Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Democracy on Life Support: Why so popular?

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These are long versions of the answers that experts gave us for the Lead Article “Democracy on Life Support” which deals with the rollback of democracy in some Eastern European countries. The article is focusing on the situation in Hungary. Below you find the answers from our three interviewees to the following question…

How is it that Orbán’s party is so popular, despite criticism from outside Hungary? Is it just populism and some sort of economic revanchism, or is it something more? Is it the sense of the ‘big Hungary’ and the post-War order that makes people so prone to the populist rhetoric?

Hartmann: Hungary is a more extreme representative of a development which the BTI 2012 observed throughout Eastern Europe in recent years. There is a pronounced disenchantment with a democracy that does not deliver socio-politically and an EU which is unable to overcome the East/West-divide of living standards anytime soon. Having faced the triple challenge of economic transformation after the fall of the Berlin Wall, of economic integration and the fulfillment of obligations to become an EU-member and of overcoming the effects of the global financial and economic crisis all in just over twenty years, there is a reform fatigue and a general feeling to have contributed a fair share without feeling positive socioeconomic effects. Populist politicians are able to exploit these sentiments by blaming “the establishment” and “Brussels”, benefitting from high voter volatility and the relatively instable and only weakly socially rooted party system. In the easy answers that populist parties provide lies an automatic accelerator: Not being able to find differentiated answers and reform compromises when it comes to concrete politics and daily reform work without being accused themselves of caving in to the establishment, populists must maintain a simplicity and rebellious posture in permanence. This is why Fidesz relies so intensively on – as the BTI-report states – a “Golden Past that Never Was” and is, up to this point, able to maintain popular support by simplification and self-aggrandizement.

Citizen X: On the one hand, it has to be admitted that the party of Orbán is extraordinarily well-organized. Personal relations strengthen this organization: the most intimate friends and colleagues of Orbán are in the most important positions, while other regimes often fail because of collegial relations and rivalry. On the other hand, after Trianon and the communist dictatorship, people have a certain demand on a national and value-oriented governance, which is based on a decent political will, a significant support and an ability to govern. Orbán and his government try to represent the possibly broadest layers of the society and to gain their support – should we call that populist?

The World War treaties have had deteriorating effects on Hungary, and ca. 5 million Hungarians were left over the borders. Handling their situation in the 21 century is a linguistic, cultural, or at most economic, but for no reason territorial question! I think that the Hungarian diplomacy is perfectly aware of this. In spite of that, a more tactful diplomatic direction would be necessary. It is an important initiative to give Hungarian citizenship to 5 million Hungarians, but this does not solve the societal and economic problems of Hungary. The country rather requires exemplary initiatives, best practices, and, most importantly, real cooperation between the political parties, the public sphere and the civil society to solve these problems.

Szálkai: Hungarian people experienced a great disappointment after the regime change and with the accession to the European Union. On the one hand, they expected prosperity from these changes. Instead, the period after the regime change was characterized by mass layoffs due to the restructuring, and the EU could not protect Hungary from the deep economic crisis of nowadays either. On the other hand, many people perceive that they are only ‘second-class’ citizens of the EU, and the comparison with Western European countries makes them even more disappointed. In my opinion, this state of despair makes the Hungarian society so receptive to populist rhetoric that invokes economic successes and national pride, promising a way out from the present situation.

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Tom Fries Twitter: @tom_friesTom

Erstwhile neuroscientist ('97-'00), rowing coach ('99-'10), business student ('07-'09) and cupcake entrepreneur ('09). Now enjoying international work in the Germany and Washington offices of one of Germany's most prominent think tanks.