Beneath the surface of illiberalism: The recurring temptation of ‘national democracy’ in Poland and Hungary – with lessons for Europe

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Political scientists and journalists have invested heavily in uncovering the roots of contemporary political change in the Western world, usually looking for a common denominator for a variety of events: from the victory of Donald Trump in the US and the Brexit vote in the UK, to the rising support for Marine Le Pen in France, for Geert Wilders in Netherlands or for the AfD party in Germany. Scholars have reached for various concepts but focused particularly on the rise of populism to account for the events in question. However, populism is probably the most ambiguous and pliable notion in political science. In most cases, it is defined as a pattern of relationships that directly connects elites to followers without running through political institutions. The problem to reach a compromise on the more detailed definition of populism stems from the fact that it has a very wide scope of forms running through the entire political scene from the extreme left through the centre
to the extreme right.

The author Adam Balcer focuses on right-wing national populism which is rooted in ethnic nationalism. Indeed, populism can be easily merged with an ethnic and primordial variety of nationalism1. Identity politics, division and exclusion constitute the basic foundations of populism and ethnic and primordial nationalism.

In order to better understand the phenomenon of PiS and Fidesz, we need to analyse the historical trajectories of nation-building processes in both countries, the identity politics of both parties and their politics of memory. The report published by WiseEuropa in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Warsaw discusses three specific domains in which the shift in the understanding of the nation is most visible – namely in the attitudes towards the State, democracy and the West (Part 2).  It finishes by formulating lessons that stem from these two case studies and can serve as a ‘warning call’ for the rest of Europe (Part 3).

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1. Introduction: The rise of right wing national populism 6
2. The allureof "national democracy" in Poland and Hungary 11
2.1 The State and the Nation 14
2.2. The deep roots of illiberal democracy 25
2.3. Ambivalent attitude towards the West 48
3. Lessons for Europe 60