Populism in Europe – a deep dive into Hungary.

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors.

Populism claims it is “for the pure people” against the “corrupt elite” but is it really? Its rise across Europe recently exemplifies that it is not a force for good; from Britian’s UKIP to Orbán’s Fidesz, its  discriminatory appeals can be harmful to certain groups and to the health of a democracy as a whole.  It’s impact on Hungary has been great, with a rise in authoritarianism and populism, and a subsequent decline in democracy. 

With this, populism is not “for the pure people” against the “corrupt elite;” instead, it is the elite against  the people.  

Most rises in populism have a direct link with economic insecurity, yet in some places like Hungary and  Poland there is more than just economic factors at play. The elites have successfully managed to turn  each individual against one another. Orbán’s use of religion by claiming Hungary is now a “Christian  democracy,” despite initially claiming he was an atheist upon first election in 1998 is to ostracize certain  groups. By doing this, Orbán was able to sustain his “anti- immigration policies” in the framework of a  defense of the democracy he had created- with a Christian lens. This is just one tactic in which populist  leaders can gain mass support for certain policies. 

Beker looks further into polarizing forces in Hungary, in ‘The Rise of Right- Wing Populism.’ Fidesz has  used tactics in the form of ‘cultural politics’ including mobilization of support in the form of  demonstrations and protests. Blames on Communists, splits with Jews and ‘gypsies’ and appeals to  Christianity have created cleavages. These are the cleavages formed by the elites to grasp upon- and  maintain it. The media is also used as a weapon; with a “media war” against media outlets and  journalists. Moreover, by 2017, around 90% of media outlets were owned by Orbán’s Fidesz party and  its allies. As mentioned, the elites are those against the people- and these tactics are what have placed  the elite against the people. 

They have successfully polarized Hungary. 

These Populist appeals have contributed to the maintenance of power by Orbán in Hungary. Through  these appeals, his detrimental policies mobilize mass support. As mentioned, his anti- immigration  policies have been supported through a Christian lens. Further, the polarization created by Fidesz has  worked to “strengthen the ideological hegemony of right- nationalist- fascists settlement” within  Hungary. As Scheppel explains, this is how “legalistic autocrats” maintain their hold on the country;  through being elected via democracy and subsequently using that legitimacy to break down democracy  and create an autocratic state. I believe this links to populism as the “charismatic leader” is able to  appeal to the larger population. 

Economic uncertainty? 

The health of the economy contributes greatly to the extent to which populism appeals to certain  people, especially because of how economic decline can crystalize “inequalities.” This in turn means  individuals seek security from elsewhere, and succumb to the “charismatic leader” with their populist  ideals and appeals to “the pure people,” especially on the right. Their emphasis on immigration and  scapegoating tactics roots from economic insecurities. A specific example is that of Nigel Farage and his  tactical appeals to “unfairness and loss,” migration, racism, amongst other things. He is an iconic  populist figure within the UK with Brexit in the backdrop.

When considering Hungary, the economy took a toll with the global financial crisis. In 2007, real wages  declined by 5%, unemployment increasing to 10% while inflation also rose significantly. In addition, as  with many other countries, Hungary imposed austerity to limit spending, and the country was subject to  loan schemes from both the IMF and the World Bank, creating a dependence. This was all under the  MSZP party, which explains why the population succumbed to populist ideals- Orbán successfully gained  power again in the 2010 election.  

Yet, we know that the economy is just one factor. It has contributed significantly to the rise of populist  parties across the European continent and the West as a whole. The relationship between financial  insecurity and populist appeals is strong, but I find that it mainly creates an uncertainty on which  populist, “charismatic” figures can feed upon. This relationship works in complex ways, but this is the  trend we have seen with Farage and Orbán, as discussed. Beker also highlights that Austria and Italy’s  populist movements are setting trends where other countries, specifically Hungary can follow. This can  perhaps act as a warning to prevent populist forces from feeding on economic uncertainties. 

But is populism always a negative force? 

We see that populism can be interpreted as emerging naturally- overall, it is dissatisfaction with the  current regime. In democratic terms, this means the ‘other’ view can be represented. However, we  cannot deny that most of populism is the “radical right wing,” which can polarize the population as with  Hungary. This right- wing populism is what uses the sentiment of “the pure people” which, as Wodak highlights is “a deeply authoritarian mindset.” Mouffe instead calls for “progressive populism” in which  the mindset of “the people” against the elites can be erased; instead, there should be a “progressive  answer” to their concerns and dissatisfaction. This would perhaps prevent populism from becoming a  threatening force. 

To conclude however, as it stands, it seems that populism is a force that the “corrupt elite” feed upon  against “the pure people-” and not the other way around.


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By Hellin Birbalta

Hellin Birbalta is a first year student studying Politics and International Relations at University College London. Her interests include writing about human rights, international conflict and violence, amongst other global issues.