What does populism mean? Why does populism spread across the world & across Europe. Why did populists come into power? Why does populism try to change the core of Europe and the European Union? And why is populism so strong in the Visegrád Group, especially in Poland and Hungary. There is no doubt, populism fueled a widespread crisis of democracy.
It is a big challenge to us, as liberal community to find a successful way to oppose this “movement”. It may be helpful to reflect on:
- conceptualizing the Visegrád Group and Populism,
- political communication,
- using political storytelling.
According to Cas Mudde author of “Populism: A Very Short Introduction”, Populism is the idea that society is separated into two groups at odds with one another – “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite”. According to this view, politics should be a statement, a pronouncement of the people’s will.
For understanding this definition it is interesting and crucial to draw attention to the adjectives. The people are “pure” and “good” whereas the elites are always “corrupt”. Indeed, populist leaders generally emphasize that they are not part of the establishment – they are with the people.
What are Core Features of Populism?
Leaders are not always charismatic. Donald Trump, for example, is much more charismatic than Jarosław Kaczyński. However, they both see society as a homogenic group. Populists leaders are good at identifying human fear and they always refer to human needs. They often combine this with nativism. Mudde, in his works, combines populism with an anti-immigrant nativism.
Populists have a clear message with abstract issues, that they use to clarify, paired with principles – easy to imagine for everyone. Very useful for this is the identification of an enemy: the people vs. the elites, us vs. them, Muslims and refugees vs. our culture and Christian tradition (Christianity is Europe’s last hope – repeats Viktor Orbán), the EU’s interests vs. national interests, rich countries vs. poor countries, pro-choice vs. pro-life etc.
A populist leader stands in opposition to the framed enemy, like immigrants or LGBT people. It should be mentioned that some populist politicians in Poland called LGBT an ideology. Populists see a society as a homogenic group and therefore don’t tolerate groups that diverge from their views and portray them as enemies.
Of course, there is a connection among multiculturalism, globalism and crisis. They condition each other and influence the rise of populist parties in Europe that enable a more xenophobic form of nationalism and overall fear management by politicians.
People prioritize their psychological needs: the need to be safe and being part of bigger community with the same values. This can be easily exploited to create distrust of the unknown. Division, polarization and distrust of the unknown are very useful tools for populists and the spread of their own political agenda, as long as the enemy is stated clearly.
Populists portray themselves as following the will of the people and are therefore often initially appreciated by social media, especially when rooting in the opposition to established political parties. They use it for spreading their vision and messages with consistency, not infrequently with their own interpretations of reality.
In Poland, for example, leaders of smaller political parties play a big role in strengthening populist ideology. Their agenda is more xenophobic and nationalist, and supported by extremely nationalist, xenophobic and anti-European Union slogans.
Populists repoliticize old and new issues that offer grounds for debate, and are at the same time easy to grasp by the wider population. If someone tries to depoliticize the debate by experts’ reference or external bodies (e.g. EU institutions) he/she is portrayed as a “traitor” to the nation. As Marcin Król, a Polish philosopher, said: “Populism is the work of politicians not of society.”
Ineffective Handling of Liberalism?
Liberal leaders promote abstract issues (e.g. rule of law or freedom) in public debates. However, for the general public these abstract (universal) issues are too difficult to define and grasp, and therefore to connect with their life. In order to become interested in politics, relate to issues and be swayed by arguments, people need concrete issues, not abstract issues.
Of course, liberals do not have easy solution to normative problems. This is in part due to the fact that issues in a democratic system require collective decision-making and have to be understood/tackled in a comprehensive matter, to cover aspects of politics, business and the private sphere.
Populism in the Visegrád Group
Recently, all eyes have been on Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary, and Vice Prime Minister of Poland Jarosław Kaczyński. One may wonder why populism is spreading so easily in the Visegrád countries and why their populists have such a great impact on politics.
Two of the most important founding ideas of the Visegrád Group were the desire to eliminate the remnants of the communist bloc in Central Europe, to successfully accomplish social transformation to and join in the European integration process.
How is it possible that countries that shared a past of communists oppression, pro-democracy movements, 30 years of social and economic transformation and 16 years of EU membership are now predominantly associated with populist movements? What makes the four Visegrád countries fertile ground for populism?
The main reasons, as mentioned above, are: the crises in the EU, clear and strong messages from populists, as well as insufficient effectiveness of liberal political parties.
These reasons can be complimented by a strong need for national identity and the post-soviet experience. Not without significance are, however, also the following factors:
- the foundation myth,
- a perception of cultural identity,
- a homogenous strong Christian tradition,
- the economic gap and challenges of capitalism,
- higher expectations after transformation process.
Nevertheless, the democratic and liberal spirit in the Visegrád countries is still alive. On December 2019 at the central European University in Budapest, Mayors of Bratislava, Budapest, Prague and Warsaw signed the Free Cities Pact, sometimes called Small Visegrád. The cities want to join forces in the use of European subsidies and share the practices and the solutions in the field of climate protection, transport, and sustainable urban planning.
In practice and of course on a symbolic level, the Mayors want to join forces to show that they share the same values from a non-populist point of view and through non-populist leadership.
Cas Mudde is a Dutch political scientist who focuses on political extremism and populism in Europe and the United States. Mudde sees populism as part of the broader radical right wings political parties agenda.
 Mudde 2004; Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2017.
 Example: The Ordinary People; Slovak Obyčajní Ľudia, full name Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (Obyčajní Ľudia a nezávislé osobnosti, OľaNO), a conservative, populist political party in Slovakia. The party won the 2020 Slovak parliamentary election. The chairman Igor Matovič is the current Prime Minister of the Slovak Republic.
 Jarosław Kaczyński – the leader of the Law and Justice party (PiS). Since the 2015 victories of PiS, both in the presidential and parliamentary election, Kaczyński is considered to be the most important politician in Poland.
 Viktor Orbán – Prime Minister of Hungary, the leader of Fidesz – Hungarian Civic Alliance.
 In Poland: Konfederacja Party and Solidarna Polska with the leader Zbigniew Ziobro.
 Marcin Król – a Polish philosopher, journalist and historian of ideas.
 The Visegrad Group was formed on 15th February 1991in Visegrad, Hungary at a meeting of the President of the Czechoslovak Republic, Václav Havel, the President of the Republic of Poland, Lech Wałęsa, and the Prime Minister of the Republic of Hungary, József Antall. This meeting created an imaginary historical arch linking the idea of this meeting to the idea of a similar meeting, which took place there in 1335 and was attended by John of Luxembourg, King of Bohemia, Charles I of Anjou (Charles Robert), King of Hungary, and Casimir III, King of Poland. http://www.visegradgroup.eu/about/history
 Mayors Zdeněk Hřib (Prague), Karácsony Gergely (Budapest), Rafał Trzaskowski (Warsaw) and Matúš Vallo (Bratislava).
This opinion piece was written as part of the workshop series “The Story of Visegrád – How to Understand Political Storytelling & Craft Alternative Narratives Online”.
The article was originally published at: https://www.freiheit.org/european-union/analysing-populism-visegrad-group