The Central European paradox
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Ivan Krastev

Chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia, Bulgaria; Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna, Austria

The paradox of liberal democracy is that citizens are freer, but they feel powerless. Demand for real victory is a key element in the appeal of the populist parties. Many Central Europeans feel this way, and if citizens distrust liberal democracy, then they are less likely to defend the separation of powers or the rights of minorities. If people feel threatened, if they feel they are on the losing end of globalization, then it becomes relatively easy for populist movements to take advantage.

The paradoxical effect of the post-1989 global spread of democracy is that citizens, in a number of supposedly consolidated democracies in North America and Western Europe, have grown more critical of their political leaders. But that’s not all. They have also become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives. A recent study even shows that “younger generations are less committed to the importance of democracy” and that they are “less likely to be politically engaged.”

The long-held assumption that European integration will guarantee the irreversibility of democratic changes in the post-communist countries of Central Europe is also being questioned. The electoral victory of Viktor Orban in Hungary and Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland and the “illiberal turn” in most of Central Europe has forced many commentators to upend their view of the “Brussels effect” on the process of democratic consolidation in Central Europe. In the view of political scientists James Dawson and Sean Hanley, marrying the process of democratization to the process of European integration has contributed to the emergence of fair-weather democracies in the East with political elites that lack genuine commitment to liberal values. Even more important is that the existence of the European Union as a kind of safety net has probably lowered the risk of countries advancing crazy, destructive policies, but it has also increased voter incentives to support irresponsible political parties. Voting for such parties and their leaders is seen as a way to signal disappointment and anger.

Why should Poles fear someone like Kaczynski if they know that Brussels will tame him if he goes too far? Paradoxically, the twinning of Europeanization and democratization has turned Central Europe into a poster child of democratic illiberalism. In the prophetic words of Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban: “A democracy is not necessarily liberal. Just because something is not liberal, does not mean it cannot still be a democracy.” Moreover, he insisted, “one could – and indeed should – say that societies founded upon liberal principles will likely not be able to sustain their global competitiveness in coming years; rather, it is more likely that they will suffer a setback, unless they manage to reform themselves substantially.”

In this context, Central Europe’s slide into illiberalism was not an unintended consequence. It was a choice. And in order to understand this choice it is important to ascertain what made Central Europeans so nervous about liberal democracy.

THE POWER GAME. The 2008 financial crisis partly explains the spread of illiberal democracies in Central Europe. Economically damaged by the crisis and restrained by European Union strictures from financing efforts to jump-start their struggling national economies, ruling parties have focused on controlling the news media as a way to shore up power. If Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi was a model of using a media empire to build political power, governing parties in Central Europe have proven adept at using political power to build media empires.

The model has been quite simple: The government concocts schemes to channel public or European Union money to the owners of the “friendly” media groups that side with the government and attack its critics. Those media organizations that are critical of the government don’t get the latter’s money. To avoid the risks of being assailed with charges of corruption (or at least mismanagement), ruling parties take control of the judiciary and declare anti-corruption non-governmental organizations enemies of the people. As one Hungarian told David Frum of The Atlantic in March 2017, “The benefit of controlling a modern state is less the power to persecute the innocent, more the power to protect the guilty.”

Despite the deep public mistrust of politicians, it is perplexing why people in Central Europe are nonetheless ready to elect parties eager to dismantle any constraints on government’s power. This is the conundrum that will help us unpack the Central European paradox.

The decision of the populist governments in Hungary and Poland to take control over their respective constitutional courts, to curb the independence of the central banks, and to declare war on independent media and civil society should be alarming for those who are mistrustful of their politicians. However, contrary to expectations, the vast majority of Hungarians and a sizable number of Poles were not concerned by their governments’ decision to concentrate power in the hands of the executive. How did the separation of powers lose its appeal? Is it because people couldn’t distinguish their support for free media from the media outlets they blame for spewing rubbish? Or independent courts from the judges they see as corrupt and inefficient? Could it be that in the eyes of the public the separation of powers is less a way to keep officeholders accountable than it is simply another trick up the sleeves of the elites?

The real appeal of liberal democracy is that it defends not only property rights and the right of the political majority to govern, but also the rights of minorities, making sure that those defeated in elections don’t lose too much. Electoral defeat means having to regroup and plan for the next contest, not having to flee into exile or go underground and have your possessions seized. The little-remarked downside of this is that for winners liberal democracy gives no chance for a full and final victory.

In pre-democratic times (in other words, the vast bulk of human history), disputes were not settled by peaceful debates and orderly handovers of power. Instead, force ruled. Victorious invaders or the winning parties in a civil war had their vanquished foes at their mercy, free to do with them as they liked. Under liberal democracy, the “conqueror” gets no such satisfaction. The paradox of liberal democracy is that citizens are freer, but they feel powerless. Demand for real victory is a key element in the appeal of the populist parties. “Our country is in serious trouble,” was the refrain Donald Trump repeated at his electoral rallies. “We don’t have victories any more. We used to have victories, but we don’t have them. When was the last time anyone saw us beating, let’s say, China in a trade deal?”

POPULIST APPEAL. The appeal of populist parties is that they promise an unambiguous victory. They attract those who view the separation of powers (that particular institutional division so beloved by liberals), not as a way to keep those in power accountable, but as an alibi for the elites to evade their electoral promises. What characterizes populists in power are the constant attempts to dismantle the system of checks and balances and to bring independent institutions like courts, central banks, media outlets and civil society organizations under their control.

Populist and radical parties aren’t just parties – they are constitutional movements. They promise voters what liberal democracy cannot: a sense of victory, where majorities – not just political majorities, but ethnic and religious ones, too – can do what they please.

The rise of these parties is symptomatic of the explosion of threatened majorities as a force in European politics. They blame the loss of control over their lives, real or imagined, on a conspiracy between cosmopolitan-minded elites and tribal-minded immigrants. They blame liberal ideas and institutions for weakening the national will and eroding national unity. They tend to see compromise as corruption and zealousness as conviction.

What makes anxious majorities most indignant is that while they believe that they are entitled to govern, they never can have the final say. And so they are ready to blame their frustration on the separation of powers and other inconvenient principles of liberal democracy. This in turns, leads them to endorse parties like Law and Justice in Poland or Fidesz in Hungary – parties that run against those principles.

The populist turn in Central Europe is thus tantamount to a reassertion of more parochial but culturally deeper identities within individual European countries. This movement is driving European politics towards less inclusive, and possibly less liberal, definitions of political community.

BLURRING LINES. The sharp Left-Right divide, which has structured European politics since the French Revolution, is gradually blurring. With the rise of a right-wing populism of the sort unknown since the 1920s and 1930s, working classes are now liable to be captured by decidedly anti-liberal leaders. Threatened majorities – those who have everything and who therefore fear everything – have emerged as the major force in European politics.

The emerging illiberal political consensus is not limited to right-wing radicalism; it encompasses the transformation of the European mainstream itself. It is not what extremists say that threatens Europe; the real threat is what the mainstream leaders no longer say: principally, that diversity is good for Europe.

Threatened majorities today express a genuine fear that they are becoming globalization’s losers. Globalization may have contributed to the rise of numerous middle classes outside the developed world, but it is now also eroding the economic and political foundations of the middle-class societies of post-World War ii Europe. In this sense, the new populism represents not the losers of today but the prospective losers of tomorrow. It is the populism of the pragmatic complaints of the majorities evinced in almost daily opinion polls.

But the model of a corruption-managed democracy (a form of government on the rise in Central Europe) creates problems of its own. In societies where political leaders fear that losing elections could result in jail time, any expression of weakness is noticed and any public initiative is viewed suspiciously. So the only outlet for citizens’ voices is taking to the streets. That is why youth are protesting so loudly all over Central Europe. When legislation aimed at closing the Central European University, founded by George Soros, was under discussion in April 2017, thousands of people marched; it was the largest public protest since Orban’s Fidesz party came to power seven years before.

In the same month in Slovakia, young protesters demanded the resignation of an Interior minister they accused of corruption. Young Romanians effectively blocked the government’s plan to secure amnesty for politicians sentenced for corruption. Meanwhile, in Poland, opponents of the ruling Law and Justice party took to the streets after the government tried to exert its control over the country’s highest court and declared war on the independent news media.

These protesters have no common ideology, only frustration and anger. It would be wrong to romanticize them too much, but it’s safe to say that unlike older generations, they are dead-set against standing onstage and opening their mouths in some vain hope of winning modest social benefits. They want to be heard.

IGNORE YOUTH AT YOUR PERIL. It is relatively easy for ruling parties to ignore the protests of the young. The reality in Central Europe is that,thanks to low birthrates and emigration, young people are a small and shrinking minority. According to a 2016 government-sponsored report, one-third of Hungarians between 18 and 29 would consider moving away. Indeed, around 500,000 Hungarians have already left the country since Orban came to power.

But while ignoring the demands of youth appears to be a promising electoral stratagem (it is easier to play on the fears of older generations than to satisfy the hopes of younger ones), it is ultimately self-defeating both socially and economically.