ZOiS Spotlight 9/2017

The real populist challenge from insiders in Europe’s East

by Cas Mudde 10/05/2017
Viktor Orbán während seiner europakritischen Rede auf dem Kongress der Europäischen Volkspartei in Malta im März 2017. Foto: EPP EPP


This year was supposed to be the year of the populists. After the unexpected Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s presidential election victory in 2016, journalists and pundits would not be taken by surprise again. Hence, they predicted massive victories for emboldened populists in the Dutch, French, and German elections in 2017. After a lacklustre performance by Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands on 15 March, a resounding defeat for Marine Le Pen and her National Front (FN) in France on 7 May, and an internally divided Alternative for Germany (AfD), these same journalists and experts will soon pronounce the end of populism. And they will be wrong again.

The populist radical right was never challenging for power in these Western European countries. Most never polled more than one quarter of the vote at best. In addition, they might have lost these elections, but the FN and the PVV are established political parties in their respective national systems, which are going nowhere in the foreseeable future. And most importantly, the real populist radical-right threat in Europe does not come from political outsiders in the West but from political insiders in the East. It is time that European liberal democrats took them as seriously as the usual suspects in the West, if not more so.

Since returning to power in 2010, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán first transformed his country into an illiberal democracy and then challenged German chancellor Angela Merkel for dominance in the European People’s Party (EPP) and the European Union (EU) as a whole. Orbán has vehemently rejected Merkel’s Willkommenskultur, or welcoming culture, towards Syrian refugees, instead building a fence to keep them out of Hungary and creating a new force of ‘border hunters’ to help protect its frontiers. But no longer happy with a purely national role, he became the defender of ‘Christian Europe’ against the immigrant ‘invasion’, fighting for a ‘Hungarian Hungary’ in a Europe for Europeans.

Unlike Le Pen and Wilders, Orbán is not shouting from the sidelines but is the leader of an EU member state. In recent years, he has built an illiberal state at the heart of the EU, the ‘community of values’ that was founded to prevent exactly such states. In fact, he has done this with EU subsidies. This parasitic relationship is most cynically displayed in Orbán’s newest Eurosceptic campaign, in which posters with the slogan ‘Let’s Stop Brussels’ are featured on Budapest’s metro line 4, which was built with EU funds.

For several years now, European intellectuals and politicians have called on the EPP to expel, or at least suspend, Orbán’s Fidesz party. But leaders like Manfred Weber of Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU) claim that keeping the party in the EPP moderates Orbán. This is not true: Orbán has radicalized in recent years. Just last month, he introduced new illiberal legislation aimed at the Central European University and non-governmental organizations that looks eerily similar to previous legislation in Russia. The real reason that the EPP is unwilling to expel Fidesz is that its MEPs loyally vote with the group in 98 percent of cases and Orbán is one of a declining group of EPP leaders in the European Council.

But this opportunism comes at an ever-higher price. Orbán has inspired many illiberal forces in the region, from the current Polish government to the previous Macedonian government. He has also emboldened xenophobes like Czech president Miloš Zeman and Slovak premier Robert Fico, whose Islamophobia is more extreme than Le Pen’s. And while support for Orbán in Western Europe is strongest among the far right—both Le Pen and Wilders praise his anti-EU and anti-immigrant positions—centre-right parties in the EPP are not immune to him either.

This is why Orbán felt strong enough to challenge Merkel at the EPP meeting in Malta in March. He ended his short, fiery speech with the following words: ‘If we want Europe to remain the greatest place in the World, then the European Union has to change. And in order to lead the way, we must start changing ourselves, the European People’s Party.’ What he wants to change Europe into can be seen in Hungary today: an illiberal democracy with an ever-decreasing space for independent political activity. Since Orbán regained power in 2010, Freedom House has downgraded its score for Hungary’s democracy every year. On its seven-point scale from ‘most democratic’ (1) to ‘least democratic’ (7), Hungary dropped from 2.39 in 2010 to 3.54 in 2017, making it a ‘semi-consolidated democracy’.

The EPP should indeed change to ensure that the EU once again becomes the ‘community of values’ its founding fathers envisioned. It should stop compromising on fundamental values for short-term party-political gain and give Orbán a clear ultimatum: change your country back into a liberal democracy—on all levels—or face expulsion from the EPP and economic sanctions from the EU. Merkel should take the lead in this fight, which will also include an internal struggle with radical-right forces in the CSU. The EU can only be a beacon of liberal democracy in Europe and the world if all its member states are liberal democracies.

Cas Mudde is an associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia, USA, and a researcher in the Center for Research on Extremism (C-REX) at the University of Oslo, Norway. His most recent publications include On Extremism and Democracy in Europe (Routledge, 2016) and Populism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2017). He can be followed on Twitter at @casmudde.