UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)



What is ‘Delayed Transformational Fatigue’?

In the last few years, the politicians and political parties usually labelled ‘right-wing populists’ enjoyed a remarkable series of successes. Donald Trump in the United States and Jarosław Kaczyński and his party, Law and Justice (PiS), in Poland have come to dominate the political scenes in their respective countries. Nigel Farage played a major role in convincing fifty-two per cent of British voters to vote for Brexit. In the 2014 European Parliament (EP) elections, far right parties increased their representation by 15 seats compared with 2009, and now have 52 MEPs. According to most observers, a rightward shift in the political climate of Europe and the USA is now beyond a doubt, although the scope and depth of the phenomenon are debated. For example, Cas Mudde commenting on the EP elections observed: ‘As has been the case since the emergence of the so-called ‘third wave’ of far right parties in the early 1980s, the successes of individual parties differed significantly across the continent. […] Overall, far right parties gained additional seats in just six countries, while they lost seats in seven others.’ (Washington Post, 30 May 2014). The more recent elections in France and Holland demonstrated that the populist wave in Europe is not unstoppable. In Poland the counter-mobilisation of liberal and centrist forces is noticeable, making for an increasingly intense period of political contestation.

Several years of rule by Victor Orban’s FIDESZ in Hungary and almost two years of Law and Justice party’s rule in Poland show that the ‘populist’ political formations are much more interested in the majoritarian rather than liberal dimensions of modern democracy. Orban openly talks about ‘illiberal democracy’ and Kaczyński, after losing the 2011 election, exclaimed: ‘I am deeply convinced that a day will come when we will have a Budapest in Warsaw.’ These words reflect accurately the basic tenor of institutional changes in both countries where the media pluralism, the protection of minorities, sovereignty of civil society, and the independence of the judiciary have been challenged and weakened. Such (politically) illiberal moves of the Hungarian and Polish governments herald a dramatic political change, prompting alarm even among the most restrained observers of European affairs. The fear is that the process many social scientists have observed and begun analysing since the mid-2000s, and that Jan-Werner Müller has called ‘political backsliding’ (Foreign Affairs, 6 August 2014), is now in full swing.

Post-communist transformations have never run smoothly and in the same direction in all the countries of the region. From the outset of the post-1989 changes, many states have struggled with corruption and the oligarchisation of politics, the high costs of often-botched economic reforms and cultural disorientation generated by the fast pace of change. But roughly until the mid-2000s the political processes, although moving at various speeds and in a variety of directions, had features recognisable from the earlier waves of democratisation. There was also a certain path-dependent predictability in the country-specific dynamics initiated in 1989/91. While some countries were moving closer to the ideals of liberal democracy and others were drifting away, the cast of political actors ranged predictably from the left to the right, dominant constitutional dilemmas revolved around the choice of presidential or parliamentary systems, economic debates and conflicts focused on the choice of type of capitalism and welfare state optimal for a country or – more often – a given interest group, to take just a few examples. Importantly, the liberal strands of each country’s political cultures were gaining strength, achieving in some states a rather unchallengeable – it seemed – position.

However, around the mid-2000s these processes stalled and many political trajectories veered off in new directions. Importantly, the rightward shift of the political scene – the most striking feature of this change – had been presaged, underpinned and fuelled by the emergence of ‘neo-traditional’ subcultures and trends in several areas of European life. This neo-traditionalism, related to cultural illiberalism or cultural conservatism, is characterised by the emphasis placed on outcomes rather than procedures of the political processes; protection of a (national) collective rather than an individual; safeguarding of the “traditional” social, particularly gender, roles; and an overriding concern with protecting the purity of the (national) collective against the perceived threats of cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism. In some places, such as Poland, it is also associated with efforts to privilege the religious rather than secular character of the public space. Over the last several years, such ‘re-traditionalising’ cultural tendencies, deepened by the increasingly boldly asserted right-wing ideologies, have become more acceptable in everyday lives, the media (particularly the new ones) and in political debates. More recently, they have helped to bring to the fore of the political life explicitly ‘traditionalist’ right-wing populist parties that tend to play fast and loose with democratic procedures. It is not entirely clear whether this process is more advanced in the post-communist part of Europe but its appearance there is troubling to many observers, because – as it is sometimes argued – people’s views and actions are not yet anchored in democratic habits and institutions as strongly as in the older democracies of the West.

The mechanisms and consequences of these cultural and political changes are the subject of intense debate. A Weimar Redux thesis, once a far-flung speculation, has become a viable even if unlikely scenario. It holds that the economic crisis of 2008 and multiple political crises have brought to the forefront of public life right-wing populists whose commitment to the procedures of democracy is tepid if not hostile. As a result, the process of democratic backsliding has commenced and it may – as an increasing number of observers worry – lead to the weakening of democracy and the rise of some forms of authoritarianism. While such worries have become increasingly prominent in the popular media, academic researchers have been, until recently, more restrained in their diagnoses, though not unconcerned. The Polish right-wing turn has no doubt intensified this concern.

The consequences for Europe are increasingly serious. As the EU is trying to come to terms with Brexit and the general sense of malaise the rise of the right-wing populism spells trouble. The rightward reorientation of the political scene has already destabilised domestic politics in several countries, undermined the established ways of doing business among European partners and led to the rise of ‘uncivilised’ political behaviour and even violence. In Poland, the number of court proceedings related to cases “motivated by racism or xenophobia” increased from 123 in 2008 to 835 in 2013 and 1548 in 2015,

Our approach to understanding the rise of illiberal and populist politics in Central and Eastern Europe is based on the concept of ‘delayed transformational fatigue’. It is designed to capture the gradually intensifying disappointment with the results of the initial period of reforms, particularly with the performance of the dominant post-communist elites. They are increasingly blamed for the shortcomings of the new system and many undesired outcomes of the transformations, such as the rising level of unemployment in some periods. The sense of political exclusion and economic defeat has been slowly growing among some sectors of the populace after 1989, prompting eventually the search for novel interpretations of the situation and reassuring political solutions. As Ost observes:

‘’Many turned to the right because the right offered them an outlet for their economic anger and a narrative to explain their economic problems that liberals, believing they held sway over workers, consistently failed to provide. In the end, workers drifted to the right because their erstwhile intellectual allies pushed them there.’’

Ost’s explanation captures an important part of the complex process, but it is incomplete. He identifies – correctly in our view – the emergence of the delayed demand for new ideas, narratives, and political solutions. But while some ‘callous’ intellectuals and politicians might have been guilty of ‘pushing’ (via indifference), others have been hard at work at ‘pulling’ workers (and other people) toward (right-wing) populist explanations and policy recommendations. A robust explanation of the ‘Orbanisation’ of Hungarian politics or the Law and Justice’s somewhat unexpected 2015 electoral victory in Poland needs to be based, therefore, on an analysis focused equally on the supply and demand sides of politics. On the demand side, it is a delayed response to the transformational hardships and the sense of exclusion, alienation and the lack of security, intensified by the effects of the economic crisis of 2008. This seems to be the hallmark of the late phase of democratic consolidation. On the supply side, it is the skilful elaboration and propagation of illiberal/populist narratives that are, as always, directed against two adversaries: elitism and pluralism. Furthermore, we believe that the relative success of populist framing of the situation has something to do with the prior mobilisation of neo-traditionalism whose emergence is briefly signalled above.

The Fatigue project is designed to study in-depth all those phenomena.

Read more about the aims and structure of the programme.