REVIEW #4: Rethinking Populism – Top-Down Mobilization and Political Actions beyond Institutions in Hungary


While populism in general has neither an elaborated meaning, nor program, in the academic discourse it is regarded as a method of doing politics, according to which a populist politician refers to the common people, without any real participation of them. The democratic backlash and the illiberal tendencies in countries like Hungary, Poland and Slovakia are often characterized with the label of populism. This “new politics” in Central Eastern Europe has introduced a majoritarian model of democracy, where the elected leaders are empowered to fulfill their political agenda. The mirage of authentic action makes this new politics highly attractive for many citizens in CEE. These systems can also forge an electoral coalition of relative majority from the threatened middle class.

The interrelation of democratic participation and populism should be reconsidered according to its roots and social support. The case of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz in Hungary is a good example how a populist leader and an effective political machine can exploit the new settings in politics. Most importantly, Fidesz takes advantage of the declining importance of political institutions and effectively uses top-down or “astro turf” mobilization, that is the so-called “movement governance” as Viktor Orbán put it.

Behind the Popularity of Fidesz

The migrant crisis gave a new impetus to Fidesz, which lost many supporters during the internet tax protests. However, it was still surprising, that after the peak of the migrant crisis in the middle of its second term, the Fidesz is still by far the most popular party (34% of support of the whole population). Many observers emphasize the role of the aggressive communication as the main reason for the government’s popularity. Others blame the supporters of Fidesz for not seeing what is really going on in the country. Electoral behavior is more rational than one might think and no political marketing can be effective without real social receptivity. Thus the reason of Fidesz’s popularity cannot be simplified to mere manipulation or the lack of information.

The popularity of Fidesz has more interrelated reasons. The first is rather the deep knowledge and understanding of the Hungarian political culture and voters behavior by the prime minister and his staff. As Péter Tölgyessy, a notable Hungarian lawyer and political analyst noted, Viktor Orbán has the ability to identify the thoughts and fears of Hungarian people. However, just like in the case of the migrant crisis, he appeals to the negative features of the Hungarian political culture. But the specific character of Hungarians also determines how politics can be made in Hungary. Due to this distinct nature of Hungarian politics, foreign ideologies cannot be successful, but Hungarian common sense. Nevertheless, Viktor Orbán, who grew up in a provincial middle-class milieu, can authentically represent and identify himself with the “common people”.

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Daniel Mikecz