With a long weekend fast approaching for our American readers (Happy Memorial Day!), we’re offering a little recommended reading from Denis McShane, a former Minister for Europe and retired Labour Party MP from the United Kingdom. Mr. McShane wrote of the “drift to illiberal Pop-Nat” (populist nationalist) politics in much of Europe, and the gradual decline of moderate, centrist and liberal voices on the continent. Hungary features prominently in this process, which certainly extends beyond national boundaries and even crosses oceans. (One cannot help but think of the rather spectacular political rise of Donald Trump, to become the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party.)
Mr. McSchane writes the following for the left-leaning Social Europe website:
“There is no sign that the grip of Orbán-Kaczynski style politics is weakening. They represent the soft EU version of Putin-Erdogan political control. Elections are held. A market economy exists. People can travel and publish. But the Pop-Nat political class slowly dissolves the separation of powers and seeks to influence or reduce judicial and media independence. (…) In Poland, 141 journalists have lost their jobs. The Pop-Nat states are defined by enemies – the US and the West for Putin; secular Ataturk traditions for Erdogan; liberal European values for Kaczynski. Religion has returned to centre-stage. Erdogan is re-islamising Turkey after the long reign of secular Ataturkism. Putin is seen regularly in Orthodox cathedrals while Kaczysnki preaches Catholic rules and essays a return to banning the Polish woman’s right to choose.”
The former Labour MP also suggests that Pop-Nat politics are appearing on the left as well, and points to the Syriza party in Greece and Podemos in Spain as examples of this trend. That having been said, I might add here that Syriza has moderated its politics and its message quite significantly during its almost 18 months in power and had little choice but to slowly morph into a relatively centrist, left-leaning party, if it was to meet the harsh terms of continued international loans to keep its financial system and economy on life support, and within the Euro Zone.
Mr. McShane, however, is correct to note that “the democratic left has been almost entirely eliminated from the politics of the new ex-communist EU member states.”
“Instead Pop-Nat leaders like Orbán, Kaczynski and Robert Fico in Slovakia have emerged to become the alternative vector of political mobilisation and government,” he adds.
Part of the problem in Hungary, I would argue, is that the Hungarian democratic left completely ceded the language of social justice to the Hungarian populist right during their years in power (2002-2010). Liberals in Hungary (especially those from the now defunct Alliance of Free Democrats – SZDSZ) managed to denigrate the definition of liberalism and the liberal political identity to meaning almost nothing other than low taxes, small government and privatization. They allowed for the construction of an endless list of shopping malls and box stores in Budapest and elsewhere, without ever considering the impact on local small businesses, communities and on the environment. They allowed for the demolition and displacement of large sections of the economically disadvantaged 8th District to build the shopping malls and condos of the so-called Corvin Negyed, without any concern about the displaced population–often Roma–who then ended up either in the neighbouring 9th District or in rural ghettos. They did nothing to reach out to those who were economically marginalized. Many of these voters drifted to Fidesz and Jobbik–both parties that were quick to detect and to then fill in this void.
The rise of Pop-Nat in Hungary is in large part the result of the failures and the lack of political acumen of Hungarian liberals and the left.