Commonalities of Populism in Europe and the V4 Region
This opinion piece was written by Momentum TizenX International Officer Barna Biró, as part of our workshop series "The Story of Visegrád - How to Understand Political Storytelling & Craft Alternative Narratives Online".
Orbán, Kaczyński, Babiš, Salvini, Le Pen, Farage. Politicians from different countries, with different political affiliations, but they definitely have one thing in common: they are all populists. But how come, that one “ideology” can connect these different politicians with different political views? Well, in this article I am going to synthetise and expound these connection points in order to have the ability to forge counter-narratives.
What is Populism and Why is it so Widespread?
First of all, let’s try to define populism in general. The most widely used definition of populism is that it is a political approach, technique or ideology that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. Of course, other definitions and interpretations exist, and also right-wing and left-wing populism have slightly different descriptions as it is a very broad concept. However, there are some commonalities of populism, especially in Europe and the Visegrád (V4) region, which can be identified.
It is important to analyse what led to this situation on our continent and more specifically, in the V4 countries. Of course, reasons can differ country-to-country, but there are a few examples, which are the same across Europe. The biggest problem is that the mainstream democratic and liberal parties lost connection to their people and were unable to address the real problems and challenges that many of us face. The second reason is strongly linked to the first, which is that the great recession in the late 2000s broke the existing social order, which fuelled hate towards the establishment and created a need for political change, which again was not answered by the traditional democratic parties.
The weakness of the European Union also contributed to the strengthening of populism, because even though the EU has one of the biggest single markets in the world, it is unable to act as a global power and is often unable to cope with true challenges. The refugee crisis is one example of that, which really strengthened right-wing populist politicians in Europe and especially in Hungary. The EU, due to how its system works, was unable to act fast and in unity, which gave the populists the chance to grow. The other criticism of the Union is that its hands are tied against people like Orbán or Kaczyński. There is no real tool for the EU to monitor and sanction politicians and political systems which are not in line with the European values and let’s be frank, EU funds help stabilizing these systems, because these politicians fill their pockets with them. However, there are some positive signs – like the rule of law mechanism linked to the distribution of funds - which give some hope, that the EU is ready to improve in this field. However, it will be a long way until this problem is solved.
There are also two issues which are more closely linked to the rise of populism in the V4 countries. The first is the fall of communism and the failure of the democratic transition in an economic sense, which brought poverty and hopelessness to many. People still remember the false promises made to them by the political elite. The other very common reason in the region is the corruption linked to this elite, which has been widespread in both left-wing and right-wing parties in the past 30 years, generating distrust towards traditional parties.
Us vs. Them
Now, that we briefly analysed the reasons behind the rise of populism, it is time to scrutinize the common features of this ideology in our region.
First of all, populists like to polarise and divide the society into different groups, making it easier to use the “Us vs. Them” narrative. Their goal is to purify and essentialise the people. In general, the first category, the “us” represents the common people, which in right-wing populism is influenced by nativism and nationalism and in left-wing populism it is mostly associated with the working, common people, or the “proletariat” in some extreme cases. However, since we are in the EU, populism in the V4 region goes hand-in-hand with euroscepticism, or even anti-EU rhetoric. In this sense, the “them” usually represents the Brussels elite, who are – according to the populists - oppressors of the common people. This narrative is very common in the Visegrad countries, especially in Hungary and Poland. The latest political conflict regarding the veto on the European Union’s budget perfectly fits into this narrative, which was communicated at home as a fight for freedom and sovereignty against the Western elite.
Populists also neglect and reject diversity; thus, they often pick on stigmatised groups and make them the “common enemy” in the country. In the past, it was the Roma people who were declared the enemy – though not always openly – in Hungary, but the campaign against the LGBTQ+ community in Poland also fits into this narrative and unfortunately, Fidesz in Hungary seems to follow the Polish example. This tool of creating a common target in society is a great help in playing the people against each other and thus distracting the focus from the real problems and challenges in the countries, like the state of education, the health system or the pandemic situation.
Be a Common Person
Representing the common people is one thing, but populists like to even portray themselves as the children of the people. This is true for both Orbán, who is actually coming from a modest family and billionaires like Trump who belongs to the wealthiest and has nothing to do with the problems of the average citizen. This “children of the people” narrative was quite visible in 2018 when Chuck Norris was visiting Hungary and met with Viktor Orbán. A viral video was made about this meeting, in which the prime minister said he is rather a “street fighter” and not from the elite, but from the common people, coming from a small village. This “role” is also supported by appearance, the choice of words they use in speeches and many more symbolic items.
Populist parties usually present themselves as the defenders of the will of the people against the unscrupulous political elite and their institutions, so they are naturally anti-establishment. This mainly includes anti-bureaucracy and the demonising of the structures of liberal democracies, but there are new elements in their anti-establishment policies, especially in the Visegrad Group. Both Fidesz in Hungary and PiS in Poland try to use the existing structures of their political systems and change them drastically, until these institutions become either insignificant or completely controlled by the populist political forces. This was the case with the judiciary reform in Poland or the assault against the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. This dismantling of essential democratic institutions is always justified by the will of the people according to the populists and usually done step by step, so they would not face immediate and strong resistance.
Focus on the Leader
There is an essential concept that populism requires a powerful, charismatic leader who leads with a strong hand, but this is not necessarily true or vital to populist leadership. There are politicians like Salvini or Trump who are really charismatic and have unique characters, but if we think about Kaczyński, for example, it becomes clear that not every populist leader is charismatic. Even Viktor Orbán, who is adored by hundreds of thousands, is not that charismatic, lacks a strong character and is incomparable to Donald Trump in this sense. He has not been involved in any debates with his political opponents in more than a decade, and he refuses to talk to independent media and just communicates in his own bubble, because he would be disposed and defeated by any talented politician of the opposition. All in all, we can say that being charismatic is a huge plus for a political actor but is not an essential part of the success of populism.
What to Do?
Let’s be clear: This article does not have the ultimate recipe for defeating populism. However, there are some lessons, which should be learnt by liberal and democratic parties across the continent. Most importantly, they have to stop communicating and building only on abstract topics. Yes, rule of law, human rights and liberal democracies are really important values which are worth fighting for, but they will not catch the attention of the ordinary people, because they are too abstract, too intangible and let’s be honest, this is not the voters’ fault. Liberal and democratic parties have to rekindle the connection with the people of their countries and have to forge a counter-narrative to be able to fight populists. They have to learn how they can use narrative-driven political communication to address real, urgent challenges, affecting the everyday life of an ordinary person. They have to learn, how to communicate to people less intellectually and less incomprehensible. Otherwise, they will just become a marginalized party of a small, intellectual community and will not have any influence on national politics, while populists dismantle European liberal democracy.