Video & Report of the Event “Two faces of European right-wing populist trends: Denmark and Hungary”

By Gina Butros and Flavio Previtali

On November 27 the International Institute for Peace in cooperation with the Sir Peter Ustinov Institute Vienna and the Forum of Journalism and Media invited to discuss the development of right-wing populism in Europe by contrasting the situation in Denmark and Hungary and also considering events in Austria. Susi Meret from the Faculty of Social Sciences at Aalborg University represented András Bozoki is a political scientist from the Central European University, Budapest, and former Minister of Culture of Hungary. He analysed the Hungarian perspective. Hannes Swoboda, president of the International Institute for Peace was referring to the Austrian context in the light of right-wing populism. The discussion was moderated by Stephanie Fenkart, Director of the International Institute for Peace. Leopold Radauer, Sir Peter Ustinov Institute, Vienna, gave an introduction speech in which he briefly outlined todays presence of populist issues, such as exclusion of and intolerance towards `the other’. 

The first speech, by Susi Meret, gave insights into the historical framework of the rise of populism in Denmark and its main characteristics. Denmark has a very good reputation to be a modern and liberal country with high GDP and HDI ranks, therefore right-wing populism is internationally rarely perceived as an issue in Denmark. How come it still is? Meret went on to explain that the Danish People`s Party stems from an anti- establishment origin, a so-called protest party, which in the 1970s opposed the neo-liberal course of the liberal-conservative government. The ‘earthquake-elections’ of 1973 however, opened doors for many new parties, among them the Danish People’s Party, whose right-wing policies gained legitimacy when social-democratic parties allowed them to form coalition positions. To remember such background, the ‘long durée’ of the Danish People’s Party, is crucial, says Meret, in order to detect origins of populism in Denmark. Since 2001 the political discourse. Additionally, the notion of identity and ‘belonging somewhere’ became increasingly important. Backed up by the concern of a threatened Danish identity and the call for more security, the Danish People’s Party politicized and connected notions of nationalism and welfare with Islam as a threat to ‘Danishness’.  

Fenkart briefly summarized the general characteristics of populism as rooted in a feeling of anti-establishment, of the own culture and identity being threatened by outside forces and a charismatic leader, who claims to represent the ‘volonté general’.  

András Bozoki went on to report from the Hungarian populism phenomena. He stated that populism is separable into classic and modern characteristics. The first being anti-elitism and anti-pluralism, the latter being a blame of ‘the others’ as immigrants and globalization, in the case of Hungary the European Union. Classic characteristics separate populism from its new form of right-wing populism: the notion of nativism and the right of the natives, legitimized by blood and ethnicity. Bozoki notes that in addition right-wing populism poses a threat to democracy, promising to give back voice to the ones suppressed by the elites but in fact emptying the political discourse. That way right-wing populism ends up rather authoritarian than democratic. Concerning the case of Hungary, Bozoki explained that right-wing populism cannot only be found in a political party but actually is based on a regime, which is populistic. The populists are in the government but still behave like they are in opposition. In this case present themselves as defenders of Hungary from foreign forces. Additionally, the notion of ‘Hungarianness’ means to be a ‘good Hungarian’, e.g. education does not count as qualification. Following the potential of current resentments against modernization and migrants, Prime Minister Orbán dramatically changed the course of his politics in 2015 from economy based to a strong focus on identity. Even though his party actually represents a minority, he successfully managed to win elections by dividing the opposition and hindering it from forming a serious contender.  

  Hannes Swoboda then told about the case in Austria. Right-wing populism in Austria is especially characterized by the notion of ‘us vs. them’, which replaced class resentment against the elite. Historical events such as immigration waves and changes in geo-political alliances shaped gradational perceptions of ‘the other’- a continuation of prejudices, how Sowoboda calls it. Additionally, statistics show that a well-organized welfare system that allows great benefits lowers tendencies of tolerance towards immigrants, since the profits have to be shared. On the question of what can be done, Swoboda notes that Austria, like many other countries, relies on its migrants as they do necessary jobs and keep certain sectors and industries alive. The Austrians must accept them as part of their own society. Dialogue and open discussions between all groups of the society should have taken place much earlier, before this issue got into the hands of right-wing populists. For the future it is crucial to defend the principles of democracy.  


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The panel discussion continued by answering a provocative question about the possible role of a left-wing populism in fighting right-wing populism. All panelists agreed that right-wing populism should not be considered as a model to follow for democrats. The panelists then tried to explain the reason why and proposed ideas for alternative paths as following. Meret explained that there are concepts, as for example the concept of “the people”, strongly utilized and defined by the right-wing parties which seems to be difficult from a left-wing perspective due to their inclusive approach towards other parts of societies.  

Bozoki refused the polarizing dichotomy between a technocratic-neoliberal order opposed to the “voice of the people”. According to him, a left-wing perspective should underline the many voices coming from the people and understand how and why class issues have been transformed into race and religious issues. When coming to strategies for the left, he suggested that a new discourse should be invented in order to get more popular, to be close to the people, to communicative effectively and to avoid the trap of being stigmatized as neo-liberal forces. Moreover, the left parties should compete on the level of the “language of passion” with right-wings populism, not to leave them monopolizing the language. He believes that solutions should be found in the framework of the liberal-democratic institutions. For this reason, right-wing populism, which characterizes itself with an anti-institution - approach should not work as a model for the left.  

Hannes Swoboda pointed out that social democrats should show empathy not only towards migrants and refugees, but to everybody in society. According to Swoboda, it is important that cities meet the needs of all inhabitants, especially related to housing, work and health care. In this sense, Vienna has tried to keep up with a modern program of public housing. This is also useful to avoid the creation of ghettos. He also considered left-wings populism not as an answer for social-democrats, which have to meet the demands of the people while avoiding the creation of enemies, barriers and divisions.  

The following QA session raised a series of issues mainly concerning the specific situation in Denmark and Hungary. For example, it was pointed out that Denmark has a very peculiar approach towards the EU. During the 1990s, in fact, opposition to a European political project has mostly come from the left. Things have lately changed and the social-democrats are now trying to renew their discourse moving to a stronger support for the EU, introducing new topics related to environmentalism and renovating its elites, especially with young candidates at a local level. In the context of Hungary, Bozoki underlined the contradiction concerning the support for Orbán combined with 70% of people in favor of the EU and raised the issue of membership and belonging. The first one concerns the formal level while the second refers to the informal one and they are not necessary playing together. He explained how the right-wing propaganda is trying to shape the idea of Hungarian belonging to Europe on the basis of religion and tradition, depicting instead Hungary’s membership to the European Union as something artificial.   

The event represented an interesting and useful opportunity to address and discuss topics concerning migration, populism and the role of social-democratic parties. It allowed a frank discussion and the presentation of possible ideas to effectively act against right-wing populism.