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Global Populism: At Home and Abroad – The View from East Central Europe

History Professor James Felak answers questions at CCMTI 2018.

July 18, 2018

The part of Europe that History Professor James Felak studies is highly susceptible to populism, and includes the countries where populist parties have gained most ground on the continent. East Central Europe is rich with examples of powerful populist political movements and for the 2018 Community College Master Teacher Institute (CCMTI), Felak presented three contemporary right-wing case studies – Hungary, Poland, and Austria.

The three cases from East Central Europe

Community College faculty listen to presenters at this year’s CCMTI on Global Populism.Valentina Petrova

Fidesz, the right-wing populist ruling party of Hungary headed by prime minister Viktor Orban, has been in power for nearly a quarter of a century. Fidesz’s rule has been modeled on the “illiberal democracies” of Russia and Turkey, Felak said, and is characterized by control of the judiciary and the press, and harassment of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), especially those funded by perceived meddling foreigners like Hungarian-American business magnate and philanthropist George Soros.

“When America started losing interest in Eastern Europe under Obama, Hungary turned to Russia,” Felak explained.

To the right of Fidesz is the even more extreme Jobbik party, which grew its support from 2% to 21% over the last 10 years, Felak told the room full of community college faculty participating in this year’s selective CCMTI. However, Jobbik is pretty stagnant these days, he added, because Orban is already offering all that they stood for. Most recently, in order to differentiate itself and regain momentum, Jobbik is reforming itself to be more moderate.

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party is another example of a populist right-wing government in the region. Founded by the Kaczynski child actor twin brothers, this party is unique among neighboring countries’ populist movements in that it is anti-Russia, Felak said, because of a long history of hostility between the two nations. Like other populist parties, however, it subscribes to conspiracy theories, political incorrectness, pro-family policies aimed at increasing the Polish population, and authoritarianism, including an assault on the country’s judiciary and media.

The left-wing opposition, in both Hungary and Poland, is rather demoralized and fragmented, Felak said. The story in Austria is a bit more nuanced, where the right-wing populist ruling party, the People’s Party, evolved from the Christian Social Party. The latter was in a consensus government with its left-wing counterpart, Social Democratic Party (today the Socialist Party) after WWII. The two rival parties were both more moderate at the time and governed by consensus. People grew impatient with this system, Felak explained, because it meant they couldn’t vote their government out of office since the opposition parties governed together. Eventually, disgruntled voters turned to the radical right-wing Freedom Party, Felak said, “to shake things up.” The Freedom Party in Austria is anti-immigrant, pro-Russia, tough on crime, among other authoritarian traits. Its success has also pushed the former consensus-building People’s Party towards a more populist makeover.

The conditions in which populism thrives in Europe

According to Felak, there are key characteristics of right-wing populism in this part of Europe that cut across all examples: economic insecurity (either capitalizing on a strong economy while the populists are in power or blaming the government for cutting social benefits in favor of immigrants, if the populists are in the political opposition) is a signature issue of all; an appeal for more local/national control of politics and policies at the expense of Brussels-centered power symbolized by the EU is another favored tactic. East Central European right-wing populists do not, however, have Brexit-like aspirations, they do realize they need the EU, but they want to maintain a level of specifically national independence.

Audience members at CCMTI 2018 listen to Professor James Felak’s lecture on populism in East Central Europe.Valentina Petrova

These populist leaders also appeal to young people – maintaining a great social media presence and leveraging young people’s impatience with establishment parties, Felak said. The anti-immigration rhetoric is another populist strategy that finds success in this part of the Europe. Unlike Western Europe’s colonization history and sense of guilt that can stem from it, Eastern Europe has been itself “colonized” by various powers – most notably the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. Thus, local history has long been about gaining and regaining national sovereignty from outside occupiers. Today’s populists assert that too much of that long-pursued sovereignty has now been ceded to the EU in the current era, especially when it comes to immigration policies.

Right-wing populist parties are often pro-social welfare and as such differ from their U.S. counterparts. They evolved as a third way, from Catholic roots – an alternative to socialism and capitalism, Felak said. Why are they gaining ground now? Felak’s insight from the East Central European examples focused on two catalysts: discontent from the poor areas – poor EU regions and poor regions inside of countries themselves – is a driving force, but social media has also fanned the flames of the populism.