Levente Littvay: I had to work hard in sorting out how I personally feel about political actors I agree with ideologically but find them to be quite populist.

Levente Littvay is Professor of Political Science at Central European University in Hungary and is a member of Team Populism, an international project that produces cool articles in collaboration with The Guardian. We talked about the elections in Hungary and Poland, when populists get reelected, what the goals of Team Populism are, whether the populists are good guys or bad guys, and why it is so easy to get confused with this.

So, recently we observed the elections in two countries with the populist government. In Poland PiS won elections, while in Hungary Viktor Orbán’s center-left challenger became a mayor of Budapest. What may explain the difference? When citizens remain faithful to populist government and when they turn its back on them?

I have to admit that I know a bit more about Hungary than Poland, but in the grand scheme of things contemporary populists do tend to get reelected. Most of them do so because they manage to rig the electoral game in their own favor by co-opting public (and sometimes also private) media, certainly in the case of Hungary, changing the election system in a way that heavily favors themselves. So short of some major shock to the system, populists get reelected. This was the case for several terms of Berlusconi, this is the case with PiS and Fidesz as well. This was business as usual since the election of the Fidesz government in 2010 and a similar, though maybe less extreme trend is also observable in Poland. Poland had a parliamentary election and much like in the 2018 Hungarian parliamentary election, the populists got reelected.

Of course, the second half of the question asks what changed in Hungary? I would say not much has changed and the numbers back this up. Let’s be clear, Fidesz still won the majority of the country. Budapest has always been the most liberal place in Hungary though a mayoral victory in Budapest may appear to communicate some major shift, it is only an illusion. In 2010, after the crisis, Fidesz was able to take Budapest. Economics is one of the most important factors in voting. In 2014, the opposition was quite divided, the leading opposition candidate was someone whose name became a curse word in Hungarian politics for his mid-1990’s austerity package that hurt a lot of people (though also put the country on the path of economic recovery). So, with less than 50% and a heavily demobilized opposition, Fidesz won the mayor’s race again. This time, the opposition was united behind a relatively strong consensus mayoral candidate. On the local level, similar forces were at play and the opposition could agree on one person for district mayorships, city council and local council seats who did not split the opposition vote. Similar results were visible in most of the large cities but not in the smaller towns. The value of unity was certainly underestimated by everyone. When people saw that there is an opportunity to beat Fidesz, the opposition will not split the vote, they turned out in numbers greater than anyone expected. In fact, Fidesz received similar number of votes as in 2014, but opposition turnout was much higher and this is what made the difference. The Hungarian opposition was plagued with divisions since 2010 when the party system collapsed and Fidesz put in place a new parliamentary electoral system that penalized divisions. It took 9 years for the opposition to figure it out and now the incentives for getting unity right are clear. For the first time, there is a ray of hope for the next parliamentary election, but that will have to wait 3 more years.

Generally speaking, we know that economics matter, turnout for competitive elections are higher (which, in the case of Hungary, seems to be especially important for the opposition – Fidesz appears to be mobilizing to their absolute limit no matter what). Scandals seem to help and we had quite a spicy one this time with a Fidesz mayor caught recording a video of his orgy on a yacht (apparently paid for by taxpayers, possibly EU funds). If we look at the most prominent populists who were in government in Europe, Gruevsky in Macedonia (now North Macedonia), Berlusconi in Italy, we may even be able to add Meciar of Slovakia here, scandals were often an important factor in bringing them down.

So, the electorate becomes disappointed in populists because of the same factors as in general (like economic crises and scandals). So, there is no specific relationship life cycle between citizens and populists, right?

That’s the thing. I actually do not think that Fidesz voters were affected much if at all. As far as the numbers go, Fidesz received roughly the same number of votes in 2014 and in 2019. What decided this election was the other side who was less disillusioned with the opposition and their inability to coordinate. Any district where multiple opposition candidates ran, Fidesz almost always won. The opposition split the vote. By 2018 it was clear that the anti-Fidesz voter even stayed home if they had too many options on the ballot. They knew the election was not competitive. Now that the opposition coordinated effectively, the anti-Fidesz vote was greatly mobilized.

You speak of populists as synonymous with Fidesz, but it is important to note that there are populists on the left as well. In Europe, the most prominent cases are Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece. In Latin America the examples are plenty. Chavez, Morales, etc. The largest opposition party (at least according to the 2019 European Parliamentary election where the system is very proportional so party coordination is less of an issue) was the Democratic Coalition. Our analyses of speeches given during the 2018 campaign show that this party is also quite populist, yet they are a leftist opposition party (the most prominent one, in fact).

You are a member of Team Populism, an international project that studies the causes and consequences of populism and produces cool articles in collaboration with The Guardian. Could you tell about it?

Team Populism was a great little cooperation between scholars with common interests. Populism became this thing in common language (and increasingly in the research community) that people used very casually. Our team formed with two goals in mind. Let’s push the existing definition of populism that is well defined and clear. We call this “ideational populism”. In the words of Cas Mudde ideational populism “is an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups: ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’, and argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.” Today, this gets conflated with ideology. People speak of right wing issue positions that are at odds with liberal ideals (anti-imigration sentiments, xenophobia, etc.) and call it populist, but that is not populism. Populism attaches itself on to an ideology and, if we are honest, the underlying ideology is more defining and probably also more important. Populism can be both right (like President Trump) and left (like Bernie Sanders). Both of them are anti-elitist, people-centric (less so Trump actually) and both are very polarizing. The second goal of the team was to conduct high quality, systematic, comparative research empirically. Since then we amassed a lot of data we are working on putting out to the scientific community. Ironically, to the general public a lot of this has been disseminated through The Guardian New Populism series.

Could you list the main causes of populism? What consequences are pretty unexpectable/counterintuitive?

I am with the camp who says that populism is overall a bad thing. I believe the most important cause is a strong sense of a democratic deficit. When people feel the elites have detached from them and do not listen to or address their concerns, that gives opportunity for the rise of a populist leader. In a way, the most important lesson for politicians, do listen to the people even if you don’t like what they say or it is at odds with liberal democratic values. Recognize and address their concerns maximally and what cannot be addressed or what would cross your own red lines to address, lead. Become a leader. Convince those same people that what they really want is not the right path to go down. Offer an alternative path.

When we talk about the consequences, we can talk about positive and negative outcomes of populism. The most often talked about positive is an increased engagement by the electorate who previously may have completely withdrawn themselves from the process, were completely disenfranchised. The actual evidence of the existence of this is mixed at best, but theoretically this positive should be there. Through the collaboration with the Guardian my good friends and close colleagues Dave Doyle and Saskia Ruth discovered that populism also leads to reduced inequality. We are looking at this more closely now.

But the negatives are plenty and very concerning. Populism leads to the deterioration of democratic institutions, lower executive constraint, it hurts press freedoms. On the societal level it causes strong polarization that has the potential to tear apart friends and families. These negatives are extremely concerning and the evidence for them are much clearer than for the positives I listed above. These are the reasons why I consider populism a negative phenomenon, in general, even when it attaches to an ideology that I personally agree with. It has happened before and I had to work hard in sorting out how I personally feel about political actors I agree with ideologically but find them to be quite populist. 

It was not easy even for me, and I study the phenomenon and know how bad populism is. Still, because as I mentioned above, ideology is more important, intuitively it won out initially. Only after conscious deliberation with myself could I come to the conclusion that maybe this candidate is not that good. So even if I struggle here, it is difficult to expect more from people who do not study the phenomenon. Populist appeals are, in general appealing. We need to educate the public on populism so people can recognize it and the ills of populism so people can consciously see that these seemingly appealing messages are in fact a trap.

If you want to find out how populist you are, fill out this little quiz I developed with Team Populism colleagues for the Guardian. Warning to everyone, most people are quite populist themselves.

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