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Tuesday, April 4 2017
Populism Is About National Identity
The rise of populist parties in Europe should not be so eaily dismissed. And European history should not be ignored.
Populism is the talk of the day in Europe. Populist or semi-populist parties, Right and Left, currently rule Hungary, Greece, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia. Brexit, the referendum that terminated in 2016 Britain’s membership in the EU, was initiated by UKIP, a populist party barred from Westminster by the British first past the post domestic electoral system but #1 among the proportionally elected British Euro-MPs. Polls see Marine Le Pen, the populist leader with a Far Right background, as a powerful contender in the coming French presidential election. They signal at the same time the emergence of a Leftwing populist candidate, Jean-Luc Mélanchon. Podemos, a Leftwing populist party, is overcoming the traditional socialist Left in Spain. Populist parties play a prominent role in Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries.
In a nutshell, populism can be defined as a binary and somehow paranoid wordview, positing that ordinary citizens, « the people », have been « betrayed » by a « system » of alien or predatory « elites ». It is hardly a new proposition. Many revolutions and many counter-revolutions have been conducted along such lines in the past. It was the predicament of the European totalitarian movements in the 20th century. It still is an essential tenet of Islamic totalitarian or semi-totalitarian movements today.
Still, there is something special about present day European populism. Old populism was frequently linked to economic hardship : chronic poverty, depression, unemployment. Present day populism is spreading in a globally wealthy environment. As the American 2015 Nobel Prize laureate Angus Deaton and the Israeli best-selling philosopher Yuval Noah Harari insist, « the world is a better place than it used to be » - a much better place. 80 % of the 2 billion people of 1945 lived in squalid conditions as compared to 70 % of the 7,5 billion people of 2017 in terms of health, life expectancy, food, shelter, hygiene, education, travel, entertainment, and, last but not least, personal safety. As Harari says, most humans today are more likely to die of obesity than of hunger and war. And what is true worldwide is especially true in Europe, including the former Communist Eastern Europe. How comes then than so many Westerners feel « betrayed » nevertheless ? My guess is that populism has less to do with material well being than with immaterial goods like national identity and cultural homogeneity. This was already the case in the past ; all the more so today.
Let us consider two emblematic populist countries : Rightwing Hungary and Leftwing Greece.
Hungary was the first country in the European Union to turn to radical populism in 2010. With a 3 % GDP growth rate, it was not exactly an economic failure within the EU. However, it was getting increasingly uncomfortable with increasingly utopian EU policies – including on issues like immigration and the Islamization of Europe - that were seen as threats to national independence and national identity. And by what many observers, including committed Europhiles, call Europe’s democracy deficit : the fact that important EU policies are not decided democratically, by elected representatives and elected officials, but rather by a non-elected supranational bureaucracy in Brussels. Viktor Orban, a former pro-EU conservative prime minister, seized the moment and won a huge majority as a populist. He was reelected in 2015 with an even larger majority.
The issue of national identity is extremely important in Hungary. Its unique language, Magyar, is more related to Turkish than to the Indo-European idioms. It was for centuries a border zone between Christendom and Islam, with Catholic Magyars siding with Catholic Austria, and Calvinist Magyars siding with the Ottomans. It used to be in the late 19th century and the early 20th century a thriving and liberal Kingdom, associated under the Habsburg Double Monarchy compromise of 1867 with the Austrian Empire.
Even more relevant were the 20th century’s traumatic upheavals. While many European Empires or States were dissolved or amputated after World War I, Hungary was truncated. Under the Treaty of Trianon, in 1920, it lost two thirds of its prewar territory, while one third of its ethnic population (3,3 million out of 11) was alloted to Rumania, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Ever since then, territorial revisionism and irredentism have been self-evident propositions for the Hungarians, just the way the Catholic Irish take it for granted that their Island must be « reunited » one day.
Another trauma is related to World War II. Admiral Miklos Horthy, who ruled as a Regent from 1920 to 1944, saw no alternative to aligning economically and geopolitically with the Third Reich in a German-dominated Europe (and used that connection to reclaim some of the territories lost in 1920). However, he kept Hungary as independent and « unfascist » as possible. And while he passed anti-Jewish legislation and even, after 1941, countenanced some atrocities, he sheltered about one million Hungarian Jews, and even some non-Hungarian Jews, from the Holocaust, until he was removed by an invading German army in March 1944. Many Hungarians see him accordingly as a « Righteous Gentile » of sorts, just the way many Catholics see Pope Pius XII. And they take as self-evident, again, that they should be collectively honored, rather than blamed or vilified, for their role throughout that period. A feeling reinforced by the fact that a routine denunciation of Horthy’s « fascist regime » was the main excuse for the much more totalitarian Soviet-imposed Communist regime from 1944 to 1989, and – to mention third an equally lasting trauma - for the suppression of the democratic insurrection of 1956.
This is the context for Orban’s, and it cannot be dismissed so easily. Indeed, one may be concerned about the authoritarian constitutional revisions and reforms that Orban has passed since 2010, or about Hungary’s drift, in international matters, towards Putin’s Russia. Even more worrisome is the rise, on Orban’s right, of Jobbik, an explicitly racist and anti-Semitic party. However, one cannot heal an illness without assessing its causes fully.
On the face of it, Greek Letwing populism seems really to be what populism is not in most other EU countries : the result of disastrous economics. A member of the European Union since 1981 and of the Eurozone since 2001, Greece is bankrupt since 2010 and has been subsequently plagued by negative growth. However, these misfortunes took place after twenty years of prosperity within the EU framework. One wonders, then, who is really to blame – and who is to be trusted ? Did the Greeks recklessly waste the EU bonanza ? Did the Europeans fail to understand the particular situation of Greece ? And once they realized what was really going on there, did they overreact ?
Behind the inconsistent Greek behavior, there is, just like in Hungary, a traumatic history. On the one hand, modern Greece is the heir of both Old Greece – the craddle of European civilization, philosophy, science and democracy – and the Byzantine Empire who in turn generated the Orthodox Christian civilization, from the Balkans to Russia and Siberia. On the other hand, it belongs much more to the Middle East than to Europe.
One half of present-day Hellenic Republic was Ottoman until 1912. 40 % of the present Greeks are the descendants of the 1,5 million Mikrasiatiki or Asia Minor Greeks expelled by Kemalist Turkey in 1922 and of the further 300 000 Istanbul Greeks who hastily left their homeland thirty-years later, in 1955, after a three days long pogrom. While the « European Greeks » worked hard to welcome the « Asiatic » refugees, there was a lot of tension and misunderstanding between the two communities, and even latent or open civil wars between an « European » Right and an « Asiatic » Left : the republican revolution of 1924, the royalist restoration of 1935, the communist rebellion of 1946, the colonels coup of 1967. Not to mention the colonels’ failed attempt to « reunite » Cyprus with the Motherland, in 1974, which led to a Turkish invasion of Northern Cyprus, a new wave of refugees, and the military regime’s downfall.
Both the Greek Right and the Left came, to quote James Kirchick’s recent book, The End of Europe, to « consider the State a public through to be seized by one’s political clan for the dolling out of privilèges exclusively to their clients ». And what they understood as « democracy » , at least since 1974, was chiefly for the main clans, the conservative New Democracy party and the socialist Pasok, to alternate and to thus to share the spoils as fairly as possible. The traditional Greek political Establishment eventually squeezed in the wake of the 2008 crisis, like Bernard Madoff when his fraud pyramid collapsed, between their promises to their constituents and the requirements of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF. Populist, anti-Establishment parties soared : from Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, led by Alexis Tsipras, an ex-communist activist, to Golden Dawn, a neo-Fascist group nostalgic of the 1967-1974 « colonels regime ». Finally, by January, 2015, Syriza won a majority in the Vouli, Athens parliament, with a straightforward platform : Europe, and especially Germany, Europe’s leading power, who had submitted Greece to a harsh occupation from 1941 to 1944, owed more to Greece than Greece to Europe.
Tsipras was able to blackmail Brussels into a compromise : a modified reform program at home against a renewed foreign aid. Moreover, he was clever and resolute enough, this being achieved, to get rid of his most fanatical supporters, call a snap election, and come back to the Vouli with an even larger majority. It remains to be seen how successful he can be in the long run. However, the EU should think twice about the global Greek background. The implicit European commitment, when it offered European and then Eurozone membership to Greece, was to help it move back from the Middle East to the West in the name of his enormous earlier contributions to the Western and Christian cvilization. Whatever the costs involved. Tsipras’ populism is above all a reminder of such promises.
© Michel Gurfinkiel, 2017
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