Europe is facing a double challenge from authoritarian and nationalist parties. From the Baltic to the Bosporus, governments have come to power which openly reject key components of liberal democracy and EU integration.
Some of them play by democratic rules, but play the nationalist card, such as rehabilitate or relativizing the Nazi past, as in Croatia, or raise fear of a Muslim threat, as in Slovakia; some rule with authoritarian methods, but publicly stick to a reformist liberal agenda, as in Serbia and Montenegro, others use a mixture of both, such as Hungary, Turkey or Macedonia.
Europe is facing a double challenge from authoritarian and nationalist parties. By undermining either the institutions of democracy through authoritarian practices, or the ideas of liberal democracy by exclusionary, polarizing and populist rhetoric and policies, these governments are constituting a rising threat not only to democracy at home, but also the larger liberal democratic project of the EU.
Much media attention has focused on the anti-refugee and anti-Muslim right, from Marine Le Pen in France to Viktor Orbán in Hungary, whose nativism wants to keep refugees, and especially Muslims out. The refugees arriving in Europe over the last year proved to be windfall for these parties. However, the threat to liberal democracy and European integration, does not stem only for the populist right, but from two interlocking strands of European politics. Nationalists or nativists are often authoritarian, and vice versa, but they are neither identical, nor does any party or leader need to display both to threaten liberal democracy.
In Hungary Viktor Orbán came to power in 2010 and in Poland Jarosław Kaczyński last year, both with large majorities and established center-right parties, and have since began dismantling democratic checks and balances. The anti-Muslim rhetoric is not what propelled them to power or is an essential pillar of their popularity, but a convenient fashion accessory to remain popular. In Croatia, the conservative HDZ returned to power in a coalition government earlier this year with just over a third of the seats in parliament. Yet once in power, it began promoting a nationalist and revisionist agenda, including naming for minister of culture a controversial historian, who has relativized the collaborationist Croatian regime during World War Two.
In a number of Balkan countries, like Serbia and Montenegro, authoritarian rulers have refrained from using nationalism to stay in power. Instead they claim to pursue EU integration, while subordinating the state to their personal control and setting up elaborate patronage systems. Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vučić won nearly half of the vote in early elections in April 2016, which he called for no reason other than to secure his majority, while silencing opposition media.
Southern neighbor Macedonia is beset by a crisis for over year as the dominant conservative and nationalist ruling VMRO-DPMNE and its former prime minister Nikola Gruevski were caught on tape organizing electoral fraud, corruption and pressure on media and opposition. Despite EU mediation to secure fair earlier election, Gruevski seems determined to hang on to power with all means necessary. Gruevski had begun his career, much like Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, on the promise of reform, but both drifted towards more personalized authoritarian rule.
In other countries, such as Slovakia, the ruling SMER party claims to be a center-left party and certainly cannot be accused of being authoritarian, yet it openly rejected accepting any non-Christian refugees over the last year.
On Sunday 22 May, Austria was facing the second round of its most important presidential elections in its history. None of the candidates of the ruling parties made it to the second round—the Green’s candidate Alexander Van der Bellen is facing Norbert Hofer of the populist and nativist Freedom Party, who made a surprising win in the first round. The anti-Muslim and anti-EU rhetoric of the Freedom Party and its candidate is nothing new, but what made many Austrians nervous was a small sentence the soft-spoken Norbert Hofer uttered during a presidential debate on how he would exercise the office: “You will be surprised.” As the formal powers of the Austrian president exceed the constitutional practice, a president from the Freedom party could go a long way in sabotaging the current (unpopular) centrist government and help bring his party to power. His little sentence was understood by many as a hint that he would use his powers much more extensively than his predecessors did.
The Freedom Party thus poses not just a risk in radicalizing the debate about migration and refugees, but also in undermining liberal democracy in the country. If Hofer succeeds in Austria, this will mark a watershed in Europe, as parties which define themselves through their nationalism and nativism, marked with distinct authoritarianism undercurrents, will break the invisible wall that still divides Europe. Le Pen and others in Western Europe will have a success story to refer to.
The threat of liberal democracy in Europe does not come in a single disguise, but in distinct shapes, authoritarian and nationalist.