In the hurly-burly of Central Europe’s postcommunist politics, a dramatic lurch to the right is nothing out of the ordinary. But the April elections in Hungary distinguish this onetime wunderkind of Mittel-Europa’s transitions in more ways than one. The national populists of the Fidesz party captured more than two-thirds of Parliament, giving it an unprecedented supermajority that will enable the party to pass legislation at will and even alter the Constitution. Moreover, Hungary’s third-largest party is the radical, ultranationalist Jobbik (Movement for a Better Hungary), which came from virtually nowhere to capture 15 percent of the vote in last year’s European Parliament elections and a stunning 17 percent in April with anti-Roma slogans and calls for a Greater Hungary. A quarter of the votes for the neofascist party came from Hungarians between 18 and 29.
The greatest cause for alarm is that a similar context for the Hungarian rightists’ triumphs exists in almost every one of the young democracies from the Baltics to the Balkans. While Central Europe has provided fertile soil for populist and far-right options since the democratic transitions began in 1989, the global economic crisis and the perceived failure of the European Union "to deliver" have supplied a stiff wind to their sails. Although parties like Fidesz and Jobbik resort to an array of demagoguery, their most potent asset by far is the deep disillusionment with the free-market policies of the past twenty years—"wild capitalism," as Fidesz calls it; in Jobbik’s words, the interests of "Jewish capital."
This hodgepodge of Central European populists doesn’t threaten democracy as such, as did Europe’s interwar nationalists (today’s populists win elections), but it has already diluted the quality of democracy in Europe and lowered the bar for what is acceptable in the EU. Their social populism in times of economic crisis pulls the rug out from under authentic left-wing challengers, something virtually nonexistent since communism’s demise. The EU, for its part, has no answer to the politics of populism, even when they ratchet up tensions between EU member states, as the victory of the Hungarian right surely will with neighbors Slovakia and Romania. On the contrary, the Union’s stark democratic deficiencies and one-size-fits-all economic prescriptions, part of the problem in the first place, only fan populism’s flames.
While the EU’s newcomers—the Baltic and Visegrad states (the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland) as well as Romania, Bulgaria and Slovenia—have helped the continent overcome the East-West dichotomy of cold war Europe, they have imported into its mainstream something best understood as "illiberal democracy," systems that have all the trappings of constitutional states but lack the liberal political culture to make them function as healthy democracies. In different incarnations from country to country, they are characterized by charismatic demagogues, aggressive and personalized infighting, rampant corruption, the bullying of independent media, jingoistic nationalism and, at worst, even racist violence. Alienation between politicians and the electorate has caused public trust in democratic processes to plummet. This manifests itself in lower and lower voter turnouts as well as thin participation in extraparliamentary politics. All too often the recourse of frustrated voters has been to politicians who, in the name of opposing the powers that be, subvert liberal democracy and all it entails, including minority rights, pluralism and limitations on national sovereignty.
Europe’s new populists tout quirky agendas that cut across ideological fronts. Their simplistic programs and impassioned rhetoric can include typically right-wing elements, such as ethnic scapegoating, but also leftist critiques of income and power disparities. They divide society into two homogeneous and utterly antagonistic groups: "the people as such" (represented by their party) and a "corrupt, illegitimate elite" (some combination of pro–free market, EU-friendly, cosmopolitan policy-makers).