Growing extreme right-wing populism in Poland and Hungary

By Anna Gromada (The Guardian) and  Krisztián Simon (Political Critique)


Pride is at stake in Poland’s tussle with the EU. It won’t give ground easily

Anna Gromada* – The Guardian

Poland’s populist leaders came to power on a wave of nationalist feeling. Liberals trying to shame them into backing down will only make them dig their heels in

The EU has given Poland an ultimatum: a one-month deadline to drop plans for judicial reforms, which Brussels says would be a violation of the rule of law, on pain of losing Poland’s vote in the European Council. The EU has never before used this “nuclear option” on a member state and it seems like the kind of legal threat that should surely bring Poland’s ruling conservatives to its senses after weeks of street protests over the measures.

Yet, those who have faith in the value of external pressure on the ruling party chairman, Jaros?aw Kaczy?ski, forget what brought him to power.

The day the measure subordinating the Polish courts to political interference was approved by the parliament in Warsaw, Donald Tusk, the president of the European council, who happens to be Poland’s former prime minister – and Kaczy?ski’s arch-enemy – issued a half-page statement. In it he managed to make six references to Poland’s reputation abroad. The reform, he said, would “ruin the already tarnished public opinion of Polish democracy.” Tusk failed to explain why retaining an independent judiciary might be a good thing, even when nobody’s watching.

Like many postcolonial societies, Poland has a residual sensitivity about what “the west might think about us” – this is especially prevalent within the middle-class electorate that Tusk was presumably speaking to. Yet over the last decade, this embarrassment anxiety has provoked a backlash from the Law and Justice party (PiS), which dubs it a “teaching of shame”. The party came to power in 2015 on the back of pride-boosting slogans such as “Poland will get off its knees” that massively helped expand its traditional electorate, the elderly and rural or small-town dwellers, to include a new group you could call the dignity-driven youth.

And now, PiS is likely to use the Brussels pressure to play the sovereignty card even more than it has previously done, the goal being to show Poles who holds legitimate power. Poland’s justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, framed his response to the EU decision in the language of pride: “I ask Mr [Frans] Timmermans to cut his insolence and arrogance, when he speaks about Poland and Poles. Poles categorically demand respect.”

Liberals and progressives are making a big mistake in thinking they can shame Law and Justice supporters with warnings about Poland’s diminishing status in the west. In fact, they are blowing the wind in PiS’s sails.

Yet, they are egging on pro-European Polish progressives with these warnings and that is likely to polarise Polish society even further.

That is because most people don’t vote but they may be motivated to by a new conflict between supporters of closer EU integration and Eurosceptics.

Poland is not like the UK, where the 2001 election turnout of 59% saw politics textbooks rewritten to include chapters on “the crisis of participation”. Voter turnout in Poland habitually ranges between 40% and 55%. In 2015, Law and Justice was elected by 5.7 million people – 19% of those with the right to vote. Usually, it is not the nominal majority that radical parties need to win, but the majority that stays at home.

Our society consists roughly of three groups: approximately a fifth of regular voters, a fifth of regular non-voters, and three -fifths who vote from time to time. When the latter group finally shows up to the ballots, its members are most likely to vote for the centre. Yet, these three-fifths gets easily offended – and some electoral campaigns are calibrated to disgust them so that they stay at home complaining about low standards of politics. By contrast, the “iron electorate” remains unimpressed.

The threatened EU sanctions are likely to lead to a polarisation of Polish society along the lines seen in the Brexit and Trump campaigns.

On the one hand, Poland is one of the most pro-European countries in the EU. For the past decade, support for the EU has ranged between 70% and 90%, with recent polls showing 88% support. These are not just empty declarations. The single biggest anti-government protest carried the slogan, “We are and will be in Europe”. It gathered 30,000 people (according to the government) or 240,000 (according to the organisers).

Yet, Poles’ affection for the EU is not unconditional. In this, one of the world’s most homogenous societies, 51% say they would rather quit the EU than accept any plan for refugees allocated by the EU. The EU’s threats are likely to lead to a further polarisation of Polish society. Fear is the fuel, it has greater mobilising power than hope or the protection of the status quo. Both sides deploy it: the strongest fear that PiS can mobilise is Muslim refugees, while the strongest fear the opposition can generate is that of having to quit Europe. In other words, the anxiety of cosmopolitans about being cut off from the liberal world versus conservatives’ fear of accepting “the other”. Brace yourself for the next battle over our globalised world.Tuesday 1 August 2017


*Anna Gromada is a researcher at the Polish Academy of Sciences and a co-founder of the Kalecki Foundation thinktank



The Economics of Fear: How Orbán Profits from Insecurities

Krisztián Simon – Political Critique

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s rhetoric is made up of a creative combination of fears: social insecurities, loss of national identity, and threats to national security all play an important role when it comes to Orbán positioning himself as the sole protector of Hungary.

Krisztián Simon: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán builds his politics on pre-existing fears of his society, but he doesn’t shy away from creating new dangers and enemies. Where do the origins of this kind of politics lie?

Zoltán Lakner (1) : Orbán found his way to the long existing Hungarian conservative tradition (the so-called national tradition, which claims an exclusive right to this title) in the second half of the 1990s. This is partly due to ideological changes and partly to political calculations. At this time, Hungary was governed by a Liberal-Socialist coalition, and thus, Orbán realised that in order to gain political success, he had to turn his back on liberalism and transform his party into a nationalist, anti-liberal political force. This already explains some of the fears that he is building on in his rhetoric, as this tradition is suspicious of cosmopolitism, universal human rights, and everything it identifies as contrary to or opposing the national interest, which it traces back to some kind of foreign conspiracy.

Moreover, right-wing thinking is also heavily burdened by the Treaty of Trianon, signed after the end of World War I, which led to Hungary losing two-thirds of its old territory. In Hungary, this national trauma is seen as the most obvious sign that the country is constantly humiliated and the survival of the nation is in danger – and therefore it is usually foreign actors (or their alleged accomplices, the Liberals and the Socialists) who take the blame if something is not going right in Hungary.

By the time Orbán became prime minister in 2010, his rhetoric was built around threats.

In the early 2000s, there was a social-populist turn in Orbán’s politics: after he lost the national election in 2002, he realised that his old rhetoric, which addressed merely the well-off and the middle classes, didn’t reach enough people – there was a need to speak to the marginalised parts of society as well. Although this didn’t change the actual goals of his social policies (he still doesn’t want to reduce social inequalities, and neither does he support the abolition of school segregation), he realised that there were widespread fears amongst the losers of post-Communist transition, which he had to incorporate into his rhetoric (combined with some national sentiments). Today, 4 million Hungarians live below the subsistence level, and even prior to the economic crisis, in the pre-Orbán years, this number was well above 3 million. So, there have been plenty of potential addressees for messages that were built around social security.

Therefore, by the time he was elected to become prime minister in 2010, Orbán’s rhetoric was built around three threats: the so-called “death of the nation” (the disappearance of the nation, or at least the dissolution of national identity); social fears; and the fear of the foreign and the unknown.

All three of these fears can be found in his rhetoric on refugees: he says that foreigners and potential terrorists are crossing the country’s borders; as cheap labourers they steal the jobs of locals; and with their unwillingness to integrate they are destroying our culture. Is this trinity of fears present every time he talks about a new enemy?

A main characteristic of Orbán’s political machinery is his ability to masterfully combine different fears. The number of combinations and variations is almost endless. Due to government propaganda, almost every topic in the country is discussed along the lines of fears and threats. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all three threats come up together, but it happens – for example, in the case of his ‘fight’ against Brussels. Since the EU disapproves of the Hungarian government’s most prominent social policy, the so-called rezsicsökkentés (the government imposed price-cuts on utility providers) and would impose austerity on the country, Orbán can position himself as the saviour of Hungary, who keeps the foreigners (the EU) at bay, protects national sovereignty, and last – but not least – shields the people from austerity (even though the Hungarian government is, in fact, cutting spending on healthcare, education and social services).

Moreover, since the government presents itself as the only representative of the people, and the only protector of their interests – where both the ‘people’ and their ‘interests’ are defined by the government – all political opponents are labelled enemies, as we have seen in the cases of activists who were collecting signatures against the planned Olympic games in Hungary, or human rights organisations whowere helping refugees.

Why does the loss of identity play such a dominant role in security discourses, both in Hungary and other European countries?

I would mention two reasons, though there are many, which are, to some extent, interrelated. One is globalisation, which affects our cultures, lifestyles, as well as our political and economic relations: this phenomenon raises questions regarding what sovereignty means today, and can lead to a number of different responses from politicians. The right-wing critics say that the disappearance of a national framework will lead to the liquidation of the traditions that define our identity, while the left-wing critics of neoliberal globalisation decry a lack of transnational governance that could control the borderless flow of capital. Enabling transnational governance would, however, exacerbate the already existing dangers of globalisation – say the supporters of national sovereignty.

The other group of problems is that of inequalities: today, it is not only the developmental differences between different countries or regions of the world that are problematic, as there are also growing differences within the so-called developed countries, both in terms of wealth and in terms of income. It is becoming more and more questionable how there could be a sense of shared belonging between all those people who might live in the same country, but may face very different hardships. A possible response by governments is the newly rediscovered mobilising power of national sentiments, which can also absolve governments from tackling inequalities, as they can claim that social injustices can be traced back to national grievances and are thus the faults of foreign forces.

There is an imminent danger in this situation: those governments that try to remedy the experienced uncertainty of the world by referring to the nation are, in fact, camouflaging their authoritarian experiments as the embodiment of the national will. And thus, they extort an authorisation from the voters to concentrate power in their hands.

A main characteristic of Orbán’s political machinery is his ability to masterfully combine different fears.

Not so long ago, Orbán branded the foundation of Hungarian-born American billionaire George Soros, as well as the NGOs that receive funding from him, his new enemies. The vice-president of Orbán’s Fidesz party, Szilárd Németh, even said that these organisations should be wiped out of the country. Why was it so important for him to declare Soros an enemy?

The attack on Soros started somewhat earlier. Its roots can be traced back to the times before the refugee crisis, when the government started to attack the NGOs who received funding from the Norway Grants, right after the election in 2014.1

At the time, parts of the public expected that, following his dynamic and arrogant first term, his second term would be about consolidation. Instead, he decided to attack civil society, even at the price of a diplomatic conflict. The reason for this behaviour was most likely that, following the weakening of the power-sharing system, and the capturing of the media, the government wanted to abolish the control-functions of an independent civil society. Since civil society organisations receive most of their funding from the state – and the decisions regarding the group of organisations that deserve funding are made by those loyal to Fidesz – independent NGOs are more and more reliant on foreign funding (mainly from the Norway Grants and George Soros’ Open Society Foundations). If foreign funds are taken away from them, they won’t be able to operate anymore, as fundraising is still is not a viable alternative to donor activity in the region. The Hungarian government is presenting these NGOs as agents of foreign forces, which are said to pose a threat to national sovereignty.

We can’t expect of people to go out onto the streets, join campaigns, hand out leaflets and fight for a cause that is obviously lost.

Of course, the demonisation of George Soros is not merely a Hungarian phenomenon: he is often accused by the U.S. right-wing of manipulating politics from behind the scenes, and Russia has even banned the Open Society Foundations. In this sense, Orbán is a talented politician, at least if we define political talent as the ability to acquire and keep power. He is able to think in the context of world politics, and he uses this ability to create threats and enemies that fit into international political trends.


*Krisztian Simon is a doctoral candidate at the Freie Universität in Berlin. In 2015 he was deputy editor-in-chief of the Green European Journal. He has experience working in the field of international development in Lao PDR and Kyrgyzstan, and since 2005 he writes articles on international and European affairs

(1) Zoltán Lakner (Budapest, 1975) is a political scientist and social politician.


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