Danger of rising populism throughout the world

Viktoriia Sokolenko, Blogger

Although often perceived as an inseparable part of modern politics, populism can lead to unexpected far-reaching consequences. The populist governments in Hungary and Poland, for example, are known for limiting the political freedom and the rights of minorities. In Western Europe, populist parties are not mainstream, but still contribute to one of the biggest modern issues — low vaccination rates — by adopting anti-vaccine mandate rhetoric.

Usually, the politicians that earn themselves the name of “populists” build their campaign on big, but rarely feasible promises. The conventional definition, though, states that populists present themselves as the representatives of the will of the people, fighting against the elite, often embodied by the government. Even if populist parties are the government, they still claim to maintain their “authenticity” and remain one of “us” — part of common people. 

When Poland and Hungary joined the EU in 2004, their people quickly accepted common European heritage, associating it, as many citizens of the post-communist countries, with the social stability and economic prosperity. However, over the time, the governments’ vision of EU integration became more and more focused on economical collaboration and less on the progressive human rights reforms.

In 2010, Viktor Orbán was re-elected as the prime-minister of Hungary, and his party Fidesz got the supermajority (⅔) in the parliament. Five years later in Poland, the Law and Justice party regained the majority of the seats in the Polish parliament, and their candidate Andrzej Duba was elected as the president. It was during their ruling that Hungary and Poland became characterized by nationalism, populism, and an increasingly autocratic government. Experts named them illiberal democracies – a term coined by Orbán himself. 

The courts and the media in Hungary and Poland are filled with people loyal to the government, and the work of independent or opposition institutions and non-governmental organizations is hampered by the arbitrary tax investigations. In Hungary, public procurement procedures are often corrupt, allowing Orbán’s cronies to enjoy their share of state money. Both countries have challenged the EU human rights ideas as they passed legislation aimed against LGBTQ+ communities, and Poland adopted one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe. 

One of the main characteristics of the populist parties, including Fidesz and Law and Justice, is the emphasis on the existence of “the people,” represented by those parties. Such an idea pushed to an extreme can lead to the imaginary distinction between the “real people” (the voters of the party) and those that do not belong there — often the ethnic minorities and  immigrants. In Hungary, for example, Roma communities have long experienced discrimination and poverty, which was further reinforced by the Fidesz party. Recently, for instance, the COVID-19 financial recovery plan did not include any help to the very poor citizens, which usually include Roma. Hungary is also one of the leaders of the anti-immigrant movement in the EU. Orban even initiated the construction of the razor-wire fence on the country’s border with Serbia to “protect the Christian identity of Europe.” 

The strength of far-right populism is especially alarming considering the current COVID-19 pandemic. Although COVID-19 preventive measures are often perceived as a left/right issue in the United States, in Western and Central Europe it is more likely to be the issue of mainstream (traditional) and populist (radical) parties. The populist distinction between the elite and the people has always relied on the distrust of the governments, which became dangerous considering that the government is the one adopting anti-COVID restrictions. 

In 2019, the study in the European Journal of Public Health found a positive correlation between the percentages of populist parties’ voters and vaccine opponents in the country. In several European countries, populist parties, previously focused on the more radical problems, recently adopted the more popular issue — the “illegality” of COVID-19 restrictions. In Austria, for example, the first European country to announce a national vaccine mandate, the far-right Freedom Party organized anti-mandate protests and was publicly criticized by former chancellor Alexander Schallenberg for contributing to low vaccination rates. 

The people’s refusal to trust institutions incited by the populist parties puts the governments around the world in a difficult position as all the various methods to convince those people to vaccinate have not brought the desirable results. The situation got even more complicated in December, when the WHO director Hans Kluge called the vaccine mandates the last resort solution to low vaccination rates, as they might further undermine the trust of the government and might be perceived as evidence of the political elite’s attempt to control the people and infringe on their freedoms.