by Pia Dittmar
Nowadays, the rise of populism in Europe is a phenomenon that cannot be ignored when it comes to analyzing contemporary politics. Scholars try to explain how populism emerges and search for common features in order to find a universal definition for this recent trend. Although some characteristics of populism might be similar in all countries, Europe is culturally, historically and socially too fragmented to be analyzed as a whole region if we want to understand where populist movements have their roots and how exactly they are organized. Western European narratives tend to lump together features of all countries of the Eastern bloc, since they have been dominated by the Soviet regime after the Second World War. By doing so, they overlook important differences in the concrete form of Communist rule a certain country experienced and how the countries vary in terms of historical legacies dating back to the era before Soviet domination. It is thus useful to narrow down the analysis to a small number of countries, to avoid too general statements which finally might not be applicable to all cases. This article will focus on right-wing populism in three states of the Visegrád group, particularly Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, neighboring countries which have experienced three different forms of communist rule and which are geographically close to Western European states. The following sections provide an analysis of how populist party leaders in these countries use national identity as a tool in their political discourse to gain potential voters’ support.
National identities are socially constructed and deeply rooted in the history of a country. They are collective narratives of what a country’s people has gone through. Even though every country has its own particular past, countries in Central and Eastern Europe are historically connected by their common Communist past under the regime of the Soviet Union after the Second World War. Due to the late transition to democracy in the 1990s, most of these countries are not equipped with a stable party system and well established traditional parties as it is the case in Western European countries. Here, anti-elitism and anti-establishment might not be the only driving force for voters to support populist parties. Their success could be also explained by the use of identity in their discourses. Populist parties are not afraid of addressing people’s fears and claim to provide simple solutions, thereby trying to close the famous gap between people and elite and identifying themselves with the masses.
Populism in Central and Eastern Europe
Many European countries have experienced a significant rise in populism during the last years. Scholars devote their research to populism in order to define its very notion, to understand how populist parties arise and what motivates people to support them. Cas Mudde formulated the most cited definition of populism as “a thin-centred ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus the ‘corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the general will of the people” (Mudde 2004, 544). Its concept focusses mainly on ‘the people’ and its political contents are quite scarce. Hence, populism can be easily complemented by other ideologies such as communism, socialism or nationalism. Nationalism might be the most suitable ideology to complete populist discourse. This can be explained by the centrality of the idea of a ‘homogeneous people’ attached to its ‘heartland’, where it feels secure and where it perceives a strong sense of belonging. Nationalists commit themselves to defending this heartland whenever it is perceived to be under threat, opposing and excluding ‘the other’ to preserve ‘the us’.
Combining nationalism with populism can result in exclusive right-wing populist movements,following an ideology usually associated with welfare chauvinism, social illiberalism and opposition to immigration and globalization. Populists thus clearly define their enemies in their discourse and thereby create inclusive and exclusive identities involving those who are likely to support them and excluding those who have a different opinion. They claim to reestablish a link between politicians and ‘the common man’, speaking in his name and breaking taboos, denying the idea of political correctness.
To be more convincing, populist movements often choose charismatic leaders and declare to be part of ‘the people’ themselves. They claim to have necessary connections to the political elite, but stress that they are not part of it. Although these features may correspond to populism in general, Central and Eastern European countries merit a further analysis when it comes to contents of populist discourse. Considering the communist past of the Visegrád countries, anti-elitism may not be the only driving force for voters and takes different forms than in Western European countries, where traditional parties emerged much earlier and had more opportunities to establish a stable position. Antiestablishment sentiments in Western Europe are mainly directed against traditional parties which have been governing for decades in the countries. There is a general request for a new kind of parties, emerging from the people, and populist parties present themselves as the solution to this desire. In Central and Eastern Europe, we can observe another issue related to ‘the elite’. Many people are disappointed about how the transition to democracy took place since the 1990s and make parties and political actors who took decisions during these years responsible for their discontent. Furthermore, corruption plays an important role when it comes to the credibility of politicians and their attitude towards morality. Here, the ‘corrupt elite’ is opposed by the populist parties, defending ‘the people’s’ real interests. Populism pops up as an opportunity for the people to reunite and to discover the features of their national identity.
Why is it Convenient for Right-Wing Populist Parties to Integrate National Identity in their discourse?
The most obvious particularity connecting countries in Central and Eastern Europe is their common past of Soviet domination. Although they experienced different types of communist rule, such as bureaucratic-authoritarian, national-accommodative or patrimonial communism, communism in these countries was not homegrown, but imposed by a foreign power (Kitschelt et al. 1999, 23-25). This implies that some features of their national identities probably resemble. Consequently, it would be coherent to find similar components of populist contents regarding the use of identity as a tool to attract supporters in the countries under scrutiny. Indeed, nationalism is a common trait of countries in Central and Eastern Europe, as Darden and Grzymała-Busse have shown in their research. Moreover, in countries such as Poland and Hungary, religious beliefs must not be underestimated as an element of national identity, since the Church played an important role in preserving national identities. Therefore, it was easy for right-wing populist parties to gain popularity after communism. In Poland, the Law and Justice Party (PiS), followed an anti-communist and national rhetoric during its first years, by exploiting “patriotic feelings of the Poles, their sense of traditional moral values and their faith in Catholicism” (Fox and Vermeersch 2010, 334). They accused their pro-European concurrent party, the Civic Platform, of selling out Poland’s national interest to the European Union (EU), which leads us to the second reason why national identity plays a crucial role in populist discourse in the region under scrutiny.
Ten countries in Central and Eastern Europe became member states of the EU in the course of the 2004 enlargement, including Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Therefore, there is not only an issue of the two dimensions of ‘the other’ mentioned earlier, there is also a problem of ‘us’ becoming ‘the others’, those who arrived later in the community, who share a similar past and who were not able to keep pace economically with the Western European states up until now. The initial enthusiasm about the accession to the EU has swiftly transformed into populist resentment, especially in the Visegrád Four. At the same time, becoming EU member states turned out to be a new opportunity for right-wing populists to redefine the notion of the ‘nation’ and the ‘people’ and place national identity in the centre of their discourse. The conflict between left and right parties started to overlap with categories of national and non-national parties. Viktor Orbán’s party Fidesz, for instance, initially arrived on the political scene as a liberal youth organization in the 1990s and ended up as a conservative right-wing populist party.
However, the intensity of populism and its electoral success have varied significantly across the region in question which can be explained by the different legacies and priorities in the concerned countries. In the next section, the most common roots and components of national identity in Central and Eastern European countries will be examined and contextualized in order to explain how populists use national identity in their discourse.
Roots and Components of National Identity in the Visegrád Group
In order to explain why identity is central to right-wing populist ideas, it is interesting to take into consideration the concept of restorative nationalism, to understand the paradox of morality and the role of the Catholic Church. Ding and Hlavac argue that “voting for right-wing populists is rather associated with moral beliefs in the cultural purity of nationhood and its centrality to the preservation of national identity than to anti-elitism” (2017, 429). Here, historical legacies come into play, explaining how symbols and the rhetoric of political leaders’ discourse are shaped to create attractive ideologies for potential voters.
Morality represents a convenient element for populist movements which helps to construct their discourse around the issue of identity. Once again, morality helps populists to define clearly who belongs to the immoral enemy and to identify themselves with the right and good side. As Jasper says, “moral claims have enormous mobilization power”, because they are linked to emotions and people’s sense of justice (Jasper 1997). Here, the enemy can have multiple forms and is not exclusively limited to politicians. In Central and Eastern European countries, we can observe that several ‘immoral enemies’ repeatedly appear in right-wing populist discourse, which are strongly interlinked. First, the immoral elite, including political parties and individuals playing a role in politics, second, the EU as a whole institution and third and finally, migrants of ethnic minorities, accused of bringing disorder into the country’s wealth and traditions. All of them are presented as jeopardizing the nation’s identity through their immoral behavior.
According to Mudde’s definition, populists speak in the name of the righteous people against the immoral elite, taking away power from them and giving it back to the people. The people, thus the nation, is led by an ‘anti-nationalist’ elite, which is accused of selling the interest of the common man to international organizations and other ‘immoral enemies’. After 1989, public expectations regarding the transition to democracy in the former Soviet bloc were high, but only few promises made at that time have been realized (Pirro 2013, 603). As a consequence, populist right-wing parties blame previous political actors for this development and often explain their enemies’ immoral actions by corruption. Here, the populists’ difficulty in fighting corruption is to not becoming corrupted once achieved a certain level of political power.
In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has labeled multiple enemies as immoral. His most famous moral target is George Soros, an American billionaire with Hungarian origins, current president of the Open Society Foundation, who is well known for supporting non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Hungary. In 2013, Orbán presented his “Stop Soros” campaign in the Hungarian parliament, aiming at controlling the activities of humanitarian NGOs as well as stopping all activities facilitating immigration to Hungary. The Anti-Soros campaign rapidly transformed into a campaign demonizing NGOs promoting better conditions for asylum seekers at their arrival in Hungary.
Hence, Soros is accused of being immoral, together with these NGOs, because of its anti-national conduct, which constitutes a threat to national identity. Furthermore, although he has Hungarian origins, Soros lives in the United States and is perceived from Orbán as an exterior actor interfering in purely Hungarian business of national matter.
However, although Orbán publicly condemns immorality and corruption, he is strongly criticized for the fact that he has softened the control mechanisms between executive and judiciary power in Hungary through the establishment of new institutions and the introduction of a law adopted in June 2018. The law creates a new system of administrative courts which affects the independence of the judiciary and of other institutions as well as the rights of judges. The question is now whether Orbán, as self-declared spokesperson of the Hungarian people, succeeded in fighting against corruption or rather includes, for his part, immoral elements in his politics. Needless to say that he presents his actions as always being in favor of the Hungarian people. This is only one example of the paradox of populists condemning corruption and once they attain enough influence, they tend to act not always in the interest of the people, even though they claim to do so.
Especially in Central and Eastern European countries, EU integration has become a moral target for right-wing populists after their EU accession in 2004. Not only they defined the EU as evil, but the EU itself provided “the discursive resources and even incentives for the reconfiguration of the political space in national terms” (Fox and Vermeersch 2010, 329). The EU is presented to the public as an obstacle to the realization of national objectives, but actually serves as a vehicle for the pursuit of populists’ interests, because they are now able to redefine the notion of the nation.
National parties being in favor of European integration are accused of selling out national interests and sovereignty to immigrants, multinationals and minorities. Populist parties placing the nation in the centre of their discourse draw a strict line between themselves, thus the only party acting in favor of the people, and the other parties, which are presented as immoral and pro-European.
After Poland’s accession to the EU, the PiS accused the Civic Platform, Donald Tusk’s centric and pro-European party, of betraying national interests because of their collaboration with the EU. Since 2014, Tusk is the president of the European Council, after having hold the position of the Polish Prime Minister for seven years. Hence, he represents both for right-wing populists, an enemy as an ‘anti-nationalist’ politician and, at the same time, an important figure acting for the EU.
The most common fear linked to EU membership accentuated in populist discourse is the loss of sovereignty and decision power at national level. In former Soviet countries, this fear is even more pronounced since they had striven for national sovereignty for a long time and are afraid of losing it again. Since these countries’ EU accession, many policy fields are dealt with on the supranational level and imply constraints for national legislation. However, what is not officially said by right-wing populist parties is that without the EU, they could not have integrated certain elements in their discourse. All over Europe, these parties tend to stress the unstoppable stream of refugees whenever they have the occasion to do so, in order to turn away the attention from uncomfortable topics. In Central and Eastern Europe, talking about migratory flows towards the country helps eclipsing another crucial issue, the increasing number of nationals emigrating from their home country.
Although Schengen weakened internal boundaries, it reinforced Europe’s external borders. In Poland, before the EU accession, the PiS was not able to introduce its identity card for Polish minorities in Ukraine and Belarus granting privileges to Poles abroad. These privileges include refunds for Schengen visa, facilitating business relations with Poland and easier access to Polish universities and schools. Though, in 2007, the law was passed thanks to EU membership constraints regarding external border relations and the rights of EU citizens living in third countries. That means that the party used the EU as a tool to realize its national objective, officially taking the entire credit for it.
In Hungary, a similar example can be observed. The European unification was seen as an opportunity to realize a national unification with Hungarian minorities abroad. Here again, special identity cards were to be introduced for Hungarians living in Romania, Ukraine and former Yugoslavia, in order to integrate them more easily into the national labour market. Amendments from the EU to this law had no success and Hungary was able to pursuit its national interest.
Moreover, even though Orbán describes the EU as the enemy of the Hungarian people, Hungary is one of the few countries benefitting the most from European funds, with about 25 billion euros at its disposal from 2014 to 2020. Nevertheless, the Hungarian Prime Minister has been repeatedly criticized for using these resources in a very opaque way, since the money seems to flow in companies whose head quarters are made up of persons who are close friends or even family members of Orbán. Here again, he has been accused of corruption, a way of conduct he officially declares to fight. Earlier this year, Ingeborg Grässle, deputy in the European Parliament and president of the Commission for Budgetary Control, stated that in 36 percent of all Hungarian calls for tender, only one applicant presents a proposal, while the European average for this case is 17 percent. After several accusations, the European Anti-Fraud Office OLAF started investigations whether the allegations are justified. Hence, money from Brussels is always gladly accepted and quickly spent, but principles and values of the EU are highly questioned. Their very meaning is even transformed in ways that help feeding right-wing populists discourse, like Orbán when he translates the concept of a “Europe of the regions” into a “Europe of national communities”, placing national identity in the foreground.
In the aftermath of the Syrian civil war, the immoral enemy par excellence is ‘the refugee’, perceived from right-wing populists as a moral intruder. Refugees are represented as a threat to the nation’s identity, traditions, religion, wealth, and security. Viktor Orbán summarized this idea by accusing refugees of being rapists, potential terrorists, job-stealers and “poison” for the nation (Kroet 2016). Thus, ‘the foreigner’ is the opposite of national identity, because he or she embodies ‘the other’ who, by definition, cannot be part of the people of a nation. During his electoral campaign this year, Orbán used the slogan “Nekünk Magyarország az első!” (With us, Hungary comes first) which resembles US President Donald Trump’s famous ‘America first’. In fact, there has not been a serious immigration flow towards Hungary. Thanks to structural changes financed by the European Cohesion Fund the Hungarian unemployment rate is quite low with 3,7%, which disproves Orbán’s ‘job-stealer’ accusation. However, in preparation of the national elections, cities in Hungary were full of posters showing crowds of immigrants arriving in the country, labeled with a stop sign, making clear that Fidesz won’t accept any more immigrants who might be a threat for the Hungarian identity.
Moreover, in the Hungarian city Györ, it is prohibited to the public, the media and NGOs, to enter the reception centre for arriving refugees. Its construction was financed by European funds and foreseen for the reception of 200 persons. Only about 20 persons are currently located in the centre. Since 2017, only 5 persons are allowed to register in each zone of reception. That means that the image and identity of immigrants in Hungary is exclusively constructed by political actors such as Fidesz and Jobbik, by prohibiting the media physical access to the topic and thus denying the people access to important information. On the one hand, Orbán claims to speak on behalf of the people, on the other hand, he is the one selecting the relevant information.
Religious Beliefs and Nationalism
Christian belief generally is associated with values such as charity and humanitarianism. Though, populist parties may use religious faith to interpret situations in a different way. Populists exploit religion to shape national identities, mostly by defining who represents the enemy rather than trying to create a common identity by taking into account the diversity of people and political actors. They “often defend their intolerance by appealing to traditions or sacred texts, painting themselves as the defenders of ‘traditional values’ […] against the alleged hordes of liberal progressives and other ‘sinners'” (Ramet 1999, 14). At first sight, two enemies of Catholic belief, both in the past and nowadays, are easily identifiable. First, Communism and its allies, trying to repress the Catholic Church after the Second World War. Second, today’s immigrants, pictured by right-wing populists as a threat to national traditions, inter alia, because of their belief in a different religion. Therefore, it is important, once again, to take into account the different historical developments regarding the role of Roman Catholic belief in Central and Eastern European countries.
When it comes to the level of religiosity, thus belief, practice and affiliation, we can notice significant variations across the region, from the Czech Republic, with the lowest attachment to Catholic belief, to Poland, where religion is an indispensable element of national identity. That implies that religion is not an imperative of populist discourse in Central and Eastern Europe, but it is worth being mentioned for countries where it plays an essential role such as Poland and Hungary.
In these two countries, the Church managed to fuse national as well as religious identities and obtained moral authority, and finally political influence. According to Grzymała-Busse, the identification of national groups with religious loyalties is a relatively recent phenomenon, which requires the examination of joint effects of pre-communist and communist legacies (Grzymała-Busse 2015, 338). In her research, she studied the level of religious nationalism, thus the fusion of national and religious identities in Central and Eastern European countries, by asking nationals of a country whether for being [nationality of the country], it is necessary to be Catholic. In Poland, 75 percent of the respondents answered positively, considering that 86 percent of the population consider themselves Catholic Christians. Hence, Catholic affiliation can be seen as an expected and evident element of national identity in Poland. In Hungary, in turn, 42 percent believed that being Catholic is an indispensable feature of Hungarian identity. However, only a minority of 27 percent of the Czech participants responded positively to the question.
Grzymała-Busse argues that for explaining these variations in religious nationalism, precommunist historical legacies of church-society relations as well as communist-era policies must be taken into consideration, as already mentioned in the section above regarding restorative nationalism. In certain countries, churches represented an institution safeguarding national identity against the state during the Communist era. They did so by offering space for the opposition, physically and spiritually, and provided informal education and finally gave national meanings to religious symbols. Public religiosity thus started to represent a political act and patriotism became more and more related to religious loyalty.
In the Polish case, the fusion of national and religious identities started after the end of the Second World War. As in many other countries, the imposed Communist regime was perceived as an alien force infringing Poland’s sovereignty and opposing the Poles’ Catholic faith. In the 1970s, the Church began to act as an advocate of the Polish nation and pushed for compliance with human rights. In 1978, the first Slavic Pope in history, Pope John Paul II, was elected. One year later, thanks to his popularity, he was allowed to return to visit Poland, his home country. He was prominent not only for his origin, but also due to his insistence on the importance of human rights and religious freedom, particularly in countries of the Eastern bloc. Church representatives were more and more invited to participate in parliamentary commissions for policy consultation and coordination. Later, in the 1980s, they were part of the Round table negotiations as a crucial mediator influencing the democracy that followed the Communist regime.
Hence, it is not surprising that during its 2005 electoral campaign, the Polish party PiS focused on anti-communist and nationalist rhetoric, emphasizing “patriotic feelings of the Poles, their sense of traditional moral values and their faith in Catholicism in order to differentiate itself from its competitors” (Fox and Vermeersch 2010, 334). In 2018, the PiS was subject to discussions all over the world, due to its ‘stop-abortion’ draft bill. Poland has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the EU and the PiS intended to eliminate one out of three categories allowing women to have a legal abortion, in the event of a fetus which will be born seriously sick or disabled. In 2016, after mass protests against anti-abortion campaigners, PiS chairman and founder Jarosław Kaczyński declared that his party favors a legislation against abortion “to make sure that even severely deformed fetuses were born so they could be baptized, buried, and be given a name”.
That shows to what extent the Catholic Church influences the contents of the populist party in Poland, despite of mass protests against the bill and certain members of the PiS dissociating themselves from the draft. For the moment, the controversial bill has not been approved by the responsible committee and will sooner or later be rediscussed. The Hungarian right-wing populist party Jobbik presents its members in its party program as conservative and radically patriotic Christians and claims that Hungary is a country based on Christian moral values. However, the party has less influential power on policies since Fidesz is the leading party in Hungary. By its opponents, Jobbik is primarily labeled a radical right and neo-Nazi party rather than a group convinced of morality and Christianity.
In the Czech Republic, in turn, the nation and the Church have opposed each other. In the 19th century, the Catholic Church expressed itself against national inspirations and was perceived by the nation as being directly linked to a politicized catholicism imposed by Austrian imperial rule. During Communist rule, the Church was far from having as much political influence as the Church in Poland and did not have any important role in the Prague Spring 1968. Thus, there was no cooperation between the Catholic Church and the anti-communist opposition, which explains that only one fourth of the Czechs consider their national identity fused with religious identity. In this case, it is comprehensible that religious contents in right-wing populist identity discourses are a less frequent element.
Eventually, not in all cases the Church formed an alliance with the anti-communist opposition. However, it is noteworthy citing Grzymała-Busse when she states that “the more the communist authorities tried to repress societal protest, and the more the church stood in defense of the opposition, the more nation and religion could fuse”. Furthermore, once the Church has obtained authority and public support in a country, politicians had more difficulties in taking action against religious organizations. Opposing movements under Church protection means “crossing over into the sphere of the sacred” (Grzymała-Busse 2014, 343, 344). Consequently, the stronger the fusion, the more convenient for right-wing populists to rely on religious values in their discourse.
National identity definitely plays an important role in the discourse of right-wing populist parties in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. In the three countries, the weight of the components of the parties’ contents varies according to their historical legacies, the people’s attachment to their ‘homeland’ and the role of religion.
We can observe that right-wing populists parties’ interpretations of morality, corruption, history and religious belief are strongly one-sided. The focus is not on defining what the party stands for, but rather what and whom it wants to fight and who is to blame for previous mistakes. On the one hand, the ‘enemy’ is represented as immoral, whenever he or she is perceived to not acting in favor of the people’s interest. Political actors are easily accused of corruption, but actually there is no guarantee that once populist politicians have achieved a high level of influence, they won’t fall back into the same patterns as their predecessors. On the other hand, right-wing populist parties show little empathy when it comes to ethnic minorities and people fleeing from their home country to start a new life in Europe. Charity would be, in turn, a behavior associated with Christian values. But this is not how Christian belief is interpreted by right-wing populist parties in the countries in question. They rather exploit Catholic belief to shape national identities and exclude those who are not part of the community. The impact of the Church depends here on the role the institution played before and during Soviet domination, which is then again shaping the identity of the enemy in the past and in the present.
Finally, there is no proof that these features of national identity can be easily applied to other countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Some of them might overlap, but considering the different forms of Communist rule and the changing national borders in the the region, it will be difficult to establish general claims about which components are indispensable for shaping national identities in Central and Eastern European countries.
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