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Hungary's Viktor Orban
EPA/John Thys

What explains support for authoritarian populists in Hungary and Poland?

Authoritarian populists almost doubled their share of electoral votes across Europe between 2001 and 2018 – from 11.8% to 22.3%, according to Swedish think-tank the Timbro institute. There was then a decline after, but it is too early to say if that represents a permanent reversal. Either way, the rise itself has been too large to overlook.

While all populist politicians contrast “the people” with “the corrupt elite” – both national and international, not all populists are authoritarian populists. They don’t all aim to destroy the rule of law or claim that, because they represent the majority, they should not be restricted by laws that protect the rights of the minority.

In my research for a forthcoming work, I’ve aimed to explore what helps populists rise to power in different European countries. The case of post-communist nations, such as Hungary and Poland, is particularly interesting. Both have voted populist parties with an authoritarian bent into power – and their decision cannot simply be explained by economic factors.

Economic insecurity drives people to vote for populist parties.. In my research, I’ve seen that the configuration of high unemployment and income inequality produces a fertile breeding ground for populist parties. They are not enough to open the door for them alone, but where high unemployment and inequality are combined with either a relatively low level of government spending (that does not compensate for the social impact of unemployment and inequality), or with a low median income per capita (that amplifies the impact of these poor socio-economic conditions), populism is often found thriving. There are four southern European countries that fit this pattern well – Greece (with its Syriza party), Italy (Lega Nord on the right and the Five Star Movement on the left), Portugal (Bloco de Esquerda), and Spain (Vox on the right and Podemos on the left).

These parties have experienced relative periods of success over the past decade and several of them have made it into government. However none have made significant manoeuvres to undermine democracy itself, such as by attacking the judiciary or tinkering with constitutions. This has, however, happened in Hungary and Poland.

A different path

In Hungary and Poland the outcome of populist surge is stronger and more clearly authoritarian. And the route to populist power seems to be different than in Southern Europe. Both countries fit the economic pattern somewhat, in that their median income is below the European average. Yet their income inequality is in the medium range. So is government spending.

Here, the communist past of these nations may be a factor in more than one way. Populists seek unity and claim monopoly over representing “the people”. Societies with many strong autonomous organisations, with many ways for people to organise themselves around their interests and ideas, are more difficult to mould into new mass movements. In such pluralist societies, rich in “social tissue”, it is more difficult for populists to gain widespread support. Communist societies were organised by one single party nationwide. This tradition suits the populist projects very well so nations still emerging from a communist legacy are fertile ground.

Added to this communist past is the fast-paced cultural change of the current age. This may be objectionable to some people who hold conservative values, especially in the Catholic countries of central and eastern Europe. Here, a tradition much older than communism plays a role as well. Voters may end up supporting politicians who promise to restore traditional values. In Hungary, president Viktor Orbán uses and misuses religion to divide people – particularly through antisemitism. In Poland, it is more of a two-way relationship. The populist party Law and Justice, led by Jarosław Kaczyński, rules in coalition with Solidarity Poland and benefits from the support of the media empire of Catholic priest Tadeusz Rydzyk, who is in a position to put pressure on the government on issues of importance to the church, such as abortion..

Jaroslaw Kaczynski posing for selfies with fans.
Ruling Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski on the presidential campaign trail for eventual winner Andrej Duda. EPA

Catholic tradition alone is not sufficient to generate the support for authoritarian populism. It’s hardly an issue in Ireland or Malta. But the nature of Catholicism differs across countries. For example, Maltese and Polish societies may be characterised by similar values of social conservatism, yet may differ with respect to views on political order.

In the second half of 20th century, Western Catholicism undertook a transformation in response to the tragedy of the second world war and the suffering inflicted by totalitarian regimes. It became far more appreciative of democracy. But in countries living under the Soviet-type regime, Catholicism had fewer chances to evolve in that direction.

Probably the most interesting part of this story is that the communist system had an impact on local churches, even if they resisted communism. Compared to countries outside the Soviet block, these churches remained highly hierarchical, which helped cultivate distrust in the outside world.

There is no single way to explain the rise of authoritarian populism across Europe. The same outcome may have more than one cause. It seems to me that the economic factors help explain an increase of support for populist parties in Southern Europe but they are not sufficient to explain the rise of populism in Hungary and Poland. When thinking about why, it’s worth considering that not only interests but ideas matter. When Catholicism became entangled with communism, it seems to have created a mixture that made it possible for authoritarian populists to come to power.

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