Dmitry Romanovich, fellow at Stanford’s Emerging Ukrainian Leaders Program, and adviser to Ukraine’s Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, took interest in VoxUkraine’s discussion of populism and offered to interview Anna Grzymala-Busse, Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Michelle and Kevin Douglas Professor of International Studies. The result of the conversation of two intelligent people has become one of the most interesting and deepest Ukrainian articles about the causes of populism, the challenges that it brings and the solutions to overcome it.
Dear Anna, so thank you so much for your time and that you agreed to have this short interview for VoxUkraine. My first question is about the populism in general. There is a widespread narrative right now that the populism is rising and obviously there are a lot of examples of it like Brexit, Trump, Alternative for Germany and lots of other visible things. But is it true that it is rising or is it just a perception of it? And if it rising, were there any similar tendencies in the past or is it something new?
Populism is definitely rising and this has been going on since 1990 year or so. If we look at the public opinion polls and the electoral data around the late 1980s – early 1990s, we see a rise in Western Europe where populism goes from around 5 per cent to the current more than 15 per cent of the votes. And in Eastern Europe, in the new democracies we see it started around 15 per cent and now it’s more than doubled to over 30 per cent. So it’s been a steady increase going on for the last 25 years and it’s taking place both in the West and in the East of Europe.
Is it something new, is there something unusual about what is going on?
I think it is discontent with what democratic parties are offering: discontent with policy offerings, with the lack of responsiveness, with the lack of accountability. And we’ve had that in the past, during the interwar period (First and Second World Wars – my comment), that’s what Weimar (republic) is all about. What’s different now is that it’s taking very much of a democratic form. So no one is questioning democracy, all these countries are still calling themselves democratic, even in Poland and Hungary, and Turkey: where the populism has really taken power there’s a firm commitment to calling yourself a democratic country. So these are not violent regimes, they don’t resort to threats or violence or any militaristic mobilization that what we saw in the interwar period. But they are still eroding the formal and informal institutions of democracy. So it’s new in the sense that it is taking a different form, but we have seen this kind of discontent before.
In general, why are political scientists afraid of populism? What is the actual danger? Because it looks like there is no hunger, there is no war, at least directly, so what is the real danger, how to distinguish the real danger of populism from a perceived danger?
Populist parties and movements make two kinds of claims. The first claim is that the elites are corrupt and the elites are unresponsive and unaccountable. And they all make this kind of collusion of elites in the institutions they create only to benefit themselves. And the second claim that populist parties make is that the people are good and deserve a better representation. Now on the surface of it there is nothing wrong with either one of those two claims. As a protest movement there is nothing wrong with populism. But once it enters government harbor it takes those two basic claims and transforms them into an attack on the formal institutions of liberal democracy as being corrupt and unresponsive. They go after the courts, they go after various regulatory and accountability institutions and so on. And as these movements are going to represent the people, they need to define the people first and this is where a lot of times these are very narrow and exclusionary definitions that basically eliminate entire groups of the population from consideration and from the full rights.
As a protest movement there is nothing wrong with populism. But once it enters government harbor it takes those two basic claims and transforms them into an attack on the formal institutions of liberal democracy as being corrupt and unresponsive.
So you see the real danger of it in exclusion of the people, that the government start to behave as not inclusive for all people who live in the country, not all citizens, but do some kind of discrimination, increase the inequality and similar things?
I think that’s one danger, entire groups of the population not seen as “good people”, as loyal to the party, and becoming disregarded in policy process. That’s one problem. I think the bigger problem though is both these undermining of formal institutions of democracy and disregard for the informal values that underpin democracy. So there is a disregard for toleration, there is a disregard for respecting the opposition, there is a disregard for freedom of speech, all these things that make democracy – liberal democracy.
And moving a bit to Ukraine. Ukraine is surrounded by very bad regimes…
..both autocratic and populistic. Those are Russia, Belarus, Turkey, Hungary, Poland and other countries bordering with Ukraine. There are a lot of bad examples for the young democracy to follow. But probably the most hurting vector of development for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people is the examples of Poland and Hungary. Right now, Ukraine for several years struggling on its way to EU, with which we signed the association agreement. For a very long time reforms in Hungary and Poland were the examples for Ukraine to follow and how to achieve economic growth and economic prosperity for the population. How come these successful post-communist countries are now regarded as populist and have populist regimes… and how these successors became a bad example for Ukraine and dingy partners for EU?
I think all these new democracies have the same problem and that is the problem of finding new and politically capable leaders. Across Eastern Europe, whether it is Ukraine or Poland, or Russia, or Hungary, there is the same problem, where there aren’t enough political alternatives. Political parties are the creatures of the individuals, they don’t have an institutional backing, they don’t work on developing organizations, they don’t work on developing programs, they don’t work above all on developing roots in society. It means that they are very weak. And when the new elections come and voters have already tried out two or three of the main options, those parties have no way of holding on to their voters. Voters would just keep moving from the one party to the next, from one president to the next, from one leader to the next. And eventually they get to populist ones, and that’s the main problem. That’s one that’s affecting all of these countries.
Voters would just keep moving from the one party to the next, from one president to the next, from one leader to the next. And eventually they get to populist ones, and that’s the main problem.
Is it connected to the region or is it connected to the “young democracies”, undeveloped? Because there is some notion that there’s a kind of Slavic way of doing things: “They like tsar or emperor, ‘strong hand’” or whatever and this is kind of natural paternalistic way of thinking, way of doing things in the government.
No, no, I don’t agree with that at all. I think there are three things involved. One is that there is the problem with the new democracies, where it takes a while to develop political parties that have roots in societies. Two – it is a problem of post–communist democracies. It is difficult to convince people who have lived under a much hated Communist Party that political parties are something good and that it’s something that we want to welcome in our lives. And third – it is a problem of young post-communist democracies in the 21st century. The political parties (Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats in Western Europe) were founded at the end of the 19th century, when it made sense to develop kindergartens and schools, and women’s auxiliaries, and court societies, and funeral services, and all within the same party – to win the electoral support. These days political campaigns are conducted via the Internet and via the media and there is the sense in which money is needed more than roots in society. So in the 21st century political entrepreneurs organize political parties that focus much more on media presence and getting money rather than convincing people that they are staying behind them and that they are willing to help them out, and that they want and seek their opinions.
These days political campaigns are conducted via the Internet and via the media and there is the sense in which money is needed more than roots in society.
Going closely to Poland and Hungary… They were really successful. Was their success produced by this current failure? Is the current status a product of the previous successes?
I think indirectly it is, because these earlier successes were made possible by an elite consensus on how important democratic freedoms were, on how important the free market was, on how important joining the European Union was. And there were very few critical voices. As a result of that, a lot of these elites did grow complacent. I mean the Socialists in Hungary basically felt they couldn’t do anything. Platforma in Poland – similarly, they felt they had convinced the people. And so as a result of this consensus, on the one hand you have mainstream parties that grow complacent and on the other hand the only critics of the consensus are populist parties, protest parties, fairly nasty nationalist conservative parties. And they are the ones who basically either gain power or who change how other parties do business. So the rise of populism in Poland and Hungary is tied to the very consensus that produces free market and democratic reforms. They were the main opposition. They were the only guys in town.
What is actually making Hungary and Poland regarded as populist regimes? It is easy to understand what populism in opposition means. But when you are already in power, what makes you think about the government as populistic?
Well, they’re populist governments because they are led by populist parties. And both Fidesz and PiS have made the same set of claims that the entire post-1989 democratic system is simply a corrupt fruit of collusion between communist elites on the one hand and liberal elites on the other. It has to be rebuilt from the bottom up, all these institutions have to be now brought under the political control to better reflect the will of the nation. Both these parties have divided their citizens into better and worse kind of citizens, those who support them and those who don’t. And both of them have tried to show a very exclusionary view of what it means to be Polish or Hungarian by excluding even consideration of accepting their quote of refugees or even thinking beyond their definition of nationhood – basically white Christian and having lived in the region for the long time.
Both these parties have divided their citizens into better and worse kind of citizens, those who support them and those who don’t. And both of them have tried to show a very exclusionary view of what it means to be Polish or Hungarian.
In one of your lectures you mentioned that populist parties usually have a very thin ideological basis. Do the Hungarian and Polish populist parties have that basis, or are they the same creatures?
I think they have both joined their populist claims to a sort of very conservative nationalist religiously based ideology. They are basically conservative populist parties. In Slovakia you see left wing populist parties, in the Czech Republic you see centrist ones that make their claims on both sides over the political spectrum. In Latin America you often have left side populism, in Europe you tend to have right. But the core of these two claims, that the elites are bad and the people are good, distinguishes them as populist parties.
If we are talking about this Eastern Europe in particular, there is a lot of evidence of mutual cross borders support between populists. Hungary and Poland agreed to oppose the EU if something happens on them, Russia supported populists at elections in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, supported Marine Le Pen… So there is a lot of mutual support. Is it sustainable? Is it a kind of new trend and we can expect something like the International of the 19th century, but this time between the populists?
I don’t think so, because when it comes to Russia’s role, Russia’s entire point is to destabilize Europe and you know everything from Ukraine in 2014 to the election of Marine Le Pen has been designed to destabilize Europe. Their only point is that they want to fracture EU, to affect suffrage in EU, make them unable to do anything. So it is entirely transactional, there is no ideological component there other than maintaining Russian dominance or at least its current position. When it comes to the relationship between Poland and Hungary that’s transactional too, it is basically a mutual protection pact. All they care about is that they won’t get kicked out of the EU and they won’t get sanctioned by the EU. Their mutual veto prevents that. But to be honest, is there any great love between these parties? No, there isn’t. I mean maybe Zeman (president of Czech Republic) in his drunken haze actually does like Putin, but certainly Putin himself has absolutely no respect or affection for any of these people. He uses them very instrumentally.
Russia’s entire point is to destabilize Europe and you know everything from Ukraine in 2014 to the election of Marine Le Pen has been designed to destabilize Europe. Their only point is that they want to fracture EU, to affect suffrage in EU, make them unable to do anything.
And do you believe it will be sustainable or some external factors can shake this union?
I think Putin will continue to attempt to fragment Europe by any means necessary and populism is just one of the ways. I think if there was some international crisis that somehow reminded both United States and the European Union of the need for unity, it would certainly be one way to neutralize this.
Ukrainian populism is looking different to the Hungarian, Polish, or Western European one, but it is closer to the Latin American and Greek ones. Ukraine is not a welfare state, there is no huge problem with the migration, etc., and there is a huge inequality between the broad population and the elites. You cannot even blame politicians that they are saying something irrelevant because it is really so. And Latin America is a perfect example of the problem, where almost the whole continent is caught by this narrative. What is the current situation there?
Well, you have Maduro in Venezuela, but I think we can no longer talk about populism there. We are talking about growth of incompetence that’s not even an attribute of any kind of populist claims; it is just basically an economy and politics in a free fall. There’s a case in Ecuador, there is a very popular populist candidate running in the Mexican elections. And to some extent that’s what is happening in Ukraine, that’s what is happening in Greece, there’s the sense of countries where there is wider inequality and there isn’t much effort to address it. Populism takes on these redistributive forms and makes redistributive claims where there is an attempt to readdress these problems; populism wants to protect what’s already there and it wants to prevent the welfare state from being attacked by either emigrants or by political parties.
What is the current state in the Latin America compared to historical perspective? Is the level of populism lower right now or higher?
It is actually lower now. On the one hand, overall support for populist parties is higher in Latin America, because the mainstream parties are much weaker and less able to counteract. On the other hand, there has definitely been a decline over the last 5 to 10 years in the overall levels of populism in Latin America and it is partly because it simply doesn’t work. I mean it is simply a self–extinguishing political formula, because claims of endless distributions can’t be sustained.
There has definitely been a decline over the last 5 to 10 years in the overall levels of populism in Latin America and it is partly because it simply doesn’t work.
So the population at elections just punishes them for inefficiency…
Is this the most effective way to confront?
For a distributive populism – yes. I mean the beauty of the problem with redistributive populism is that it makes a set of claims that your life will be better because we are going to reattribute from the elites and they very rarely accomplished that. Right wing populism is more tenacious because the claim is we are defending the nation. And it is much harder to establish a standard for what it means to defend the nation. Those are more pernicious populists than the left wing variety.
There was a really good joke in the Ukrainian Facebook, in one of the threads related to the situation in Venezuela, there was some article with the description of the horrible situation happening there and one of the commentators said that – now you can imagine what will happen if our populists come to power. And the other replied that Ukraine is safe, don’t worry, because Ukrainian populists are just not going to execute their slogans. So, contrary to the Venezuelan example, how often do populists change their minds once they are in power? Does it change their popularity? What happens to them?
So, what constrains them is the economic crisis and international organizations. For example Carlos Menem (former president of Argentina) had a populist economic program, with which he ran for office. But due to economic crisis he was forced to implement austerity rules, because otherwise he wouldn’t get the economic support that he needed (from international financial organizations). So those kinds of things narrow the options for populist parties. But in general you know once they gain power they tend to try to implement what they were elected on. And there is a difference between right wing and left wing populism, because for right wing populism parties it is much easier to implement their program, it is much easier to shut up your borders, scream against immigrants, erode democratic institutions. It is much harder to actually redistribute land and resources to poor people who need it.
And there is a difference between right wing and left wing populism, because for right wing populism parties it is much easier to implement their program, it is much easier to shut up your borders, scream against immigrants, erode democratic institutions.
So Ukraine has a chance even …In a bad case scenario…
There is always a chance I think…
Based on the examples of Latin America, we think that populists in power tend to reorganize themselves into an autocratic regime. Not only in Latin America; but in Latin America there are so many remarkable examples when only a military coup could drive these guys out of power. What is the set of solutions to oppose populist regimes, especially for young democracies? Because the military coup is definitely not the thing you want to see in your country.
Well, I think it takes a civic society that is willing to recognize that it is in danger, I think it takes political alternatives that recognize why the people are so angry, and above all I think it takes a lot of consorted organized action. And the problem of course is that it’s the lack of that organization and the lack of those collective actions that brought that populism to power in the first place. So civil society and political parties have to organize themselves in the most difficult circumstances, but that is the only solution.
Can you beat populists with populism? Populist leaders are often very bright individuals with outstanding charisma, saying what the people want them to say. Can you beat them with their own weapon at the elections?
I think it is a gangster escape. Because then once you get elected into office either you live up to those promises, in which case you then have to implement even a worse program, or you don’t live up to those promises, in which case you have just betrayed your electors and you get voted out of power. I think what is really, really important is that it’s simply not enough to point it out to people that your current government is horrible and you are stupid if you support it. I think you have to rely on arguments, facts and persuasion, on accountability and on convincing people that you don’t have a government that cares about them. And I think it is the hardest part. The reason that populism is so popular is precisely because voters are sick and tired of political parties and their leaders who don’t listen to them and so on. You have to convince people that there are political actors who care very much about them, who will continue to be responsible, and accountable.
The reason that populism is so popular is precisely because voters are sick and tired of political parties and their leaders who don’t listen to them and so on.
And probably the last question. You said that civil society is a key – a key institute to oppose populism. What other important institutions have to be defended once populists are already in power?
I think the first one is the judiciary, the entire court system, the entire system of appeal, of judicial review, of judicial oversight. Because that is the main independent center of power that can constrain governments, especially governments in liberal systems. Secondly, the other institutions that have to be protected are the press and the media. Democracy cannot function without freedom of speech, freedom of press and freedom of information. Those are the most critical institutions. And civil society can concentrate its efforts on trying to protect them or at least to remind people that the populist government has violated those standards that protect these institutions, that those standards are not met by the populist parties.
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