The shift from liberalism to populism in central and eastern Europe is not quite as bad as it looks. While the ex-dissidents dominate politics and the ex-communists dominate business, populism gives a voice to the losers from the transition periodby Ivan Krastev / January 20, 2008 / Leave a comment
The liberal era that opened in central Europe in 1989 decisively closed in the course of 2007. The rest of Europe finally woke up to the fact that populism and illiberalism are rampant in the region. Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s ugly and populist government in Poland was unexpectedly defeated in October’s general election, but the behaviour of his Law and Justice party in office had alerted the rest of the continent to the depressing trends in central Europe. According to the global Voice of the People survey 2006, central Europe is now the region of the world where citizens are most sceptical about democracy. The liberal parties founded by former dissidents have been marginalised, the liberal language of rights is exhausted, and centrist liberalism is under attack as a philosophy and a practice. The new reality in central Europe is polarisation and populism.
Hungary is in a state of cold civil war between the manipulative postcommunist government (which sparked riots last year by admitting to lying “in the morning, in the evening, and at night”) and the populist anti-communist opposition, which keeps its doors open to the extreme right. The Slovak coalition government is a strange mix of nationalism, provincialism and welfarism. In the Czech Republic there is no major problem with the government—but last year, after inconclusive elections, the parties failed to form one for almost seven months. In Romania, the president and parliamentary majority are engaged in open war, with secret-police files from the communist era and corruption files from the postcommunist era the weapons of choice. In Bulgaria, extreme nationalism is surging, and the mainstream parties are accommodating rather than fighting it.
The growing tensions between democracy and liberalism in central Europe, the rise of “organised intolerance,” increasing demands for direct democracy and a proliferation of charismatic leaders capable of mobilising public anger—all invite comparisons with the crisis of democracy in Europe between the world wars. It was above all developments in Poland under the Kaczynskis—Jaroslaw’s identical twin brother Lech is the country’s president—that called up memories of the collapse of democracy in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. Between 2005 and this October, Poland was ruled by a coalition of three parties: the right-wing populists of the post-Solidarity Law and Justice party; the postcommunist provincial troublemakers of the Self-Defence party; and the League of Polish Families, descendants of Poland’s pre-second world war chauvinist, xenophobic and antisemitic groups. Adam…