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The Future of Democracy in Europe

The Measurable Impact of Populism

January 03, 2018 | by NINA SIEMER

Nationalists at the Independence Day Demonstrations in Poland 2015. Photo by Maja Ruszpel, CC0 01.

Right-wing populists all over Europe are capitalizing on a widespread sense of dissatisfaction. What does their success mean for the future of democracy, human rights and social justice?

In the course of this year, the map of populism has been extensively redrawn. Whereas at the start of 2017 an analysis by Germany’s Federal Agency for Civic Education listed Hungary and Poland as the only EU countries with a right-wing populist government, as the year draws to a close nationalist and right-wing populist parties have gained considerable ground in numerous countries, while traditional parties have either lost support or, as in Austria, shifted their agenda further to the right. Most recently, in the Czech Republic the populist ANO party took the largest share of votes in parliamentary elections, and is now seeking to form a government under controversial billionaire Andrej Babiš. Elsewhere, right-wing populist campaigns played a crucial role in the UK’s Brexit referendum, while in France the radical right-wing presidential candidate Marine Le Pen reached the run-off stage in elections for the country’s highest office. In many other countries, the mood is tense and polarized.

In its discussion of the numerous European parties within the right-wing nationalist spectrum, the excellent article by the Federal Agency for Civic Education distinguishes between right-wing populists and right-wing extremists. Both currents claim to represent the “people” of their country in the face of ongoing “injustice”, and offer protection against alleged “threats”. But whereas right-wing populists – at least rhetorically – operate within the framework of democracy, the goals of right-wing extremists generally include overthrowing the political system. Both currents are dangerous, as their intolerant world view constitutes a threat to participation opportunities and, not least, the rights of minorities.

Less equality of opportunity, more discrimination, and threats to democracy

The latest Social Justice Index (SJI) published by the Bertelsmann Stiftung shows that for most EU countries, things are on the up once again, not just economically but in social terms too. In the majority of member states, social conditions have improved slightly, although southern and south-eastern Europe in particular remain a long way off from the levels achieved before the financial and economic crisis. These countries still have a great deal to accomplish, particularly in terms of poverty prevention and labor market access.

Recently, the index has revealed some alarming trends which are relevant to the context of right-wing populist politics. The examples of Poland and Hungary in particular highlight the devastating effects that a right-wing populist government can have on equality of opportunity in a country, for instance in terms of equitable access to education, gender equality or the social status of minorities such as Roma or migrants.

In Hungary, which has seen a series of controversial educational reforms in recent years, the correlation between social background and educational success has risen considerably. At the same time, the SJI indicators in the category “social cohesion and non-discrimination” have steadily plummeted under the government of Viktor Orbán. In Poland, the new right-wing conservative government led by Beata Szyd?o has rolled back key reforms introduced by the previous government that had helped boost both opportunities in and quality of education in recent years. Furthermore, Poland suffered the greatest decline of any EU country in the category “social cohesion and non-discrimination” in relation to the previous year. Similar developments can be observed in family policy, where the “retraditionalization” of the institution of family is restricting women’s opportunities to combine family life with a career.

Moreover, a substantial decline in democratic quality overall is apparent in both countries: the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) show that from 2014 to 2017, no other EU country sustained such severe losses in terms of democracy and the rule of law as Hungary and Poland. Under Orbán – and to some extent under Szyd?o – freedom of the press has been curtailed, the separation of powers has been undermined, and minorities and the opposition have been discredited.

Why is nationalist right-wing populism gaining ground?

A possible explanation for the rise of right-wing populist parties can be found in the latest Democracy Index published by the Economist, which postulates that the surge in populism is a consequence of fundamental problems of trust in Western democracies. According to the study, there has long been a discrepancy between the concerns and fears of certain segments of the population on the one hand, and the decisions made by the political elite on the other, with many people believing that their elected leaders are becoming increasingly devoted to technocratic politics rather than representing the actual interests of their electorate. The Democracy Index suggests that trends such as globalization, emancipation, digitalization and increasing social diversity are giving rise to a widespread feeling of insecurity. The authors argue that most traditional parties are largely failing to acknowledge and cater to these feelings, and that the resulting vacuum is being filled by populist parties proclaiming “simple” solutions to political problems for which there can be no easy answer.

Accordingly, they conclude that the issue is more about “perceived problems” than hard facts: a country’s economic circumstances do not necessarily correlate with the emergence of populist forces. This conclusion is supported by data from the Social Justice Index. For example, Hungary and Poland have made undeniable progress in terms of labor market access in recent years. Meanwhile, Spain – which was and remains particularly hard-hit by the economic and social crisis (24th place in the SJI in 2017) – has been much less affected by the populist tide than many countries in the top 10, such as the Netherlands, Austria or France. It is becoming clear that the threat of populism cannot be measured or predicted on the basis of aggregate economic data such as per capita GDP or labor market figures.

It is not objectively measurable economic and social circumstances that drive people to vote for right-wing populist parties, but a sense of no longer having a place in society, of being overrun by change and overlooked in the decision-making process. Another key factor lies in the simple explanations these parties offer for the situation voters find themselves in, pointing to an identifiable culprit, or perhaps two: on the one hand, the migrant population which, according to this mindset, places an excessive strain on the country’s resources, and on the other the “elites”, who are regarded as being so much better off while doing nothing to right the perceived wrongs.

Human rights and democratic standards in decline

Populism is also the focus of this year’s annual report by Human Rights Watch, which describes the threat to democracy posed by populism as follows: populists seek to use democratic means to secure a higher priority for their own rights than for general human rights. When populists criticize judicial decisions, seek to curtail rights or agitate against minorities, this constitutes a fundamental threat to the separation of powers and the basic principles of the rule of law. Accordingly, the established traditional parties cannot afford to simply tolerate or ignore populists. They must strive to genuinely take on board voters’ fears and concerns.

There is no question that finding solutions commensurate to the mostly highly complex reality while involving everyone in the democratic process and ensuring broad social participation is no easy task. But if the politicians of Europe’s liberal democracies do not face up to it, and fail to offer serious alternatives to the populists, exclusion and discrimination will continue to flourish – as will the disintegration of past accomplishments in the field of human rights and democracy.

The authors of the Democracy Index conclude that the greatest threat to democracy is a lack of popular participation, and that the rise of populism is above all a symptom of this problem, and argue that a fundamental reform of the democratic system is urgently needed. The Human Rights Watch report also calls for reforms to make people feel more involved and catered for, while also warning that this must not happen at the expense of fundamental human rights – which must instead be strengthened and implemented in all areas of society.

The self-declared trajectory pursued by populists is a backward one. This makes it all the more urgent to develop a forward-looking vision in which the future is not a nightmare scenario filled with uncertainty, but the better alternative.

Nina Siemer is a researcher at the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) project. She co-authored the SGI special study “Social Justice in the EU – Index Report 2017”.

Translated from German to English by Solomon Wright.

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