranational bodies, which are said to weaken national sovereignty.

However, the Russian invasion and the extensive popular and institutional support evinced for Ukraine in its wake have compelled Italy’s populist parties to review their positions and modify their discourse.

The reactions of the four populist parties to the war

Giorgia Meloni and Fratelli d’Italia: Instrumentalizing the war as electoral strategy

Historically, the Italian Far Right adopted a broadly Atlanticist posture, even though this coexisted with an impulse to promote a “third way” between the United States and the Soviet Union. In recent years, the second instinct has proved more prevalent, with Giorgia Meloni — the FdI leader and current prime minister of Italy— repeatedly praising Putin. For example, on the occasion of Putin’s re-election as president in 2018, Meloni wrote on Facebook that “the will of the people in Russian elections appears unequivocal” (Meloni 2018). FdI also condemned the economic sanctions imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea in 2014 as against the Italian national interest.

Nevertheless, of all the parties in the Italian party system, FdI is the least compromised in terms of links to Russia. Indeed, after the outbreak of the war, Meloni firmly condemned the invasion and backed moves to welcome Ukrainian refugees. Moreover, in the run-up to the 2022 elections, which her party was expected to win, Meloni tried to distance the FdI from the positions of its electoral partners (i.e., Lega and FI, see below). Meloni’s aim in this regard was to cast herself before a domestic and international audience as a credible future leader and institutional player. For instance, the party supported government initiatives in favour of Ukraine, including the supply of weapons, even when it was in opposition.

The controversial position of the Lega

Salvini has long admired Putin. In March 2015, he declared, “I believe that Russia is much more democratic than the European Union” (“Salvini, Russia molto più democratica dell’Ue”, 2015). That November, he appeared before the European Parliament wearing a t-shirt[1] bearing the face of Putin and declared: “I would exchange two of Mattarella [Italy’s then-president] for half a Putin!” (Salvini 2015). Then, in March 2018, he tweeted encouragement to Russian voters ahead of presidential elections to cast a ballot for Putin, whom he described as “one of the best politicians of our era” (Salvini 2018).

This admiration has three grounds, one cultural (the elective affinity between populists and Putin), one economic (defending Italian commercial interests, especially those of industrial firms in the Italian north with significant Russian business)[2] and one related to international partnerships. Moreover, Salvini’s connections to Marine Le Pen (they belong to the same populist, Eurosceptic group in the European Parliament) reflect a distinct network of Far Right ties to the Putin regime inside the EU.

Indeed, the relationship between Lega and Russia reflects not merely affinity and mutual appreciation but clear and formal institutional linkages. For instance, in March 2017, the Lega signed a confidential cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia Party. This was part of the Russian attempt to strengthen institutional links with European populist parties. There is also an ongoing investigation into alleged illegal party financing from Russia.

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine unfolded, Lega was in government as part of the technocratic administration led by Mario Draghi since 2021. Despite his former public statements in support of Putin, in the aftermath of the invasion, Salvini wrote that “The League firmly condemns any military aggression, the hope is an immediate stop to the violence. Support to Draghi for a common response of the allies” (“Ucraina: Salvini, Lega condanna ogni aggressione militare”, 2022). During an interview with Bloomberg in September 2022, Salvini declared: “My opinion about Putin has indeed changed amid the war, because when someone starts invading, bombing, sending tanks into another country, well, everything changes” (Lepido, Albanese, & Eberhart 2022). Moreover, the party voted for fresh sanctions against Russia and to send weapons to Ukraine, although party leaders expressed scepticism at sanctions arguing they would harm the Italian economy. As for his notorious hostility to people seeking asylum in Italy, Salvini squared the circle by defining Ukrainians as “genuine” refugees (Salvini, Ucraini sono veri profughi, non quelli col telefonino, 2022).

Berlusconi and Putin: The once and future friendship?

Silvio Berlusconi has a long friendship with Putin, which began during the media mogul’s second stint as prime minister from 2001–06. In 2003, Berlusconi excused Russia’s brutal crackdown in Chechnya as “an anti-terrorist operation” (“Berlusconi difende Putin e attacca la stampa”, 2003). The two first met at the G8 summit in Genoa in 2001. They met again in the following years, not only in their capacities as heads of government but on a personal basis, often appearing together in public and exchanging expensive gifts. In 2010, Berlusconi declared Putin “a gift from the Lord,” (Lombardozzi 2010) and in 2019, Putin returned the favour, describing Berlusconi as “a politician of world stature” (De Feo 2019) In 2015, after the annexation of Crimea, Berlusconi visited Sebastopol with Putin.

Apart from their friendship and a shared self-identity as “strongmen in command,” the relationship between the two is also a matter of economics and diplomacy. Concerning the former, in 2005, Berlusconi’s government prepared an agreement that would have allowed the Russian company Gazprom to resell Russian gas directly to Italian consumers. On the diplomatic front, Berlusconi helped to broker a set of agreements between Russia and NATO after a 2002 summit held in Rome, which created the now-defunct NATO-Russia Council and is considered the high point of relations between Russia and the West.

Immediately after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Berlusconi tried to say as little as possible about Putin and did not explicitly condemn the invasion. Only in April 2022 did he say that he was “deeply disappointed and saddened” (Berlusconi alla convention di Forza Italia: “Deluso da Putin. A Bucha crimini di guerra. Spetta a Mosca far tacere le armi”, 2022) by Putin’s behaviour. However, despite the words of criticism, his position remained at first ambiguous. In September 2022, in a TV interview, he said that Putin “was pushed to do this special operation in Ukraine” to “replace the Zelensky government with decent people” (Ucraina, Berlusconi: ‘Putin spinto a inventarsi l’operazione speciale’, 2022) In October, in a leaked audio, he said that he had “reconnected” with President Putin (Berlusconi: ‘Ho riallacciato i rapporti con Putin’. Poi smentisce. LaPresse pubblica audio, 2022). Finally, in February 2023, after a meeting between Meloni and Zelensky, Berlusconi attacked Zelensky, saying that he would have never met him, causing political embarrassment within the coalition (“Berlusconi: ‘Da premier non sarei mai andato da Zelensky’”, 2023).

The Movimento 5 Stelle: Peace, but not at any price

The M5S has its roots in Italy’s leftist social movements (Biancalana, 2020), which were drawn to Grillo’s unvarnished defence of democracy and human rights. Indeed, when Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in 2006, Grillo wrote that “Russia is a democracy based on exporting gas and oil. If they didn’t export that, they would go back to being the good old dictatorship of earlier times” (Kirchgaessner 2017). However, the positions of the M5S changed over time, and the party started expressing sympathies for Russia.

For the M5S, Russia appeared to exemplify a robust opposition to the United States and the EU, both of which have been perceived in the movement as harmful to Italy’s national interests. Mirroring the long-standing M5S slogan that it is “beyond Left and Right,” the M5S tried after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 to position itself “beyond Russia and the United States.” In September 2014, Grillo wrote in a blog post that “the M5S is not pro-Russian or pro-American; it is pro-Italian” (Movimento 5 stelle 2014). In reality, with the institutionalization of the party in government and following Russia’s attempt to create links with successful European populist parties, the positions of Grillo—and some of the party’s MPs—became increasingly pro-Putin. For example, M5S condemned the European sanctions imposed on Moscow after the annexation of Crimea. In an interview in 2017, Grillo stated that “Putin is the one who says the most reasonable things about foreign policy. The embargo against Russia costs us €7 billion a year. We are in favour of lifting the sanctions against Moscow” (Picardi 2017). The domestic economic effects of sanctions were likely driving Grillo’s rhetoric, which is clearly focused on the “national interest.” After the 2018 elections, the M5S formed a government with the Lega, which took a similar approach to the Italian national interest, especially concerning trade and economics.

Grillo made no public statement after the February 2022 invasion, although the new head of the party, Giuseppe Conte, condemned it. As part of the Draghi government, the M5S voted for sanctions and to send weapons (albeit expressing doubts about the efficacy and effect on Italy). Finally, in the summer of 2022, a split emerged in the party after an internal campaign to push for an end to Italian weapons supplies to Ukraine, which Conte backed. Luigi Di Maio, the more Atlanticist minister of foreign affairs at the time, left the party saying that “we are compelled to choose which side to take at this moment in history — with the victim Ukraine or the aggressor Russia,” (“Di Maio lascia i 5Stelle: ‘Bisogna scegliere da che parte stare della storia. Alcuni dirigenti hanno rischiato di indebolire l’Italia’”, 2022) and later blamed Conte for “falling for Putin’s propaganda” (Messa 2022). The M5S, currently in opposition to the Draghi government, now opposes sending weapons to Ukraine, a return to its traditional pacifist orientation, which it shares with the Far Left in Italy.

The September 2022 elections: A test case for Italian populist parties

In July 2022 Draghi’s technocratic coalition administration fell apart, triggering early elections in September 2022. Lega, the FdI and FI campaigned on a joint ticket and formed a coalition in government. The FdI topped the polls with 26% of the vote, while Lega and FI won 8.7% and 8.1%, respectively. As a result, an entirely new balance of power within the right-wing coalition has emerged. In the previous elections in 2018, Lega garnered 17.3% against 14% for FI and 4.3% for FdI. For its part, M5S’s share of the vote declined from 32.7% to 15.4%. We cannot say that the results depended exclusively on the parties’ positions on the war. However, the issue of Ukraine certainly played some role in voters’ minds.

Concerning public opinion, Italians generally blame Russia for the invasion and express support for Ukraine (80% of citizens say they favour welcoming Ukrainian refugees. See Freyrie, 2022). However, there are key differences within the electorate. In late 2022, researchers from the Political and Social Analysis Laboratory (LAPS) at the University of Siena asked voters to nominate who they considered primarily responsible for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Some 59 and 54% of those saying they voted for centre-right parties and the M5S, respectively, answered “Russia” (in comparison, 75% of centre-left voters blame Russia for the invasion). Concerning the M5S, 20% of their voters said it was the United States, while 10% said NATO was to blame. From this view, it is the M5S electorate that is the most pro-Russian. Among centre-right voters, 16% said the United States is to blame, while 8% blame NATO. The report also shows that most Italians are sceptical of (or downright opposed to) military support for Ukraine. The most sceptical are M5S voters (60% against) and centre-right (57% against) (Freyrie, 2022).

In conclusion, we can say that populists adapted to the situation, leveraging the issue of the war for their respective ends. As regards the right-wing coalition, Meloni (the leader least compromised by Russian ties) used the war to gain credibility at the international level and to moderate her image to get to the government. Despite their well-established links with Putin and fearing they would cede consensus and international credibility, Salvini and Berlusconi voted in favour of sanctions and the sending of weapons as part of both the Draghi and Meloni administrations, although somewhat less enthusiastically than FdI. They expressed scepticism about these measures, but more in word than in deed, all the while careful not to explicitly support Putin and instead focusing on reasons linked to the economy and peacekeeping. Moreover, all the right-wing populist parties, which typically take a hard line against immigration, welcomed Ukrainian refugees. The M5S leader, Giuseppe Conte, maintained his position against sending weapons and favouring “peacekeeping.” The fluid and opportunistic nature of the M5S allowed it to simultaneously adopt positions in line with the Italian Left (anti-Americanism, pacifism) and the Right (defence of the national economic interest).

In sum, the circumstances surrounding the Ukraine war serve to once again demonstrate the ability of populism to adapt quickly to different contexts and to make use of “calculated ambivalence” (Wodak, 2015). This can explain how parties that previously supported Putin adapted quickly to the situation by condemning the invasion and welcoming refugees while simultaneously using peace and national economic interests as discursive reasons for opposing measures against Russia.

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(*) Cecilia Biancalana is a non-tenured assistant professor in the Department of Culture, Politics and Society at the University of Turin. Her research focuses on political ecology, party change, populism, and the relationship between the internet and politics.


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Salvini, Ucraini sono veri profughi, non quelli col telefonino (2022, June 23). ANSA. https://www.ansa.it/sito/notizie/topnews/2022/06/23/salviniucraini-sono-veri-profughinon-quelli-col-telefonino_14933376-1e97-4dfb-9987-340a6a74f84c.html

See what your friend Putin has done’: Salvini mocked in Poland, (2022, March 9). Euronews. https://www.euronews.com/2022/03/09/see-what-your-friend-putin-has-done-salvini-mocked-in-poland

Tarchi, M. (2015). Italia populista. Il Mulino.

Ucraina, Berlusconi: “Putin spinto a inventarsi l’operazione speciale” (2022, September 22). Adnkronos. https://www.adnkronos.com/ucraina-berlusconi-putin-spinto-a-inventarsi-loperazione-speciale_6folBm5Ei1yMv0fnJjyRDV

Ucraina: Salvini, Lega condanna ogni aggressione militare (2022, February 22). ANSA. https://www.ansa.it/sito/notizie/topnews/2022/02/24/ucraina-salvini-lega-condanna-ogni-aggressione-militare_a8831131-8cc6-4861-892b-799615657a5b.html

Wodak, R. (2015). The politics of fear: What right-wing populist discourses mean. Sage.


Footnotes

[1] After the outbreak of the war, Salvini was mocked by a Polish mayor because of that t-shirt (“‘See what your friend Putin has done’: Salvini mocked in Poland”, 2022).

[2] For this reason, Salvini regularly called for the lifting of sanctions imposed by the EU on Russia after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Aldis Gobzems candidate for Prime Minister of Latvia after meeting with President of Latvia Raimonds Vejonis, during press briefing at Riga Castle in RIGA, Latvia on October 30, 2018. Photo: Gints Ivuskans.

The Russia-Ukraine War and Right-Wing Populism in Latvia

Auers, Daunis. (2023). “The Russia-Ukraine War and Right-Wing Populism in Latvia.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0023

 

Download Report on Latvia

Abstract

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has profoundly impacted Latvia’s politics, economy and society. It also moved Latvia’s political centre to the right and mainstreamed many of the core policy positions of the dominant Radical Right National Alliance (NA), such as squeezing the Russian language from the public sphere, dismantling the publicly-funded Russian-language school system, and demolishing Soviet-era monuments. This policy shift has been made possible by the NA’s gradual political mainstreaming over the last decade (it has been in a governing coalition since 2011) and long-standing opposition to Putin’s regime, as well as existing contacts and support for Ukrainian nationalist groups. As a result, there is a public perception that the NA was “right” about Russia. As the NA has mainstreamed and abandoned its populist rhetoric, new populist parties have emerged in Latvia. Parliamentary elections in October 2022 saw new “Latvian” (the Latvia First Party, LPV) and “Russian” (Stability! or S!) populist parties elected to parliament. The LPV largely refused to engage with the war, focusing on domestic economic issues, while S! has capitalized on the “we are for peace” niche left open by other parties’ denunciation of Russia’s invasion.

Keywords: Latvia, populism, Radical Right, National Alliance, Russia-Ukraine war, parties.

 

 

By Daunis Auers* (University of Latvia)

Introduction

Right-wing populism, and populism more broadly, has long been a feature of Latvia’s political landscape. Indeed, in December 2021, a few months before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Latvia’s president, Egīls Levits, a former judge at the European Union Court of Justice, warned that populism was a threat to Latvia’s democracy:

We see what happens when populists are elected to parliament in Latvia and elsewhere. They collapse. They are not capable of meaningful politics, simply wasting your vote and creating difficulties for the parliament and the state. (“President urges voters to be on guard”, 2021)

This article begins by reflecting on the scope and nature of populism in Latvia since the regaining of sovereign independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It then moves to consider the impact of Russia’s war on Ukraine on the current crop of Latvia’s populist parties and politicians (the supply side) and the impact on public perceptions and voters (the demand side). The final section considers the short- and long-term impacts of the war on Latvia’s populist landscape.

Background

The concept of populism is famously contested. More than fifty years ago, Peter Wiles (1969, p. 166) wrote, “to each his own definition of populism, according to the academic axe he grinds.” Although there has been more academic consensus in recent decades, there remain three major contemporary approaches to populism that conceptualize it as either a style of politics, a political strategy, or a thin ideology.

Latvian media, the public and politicians alike tend to use the term as a “catch-all” used to criticize anything they dislike or cannot explain, the “mystery ingredient that explains why a rival political leader has inexplicably large support” (Deegan-Krause, 2007, p. 141). A search of headlines on the influential “Delfi” news portal reveals that issues ranging from speeding fines and religious education in schools through to a new bottle deposit scheme have been described as “populist.”[1] Vague and sweeping accusations of populism have long been a feature of Latvian politics, particularly among the parties that appeal to the ethnic Latvian, rather than Russian-speaking, electorate.

The late Joachim Siegerist, a shadowy far-right German–Latvian politician who never spoke Latvian, is generally regarded as Latvia’s first major post-communist populist. Having been kicked out of the radical right-wing Latvian National Independence Movement (Latvijas Nacionālās Neatkarības Kustība, LNNK) in 1994, Siegerist founded the People’s Movement for Latvia (Tautas Kustība Latvija, TKL). During the 1995 parliamentary election, he campaigned on both a nationalist and anti-corruption platform of “Russians to Russia and Latvia for Latvians,” handing out free medicine to emphasize the perceived failure of government economic policies and promising to weed out corrupt bureaucrats and politicians who were supposedly holding Latvia back.[2] This combination of Russophobe nationalism and criticism of a corrupt and out-of-touch elite set the template for right-wing populism in Latvia for the next three decades. Twenty-first-century additions to this winning formula have included criticism of liberal ideas spreading to Latvia via European elites and, of course, anti-Soros conspiracy theories.

The most recent incarnation of the right-wing populist mantle has been the National Alliance (Nacionālā Apvienība, NA), a merger of first-wave Latvian nationalist parties that traced their roots to the late 1980s independence movement and a second wave of younger nationalist activists that came out of the various nationalist organizations set up in the 1990s and early 2000s. The NA first entered parliament as a party union rather than a single party in 2010 and has been a part of every governing coalition since 2011. Participating in government has led to a mainstreaming of the party and an attendant decline in its populist appeals, with anti-elite and anti-corruption rhetoric clearly having less traction now the party has become an established part of the governing elite.

The mainstreaming of NA has opened a space for new populist political forces to emerge. However, these populists are “pure” rather than right-wing populists. First, in 2014, Artuss Kaimiņš, a moderately successful Latvian actor, leveraged a “shock jock” radio show called “the Dog Kennel” (Suņu Būda), where he regularly humiliated politicians by accusing them of graft or incompetence into a political career.[3] He was elected to parliament in 2014 when recruited as a vote-catching “locomotive” on the party’s list of the mainstream Latvian Regional Alliance (Latvijas Reģionālā Apvienība, LRA). Kaimiņš was swift to position himself as a political outsider, refusing to join LRA and then leaving the party’s parliamentary fraction altogether. He roamed parliament equipped with a pocket-sized camera, filming parliament’s plenary hall as he addressed MPs, discussions in parliamentary committees and indiscrete encounters on the streets. In advance of the 2018 election, he founded a new party—Who Owns the State? (Kam Pieder Valsts? or KPV)—which adopted a ferocious anti-elite rhetoric and fuzzy policy programme. However, KPV was not Russophobic. KPV won the second-largest share of the vote, took 16 out of the 100 seats in Latvia’s parliament and joined the governing coalition formed after a record-breaking three and a half months of negotiations. KPV collapsed just a few years after the election, torn apart by the fact that its MPs had almost nothing in common except an anti-elite attitude that had little significance after the decision to join the government and become part of the political elite.

Aldis Gobzems, KPV’s candidate for prime minister in 2018, followed in Kaimiņš’s footsteps and swiftly left KPV to form his own populist party, initially called Law and Order (Likums un Kārtība, LuK) and then renamed For Each and Every One (Katram un Katrai, KuK). Similarly to KPV, KuK was ideologically ambiguous while fielding relentless anti-elite rhetoric that tapped into the anti-vaccination and anti-lockdown movements that had spread across Latvia during the Covid-19 pandemic. In December 2021, Gobzems organized a “Rhododendron tour” of Latvia, culminating in an unlicensed, bawdy evening demonstration outside the Latvian president’s office in Riga Castle.

Another new party was also formed in advance of the 2018 election and similarly tapped into the anti-vaccination and anti-lockdown movements. Like KuK, Latvia First (Latvija Pirmā Vietā, LPV) was deeply critical of the government and the political elite. However, it was led and bankrolled by one of Latvia’s three “oligarchs,” Ainārs Šlesers, who entered politics in 1998 and served as a deputy prime minister as well as stints as economics and transport minister. Šlesers had been forced out of mainstream politics in 2011 after then-president Valdis Zatlers had called an early election with the explicit aim of forcing Latvia’s “oligarchs” out of politics. Public dissatisfaction with the pandemic offered him a route back to parliament. The major difference between LPV and KuK was the former’s focus on the economy and advocacy for tighter commercial ties with Russia. At its founding in August 2021, Šlesers stated that “the current government has no economic development plan […] people are no longer prepared to accept this elite which has been in power for the last 20 years” (Klūga, 2021).

The line-up of populists was joined by Aivars Lembergs, one of the dominant figures of the political scene in the post-Soviet era, who was released from prison in 2022, having served part of a sentence for convictions of money laundering and abuse of office. Despite being an influential political figure through the Green-Farmers Union (Zaļo Zemnieku Savienība, ZZS) and mayor of the wealthy transit port city of Ventspils, Lembergs has long denounced European and national elites and lamented the influence of George Soros. He had even called the increased NATO troop presence in Latvia following the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea an “occupation” (“Lembergs iespējamo NATO spēku”, 2014).

The year 2022 also bought a new addition to the populist landscape in Latvia. About one-quarter of Latvia’s voters are Russian speakers, and Latvian political parties have long drawn a “red line” around parties representing this minority, arguing that they pose a threat to Latvia’s Western-oriented political trajectory. For the last decade, the Harmony Social Democracy party (Sakaņa Sociāl Demokrātīja, SSD) has monopolized the representation of the interests of Russian speakers. However, in 2022, this dominance was challenged by an upstart political party led by Aleksejs Rosļikovs, a member of SSD, before he was kicked out of the party in 2019. This new outfit—For Stability! (Stabilitātei! or S!)—was founded in February 2021 at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in Latvia and used the same anti-vaccination tropes as LPV and KuK but targeted the Russian-speaking audience.

The supply side of populism in Latvia

Latvia was well stocked with populist parties and politicians in early 2022, ahead of that year’s scheduled parliamentary election in October. Latvian laws on parties and elections help to explain this steady supply of populists. First, the threshold for creating a new party is low, with just 200 members needed to register a party and 500 to compete in a parliamentary election. Parties must be registered at least twelve months before an election. This allows both charismatic figures (such as Gobzems and KuK as well as Rosļikovs and S!) and well-resourced figures (Šlesers and LPV) to swiftly set up political vehicles.

The initial core issue for all three new populist parties had been the incumbent government’s Covid pandemic policies, particularly vaccination and lockdown, both of which had mobilized small but vociferous groups in 2020 and 2021. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 quickly made these issues largely irrelevant. Latvia shares a 214-kilometre border with Russia and a living memory of Soviet (often equated with Russian) occupation. The war was considered an existential threat to Latvia.

Attitudes towards Russia swiftly hardened. Policies that had long been promoted by the NA—phasing out Russian-language schooling, marginalizing the use of Russian in both public and private sectors and removing Soviet-era monuments—became mainstream. The NA became still more radical, discussing the forced emigration of pro-Kremlin Russian speakers from Latvia (Spalvēns, 2023). As an NA parliamentary deputy reflected during parliamentary debates on Latvia’s foreign policy in January 2023, “we will come to this matter sooner or later, colleagues, like all of us have come together on other issues that until recently were considered taboo” (Ventasballs, 2014).

This shift in attitudes to Russia impacted LPV, KuK and Lembergs, who had been nominated as the ZZS candidate for prime minister. LPV, which had advocated closer economic ties with Russia, was forced to backtrack (instead advocating closer ties with other post-Soviet states). As a result, criticism of the EU and the United States, now critical to Latvia’s future security, was muted. However, by the time of the election in October, the war’s impact on the economy through high inflation and rapidly rising energy prices allowed LPV to return to the theme of the economic incompetence of what they termed the “Kariņš and Levits regime” and, referring to the émigré backgrounds of both the prime minister, Krišjānis Kariņš and President Levits and urged them to “return home” (Kariņš was born in the United States and Levits is of Baltic German heritage and fled with his family to West Germany in 1972 where he lived until 1990). With only the pandemic and an anti-elite message to draw on, KuK’s founder, Aldis Gobzems, simply left the country and resettled his family in Spain. Although he returned to campaign in the summer, he was diminished, and his party polled just 3.7% in the election.

S! seized on the opportunity offered by SSD’s swift condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In contrast to SSD, S! did not condemn Russia (although it stayed away from directly supporting the invasion; there was not one word of the Ukraine war in the party’s electoral programme) (Central Election Commission, 2022). Avoiding the war (and focusing on peace) was interpreted as a “dog whistle”, essentially the same as siding with Russia, especially as S! described the EU as a “strangling union” in its electoral programme.

The demand side of populism in Latvia

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine dampened the appeal of Latvia’s populists and boosted the appeal of the mainstream parties as well as the Radical Right. A July 2022 poll showed that 66% (compared to 37% a year earlier) of Latvians had a negative view of Russia, with just 20% (48% in 2021) having a positive outlook (“Aptauja”, 2022). This clearly strengthened the position of Latvia’s most prominent Russia hawks, the NA, as well as Prime Minister Kariņš’s New Unity party (Jaunā Vienotība, JV), whose experienced foreign minister Edgars Rinkēvičs (he has held the post since 2011) had emerged as a vocal and active critic of Russia on the European and global stage. There was broad support for the government’s backing of Ukraine (second only to Estonia as a percentage of GDP) and the 30,000+ Ukrainian refugees who settled in Latvia (and whose willingness to learn Latvian and integrate into Latvian society was often juxtaposed with those Russian speakers who still do not speak Latvian 30 years after independence and the 10% who remain non-citizens). Actions to limit Russian visas to Europe as well as the government’s declaration that it would not accept Russians fleeing the draft, were also supported by Latvians.

Nevertheless, some muted support for populist parties remained.[4] While Russia’s actions pushed many Latvian voters towards the status quo, the long-term trends of comparative economic decline and voter disillusionment with the political elite endured. Russia’s invasion did little to shift public attitudes toward the state of democracy. A June 2022 survey by the Latvian pollster SKDS found that just 36% of Latvians are satisfied with the state of domestic democracy while 53% are dissatisfied, which is roughly in line with data from 2021 (37% and 51%, respectively) and 2020 (39% and 49%) (“Iedzīvotāju domas”, 2022). Moreover, the harsh “valley of tears” of the economic and social crisis of the 1990s as well as the deep recession of 2008–09, left scars. Eurostat (2022) data shows that Latvia’s poor economic performance since the 2008–09 crisis has left it far behind neighbouring Estonia and Lithuania (in 2021, Latvia’s GDP per capita was just 72% of the EU average, while both Estonia and Lithuania were at 89%). This disenchantment remained, with about 10% of voters supporting the LPV and KuK. The LPV’s more refined communication, focusing on economic issues, proved effective as the true cost of the war began to bite.

The SSD finished below the 5% threshold as Russian speakers switched over to S! A poll taken just a few days after Russia’s invasion revealed that just 22% of Latvia’s Russians supported Ukraine, and roughly the same number supported Russia (21%). The majority claimed to be neutral, although there was undoubtedly an element of self-censorship at play (Domburs, 2022). S! was more appealing to this “neutral” group of Russian speakers.

Discussion and perspectives

Russia’s war on Ukraine has shifted Latvia’s political centre to the right and mainstreamed many of the National Alliance’s long-standing policy positions, such as squeezing the Russian language from the public sphere, dismantling the publicly-funded Russian-language school system, dismantling Soviet-era monuments and renaming Russian streets with Latvian names. There is a public perception, also frequently repeated by party leaders, that the NA was “right” about Russia. However, while the NA remains a party of the Radical Right, its gradual political mainstreaming over the last decade has made it far less populist.

Parties attempting to seize the populist political space left by the mainstreaming of the NA have proven to be less enduring because they are pure populists, with nothing to bind members together beyond anti-elite rhetoric. When the populists join the government, as KPV did in 2018, they lose their raison d’être with no “thick” ideology to attach to. However, LPV and S! have been in parliamentary opposition after a new government was formed in December 2022. With little prospect of joining the government, they will likely maintain their populist appeal in the coming years. However, it will likely be targeted less at foreign elites such as the United States, the EU and NATO, who are now so critical to Latvian security and instead focused more on domestic economic issues. S! will also remain in opposition and will draw on the rich seam of resentment of the Russian-speaking population towards the “de-russification” policies that have now become mainstream in Latvia.

Download Report on Latvia


 

(*) Daunis Auers is Professor of European Studies at the University of Latvia, a Jean Monnet Chair (2022–25) and Director of the PhD programme in Social Sciences. He studied at the London School of Economics and defended his PhD at University College London. He has been a Fulbright Scholar at the University of California-Berkeley (2005–06) and a Baltic-American Freedom Foundation Scholar at Wayne State University in Detroit (2014). He has published widely on political parties, elections, referendums, populism and the Radical Right and economic competitiveness. His book, The Comparative Government and Politics of the Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the 21st Century, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2015.


References

Aptauja: Līdz ar karu strauji audzis Latvijas iedzīvotāju negatīvais vērtējums par Krieviju (2022, September 20). Latvian Public Media. https://www.lsm.lv/
raksts/zinas/latvija/aptauja-lidz-ar-karu-strauji-audzis-latvijas-iedzivotaju-negativais-vertejums-par-krieviju.a474411/

Auers, D. (2017). Populism in the Baltic states. In A. Kudors & A. Pabriks (Eds.). The Rise of Populism: Lessons for the European Union and the United States of America (pp. 151–168). Center for East European Studies.

Central Election Commission. (2022, September). Stability! Electoral programme. https://sv2022.cvk.lv/pub/kandidatu-saraksti/politiska-partija-stabilitatei#programma

Deegan-Krause, K. (2007). Populism and the logic of party rotation in post-communist Europe. In O. Gyárfášová & G. Mesežnikov (Eds.). Visegrad Elections: Domestic Impact and European Consequences (pp. 141–156). Institute for Public Affairs (IVO).

Domburs, J. (Host) (2022, March 10). Aptaujas rezultāti: Latvijas iedzīvotāji par Krievijas iebrukumu Ukrainā un Putinu. [TV broadcast] In Kas notiek Latvijā? Latvian Public Media. https://www.lsm.lv/raksts/kas-notiek-latvija/raksti/kas-notiek-latvija-aptaujas-rezultati-latvijas-iedzivotaji-par-krievijas-iebrukumu-ukraina-un-putinu.a447274/

Eurostat. (2022). Volume of indices of GDP per capita, 2021. Eurostat. https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=GDP_per_capita,_consumption_per_capita_and_price_level_indices

Iedzīvotāju domas: Vai Latvijā valda demokrātija? (2022, August 16). NRA. https://nra.lv/latvija/389245-iedzivotaju-domas-vai-latvija-valda-demokratija.htm

Klūga, M. (2021, August 14). Šlesera partijas «Latvija pirmajā vietā» Valsts prezidenta amata kandidāte būs Jūlija Stepaņenko. Latvian Public Media. https://www.lsm.lv/raksts/zinas/latvija/slesera-partijas-latvija-pirmaja-vieta-valsts-prezidenta-amata-kandidate-bus-julija-stepanenko.a416932/

President urges voters to be on guard against populism ahead of Saeima elections (2021, December 29). Latvian Public Media. https://eng.lsm.lv/article/ politics/politics/president-urges-voters-to-be-on-guard-against-populism-ahead-of-saeima-elections.a436629/

Spalvēns, R. (2023, January 26). Ārlietu ministrija kļūdijās, ielaižot Latvijā Krievijas medijus, uzsver Šnore. Delfi. https://www.delfi.lv/news/national/
politics/arlietu-ministrija-kludijas-ielaizot-latvija-krievijas-medijus-uzsver-snore.d?id=55162954

Lembergs iespējamo NATO spēku Latvijā ievēšanu pielīdzina okupācijai. (2014, April 4). Ventas Balss. https://www.ventasbalss.lv/zinas/sabiedriba/19435-lembergs-iespejamo-nato-speku-latvija-ievesanu-pielidzina-okupacijai

Wiles, P. (1969). A syndrome, not a doctrine: Some elementary theses on populism. In G. Ionescu & E. Gellner (Eds.). Populism: Its Meaning and National Characteristics (pp. 166–179). Macmillan.


Footnotes

[1] From a search of the term “populism” in the Delfi archive: https://www.delfi.lv/meklet/?q=populisms, retrieved January 27, 2023.

[2] For more details, see Auers (2017).

[3] See the “Suņu Būda” channel on YouTube for archived shows: https://www.youtube.com/@sunubudatv805.

[4] Latvia First won 6.2% of the vote and 9 seats in Latvia’s 100-member parliament, while ZZS won 12.4% (16 seats) and S! 6.8% (11 seats).

Peaceful demonstration against war, Putin and Russia in support of Ukraine, with girls and women, placards and flags in Vilnius, Lithuania on  March 2, 2022. Photo: Michele Ursi.

The populist Far Right in Lithuania during Russia’s war against Ukraine

Ulinskaitė, Jogilė & Garškaitė-Antonowicz, Rosita. (2023). “The populist Far Right in Lithuania during Russia’s war against Ukraine.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0024

 

Download Report on Lithuania

Abstract

In Lithuania, centrist populist parties have been challenging the stability of the party system since 2000. Yet Far Right populist parties have not yet managed to enter the parliament. As Russia’s war against Ukraine has unfolded, the Far Right has had to reorient itself in a changing political landscape. On the one hand, the economic and energy crisis resulting from the war seems to provide the perfect conditions for populist mobilization in a low-trust and low-participation society. On the other, the Lithuanian government has benefited from a rally-around-the-flag effect. Lithuanian society has been particularly active in supporting Kyiv and welcoming refugees from Ukraine. In this article, we analyse the rhetoric of the Lithuanian populist Far Right, focusing on how these parties position themselves in light of changing circumstances due to the war and how they reframe criticism of national and international elites.

Keywords: Lithuania; Russia–Ukraine war; Far Right; populism; rally-around-the-flag effect.

 

By Jogilė Ulinskaitė* Rosita Garškaitė-Antonowicz** (Vilnius University)

Introduction

Although centrist populist political parties have been challenging the stability of the party system in Lithuania since 2000, Far Right populist parties have not yet managed to cross the 5% threshold needed to enter the parliament. These groups successfully mobilized support against the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. Now, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has eroded the significance of that critique and forced Far Right populist parties to reorient themselves in a changing political landscape.

The economic and energy crisis caused by the war might seem like perfect conditions for populist mobilization. However, the Lithuanian government has benefited from a rally-around-the-flag effect, and the ruling party’s popularity ratings have soared (Brunalas, 2022). In addition, Lithuanian society has been particularly active in supporting the Ukrainian side. According to a recent survey, two-thirds of Lithuanians supported the Ukrainian side by donating money, volunteering in related organizations, or welcoming refugees from Ukraine into their homes (Stankevičius, 2023). The donation of a military drone crowdfunded by ordinary Lithuanians is a prime example of this public generosity (BBC News, 2022). Furthermore, attitudes towards Russia, which have always been negative, have become even more so. Opinion polls published in January 2023 found that 90% of Lithuanians have an unfavourable opinion of Russia, while 75% have a negative view of Belarus (Pankūnas, 2023).

In this report, we examine the rhetoric of Lithuanian right-wing populists concentrating on how they reframe criticism of (inter)national elites and navigate possible associations with Russia. We conceptualize Far Right actors operating according to the procedural rules of democracy. They can be located at the far right end of the Left–Right ideological scale, with populism, nativism, radicalism, and conservatism as essential characteristics. In their discourse, a nation is seen as a homogeneous unit that must be protected from outsiders or dangerous intruders (Wodak, 2019), such as immigrants. For them, the principle of majority rule is an essential feature of democracy (ibid.), and a strong or even authoritarian-leaning government is required to protect the homeland (Bustikova & Kitschelt, 2009). A strong emphasis is put on family values and a return to “better times” (Wodak, 2019). In addition, the political elite is perceived as corrupt, working against the will of the people and promoting the European Union (EU) agenda (Golder, 2016; Bustikova & Kitschelt, 2009; Wodak, 2019).

The report focuses primarily on the discourse of three Far Right actors: two political parties and a movement. The National Alliance (Nacionalinis susivienijimas, NS) and the Union for Nation and Justice (Tautos ir teisingumo sąjunga, TTS) took part in the last parliamentary elections in 2020 but did not get any mandates. The Lithuanian Family Movement (Lietuvos šeimų sąjūdis, LŠS) has organized several protests in the past two years. The biggest in May 2021 — the “Great March in Defence of the Family” — attracted as many as 10,000 people, an exceptionally high number in a society with low levels of civic engagement and political participation (Žiliukaitė, 2006). Marchers sought to uphold traditional family values and criticize the management of the pandemic. Later in the summer, the LŠS was involved in riots that prevented MPs from leaving the parliament building, and some of its leaders were prosecuted. As a result, the movement’s popularity declined, but it did not abandon the criticism of the pandemic restrictions and even claimed responsibility for ending COVID-19 restrictions in Lithuania. The NS, the TTS and the LŠS are now running candidates in municipal elections scheduled for March 2023. The analysed data consists of communications on official Facebook pages or official websites from the start of the war on February 24 until the end of 2022.

In addition, we provide examples of the discourse of two populist (but not Far Right) leaders closely related to the NS, the TTS and the LŠS. Ramūnas Karbauskis is the leader of the opposition Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union(Lietuvos valstiečių ir žaliųjų sąjunga, LVŽS), which led the governing coalition in 2016–2020. Members of the NSworked for this party’s MPs and are now running on its list of candidates for municipal councils (as are members of the LŠS). Ignas Vėgėlė, a lawyer and professor of law, became a well-known and popular politician after his vocal opposition to the government’s COVID-19 restrictions. He is currently supported by all the Far Right organizations analysed in this report.

National security: New wine in old “family values” bottles?

At the heart of Lithuanian Far Right ideology is what ideologues call the “defence” of families, meaning a backlash against legal recognition of same-sex relationships, the Istanbul Convention on Combating Violence against Women,[1]and other political issues related to gender and sexual identities. They frame binary genders and heterosexual families as essential to national culture, appealing to the sense in Lithuania that this small nation may disappear due to mass emigration and negative natural population growth. This theme has remained salient in Far Right rhetoric since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine.

In the discourse of the Far Right, one way to support Ukraine is to resist “genderism”, as both the NS and the TTS suggest. For them, Ukraine is one of the greatest defenders of the “natural family” simply because it does not recognize same-sex unions, and Ukrainian public opinion is not favourable. To quote the TTS: “We invite you to support the Ukrainian fight for natural values, the nation-state, and Christian civilization as well as to adhere to these ideals in our state as well” (Gražulis, 2022).

The LŠS goes as far as comparing the “gender propaganda” that the Lithuanian elite allegedly promotes with war propaganda from the Kremlin. The former is even more threatening because it “propagates a war inside our country, among us” (Lietuvos Šeimų Sąjūdis, 2022a). In the rhetoric of politicians, ensuring security means uniting and mobilizing society. That is why Far Right actors and the opposition leader, Ramūnas Karbauskis, criticize the government for subverting the unity of society by debating the Istanbul Convention and the gender-neutral civil partnership bill. According to Karbauskis, it is unseemly to discuss such an irrelevant question as a civil partnership with a war underway (Tapinienė, 2022). Overall, the strategy is to kick the can down the road, saying, “now is not the time”.

European friends and foes

As security has become a top priority as the war has unfolded, populist and Far Right politicians have used the conflict to criticize the national and international political elite. They have sought to delegitimize the Lithuanian government by calling ministers “temporary administrators of the country” incapable of making independent decisions, much like in the Soviet Union and, more recently, the EU. A common claim is that the government is not doing enough to protect the country. Populist and Far Right politicians argue for increased defence spending. The NS has gone further, saying additional social measures are needed to strengthen the country’s security, such as increasing the birth rate, reducing social exclusion, and strengthening patriotic education (Nacionalinis susivienijimas, 2022a).

Since Lithuanians are among the most trusting in the EU,[2] compared to other Europeans, the Far Right does not target EU membership directly. Nonetheless, they criticize the Lithuanian political elite for prioritizing “foreign forces” over “the will of their citizens” and blame Brussels for “political and cultural dictates”. Vytautas Sinica, one of the leaders of the NS, has recounted with glee how Western Europe used to teach Central and Eastern Europe about equality, diversity, ecology, and cosmopolitism, but everything has changed. Now Volodymyr Zelenskyy teaches Brussels what European values — namely, nationalism, sovereignty, and independence — mean (Petkus, 2022). The distinction is made in this case, as in many others, between “new” Europe, which is young, full of life, and proud of the nation, and “old”, pragmatic Europe.

Whereas Lithuanian society, in general, was disappointed with the slow speed and limited extent of Western military support for Ukraine, and the government urged NATO members to provide Ukraine with more weapons, a new undertone became evident in Far Right discourse. They argue for strengthening military cooperation with the United Kingdom and the United States, not with Germany, currently leading a NATO brigade in Lithuania. They went further than mocking the reluctance of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to send arms or diplomatic efforts vis-à-vis Russia by France’s Emmanuel Macron. The key word was “hypocrisy”, and it was argued that the words and deeds of Western leaders differ.

Yet Lithuanian Far Right actors wish to cultivate some friendships in Europe. Since the outbreak of the war, the discourse on counterparts in Europe has been very cautious. For instance, the victory of Giorgia Meloni in Italy was celebrated with emphasis on the “strong” pro-Ukrainian position of her party, Fratelli d’Italia. On the other hand, when criticized for congratulating Victor Orbán for his victory in the 2022 Hungarian parliamentary elections, the leader of the TTS employed a strategy of “whataboutism”. In his rhetoric, Orbán is as pragmatic towards Russia as Scholz or Macron, so why are Germany and France justified by the Lithuanian political and media elites while Hungary is condemned? His answer, unsurprisingly, claimed that “leftists” or “liberals”— who work against “nation-states, the natural family and Christian ethics” —are running the show (Gražulis, 2022).

Refugees: Overlap with the political elite

Since the invasion, Lithuania has welcomed over 73,000 refugees from Ukraine (UNHCR, n.d.). Even Far Right actors have provided housing support or volunteered to organize the settlement process. In doing this and communicating about their contributions, they have acted in line with the popular pro-Ukrainian sentiment, simultaneously evading associations with the Kremlin. To date, their nativist ideology emerges in discourse only in a very subtle way. Instead of using economic arguments against support for Ukraine, the LŠS leans on the cultural dimension by accusing the elite and their supporters of “ostentatious Ukrainophilia” (Čepaitienė, 2023). Their sympathizers are especially prone to complain about the widespread usage of the colours of the Ukrainian flag instead of Lithuanian ones. In their interpretation, national symbols have been deliberately ceded, and the LŠS is fighting to “take them back”.

Not just Ukrainians seek asylum in Lithuania. Since June 2021, migrants from the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa have tried to cross the border with Belarus almost daily. Although more than 4,000 were admitted in June and July 2021, since August 2021, irregular migrants have been denied entry and pushed back. Amnesty International issued a report detailing the practice of pushbacks, which violates international law, and documenting other human rights abuses against refugees and migrants (Amnesty International, 2022). The report emphasized the stark contrast between the treatment of people fleeing the war in Ukraine and victims of Belarusian President Lukashenko’s “asylum politics”. The Far Right NS has grasped the elite and public opinion adequately by saying: “It is likely that in our country there are not many people having doubts about the fact that Ukrainians fleeing the war in contrast to economic migrants sent here by Belarus have an untrammelled right to refugee status”. (Nacionalinis Susivienijimas, 2022a)

The strategy of contrasting “real” Ukrainian refugees and “illegal” and “politically and culturally disloyal” economic migrants does not help them to instigate dissatisfaction with the ruling elite. The government has built a fence along the border with Belarus and is not letting migrants in, framing the issue solely as a matter of national security. The Court of Justice of the European Union also found that preventing irregular migrants from applying for asylum and putting them in automatic detention contradicts European directives (Bakaitė, 2022). Some of the Far Right actors in Lithuania described this judgement as an additional example of how “the EU promotes multiculturalism and mixing of nations” (Petkus, 2022). They even are inclined to defend the mainstream policy.

Post-pandemic restrictions and economic crisis

The LŠS, NS, TTS, and Ignas Vėgėlė have taken advantage of the prevailing solidarity with Ukrainian society and presented themselves as victims of a brutal regime while framing the Lithuanian government as the aggressor. The LŠSaccused the government of using the war as a pretext to impose “a dictatorship, total control of society and censorship of opinion, persecuting critics of its actions and unjustifiably restricting other constitutional rights and freedoms of citizens” (Lietuvos Šeimų Sąjūdis, 2022b). They say the government “actually contributes to Russia’s aggressive ambitions” (ibid.).

Ignas Vėgėlė, who has taken the most advantage of the opposition to pandemic restrictions, is now a potential presidential candidate (Baltic News Service, 2022). As a legal scholar and former chairman of Lithuania’s Bar Council, he has positioned himself as a civil society representative, advocating for citizens’ freedom and rights and demanding accountability of politicians. Since the outbreak of the war, the claim that the Lithuanian government was restricting freedom and human rights has been extended to other contexts, equating it with the Russian authoritarian regime. Ignas Vėgėlė complained that he was being delegitimized by the cultural, media, and political elite (Vėgėlė, 2022) and suggested that the Lithuanian government was actually working for the benefit of Putin.

The NS added to criticism of the government by expressing concern about the state of emergency and linking it to constitutional restrictions on freedom of expression and information and censorship (Nacionalinis Susivienijimas, 2022b). They also introduced another trope to associate themselves with the victims of the war, creating an analogy between Putin’s claim to the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine and EU policy. In the words of one of the NS leaders, “the Lithuanian “soft de-Nazification is particularly dangerous in that the purposeful destruction of the nation and state are usually covered up by the defence of “European” and “Western” values while avoiding the need to disclose the conceptual origins of these values and their ideological and political content” (Nacionalinis Susivienijimas, 2022a).

Politicians are still using the memory of the 1990s to invoke resentment and feelings of injustice in society (Lietuvos Šeimų Sąjūdis, 2022c). The LŠS and the NS have questioned the country’s post-communist transformation by calling political elites “privatizers of freedom”. In the words of Vytautas Radžvilas, an NS leader, democracy in Lithuania has steadily declined along with the “plundering” of public goods through privatization (ELTA, 2020). The LŠS argues that Lithuanian parties are “entities, created in the process of ‘prikhvat-ization[3] of state assets and pseudo-elite warfare, which take turns in sharing seats in the cabinets of territorial administration, also known as Lithuania” (Lietuvos Šeimų Sąjūdis, 2022c). This way, mainstream political forces are described as self-interested and disconnected from society.

Moreover, they are also depicted as deliberately worsening the living conditions of society. They have been accused of raising the price of food, fuel, taxes, and electricity. Since the liberalization of the electricity market (the change from regulated electricity supply to open market competition), the system has faced challenges, and the price of electricity reached record highs in the summer of 2022. The energy minister, naturally, became one of their most criticized targets. Even more, Ignas Vėgėlė called the liberalization of the electricity market and price fluctuations coercive, while the NS argued it was criminal and portrayed the liberalization and price fluctuations as a malicious scheme. The TTS called it a fraud and the LŠS a “pretext for the predatory privatization of the electricity supply system for the benefit of business groups” (Lietuvos Šeimų Sąjūdis, 2022c). Therefore, although Lithuania had already secured its energy independence and did not face an energy crisis due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this did not prevent populist politicians from articulating and stimulating the crisis in the country and blaming the government.

Conclusion

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had a negative effect (at least temporarily) on right-wing populist politics in Lithuania. All the political, media and economic connections these parties have with the Kremlin or openly pro-Russian activists were put under the magnifying glass. The usual arguments of mainstream politicians and journalists that populists’ favoured causes coincide with the Kremlin’s gained ground in Lithuania, as the society is highly anti-Russian and supports Ukraine. In view of the unfolding war in Ukraine, Far Right actors have found it difficult to present themselves as “anti-system patriots” to attack the political elite, which is seen as focused on the national interest. Both an insider (Ramūnas Karbauskis, the leader of the main opposition party) and an outsider (Vytautas Sinica, the leader of the NS) have publicly backed the government’s performance in relation to the war. They were also deprived of the chance to escalate the issue of irregular migration from Belarus as the government handled it in their preferred way (i.e., with a border fence).

Nevertheless, the Far Right actors have attempted to pass through an eye of a needle. It is evident in the populist rhetoric we investigated for this article that right-wing politicians have tried very hard to capitalize on any public grievances and to stimulate them even more, especially concerning the energy crisis and pandemic restrictions. They will continue to base their campaign on creating a sense of insecurity and channelling discontent toward national and EU elites. At the same time, they will most likely continue using a strategy to draw a parallel between the Lithuanian government and Putin’s regime, simultaneously identifying themselves and the whole society as victims. But in practice, their results will be best seen in 2024, when presidential and parliamentary elections will be held. The Far Right in Lithuania will likely try to secure a higher level of support through cooperation with popular but not so extreme, “non-systemic” candidates.

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(*) Jogilė Ulinskaitė is Assistant Professor of Political Science and research fellow at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science, Vilnius University. Her research focuses broadly on the discourse of populist parties in Lithuania. In the recent past, she was part of a research team that carried out several projects on the collective memory of the communist and post-communist past in Lithuania. Her current research focuses on populism and its links to emotional narratives about the past. Email: jogile.ulinskaite@tspmi.vu.lt

(**) Rosita Garškaitė-Antonowicz is a PhD candidate at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science, Vilnius University. Her research interests include religion and politics, public opinion on European integration, and post-communist transformation. Email:  rosita.garskaite@tspmi.vu.lt


References

Amnesty International. (2022). Lithuania: Forced out or locked up refugees and migrants. abused and abandoned. https://www.amnesty.eu/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Lithuania-report-formatted-final_2.pdf

Bakaitė, J. (2022, June 30). CJEU finds Lithuania’s migrant policies in violation of EU law. Lithuanian Radio and Television. https://www.lrt.lt/en/news-in-english/19/1730702/cjeu-finds-lithuania-s-migrant-policies-in-violation-of-eu-law

Baltic News Service. (2022, October 19). Survey: Lithuanians would vote for Nauseda and Vegele in presidential election. Delfi. https://www.delfi.lt/a/91529047

BBC News. (2022, July 7). Lithuania donates crowdfunded drone to Ukraine. https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-europe-62074011

Brunalas, B. (2022, March 16). Partinių reitingų lentelėje baigėsi užsitęsęs štilis: TS-LKD reitingas šoko į viršų, LSDP patyrė didžiausių nuostolių. Lithuanian Radio and Television. https://www.lrt.lt/naujienos/lietuvoje/2/1645582/partiniu-reitingu-lenteleje-baigesi-uzsiteses-stilis-ts-lkd-reitingas-soko-i-virsu-lsdp-patyre-didziausiu-nuostoliu

Bustikova, L., & Kitschelt, H. (2009). The Radical Right in post-communist Europe. Comparative perspectives on legacies and party competition. Communist and Post-Communist Studies, 42(4), 459–483. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.postcomstud.2009.10.007

Čepaitienė, R. (2023, January 9). Rasa Čepaitienė. Parodomasis patriotizmas. Kauno forumas. https://kaunoforumas.com/2023/01/09/rasa-cepaitiene-parodomasis-patriotizmas/

ELTA. (2020, September 20). Radžvilas apie cenzūrą ir koncepciją, keliančią baimę jo oponentams: siūlo panaikinti Konstitucinį Teismą. Lithuanian Radio and Television. https://www.lrt.lt/naujienos/lietuvoje/2/1236075/radzvilas-apie-cenzura-ir-koncepcija-keliancia-baime-jo-oponentams-siulo-panaikinti-konstitucini-teisma

European Commission (2022, September). Standard Eurobarometer – Summer 2022. https://europa.eu/eurobarometer/surveys/detail/2693.

Golder, M. (2016). Far Right parties in Europe. Annual Review of Political Science, 19(1), 477–497. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-polisci-042814-012441

Gražulis, P. (2022, April 4). P. Gražulis: Tautininkai priešinasi Kremliaus penktajai kolonai, atsiriboja nuo melagingų kaltinimų. Alkas.lt. https://alkas.lt/2022/04/04/p-grazulis-tautininkai-priesinasi-kremliaus-penktajai-kolonai-atsiriboja-nuo-melagingu-kaltinimu/

Lapėnienė, S. (2022, May 9). While society mobilises, Lithuanian government does little to help accommodate Ukrainian refugees. Lithuanian Radio and Television. https://www.lrt.lt/en/news-in-english/19/1690662/while-society-mobilises-lithuanian-government-does-little-to-help-accommodate-ukrainian-refugees

Lietuvos Šeimų Sąjūdis. (2022a, March 10). Lietuvos Šeimų Sąjūdis. Į viską jiems nusispjaut. https://seimusajudis.lt/naujienos/lietuvos-seimu-sajudis-i-viska-jiems-nusispjaut/

Lietuvos Šeimų Sąjūdis. (2022b, May 19). “Didžiojo šeimos gynimo maršo 2022” Rezoliucija. Lietuvos Šeimų Sąjūdis. https://seimusajudis.lt/naujienos/didziojo-seimos-gynimo-marso-2022-rezoliucija/

Lietuvos Šeimų Sąjūdis. (2022c, December 8). Lietuvos šeimų sąjūdis. Deklaracija Lietuva Pirmiausia. https://sc.bns.lt/view/item/453311

Nacionalinis Susivienijimas. (2022a, March 1). Pareiškimas dėl karo pabėgėlių iš Ukrainos. https://susivienijimas.lt/pareiskimai-ir-naujienos/pareiskimas-del-karo-pabegeliu-is-ukrainos/

Nacionalinis Susivienijimas. (2022b, May 21). Partijos “Nacionalinis susivienijimas” suvažiavimo dalyvių atviras laiškas šalies vadovams, Seimo nariams ir visuomenei dėl vykdomos šalies “minkštosios denacifikacijos” grėsmių valstybei karo Ukrainoje ir globalios saugumo krizės sąlygomis. https://susivienijimas.lt/pareiskimai-ir-naujienos/partijos-nacionalinis-susivienijimas-suvaziavimo-dalyviu-atviras-laiskas-salies-vadovams

Nacionalinis Susivienijimas. (2022c, May 21). Partijos „Nacionalinis susivienijimas“ suvažiavimo rezoliucija dėl būtinų priemonių šalies saugumui ir gynybai. https://susivienijimas.lt/pareiskimai-ir-naujienos/partijos-nacionalinis-susivienijimas-suvaziavimo-rezoliucija-del-butinu-priemoniu-salies-saugumui-ir-gynybai/

Pankūnas, G. (2023, January 2). Survey shows Lithuanians have abysmal opinion of Russia, favour Poland and Germany. Lithuanian Radio and Television. https://www.lrt.lt/
en/news-in-english/19/1856830/survey-shows-lithuanians-have-abysmal-opinion-of-russia-favour-poland-and-germany

Pasieka, A. M. (2021). Postsocialist and postcapitalist questions? Far-right historical narratives and the making of a New Europe. East European Politics and Societies, 35(4), 975–995. https://doi.org/10.1177/0888325420977628

Petkus, D. (2022, July 1). Vytautas Sinica. Europos Teisingumo Teismo sprendimas dėl migrantų yra beprotybė | LAIKMETIS. https://www.laikmetis.lt/vytautas-sinica-europos-teisingumo-teismo-sprendimas-yra-beprotybe/

Stankevičius, A. (2023, January 30). Nepaisant lietuvių aktyvumo padedant Ukrainai, Pilietinės galios indeksas sumenko. Lithuanian Radio and Television. https://www.lrt.lt/naujienos/
lietuvoje/2/1877679/nepaisant-lietuviu-aktyvumo-padedant-ukrainai-pilietines-galios-indeksas-sumenko

Tapinienė, R. (2022, May 27). Karbauskis: kaip Lietuvoje, esant karui Ukrainoje, svarstomi tokie beprasmiai dalykai kaip partnerystė, narkotikų dekriminalizavimas. Lithuanian Radio and Television. https://www.lrt.lt/naujienos/lietuvoje/2/1704748/karbauskis-kaip-lietuvoje-esant-karui-ukrainoje-svarstomi-tokie-beprasmiai-dalykai-kaip-partneryste-narkotiku-dekriminalizavimas

UNHCR. (n.d.). Ukraine Refugee Situation. Retrieved January 25, 2023, from https://data.unhcr.org/en/situations/ukraine

Vėgėlė, I. (2022, March 15). I. Vėgėlė. Valstybę skaldančios propagandos industrija įsisiūbavo. Alkas.lt. https://alkas.lt/2022/03/15/i-vegele-valstybe-skaldancios-propagandos-industrija-isisiubavo/

Wodak, R. (2019). Entering the “post-shame era”: The rise of illiberal democracy, populism and neo-authoritarianism in Europe. Global Discourse, 9(1), 195–213. https://doi.org/
10.1332/204378919X15470487645420

Žiliukaitė, R. (Ed.). (2006). Neatrasta galia = Undiscovered power: Lietuvos pilietinės visuomenės žemėlapis = Map of the civil society in Lithuania. Versus aureus.

Žiliukaitė, R., Poviliūnas, A., & Savicka, A. (2016). Lietuvos visuomenės vertybių kaita per dvidešimt nepriklausomybės metų. Vilnius University Press. https://www.fsf.vu.lt/
dokumentai/Naujienos_Mokslo_pasiekimai/2016/lietuvos_visuomenes_vertybiu_kaita.pdf


Footnotes

[1] There is no legal recognition of same-sex relationships in Lithuania. Vilnius has signed the Istanbul Convention, but not yet ratified it.

[2] In Lithuania, 69% of citizens say they trust the EU, while the European average is 49% (European Commission, 2022).

[3 This term — a play on the Russian word прихватить (“prikhvatit”, to grab) — became popular in the 1990s. It refers to the (at best) illegitimate and (at worst) downright illegal process of converting public assets to private property across that decade.

Ukrainians, Norwegians and others nations are at peaceful demonstrations on the way to Russian Embassy in Oslo, Norway with slogans to stop war in Ukraine on February 26, 2022. Photo: Oleksandr Khokhlyuk.

The impact of the Russia–Ukraine war on right-wing populism in Norway

Sunnercrantz, Liv. (2023). “The impact of the Russia–Ukraine war on right-wing populism in Norway.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0025

 

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Abstract

The political right-wing populism topography in Norway has for decades been dominated by the Norwegian Progress Party, which is characterized by a combination of social-conservative values like nativism combined with market liberalism. However, following the invasion of Ukraine, it is not issues of security and sovereignty that take centre stage in the Progress Party’s discourse but high energy prices. As a fossil fuel producer, Norway profits from the ensuing energy crisis and Europe’s search for other energy providers than Russia. These profits, the Progress Party argues, are unduly awarded to the state treasury while “ordinary people” and entrepreneurs struggle. Populism thus appears in Norway as a way for a right-wing opposition party to challenge the centre-left government.

Keywords: Norwegian Progress Party; Russia–Ukraine war; energy prices; immigration; populism.

 

By Liv Sunnercrantz* (University of Stavanger)

The diversity of political populism in Norway

Populism appears in politics amongst parties of the Left, the Right and the political centre in Norway. This diversity is apparent in the diverging ideologies and strategies entangled with populist politics. On the Right, the Norwegian Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, FrP) combines neoliberal and nativist ideologies and is most associated with populism in Norway. The traditionally agrarian Centre Party occupies the middle ground. The centre-left Labour Party advances a broad range of liberal, social democratic politics. Finally, on the Left, there are two smaller parties with populist tendencies, the Socialist Left Party (which campaigns on social justice and environmentalism) and the Far Left is the socialist Red Party, which engages in traditional class politics. In the most recent election in 2021, the Centre Party most successfully and thoroughly applied a populist agenda. It did so partly in cooperation with the Labour Party in forming a government but has since toned down its populist appeal.

The precursor to today’s Progress Party was Anders Lange’s eponymous party (Anders Lange’s Party, ALP), formed in 1973 and inspired by right-wing populist developments in neighbouring Denmark. Contemporaneously, a short-lived leftist populist movement attached to the Socialist Left Party demanded a reorientation of society and policy towards local communities and mobilized mostly peripheral coastal areas of Norway through a system critique and the threats associated with Norway’s European integration (Bjørklund, 2004). Like the FrP, this early wave of leftist populism mobilized actors dissatisfied with Labour Party governments and the politics of centralization, bureaucracy, and industrialization.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the ALP morphed into the FrP, redefined itself as a libertarian party, and applied more nativist rhetoric. The Muslim immigrant figure was singled out as a scapegoat in the FrP’s discourse. This is even though Muslims are not the majority of immigrants to Norway. In the 1980s, the FrP also started to shift to welfare chauvinism, arguing for the defence of the welfare state rather than its retrenchment. But it was not until the 1990s that the party discourse became rephrased around cultural differences and integration as its key concerns.

Although the FrP is relatively moderate by European Far Right standards— and internally divided between two factions (one libertarian, one more national conservative)—it is the strongest anti-immigration voice among parliamentary parties in Norway. Like its sibling Far Right parties across the Nordics today, the FrP maintains that it is not propagating hate messages against immigrants but instead is concerned with the national interest. The party instead positions itself against the policies of the Labour Party, which it blames for the social ills it claims have resulted from admitting (Muslim) immigrants to Norway (Palonen & Sunnercrantz, 2021). However, FrP has targeted a range of “elites” for criticism in its populist rhetoric over the last few decades, including the EU, the central state administration, liberal leftists, and, of course, the Labour Party. More recently, the party has foregrounded voices sceptical of human-induced climate change and mobilized around continued fossil extraction in Norway, thus targeting supporters of vigorous climate change mitigation and those opposed to fossil fuel use.

In the 2005 and 2009 elections, the FrP increased its voter support to become the second-largest party after the Labour Party. But Labour was able to cobble together a coalition government with the Socialist Left Party and the Centre Party in both cases. In 2013, the Conservative Party moved into second place ahead of the FrP but reached out to the party in coalition negotiations. The two agreed to form a governing coalition, allowing the FrP to enter government for the first time. The coalition was in office until 2017.

Populism in the 2021 elections: Now it is the turn of “ordinary people”

In January 2020, the FrP staged a dramatic exit from the governing right-wing coalition due to policy disagreements with its partners, the Liberal Party and the Christian Democrats. The FrP claimed that the government’s decision to bring a woman who had joined ISIS in Syria and her child back to Norway was the main reason for leaving the government. This left the party with a good margin to reposition itself as an oppositional challenger party in time for the national election in the autumn of 2021. But several internal ideological battles played out between the libertarian and national conservative factions in the autumn of 2020. The deputy leader Sylvi Listhaug took a prominent role alongside party chief Siv Jensen in rooting out radical nationalist elements from the party.

Like other right-wing populist parties in Europe, the FrP has been led by female party leaders since the mid-2000s. When Jensen stepped down as party leader in February 2021, she pointed to Listhaug as her preferred successor. Listhaug was unanimously elected party leader three months later during a party congress. Her victory speech was ladened with neoliberal populist rhetoric: “We shall still maintain the soul of the party, which is that we dare where others are silent. That we challenge the elite and the experts, and we stand up for individuals” (cited in Helljesen, 2021). Listhaug’s election was nevertheless tainted by a debate centred on the complete lack of female representatives among the remaining ten members of the party’s central board (Rognsvåg, 2021).

As a term, populism now carries negative connotations in Norwegian public political discourse. As a derogative, “populism” connotes opportunistic political practices, short-term solutions, and a lack of scruples and principles (Bjørklund, 2004). Populism was avidly used by politicians, journalists, and political commentators in the months leading up to the national elections in September 2021, as the slogan “now it is the turn of ordinary people” took centre stage in the election campaign of the Labour Party and the Centre Party. While this rhetoric was criticized and ridiculed, the two parties gained enough electoral support (26.3% and 13.5%, respectively) to form a coalition government and oust the incumbent right-wing coalition. This centre-left project thus utilizes populist rhetoric to challenge the liberal–conservative status quo coalitions governing since 2013. This follows a broader historical pattern of Nordic populism, which functions as a strategy for fringe parties to challenge an existing hegemony in attempts to gain mainstream positions (Palonen & Sunnercrantz, 2021). A type of “rural populism” fronted by the leader of the Centre Party contributed to their electoral success already in the local and regional elections of 2019.

The Centre Party is one of the few parties that increased its electoral support in the 2021 election, along with other fringe parties like the Socialist Left Party, the Red Party, and the Green Party. Simultaneously, the FrP’s vote share dropped from 15.2% in 2019 to 11.6 % in the 2021 election. This was their worst result since 1993. Aggregated polling results in the past year show a slight increase for the party in the summer of 2022 and a relatively stable downward trend back to 11.8% since then. The Labour Party has experienced a general fall in support since the election (to between 17.8 and 19.6% in the past six months) and the Centre Party (between 5.2 and 7.5 % in the past six months). All the while, the conservative Right party steadily increased from 20.4% in the election to tipping above 30% in support in late 2022 and early 2023 (Stortingsvalg: Hele Landet, n.d.). It is difficult to assess whether this relates to the war in Ukraine. While a direct causal relation seems unlikely, it seems more likely that these figures are indirectly related to the invasion of Ukraine and directly related to a crisis much closer to home, namely, increased energy prices coupled with the government’s inability to live up to its many promises from the election campaign.

The Progress Party strategy in the Ukraine war

The war in Ukraine and the government’s handling of the situation do not seem to cause a stir among voters or parties. Most parties are in general agreement on how to handle the situation. Both the Socialist Left and the Red party internally debate and disagree as to whether Norway should send weapons to Ukraine. The FrP also takes a critical stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and supports the government’s politics on the matter. While the FrP is largely silent in debates regarding the handling of the war in terms of international politics, they take the opportunity to exploit war-related issues such as energy prices, fossil fuel production and farming.

The Progress Party does not share the pure authoritarianism and illiberalism of Putin’s regime. The war has seemingly had both direct and indirect effects on the FrP’s discourse. First, in reassessing Norwegian defence policy, the party’s argumentation takes a more internationalist rather than nationalist turn. The FrP is a strong NATO advocate but is alone in seeing NATO as a genuinely collaborative organization. Since Norway will “play on the same team as the Finns” in case of an invasion from the east, the party argues that Norway should change its defence investment to complement the capabilities of its neighbouring newcomers to NATO (Sweden and Finland).

The fact that Russia shares a long border with Norway has complicated the political disproval of all things Russian. The border region in northeastern Norway is sparsely populated and potentially vulnerable because of its geographical remoteness from more densely populated and politically prioritized areas in the south. Therefore, Norway and its extended state apparatus maintained bilateral cooperation and relations with Russian counterparts well into 2021. Intriguingly, the FrP’s enmity with the Labour Party clashes with their NATO-friendly stance, as the NATO secretary-general is Jens Stoltenberg, a former Labour Party prime minister of Norway. Hence, while the FrP criticizes the Labour Party and Stoltenberg’s politics at home – they are not as critical of Stoltenberg’s politics as NATO secretary-general. Moreover, the FrP and Listhaug especially endorse good relations with the US. But individual spokespersons from the FrP are more understanding and even defensive of Russian actions, including former party leader Hagen and the spokesperson on foreign relations and defence (Myhre et al., 2022).

While in power, the FrP is quite happy to admit Christian immigrants from Poland and the Baltics – while less enthusiastic about immigrants from the Global South. This pattern is recognizable in the overall media discourse in Norway following the invasion of Ukraine. Shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Europe faced a refugee crisis similar to that of 2015, when more than 800,000 refugees arrived in Europe by boat across the Mediterranean. European countries once again had to decide how to deal with hundreds of thousands and soon over a million displaced people. Norwegian media narratives of Ukrainian refugees are drastically different from the narratives of refugees from Syria, for example. Debates discuss whether the immense support for and engagement regarding Ukrainian refugees (compared to the more negative storylines of refugees from, say, Afghanistan or Syria) is a sign of sheer racism. Ukrainian refugees feature daily in media reports from the frontline, as well as border crossings, and the many various receptions and accommodations for refugees in Norway.

This differential treatment of refugees eventually gained attention in debate forums. Some argue that “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reveals systemic racism in European states’ refugee and asylum policies” (Kjellmo Larsen, 2022). The Progress Party—which has promoted very strict asylum and deportation policies for years (see, e.g., Progress Party, n.d.)—now suggests a so-called fast track for Ukrainians who come to Norway by, for example, granting work permits from day one (Progress Party, 2022b, 2022c). What is more, they wish to “immediately stop the retrieval of resettlement refugees from other areas of the world and give priority to helping European refugees from Ukraine” (Progress Party, 2022a).

The energy crisis resulting from the war has opened a window of opportunity for Finnish populist Far Right parties to reclaim their populist and rural roots in antagonizing energy policies and mobilizing the “regular people” through petro-friendly politics and campaigns against spiking prices and VAT on fossil fuels, electricity, and food. Hence, the internationalist free-market ideology is rearing its head again in Norwegian right-wing populism. That Norway profits from the war is no secret. In September 2022, The Economist reported that Norway would gain over US$200 billion in extra revenue a year from the sale of oil, gas, and electricity due to the Ukraine war (The Economist, 2022). The FrP takes this opportunity to argue for increased exploration activity on the Norwegian continental shelf. This argument is framed in terms of energy security and taking “responsibility for making Europe less dependent on Russia’s energy supply” (Progress Party, 2022a). Hence, an emphasized sense of a crisis serves as a useful building block in the Progress Party’s existing fossil fuel policies. Moreover, the party’s leader mobilizes against the fact that “the state becomes richer – people become poorer” (Politisk kvarter, 2022).

As a government party, the FrP contributed to tying Norway closer to the European power market through several power cables that connect the Norwegian national grid to those of adjacent countries. These have been the subject of dispute in the past few years. As recently as 2018, the former Progress Party Minister of Petroleum and Energy (2013–16) argued whole-heartedly in favour of the international market model (Hansen & Moe, 2022). The mainstream discourse thus far “represents a political counterweight to sovereignty claims and resource nationalism” (Hansen & Moe, 2022, p. 7), which we might associate with the populist Far Right. However, the FrP changed its rhetoric through 2021 and 2022 from market-friendly internationalism towards energy sovereignty. This is coupled with skyrocketing electricity prices relative to pre-pandemic times. In 2021 and 2022, the exploding electricity prices hit Norwegian citizens and businesses hard, given their propensity for high consumption. Prices were hotly debated, not least during the election campaigns in 2021, and the centre-left government that took office in the autumn of 2021 quickly rolled out a subsidy programme for households in time for the winter months of 2021–22.

The electricity prices increased in the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine and are routinely blamed on the international market and cables. Nevertheless, the many co-dependent variables that affect electricity prices are so complex that neither politicians nor experts agree on how the prices are set or how much the two cables have affected prices. Nonetheless, the FrP leader Listhaug claimed in November 2022 that “there is no doubt that the high prices in Europe are largely due to the war” (Solvang, 2022) and that the two cables for increased export capacity are also to blame for higher prices. Moreover, the first significant price increase in the winter of 2020–21 followed a long period of low energy prices.

An argument concerning who and what is to blame for the high energy costs developed between the Labour Party and the FrP in the autumn of 2022. Listhaug accused the government of blaming too much on the war and not taking sufficient responsibility for increased prices in the summer of 2021. The Labour Party, on the other hand, accuses Listhaug of playing on polarization and hatred to recruit voters. Media recounts how the social democratic minister of climate and environment sees parallels between Listhaug and Putin:

“I wouldn’t say in any way that she’s doing it on Putin’s behalf because I don’t believe that for a moment, but that’s the kind of reaction he wants, namely, “us against them”, internally in the West, that we are divided.” (Karlsen, 2022)

Listhaug later condemned these accusations and managed to reassert a focus on the two cables and “naïve European politicians” (Heldahl & Karlsen, 2022). In the end, the complexity of the electricity market has been simplified in media narratives and has become one of the major concerns for Norwegian households. The governing parties’ inability to accommodate public grievances of the high prices is often named as one of the reasons why the Centre Party’s popular support has dropped from the election results of 13.5% to polling between 4.5–7.5 % through 2022-23.

In October 2022, the FrP suddenly demanded a maximum price for electricity. But this is not an anti-marketization argument since, as Listhaug emphasizes, ownership in the energy market is dominated by state actors (usually in the form of municipal and regional ownership of electricity companies) (Solvang, 2022). the FrP wishes to set a maximum price on electricity for “industry and business” and “common people” at 0.5 NOK per kWh (Progress Party, 2021; Solvang, 2022). True to form, the FrP does not wish to regulate the energy market as such but for the state to provide subsidies covering 100% of the electricity prices over 0.50 Norwegian krone (NOK) per kWh (about €0.05). Businesses and private customers may thus receive support for the difference between 0.50 NOK and up to their billed price (a slightly higher subsidy than the electricity support scheme in place since December 2021). While this proposal did not receive sufficient support in parliament, it shows that the FrP promotes a power policy relatively similar to that which populists on the Left—in the Socialist Left Party and the Red Party—have long since propagated.

Another issue debated since the invasion of Ukraine is that Norway has profited greatly from the ensuing increase in oil and gas prices. Intriguingly, the FrP uses this as a reason for increased subsidies in electricity prices:

The money flows into the treasury from the oil and gas sector. Never before have we made more money from this than now. Of course, we can afford to let some of this benefit ordinary people if there is political will. (Progress Party, 2021)

One could argue that this is related to the “demand side” of right-wing populism. Norwegian political parties seem almost to compete on the matter of who can lower the costs of electricity the most for households and businesses in times of skyrocketing prices in 2022–23. Hence, economic grievances amongst the electorate could be the reason behind the FrP’s U-turn from free-market liberalism to increased state inference. Moreover, the FrP takes on and propagates common-sense explanations that “everybody can see” (Solvang, 2022) when seeking to account for price rises.

Conclusion

The effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on right-wing populism in Norway are mostly indirect. The traditional populists in the Norwegian Progress Party mobilize less on the issue of military defence and international relations and more on high fuel prices, high electricity prices and tighter finances for both private households and the business sector. These domestic issues are framed partly as consequences of the war. It is widely recognized that as a producer of fossil fuels, Norway profits extensively from the war and Europe’s turn away from Russian oil and gas. The FrP equates the increased expenses for business and “common people” with the severity of the refugee crisis and the security threat that the war has triggered.

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(*) Liv Sunnercrantz is associate professor at the Department of Media and Social Sciences in the University of Stavanger. Sunnercrantz’s work centres on post-foundational discourse theory and the sociology of intellectuals. Her current research is focused on populism and populist rhetoric, especially in the Scandinavian context.


References

Bjørklund, T. (2004). Norsk populisme fra Ottar Brox til Carl I. Hagen. Nytt Norsk Tidsskrift, 21(03–04), 410–419. https://doi.org/10.18261/ISSN1504-3053-2004-03-04-16

Hansen, S. T., & Moe, E. (2022). Renewable energy expansion or the preservation of national energy sovereignty? Norwegian renewable energy policy meets resource nationalism. Political Geography, 99, 102760. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.polgeo.2022.102760

Heldahl, H., & Karlsen, M. Ø. (2022, September 21). Listhaug slår tilbake mot Putin-anklager i strømdebatten: – Spinnvill beskyldning. Nettavisen. https://www.nettavisen.no/5-95-661032

Helljesen, V. (2021, May 8). Nå er Sylvi Listhaug Frp-leder. NRK. https://www.nrk.no/norge/na-er-sylvi-listhaug-frp-leder-1.15488789

Karlsen, M. Ø. (2022, September 20). Kritiserer Listhaug for «Putin-taktikk». Nettavisen. https://www.nettavisen.no/12-95-3424315854

Kjellmo Larsen, H. (2022, March 4). Det er noe som skurrer. Dagbladet.no. https://www.dagbladet.no/meninger/det-er-noe-som-skurrer/75510485

Myhre, M. H., Aasland, A., & Holm-Hansen, J. (2022). “Crimea will forever be Russian”: Dissenting Norwegian media discourses on Russia’s annexation of Crimea. European Politics and Society, Advance online publication, 1–24. https://doi.org/10.1080/23745118.2022.2103286

Palonen, E., & Sunnercrantz, L. (2021). Nordic populist parties as hegemony challengers. In A. Koivunen, J. Ojala, & J. Holmén (Eds.), The Nordic economic, social and political model: Challenges in the 21st Century. Routledge. http://dx.doi.org/10.4324/9780429026690-8

Politisk kvarter. (2022, April 22). Krigskrisekrav [Radio broadcast]. NRK Radio. https://radio.nrk.no/podkast/politisk_kvarter/sesong/202204/l_6ad21999-9da9-4c78-9219-999da90c78f9

Progress Party. (n.d.). Mottak av flyktninger i Norge. Retrieved January 23, 2023, from https://www.frp.no/var-politikk/innvandring-og-integrering/flyktninger

Progress Party. (2021, October 20). FrP vil gi deg billigere strøm. https://www.frp.no/nyheter/frp-vil-gi-deg-billigere-strom

Progress Party (2022a, March 2). Situasjonen i Ukraina: Dette mener FrP. https://www.frp.no/nyheter/situasjonen-i-ukraina-dette-mener-frp

Progress Party. (2022b, March 9). FrP vil ha tilpasset integreringsløp for ukrainske flyktninger. https://www.frp.no/nyheter/frp-vil-ha-tilpasset-integreringslop-for-ukrainske-flyktninger

Progress Party (2022c, March 25). Ukrainske flyktninger må inn i arbeidslivet. https://www.frp.no/nyheter/ukrainske-flyktninger-ma-inn-i-arbeidslivet

Rognsvåg, S. (2021, March 30). Frp innstiller bare menn til sentralstyret – etter Listhaug. NRK. https://www.nrk.no/vestland/frp-innstiller-bare-menn-til-sentralstyret-_-etter-listhaug-1.15439527

Solvang, F. (Host). (2022, November 8). Valla og co. Vil gi deg strøm til kostpris [Television broadcast]. NRK TV. https://tv.nrk.no/serie/debatten

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A rally in support of the Ukraine was held in front of the Russian consulate in Porto, Portugal on February 27, 2022. Photo: Shutterstock.

The Ukraine-Russia war and the Far Right in Portugal: Minimal impacts on the rising populist Chega party

Afonso, Biscaia & Salgado, Susana. (2023). “The Ukraine-Russia war and the Far Right in Portugal: Minimal impacts on the rising populist Chega party.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0026

 

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Abstract

The effects of the Russia-Ukraine war on Portuguese politics have been negligible, leading to only minor changes in political positions or the relative popularity of the parties. Chega was the first right-wing populist political party to achieve a parliamentary breakthrough in Portugal, emerging as the third-largest political force after elections in January 2022. It shares rhetorical features and positions with European counterparts but distinguishes itself by its flexibility. Unencumbered by association with the Russian regime, Chega has been free to take the more popular position among voters, supporting Ukraine. Furthermore, one of its foremost adversaries, the Portuguese Communist Party, took an ambiguous position regarding the invasion of Ukraine, making Chega’s decision about positioning clearer. Nevertheless, Chega has used the war instrumentally in service of its established priorities—namely, nationalism, opposition to immigration, and militarism. Moreover, after temporarily setting aside welfare chauvinism, the party reverted to this staple as the war continued. We shed light on the rhetoric and positioning of Chega and its leader, André Ventura, by analysing 47 parliamentary commentaries by Chega MPs in 2021 and 2022 and 28 tweets mentioning Ukraine, Russia, nationals from both countries, or the war posted by Ventura during the same period.

Keywords: Portugal; right-wing populism; Chega; André Ventura; Twitter; legislative proceedings.

 

By Afonso Biscaia* Susana Salgado** (University of Lisbon)

Background: Votes, rhetoric, and ideology

Chega is currently Portugal’s largest right-wing populist party and the third-largest political party overall. Established in 2019, Chega’s parliamentary breakthrough came the same year when founder and leader André Ventura was elected as the party’s lone MP. Then, in 2022, Ventura was joined by 11 new Chega MPs after the party took 7.18% of the vote in snap elections held in January. The Portuguese Far Right landscape includes two other noteworthy parties, Ergue-te! (Rise Up!) and ADN (Alternativa Democrática Nacional). However, they are electorally irrelevant (their combined vote share in the 2022 elections was 0.29%).

The rise of right-wing populism in Portugal came as something of a surprise. With the right-wing Estado Novo authoritarian regime still in living memory, the country had been considered resistant to Far Right mobilization, with news media coverage being consistently critical of populist or radical right-wing actors (Salgado & Zúquete, 2016; Salgado, 2019). Even though Ventura was the sole MP for Chega until 2022, the party began receiving disproportionate media coverage, as usually happens to smaller parties with seats in the national Parliament (Salgado, 2022). Nevertheless, despite the 11 new MPs who joined Ventura in 2022, Chega remains a “one-man show” (Halikiopoulou & Vlandas, 2022). Ventura is the uncontested leader and face of the party, with internal power so concentrated in his hands that Portugal’s Constitutional Court deemed the party charter unconstitutional in late 2022 (Pinto de Mesquita & Rodrigues, 2022).

Furthermore, media resistance to right-wing populism should not be equated with the absence of demand for it. For example, intolerant cultural attitudes led nearly 54% of Portuguese respondents to the 2014 European Social Survey to agree with the statement, “Some cultural groups are clearly superior to others” (European Social Survey, 2014). Moreover, “the size of the Roma minority [and] percentage of social assistance recipients” in a given locality are “associated with higher radical-right vote shares”, although, somewhat surprisingly, the “classic” factors seen as driving such voters (such as high unemployment and the presence of sizeable immigrant minority communities) do not (Afonso, 2021, p. 5).

Constants in Ventura’s rhetoric include references to a homogeneous community of “righteous Portuguese” people (Portugueses de bem) sharing certain norms and values and anti-system positioning by constructing an agonistic dichotomy between Chega (which means “enough!”) and the “establishment” parties and politicians, but also the regime itself (Biscaia & Salgado, 2022; Pimenta et al., 2022). Chega also evinces vocal support for the police and enthusiastically deploys penal populism (i.e., exploiting public anxiety about crime for political gain) (Bottoms, 1995).

Chega and André Ventura’s rhetoric and policy proposals bear similarities with other radical right-wing populist political actors across the European Conservatives and Reformists and Identity and Democracy groups in the European Parliament. Ideologically, Chega describes itself as “liberal-conservative” (Chega, 2021), and Ventura’s rhetoric shares features with European counterparts, such as nativism and authoritarianism. But the party’s primary feature is its pliability. Put differently, Chega and Ventura constantly seek to “read the room” (Albertazzi et al., 2022) to maximize visibility and media coverage. They are adept at adapting right-wing populist talking points to Portuguese political realities, adopting ambivalent rhetorical strategies, and frequently shifting positions. For instance, research has observed that European populist Radical Right movements do not usually prioritize economic issues (Morini, 2018). Chega follows this tendency, making exceptions for high-profile issues such as fiscal policy and tolls on roads serving economically deprived areas (Jornal de Notícias, 2022; Pires, 2022), but also by being quick to retract unpopular policy proposals, such as minimizing state intervention in the health and education sectors (Mendes, 2022).

Immigration stances encapsulate the party’s rhetorical pliability. For instance, despite its low salience among voters (Reis de Oliveira, 2022), Chega’s 2021 electoral programme contained several proposals aimed at reducing immigration flows, including rescinding the UN’s Global Compact for Migration and rejecting naturalization paths for asylum seekers, using conspiracist discourse (the “Great Replacement”) and describing immigrants as “a threat to the survival of the Portuguese as a people with its own identity” (Chega, 2021). At the same time, Ventura seldom mentions immigration in public, and when he has, it has usually been to defend Portugal’s border police, the Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras (SEF), from accusations of misconduct and brutality. In sum, Ventura uses migration instrumentally as a pretext to engage in welfare chauvinism and defend the state authorities.

In line with its European party family’s rejection of “any policy designed to create a supra-state or supra-national model” (Identity and Democracy Party, 2019), Chega claims to stand for a “Europe of nations”, working toward “integration, not dilution” (Chega, n.d. a). However, the EU and European integration are not prominent features of its rhetoric, nor does it advance hard Eurosceptic proposals such as reversing European integration or demanding Portugal’s exit from the Eurozone (much less the Union itself). In Chega’s 2021 manifesto, sovereigntist claims are used only in connection with immigration and administrative issues (Chega, n.d. b). In Portugal, it is parties of the Left, especially the PCP, that monopolize sovereigntist anti-EU, anti-Euro, and anti-NATO discourses. The PCP proposed to “staunchly stand up against submission to the Euro and the EU’s impositions and conditionalities, taking back the tools Portugal needs for its sovereign development” as part of its platform for the last European Parliament elections (Partido Comunista Português, 2019).

Taking the same position as the communists would be untenable for Chega since it claims to unreservedly oppose them. Thus, while Chega makes no explicit reference to NATO in its official campaign materials, it often voices its support for Portugal’s participation in the alliance, coherent with its general militarism (See, e.g., Assembleia da República, 2022p; Assembleia da República, 2022q). Furthermore, while the party is ideologically close to the Putin regime—for instance, in its opposition to the expansion of LGBTQ rights articulated through “opposition to gender ideology” and the politicization of religion—it does not have the same kind of ties to Moscow as other European right-wing populist parties (Weiss, 2020). For example, it stops short of expressing admiration for Vladimir Putin and has managed to avoid credible accusations of financial ties with the Kremlin.

Interpreting the Russia-Ukraine war

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Chega backed Kyiv. However, the decision was apparently more informed by political expediency than principle. Unlike many other Far Right parties in Europe, such as Matteo Salvini’s Lega or Marine Le Pen’s Front National, Chega had few established commitments or vulnerabilities vis-à-vis Russia, so it was free to take the more popular position of supporting Ukraine without concerns about being accused of “flip-flopping”. A 2022 survey found 78% of Portuguese respondents favour “EU-coordinated defence”, and 38% endorse direct NATO military intervention in the conflict (Public Opinion Monitoring Unit, 2022).

In fact, in early 2021, Ventura called for harsher sanctions on the Russian “enemy” in light of ongoing Russian provocation in the Donbas and the annexation of Crimea, demanding they be applied to the entire economy rather than individual Russians (Assembleia da República, 2021). On the day of the 2022 invasion, Ventura “unreservedly” denounced Putin’s aggression in Parliament, urging Portugal to do “everything in its power, militarily and sanctions-wise [against Russia]” (Assembleia da República, 2022a, p. 18), and used Twitter to warn followers of the “danger” posed by “Putin’s and China’s friends in the Portuguese Parliament” (Ventura, 2022a).

Nevertheless, the Chega leader’s position was not supported unanimously within his party (at least not initially). On February 24, António Tânger Corrêa, one of Chega’s vice presidents, posted on Facebook characterizing the invasion as a legitimate reaction to “NATO encirclement of Russia” and accusing Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, of “siding with avowed Nazis”, echoing official Russian justification of the invasion (Malhado, 2022). Tânger Corrêa was backed by high-profile party members, including the famous actress Maria Vieira, a municipal deputy in Cascais near Lisbon, who voted against a local resolution condemning him and used Facebook to deride President Zelenskyy as a “puppet” (Malhado, 2022). These internal tensions were quickly resolved due to Ventura’s centrality within the party structure and a strong exogenous incentive provided by parties on the Left, particularly the PCP.

The oldest active Portuguese political party, the PCP was founded in 1921 and was the pivotal player in the resistance against the Estado Novo regime. It developed in a close, clandestine relationship with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and Eastern Bloc states, which it perceived as natural allies (Cunhal, 1997). After democratization in 1974, the PCP resisted the trend toward autonomization from the CPSU and the adoption of “Eurocommunism” exemplified by its Italian, French and Spanish counterparts (Cunhal, 1977). The PCP continues to advocate “progressive patriotic Left policies,” which it believes will lead to a “sorely needed anti-monopolist, anti-imperialist rupture”, and argues for the dissolution of NATO as a “crucial objective towards national sovereignty and world peace” (Partido Comunista Português, 2010), although the party, like Chega, has rejected identification with the Putin regime (Partido Comunista Português, n.d.).

During the February 24 parliamentary debate following Russia’s attack on Ukraine, João Oliveira, a PCP MP, read the situation from this perspective and diagnosed the issue in Ukraine as part of

[T]he same problem we’ve seen in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria. The problem is the use of siege tactics, confrontation, and war to impose economic relations that engender injustice, inequality, and appropriation [prescribing] an end to escalating political, economic, and military confrontation by NATO, the USA, and the EU towards Russia and relying on its contribution towards a negotiated political, peaceful, resolution”. (Assembleia da República, 2022a, p. 10)

Thus, Chega’s choice of Ventura’s pro-Ukrainian positioning was made easier by the PCP’s position. The party could observe how unpopular the communists’ ambivalent positioning was with voters and — since the PCP was the only party to consistently reject condemning the invasion — readily isolate the communists politically.

Exploiting the Russia-Ukraine war

In the weeks after the invasion, Chega’s efforts were directed at quelling doubts about its position, loudly proclaiming support for Ukraine. An early example concerned a protest scheduled for February 27 in front of the Russian embassy in Lisbon, organized by the youth wings of all the major political parties. Chega was the only party not invited to participate, part of an orchestrated strategy to establish a cordon sanitaire around it (Ribeiro, 2022). In response, Ventura tweeted his condemnation of other parties’ “low politics” (Ventura, 2022b). On the same day, Chega organized its own demonstration in front of the Ukrainian embassy, where Ventura was formally introduced to Ina Ohnivets, the Ukrainian ambassador to Portugal. Although Chega’s protest turned out to be smaller than the other parties’, it did allow Ventura to draw significant media coverage, be photographed standing side-by-side with the ambassador and play to the cameras in the role of party leader-cum-statesman (Rato, 2022). Ventura also suggested an ideological similitude between his party and Ukrainian resistance to invasion, equating its members’ “love for country” with “positive nationalism leading Ukrainians to defend themselves fearlessly from Russian aggression” (Assembleia da República, 2022b, p. 16).

The invasion was also used as ammunition against the Left. In a tweet soon after Russia’s invasion, Ventura prophesized that the war would be “lethal to Putin and Russian development, but also to the old Portuguese Communist Party, which is absolutely anachronistic in the 21st century. And one has to say ‘good riddance’!” (Ventura, 2022c). When PCP MPs were absent from President Zelensky’s address to the Portuguese Parliament (Lopes, 2022), Ventura accused the communists of having “[Ukrainian] women’s, children’s and senior citizens’ blood on [their] hands” (Assembleia da República, 2022e, p. 8). Simultaneously, when the Left attempted to highlight Chega’s ideological proximity with the Kremlin, such as when Pedro Filipe Soares of the Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda, BE) accused Ventura of “walking hand-in-hand with Marine Le Pen, who walks hand-in-hand with Putin” (Assembleia da República, 2022d, p. 59), Ventura reversed the accusations. Specifically, he pointed to the ambiguous positions of some members of The Left in the European Parliament – GUE/NGL European party group, such as Spain’s Podemos, which, according to the Chega leader, “criticized sanctions on Russia and military support to Ukraine” (ibid., p. 60-61). Similarly, in September 2022, when Jerónimo de Sousa, the PCP leader at the time, tried to dispel the perception of proximity between his party and Russia by equating Putin’s authoritarianism with Chega’s, Ventura sneered in a tweet that “commies are funny: they’re incapable of condemning the war in Ukraine, blame the West for the inflation crisis, and reject sanctions on Russia, yet they say the President of Chega is like “Putin””  (Ventura, 2022f).

The ongoing war also presented an opportunity for Chega to display its militarism. The party repeatedly called for increased spending on armed forces with the aim, in MP Diogo Pacheco de Amorim’s words, of confronting the “unforeseen hazards of an extremely geostrategically volatile world” (Assembleia da República, 2022e, p. 9) and fulfilling Portugal’s obligations towards NATO, as MP Pedro Pessanha stressed more than once (Assembleia da República, 202l, p. 73 , 2022 p. 32 ).

Immigration was also brought to the fore in connection with the situation in Ukraine. Party whip Pedro Pinto condemned a proposed reorganization of the SEF, saying it would make it easier for “criminals to blend with people who are actually running from a war […] as is already happening, especially in the Algarve, with migrants coming from Morocco carrying iPhones” (Assembleia da República, 2022g, p. 59). Ventura employed xenophobic rhetoric in his parliamentary speeches outlining Chega’s concerns with non-Ukrainian migration to Europe. He asserted that it was “a disservice to Europe” to compare Ukrainians to other migrants coming to Europe, claiming that in the latter case was tantamount to “substitution of the European population by people from North Africa or the Middle East [… who] treat women as objects, think women should wear the burka to Parliament and believe our Western values should be discarded” (Assembleia da República, 2022k, p. 8).

As the war dragged on and attention moved back to domestic politics, Chega’s defence of Ukraine progressively became less solid as it reverted to welfare chauvinist discourse. For example, in early March, André Ventura tweeted about “doing everything we can to stand up for the Ukrainian people” (Ventura, 2022d), only to question Portuguese financial support for Ukraine two months later, tweeting that the money should be spent on pensioners (Ventura, 2022e) and assailing the government’s priorities in a parliamentary speech as “upside-down” (Assembleia da República, 2022j, p. 11).

The Russia-Ukraine war also provided avenues for Chega to pursue previous agenda priorities. For instance, Ventura had blasted the government on Twitter for rising gas and energy prices already in 2021 (e.g., Ventura, 2021a, Ventura, 2021b) and continued to do so in 2022, with Ventura demanding government intervention to control gas prices in his first parliamentary intervention after the invasion, and alleging voters prioritized gas prices over the war (Assembleia da República 2022a, p. 18, 2022g, p.18). Other Chega MPs mentioned energy prices in connection to the war in ten further separate parliamentary proceedings (Assembleia da República, 2022c, p. 36; 2022f, p. 13; 2022h, p. 37; 2022j, p. 27; 202l, p. 71; 2022m, p. 22; 2022n, p. 39; 2022o, p. 23-24; 2022q, p. 25; 2022r, p.16). Other issues touched upon by Chega MPs using war framing included a proposal to lower municipal real estate tax due to an alleged increase in demand due to the conflict (Assembleia da República 2022h, p. 37) and criticism of the National Health Service (SNS) for “killing more people than the war” (2022p, p. 51).

Discussion

Chega and André Ventura’s discourses on Ukraine were deployed instrumentally, allowing Chega to continue to trail a path toward normalization as a player in the political system. Initially, it allowed the party to side with the majority opinion, both in Parliament and among voters, and, conversely, take advantage of the fact that one of its main political adversaries did not, and could thus be isolated and portrayed as anachronistic, radical, and out-of-touch, in contrast with Chega’s sensible position. Then, when the weight of war waned in voters’ minds, Ventura and Chega MPs began to use it as a pretext to articulate pre-existing political priorities, such as militarism, opposition to immigration, and welfare chauvinism.

Chega’s strategy was moderately successful. Since the January 2022 election predates the invasion, there were no concrete, immediate electoral gains to be had, but the party hovered around the 9% mark in opinion polls taken in late 2022 and early 2023 (e.g., ICS–ISCTE Surveys, 2022; Rodrigues, 2023), meaning a slight upward trend. Other parties were hard-pressed to paint Chega’s position as unreasonable or out of bounds, and the attempt to isolate PCP was not carried out by Chega alone, as other parties also used PCP’s refusal to explicitly concede Russian blame for the war against it. The Communists were steadily losing electoral support. At the 2015 election, they obtained 8.25% of the vote (17 MPs), and by the 2022 election, this had fallen to 4.3% (6 MPs). Still, the PCP seems rather unaffected by developments, as neither the party’s overall unpopular positions on Ukraine nor the replacement of former leader Jerónimo de Sousa by the younger, largely unknown Paulo Raimundo has significantly altered its popularity in the polls (e.g., Rodrigues, 2023).

At the time of writing (February 2023), the war in Ukraine seems to have caused few changes to the Portuguese political landscape, even if inflation caused by the ongoing war is a factor in the slightly eroding popularity of the current Socialist Party (PS) government, in office since 2015. This is also the case when looking at Chega as the leading right-wing populist party in the country. The conflict is unlikely to cause deep rifts, as the relative success of Ventura’s strategy and his undisputed internal power ensure that doubts and disagreements about the matter will most likely not be voiced. Party positioning regarding key issues is also unchanged and has not impeded Chega’s transformation of the Portuguese political system by carving space for and normalizing right-wing populist actors.

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(*) Afonso Biscaia is a PhD candidate in Comparative Politics at the Instituto de Ciências Sociais–Universidade de Lisboa. His main research interests include radical right-wing populism and digital political communication.

(**) Susana Salgado (PhD, 2007) is political communication scholar. She coordinates research projects, teaches, and publishes on democracy, populism, disinformation, hate and online extremism, and political polarisation. Salgado is currently Principal Research Fellow at the Instituto de Ciências Sociais–Universidade de Lisboa and the principal investigator of externally funded research projects, including “(The Matrix of) Populist and Denialist Attitudes towards Science” (PTDC/CPO-CPO/4361/2021) and “Depictions and Politicization of the Truth in Democratic Politics” (2020.04070.CEECIND/CP1615/CT0007).


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Ventura, A. [AndreCVentura] (2021a, April 7) Sim, o CHEGA propõe que os preços dos combustíveis sejam limitados. Chega de explorar o povo português! [Tweet] Twitter. https://www.twitter.com/AndreCVentura/status/1379807301394128904

Ventura, A. [@AndreCVentura] (2021b, November 11) Usei uma das minhas últimas 
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[Video attached][Tweet]. Twitter. https://www.twitter.com/AndreCVentura/status/1458740680243793925

Ventura, A. [@AndreCVentura]. (2022a, February 25) Agora que a Europa está em perigo, não nos devemos esquecer dos amigos de Putin e da China que andam. [Image attached] [Tweet]. Twitter. https://www.twitter.com/AndreCVentura/status/1497227853775130642

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apenas fatal para Putin e para o desenvolvimento da Rússia. Sê-lo-á também para o.
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 portugueses os rendimentos
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Anti-government protest organized by Alliance for the Union of Romanians against the increase in energy prices in Bucharest, Romania on October 02, 2022. Photo: Shutterstock.

Romanian populism and transnational political mobilization

Soare, Sorina. (2023). “Romanian populism and transnational political mobilization.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0027

 

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Abstract

Once considered a partial exception to the recent diffusion of populism worldwide, Romania saw Radical Right populism return to Parliament in 2020. The Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR) successfully campaigned on a platform of defending the Christian faith, freedom, the traditional family, and the nation. Although the party was initially considered the result of individual entrepreneurship linked to its founding leaders, it has successfully built on diffused networks of societal activism whose origins could be traced back to the early 2000s. However, the AUR’s track record of discourse aligned with Kremlin rhetoric calling for Western economic, political and cultural hegemony to be resisted and rolled back saw a temporary decline in voters’ support for the party. However, the party managed to rebuild consensus strategically by drawing on voters’ increased anxiety regarding the economic effects of the war. This report offers a cogent analysis of the political performance of the AUR, examining the party’s formative phase as well as its evolution since 2020, alongside a discussion of the impact of the war in Ukraine on Romanian party politics.

Keywords: Radical Right; populism; Romania; reunification; nativism; societal activism.

 

 

By Sorina Soare*[1] (University of Florence)

Introduction

The literature dealing with the diffusion of populism across new and old democracies usually considers Romania a partial exception. While different variants of populism received electoral support and influenced the governmental agenda during the 1990s, in the 2010s, the supply of parliamentary populist parties dwindled if one only considers the most unambiguous cases. In 2012, amidst an economic crisis, widespread corruption, political instability and severe institutional clashes, the People’s Party–Dan Diaconescu (PPDD) gained some electoral support. The party was able to capitalize on being new in politics and standing for “the people” in opposition to “the elite”, but only for a short while. The PPDD platform combined populism with authoritarian discourses around “social order” and a peculiar form of nativism in which the defence of the Romanian community and the endorsement of the project of reunification with neighbouring Moldova coexisted with an odd ethnicization of merit in a slogan claiming targeted collaboration with foreigners (Gherghina & Soare, 2021). By 2014, several parliamentarians had defected from the PPDD, and in 2015, the party merged with the National Union for the Progress of Romania (UNPR). For the next half-decade, nativism, authoritarianism, and populism dwelt outside the parliamentary arena (Soare & Tufis, 2019). Only in the 2020 elections did Radical Right populism return to the Romanian Parliament with a strong showing from the Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR).[2]

Yet public discourse and parliamentary debate point to populism’s polymorphism and resilience in Romania, with a reach far into the mainstream political forces that are central to defining governmental alternatives (Soare & Tufis, 2019). Dragoman (2021), for instance, finds populism even in the anti-corruption platform of the Save Romania Union (USR), a party that is probably most often associated with liberal opposition to populism in Romania. Dragoman sees in the USR discourse “recombinant populism”, which is notable for connecting anti-communist stances with anti-corruption ones. Indeed, in Romanian politics, USR representatives have habitually accused traditional political actors — namely, the Social Democrats (PSD) and the Liberals (PNL) — of dishonesty and of serving their own interests. However, Engler (2020) has identified this kind of rhetoric as par for the course for centrist anti-establishment parties, which — apart from their anti-establishment and anti-corruption rhetoric — do not differ from the established parties they criticize. Similarly, the USR can be considered part of the group of anti-establishment reform parties identified by Hanley and Sikk (2016), committed to liberal democracy and the market economy.

A borderline populist position can also be traced in the Social Democratic Party (PSD), per forthcoming updated research on Romania from Populist (https://popu-list.org/). A successor of the communist-era governing party, the PSD (and its predecessors) has been in Parliament since the first post-communist elections, with regular participation in government. The formerly socialist party’s first ideological turn came at the end of the 1990s when the PSD endorsed market-liberal economics and cultural liberalism. Starting in 2012, though, the party increasingly came to champion left-wing populist economics and right-wing cultural traditionalism and adopted a Eurosceptic stance on issues from time to time. However, the PSD remained within the coordinates of mainstream party politics as an electorally dominant actor competing on the Left–Right political spectrum.

The AUR is undoubtedly the most noteworthy and universally recognized example of Radical Right populism in Romania today. This report focuses only on the AUR, given its peculiarities and significance today. As the war in Ukraine has unfolded, the AUR has aligned with the other parliamentary parties in condemning Russia’s invasion and voicing concerns for the security of the community of co-ethnic Romanians living in Ukraine. However, the party’s track record of discourse aligned with Kremlin rhetoric calling for Western economic, political and cultural hegemony to be resisted and rolled back saw the AUR initially penalized in terms of electoral support. Despite that, the party strategically invested in the heightened anxiety among voters regarding the economic effects of the war. It adapted its public stances to the need to defend the national interest by promoting forms of economic and energy protectionism, by promoting the idea that national resources (including energy) should be primarily directed towards Romanians and that foreign companies should receive limited access (if any) to these strategic resources. The latest opinion polling shows that the AUR has recovered from the decline in its electoral fortunes registered in the spring of 2022 and remains anchored as the third party in voters’ preferences.

The remainder of the report is structured as follows. The first section details the origins of the AUR and party development in its formative phases. The second section focuses on the evolution of the party since it returned to Parliament after the 2020 elections. The third section focuses on the impact of the war in Ukraine on Romanian party politics while also summarizing the main findings of the analysis.

Where did the Alliance for the Union of Romanians come from?

The AUR’s programme combines an ethnically defined emphasis on the “people’s will” with authoritarianism, understood as the belief in a strictly ordered community. This belief set encompasses traditional concerns about “law and order” but also culturally authoritarian positions like opposition to same-sex marriage, a hard line on LGBTIQ+ rights, and legislative proposals that claim to protect children from sexual propaganda in kindergartens, schools and the media. Due to the overlap between the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 electoral campaign, the AUR skilfully leveraged opposition to the government’s vaccination strategy and unpopular public safety measures, such as the obligatory use of masks, mandatory vaccination, and vaccine certificates. Although the party leadership did not openly oppose vaccination, AUR representatives regularly emphasized opposition to forcing citizens to get vaccinated. One of its leaders repeatedly endorsed the protests against the government strategy, reasoning that the AUR sides “with the people who are right-headed, who want justice” (Deutsche Welle, 2021).

The AUR’s rise was a great surprise in Romanian politics. The party garnered 9.1% of the overall vote in the 2020 legislative elections, including 541,938 votes for the Senate (9.17% of the total cast) and 535,831 votes for the House of Deputies (9.08%) (https://parlamentare2020.bec.ro/). As a result, the party saw four senators and thirty-three deputies elected. While the general turnout was the lowest since the end of communism, in the Romanian diaspora, turnout hit an all-time high. Previous studies have observed that Romanian non-resident voters have traditionally tended to vote disproportionately for centre-right candidates and parties over left-wing and populist parties (Vintilă & Soare, 2018). Still, in 2020 one in four Romanians abroad voted for the AUR; the party came first in the section polls organized in Cyprus and Italy and second in France, Germany and Spain (Ulceluse, 2020).

The available data allow us to clarify who voted for the AUR in Romania, but to the extent of my knowledge, no exit polls were conducted with Romanian voters living abroad. Exit polls conducted inside Romania show the typical AUR voter as a middle-aged male with a medium level of education. There was a strong correlation between conservative votes in a recent referendum related to the definition of the family in the Romanian Constitution and the vote share of the AUR in the 2020 legislative elections (Pora, 2020). Recent data (Soare & Tufis, 2023) also show that emigration from Romania mattered: the higher the emigration rate across different Romanian regions, the better the AUR scored in those areas. Moreover, other exit polls stressed that the AUR’s electoral success rested on voter disenchantment with traditional politics in the context of deteriorating socioeconomic conditions and rising economic inequality (Pora, 2020).

What looked like an unexpected electoral success resulted from a strategic investment in low-cost online campaigning with simple messages and Manichean stances claiming that all mainstream politicians were corrupt, the values of the Christian family were under threat, and the like (Doiciar & Creţan, 2021). The party was also very active in on-the-ground canvassing both in Romania and among non-resident voters in the West European diaspora (Andrei, 2020). Probably most importantly, the party benefitted from ties to political movements that pre-date its legal registration in 2019. In this early period, the AUR capitalized on the extensive societal activism of the party’s founding co-presidents, George Simion and Claudiu Târziu[3] (Soare & Tufis, 2023). Although the trajectories of these two men in terms of political activism do not fully overlap, their activities have converged on several key themes: the goal of unifying Romania and the Republic of Moldova, an emphasis on tradition (traditional family values), and the defence of the Christian faith.

The challenges of winning seats in the national Parliament

Like many other populist parties, when it arrived in Parliament, the AUR faced a deficit of credibility among the other parliamentary parties. This was coupled with a bad image in the mainstream media. As a result, in February 2021, 40 Romanian intellectuals and representatives of civil society organizations signed an open letter expressing strong concern about the AUR’s impact on Romanian democracy. They publicly called on the other parliamentary parties to establish a tight cordon sanitaire around the AUR by foreswearing any cooperation or coalition with it (Europa Liberă România, 2021). For a while, the traditional parties followed this strategy of political exclusion by regularly blocking or voting against the AUR’s legislative initiatives. It was, however, impossible to exclude the AUR completely. For example, Claudiu Târziu, former co-president of the AUR and a senator representing Bucharest since 2020, managed to get elected as president of the Senate’s Commission for Romanians Abroad.

Despite using folksy expressions and displaying raw and even violent behaviour (Deutsche Welle, 2022), the AUR was not hermetically isolated. In the middle of the 2021 governmental crisis, the AUR backed a motion of no confidence submitted by USR-PLUS, the junior partner in the governing coalition. At the beginning of 2022, different Romanian journalists wrote about a possible merger between AUR and the People’s Movement Party (PMP), founded by supporters of Traian Băsescu, then president of Romania, with other minor parties. The merger, which in the end fell through, was supposed to become a movement to circumvent the AUR’s international isolation and open direct access to the European People’s Party that the PMP was part of. This strategy was complemented by direct lobbying from the extraterritorial branches that AUR successfully created across the different communities of Romanian emigrants who built local connections with possible sister parties, such as the Vox party in Spain and the Fratelli d’Italia (Soare & Tufis, 2023).

In recent years, the AUR has worked on developing a broader political agenda and building transnational ties. In 2022, for instance, the AUR founded the Mihai Eminescu Conservative Political Studies Institute in Bucharest, aiming to support scholarship and research on conservative themes and to raise citizen awareness of conservative values and ideas. As the head of the newly created institute, Târziu gave the opening speech at the first International Conference organized in Bucharest under the title “The Europe we believe in”. The party invited representatives from the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, the Polish Law and Justice Party (PiS), and the Fratelli d’Italia to the conference together with representatives from Israel’s Likud, France’s Reconquête, and Portugal’s Chega! (Partidulaur.ro, 2022). As emphasized in Târziu’s speech, this event was seen as an occasion for intense networking with parties sharing conservative views.

Consequently, the AUR presented itself as a mainstream conservative party seeking to join a broader European and international campaign against the moral degradation purportedly produced by the spread of neo-Marxist ideology. Echoing one of the leading figures in the pantheon of European neo-conservatism, Ryszard Legutko and his The Demon in Democracy (Behr, 2021), Târziu and the other guests elaborated the thesis of the decadence of Western liberal democracy and the need to protect traditions following the model set by Poland and Hungary after 2010 (Aurnews.ro, 2022). It is yet too soon to evaluate the success of this networking. Still, the November 2022 event represented a radical change from Simion’s failed attempt to join a similar meeting organized by Vox in Madrid in February 2022 (Dutulescu, 2022).

Overall, in the first two years of parliamentarian representation, the AUR representatives remained vocal in accusing the government of damaging Romanians’ living standards and for its mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis. However, despite the continuity in discourses and behaviour, the first cracks in the party structure soon became visible. According to different media reports, the cracks were born out of two different visions of the party’s future. While Târziu aimed to bring the AUR into the European neo-conservatism mainstream (in the mould of Hungary’s Fidesz or Poland’s PiS), Simion was more interested in maintaining the emphasis on the radical grassroots. The tensions between the two orientations exploded in public when Simion endorsed Călin Georgescu as an honorary president of the party. Georgescu was a highly controversial choice given his lionization of historical Far Right figures in Romanian politics, including Corneliu Zelea Codreanu and Ion Antonescu, antisemites both (Pavel, 2022). In the face of intense criticism, Simion was forced to back down and renounce his support for Georgescu and a raft of other controversial figures in Romanian politics.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine further accelerated this process, as Călin Georgescu was among the leading figures taking a pro-Russian position and publicly backing Putin, telling a news reporter, “He [Putin] is a leader, one of the few” (În Linie Dreaptă, 2020) while also helping to organize a visit of Alexander Dugin, the Eurasianist ideologue with ties to the Kremlin, to Romania in 2014 (ziare.com, 2014). At the AUR National Congress in March 2022, the party’s dual leadership was abandoned, with Simion beating out Târziu to assume the sole presidency of the party. Simion continues to exhibit the kinds of public behaviours in Romania that characterized his pre-2019 societal activism and made him credible with the grassroots base of the party. He is uninhibited when it comes to standing up for “ordinary people”, uses everyday or even coarse language to attract attention and burnish his “every man” credentials, and will readily exploit private events—including his own wedding—to stay in the public eye and be seen mixing with ordinary people.

While continuing to reinforce its organization on the ground in Romania and abroad, the AUR remains very active online, with a heavy presence on Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram. According to Romanian experts, the party’s extensive online networks are rife with conspiracy theories, misinformation, and Russian propaganda (Despa & Albu, 2021). The popular perception of the AUR as being close to Russia and the anti-European Union (EU) and anti-NATO rhetoric led to an abrupt drop in the party’s popularity. Opinion surveys published just before the Russian invasion of Ukraine found 22% of respondents intended to vote for the AUR. By May 2022, this share had dropped to 16.3%. Yet, with increased war fatigue, rising energy costs, and high inflation, the party’s voter support had returned to 22% by September 2022 (Anghelus, 2022). Internal tensions in the AUR have also calmed down as the party organization has consolidated and its ideology refined.

The war in Ukraine and its influence on Romanian politics

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine unfolded, all Romanian parliamentary parties rapidly aligned towards vocal condemnation of the Kremlin, backing the pro-Ukrainian position adopted almost universally in the West and raising concerns for the community of Romanian co-ethnics in Ukraine. This endorsement echoed the diffused perception of trust in the Western partnerships among the Romanian electorate. A January 2022 poll showed that the prospect of Russian aggression against Ukraine had increased Romanian voters’ confidence in NATO and the EU. An overwhelming majority of voters (77%) believe Romania should intensify its political and military ties with the West; only 10.4% agreed that Romanian foreign policy should be oriented to the East and closer relations with Russia and China cultivated. However, compared to other international leaders, trust in Vladimir Putin remained high, in line with his image as a strong leader, with pronounced support among the young (Lupitu, 2022).

The pro-Ukrainian alignment came as a surprise, given the pro-Russian stances taken by prominent figures in the AUR in the past, their positive views of Putin’s strong leadership and, more generally, their vocal endorsement of the Kremlin’s fierce defence of national traditions and Orthodox Christianity. However, despite different media reports arguing a pro-Russian party might take up to 7% of the vote in Romania (Ancheteonline.ro, 2020), the AUR’s official message was nuanced. In the aftermath of the December 2020 elections, Simion argued that “Russia, throughout the ages, from the Tsarist Empire to the Soviet Union and Putin’s Russia today, has done a lot of harm to Romania” (Andrei, 2020). Moreover, he pointed to his dogged campaigning for the reunification of Romania with Bessarabia (most of which lies in today’s Moldova), which put him directly at odds with the Kremlin, which seeks to retain meddle in Moldovan affairs and has troops stationed in the breakaway region of Transnistria (Andrei, 2020). Consistent with these public statements against Russian imperialism, Simion had no hesitation in condemning Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine in February 2022: “We are worried about the fate of the ethnic Romanians there [in Ukraine] and the repeated threats on the territory of Romania” (Mazilu, 2022).

At the same time, various AUR representatives have constantly expressed support and admiration for how traditions, values, and religion are defended in Russia. The Russian propaganda machine has picked up on this. At the end of 2021, the local outlet of the Kremlin-backed Sputnik media published a list of top personalities and political parties in Romania. At the top of their list was Diana Șoșoacă, a former AUR senator known for her anti-EU and anti-NATO stances. The Sputnik article also held the AUR out as “the absolute surprise of the Romanian political class” and praised its clear stance in defence of the national interest and domestic capital (Leonte, 2021). In parallel, the media chronicled a vast constellation of (former) AUR members with a record of avowedly pro-Russian positions in the public sphere. In addition, several newly registered parties rose to prominence in the public arena with pro-Russian messages grafted onto different conspiracy theories (Şuțu, 2022). A case in point is the Patriots of the Romanian People party founded by Mihai Lasca, a former AUR parliamentarian who vocally endorsed Putin’s hardline position on homosexuality and lambasted President Zelenskyy’s supposed “provocations” and “refusal to make peace” with Russia. Similarly, the new outfit SOS Romania welcomed Șoșoacă into the fold and aligned with her pro-Russian narrative of the war in Ukraine. Similar positions have been promoted by the so-called Roexit Party (a nod to Britain’s exit from the EU) and the Alliance for the Homeland, both founded by figures who once found a home in the AUR but who were eventually expelled from the party or decided to resign.

The diffusion of pro-Russian stances, however fringe, is far from a recent phenomenon and goes beyond the AUR constellation (hotnews.ro, 2015). Various experts and reports have chronicled diffuse networks of support in the media, among civil society organizations or in the political, economic, cultural, and religious arenas (Fati, 2022). Many politicians have lobbied on behalf of Russian economic interests (mainly in the field of energy) since the early 2000s. Since the beginning of the war, some — including former foreign affairs ministers Andrei Marga and Adrian Severin and Adrian Năstase, a former prime minister — have parroted Kremlin propaganda that Kyiv, more or less explicitly, provoked the conflict and drawn attention to reports of discrimination against Romanian co-ethics in Ukraine (Fati, 2022).

Overall, the consensus across the parliamentary parties in Romania has championed the government in its consistent backing for the Western coalition supporting the Ukrainian resistance since February 2022. The AUR has adapted to this consensus, although not without putting its own twist on the framing. For example, party president George Simion has leveraged increasing energy prices to attack both Western companies operating in the Romanian energy market and the Romanian government for exploiting the country’s natural resources without sharing the benefits with the Romanian people. The party’s position echoes the data on electoral support. A recent analysis published by the CPD SNSPA (2022) captures how confidence in the West (the EU, NATO, the United States) and the East (Russia) has evolved over time and how voters of the main parties position themselves on this topic. The analysis confirms that Romanian voters retain strong pro-Western attitudes. It also shows that very few express vocal support for or trust in Russia, with inactive young people (unemployed and with low levels of education) and people with populist attitudes being the most positive toward Moscow. Strikingly, this group of respondents reports getting most of its news and information online. While the analysis finds that the voting intention for the AUR is a predictor of trust in Russia, it also observes that support for Moscow has dropped significantly over the past year, with most mainstream party voters expressing a lack of confidence in Russia.

Conclusion

This report has shown that the AUR’s rise in the Romanian Parliament is partly due to disenchantment with traditional politics. The other part of the explanation is connected to pre-existing dense networks of social ties that have allowed the AUR to successfully present itself as a credible counterpoint to the established political consensus regarding liberal democratic values while simultaneously promoting a return to tradition as a safety net in turbulent times. Some party members’ customary obescience towards the Kremlin has been chronicled by a range of media reports, although the party has remained cautious in its official positions. Still, before February 2022, a number of party representatives were on the record praising the Putin regime and Russia generally as offering credible alternatives to the “decadent” liberal values of the West and as a hedge against economic exploitation from Western companies.

As the war in Ukraine has unfolded, some former AUR members have even parroted the Kremlin line, portrayed the aggression as justified and occasionally accused the government of failing to protect the Romanian minorities who call Ukraine home. Yet, the official message has focused more on the frame of economic protectionism, particularly regarding exploding energy prices. While carefully edited out of the AUR’s public statements, pro-Russian positions lie just below the surface in the minds of the AUR electorate and, most specifically, Romania’s inactive young voters.

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(*) Sorina Soare is a lecturer in comparative politics at the University of Florence. She holds a PhD in political science from Université libre de Bruxelles and has previously studied political science at the University of Bucharest. Her work focuses on post-communist comparative politics, and her main research interests are emigration, party politics, populism, transnational participation and post-communist activism. Among her recent publications are “Saved by the diaspora? The case of the Alliance for the Union of Romanians” (2023, European Political Science, co-authored), “Speaking Out against the Discrimination of Romanians Abroad: An Analysis of Parliamentary Speeches in the Home Country” (2022, Nationalities Papers, co-authored) and “No populism’s land? Religion and gender in Romanian politics” (2021, Identities,co-authored). Email: sorinacristina.soare@unifi.it


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Footnotes

[1] The author thanks Marina Popescu, Daniela Vintila and Emilia Zankina for helpful comments.

[2] Information on the party’s profile can be obtained from its website (https://partidulaur.ro/echipa/)

[3] Târziu’s CV is listed on his personal website (https://claudiutarziu.ro/despre-mine/curriculum-vitae/).

Rally of support in Kragujevac in the pre-election campaign of President Aleksandar Vučić in Serbia on March 26, 2022. Photo: Shutterstock.

Balancing on a pin: Serbian populists, the European Union and Russia

Spasojević, Dušan. (2023). “Balancing on a pin: Serbian populists, the European Union and Russia.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0028

 

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Abstract

This report investigates the consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the Serbian party system. The Serbian case has two unique characteristics. The first is the final status of Kosovo, which Serbia has traditionally relied on Russian support over (as a member of the UN Security Council). However, Ukraine has also respected the territorial integrity of Serbia and did not recognize Kosovo. The second characteristic is Serbia’s ruling party, the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). Unlike many other Eastern European populist parties, the SNS is formally pro-European Union. Since the beginning of the war, the ruling parties have been under international pressure to join sanctions against Russia; on the other side, the opposition splits between right-wing supporters of Russia and left-wing and liberal parties with weak support for international sanctions. This report aims to analyse the potential change in the ideological positions of Serbian parties — especially the populist ones — due to the significant changes in the international landscape occasioned by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Keywords: Serbia; populism; European Union; Russia; cleavages.

 

 

By Dušan Spasojević* (University of Belgrade)

Background

Serbian politics has revolved around identity issues since the beginning of party pluralism. Milošević’s authoritarian rule (1991–2000) was based on leveraging nationalism and conflicts during the break-up of Yugoslavia. After his defeat in 2000, the new ruling coalition of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia split between modernist and traditionalist forces based on similar identity-based issues: war crimes prosecutions, foreign relations — especially Serbia’s integration into the European Union (EU) — and finally, the status of Kosovo. Competition between these two sides was the critical process of Serbian politics during the first post-Milošević decade. In 2008, pro-EU forces led by the Democratic Party (DSS) made what seemed to be the decisive electoral victory that led to the establishment of a national consensus on European integration.

In this report, I will briefly describe the Serbian party system with particular emphasis on populist actors and populism-related issues. This part will be followed by a description of changes caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, focusing on the 2022 parliamentary elections in Serbia and a comparison with the period after the campaign. The final part will be dedicated to the “demand side” of politics – public opinion surveys and the electoral results of parties with specific positions on the war in Ukraine.

The Serbian party system – an overview

Since 2012, the Serbian party system has been dominated by the Serbian Progressive Party (Srpska Narodna Stranka, SNS). The SNS was founded by the Far Right, nationalist, and populist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) after its electoral defeat in 2008. The new party declared itself a moderate centre-right and pro-European people’s party (Stojić, 2018), increasing its coalition potential and enabling electoral victory in presidential and parliamentary elections in 2012. Since 2014, the party has consistently won almost 50% of the vote and ruled under the very popular president, Aleksandar Vučić, as a predominant party with several coalition partners, including the Socialist Party of Serbia or SPS (Milošević’s former party) and minority Hungarian and Bosniak parties, among others.

Due to ideological baggage carried over from its radical period before 2008, the SNS initially moderated its political views to present itself as something completely new. The SNS tried to avoid most of the old identity issues and to promote issues such as economic growth and combating corruption. Corruption proved critical during the 2012 and 2014 electoral campaigns as the SNS accused previous governments of being “thieves and tycoons” and responsible for the corrupted transition from communism. In a classic populist manner, SNS leaders contrasted the corrupt ruling elites with the “ordinary” people. The SNS claimed to represent ordinary Serbs who had been left behind socioeconomically by the transition to democracy and a market economy (Spasojević, 2019).

In contrast to many Eastern European populist parties, the SNS had to formally maintain pro-EU positions as Serbia is a candidate country. This meant that criticism against the EU had to be expressed in vague and general terms; simultaneously, the SNS conveyed significant respect for individual European leaders. For example, Vučić spoke very highly of Merkel and had many meetings with the German chancellor, even as a part of electoral campaigns. The SNS developed an extensive catch-all ideological profile, including the balance between the East and the West. The previous DSS government already defined a similar foreign policy posture emphasizing “the four pillars” (the EU, the United States, Russia, and China), and it was primarily related to the question of the final status of Kosovo. In other words, as most EU countries recognized Kosovo’s independence, Serbia relied on Russia and China (as permanent members of the UN Security Council) as counterweights to the EU and the United States” support for Kosovo’s independence.

As time progressed, the SNS felt more confident in power and increasingly foregrounded non-European actors in Serbia’s political landscape. Simultaneously, the EU integration process stalled, both because of enlargement fatigue on the EU side and a dearth of reforms on the Serbian side. During Donald Trump’s presidency, relations with the United States intensified as there was more understanding of an “alternative” solution to the Kosovo issue, partition between Serbs and Albanians. This solution was perceived as practical but “against the European values” (an ethnic division of territory) and as a potential trigger for other similar cases in the region. Conversely, Russia and China have been praised as reliable partners that recognize Serbian interests and do not put pressure on Serbia like Europe. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Serbian government always emphasized medical support from China and Russia, in contrast, to aid from the EU.      

However, this should not be understood as Serbia giving up on European integration – the process is still ongoing, and government officials often refer to EU values and cooperation with the EU institutions and EU representatives praising Serbian progress. Also, the SNS limits its right-wing populist policies primarily to regional issues and for a domestic audience while adhering to a pro-EU approach internationally. For example, the Serbian government took a very cooperative stance during the 2015 “refugee crisis”, the Serbian prime minister is openly lesbian, and Belgrade hosted the 2022 EuroPride (after initially cancelling the event, the Serbian government recanted, but the parade failed to attract the typical attendance). EU legitimacy enables the Serbian regime to undermine the opposition and relativizes criticism of autocratic rule (Spasojević, 2022). Support and legitimacy of this kind has been termed “stabilitocracy” (Bieber, 2018).

The SNS is not the only populist party in Serbia. Parties like Dveri, Zavetnici, Dosta je Bilo (Enough is Enough), which has run in past elections under the banner of the Sovereigntists, the SRS, and perhaps even the DSS are in many ways further to the right of the SNS. In total, these parties garner as much as 15% of the electorate, with each party winning 2–3% of votes. This group is heterogenous – the SRS and the DSS are the old parties from the 1990s, while the rest emerged during the last waves of populism. Most of these parties object to EU integration and demand strict anti-immigrant policies and the establishment of stronger ties with Russia. Some opposed COVID-19 measures and the government’s vaccination policies, and most accuse the current regime of being prepared to recognize Kosovo’s independence. At the same time, there are frequent accusations that they cooperate with the government and do not represent the “real” opposition. These claims are based on the fact that representatives of these parties have access to pro-government media, in contrast to the liberal and left-wing opposition parties. 

Finally, since 2018 there have been examples of left-wing populism, such as the grassroots Ne davimo Beograd (“Do not let Belgrade d(r)own”) movement to participate in Belgrade elections. In 2022 they became a part of a parliamentary coalition with environmental groups and small regional parties, establishing a left-wing populist presence in the institutions.

The supply side of right-wing populism and their political environment

The Russian invasion began almost simultaneously with the kick-off of the electoral campaign in Serbia. The elections were scheduled for April 3, which gave parties an opportunity to react and adapt to new circumstances. Having the most resources, the ruling SNS immediately reacted and shifted the entire campaign from usual electoral promises of progress and rapid development toward stability – president Vučić argued that the world as we know it will collapse and that our goal should be to preserve ourselves. The main concerns the SNS and government officials raised were energy (as the Serbian energy sector is heavily dependent on Russian supplies) and food. As a result, the Serbian government was pressured to introduce sanctions on Russia. Still, it seems that they used the electoral campaign and technical mandate of the government as an excuse, at least initially. In later statements, the SNS representatives claimed that Serbia would not impose sanctions if it could resist pressure from the West. Finally, however, Serbia voted for the United Nations Assembly Resolution that demanded the end of the Russian offensive in Ukraine on 2 March.

Far Right populist parties saw the invasion as an opportunity and took a position that resonated with their constituency’s established anti-West (and pro-Russian) values. In this sense, the war gave new impetus to old arguments, with the war cast as a classic proxy war of the West against Russia, that Ukraine was under the sway of the Western powers, and Serbia should not take sides and impose sanctions on Russia. The arguments of these parties varied from the moderate position of the DSS (Serbia should not pick sides and should retain principled positions respecting the international law and territorial integrity of Ukraine and, therefore, should not recognize the separatist Donbas and Luhansk republics) and anti-EU positions of Dveri, Dosta je Bilo and Zavetnici (the EU integration process has stalled and thus there is no incentive to harmonize foreign politics with Brussels and to jeopardize relations with Russia and Belarus), toward the more critical SRS, which demanded strong support for Russia. The right-wing parties were already in a good position because of a recent campaign against the constitutional changes supported by the EU in January 2022.

The ruling SNS expressed positions close to Far Right populists. The SNS is often classified as pro-Russian. The Socialists rejected the idea of joining the sanctions regime against Russia as it would go against Serbian national interests. They referred to the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, asking why the international public was not interested in Serbian civilian victims. President of the Socialist Party, Ivica Dačić, argued that it would take another 25 years for Serbia to become an EU member and that Belgrade could thus happily shelve policy harmonization for the foreseeable future.

Other (non-populist) parties tried to avoid this issue during the campaign, hoping the war would end quickly. However, most non-populist parties believed the war would only provide incentives for nationalism and identity politics, traditionally perceived as a vital element of the regime and right-wing parties. Therefore, in the first several weeks of the campaign, the Party of Freedom and Justice (SPP), Serbia’s largest opposition party, argued against the sanctions on the ground they affect ordinary people and not the regime (often referring to the Serbian experience during the 1990s with claims that sanctions did not harm Milošević at all). Still, most non-populist parties demanded that Serbia condemn Russian aggression on Ukraine. However, as the war progressed toward the end of the campaign, several parties, including the DSS, the PSG (Movement of Free Citizens) and the left-wing party Moramo (We Must), spoke out strongly in favour of Ukraine and called for sanctions on Russia.

These voices were strengthened after the elections when the SSP supported the sanctions and even asked for a parliamentary session on this issue. It is unclear if these changes resulted from public opinion, war events (e.g., atrocities, destruction of civilian infrastructure), or international pressure on these parties. In the post-electoral period, pro-EU liberal and leftist parties started to demand sanctions against Russia daily and to warn that Serbia could be an isolated part of Europe once again if it did not change politics.

Radicalization after the elections also happened on the Right, where parties gathered in a coalition that aimed to prevent sanctions on Russia. These issues have been intertwined with developments in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro and presented as Western pressure on Serbian interests to disrupt relations between Serbia and Russia to facilitate Kosovo’s independence. In contrast to other European parties, being pro-Russian in Serbia is not an obstacle, so these parties could freely express their views.

Finally, the SNS position after the election remained similar for months – although there was a clear majority in the parliament, the government was formed just before the legal deadline – this deflected international pressure for a long time and enabled the SNS to escape from initial pressure. Party position remained neutral, and Vučić insisted on the complexity of the Serbian position and the necessity to put Serbian interest first; this led to a number of warning signs from both Russia and the West, but so far, it seems like there still is some manoeuvre space for him.

The demand side of right-wing populism

Since the beginning of the invasion, the war in Ukraine has become the most critical issue in Serbian media. Based on a recent report from the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA, 2022a), a Serbian human rights outfit, most of the media coverage is pro-Russian (although with some moderation compared to the initial phase of the war), with the most substantial imbalance observed in national TV stations (especially TV Pink and TV Happy) and tabloids (Informer and Večernje novosti). Biased reporting is moderate during the news sections and quite open during the morning talk shows (open pro-Russian propaganda by pro-government journalists and analysts). The CRTA report also shows that most fake news is pro-Russian and anti-NATO.

Considering this media landscape and established attitudes on foreign politics of the Serbian population, it is not surprising that a survey conducted in May 2022 (CRTA 2022b) showed that 66% of citizens claimed to be “closer to Russia” in the conflict, in contrast to only 12% who were pro-Ukraine; also, 72% agreed with the statement that Russia has been provoked by NATO expansion. These figures changed over time to some extent – a similar study conducted in September of 2022 showed a small decline in support for Russia and the number of citizens supporting the sanctions rising to 20% (Miletić, 2022). Other surveys show that Serbian citizens might change their position in the case of outside pressure, the threat of sanctions from the West or in the case of Russia recognizing Kosovo independence (on several occasions, Putin used the Kosovo argument to justify the independence of the Donbas and Luhansk republics) (Euronews Srbija, 2022).

Because the 2022 electoral campaign took place after the war started, many commentators argued that the invasion helped Far Right parties surpass the 3% threshold (in 2020, none of those parties had entered parliament). The same assessment was shared by President Vučić just after the elections when he accused the Far Right parties and the SPS of being opportunistic and irresponsible to Serbian interests because they allegedly used the pro-Russian sentiments of the voters to gain more support. However, if we observe mid-term trends (and compare results with the 2016 elections, as those were the last ones with the full participation of the opposition), it seems that there is a small growth of both the Far Right group and the SPS, probably on behalf of the SNS share. Although it could be argued that it is the consequence of the war, data already showed the gradual growth of the Far Right parties even before the war due to strong campaigns against COVID-19 measures and already mentioned constitutional changes in January 2022.

Table 1: Electoral results of populist and “pro-Russian” parties, 2016–2022

  2016 2020 2022
Votes % Votes % Votes %
SNS 1,823,147  48.0 1,953,998  60.0 1,635,101  44.0
DSS 190,530 5.0 72,085  2.2 204,444  5.5
Dveri Boycott 144,762  3.9
Zavetnici 27,690  0.7 45,950  1.4 141,227  3.8
Sovereignists  73,953  2.3 86,362  2.3
SRS 306,052  8.0 65,954  2.0 82,066  2.2
Far Right populists (total) 524,272* 13.7 257,942** 5.7 658,861 8.3
SPS 413,770  11.0 334,333  10.0 435,274  11.7

Source: Republic Electoral Commission

* In 2016, the Sovereigntists could not be classified as Far Right. Dveri and DSS ran as a coalition that year.

** In the 2020 elections, some Far Right voters voted for the monarchist party POKS (85,888) and right-wing SPAS (123,374); in 2022, POKS split between DSS and Dveri, and SPAS joined the SNS.

Concluding remarks

The issue of Russian aggression merged with already existing political cleavages and reinforced some of them. None of the relevant parties dramatically changed their position due to war and the change in the international landscape; however, parties with strong ideological positions gained more strength and new topics that reinforced divisions between them. At the same time, catch-all parties found themselves in problems as balanced politics became much more complicated.

In terms of populist parties, Far Right populists gained additional issues and incentives to preserve strong anti-EU positions and to oppose the introduction of sanctions on Russia as it would weaken the Serbian position on Kosovo. At the same time, they gained the opportunity to reinforce narratives on the hypocrisy of the West and politics of power instead of politics of principles (e.g., territorial integrity). On the other side, the SNS, as a moderate right-wing and populist party that balances between East and West, found itself in a delicate situation. Although the SNS mastered balancing between powers in the last ten years, the space for manoeuvres is shrinking. So far, Serbia’s government did vote “against” Russia in the UN General Assembly twice, but it also rejected demands to impose sanctions. Moreover, the recent conflict in Kosovo regarding licence plates led to the withdrawal of Serbs from Kosovo institutions, which intensified the situation and raised concerns about the conflict to the highest levels since early 2000. On one side, this makes the situation for president Vučić and the SNS even more complicated, while on the other, it decreases the pressure regarding the sanctions.

In general terms, the war in Ukraine put the Serbian position in the spotlight and emphasized old divisions and issues. Most of them are identity-based and related to significant foreign policy issues, which remind us of previous periods of great divides – in the late 90-ties and before the decisive 2008 elections. However, the current party system does not reflect the divisions – the SNS has a stable government with coalition partners, and the bilateral opposition cannot agree on most of the issues. Also, there are many concerns about the quality of Serbian democracy and recent trends of autocratization. In other words, although there seems to be a challenge in foreign affairs for the Serbian government, there is significant stability in the internal political arena.

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(*) Dušan Spasojević is an associate professor in the Faculty of Political Sciences, University of Belgrade. His main fields of interest are political parties, populism, civil society and the post-communist democratization process. He is editor-in-chief of the journal Political Perspectives, published by FPS Belgrade and FPS Zagreb. Spasojević is a member of the steering board of the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA).


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