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From Democracy to Despotism: Populism's Perils

From Vladimir Putin to Viktor Orban to Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Stanford Professor Anna Gryzmala-Busse has tracked the rise of Autocrats in Eastern Europe and the global stage. Professor Gryzmala-Busse specializes in the historical development of the state, political parties, religion in politics, and post-communist politics. She presented some of her findings at her Athenaeum presentation — "Is Autocracy Contagious? The Limits of Anti-Democratic Diffusion." In the talk, she asserted that autocratic regimes concentrate on domestic issues, which form a nationalist identity and have little to do with international influences.

Looking to Hungary and its despot Viktor Orban, the relationship between autocracy and international coalitions manifests. Since gaining an absolute majority in 2010, Orban has transformed Hungary from a liberal democracy into an autocracy. His reforms have fundamentally undermined Hungary's post-Cold War liberal consensus, shifting Fidesz, his party, from liberalism to populist nationalism. These changes include controlling public media and reducing the number of parliamentary seats, which has helped solidify his power. ​Orban continuously bashes against NATO and the EU, even likening EU membership to occupation under Soviet rule. He opposes the Schengen zone as a violation of Hungarian sovereignty that allows swaths of immigrants to enter the country and degrade its culture. Using this notion as justification, Orban has tightened Hungary's borders to the point of strangulation.

Professor Gryzmala-Busse scorns Orban's nationalist supposition. Hungary has sent more people out of the country through open Schengen borders than they have ever accepted. Moreover, she indicates that EU membership is entirely voluntary, and Hungary is, in fact, one of its most significant beneficiaries of subsidies. Orban uses these large subsidies to fund his autocratic regime, delivering cheap EU prices to the people and claiming credit.

In Poland, the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski has similarly moved his country towards an illiberal democracy. However, in a recent election, Polish voters chose change, electing three opposition democratic parties, which indicated a repudiation of PiS's rule. The new government faces the challenge of undoing changes made by PiS since 2015. The PiS had turned state media into its propaganda arm, a change the new government certainly hopes to reverse.

Donald Tusk, the leader of Civic Coalition (KO), celebrates the exit poll in Poland’s election (Getty)

The Law and Justice Party (PiS) is cut from the same cloth of right-wing populism that succeeded in its takeover of Hungary. However, where Orban succeeded, the PiS failed. Professor Gryzmala-Busse attributes the defeat of the PiS to party incompetence. The country witnessed the overreach of autocratic policy targeting democratic institutions, abortion, the media, and LGBT+ individuals; Voters were disgusted by what they saw.

The incompetence in the Law and Justice Party starts at the top. In the most recent election cycle, Kaczynski vehemently attacked opposition leader Donald Tusk for his German ancestry. He claimed that Tusk was a German flunky, claimed that Tusk took orders from Berlin, and even claimed that Tusk's grandfather was in the Wehrmacht. For the record, Tusk's grandfather was a Pole who was captured by the Nazis and conscripted into military service. Professor Gryzmala-Busse sees this blatant xenophobia and asks, "Who cares?" For any Pole under 40, Tusk's grandfather's role in Nazi Germany does not make Tusk any less Polish than any other Pole.

In Eastern Europe, no event takes precedence over Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Professor Gryzmala-Busse identifies Eastern European countries' lack of international autocratic diffusion when analyzing the conflict. In the interactions between Putin, Orban, and Kaczynski, she sees three autocrats who have independently built their politically focused platforms. Consequently, their stance on Ukraine is based entirely on material necessity and political benefits; it has nothing to do with a more extensive spread of autocratic doctrine.

Why, then, does Poland act as Ukraine's most vigorous supporter in the EU while Hungary cozies up to Russia? Hungary and Poland have had a historically fractious relationship with Russia, yet stand on opposite sides of international opinion on the conflict. Professor Gryzmala-Busse accredits this to cheap Russian oil. Hungary, a landlocked country dependent on Russia for its energy needs, vocalizes support for Russia in exchange for oil and gas. On the other hand, Poland has access to alternative forms of energy production and has been able to wean themselves from reliance on Russia.

Orban, reaping the rewards from EU subsidies and cheap Russian oil, has succeeded in Hungary, where PiS in Poland failed. Since 2010, he has transformed the constitution, nationalized large sections of the economy, and driven out all independent media. In Professor Gryzmala-Busse's words, he has "implemented a full throated autocratic regime." Orban's calculated deconstruction of Hungary's democratic systems has prevented meaningful opposition to his reign. Opposition is outspent, outforced, and gerrymandered at every turn into a decisive defeat. The deck is stacked so heavily in Orban's favor that competitors can not get the votes.

Orban's illiberal democracy in Hungary has made him an appealing figurehead for conservatives in the United States, who rally behind his doctrine and support his system of governance. Beyond his political success, he fuels the fire of hatred by spewing previously unimaginable vitriol. Professor Gryzmala-Busse regards his words as "truly horrific," with him even saying that "Germans know how to deal with gas." When Orban pushes the political Overton window, he enables imitations in the United States.

This is perhaps the most remarkable example of diffusion from Orban's regime—his audacious push to redefine the boundaries of acceptable speech, brazenly pushing the limits of what was once considered socially permissible. Indeed, American politics have reflected this. Donald Trump has, since his explosion onto the political stage, shocked Democrats and Republicans alike with his scathing rhetoric. In an increasingly dark world, Poland's recent election serves as a beacon for opposition to autocracy, showing us that democracy can prevail.


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