A Vote for Punishment

What populism in Eastern Europe can tell us about current trends in the West

For Bulgarians in 2001, the lead-up to scheduled elections for June were fairly uneventful. Following the transition from the Communist dictatorship in 1989, Bulgaria was well on the way to economic and political recovery, despite the initial shock. An increasing consolidation of democratic behaviour was blessed with a steadily climbing GDP and standard of living. To the two major political parties, business was usual.

However, just three weeks out from the election, this political orthodoxy was to receive a severe wake-up call. Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the ‘boy King’ of Bulgaria from 1943-1946, returned from his long exile in Spain. Announcing the creation of a new political party and his run for Prime Minister through a speech entitled ‘How I will make Bulgaria better in eight-hundred days’.

As speeches went, it resembled an angry letter more than political rallying point. Simeon passionately decried the inherently corrupt state of Bulgarian factional politics, and accused such behaviour as undermining the moral fabric of Bulgarian society. The cornerstone of the speech was Simeon’s status as a political outsider. As such, Simeon proudly trumpeted that this meant he was best suited for “breaking political cliquism and uniting the Bulgarian nation around our fundamental values that have made it great through the ages”.

He won in a landslide.

Bulgaria wasn’t alone in experiencing such a dramatic electoral twist. Throughout the early 21st century, Eastern Europe was gripped by a wave of populism that thrust inexperienced political outsiders into positions of Governance. From Poland to Romania, the former Soviet bloc witnessed a rise of unorthodox parties, ranging from pro-EU centrists to open neo-fascists. With ideology so widespread, their only common link was their furious contempt for the corruption of conventional politics and their message of national revival.

Does this sound familiar? The era of populist politics throughout Eastern Europe throughout the early 2000s bear unmistakable hallmarks to the current wave of discontent sweeping Western Europe and the United States. This wave of populism is upending the mainstream of the ‘left-right’ spectrum populated by cohesive political parties, replacing it with a free-for-all arena that rewards those that appeal to the great sense of anger among voters. Most notably, the meteoric rise of Donald Trump and the deep polarization exposed by the Brexit referendum stands testament to the widespread trend of anger against the political mainstream.

Understanding the Anger

Can today’s current political climate be better understood by examining the factors that led to the similar populist insurgency across Eastern Europe? At the heart of the Eastern experience of populism was the phenomena of ‘protest voting’, defined as the practice of voting for a party not for the actual content of its electoral message, but in order to punish other parties. A vote for a candidate such as Simeon Saxe-Coburg was to register discontent with the political establishment by rewarding less-guilty outsiders that weren’t tainted by politics. The rhetoric of Trump, which aggressively identifies ‘career politicians’ as the root cause of American stagnation clearly fits this narrative, as does that stickiness of labels such as ‘crooked Hillary’ and ‘Lyin’ Ted’.

But this begs the question- what has made voters so angry as to deliberately trample the establishment?

In Eastern Europe, the public perception of established politicians as inherently corrupt, combined with high levels of regional wealth inequality caused the dramatic rise of anti-establishment hysteria.

The most consistent factor regarding the appeal of unorthodox parties was their firm ‘anti-corruption’ convictions. Despite the successful consolidation of democracy within the former Iron Curtain, numerous high-profile corruption scandals were a regular political feature. Because of  further corruption on the judiciary, the vast majority of cases went unpunished, leaving the average voter to become severely disillusioned and disappointed in the inability of mainstream parties to combat the problem. Voters increasingly saw the established political system as blinded by factional infighting and corruption, and totally inept at dealing with voter concerns for stagnant living standards and lack of economic opportunity.

Populist political parties thus rose on this background of severe public cynicism towards ‘politics as usual’. Irrespective of their specific ideological stance, the platform of unorthodox parties from Poland to Romania was clear. By insisting that the established political system was stagnant and immoral due to a combination of pervasive private interest and career politicians, they soared to prominence. In Poland, the Catholic-Nationalist ‘League of Polish families’ stood on a platform based on returning traditional Polish values to the political scene: restoring ‘morality’ to the Government- a sentiment that was common throughout the region. Even parties such as the far-right ‘Greater Romania party’, which operated on an openly anti-minority platform, maintained anti-corruption rhetoric at the forefront of their ideology.

The parallels between this situation and those in today’s West are immediately clear. Whilst it would be wrong to claim that Western politics is anywhere near as corrupt as its Eastern counterpart, it is self-evident that popular disillusionment with the political mainstream has skyrocketed. A 2012 YouGov poll in the UK found that over 62% of respondents believed that politicians ‘lied all the time’ and could not be trusted. Similar findings throughout the West abound, exposing the deep disconnect between the voters and the elected body. The popularity of anti-establishment figures such as Trump thus rests on their status as opposing symbols to what many voters identify as a stagnant political scene, torn apart by constant partisanship. Trump’s magnetism appeals strongly to voters that have lost faith in the ability of politicians to even pass a cohesive budget, let alone deal with ‘big-picture’ issues such illegal immigration.

The popularity of Trump (and anti-establishment figures in general) rests on their emotional appeal as outsiders, rather than the specifics of their platform. The fact that a large body of Trump supporters don’t even believe that grandiose policies such as the US-Mexico wall will ever be built is testament to this. As with Simeon of Bulgaria, Trump is not popular solely because of his ideas, but because he has positioned himself as a figure that can act decisively in a way that ‘crooked’ politicians cannot.

In addition to this perception of corruption, the phenomena of protest-voting can be traced back to the widespread emergence of regional wealth inequality. Following the collapse of communism in 1989, Eastern Europe experienced rapid privatization, rendering swathes of industrialized areas as ‘economically uncompetitive’. Many were thus stranded without stable employment or opportunity.

In addition, the creation of the new ‘upper class’ from these reforms furthered this divide by creating the (often valid) perception that private interests bore undue influence on politics.  Feeling alienated and outpaced by rapid economic change, and distrustful of a political system that apparently represented the interests of the wealthy at their expense, voters flocked to populist candidates. The nativist and often anti-minority positions espoused by outsider figures found fertile ground in these pockets of decay, where nostalgia for a more secure time was high. To voters in these areas, threats to ‘cultural-homogeneity’ was seen as most pressing by those who had already experienced the negative side of rapid economic and societal change.  Anti-Hungarian sentiment in both Slovakia and Romania went hand-in-hand with widespread economic uncertainty.  By openly ‘understanding’ and prioritizing the issues of these areas, outsider politicians and parties exploded in popularity.

Once again, the experience of Eastern Europe provides insight to the contemporary scene, Modern economic trends has seen wealth and opportunity increasingly consolidated in financial centres such as New York and London, creating large pockets of regional wealth inequality. The unprecedented speed of globalization has left many in the West feeling locked out in a supposedly prosperous age. The brand of ‘Trump’, which aggressively promotes the concept of self-made success, appeals to the rust-belt in a way that cannot be understood by well-heeled New York or Massachusetts. Communities stricken by unemployment and fearful for the future in a rapidly changing world are easily swayed by populist figures that attribute their problems to political ineptitude.

The Brexit vote too is proof of this divide. The severe disparity between the ‘remain’ and ‘leave’ camps shows that citizens from London and the former-manufacturing hubs of Northern England clearly felt very different about the economic benefits the EU brings to the UK. This said, interpreting the matter as an issue of pure economics falls short of fully understanding the result. Cases such as Cornwall, where a large majority voted to leave the EU despite receiving substantial EU funding, suggests that short-term economic instability was not a pressing concern for Brexiteers.

Brexit is rather a message of contempt to the status quo by those that feel alienated from it, as opposed to an expression of support for specific policy. To those surrounded by industrial decay, the image of the EU as a bloated and intrusive body contrasted with nostalgic memories of ‘old Britain’. As with Eastern Europe, anti-immigration sentiment finds ready supporters amongst those already exposed to the rough end of modern life. Compounded by the pervasive threat of terrorism and stark cultural differences between immigrants and ‘native’ Britons, the punishment of the EU as a scapegoat for their ills becomes understandable.

The lesson of East Europe’s bout of populism is this: dismissing those who vote for populist leaders – whether that be Trump supporters or pro-Brexiters – as simply racist or uneducated is not strategic. The truth is that large swathes of the population feel locked out of a rapidly evolving economy that has witnessed globalization at an unprecedented speed. As with Eastern Europe, this anger has manifested itself through voters punishing the political mainstream.

Don’t get me wrong. All this certainly does not excuse the repulsive spectacle of xenophobia being witnessed. But racial and religious intolerance isn’t the cause of discontent, but rather a result of existing disaffection. The political turmoil of today is a symptom of economic ills suffered by a jaded population, one that is simultaneously nostalgic for their secure past and fearful for the future. Dismissing their anger will only entrench this cycle of resentment, and exacerbate the problem in the long term. We should instead examine the root causes of political populism to reach out and understand the concerns of others in our society. Doing anything less would be to forget our common history.

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