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Why are young Eastern Europeans so right-wing?

By Martin Horička

Recent political developments in Hungary and Poland are part of a much broader trend, which is caused by growing far-right preferences among Central and Eastern European youth.

At least since the French revolution, young people have traditionally been more left-leaning than their parents. It hasn’t changed over the past few decades and there is little reason to think it’s going to reverse any time soon. The fact that older people are more conservative and young people tend to be more liberal is also in line with existing research and scientific literature. In Western Europe and throughout the Anglo-Saxon world, this theory hasn’t been challenged for a long time and despite some of its shortcomings (youth seems to be more liberal on social issues than economic ones), it still works today. But what if we look into Central and Eastern Europe?

As unbelievable as it may sound, here it’s completely different – the situation is exactly the opposite. Evidence suggests the right has been steadily gaining momentum over the last few years. It even looks like conservative parties will soon have a monopoly on political power; to some extent, we can already see this happening in Orbán’s Hungary and Kaczyński’s Poland.

More surprisingly, though, must be the observation that, unlike in the United States or Britain, right-wingers draw their strength especially from young voters. How is it even possible? The short answer is – as usual – the most obvious one. Countries where communist regimes had lasted for as long as four decades and left a permanent mark on local population possess different experiences and understanding of the world affairs than their western counterparts.

However, the longer answer is a little more complicated and requires a deeper comprehension of the post-communist mentality.

Right-wing youth

This mysterious phenomenon can be observed in virtually every country which has undergone such development. Hungary is the brightest example. In the April parliamentary elections, the ruling Fidesz party, led by prime minister Viktor Orbán, gained support from 38% of voters in the 18-29 age group. Yes, it’s less than the total number (which stands at 49%), but we have to understand that even though Fidesz is nominally a conservative and right-wing party, it’s still mainly a movement of one egoistic politician without any clear (or at least honest) ideology. And remember, Fidesz was a proud liberalparty in the ’90s.

Nevertheless, this kind of ideological uncertainty is not at all present in Jobbik, the second strongest party in the Hungarian parliament, usually described as a far-right or ultranationalist. It received 31% of votes among young people. According to a 2015 poll, Jobbik is also the most popular party among university students.

Similar numbers are available from other countries of Visegrad Group as well. According to the Slovak Institute for Public Affairs, up to one-third of teenagers in the smallest Central European country support the People’s Party – Our Slovakia, which is commonly referred to as neo-Nazi (its leader Marian Kotleba, a great admirer of the right-wing authoritarian first Slovak Republic, for example, gives to poor Slovak families checks for 1488 euro).

The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland also enjoys growing popularity among youth. In the last election, almost 26% (less than overall but still many) of voters under 29 cast their ballots for this conservative and heavily Christian party of Jarosław Kaczyński.

Second place (with 20% of young people) went for the Kukiz’15, an anti-establishment and eurosceptic movement created by rocker Paweł Kukiz, and third place with 16% went for a right-wing libertarian party called Liberty whose leader is Polish MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke. He is well-known for an international audience because of his infamous television interview with Piers Morgan, which went viral on Youtube.

“Of course women must earn less than men because they are weaker, they are smaller, they are less intelligent,”said with a roughish smile Korwin-Mikke to the shocked hosts of Good Morning Britain; and he was immediately branded as “The most sexist man in politics”. Mr. Piers Morgan went even further and called him on live television “a horrendous sexist pig”.

It’s obvious that the popularity of someone like Korwin-Mikke is much bigger among young men. But what is somewhat surprising, his party enjoy steady support among young women too.

However, the traditional role of the right-wing and left-wing parties in some eastern European countries is not as clear as it should be. In the Czech Republic, Slovakia or Romania, the left is often perceived as conservative, anti-immigrant, and eurosceptic. It’s a unique and also very specific paradox; social democrats are sometimes more on the right than Christian democrats.

As political scientists Martin Eiermann, Yascha Mounk, and Limor Goultchin of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change have shown, populist parties (mainly right-wing) are on the rise in Central and Eastern Europe. While in 2000 populists took an average of 9,2% of the national vote,  their popularity has since more than tripled to 31,6% in 2017.

Beyond politics

Ironically, Stalinist regimes in Europe had besides many horrible effects on population also some positive ones. Socialism is hampering technological progress and limiting human potential – that’s a well-known fact. Nobody, however, seems to think that it also slow social progress.

While left-wing movements have pushed in the West its social agenda, the Communists and their unchanging dogma froze Eastern European societies permanently in the old, more conservative past. Despite the official state ideology of Marxism-Leninism, the population remained traditionally oriented.

Therefore, post-communist countries, which have very good knowledge what socialism is and how extreme some left-wing policies can actually be in reallife, entered the third millennium more resistant against the New Left.

Germany is the epitome of ideological disparities between West and East. The eastern Germans aren’t different from their western colleagues only in terms of economic prosperity but as well on the level of political preferences. The former GDR is now the stronghold of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany, which is according to the latest survey the most popular party here – with the support of almost 25% of local citizens (country average is just below 17%).

New Iron Curtain

For people in Eastern Europe and especially in Visegrad Group, the pressure from the EU officials on Poland and Hungary is a clear attack on post-communist countries, despite the fact that there may be a lot of truth on their allegations. Sargentini report criticizing the state of liberal democracy in Hungary, the theatrical approval of which triggered a wave of emotional reactions all over European Union, punishes a country where more and more young people are planning to vote for an extreme right. And it will doubtlessly only add fuel to the populist fire.

“Hungary shall continue to defend its borders, stop illegal immigration and defend its rights – against you, too, if necessary,” said Viktor Orbán to MEPs in the European Parliament. And he meant it – as long as the majority of young people in Hungary agree with him.

If we want to keep our dream of a united Old world alive, we should be more careful. With this kind of attitude towards eastern members of Union, Europe could easily fall into two hostile parts again and hide its ideological differences behind the new Iron Curtain.

Martin Horička is a journalist based in Slovakia.

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