Can Europe Make It?

Illiberal tangos in central and eastern Europe

Far right organisations may be considered drivers of change in Central and Eastern Europe; their impact being felt through the deeds of their mainstream contenders.

Andrea L. P. Pirro
14 July 2016

Viktor Orban, PM of Hungary. Wikimedia. Public domain.Intransigent and often inscrutable, the far right – in its populist, radical, and extreme variants – clearly represents one of the most significant offshoots of post-war European politics. This phenomenon had already sparked the interest of observers with the first electoral exploits of the French Front National in the 1980s and 1990s. As a whole plethora of variously assorted organisations enjoyed noteworthy results ever since, the attention devoted to them has risen exponentially.

Still, a serious cognitive divide persists between events unfolding in eastern rather than western Europe. Part of the reasons reside in the fact that social, cultural, and political developments in central and eastern Europe (as in the entire post-communist region) traditionally fell under the umbrella of ‘area studies’ – de facto reproducing those epistemological divisions that have long hampered dialogue between social scientific disciplines and, thus, knowledge as a whole.

At the same time, central and eastern Europe regrettably remained at the margins of enquiry until a good portion of these countries completed their ‘return to Europe’ – as some like to interpret it – with the eastern enlargements of 2004, 2007, and 2013.

The analysis and comparison of these organisations reveals a rather composite picture, both with regard to their interpretive frames and influence. To begin with, it is important to acknowledge that substantial differences withstand across Europe; these differences concern the political and discursive opportunities available to these parties, and the way they engage in the production of new meanings of contentious issues.

Early accounts identified these differences in the more militant and anti-democratic character of central and east European collective actors. Whereas these attributes do not necessarily set western and central/eastern Europe apart from each other (one may indeed wonder whether the National Democratic Party of Germany or the Greek Golden Dawn are effectively less extreme than the People’s Party – Our Slovakia), they also prompt us to keep an eye on how political contexts, strategies, and ideologies evolve over time.

What was originally interpreted as a ‘post-communist’ phenomenon, turned out to place substantial emphasis on ‘backward-looking’ issues indebted to a pre-communist – and, at times, even communist – past. Especially when parties of the ‘populist radical right’ variant are taken into account, we can indeed see how these differences unfold at the ideological level

Unlike their Western counterparts, far right parties in central and eastern Europe elaborate on clerical and/or territorial issues. Just to give an example, the attention devoted to the question of irredenta by the Hungarian Justice and Life Party first, and then by the Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik), has remained a constant in the Hungarian nationalist discourse. In turn, the issue of ‘Greater Hungary’ affected the nationalist discourse of those parties (above all, the Slovak National Party and the Greater Romania Party – the latter, incidentally, advancing similar demands on territories formerly part of the Kingdom of Romania) that saw their countries threatened by these claims.

Platforms elaborating on a greater interpenetration of Church and state should also be considered when discussing within-group differences. Poland has perhaps delivered one of the sharpest cases of clerical nativism with the League of Polish Families. Although the Polish party system has been characterised by the dominance of a religious/post-communist line of conflict, clericalism has by no means been a sole prerogative of the Polish far right.

The same Jobbik has staunchly and consistently upheld a Christian ultraconservative outlook – this, despite the fact that the party has drawn support from the least religious strata of Hungarian society. Potential mismatches amidst instances of electoral success suggest that ‘pre-communist’ issues do not necessarily satisfy an electoral function, yet most certainly a symbolic one. Whilst reinforcing the ‘us versus them’ juxtaposition fostered by the far right, pre-communist issues feed into a broader demand for traditional national and cultural values.

A number of observers have put the accent on these parties’ hostility to various ‘out-groups’ – generally, migrants and refugees in western Europe, and ethnic minorities in central and eastern Europe. Characteristic ‘others’ have contributed to define the struggle of collective actors on the two sides of the former Iron Curtain, although clear-cut regional distinctions should be partly revisited following (the politicisation of) the recent refugee crisis.

At the same time, issues such as corruption and the EU acquired significance in light of their specific (post-communist) framing. Corruption is framed as a problem related to the transformations of 1989 and, particularly, to the transition from planned to market economies. According to the far right, a small clique of actors – especially those active within the ranks of mainstream parties of the left and right – have disproportionally and criminally benefited from the opening to free markets.

Intelligibly, also the EU lists amongst those issues emerged and politicised after 1989, but for organisations that have often borne an anti-Western outlook, opposition to the EU acquires particular nuances. Leaving aside the connections between Putin’s Russia and the far right, the Euroscepticism of these parties not only boils down to a threat to national sovereignty (just like western Europe), but also the general notion that their countries have lost out by joining the EU, as accession was agreed upon extremely unfavourable terms. This in part explains why a good portion of these parties has tried to seize the opportunities offered by the recent (economic, financial, and humanitarian) crises by hardening their opposition to Europe. 

Having attained electoral results comparable to those of their Western counterparts, it seems legitimate to reflect on the political influence of far right parties. Judging from their attempts to exert effects in the political process, they seem primarily motivated by policy pursuit – although all parties ultimately contest elections to attain representation in office.

In many occasions, the far right in Central and Eastern Europe single-handedly politicised or catalysed attention to contentious issues, such as opposition to ethnic minorities. Consider for a moment the question of the indigenous Roma communities living in Central and Eastern Europe.

In countries like Bulgaria or Hungary, not only did the far right put the issue on the map, but also helped frame and mainstream the issue in terms of ‘Roma criminality’. Whether the influence of the far right is often difficult to quantify, it seems now uncontentious to assert that these parties are contributing to ‘transform the transformation’ in multiple ways.

Oftentimes, far right parties directly or indirectly wielded influence on the political process, involving the degrading of liberal democratic values. Evident examples would include government participations by the Slovak National Party in the 1990s and 2000s, which resulted in restrictive language laws to the detriment of the Hungarian minority. Even so, political influence takes different forms and abides by rather complex dynamics. 

The political developments occurred in Hungary in the past few years (now largely echoed by Beata Szydło’s government in Poland) have cast doubts on prime minister Viktor Orbán’s continued commitment to liberal democratic values. Scholars of post-communist politics have spoken of a transition away from democracy, though neglecting the role of competition with the far right in Fidesz’s radicalising trajectory. In a context where the far right has swiftly turned into the biggest – and, possibly, most credible – threat to Fidesz’s hegemony, Orbán has co-opted a significant portion of Jobbik’s discourses and policy proposals.

The influence exerted by the far right extended to social and economic policies, clerical and moral issues, in addition to an ever confrontational stance towards the EU. Amidst a radicalisation of the mainstream in the region, a number of commentators have wondered whether Fidesz could be deemed as radical as the radicals.

The question, seemingly provocative to external observers, is actually grounded in ongoing political changes. Fidesz’s strategy, motivated by the need to regain public consensus and nationalist votes amidst rampant cases of corruption, has prompted Jobbik to move towards the centre, virtually leaving Orbán’s party as the most radical actor within the Hungarian political spectrum.

Whilst the authenticity of Jobbik’s moderation attempts is open to debate, Fidesz’s radicalisation is fairly uncontentious. Since early 2015, Orbán has carefully crafted the ‘othering’ of migrants and refugees – something in line with the west European far right discourse, but sort of an unicum in post-communist Europe.

Indeed, Central and East European countries are at best transition countries that habitually recorded negative net migration rates. Orbán eventually succeeded in its endeavour: it climbed opinion polls by politicising a ‘non-issue’ and instilling anxiety into the Hungarian public. Governments of the Visegrád group have, by and large, followed suit. 

Ongoing developments and shifting alignments in central and eastern Europe challenge our static understanding of radicalness. In particular, the radical interpretive frames of the far right are situational constructs liable to change according to circumstances. To be sure, the moderation attempts of far right actors like Jobbik or the Slovak National Party (as of March 2016, back in parliament and government with the ‘social democratic’ Smer-SD) are relational and very much grounded in patterns of competition with other political actors.

After all, if it takes two to tango, it takes at least two to ‘contend’. We are therefore confronted with actors often hostile to liberal democratic values such as far-rightists, who are trying to conceal their past and present themselves as credible and respectable political alternatives; and once-supporters of liberal values (be them ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’), who have decidedly ventured on a ‘nativist’ path.

With these scenarios unfolding, the rise of ever-radical contenders is under way. Those ideological crowbars that once helped differentiate between actors are, in other words, losing their heuristic purpose. Our ability to unravel illiberal tangos may have been challenged, but need swift adjustment as the stakes are inevitably high.

For if what was once radical comes now across as normal, transition towards illiberal shores seems no longer so difficult to materialise.

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