Anti-immigration and populist messages awe European masses

DEU130903JC010BUDAPEST, Hungary —Prime Minister Victor Orban has garnered criticism for undermining the judiciary, compromising press freedoms and demonizing refugees – critics have even described him as a dictator.

But Vilmos Nagy, a grad student of political science at Corvinus University of Budapest, was happy when Orban won a fourth term in office in April.

“Having a strong leader for a country like Hungary is important,” said Nagy, 40. “Someone strong has a greater ability to ensure our interests.”

In recent years, voters throughout the European Union have elected rightwing, populist, charismatic strongmen who are often compared to President Donald Trump.

But the populist gains don't mean that citizens are turning their backs on democracy, according to a study published last month by the Austrian Society for European Policy.

In a survey of voters in the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia, Slovenia and Hungary – most of which already have strong rightwing governments – respondents increasingly preferred strongmen personalities to lead their nations but still hold steadfast to democratic ideals.

In Hungary, for example, 88 percent of those surveyed said that it's at least important to have a strongman leading the nation.

At the same time, over 90 percent of people in all five countries surveyed said that an independent judiciary, a pillar of democracies around the world, is important.

The strange paradox is partly a reaction to Europe's so-called refugee crisis in 2015, which served as the "tipping point" for the electoral success of many parties in these countries with strongmen leaders at their helm, said Olaf Boehnke, a senior advisor with Rasmussen Global, a Brussels-based think tank.

In Hungary, for example, Orban honed in on the ills that migration would bring to the largely homogenous nation in April's election campaign, even proclaiming at a rally just before the poll that "countries that don't stop immigration will be lost." The call resonated with voters, who delivered his Fidesz party and its conservative coalition partner an absolute majority in the nation's parliament.

In Austria, where the survey found that 58 percent of the people wanted a strong leader, a far-right government unexpectedly swept to power in 2017's election on promises to rein in immigration and preserve the cultural traditions of the "homeland." Rightwing forces with similar messages emerged victorious in elections in Slovenia and Italy this year as well.

Even in Germany, often considered the nation in Europe most resistant to populist forces and charismatic leaders due to its Nazi past, the rightwing, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany entered parliament for the first time in 2017 with 12.6 percent of the vote – making it the nation's largest opposition party.

Voters in the Western world have long been disenchanted with the status quo – a key factor in Trump’s win in 2016 – according to a recent study by Rasmussen Global.

Published last month, the study of 125,000 people across 50 countries revealed that over two-thirds of respondents living in democracies believed their governments either rarely or never act in the public interest.

Though immigration to Europe served as the springboard for these parties to gain a foothold in established democracies, failures of more mainstream parties to address the concerns of the public also led to their rise, said Boehnke.

"The one thing that's most important is that you have to take the concerns of people seriously, even if reality is different from what people perceive," he said. "Politicians shouldn't try to cover up the deficits and the imperfections of democracy."

But make no mistake, strongmen in many Eastern and Central European countries have gamed their systems, said Boehnke. "These strongmen understand where the weak spots are that they can use to increase power,” he said.

In Hungary, Orban has been accused by global watchdogs of weakening the nation's judiciary and free press. A recent piece of legislation also heavily taxed civil society organizations that work with refugees.

Hungarian music composer Attila Szervác, 44, doesn't like the trend.

“The government projects false problems to the destitute masses, such as inciting hatred towards foreigners,” he said. “This is targeted against a few hundred miserable refugees coming from various war zones. It is claimed that the efforts made to integrate them are the main reason 40% of the Hungarian population lives in deep poverty.”

In Poland, another EU country led by a rightwing movement, the ruling Law and Justice Party recently forced out 40 percent of the nation's 72 Supreme Court justices and increased the total number of those sitting on the bench to 120 – allowing the government to stack the judiciary.

But such shifts don't paint the whole picture. According to the Austrian Society for European Policy survey, more than 90 percent of all those in the five Eastern and Central European countries polled believe democracy and human rights are important.

After all, citizens took to the streets recently after Poland's judicial reforms, and the suspicious murder of journalist Jan Kuciak in Slovakia earlier this year, who was reporting on state corruption in the highest levels of government, also drew public outcry.

Such engagement is positive, said Boehnke, because it's not just strongmen politicians, but citizens' apathy for democracy, that poses the real threat.
"Populists tend to hijack the rules," he said. "At some point, society has to acknowledge that if you want to live in a system and keep your rights, do something."

Photo: August 31, 2013 - Berlin, Germany - Anti-fascist activists hand out fliers and keep watch over a home for asylum seekers in the Berlin working class district of Marzahn Hellersdorf. The refugee home has come up against stiff opposition from locals and protests by the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD).
Credit: Jennifer Collins/ ARA Network Inc. (08/31/13)

Story/photo published date: 07/16/18

A version of this story was published in USA Today.
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