EURO ELECTIONS: The Hardening of the Populist Right
From Poland to Hungary, the Czech Republic to Slovakia, Far Right parties in office have not been crushed in recent national elections. Power has, on the contrary, reinforced them.
What’s happening in Eastern Europe? Whereas all established parties get crushed after a few years in office, held entirely accountable in some way or another for the previous decades of economic erosion, social tensions and the country’s decline, East European far-right parties are holding strong on power and are actually increasing their score.
Hungary’s Victor Orban has been Prime Minister since 2010 but according to the last Politico poll, his party would receive some 55 per cent in just a few weeks at the European Election. The Polash PiS has been in power since 2015 and yet they would also receive about 40 per cent. Other far-right parties in Eastern Europe have performed in a less splendid way but are still very high
So what is the magic recipe the French PS, the Spanish PP or the Italian PD would love to hear? Three reasons that explain their success.
Far Right parties are Social Movements.
New political parties cannot be just political these days but need to embrace all parts of the society, especially those a formal political parties cannot reach. People that have abandoned polling stations for a long time are unlikely to come back with speeches only. That is a key point East European far-rights have perfectly understood – just like the Italian Liga or the Greek neo-nazi party Golden Dawn.
But they invented nothing: left-wing parties (namely communist and socialist) used to have powerful social movements not just through trade unions but local associations (‘local socialism’) offering care for the poorest in the society, and (political) education for those who could not afford it and creating strong social networks with a specific working-class culture.
But since they converted into social-democratic or liberal parties, deeply rooted in the established political landscape, most of them have abandoned this social aspect.
Most Hard Right parties have combined rejection of hard economic liberalism and liberal social values.
Eastern Europe is a bit different as the fall of communism discredited most of the left-wing parties for decades with left-wing social movements associated with the old (and sinister) memories of the communist era. But, with a radical U-turn from authoritarian and planned-economy regimes to neoliberal economies, some large parts of the population have been left behind of the economic progress.
Poverty has sharply decreased over the last few decades and inequalities have grown. In such circumstances, far-right parties, especially the Hungarian Fidesz or the Polish PiS (Law and Justice party) presented themselves as a credible and strong electoral force, not just promising to turn down ‘Western’ European values but also offering help, care and cultural reassurance to generations confused by the political and cultural changes of the past decades.
No surprise then, that being deeply rooted in the society, surfing on economic inequalities and the refugee crisis, they have grown into major political forces.
Hardening of the Right
There is something quite disturbing in the Fidesz or PiS today’s stances. Viktor Orban is now praised by all far-right leaders across the EU and recently backed by Donald Trump himself. But he used to be a pro-EU, (fairly) liberal-democrat PM in his first term (1998-2002), a figure of the fight against communism and of course endorsed by all Western leaders as a sign of hope for a modern Hungary.
In the aftermath of the 2008 economic and then the 2015 refugee crisis, fear and cultural insecurity has grown in some already economically vulnerable and disoriented parts of the population.
Vefore being the hard right-wing, nationalist party we know, Poland’s PiS used to be pro-European, conservative but also pragmatic. In this regard, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, the ephemeral PiS Prime Minister from 2005 to 2006 was the one who led successful negotiations for Poland’s integration in the EU.
What a difference from the country which is now investigated by the EU Commission for breach of civic rights.
So what underlies this sharp hardening to the right?
In the aftermath of the 2008 economic and then the 2015 refugee crisis, fear and cultural insecurity has grown in some already economically vulnerable and disoriented parts of the population. Most of them have combined rejection of hard economic liberalism and liberal social values. That led Viktor Orban to call his country an ‘illiberal’ democracy – and also led Jean-Claude Juncker to nickname him ‘his favourite dictator’.
Fulfilling their Agenda
However, the main reason Far Right parties remain in office with sky-high scores is that they are fulfilling the expectations of a hard-line electorate they contributed to radicalising.
On the economy, they are still surfing on decent economic growth rates (compared to the rest of Europe) while also praising massive state intervention in the economy. For example, the PiS party has turned its back to aggressive free-market policies pushed forward by the PO (Civic Platform) and by former Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
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Until very recently, similar social policies were also applied in Hungary but it seems that the tide is changing.
Viktor Orban has passed a new law allowing businesses to ask their employees to work 400 extra hours with being wages being received up to 3 years time. He has basically kept the free-market policies he started to implement in the early 2000’s in a softer way.
Though tackling income inequalities is not their priority, far-right leaders have skillfully managed to find perfect scapegoats: urban liberals or billionaire George Soros are constantly being accused by Orban of meddling in European elections.
But it’s on immigration that these leaders outperform.
The Immigration Touchstone
Joined by the Visegrad group (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia), Viktor Orban was among the first EU leaders to oppose to any asylum for migrants amid the 2015 refugee crisis.
Moreover, he pressed for the suspension of the Schengen Agreements and the re-implementation of a physical border with Serbia on the Balkans road. A similar stance has been adopted by the PiS party which opposes to any ‘quotas’ method (i.e. portioning out migrants in all EU Member States) proposed by A. Merkel or E. Macron.
Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico, social-democrat but governing with the far-right until 2018, shared the same policy of rejecting migrants to get reelected – and it failed.
How to Combat the Far Right
Far from being despised in their countries, these leaders actually get elected and re-elected and are strongly supported in their countries. And consequently, their policies help build the society of the future in these lands, thus nurturing nationalism, isolationism and aggressive behaviours.
Staying in office implies delivering on what brought them to office, something far-right parties have methodically managed to fulfil.
Three ingredients are used for this successful recipe: impregnating all parts of society meaning building a social movement that offers possibilities, protection and a new idealistic – and necessarily nationalistic – vision of the country.
Ensuring their political survival also means toughening their lines, going further to the right, becoming once and for all populistic movement looking for easy ways and scapegoats; a dismissive way of making people forget their own mistakes and weaknesses.
And finally and maybe the most important lesson that could also apply to progressives and liberals: staying in office implies delivering on what brought them to office, something far-right parties have methodically managed to achieve. At 100 per cent.