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BOOK EXPLORES NEW POPULISM IN SLOVAKIA AND CENTRAL EUROPE

Purifiers, reformists and charlatans

INEXPERIENCED politicians, skilled social networkers, idealists, but also pseudo-visionaries, wannabe corruption-fighters and radicals have filled the national parliaments of (not only) central European countries in recent years. That trend has grown even more apparent as economic crisis hit. How do such candidates, often appearing out of the blue, manage to win the hearts and minds of enough people to enter mainstream politics and change the political landscape of their countries?

INEXPERIENCED politicians, skilled social networkers, idealists, but also pseudo-visionaries, wannabe corruption-fighters and radicals have filled the national parliaments of (not only) central European countries in recent years. That trend has grown even more apparent as economic crisis hit. How do such candidates, often appearing out of the blue, manage to win the hearts and minds of enough people to enter mainstream politics and change the political landscape of their countries?

Such is the subject of Alternative Politics?, a book from the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) pondering the rise of new parties in central Europe that follows up on an international conference held in Bratislava in September 2012.

The book, which is a product of cooperation between political scientists and sociologists from all four Visegrad region countries, explores the phenomenon of what is deemed “new populism”. Comparing the political development in these countries in the past three years, the authors show that in this respect the countries of the region confirm their mutual cultural proximity also in their political culture. Public life soaked in corruption, a poorly performing justice system, weaker liberal traditions, and a history of anti-Semitism and negative attitudes towards Roma are cited among the elements that provide fertile soil for populism branded as ‘alternative politics’ to flourish.

“Most new parties that have appeared in central European democracies are ‘purifiers’ who react to the wide-spread corruption and political clientelism and the ensuing voter dissatisfaction, disenchantment and frustration,” Zora Bútorová and Oľga Gyarfášová write in their chapter ‘Fatal Attraction of Alternative Politics’.

The new populism, or ‘alternative politics’, has emerged throughout Europe in recent years – with Italy and Austria both singled out as examples in the book – but in central Europe it takes a specific form. In the introductory chapter to the book, Martin Bútora quotes Ivan Krastev who considered central Europe “the capital of new populism”, and described “the new, electoral version of Molotov cocktail” as consisting, among others, of authentic anger, unrestrained hatred of the elites, policy vagueness, cultural conservatism, declared nationalism, undeclared xenophobia and anti-corruption rhetoric.

The authors of the following chapters indeed unveil many of these features in the parties that emerged in the Visegrad Group around the beginning of this decade. In Slovakia, Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), Ordinary People and Independent Personalities movement (OĽaNO), and Most-Híd are mentioned as examples. The Czech case study features the TOP 09 and Public Affairs (VV) parties, while in Poland it is the Palikot movement and in Hungary Jobbik and Politics Can Be Different (LMP).

What might be perceived as the indisputable success of these parties is that they all made it in mainstream politics, in their respective national parliaments, despite – or perhaps because of – featuring radical opinions and personalities. This has a knock-on effect in their country’s respective national politics and, in the end, on larger European politics. Having said this, one should note that the phenomenon of alternative politics is here to stay at least for a while, and deserves the researchers’ attention and the voters’ caution.

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