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Wed Apr 5, 2017, 08:57 PM

The False Promise of Populism:

Key Findings

- In 2017, more than half of the 29 countries in the report had declines in their Democracy Scores: 18 countries’ scores dropped. This is the second biggest decline in the survey’s history, almost as large as the drop following the 2008 global financial crisis.

- For the first time since 1995, there are now more Consolidated Authoritarian Regimes than Consolidated Democracies.

- Hungary now has the lowest ranking in the Central European region. Poland’s score reached its lowest point in the survey. In these countries, populist leaders have attacked constitutional courts, undermined checks and balances, and have turned public media into propaganda arms.

- Kyrgyzstan fell back in to the category of Consolidated Authoritarian Regimes, a category it had left after competitive parliamentary elections in 2011.

- The bright spots in NIT 2017 were Ukraine, Romania, and Kosovo. Ukraine and Kosovo made modest gains due to gradual structural reforms, and Kosovo’s category improved to Transitional/Hybrid Regime. In Romania, a caretaker government addressed a number of outstanding issues, such as problems in the voting process during the previous elections.

What is this populism?

At its core, it pits a mystically unified “nation” against corrupt “elites” and external enemies, and claims for a charismatic leader the power to voice the will of the nation. It is therefore fundamentally illiberal, rejecting diversity of identity and of opinion within society and discarding basic principles of modern constitutional thinking: that democracy requires constraints on the will of the majority and checks on the decisions of the executive. It feeds on the gap between what mainstream political leaders promise and what they deliver, which is why the utopian vision and quotidian results of the EU have nourished its growth. The anti-elitist, anti-immigration, and protectionist platforms of the Brexit and Trump campaigns drew on the same set of frustrations.

It was no surprise, then, that populists in Europe celebrated the events of 2016, and none more enthusiastically than Orbán, who hailed Trump’s victory as the end of “liberal non-democracy” and “the return to real democracy.” The year was also a triumph for Vladimir Putin. For the past decade, the Russian leader has backed populists in Europe and the United States as part of a covert effort to destabilize the transatlantic order. The results in 2016 were perhaps beyond his wildest dreams. Although Russia’s economy continues to stagnate, Putin seems tantalizingly close to his goal of a new division of Europe into Western and Russian spheres of influence.

"With the United States suddenly ambivalent about the EU and NATO, countries across the region are likely to rush to exploit new opportunities, hedge against worst-case scenarios, and secure existing gains before a new equilibrium is reached. Nationalist and revanchist appeals could once again become the most powerful currency for vulnerable leaders and parties. Every country will have to rebalance its security, diplomatic, and domestic policies absent the traditional assumptions about American power and interests.

This rebalancing could increase the threat of war in Europe and Eurasia. Early 2017 has already brought the worst fighting in two years in eastern Ukraine, rising tensions between Kosovo and Serbia, and increasing inter-ethnic tension in the political crisis in Macedonia. And after engaging in their deadliest combat in 22 years in April 2016, Armenia and Azerbaijan are watching closely to see whether the new U.S. administration is still committed to preserving peace in the Caucasus.

read more - Extensive Nations in Transit 2017 report covering the roots, tensions and the threats posed by the rise of populism in Europe and Eurasia: https://freedomhouse.org/report/nations-transit/nations-transit-2017

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