Freedom House: The False Promise of Populism
Populists’ stunning electoral victories in Europe and the United States have shaken the post–Cold War order in Europe and Eurasia, but they could ultimately reinvigorate liberal democracy.
In 2016, populist successes at the polls in Western Europe and the United States rocked the world, not least the countries of postcommunist Europe and Eurasia covered by Nations in Transit. The April 2016 referendum in the Netherlands against recognizing Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the European Union, the United Kingdom’s vote to withdraw from the EU, and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States all raised fresh doubts about the fragile post–Cold War order.
These external shocks came after a long period of stagnation and decline in democratic governance across the 29 countries of Nations in Transit. In Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans, years of populism and corruption have eroded once-promising democratic institutions. In Eurasia, personalist authoritarianism has gone from a burgeoning trend to an entrenched norm. This year, 18 of the 29 countries in the survey suffered declines in their overall Democracy Scores, the most since 2008, when the global financial crisis fueled instability and stalled political reforms. There have been more declines than improvements in each year of the survey since 2005, following the first big wave of EU expansion to the east. For the first time in the report’s history, there are now more Consolidated Authoritarian regimes than Consolidated Democracies.
The populist victories of 2016 have added a new dimension of uncertainty to this picture. Across the Nations in Transit region, U.S. and EU commitments to democratization and a stable, rules-based order have been necessary if not sufficient for maintaining peace and strengthening the rule of law. Democratic deterioration and authoritarian consolidation were already well under way before this year. But with Britain now focused on its withdrawal from the EU, and governments in the region unsure of the Trump administration’s positions, the pillars of the post–Cold War order in Europe suddenly seem less sturdy. In fact, American ambivalence about NATO has increased fears of instability or even war.
The Roots of Populism’s Revival in Europe
The populist tide has been rising in Central Europe since 2010, when Viktor Orbán led the Fidesz party back to power in Hungary and then eviscerated the country’s checks and balances, changing the constitution and electoral code to ensure his party’s dominance while ignoring the EU’s reprimands. It gathered strength over the last six years as leaders in the Balkans rallied their bases with attacks on civil society and the press, hollowing out independent institutions even as they moved ahead with EU accession. And it surged forward in 2015, with nativist fear-mongering over migration across Europe and the parliamentary victory of the Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland, which immediately sought to emulate Orbán’s example in Hungary by paralyzing the constitutional court and turning the public broadcaster into a party mouthpiece.
What is this populism? At its core, it pits a mystically unified “nation” against corrupt “elites” and external enemies, and claims for a charismatic leader the power to voice the will of the nation. It is therefore fundamentally illiberal, rejecting diversity of identity and of opinion within society and discarding basic principles of modern constitutional thinking: that democracy requires constraints on the will of the majority and checks on the decisions of the executive. It feeds on the gap between what mainstream political leaders promise and what they deliver, which is why the utopian vision and quotidian results of the EU have nourished its growth. The anti-elitist, anti-immigration, and protectionist platforms of the Brexit and Trump campaigns drew on the same set of frustrations.
It was no surprise, then, that populists in Europe celebrated the events of 2016, and none more enthusiastically than Orbán, who hailed Trump’s victory as the end of “liberal non-democracy” and “the return to real democracy.” The year was also a triumph for Vladimir Putin. For the past decade, the Russian leader has backed populists in Europe and the United States as part of a covert effort to destabilize the transatlantic order. The results in 2016 were perhaps beyond his wildest dreams. Although Russia’s economy continues to stagnate, Putin seems tantalizingly close to his goal of a new division of Europe into Western and Russian spheres of influence.
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Careful What You Wish For
Despite the newfound confidence of the region’s illiberal leaders, the populist revolt provides no answers to their internal dilemmas. In Eurasia, presidents who bristled at U.S. support for civil society and independent media may welcome a more transactional American foreign policy, but their systems’ structural dysfunctions remain. The 2014 collapse in oil and gas prices brought the second financial crisis in seven years to a region that is still heavily dependent on hydrocarbon exports. The regional recession is near its end on paper, but it has left chaos in the banking sector and drained national reserve funds in the largest Eurasian economies: Russia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan.
The countries with the most closed and rent-seeking economies—Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan—are experiencing hard currency shortages and bank failures that cannot be overcome without painful structural reforms, which would threaten leaders’ political control. Even those countries with larger fiscal buffers and more deft crisis management are heading for years of slow growth and weak private investment after another cycle in which they failed to reform. Physical and human capital continues to depreciate across the region. Political opposition, civil society, and the independent media have been choked off, but the popular grievances they would normally channel remain. The authoritarian regimes in Eurasia have proven that they are capable of retaining power, but not of creating efficient or effective, much less representative, states.
The global populist turn in 2016 leaves these structural problems unaddressed, and it also increases security risks. With the United States suddenly ambivalent about the EU and NATO, countries across the region are likely to rush to exploit new opportunities, hedge against worst-case scenarios, and secure existing gains before a new equilibrium is reached. Nationalist and revanchist appeals could once again become the most powerful currency for vulnerable leaders and parties. Every country will have to rebalance its security, diplomatic, and domestic policies absent the traditional assumptions about American power and interests.
This rebalancing could increase the threat of war in Europe and Eurasia. Early 2017 has already brought the worst fighting in two years in eastern Ukraine, rising tensions between Kosovo and Serbia, and increasing inter-ethnic tension in the political crisis in Macedonia. And after engaging in their deadliest combat in 22 years in April 2016, Armenia and Azerbaijan are watching closely to see whether the new U.S. administration is still committed to preserving peace in the Caucasus.
The European Union Tested
The uncertainty about U.S. foreign policy means that the EU will need to be more assertive, most importantly with its own member states and accession candidates. The expansion of the EU to include the Baltics, Central and Eastern Europe, and countries in the Balkans has helped spread liberal democracy across the continent. It is still the best vehicle for advancing the rule of law and accountable institutions in the region. But with each wave of integration, the challenge of sustaining the union has grown, and the flawed assumptions of the original institutional design have become more apparent. The United States should have done more to support democratic consolidation in Europe as the EU struggled over the last decade; now the EU will be forced to shoulder even more of the democratization burden in its neighborhood.
If it is to succeed in doing so, it has to reform. While the eurozone and refugee crises have received the most urgent attention, the crisis of accountability in the EU—its inability to take disciplinary action when leaders in current and aspiring member states violate the rules—is no less threatening to democracy’s future. From Hungary and Poland to accession candidate Serbia, there are still no consequences for politicians and parties that undermine their countries’ independent institutions. Without accountability, populists will continue to corrode the union from within and push nationalist narratives that threaten peace in Europe. The EU must reform in a way that allows it to respond swiftly and effectively to attacks on democracy.
A Moment of Truth
The question for 2017 is whether populism’s recent success carries within it the seeds of a revival of liberal democracy. As the political scientists Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser have written, “Populism often asks the right questions but provides the wrong answers.” In the democracies of the Nations in Transit region, populism has seized on deep frustrations with the European Union and the post–Cold War socioeconomic model, capitalizing on fears of eroding identity, economic insecurity, and inequality. Nations in Transit’s research shows that de-democratization is possible. The populist moment should be taken as a call to shake off the dangerous assumption that progress is inevitable, and to appreciate the constant work that is required to create and sustain an inclusive civic nationalism in a diverse society—or societies, in the case of the EU. The only thing that will preserve democracy is people who believe in it, and act on their beliefs.