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Populism and Nationalism in the V4: Temporary Setback

Peter Sprinz

Recently, Visegrad countries have received a lion's share of the international community's attention. As they have been experiencing an unprecedented period of economic flowering and presenting promising macroeconomic figures, the story of their economic miracle has returned to the headlines. However, there has been another reason for attention. After a set of successive elections, Central European countries seem to have slid toward a new, alarming political order, characterized by weak governments, polarized societies and tension beyond frontiers. The whole region has been swept by populism underpinned by nationalism. Following elections in September 2005 and June 2006, we have witnessed successes of populist movements. Why have V4 countries become "problematic children of the EU", and why has liberalism ebbed? How can we characterize the ruling parties in the region? These are the main issues to deal with these days.

What is populism and nationalism?
To avoid misapprehension, it is necessary to conceptualize the term "populism". Populism is a manipulative and simplistic political tactic aimed at the attraction of maximum voters. It disregards the feasibility of the political plan it presents. What makes populism dangerous for democracy? According to Tomas Strazay, populism "is an empty shell which can be filled and made meaningful by whatever is poured in it." Usually, populism is a method, a mode of pushing through an idea—in most cases nationalism. In the name of defense of national interests, populists address the people as a whole. Given the occasional disputes with the EU, nationalism has proved itself as an effective policy for gaining voter support after EU accession. In this respect, populism linked with nationalism is a natural fit.

Few would disagree that the spark of populism in V4 countries is palpable. It is more interesting to ask why this is so. Although the rise of populism is very complex and is caused by social, economic as well as political factors, I believe that it has the following roots: loss of consensus in the society and political culture, particularly the massive dissemination of corruption.

Loss of Consensus on Reform
For the past decade, discords and collisions have been stifled because there was a clear objective: EU entry. "The return to Europe" was an enticing motive for a large part of the society and a sufficient reason to suppress conflicts. To achieve this goal, governments in candidate states had to push through legislation, which, though oftentimes painful and unpopular, was positive to the development of the society. Nowadays, problems that were neglected and downplayed a decade ago have become apparent.

After Central Europe became a part of "the West", ruling coalitions began disintegrating. The primary goal was fulfilled, and the previous consensus was lost. Similarly to Greece in the 1980s, parties have lost the will to pursue further reforms, partially in hopes of putting them off after receiving financial aid from the EU structural funds. Though reforms are undoubtedly necessary, parties are facing everyday dissatisfaction of the electorate, monitored in public opinion surveys in the mass media. As soon as an intention to undertake reforms is formulated and articulated, polls reflect disagreement among wide public. The EU accession in general reduced the willingness to push through reforms. Prior to EU entry, governments were pressured to adopt reformist strategies. The current situation is different. There is no further justification for reforms. V4 countries face increasing tension between the demands of the electorate and of the outside world.

Economic-wise, the globalized world places a great burden on the society, drawing a line between "winners" and "losers". In those states that carried out reforms, some people have benefited more than others—in Jacques Rupnik's view "some had it better than others." Reactions vary from state to state, but it is key to note that left-wing parties such as the Czech and Slovak Communist Parties have been expressing disagreement with privatization very loudly. The subject matter of their agenda has been re-nationalization or at least preservation of the remaining "national treasure." Two supporting examples suffice. At the end of the electoral term in the Czech Republic, the Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD)—with substantial support of the Communist Party (KSCM)—pushed through a bill seeking to keep healthcare facilities under the influence of the state by ensuring that these facilities stay non-profitable. The bill was supported by populist rhetoric. One example can also be found in Poland. The League of Polish Families and Self-Defense used similar rhetoric, seeking to halt the privatization of Stoen company stocks (Strazay: 2006, 11).

As I have mentioned above, the willingness to pursue further reforms has withered. Instead of viewing the reforms as a great opportunity to cooperate across the political spectrum, parties take full advantage of one another's unpopular intentions. The loss of consensus on key issues is apparent. In terms of political gains, the cooperation does not hold water as effectively as populist criticism. The usage of the word "the people" linked with "betrayal" or "treason" has obviously been boosting the popularity of political parties.

I am utterly convinced that EU entry has increased the propensity to euroscepticism. Like economics, politics is about the costs and profit. Prior to EU accession, the costs of euroscepticism were much higher (Mudde: 2000, 7–8). Only a small number of parties was firmly against the idea of Central Europeans becoming EU members as the desire to "return to Europe" was too strong. Therefore, few parties would have risked the anger of voters. The accession to the EU was generally welcomed by both sides of the political spectrum according to referendum outcomes. Given the satisfaction of voters, the fear of staying aside has lost its political weight. Central Europe is now a part of the Western mainstream. The potential ultimate penalty (refusal of acceptance by the EU) has disappeared. From the reasons illustrated above, we can conclude that euroscepticism is on the move.

It has become remarkably popular to blame the EU. I suppose that the ruling elite prefer to hide behind the EU. Oftentimes, parties at power refer to "the Brussels decision-making" as bureaucratic and ignorant of the clear fact that all member states participate in that decision-making. The debate on the EU is commonly linked with nationalist straying. The discussion in European institutions on forbidding appellations of some products (e.g.: Czech "slivovitz", so-called plum brandy) causes harm to the EU, breeding resentment and mistrust. Such issues attract public attention, and euro-skeptic parties naturally benefit from it.

In addition, certain opposition parties have taken advantage of pre-accession negotiations to seize political profit in a populist manner. Czech Republic is an illustrative case. The Civic Democratic Party (ODS) blamed the then ruling Social Democratic Party (CSSD) that it "betrayed the people" by settling unfavourable conditions. The ODS has pointed out the rather negative aspects of the Treaty of Accession signed in Athens. It sought to address "the people" directly and play unambiguously on the national audience.

Political Culture and the Communist Legacy
A political system is never in a vacuum; in contrast, it is influenced by many factors, including the political culture. Central European political culture is relatively stabilized and is hardly susceptible to sudden turns such as the 1989 revolutions. On the other hand, it takes a few decades to change the minds of the people affected by ubiquitous communist propaganda and ideology, which was more or less taught at every University. In my judgment, communist ideology is deeply rooted in the minds of political elites and significantly accounts for the rise of populism.

One of the main aspects characteristic of communist regimes was an omnipresent need for numerous permits. It created an environment of corruption, the so-called "bribevilles." State-controlled economy contributed to the massive spread of bribery as well. Corruption is still pervasive, especially in the construction sector (according to Transparency International). The complicated system of permits has magnified the corruption. On the municipal level, bribery is restricted to re-designation of agricultural land for construction purposes. It is clear that corruption can be attributed to the underdevelopment of civil society, something foreign to the late communist regimes. Furthermore, the current role of the state in economic matters as well as numerous quotas and permits set by the EU underpin the development of a dark environment of donors and kickback receivers.

Corruption scandals have unfortunately become everyday reality. All V4 countries have their set of corruption scandals. To give examples, I would mention the former Hungarian chairman of the Public Procurement Committee Zoltan Szekely who was under investigation, the former Czech Social Democratic Prime Minister Stanislav Gross, forced to leave the office on grounds of corruption, and former Slovak Social Affairs Minister Ludovit Kanik who resigned after news reports. Many others examples can be found (Tupy: 2006, 11). As I closely follow the political developments in the Czech Republic, I am convinced that politicians are very reluctant to resign if blamed for corruption (current Czech minister of Regional Development seeks to stay in office at any cost though he has been charged with bribery). This corruptive trend discredits the ruling class and undermines the confidence in democratic institutions, encouraging an anti-corruption drive.

Policy statements on corruption usually voice anger at those at power "who betrayed the people by abusing the public office for private gains instead of acting in accord with the interests of the people". Such addresses are not exceptions to the rule, and implicitly divide the people in the elite and the rest. The former is described as corrupted, totally immoral and evil, whereas the latter as moral and virtuous. This division further endangers political culture in the region and leads to constant decrease of confidence in democratic institutions.

The anti-corruption campaign mentioned above frequently coincides with an anti-communist drive. Anti-communism or "de-communization" had become a key problem several months before elections were held. The issue of former communists who transformed their political power into economic power had become strikingly apparent in Poland, where irresponsible and populist statements resembling the ones used during the communist era took control of the political arena. The "threat of communism" also intensified the election campaign in the Czech Republic and mobilized the electorate. To sum it up, anti-communism and anti-corruption has become the keynote for the ODS, Law and Justice and Fidesz, and to some degree other parties.

In my view, the legacy of communism has also been forming the parties' views of their political opponents. The attitude towards political rivals remains sharp and can be described as follows: "Our opponents are not partners to cooperate with but rather sworn enemies that ought to be destroyed". This stance is definitely not conductive to cooperation and rather contributes to the rise of populism.

Case Studies—Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic
Before I begin with case studies of the countries concerned, I will briefly specify the types of populism and nationalism that V4 countries face today. As for nationalism, I think the answer is simpler: it has emerged after the accession to the EU and is not as dangerous as it was in the 1930s when it was the premise of all logical deductions. Current nationalism revolves around the national interests to be upheld within the institutional framework of the EU. As for populism, I recognize four types of populism all told. Each of them is more or less connected with negativism: focused either on corruption, communism, European Union - national interests versus "Brussels directives"—or reforms and its winners and losers. Generally speaking, I believe that populism is more anti-liberal than anti-democratic because contemporary populism is not aimed at the dismantling of democracy.

Fear spread across Europe when the leader of Slovak Social-Democratic party Smer Robert Fico declared his intention to form a coalition government with nationalist parties led by controversial Jan Slota (Slovak National Party-SNS) and Vladimir Meciar (Movement for Democratic Slovakia-HZDS), who had attacked the Hungarian minority under the semi-authoritarian regime in 1994-1998. The political agenda of Smer has been aimed at the removal of the reforms introduced by the liberal government of Mikulas Dzurinda. A free healthcare system, revocation of the flat tax and an increase in social transfers were promised before the elections.

In Hungary, the recording that unveiled the fact that Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany lied about the economic situation of the country brought thousands of people to the streets of Budapest where mass demonstrations against the government became daily routine. As a result, Hungarian political culture undeniably suffered. The nationalist upsurge has been supported by Viktor Orban, the leader of the right-wing opposition.

Poland has plunged into a populist-nationalist crisis with the following parties in the lead: Law and Justice led by the Kaczynski twins, Self-Defence and League of Polish Families. Widespread corruption together with communism influenced the political situation and inspired an anti-communist drive based on typical value politics. Such politics was based on the presumption that religion and moral values should always preponderate over freedoms of individuals (Rupnik: 2007).

With regards to the Czech Republic, "the threat of communism" mobilized the people before the general elections in an attempt to counter the influence of the unreformed Communist Party (KSCM) which labelled itself as the speaker of the people. In the end, the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), which promised to uphold national interests and assumed an opposing stance toward the adoption of Treaty Establishing the Constitution for Europe, won the elections. However, the overall outcome of the election was a stalemate resulting in a deadlocked Parliament. In this country, the uncompromising stance towards other parties marked the coalition negotiations badly.

Future Prospects
Despite stellar economic growth, there are several factors that can worsen the situation and further contribute to the spread of populism across the region. Corruption will certainly not disappear overnight. On the other hand, it is key to note that parties usually identify with the same matters once members of government. It is now clear that the public will finally come to realize that the EU does not only mean "Brussels' regulations and bureaucracy". Though we can not expect that euro-scepticism will subside immediately, it will eventually fade. In the long-term, nationalists will loosen their rhetoric. The same might happen to the populists as their promises will prove themselves unfeasible. The current wave of populism and nationalism is evidently anti-liberal, but as populism is not an alternative to democracy, the threat arising from is substantially reduced. Furthermore, the rising level of education will decrease the propensity to populist and nationalist ideas. To sum it up, I admit that the rise of populism and nationalism in V4 countries is palpable, however, given more or less stabilized economic and social conditions, local democracy is undoubtedly capable of absorbing this trend.


Mudde Cas: EU Accession and a New populist Center-Periphery Cleavage in Central and Eastern Europe, 2000, on-line text
Krastev Ivan: The new Europe: respectable populism, clockwork liberalism, Open Democracy, 2006, on-line text

Rupnik Jacques: Populism in East-Central Europe, 2007, on-line text
Rupnik Jacques: Populismus obchází Střední Evropu, 2006, on-line text
Strazay Tomas: The Incongruent Culture? Nationalist-Populism and Democratization of Post-Communist Central Europe, 2003, on-line text
Tupy Marian: The Rise of Populist Parties in Central Europe: Big Government, Corruption, and the Threat to Liberalism, Cato Institute, 2006, on-line text

The author studies Law at the University of Palacky, Czech Republic. This essay received the second prize of the 2007 Visegrad Essay Competition organized by Global Politics journal as part of a grant provided by the International Visegrad Fund.

© 2006–2023, International Visegrad Fund.
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