New populist leaders from countries in Central Eastern Europe gain support in the European Union. Contrary to expectations, their countries perform better in policies than their governance quality would suggest. What does that mean for the forthcoming European Parliament elections?
The widespread assumption that good governance and high quality of democracy lead to better policy outcomes may hold true for many countries but by far not for all. The 2018 report of the Bertelsmann Stiftung's Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) notifies that "all Eastern European countries (...) achieve better political results than their governance quality would suggest". In other words, despite democratic backsliding and political polarization, even countries like Hungary, Poland and Romania get better scores on the level of policy outcomes than the evaluation of the quality of institutions would render it probable.
And the SGI report notifies another very important fact: Decreasing quality of democracy does not immediately lead to less citizen's confidence in the government. The report comes to the conclusion, "that fundamental democratic values are not sufficiently anchored in the political consciousness of a considerable part of society." High quality of trust into governments with poor rule-of-law scores is mainly observed in Central and Eastern countries (CEE) – and Turkey, which will be left aside here. But what are the root causes of this state in many CEE countries? It would be foolish to throw all responsibility to governmental influence on media, state capture of the public sector or disinformation campaigns – all of them have their impact, but the origins of this phenomenon have to be searched in different places.
Own way is best
Even though the countries are as different as their paths of democratization (and its decline), there are a couple of common features. Firstly, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland or Andrej Babiš in the Czech Republic have all questioned the transformation process of the 1990s. They have marked the import of economic liberalism and some political attitudes (but not the whole process of democratization) as a failure that served primarily the interests of new political and economic elites and therefore must be undone or corrected. Such political messages understandably attracted a significant electorate of the losers of the economic transformation processes. It is not an accident that the national-conservative and right-wing populist parties Fidesz in Hungary and Law and Justice in Poland have high support in economically underdeveloped and peripheral areas.
Secondly, though the general economic performance and wealth had been improving since 1990, some people still felt left behind. Mainly the social policies were perceived as underdeveloped by the public and the new governments partly succeeded in filling this gap. A study of the Polish Public opinion research center CBOS for example shows how the activities of the state towards the family were assessed over time: from mid 1990s till 2013, only around 10 percent of the respondents rated the state's policy towards families as good or very good. Since the Law and Justice government came to power and introduced a program of subsidies for families with two or more children, the public rating of government's family policies rocketed. In 2016 and 2017 around 50 percent assessed it as good or very good, 35 percent as sufficient and only 10 percent as poor. In other social policy areas, however, in particular education policies, Law and Justice hasn't been equally successful. An educational reform was, among other things, broadly criticized for too much centralization and the quality of education is perceived as worse as it was before.
Thirdly, the identity politics also plays its role in keeping the high ratings of the governments support in some CEE countries. Political leaders have exploited the so-called refugee crisis in Europe for consolidation of their popularity. Picturing of refugees as a security threat became a political mainstream and politicians like Slovakian Robert Fico, Orbán, or Babiš have spread the message that their firm attitude of zero tolerance would stop migration. Moreover, their political narrative included also islamophobia and bashing of the Western European countries for policies of tolerance and solidarity. It has to be noted, that politicians and vast majority of public are on the same page in this view.
Confronted with an East-West divide
Leaders of CEE countries are aware of the great confidence they enjoy among citizens. They are also backed by good economic performance. Though nothing should be taken granted in politics – the next general elections could change the current political course at least in some countries like Poland and Slovakia –, growing self-confidence among CEE leaders have implications for the EU.
More generous social policies make people feel that they are being seen and recognized by national leaders. Moreover, the assertive foreign policy creates distinction with previous political elites which rather followed the Western European (development) model. In EU politics, the division between some CEE countries on one side and the European institutions and some Western European countries on the other side regarding compulsory relocation quotas of asylum-seekers and the reform of EU's migration policies still resonates. CEE countries, especially the Visegrad Group, see these policies as a threat for their identities, for they believe that the "policies of multiculturalism" would ruin Central European societies, value systems and cultures – as it allegedly happened in Western Europe.
With the so-called refugee crisis, the enlargement fatigue, a feeling in some member states, including France and Germany, that the major round of accessions in 2004 had weakened the EU, has transformed into an East-West divide. The East is presenting itself as a confident player with new leaders who are not connected with the liberal transformation and meet the expectations of the public to speak out at EU level. The quarrel started with migration policies, but it spills over into a broader cultural conflict. Central European leaders win additional points for saying that this part of Europe is different (that is to say better) than Western Europe, which is not going to be emulated anymore. This East-West fragmentation (as the North-South divide on austerity) will play a significant role in the run-up to the 2019 European Parliament elections in May. It will be difficult to put the European puzzle together again, since CEE leaders are not expected to lose public trust in the months to come.