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The Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde recently said that populism has become ‘the concept that defines our age’, and the electoral surges of right-wing populist parties have been branded a ‘populist zeitgeist’. Yet populism is a slippery concept, featuring both the right and the left: next to right-wing parties such as, among others, the Hungarian Fidesz, the French National Front or the Italian Northern League, also emerged left-wing parties such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, as well as non-ideological anti-establishment actors such as the 5 Stars Movement in Italy. Populism is, however, based on the idea of a fundamental opposition between the ‘the pure people’ and the ‘corrupt elite’ and, populists argue, politics should be an expression of the people’s volonté générale. The phenomenon encompasses both Western and Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries and, even where consolidated, democracy seems to be slowly eroding prompting scholars to talk of a crisis or backslide in democracy.
From West to East: Populism has no borders
Transcending geographical boundaries and stereotypical images of the East as prone to illiberalism and ethnonationalism, nationalist and right-wing populists are increasingly dominating the political scene of Western European countries. Although it was Victor Orban – Hungarian Prime Minister and leader of Fidesz – who first described his ‘zero tolerance’ policy in matter of immigration in terms of ‘defending Europe from the Muslim invasion’, right-wing populists such as the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, Alternative for Germany in Germany, Golden Dawn in Greece, have also embraced this perspective, simultaneously rejecting migrants as outsiders and the European Union as the sponsor of liberal multiculturalist values. They have been able to create a new in-group – ‘the people’, that must be safeguarded against both enemies from beyond (migrants, immigrants, ethnic minorities) and enemies from above (the EU, UN, IMF, ‘global elites’ or foreign powers).
The electoral surge of these parties did not happen all of a sudden, but rather in a particular historical moment characterised by economic and social shocks. Although, the impact of these shocks was felt differently across Europe, they triggered and brought to the surface a generalized popular disappointment regarding both domestic and international political elites. From a historical perspective, in fact, populist parties and leaders have always emerged as a consequence of ‘general social crises’ – sometimes due to fractures in the power block; other times due to the system’s inability to absorb its contradictions or transform itself. The current Europe-wide ‘populist zeitgeist’ is no exception: the economic recession which hit Europe in 2008 and the refugee’s crisis which has emerged most clearly since 2015 are both determining factors in the rise of right-wing populism and nationalism. The overall response to these socio-economic shocks was to turn inwards – both socially and economically. Clear examples of this tendency are the policies of ‘closing the borders’ and erecting walls; withdrawal from the EU e.g. Brexit; increased Euroskepticism; economic protectionism and social conservativism; as well as increased ‘tolerance of intolerance’. To this picture we should also add ‘the terrorism factor’ – used by the right-wing parties as a political weapon to stress the boundary line between ‘us and them’, in urn justifying the need for stricter policies in matter of national security .
Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries are far from immune to the current nationalist-populist trend, as leaders such as the former Macedonia’s Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić, Poland’s President Jarosław Kaczyński, and many others, are also masters in the art of populism , combining nationalism and populism with illiberalism, authoritarianism and, oftentimes, ‘capturing their states’ by employing democracy’s tools and institutions . Since the late 1990s the region, except for the former Yugoslav states, has been seen as an example of successful democratic transition, with many countries, including the Baltic states, Hungary and Poland, rapidly consolidating their democracies. Yet democracy is nowadays threatened by increasingly authoritarian and illiberal tendencies – once thought to have vanished: what we are witnessing in the CEE area is, in fact, the rise to power of a political class which, while accepting and respecting the rules of the democratic game, even adopting democratic reforms, at the same time, relies on ethnic politics, clientelism and patronage, as well as nationalist rhetoric, to gain consensus and electoral support.
As for Western Europe, also in the CEE region, the rise of right-wing populism and the development of un-democratic and illiberal tendencies has been strengthened by the economic crisis – which worsened the area’s economic conditions and sharpened social inequalities. Economic and social shocks have also deepened disappointments and frustrations with the EU and generated both anti-elite and anti-establishment sentiment. Additionally, the appeal and political credibility of right-wing populist parties have also been enhanced by country-specific factors – such as, among others, particular institutional structures, the memory and consequences of previous conflicts and wars, ethnic divisions and social segregation.
Is democracy backsliding?
The macro-crises impacting European states and their democracies have created an environment permeated by insecurity and anxiety, sometimes worsening already precarious domestic situations. Such an environment provides the most fertile ground for right-wing populism and nationalism to rise and gain popular support and, although we can detect differences between Western and Central and Eastern European countries, there is however a general trend towards the closure of boundaries, exclusivism, and xenophobia while, at the same, time democracy and its principles are being endorsed and supported. For this reason, we might think democracy, rather than backsliding, is going through a redefinition process. In this process illiberal and quasi-authoritarian measures, advocated by the right-wing populist and nationalist parties across Europe and supported by an increasing number of voters, are increasingly being regarded as the ultimate realization of the people’s will and, thus, legitimate democratic measures to protect and safeguard ‘the people’ from cultural contaminations and insecurities. While it is hard to asses democracy’s status and flows, it is undeniable that democracy per se remains uncontested – ‘the only game in town’. However, its mechanisms and institutions are increasingly used – by the right-wing populist class – and seen – by an increasing portion of the electorate – as tools of exclusion and in-group protection, rather than inclusion and cooperation. Yet as they say, this is being done for the sake of democracy and in the name of ‘the people’.
|PhD in Sociology and Methodology of Social Research (University of Milano), Arianna Piacentini is currently a post-doc researcher at the Institute for Comparative Federalism at Eurac Research. Since 2012, she has done research on post-Yugoslav and post-conflict societies, with a particular interest in divided societies and consociational institutions. Arianna has lived in Sarajevo and Skopje for many years, she loves the Balkans and she is passionate of Yugoslav history.|