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East European liberals’ accommodation of ethnic nationalism has left the region’s democratic institutions vulnerable

Sean LHanley18 March 2019

Photo: Akron/ Wikipedia Commons

East Central Europe’s democratic deterioration is as much  about the limitations of mainstream liberal forces as the rise of illiberal populists argue James Dawson and Sean Hanley.

Less than a decade ago the newer EU member states of East Central Europe (ECE) were considered the great success story of post-communist democratisation. This success was held up by scholars as a textbook illustration of how the EU, through the attractiveness of its political and economic model, and the toughness of accession conditions, could make a decisive difference by empowering pro-European liberals in the region’s shakier democracies to push their countries firmly on track to liberal democracy (and EU membership).

While poorer and more corrupt than the EU’s West European core, ECE was assumed to be a region safe for democracy with good long-term prospects for economic and political catch-up. Today this narrative of democratic progress is dead, replaced by one of democratic backsliding – and even sliding into authoritarianism – under the auspices of populist and nationalist politicians.

What has been especially disconcerting is that it has been the early frontrunners of democratization – Hungary and Poland – where such democratic backsliding has gone farthest and fastest: after winning decisive election victories (Fidesz in Hungary in 2010, Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland in 2015) conservative-nationalist governing parties have moved rapidly to dismantle liberal checks and balances, capturing or neutralising constitutional courts, state agencies, public (and in Hungary private) media and NGOs.

More strikingly still, Fidesz and PiS were not radical outsiders emerging from the fringes, but large right-wing parties once considered part of a pro-Western centre-right mainstream, whose representatives still sit with German Christian Democrats and British Conservatives in the European Parliament. (more…)

Liberals against nationalism in Eastern Europe? It would have been a nice idea

Sean LHanley25 July 2018

Protesters in Sofia standing on statue of a lion wave EU flag

Photo: Tourbillon [CC BY-SA 3.0 ]

Some commentators say East Central Europe’s liberals made the fatal mistake of cutting themselves off from traditional nationalism. Seán Hanley and James Dawson disagree.

Ivan Krastev  recently argued that East Central Europe’s liberals had made the error of taking an anti-nationalist stance from some point in the late 1990s. This, argued Krastev, occurred when the region’s liberals drew the lesson from the wars in the former Yugoslavia that all nationalism leads inevitably to bloodshed and violence.

By following the German example of avoiding public displays of flag-waving and treating nationalism as a creed that ‘dare not speak its name’, he claims, these liberals unwittingly forced moderate nationalists into the ‘illiberal camp’, opening the door for the illiberal backsliding that blights the region today.

This would be a compelling story – if it bore any resemblance to the actual behaviour of East Central European liberals in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

But it doesn’t. Anti-nationalism hasn’t been tried and failed in East Central Europe, it has never been tried.

In the 1990s, much as today, the most significant barrier to the realisation of an inclusive, pluralistic vision of liberal democracy was the taken-for-granted idea that the national state is the property of and instrument for titular national majorities. Both the EU and their liberal partners in Central and Eastern Europe knew this, yet both opted to accommodate ethnic nationalism at the time rather than oppose it. (more…)

Angry mainstream: Eastern Europe’s new ‘centrist populists’

Sean LHanley20 January 2012

Allan Sikk and Sean Hanley detect a new breed of anti-establishment party emerging centre-stage in Eastern Europe.

Magyarországi választás 2010 Jobbik vadplakát Fidesz óriásplakát

Photo: Beroesz via Wikicommons

In both Western and Eastern Europe extremist populism and illiberal movements, we are told, are strong, politically influential and relentlessly on the rise.  In countries such Austria, Slovakia and Poland radical right parties have already held government office. Elsewhere they have sufficient parliamentary representation to influence government formation and help make the political weather. Recent electoral breakthroughs in countries without strong illiberal populist traditions by parties such the True Finns (2011), the Sweden Democrats (2010) or Hungary’s Jobbik (2010) seem to highlight the accelerated growth of such parties.

Given the greater impact of recession and reduced EU leverage in the region, the new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) would seem to be especially vulnerable to such tendencies. However, notwithstanding the spectacular rise of far-right in Hungary, recent elections in key CEE states suggest that voters in the region are turning to new parties, which combine familiar anti-elite, anti-establishment populist rhetoric with mainstream pro-market policies, a liberal stance on social issues and calls for political reform.

 Poland’s October 2011 elections, for example, saw the wholly unexpected emergence as the country’s third force of a grouping led by maverick and political showman, Janusz Palikot, on a platform combining anti-clericalism and social liberalism with flat taxation and a slimmed down, citizen-friendly state. In May 2010 a new pro-market anti-corruption party, Public Affairs (VV), campaigning to kill off the ‘dinosaurs’ of the political establishment enjoyed a similarly meteoric rise in the Czech Republic, winning 10% of the vote. In Slovakia in elections a few weeks later the Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) party formed in 2009 by the economist and businessman Richard Sulík entered parliament with a similar vote share on a programme of fiscal conservatism and socially liberal reforms such as the introduction of gay marriage and decriminalisation of soft drugs. Hungary’s Green-ish  Politics Can Be Different Party (LMP) can, with some qualifications, be regarded in a similar light.

 Such centrist or (neo-) liberal populists, or as we prefer to call them anti-establishment reform parties (AERPs), are we believe, a growing and important phenomenon in Central and Eastern Europe and, perhaps Europe more generally.  A more careful and wider look at the CEE region over the last 10-15 years suggests that such AERPs are a widespread and common phenomenon which can, in some contexts, enjoy landslide electoral success: the Simeon II National Movement in Bulgaria (2001), New Era in Latvia (2002) and Res Publica in Estonia (2003) were all new, anti-establishment reformers, which topped – or came close to topping – the poll at their first attempt and headed new coalition governments. (more…)