Populism in Eastern Europe




"Jobbik flags" (CC BY-NC 2.0) by Leigh Phillips


Thwarting the Political Cleavages of Western Europe – What We Can Learn from Populists. Elena Marcela Coman outlines the historic trajectory and specific traits of populist movements in Eastern Europe.


With the end of the communist rule, after 1989, a new age started in Eastern Europe based on democracy, real political life and a new political platform. But it was also a period of economical and social crisis characterized by the transition to a capitalist economy and by the difficult access to the European Union, so populism started its rise also in this part of the continent. In the initial phase, populism became manifest in a “declaration of war” between the representative political parties: those who declared being anti-communist (socialist and ex-communist political parties like FSN-FDSN-PDSR in Romania) and those leaning to the right (obviously anti-communist, liberal and conservative parties). The former declared themselves as being anti-elitist while the others claimed to be the spokesmen of millions of martyrs who opposed to the communism in their countries. The parties’ view about their political opponents could be expressed as “our opponents are not partners to collaborate with but sworn enemies that ought to be destroyed”.

Charismatic leaders instead of ideological identity

The manipulative communication which was used during the communist period found even more ground with slogans like “we are the country” and direct political communication as “man to man work”, an approach facilitating political activity and opinion making at the workplace, which proved to be very effective forms of manipulating the masses. Some of these forms of non-democratic, manipulative communication haven’t been replaced with convincing democratic forms but rather with a “fake democracy” promoted by parties without an ideological identity, with populist leaders. The discourse of “othering” and hate characterizes Eastern European populism, with a blend of homophobic, racist and anti-semitic politics. Nationalist ideology strategy is used to increase their existing electorate, also “helped” by the communist ideology which still persists in the so-called “collective memory”.

Populism rather directed against elites than against democracy

Almost all Eastern Europe is an example of how national-communism transformed itself rather quickly into national-populism. We can say that populist movements in Eastern Europe are anti-liberal, but not anti-democratic. In Bulgaria the buzzword of the populist parties is “referendum”. The Jobbik Party in Hungary and Law and Justice in Poland refer to democracy and freedom as the guiding principles but only when it suits themselves. Through the post-communist period and within the context of the failure of the system of established parties, populism is mainly directed against the elites rather than against democracy. In Bulgaria the phenomenon of populism was called “hard populism” because of its characteristics: the elite is considered to be inferior to the people who consider themselves morally above and more competent than its elite; the people are the true elite. Nationalism is perceived as a universal panacea and is singled out as a universal principle in domestic and foreign politics.

Eastern European citizens are considered to be the most sceptical in Europe regarding the democratic state of affairs in their country. In this panorama Romania seems to be the only country from the Eastern European ex-communist block which ranks out of this groups. The major part of the mainstream parties which dominate the Romanian political scene can be grouped into liberal, social democratic or conservative party families. Their agenda was formed by transition politics aimed to join the EU and the foundation of a new democratic society in a country considered to be the second poorest in Europe after Albania. Actually extremist groups have a relatively low political profile, despite a surge in popularity of far right and Eurosceptic parties.

What can we learn from populism?

With the rise of the populist movements in Eastern Europe there was an entry of new political formations that succeeded in recruiting persons who previously were apathetic and passive citizens, mobilizing them to participate in the electoral and political process. In Hungary, the Jobbik party was able to appeal to young people, who were motivated, sizable, but yet not formal members of the party. These young people do vote, demonstrate for the party and use online channels (Facebook and other social platforms) for political engagement, information and activism. They participate no longer within classical forms of organization of the mainstream parties but within new ones, open to the civil society that previously didn’t had real access to the political life. This new way of mobilization expands the range of “politically possible” solutions to collective problems and replaces the political immobilization of the established parties with populist “decisionism”. The continuous popular ratification that populist parties need, combined with an eventual defeat of those parties yet may lead to a reinvigorated party system with a new organization, new participation and a new way of communication in politics.