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East European Perspectives: March 22, 2000

22 March 2000, Volume 2, Number 6

Part II: Populism in Eastern Europe

By Cas Mudde

Having discussed the relevance of agrarian and economic populism in the first part of this article, I will now focus my attention on "political populism." This more recent notion holds that populism is, first and foremost, a particular style of politics, referring to "the people" (das Volk) as a homogeneous entity, proclaiming a direct link between the people and the populist actor, and using a Stammtisch-discourse (Pfahl-Traughber, 1994; Ernst, 1987; Canovan, 1999). For good reasons, this definition has been attacked because of its generality and vagueness, making political populism virtually identical to basic political campaigning techniques.

To make political populism more distinct, I define it as a political style that builds upon a rigid dichotomy of "the pure people" versus "the corrupt elite." What is important to note is that these categories are not defined in strictly formal, but rather in moral terms. Someone is part of the elite by morality, not solely on the basis of one's position. The fact that both categories are "imagined" is less relevant than the centrality and rigidity of this dichotomy. In terms of policies, political populists often support forms of direct democracy, such as referendums. However, rather than presenting alternative policies, political populism politicizes already existing or newly created emotions and sentiments, most notably resentment and rancor (Ernst, 1987; Betz, 1994; Tismaneanu, 1996).

This type of "politicians' populism" (Canovan, 1981) has been linked predominantly with the right-wing, most notably in recent studies of the phenomenon in Western Europe (e.g. Betz, 1994; Pfahl-Traughber, 1994). And indeed, political populism's reference to the undivided people sits well with nationalists' belief in "the nation;" the two are often mixed in the dichotomy of the "national people" versus the "anti-national elite" (e.g. Germani, 1978; Taguieff, 1995). However, and as we will see, this is not necessarily so, as non-nationalist and left-wing political actors have at times also excelled in political populism.

Though there are similarities between political, economic, and agrarian populism, there are some clear differences as well. First of all, contrary to agrarian populism, political populism does not exclusively hail the peasant or the agricultural economy. Indeed, its sympathy does not go much further than a call for state support for the agricultural sector (through subsidies and tariffs), which has at least as much a nationalist (national independence in food production) as a populist component. The same applies to the overlap between economic and political populism, which is substantial, but not complete. Moreover, the protectionist policies of contemporary "national populists" (or "extreme right") have their origin in the parties' nationalism, as the economy is in general considered to be of secondary importance, subordinate to the overriding goal of protecting the rights of "the nation" (Mudde, 2000a).

Political populism has been considered particularly powerful in post-communist Europe. And, in fact, there is clear evidence that political populism is at least as strong in Eastern Europe as it is in Western Europe. As noted by Western media and scholars, "right-wing" or "national" populist parties have gained some striking electoral successes in post-communist elections (Mudde, 2000b). One thinks of the 23 percent of the vote that Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia gained in the 1993 Russian parliamentary election, the 18 percent of Volislav Seselj's Serbian Radical Party (SRS) in the 1996 Serbian election, or the 15 percent of Joachim Siegerist's Popular Movement for Latvia in the 1995 Latvian election.

What is most stunning, given the particular worry about "national populism" in Eastern Europe, is that in electoral terms, the situation is not that much different from that in the West. For example, these electoral results have been matched by like-minded parties in the West, such as Joerg Haider's Austrian Freedom Party or Gianfranco Fini's National Alliance. Moreover, and contrary to many writings, like in the West, contemporary national populism is not a "ghost from the past," but a modern phenomenon. The successful parties, such as those listed above, are all new parties with their ideological and organizational origin in the post-communist period. Actually, very few national populist parties with a pre-communist or communist identity have gained any significant success in the polls (Mudde, 2000b).

What does set the two parts of Europe apart is the way national populism is treated by the political environment. Contrary to the situation in most of Western Europe, where national, and to some extent all political populists are considered political pariahs, like-minded parties in Eastern Europe are often considered koalitionsfaehig--for example, the Greater Romania Party and the Party of Romanian National Unity, the Slovak National Party (SNS), or Serbia's SRS. They profit from the fact that political populism more broadly defined plays an important role within the political mainstream (Von Beyme, 1996). The key is once more to be found in the historical legacy.

Though Eastern Europe had many right-wing nationalist regimes in the pre-communist period, their influence on post-communist politics in general, and post-communist populism in particular, has been marginal. This is not that surprising, as most regimes were highly elitist in both social composition and ideology; this applies both to the various fascist and authoritarian regimes. Both sit uneasy with the strong egalitarian composition and values of post-communist societies. It is therefore rather the Leninist legacy that has made post-communist societies particularly prone to political populism. This also explains the most significant difference between the East and the West, i.e. not so much the alleged higher levels of electoral success of populist politics, but rather its success at the elite level. As, while "politicians' populism" is mainly the weapon of outsiders in Western Europe, in the East it is employed by leading intellectuals (such as Gyorgy Konrad) and even presidents (like Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa).

The Communist legacy created a perfect social environment for mass support for political populism. As many authors have noted, "real existing socialism" created nihilist and atomized societies in which egalitarianism became mixed with deep social envy (Tismaneanu, 1996; Ulc, 1996; Braun, 1997). In the extreme view of one observer: For 45 years (70 in the case of the Soviet Union) all traditional moral and religious beliefs were deliberately crushed, and all associations and institutions embodying them systematically uprooted, leaving behind a blasted landscape marked by cynicism, nihilism, and alienation (Sunley, 1996).

This, in combination with the stained reputation of institutions of "state" and "Party," which were, rightfully at the time, considered identical to the communist regime, created a deeply felt dichotomy between "the moral non-Communist people" versus "the corrupt Communist elite."

What most authors do not note, however, is that in intellectual terms, this dichotomy has been brought to the fore by the discourse created by the most famous dissidents. As the communist systems left little space for political opposition, the dissidents tried to voice their opposition while officially staying away from "politics." Against the all-encompassing politics of the communist party, dissidents in, most notably, East-Central Europe, developed the concepts of "anti-political politics" (Havel 1988) and "antipolitics" (Konrad, 1984). As many other key concepts in the writings of the East European dissidents, such as "Central Europe" or "civil society," "anti-politics" was a rather vaguely-defined term. While this was not directly a problem in the "virtual reality" in which the dissidents lived during communism, it became an immediate and clear problem in the post-communist period. What could "antipolitics" add to democracy, given that it was defined as "the political activity of those who don't want to be politicians and who refuse to share in power" (Konrad 1984, p. 230) or as "one of the ways of seeking and achieving meaningful lives, of protecting them and serving them" (Havel 1988, p. 397)? However, the populist element of "antipolitics" is not so much in its voluntary separation from classic politics in terms of government, or in its "watchdog" attitude towards "real politics." Rather it is in its claim of absolute righteousness towards politics, on which the people exert pressure "on the basis of their cultural and moral stature alone, not through any electoral legitimacy" (Konrad 1984, p. 231). This position was understandable under communism, if only because "electoral legitimacy" was impossible to achieve for dissidents, but it was never meant to apply solely to this period. As Konrad clearly stated:

If the political opposition comes to power, antipolitics keeps at the same distance from, and shows the same independence of, the new government. It will do so even if the new government is made up of sympathetic individuals, friends perhaps; indeed, in such cases it will have the greatest need for independence and distance (1984, p. 321).

After the fall of communism, many dissidents originally became active in practical politics (Bozoki, 1999). It was particularly in the transition years that they tried to implement their dissident ideas. Though different on many accounts, they generally shared several key populist features: a belief in "moral politics," a strong anti-elite rhetoric, and a deep hostility towards political parties. Virtually all anti-communist umbrella organizations that defeated the old communist party in the founding elections defined themselves explicitly as "movements," not as parties. The argumentation was captured in the slogan of the Czech Civic Forum: "Parties are for party members, Civic Forum is for everybody" (Kopecky, 2000).

Though most dissidents were pushed out of leading positions shortly after the founding elections, either by more skilled "old-style" politicians or by electoral defeat, their legacy of "anti-politics" increasingly gained ground. Ironically, while anti-politics had been known to only a small group of closed-off dissidents under communism, it really achieved large-scale popularity under democracy. Moreover, captured by opportunists and anti-democrats, "anti-politics" was stripped of its admittedly naive positive underpinnings and reduced to its negative features. The struggle of the post-communist anti-political actor is not so much for something, i.e. a private space free from political/state intervention, but exclusively against.

Post-communist political populists fight against "the power monopoly of the political class," arguing that the revolution has been stolen by former communists and opportunists. Against the "political class" stand "the people," which in the tradition of both political populism and "anti-politics" have a higher moral stature than the amoral politicians (Greskovits, 1998; Weyland, 1999a). This blends in well with the mood of the East European societies, which came to define themselves as a "victimized majority" and tend to "absolve itself from the need for normal political intercourse and compromise" (Braun, 1997, p. 150; Tismaneanu, 1996). Consequently, in line with both communist and anti-communist practice and morality, post-communist politics is to a large extent a struggle of good against evil, of all or nothing, in which compromise is not accepted.

Within this atmosphere of polarization and conspiracies, the rhetoric of the "stolen revolution" finds a fertile breeding ground. Its populist variant is mostly represented by right-wing rather than left-wing populist parties. The reason is simple: in most cases the argument is that the revolution has been "stolen" by former communists, which blends in well with the traditional anti-communism of the right. A good example, among many others, are the Czech "Republicans" of Miroslav Sladek. Originally, the party had campaigned on a platform that included, among other points, a call for a very severe lustration law for former communists (Pehe, 1991). Later, the party broadened its "politics of anti-politics" by also targeting "imaginary communists" (Dvorakova, 1999). This led to the absurd situation of Sladek, a former communist censor, accusing Havel, the former leading dissident, of being part of the "traitors of the velvet revolution."

Some communist (successor) parties have also taken up the "stolen revolution argument" against the new elite. Having disposed of, or at least nuanced, their traditional elitist theory of the class struggle under a communist vanguard, these parties now defend "the people" against "the elite." Obviously, this strategy is most successful in countries were former communists are not particularly visible as such in post-communist politics and economy. In the Czech Republic, for example, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) has made a stunning comeback with such a populist campaign. In other countries, former communists are highly influential in post-communist politics, yet no longer affiliate themselves with the communist party. Good examples are Russia and Ukraine, where they have formed corrupt oligarchies under the heading of defenders of democracy and the free market. Marginalized by the (super)presidential system in these countries, communist parties like the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) have resorted also to populism rather than class politics in an attempt to gain a larger following (Gregor, 1998; Hashim, 1999).

Another way in which communism has facilitated populist success in Eastern Europe is by its breakdown. Both economic and political crises show strong relations with populism (Ernst, 1987; Knight, 1998). Moreover, as the democratization movement in many countries fought two struggles at the same time--i.e. one for freedom and against communism, and one for national independence and against Soviet domination, the powerful combination of "national populism" (Germani, 1978; Taguieff, 1995) surfaced in many countries. Though its nationalism has often been overstated, there is no doubt that the largest party in Slovak politics, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), is a populist party. Centered around its charismatic leader Vladimir Meciar, the "quintessential populist demagogue" (Ulc, 1996, p. 99), the HZDS has from the outset championed the interests of "the Slovak people;" first against "the Czech elite" and later against "the anti-Slovak elite" (Carpenter, 1997; Leff, 1998). This example also shows that populist politics in Eastern Europe is not purely an opposition phenomenon, as Meciar's HZDS has been the major governmental party in independent Slovakia.

Various studies have pointed to the positive relationship between presidentialism or semi-presidentialism and political populism (Philip, 1998; Weyland, 1999a). This relationship is particularly evident when populism is defined first and foremost as "personalized politics." Various post-communist presidents have indeed, at least at times, used political populism, claiming to defend the general interest of the people versus the special interests of the parties. Often noted examples of such populist presidents are Boris Yeltsin in Russia, Lech Walesa in Poland, and Leonid Kuchma in Ukraine (Von Beyme, 1996; Weyland, 1999a), all functioning in a semi-presidential, presidential or even super-presidential system. However, presidents in parliamentary systems have used political populism as well, including Vaclav Havel in the Czech Republic and Arpad Goncz in Hungary. In most cases, it had far less to do with the type of political system than with the maturity of the system. The first decade of post-communist politics was characterized in most countries by a struggle over and between political institutions (Kopecky, 1999). In their struggle against parliaments and political parties, presidents often choose to present themselves as the "defenders of the whole people" versus the "defenders of special interests."

However, as party systems increasingly resemble their Western counterparts, particularly in East-Central Europe, the phenomenon of populist politics is also changing. More of the leading intellectuals and mainstream party leaders are moving away from overt populist rhetoric, leaving it, like in the West, increasingly to the parties from the political fringe. According to Daniel Chirot, this is mainly the result of the fact that "the forces of reaction" cannot find viable intellectual models in the West (1996, p. 538). This is highly debatable though, as for example, many national populist parties in Eastern Europe, including the Hungarian Justice and Life Party and the Slovak SNS, are inspired by the ideas of the French National Front.

Rather than a lack of ideological inspiration from the West, I believe a more down-to-earth political reason lays behind this recent conversion. As most East European countries are highly dependent upon financial support from Western-dominated organizations, and/or consider membership in the EU and NATO to be their highest foreign policy goal, they have to abide not only by the West's economic but also by its political rules. Obviously, this only works when the institutions do not lower their standards and when EU membership is considered feasible in the short or medium term by local elites. In countries that will not make the first Eastern wave of EU enlargement, most probably including Bulgaria and Romania, a populist backlash at both the mass and elite level is very likely (Tanase, 1999).

If one is going to turn to the past at all to help explain present events in this part of the world, then surely the most relevant years are the most recent ones. It is the immediate past--the period since 1945--together with the way in which the communist era has been subsequently handled, that holds the key to an understanding of current developments (Sunley, 1996).

As in many other studies, to try and explain contemporary populism in Eastern Europe with reference to an "age-old legacy" in the region is not particularly useful. What many scholars still seem to underestimate is the profound way in which communism has changed East European societies and, consequently, politics. But this "Leninist legacy" is not as straightforward as some other scholars often assume. This can also be seen in this short survey of different forms of populism in the region. While the communism killed one type, it practically gave birth to another.

Agrarian populism was the leading political ideology among the people in pre-communist Eastern Europe. While collaboration of leading figures of agrarian populism with both the right-wing authoritarian and the communist regimes harmed its positive image among the people, the communist policy of collectivization changed "the people" in such a profound way that hardly any breeding ground for agrarian populism exists in post-communist Eastern Europe. Today, farmers in the region are "rural workers" rather than "peasants," consequently supporting (former) communist parties rather than populist peasant parties.

Economic populism was not very relevant in pre-communist Eastern Europe, given the rural and backward character of most of the region. Communism changed this, not just through its radical industrialization policies, but also through its welfare provisions and egalitarian rhetoric. At the same time, the reasonably equal division of (a lack of) goods among the people (excluding the nomenklatura), as well as some other socio-economic features (e.g. so-called gray society), put up certain barriers to economic populism. But some of these barriers are already crumbling, as the market is rapidly dividing the people into "winners" and "losers," "haves" and "have-nots," while it puts increasing strains on the old extensive welfare state system. This, in combination with the strong support for equality and a strong welfare state (a clear Leninist legacy) is creating a fertile breeding ground for economic populism in future post-communist Europe.

Political populism is not new to the region, though it was not that prominent in pre-communist times. As in the West, Eastern European populists of the 1920s-1930s generally fell prey to more specific ideologies, fascism and communism, which both used populism only to establish elitist regimes. Nevertheless, the communist period did leave an important legacy in the form of the "anti-political politics" of the dissident movement. This intellectualized form of popular resentment against the communist regime and its way of totalitarian politics gained genuine notoriety only in the post-communist period. There, it blended in perfectly with another Leninist legacy, the myth of the "vicitimized majority," cumulating in the rhetoric of the "stolen revolution."

Despite the rather fertile breeding ground for both economic and political populism, both forms have been only moderately successful in post-communist politics. The main reason can be found in neither historical legacy nor in the character of post-communist politics, but to a large extent must be sought for outside the geographic boundaries of Eastern Europe itself. The post-communist "triple transition" (Offe, 1991) is a formidable task, in constant need of the support of the regional leaders, of the regional masses, and of the international environment. Most notably, the economic transition can only succeed with extensive funds from Western states and international financial organizations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. In return for financial support, East European governments have to follow a rather strict economic policy that leaves very little space for economic populism. A similar dynamics is at work in the political arena. Most East European governments pursue EU-membership as the highest foreign policy goal, accepting severe limitations in their political actions and style.

This said, populism does play a role in contemporary East European politics, and a more prominent one than in the West. The main problem in assessing its current role is twofold: first, there is still a lack of clear-cut definitions that could be used in empirical research; second, there is a lack of empirical studies of populist praxis. For example, though Meciar's regime in Slovakia has almost unanimously been described as "populist," the few studies available of the phenomenon of "Meciarism" hardly use any clear conceptual or theoretical framework (Lesko, 1996; Fish, 1999). And this is typical for the approach to populism in general: populism is used as a static label to vaguely qualify, or more often to clearly disqualify, a political actor. Yet, much could be learned if populism was approached rather as a dynamic political phenomenon that can tell us much about both the political and the cultural environment in which it operates.

Cas Mudde is lecturer in politics at the University of Edinburgh.


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