Populist Constitutionalism? (5): Whence the Populists Rise in the East? Lessons for Democratisation and Constitutional Theory

A- A A+

In anticipation of our Workshop on Populism and Constitutionalism on 20 November (info & sign up here) we are publishing a series of blog posts in which the speakers will outline their thoughts on the topic. In today’s contribution, Bojan Bugarič, Professor of  Law at the University of Ljubljana, reflects on the causes of the populist surge in Central and Eastern Europe, and asks what these imply for our common conception of constitutional democracy. See our previous contributions by Paul BlokkerGábor HalmaiThéo Fournier, and Julian Scholtes.

Whence the Populist Rise in the East? Lessons for Democratization and Constitutional Theory

by Bojan Bugarič, Professor of Law, University of Ljubljana

The examples of democratic backsliding into various forms of authoritarian constitutional populism in Eastern Europe are part of a worldwide trend taking place since the end of the third wave of democratization of the 1990s. The ease with which democratic backsliding has occurred in these seemingly stable democracies in many ways calls into question the supposed sharp divide between the Central European “success stories” and other, more problematic countries in the Balkans and further east. Although the post-Soviet East and the Balkans represent a more extreme form of corrupt, nationalist illiberalism than Eastern Europe¸ the similarities are striking. As more recent research on the impact of populism on democracy suggests, populism is more likely to have corrosive effects in unconsolidated democracies than in stable liberal democracies. How can one then explain the fact that populism has been so successful in weakening some of the most consolidated democracies of the region, Poland and Hungary? In order to understand the populists’ success in Eastern Europe, both history and political science offer some important insights.

What are the causes of the revival and success of old nationalist, populist, right-wing political forces? Sean Hanley and James Dawson offer a compelling explanation for democratic backsliding in Eastern Europe. According to their argument, the major problem of post-communist liberal democracy is that it never was a real liberal democracy. Its liberal institutions have been always merged with existing illiberal narratives, such as ethnic nationalism and social conservativism:

Despite appearances, in East-Central Europe there is an absence of genuinely liberal political platforms—by which we mean a range of mainstream ideologies of both the left and right based on shared commitments to the norms of political equality, individual liberty, civic tolerance, and the rule of law. As a result, citizens are left unexposed to the philosophical rationale for liberal-democratic institutions.1

Eastern European democracies were thus born with a “hollow core” and a resulting lack of significant civic and political engagement supporting the liberal ideals.2 Consequently, their thesis about the “consistent weakness of liberalism”3 is not so much about the weak nature of certain liberal constraints (courts and other counter-majoritarian institutions) on the democratic majority as it is primarily about the absence of a broader ideological political consensus regarding liberal democracy. If we add also the fading importance of the EU conditionality, corruption, and the Great Recession of 2008 and 20094, we have a strong combination of demand factors5 which generate potential public support for populist movements. Studies show that the support for the extreme right-wing parties and authoritarian rule tends to increase in the years after a crisis. The Depression gave birth to some of the 20th century’s most radical populist movements.6

As I argued earlier, the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009 halted the promising process of a Western type of transformation and the beginning of catching up with the West. The spirit of the “return to Europe” was broken in 2008, when the financial crisis hit the European Union and Central and Eastern Europe very hard, and optimism was replaced by fear and desperation. Impressive economic growth of 4-5 percent per annum was replaced by decline throughout the region. While the average decrease in GDP in the region was six percent, five countries witnessed double-digit drops in 2009. Hungary, a successful leader of transformation in the 1990s, had a current account deficit of €1.9 million in 2000, but €5.8 million by 2006, by which time the country had also become highly indebted (debt reached 79 percent of GDP by 2009). Unemployment reached 10 percent by 2010. Hungary was one of the first countries in Europe to have been bailed out by the IMF and the EU. To make things worse, the economic recession was accompanied by increasing corruption and scandals involving recordings of internal governmental conversations, which proved to be the catalysts for the release of popular frustration in Hungary and Poland.7

It is no surprise then that even in the best economic performer in the region, Poland, it was primarily the poor and unemployed who helped to elect Poland’s new right-wing government, promising a family allowance of $130 a month per child, funded through a tax on banks and big business, a minimum wage, and a return to a retirement age of 60 for women and 65 for men. Despite robust economic performance, the neoliberal Civic Platform (PO) left behind many regions like Silesia and working people on so-called ‘junk contracts’, offering less than $200 a month. In the words of Ivan Krastev, the liberal order simply did not deliver that which it had promised in 1989.8 As a result, populist-nationalist parties which promised to defend ‘small’ people gained ground and power.

Nevertheless, demand factors tell only one half of the story. As both Matt Golder9 and Dani Rodrik argue, it is important to look at the demand as well as the supply factors behind the rise of populism. Moreover, Dani Rodrik argues that:

[The] economic anxiety and distributional struggles exacerbated by globalisation generate a base for populism, but do not necessarily determine its political orientation. The relative salience of available cleavages and the narratives provided by populist leaders are what provides direction and content to the grievances. Overlooking this distinction can obscure the respective roles of economic and cultural factors in driving populist politics.

In other words, demand factors provide only a fertile soil, a base, for populism, but do not determine whether or how the populists are successful in persuading the voters to follow their promises. The logic of populism can best be understood by looking at the interaction between demand-side and supply-side factors in their empirical context and by paying more attention to the political geography of the populist support and the different stages of their success.10 It is worth quoting another paragraph from Dani Rodrik’s work on populism:

[The] economic anxiety, discontent, loss of legitimacy, fairness concerns that are generated as a by-product of globalization rarely come with obvious solutions or policy perspectives. They tend to be inchoate and need to be channeled in a particular programmatic direction through narratives that provide meaning and explanation to the groups in question. That is where the supply-side of politics comes in. Populist movements supply the narratives required for political mobilization around common concerns. They present a story that is meant to resonate with their base, the demand side: here is what is happening, this is why, and these are the people who are doing it to you.

In light of these observations, I argue that it was the absence of credible liberal alternatives, on top of other demand factors, that opened the gates for populist parties in Hungary and Poland. The populists in both countries responded to the grievances of the angry and disappointed citizens with what was perceived to be a compelling narrative: A nationalist, authoritarian populism, combined with an almost left-wing-oriented social policy, promising to protect ordinary people abandoned by the liberal elites. With the eruption of the migration crisis in 2015, such socially-oriented xenophobic nationalism provided an ideal fit connecting the demand and supply side factors and driving increasing numbers of voters away from the political center to more right-wing extremes.

What are the lessons of this rise of populism in Eastern Europe for theories of democratic regime breakdown? As Larry Diamond argues, “[d]emocracies fail when people lose faith in them and elites abandon their norms for pure political advantage.” Diamond further argues that Juan Linz, in his classical work on this topic, The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes11, stressed two factors in the failure of democracy. The first one is the growth of “disloyal opposition”—politicians, parties, and movements that deny the legitimacy of the democratic system (and its outcomes), that are willing to use force and fraud to achieve their aims, and that are willing to curtail the constitutional rights of their political adversaries, often by depicting them as “instruments of outside secret and conspiratorial groups.”12 The second factor was “semiloyal behavior” by parties and politicians willing “to encourage, tolerate, cover up, treat leniently, excuse or justify the actions of other participants that go beyond the limits of peaceful, legitimate … politics in a democracy.”13

This is exactly what is happening in Hungary and, to a lesser extent, in Poland. In Hungary, increasing numbers of political leaders and citizens are willing to tolerate the authoritarian politics of Orban’s government in exchange for better protection of their security, social benefits, and political status. Poland is beginning such a journey. With the most recent package of legislation aimed at curtailing the independence of the Supreme Court, the PiS government probably crossed the Rubicon of Polish democracy. The strength of the Polish opposition and vitality of Polish democracy are being tested here. If PiS gets its way, the gates for further backsliding of constitutional democracy in Poland will be wide open.

The current surge of populism in ECE demonstrates that constitutional democracy is in great danger when its core principles no longer enjoy wide democratic support. Paradoxically, constitutional democracy can play its “counter-majoritarian” role only when a majority of the people believe that it is the only game in town.

But such support cannot be presumed; it must be continuously fought for in a democratic political arena. Ultimately, democratic political parties and social movements with credible political ideas and programs offer the best hope for the survival of constitutional democracy. The role of law and constitutional checks and balances is less of an essential bulwark against democratic backsliding than is traditionally presumed in the legal literature.14

1. James Dawson, Sean Hanley, What’s Wrong with East-Central Europe? The Fading Mirage of the “Liberal Consensus”. Journal of Democracy(2016), 27 (1): 21.
2. Dorothee Bohle, Bela Greskovits, (2012) Capitalist Diversity on Europe’s Periphery. Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press.
3. Dawson, Hanley, supra note, p.23
4. Dawson, Hanley, supra note, p.23
5. On importance of demand and supply factors in analyzing the electoral success of right wing parties in Europe, see Matt Golder, Far Right Parties in Europe, Annual Review of Political Science, vol.19: 477-497.
6. Aziz Huq, Tom Ginsburg, How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy, Forthcoming, UCLA Law Review, forthcoming.
7. Ireneusz Pawel Karolewski and Roland Benedikter, Is Poland Really Lost? Poland’s Contested Governance Reforms and the further Role of the Central Eastern European area (CEE) in the EU, March 10, 2016 Working Paper for The Europe Center, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University.
8. Ivan Krastev, What’s Wrong with East-Central Europe? Liberalism’s Failure to Deliver. Journal of Democracy (2016) 27(1): 35-39.
9. Golder, supra note
10. Golder, supra note
11.  Juan Linz, David Stepan, eds., The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes (John Hopkins University Press, 1978), pp.14-48. 
12. ibid.
13. ibid.
14. See Daniel Ziblatt, Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (2017), arguing that “the evidence supporting the idea that such institutions bring large returns to democracy, even in Western Europe, as we have noted, turns out to be surprisingly inconclusive.” (p.365); See also Alicia Adsera, Carles Boix, Constitutions and Democratic Breakdowns, Working Paper, December 21, 2006, available at: https://www.princeton.edu/~cboix/Constitutions%20and%20Democratic%20Breakdowns.pdf