Political Capital presents its report aiming to better understand, raise awareness of and respond to populism in Poland and Hungary. Together with our partners from Poland, the Institute of Public Affairs, we conducted research on the drivers of deep social and political divisions, and we organized activities with civil society and disenfranchised populations. Social and political polarization is one of the gravest threats to liberal democracy in Central Europe and the existence of the European Union. While divisions are primarily driven by political actors, social attitudes might also help us understand the state of democracy in these two countries.
In our report, which is the first of its kind, we tried to reveal the “demand side” of populism. We wanted to examine how populist politicians in power can do the magic trick: mobilizing their electorate with anti-elite messages while being the political elite themselves? How can they keep their voter bases happy and who is resonating with their way of governance? And what can be the broader, long-term impact of their policies?
We started to research populism, but we found something more malevolent and dangerous: tribalism – an authoritarian, anti-pluralistic approach to politics that can turn violent as well. Tribalism strongly undermines democratic processes, as it makes following the leader of the tribe and defeating the other tribe almost the only goal of politics. It undermines political debates and puts reality in parenthesis. While it seems to be more of a zeitgeist than only a regional phenomenon, tribalism can be especially destructive for democratic institutions in Central and Eastern European countries, where democratic institutions are young, fragile and democratic norms are weaker.
What do our results tell us about populism in Hungary and Poland?
- Socio-demographic indicators predict receptivity to populism very poorly. Party preference trumps all other factors. Contrary to common wisdom, right-wing populism is much more about the circus than about the bread.
- There is an obvious difference between populism in government and populism in opposition: they see the elite elsewhere.While populists in opposition are concerned with the national elite (and mainly the government), populists in government rather channel social discontent towards international elites (and their domestic allies). Pro-government voters in Poland and Hungary see the national parliament as trustworthy, but do not regard the European Parliament the same way.
- Populism in these countries is all over the spectrum: not only the supporters of populist parties are open to populist narratives. We have found left-wing and liberal parties with similarly strong black and white views on politics to the electorate of the two governing parties.
- People-centrism (a reference to the will of the people as the final source of legitimacy) is weak among the supporters of parties claiming to be the sole representative of “the people”— among voters of PiS and Fidesz.
- “Tribalism” as a term can better describe the dangers in these societies than “populism.” Tribalism is about rallying around the leader of the tribe and rejecting the other tribe.This is the combination of Manichean, black and white narratives that divide the world between good and evil and authoritarianism that puts trust in a strong leader. Tribalists are more likely to support political violence as a tool and are also more likely to reject political pluralism. The proportion of tribalists is 10% in Hungary and 15% in Poland. Tribalists are overrepresented on the governmental side, especially in Hungary: 59 % of tribalists would vote for Fidesz.
- A significant portion of these societies supports a strong leader instead of elected politicians. This ratio is higher in Poland (35%) than in Hungary (26%), though.Authoritarian populism leads to increasing tribalism in these societies.This phenomenon can be especially dangerous in Central and Eastern Europe, where “populist establishments” can transform and re-write the whole socio-political setting.