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).

Until the Hungarian vote, no leadership better embodied this new populism than the current ruling coalition in Slovakia, headed by Prime Minister Robert Fico and his Smer party, which proudly calls itself "social democratic." Their coalition bedfellows are the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS), which has its roots in Slovakia’s interwar clerical fascism, and the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, still led by former Prime Minister Vladimír Meciar, whose authoritarian rule in the 1990s isolated the country internationally and jeopardized Bratislava’s EU ambitions. (I vividly remember a rally in Bratislava where a band of agitated Meciar supporters snatched my notebook, ripped it up and drove me off the premises shouting, "Journalist!" and "Fascist!") The Fico team came to power by hammering the middle-of-the-road incumbents for their free-market policies and their kowtowing to the EU and the United States. With no alternative program, once in power Fico changed next to nothing, even overseeing the early introduction of the euro, and it now defends the very same policies it once lambasted.

Among peers in the region, the Slovak populists play the nationalist card with particular consequence, a trump that EU membership was supposed to make redundant, as its precursor did between France and Germany in the postwar decades. Bratislava’s anti-Magyar chauvinism has badly frayed relations with the country’s ethnic Hungarians (10 percent of the population) as well as southern neighbor Hungary. Among the government’s "worst of" sound bites are several handfuls from the SNS’s vocal leader, Jan Slota, who, for example, called Hungarians "the cancer of the Slovak nation, which we need to remove from the body of the nation without delay." (While Western Europe isn’t without its own far right, remarks this vulgar from ruling coalitions are out of bounds.) Although Slota’s radicalism hasn’t translated into radical policies, the government, "to show whom Slovakia belongs to," passed a law that limits the "official venues" where Hungarian may be spoken. The legislation provoked street protests from Slovakia’s ethnic Hungarians (who were, predictably, then blasted for disloyalty) and unusually harsh recriminations from Budapest. In the recent Hungarian election campaign, the Slovaks’ provocations played right into the hands of both Fidesz and Jobbik, who one-upped them at every opportunity to score points with nationalist voters.

Poland’s own brand of populism is personified in, though not limited to, the Kaczynski twins, Jaroslaw and the late Lech. Their Law and Justice Party took power in 2005 on a Poland-first, law-and-order ticket. The brothers railed against a postcommunist order that favored networks of ex-apparatchiks over ordinary Poles. As EU skeptics and critics of anything-goes capitalism, they called for a "solidarity based" economy rather than a "liberal" one. Their staunch Catholic credentials—against abortion, gay rights, euthanasia and secular schooling—won them the backing of the powerful Catholic far-right Radio Maryja. By partnering with the Catholic-nationalist League of Polish Families and the agrarian radicals of Self-Defense, rather than the center-right options available to them, the Kaczynskis began an unparalleled assault on the Third Republic.

With Jaroslaw in the prime minister’s office and Lech as president, the administration went to work "fixing," in its view, a judiciary that let former Communists off scot-free, a media that defiled Polish morality and a school system that slighted patriotic heroes. The twosome and their militant junior partners threw one spanner after another into the works of the EU and lashed out at Germany for "reversing moral responsibility for the effects of World War II." One of the government’s early moves was to call for an investigation of gay groups for illegal financing, criminal connections and pedophilia. Although the coalition fell apart in late 2007, the Polish experience shows how quickly populists can rise to power and how dangerous they can be in wielding it, influencing even European integration.


The hour of Hungary’s populists is at hand, and their rise illustrates the success of parties that are able to shift nimbly with the political winds. Over the years, Fidesz has transformed itself from laissez-faire liberal to law-and-order nationalist to völkisch conservative and then back again, all the while maintaining a veneer of "center right" respectability abroad. Like most successful parties, Fidesz revolves around a charismatic frontman: Viktor Orbán, founder of Fidesz, originally a youth party that emerged from dissident circles at Budapest’s law school in the late 1980s. I remember him well from the time, a fresh-faced boy wonder bursting with energy to modernize Hungary. The iconic Fidesz poster from the 1990 election still hangs on my wall. It shows former Soviet and East German leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker locked in an awkward smooch, and below it a young Hungarian couple kissing. "Choose one," the caption reads.

But the Fidesz of today bears little resemblance to that of 1990. In government (1998–2002) as in opposition, Orbán has transformed Hungary’s political scene with his power plays, dividing it into hostile camps defined by rabble-rousing and cheap shots. In nonelection years, Fidesz used popular referendums and street protests to rally the disillusioned against the Socialist government. In 2006 Orbán was at the front of a huge demo that besieged Parliament demanding the government’s resignation, a watershed event for both Fidesz and Jobbik at a time when the two were allied (once it was clear that Fidesz had swept the latest election, Orbán promptly shifted to the center, professing his devotion to Christian democracy and blasting Jobbik’s extremism). Orbán-style nationalism has many targets: the Slovaks; "foreign investors" with opaque, non-Hungarian interests; and Communist holdovers who betray the Magyar people. The Socialist government was the easiest target, as the economy had plunged during its eight-year rule and corruption proliferated, while Transparency International ranked Hungary’s graft on a par with that of Bahrain and Cape Verde, worse than Costa Rica and the United Arab Emirates.

By occupying the center with these issues, Fidesz shifted Hungary’s entire political discourse to the right, opening the way for even less savory outfits like Jobbik, which picks up where Orbán leaves off with explicit anti-Semitism and hate speech against Roma and immigrants. Jobbik, originally a university-based working group under Fidesz’s wing, burst onto the scene in 2004 with an anti-Europe, Greater Hungary platform and a paramilitary arm that marched through downtown Budapest in neo-Nazi garb until it was banned. But even after its prohibition, black-clad, jackbooted members of the Magyar Garda can be seen in "Judapest," as they call it. Across Europe, splinter parties exist with far-right visions like Jobbik’s, but only in Hungary do they attract young, educated, urban voters on such a scale.

The right’s breadth and impact on Europe was nowhere more evident than in the spring 2009 European Parliament vote. In addition to Jobbik, Slovak, Romanian, Latvian and Bulgarian ultranationalists entered the Brussels legislature, as did more familiar faces, including France’s National Front, Italy’s anti-immigration Northern League, the British National Party and Austria’s Freedom Party. Western Europe’s rightists have profited enormously from EU enlargement, banding together with the ragtag populists of Central Europe to form factions that qualify for EU funds. The EU is flummoxed by ever more MPs in its midst who despise everything it stands for. Its powers to sanction are extremely limited; full expulsion of members is possible only in egregious cases. The Europe-wide Social Democrats reacted to Fico’s election in Slovakia by suspending his party from their ranks, only to later invite it back in. When the Freedom Party of Austria’s right-wing superstar Jörg Haider joined a conservative government there in 2000, the Union was equally at a loss. After all, the new government had come to power in a democratic election. And the Fidesz-led Hungary will be particularly difficult to admonish: it takes over the EU Council presidency in 2011.

In fact, the EU is part of a larger problem. As many Central Europeans see it, the painful reforms required for EU admission have failed to result in better wages, living standards, jobs or other opportunities. The nature of the full-throttle market transitions made their economies particularly vulnerable to the global financial crisis, which has pounded them much harder than it has most of Western Europe. Since faraway Brussels is notoriously hard to strike back at, voters punish the liberal-oriented elites who championed EU membership as a fast track to prosperity. No thinking person can fail to grasp the vast discrepancy in wealth between Central and Western Europe, on the one hand, and between the haves and have-nots in every post-communist country, on the other. This, combined with corruption and the blunders of inexperience, have seriously diminished the public’s faith in democratic politics. The populists thus enjoy an open field, posing as elite-slayers and saviors of the nation in the face of Europe’s (and globalization’s) steady assault. Observers say the key to Fidesz’s and Jobbik’s success was not Jew- or Roma-baiting but the parties’ relentless attacks on the status quo.

Legitimate disillusionment with the political class would appear to be auspicious grounds for leftist or social democratic alternatives, but the fact is, they don’t exist in Central Europe. With the exception of the Czech Republic, Latvia and now Hungary (the upstart Politics Can Be Different Party took 7 percent of the vote, the flicker of light in the recent elections), there isn’t a green party in the parliaments from Estonia to Bulgaria. Parties that call themselves social democratic or democratic socialist usually bear the pedigree of cold war–era communist parties. Although many of them have reinvented themselves and now include a fresh generation of cadre, most still bear the top-down mentality of their forefathers and are not beneath tapping nationalism and populism themselves.

Central Europe’s politics are dominated by these reformed communist parties on one side and national populists on the other, with a very slim liberal middle to stand up for ecology, a democratized EU, civil society and the rights of the disenfranchised, like Roma, gays, ethnic minorities, sex workers and immigrants. To be sure, there are independent civic groups that take these stands, but they are themselves regularly the focus of populist ire. No political force in the Central European landscape poses a credible alternative to the neoliberal economic strategies that seemed to Central Europeans to hold all the answers in the 1990s.

In the worst cases, prejudice spills over into violence. Gay-bashing happens everywhere in Central Europe, as do periodic attacks on synagogues. But the most frequent victims are the Roma. The European Roma Rights Center in Budapest claims that Roma children in Central Europe regularly attend segregated schools or classes. Assaults on the 5 million Roma and Sinti have come in waves since communism fell. Since 2008 in Hungary alone, Roma communities have experienced at least nine arson attacks, eight shootings and two hand-grenade assaults. Some nine people have been killed. The ERRC blames an increasingly racist climate across the region, to which local authorities have turned a blind eye. EU human rights committees condemned the violence, which had no impact other than to provide additional fodder to the populists, who link Brussels with Hungary-bashing and Roma rights. As Bulgarian sociologist Ivan Krastev puts it, "In the rhetoric of populist parties, elites and Roma are twins: neither is like ‘us’; both steal and rob from the honest majority; neither pays the taxes that it should pay; and both are supported by foreigners—Brussels in particular."

In Western Europe, the impetus to transform the arch-conservative political culture of the 1950s came not from the establishment but from below: from students, intellectuals, artists and other nonconformists. The Central Europeans never really had a ’68-style cultural revolution—Soviet tanks made sure of that. Nor was there a rigorous coming to terms with the twentieth century’s interwar and wartime nationalisms, as postwar Germany has done with its ignominious past. This enables nationalists to call upon illiberal traditions from the 1930s and ’40s to underpin contemporary nationalism. Perhaps most worrisome of all is the youngest generation’s attraction to these ideas. It is this polyglot, Internet-savvy cohort that is supposed to lead these countries well into the twenty-first century and beyond.

Although the Central Europeans didn’t have a Western-style 1968, they did have 1989, when people power and a spirit of civic responsibility prevailed over entrenched dictatorships. That spirit carried into the early 1990s, then petered out as the grind of economic transition and democracy’s frustrations exposed the less glamorous side of liberalism. The exhilarating legacy of 1989 is, however, still there to draw on, and the progressive answer to Central Europe’s pretenders lies there, not in the mantra that with the free market and EU stewardship everything will be for the best.