Lordkipanidze, Mariam & Albrecht, Héloïse (2022). “Report on Panel #1 / Mapping European Populism: Populist Authoritarian Tendencies in Central and Eastern Europe, and Challenges to the EU.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 26, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0004
This report is based on the first panel of ECPS’s monthly panel series called “Mapping European Populism” which was held online in Brussels on February 24, 2022. The panel brought together top-notch populism scholars who are experts on populist politics in CEE (Central and Eastern Europe) countries, namely Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia and Serbia. As a by-product of this fruitful panel the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the speakers.
ECPS organizes a panel series to map European populism, bringing scholars together every month to discuss the state of political populism in a different region of Europe. This report is prepared based on the first panel of the series focusing on Central and Eastern Europe, on the theme of “Populist Authoritarian Tendencies in Central and Eastern Europe, and Challenges to the EU,” which was held online on February 24, 2022.
The panel is moderated by Bogusława Dobek-Ostrowska, Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication and Journalism, the Institute of Political Science, University of Wrocław, and included the following speakers: Dominika Kasprowicz, Professor of Political Science, the Institute of Journalism, Media and Social Communication, Jagiellonian University, Poland; Zoltan Adam, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Economic Policy and Labour Economics, Institute of Economic and Public Policy, Corvinus University of Budapest; Dr Vassilis Petsinis, University of Tartu, Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies); and Miroslav Mareš, Professor, Department of Political Science, Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University.
Prof Dobek-Ostrowska opened the panel by defining ‘authoritarian populism’ as a political ideology whose beliefs include cynicism about human rights and hostility to the state, opposition to immigration, and an enthusiasm for a strong defense and foreign policy. Prof Dobek-Ostrowska continued her introduction by reminding attendees of the geographical scope of the ‘Central and Eastern Europe (CEE)’ which comprises 11 EU members (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, and Croatia), 6 Balkan states (Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania), and 4 post-Soviet Union states (Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova). The moderator pointed out two overarching issues addressed by the speakers of the panel in the context of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Croatia, and Serbia; 1) the analysis of authoritarian populism in connection with the question of the quality of democracy in CEE, 2) mass media freedom in the region which sheds light on the questions whether populist authoritarian tendencies exist in CEE and If so, how strong they are.
Prof Dominika Kasprowicz: “Populism in Poland 2015-2021: A short journey from theory to praxis”
According to Professor Kasprowicz, the Law and Justice Party (PiS), as a typical populist power, is characterized by anti-elite rhetoric and targeted the previous ruling elites and the EU establishment. This is part of the usual populist strategy: the creation of ‘the Other,’ as the enemy of the currently governing political elite and its own ‘people.’ In Poland, this list of enemies is long, and migrants, particularly those who do not come from culturally close countries, are included.
Professor Dominika Kasprowicz presented the case of Poland, seeking to understand the populism phenomenon through the framework of Communication and Media studies. In this regard, she particularly highlighted the impact of populist communication on social media and concluded that the tendencies of mass communication go in favour of the populists in the office.
Since 2015, Poland, among other countries in the region, is experiencing a progressing and very radical political and social change that has been dictated and designed by a mindset that we can easily define as ‘populist,’ as all the characteristics that normally distinguish the populist phenomenon are present: the appeal to ‘the people,’ the anti-elitist rhetoric, and the radical tactics in terms of pursuing political change. Prof Kasprowicz suggested that the process of radical political change started by the Law and Justice Party (PiS) in the country is now almost concluded, containing all three features of populist ideology. Contrary to what scholars might have expected, the Law and Justice Party is now still in power, and its popularity is not decreasing. Prof Kasprowicz cited two main reasons for this; first, the Law and Justice Party’s populist ‘appeal to ‘the people’ has proven to be extremely efficient, as their rhetoric was filling the void left by neoliberal centrist parties and they capitalised on the so-called ‘losers of transformation.’ Second, their political praxis of ‘welfare chauvinism,’ a very selective and ‘picky’ understanding of who is considered ‘good enough’ to be subsidised by public money, was proven to be very efficient in the Polish scenario and happens in all aspects of the important spheres of domestic life. Thus, the ruling party is biased and selective in funding the media, NGOs, and different social groups (e.g., cutting off subsidies to NGOs that are not close enough to the populist power and its goals, only subsidising citizens that belong to the target groups and social stronghold of the party in power). The reforms made by the party are designed and oriented to benefit particular groups considered to be allies of the ruling party.
According to Kasprowicz, the Law and Justice Party, as a typical populist power, is characterized by anti-elite rhetoric and targeted the previous ruling elites and the EU establishment. This is part of the usual populist strategy: the creation of ‘the Other,’ as the enemy of the currently governing political elite and its own ‘people.’ In Poland, this list of enemies is long, and migrants, particularly those who do not come from culturally close countries, are included. Therefore, anti-migrant rhetoric is also a typical feature of the ruling party, and in the past 5 years, the artificial fears that were fuelled by the messages of the ruling party regarding, for instance, the Polish-Byelorussian border, have motivated pro-governmental sentiments.
The authoritarian tendencies in the country cannot be overlooked either, as the so-called ‘charismatic leadership and the ‘non-democratic praxis’ that is happening in the country, for Kasprowicz, have already “caused a radical and irreversible social change.” The lecturer concluded her presentation by expressing concern over this change, the state of democracy and civil liberties in Poland, as well as the diminishing balance of powers in the country. Finally, Prof Kasprowicz, expressed the challenge that scholars, practitioners, and citizens faces: How to handle the mainstream politics in para-democratic systems that have been invaded by the populist radical right?
Reported by Mariam Lordkipanidze
Prof Zoltán Ádám: “The Orbán regime after 12 years, before the April 2022 general elections”
“Hungary’s EU membership does pose some institutional constraints on the government, but apart from that, there is no domestic authority that is not controlled by the government of the majority. This has become the perfect soil for the totalitarian approach to power which populists tend to exhibit. Therefore, Hungarian democratic standards have been steadily declining for the past decade, democratically underperforming relative to its level of economic development.”
Professor Zoltán Ádám presented the case of Hungary as a prominent example of populism. He emphasised the importance of the Hungarian case and its populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a world-stage political actor who often meets with other autocratic leaders and likes to associate with leaders of the European far-right, as having an impact on surrounding Central European fellow populists and the wider context.
As Prof Ádám reminded us, there are many definitions of populism, but he opted to focus on historian Federico Finchelstein’s definition, which describes populism as a “form of authoritarian democracy for the post-War world,” finding a link between fascism and populism, in the sense that populism, Finchelstein argues, can be seen as a “democratic reincarnation of fascism,” as it exhibits the same majoritarian or totalitarian approach to power. One of the key characteristics of populism is the diminishment of liberal democratic institutions that could defend social and political minorities; therefore, in this definition, populism is a political system in which the liberties provided for minorities in a democratic society are increasingly endangered or eliminated. For Prof Ádám, this elimination of liberties, sometimes to an extreme extent, is what we are now witnessing in the world: an originally popularly and democratically elected political figure thus becomes an autocratic dictator, e.g., through the incarceration of their political opponents. Populism, then, is characterised, according to Finchelstein, by the cultivation of highly personalised political leadership, with charismatic leaders who dominate the political system, and tend to extend social rights, while eliminating political rights and freedoms.
Viktor Orbán’s Hungary since 2010 is a prime example of that what Finchelstein describes. Orbán (from the Fidesz party) had been in power before between 1998 and 2002, but he did not have then what he has had since 2010: a two-term majority in the parliament. Indeed, when a coalition of parties control two-thirds of the Hungarian parliament, that coalition has very little to no constitutional constraints on its power. Hungary’s EU membership does pose some institutional constraints on the government—as a consequence, the conflicts between the Hungarian government and the EU Commission and other bodies of the EU have been a recurring phenomenon in the past decade—but apart from that, there is no domestic authority that is not controlled by the government of the majority. This has become the perfect soil for the totalitarian approach to power which populists tend to exhibit. Therefore, Hungarian democratic standards have been steadily declining for the past decade, democratically underperforming relative to its level of economic development (see Freedom House and V-Dem indexes).
Prof Ádám suggested that one of the potential explanatory factors behind this democratic underperformance is the ‘exclusive’ nature of the Hungarian political system: without strong opponents, Fidesz received 53 percent of the overall vote in 2010, 46 percent in 2014, and a little under 50 percent in 2018, which all three times translated into a two-thirds majority of the seats in the parliament. The Gallagher Index, which measures the discrepancy between votes received and parliamentary seats controlled by political parties, shows that Hungary exhibits a very high degree of discrepancy between the two, having a more distortionary electoral system than any other country.
The lecturer concluded his presentation with the perspectives of future Hungarian elections and the increased chances of the opposition. Indeed, an interesting political situation is now unfolding among Fidesz’s political opposition: the six major opposition parties, realising the distortionary nature of the country’s political system, started to coordinate. They fielded joint candidates at the 2019 local elections, winning a number of major cities, including Budapest, and held primaries for the 2022 parliamentary elections, even picking a joint prime minister candidate, Péter Márki-Zay. The polls showed that this time, the race between Fidesz and the united opposition was much tighter than in the past. (However, Orbán and his nationalist-populist Fidesz party won a landslide victory for the fourth time on April 3, 2022.)
Reported by Mariam Lordkipanidze
Dr Vassilis Petsinis: “Scanning the far right in Croatia and Serbia”
Dr Petsinis pointed out that “de-radicalisation” in the case of Serbia, or the “long-term transformation processes” of larger conservative right-wing parties in the case of Croatia, side-lined the radical and extremist right-wing parties in both contexts. In Croatia in particular, the Homeland Movement has been emerging as a “formidable contender” with the “potential of both antagonising HDZ and additionally side-lining the political forces of the radical and extremist right.”
Turning to the post-Yugoslavian region, Dr Vassilis Petsinis talked about far-right politics in Croatia and Serbia, focusing on the following questions: Why are the radical and extremist right-wing parties in Serbia and Croatia weak? How has the engagement of the governing parties (the SNS in Serbia and the HDZ in Croatia) impacted the weak performance of the radical and extremist right?
Dr Petsinis started by making a tentative distinction between ‘radical’ and ‘extremist’ right-wing parties on the basis of their political origins and active political engagement. He sketched out two categories: radical right-wing parties andextremist right-wing parties. According to him, radical right-wing parties were, in a lot of cases, the result of mergers between existing established parties, and so, are by-products of top-level formation processes and strive to promote their political causes through parliamentary and democratic institutions and procedures, having sometimes participated in coalition governments in their respective countries (e.g., Estonia’s EKRE, Latvia’s National Alliance, Sweden’s SD). In comparison, extremist right-wing parties often represent the culmination of bottom-up formation processes led by a political (occasionally semi-paramilitary) core, and so, they are more prone to a militant engagement in politics through systematic mass-mobilisation and patterns of policy-making that often harbour anti-democratic implications (e.g., early Jobbik in Hungary, ‘Our Slovakia,’ Bulgaria’s Ataka and Greece’s Golden Dawn).
Most importantly, the parties of the radical right ‘scrutinise’ the liberal democratic constitutional order, but formally respect democratic institutions and procedures. In contrast, the parties of the extremist right ‘antagonise’ the liberal democratic constitutional order, and often multiply attempts to subvert—or substitute—democratic institutions and procedures. However, this distinction became very ‘idiosyncratic’ within the party politics of Serbia and Croatia in the 1990s and 2000s, largely due to the protracted warfare and the wars of secession of the 1990s.
On the one hand, the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), one of the oldest political parties in Serbia, oscillated, in the 1990s and 2000s, between the categories of radical and extremist right-wing party. It endorsed ‘Greater Serbia’ and even sent a paramilitary unit to the Croatian and Bosnian fronts, with recurring phases of partnership and tension with Slobodan Milošević’s Socialist Party (SPS). Between 2000 and 2007, the SRS bound together anti-Western nationalists, former SPSvoters, and various ‘losers’ of the transition, and so it became Serbia’s strongest opposition party. The turning point came in February 2003, when the leader Vojislav Šešelj voluntarily surrendered himself to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and Tomislav Nikolić and Aleksandar Vučić became the leading figures within the party. However, Nikolić and Vučić soon departed from the SRS and set up the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), which putlower stress on nationalism, formally endorsed the EU accession process, and took advantage of the fragmentation of the centre and centre-right political parties in the country (DS, DSS, SPO, etc.).
The SNS overwhelmingly won the parliamentary (2016) and presidential (2017) elections, whereas the SRS started to become marginalised (with a mere 8.8 percent in the 2016 parliamentary elections). The SNS consolidated its grip onpower in the 2020 parliamentary elections (61.60 percent of the vote), dominating a continuum that stretches from the liberal centre to the conservative right, relying on the pattern of political clientelism to secure support and on the opposition’s persistent fragmentation. The ‘deradicalisation’ of this segment that originated in the SRS and then evolved into the SNS led to the marginalisation of the SRS, which is not even currently represented in the Serbian parliament. There are, however, some extra-parliamentary parties and groupings of the more radical and extremist right in Serbia: the ‘traditional’ Serbian nationalism of Dveri, the National-Socialist fascist platform of Srbska Akcija, and peculiar cases like Levijatan, which combines elements of National-Socialism with animal rights and ‘anti-vax’ conspiracies.
On the other hand, in Croatia, a party comparable to Serbia’s Radical Party is the Croatian Party of Rights (HSP), a party accused of historical revisionism, which in the 1990s endorsed ‘Greater Croatia’ and dispatched a paramilitary unit (HOS) to the Yugoslavian wars of secession. In contrast to the SRS, this party gradually lost popularity and became fragmented during the 2000s, and, despite its efforts to come back into political relevancy, it has not been represented in the Croatian parliament for years. As happened in Serbia, there was a process of reformation, as the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) consolidated its public appeal between 2012 and 2016, and a right-wing faction emerged within it. This factionslowly capitalised on the ‘socio-cultural Euroscepticism’ among certain segments of the electorate, focusing on the opposition to the rights of LGBTQ+ people, abortion, and EU refugee quotas. Thus, it has decisively marginalised the forces of the Croatian radical and extremist right.
Like the SNS in Serbia, HDZ consolidated its grip on power following the Croatian parliamentary elections of July 2020, relying on political clientelism. But there has also been a new party that emerged to the right of the HDZ: the Homeland Movement (Domovinski Pokret), currently the third-largest party in the Croatian parliament, led by Miroslav Škoro, a former singer and TV host. It presents a national-conservative program similar to the one supported by the right-wing faction of the HDZ: seeking to safeguard ‘Catholic values,’ wants to strengthen ‘law and order,’ and seeks to revise national legislation on minority rights. The gradual emergence of this party poses a challenge to the endeavours of PM (and leader of HDZ) Andrej Plenković to shift the party narrative of HDZ more firmly towards the centre, and it further marginalises the older and more traditional parties of the Croatian radical and extremist right.
To conclude, Dr Petsinis pointed out that “de-radicalisation” in the case of Serbia, or the “long-term transformation processes” of larger conservative right-wing parties in the case of Croatia, side-lined the radical and extremist right-wing parties in both contexts. In Croatia in particular, the Homeland Movement has been emerging as a “formidable contender”with the “potential of both antagonising HDZ and additionally side-lining the political forces of the radical and extremist right.”
Reported by Héloïse Albrecht
Prof Miroslav Mareš: “Comparison of authoritarian and populist tendencies in the Czech Republic and Slovakia”
Prof Miroslav Mareš argues that there has been a shift from parties linked to the totalitarian past (KSČM, K–LSNS), which have now declined, to rising modern populism. The populist and extremist spectrum in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia is relatively unstable: new issues for these parties to appropriate and rally around keep arising (e.g., the anti-vax movement, the war in Ukraine and the refugee crisis that is likely to emerge), which opens the future to populism and authoritarianism in the post-Covid era.
Prof Miroslav Mareš, in his speech, compared the authoritarian and populist trends in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.Even though the Czech Republic and Slovakia’s democracies may fare relatively well compared to other Eastern European countries, both countries face the challenge of the populist wave. Professor Mareš highlighted, moreover, that the right-wing populist parties in both countries have deep connections with the larger European populist right.
Prof. Mareš explained that he used a relatively broad concept of populism for his analysis because, while the impact of the populist far-right is strongly felt in both countries, other forms of populism (centrist and leftist populism) also play a role that needs to be considered to truly understand the populist tendencies in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. He highlighted the fact that in both countries, the various currents of populism have developed with significant overlaps. Populism, identifiable as the “struggle for the unity of people against an alleged ‘establishment’,” has been dynamicallydeveloping in these countries in the post-1989 era. The partisan strain of populism has been the most dominant, but individual actors (e.g., Czech President Miloš Zeman, other non-partisan actors in the public space like the ‘anti-vax’ movement), as well as some media (the so-called ‘disinformation scene’), have also played a role in the spread of populism. Both countries present the basic division into right-wing extremism, right-wing populism, centrist populism, left-wing populism, and left-wing extremism.
The lecturer then presented a brief overview of the trend toward populism and authoritarianism in the Czech Republic. At the moment, it is important to mention that right-wing extremism in the country is relatively weak, if we look at the partisan level, without parliamentary or regional/local representation, and only some small hard-liner groupings linked to the anti-vax movement, partly pro-Kremlin and with a pan-Slavic orientation. However, the country now has a relatively strong right-wing populism, thanks to the parliamentary representation (9.56 percent in 2021) of the Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) movement, led by Tomio Okamura. Most importantly, centrist populism in the country is strong and has a strong presence in major newspapers; it is especially represented by the ANO (‘Yes’) party, which is currently the strongest party in the Czech parliament, a member of liberal structures at the European level, but which has been labelled as an ‘entrepreneurial party’ (term used by Hloušek, Kopeček, and Vodová, 2020) because it largely depends on one entrepreneur, its leader (and previous president of the country, now in the opposition) Andrej Babiš, who is the owner of important newspapers. On the other hand, left-wing populism is relatively weak in the political spectrum, but has some impact on the media. Finally, left-wing extremism (largely associated with the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia[KSČM]), only has one member in the European Parliament after the 2021 elections, and no domestic national representation (3.60 percent).
In contrast to the Czech Republic, Slovakia has a relatively strong right-wing extremism, with the so-called ‘hard-liners’ of Kotleba – People’s Party Our Slovakia (LSNS)—rooted in the neo-fascist movement, despite some slight attempts at moderation in the last few years; it received 7.97 percent of votes in 2020, but some members of the party split from it in 2021 (distancing themselves from the strong ties to historical fascism of LSNS). Likewise, right-wing populism finds relatively strong representation in the country, with the national-conservative, “We Are Family (Sme Rodina)” party—which is a governmental party since 2020 (8.4 percent of the votes that year), strongly associated with the figure of its leader, businessman Boris Kollár—as well as the extra-parliamentary Slovak National Party (3.16 percent in 2020). The impact of centrist populism in the country is questionable. Left-wing populism in the country is strong, represented by the Smer–SD (Orientation – Social Democracy) party, a member of socialist international structures and of the Party of European Socialists, which received 18.29 percent of the vote in 2020, and is currently in the opposition. Left-wing extremism is still weak in Slovakia and mostly confined to the non-partisan scene, but important Smer–SD deputy LubošBlaha and his followers are well-known for their sympathies to some left-wing extremist entities.
Finally, Prof. Mareš, drawing a comparison between the two countries, concluded that: the strongest position comparatively is that of centrist populism in the Czech Republic, and that of left-wing populism in Slovakia; on the other hand, right-wing populism is strong in both countries, even though the ideological positioning of the parties on the ground (SPD and Sme Rodina) is different. There has been a shift from parties linked to the totalitarian past (KSČM, K–LSNS), which have now declined, to rising modern populism. The populist and extremist spectrum in both countries is relatively unstable: new issues for these parties to appropriate and rally around keep arising (e.g., the anti-vax movement, the war in Ukraine and the refugee crisis that is likely to emerge), which opens the future to populism and authoritarianism in the post-Covid era.
Reported by Héloïse Albrecht