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Transatlantic Blog

How to defeat populism

The following speech was delivered at the European Liberty Forum, organized by the Atlas Network in Budapest, Hungary, on September 21, 2017. It has been edited for length and clarity. Ed.

Do you know what 500 years means? Can we actually comprehend how much time half a century is? Once, on a trip to Austria, I had the opportunity to visit an exceptional castle. The most amazing thing for me, besides the beautiful view, was when I learned that this gorgeous building was owned by the same family for the last 500 years.

Five hundred years of respect for private property. For us Hungarians, who live right in the neighbourhood of Austria, this number is incomprehensible. We do not even know what is going to happen in Hungary next year.

Here, time is measured differently. Let me illustrate with another example of how different it is. Were you to meet a 100-year-old person here in Hungary, that person have lived through two World War defeats, at least two crises of the world economy, several unsuccessful freedom fights, and eight political transitions. That is, everything in the country restarted eight times: new laws, new social rules, new mandatory ideologies. Here in Hungary, there is no opportunity for long-term planning. When walking around in New York I like to look at the numbered street signs: Those will not be renamed every few decades unlike here, where the state constantly changes the names of the streets and squares of Budapest. I am only in the beginning of my forties, but this is the third political system in my country since I was born. How many more are there to come?

Today, populism is a global plague.

Dear friends, welcome to Budapest, the beautiful European capital of populism! How did Hungary, which was the most advanced Eastern Bloc country in terms of freedom and acceptance of Western values, and served as a beacon of Western spirit during the 1980s and ‘90s, become a black hole sucking up individual freedom, civil rights, and freedom of the press? I would like to point out some important reasons for the success of populism in Hungary:

  • In other European countries which experienced a more brutal form of dictatorship, like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, or (especially) Romania, memories of the terror are still vivid in the memories of people. Consequently, they are more sensitive to infringements upon their freedom. We could say that the immune system of such nations is stronger against oppression.
  • In Eastern Europe, the fascist and communist regimes beheaded the property owning, patrician classes of society – the very citizens who would constitute the basis for political stability.
  • The decades following the democratic transition of the 1990s did not bring economic prosperity to the region. Hungarians are disappointed, many longing for the “good old times” when they did not have to take individual responsibility, because the state did that for them…in exchange for their liberty.
  • This situation was ripe for a politician who is patient and shrewd enough to wait until the eventual pay-off. So, he can claim without any program whatsoever, that he is going to fix everything. The relative majority of the electorate, tired of 20 years of unsuccessful politics, decided that they wanted a strong leader to decide their lives. This relative majority melted away in recent years to become nothing more but a large minority. Nonetheless, due to the new Hungarian electoral law, they can sustain the regime for years.

Today, populism is a global plague. There is no continent where it hasn’t appeared. Populists have a strong presence in countries much more successful than Hungary, with much stronger democratic traditions. They are also changing their colors constantly; that’s what makes it true populism. It always appears in a form that is most appealing to voters. In one moment, it is radically left-wing, such as it is in the poverty-stricken Venezuela or other unfortunate South American states, or it is truly Bolshevik like in Belarus. At other times it has some false religious piety like in Turkey, or involves a strong cult of personality like in Kazakhstan. And often, it is radically “right-wing,” xenophobic, and racist, especially towards Europe.

The main principle of populism is gaining power once and never, ever letting it go - reshaping democracy and deconstructing the rule of law step-by-step.

Populists are especially dangerous enemies, because they are strategizing in the terms of democratic competition. That is the main principle of populism: gaining power once and never, ever letting it go, reshaping democracy and deconstructing the rule of law step-by-step as if it was made of LEGO bricks:

  • Emasculating the Constitutional Court, throwing out our constitution, and replacing it with a party rulebook;
  • Eliminating free media and filling up every position with people subservient to the party;
  • Gerrymandering in the electoral constituencies, putting party lackeys in control of election management bodies, transforming free and fair election into theater, just like in Russia;
  • Setting up a Mafia state where there is no individual corruption, because all EU funds are channelled into the pockets of the party leadership and their close circle. For these people, government is just a cover for stealing as all the public funds they can; and
  • Choosing enemies who can’t fight back: refugees, Western bureaucrats, poor people at home.

Francis Fukuyama was wrong. After 1990, the free world thought that with its victory over the Bolsheviks, the great conflicts in the world will subside, and we can finally focus on topics like the environment and education. The West leaned back. “Globalization will take care of everything,” they thought. They have paid the price of their complacency – and so have we. The new populists of the anti-freedom coalition do not want peace. They want tension, conflicts, or even war. Populists only understand the language of power.

Still, this fight is not hopeless, not even in Hungary. We can defeat populism, even here. First, everyone must understand: While international action is an important part of fighting populism, at the end of day, it is less important than local work, because populists can only be beaten locally.

Populists must be fought with reason and engaged in open debates. They cannot be ignored.

Do you ever think about what the opposite of populism is? Its opposite is not socialism, liberalism, or conservatism. The opposite of populism is responsibility, more precisely taking responsibility and working hard for citizens. Populists’ political capital is solely made of exploiting problems.

These people can be beaten. I myself have defeated the candidate of the populist government, which caused the Orbán regime to lose its two-thirds supermajority in the parliament. I can tell you that the recipe for success is neither a secret nor is it very difficult to follow.

  • Putting populists into a quarantine does not work. Political powers deemed undesirable by the establishment just become more attractive to voters. Populists must be fought with reason and engaged in open debates. They cannot be ignored.
  • We must stay honest, even about controversial, sensitive topics which are the domain of populists.
  • According to populists, all problems are caused by external powers (e.g.: George Soros, Jews, Chinese, etc.). They must always fight against something. But people do not want to live in fear forever. This can be used to beat them.
  • If we cannot appear on national media, we have to be present online and go to even the smallest rural villages personally. On the few channels we have access to, we must communicate better than the populists do.
  • We must be tough, resisting both corruption and government threats.
  • If you are a candidate, hit the campaign trail in your country or in your constituency. I would not have won if I didn’t do extensive local groundwork.
  • Engaging and interacting with the electorate must be a permanent activity, not limited to campaign season. A strong local presence in the community and close connection with individuals builds up trust.
  • Whoever wants to win against a populist regime must be ready to risk his or her career to beat the system. It is a hard choice to make, but there is no other way.

We have to start working consciously against populism. We must act, if we don’t want the world to be ruled by the Maduros, the Orbans, the Le Pens, the Dutertes, or the Erdogans. Those who value freedom must work harder, more effectively, and take more responsibility. Globally, we need cooperation against populists, who are also forming international alliances. We must work together because for the first time since the end of the Cold War, we have a common cause.

(Photo credit: Hugoshi. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 4.0.)


Zoltán Kész is one of the founders of the Free Market Foundation in Hungary. The mission of the Free Market Foundation is to represent, defend, and advance free market values, ideas, and policies in Hungary and among speakers of the Hungarian language. The foundation stands for personal liberty and responsibility, the rule of law and tolerance, the strengthening of liberty rights, transparency, and constitutional government. In 2015, he won a by-election in Hungary as an independent Member of Parliament, ending the government's two-thirds majority and absolute power of the governing party. He has published many articles in both English and Hungarian. Kész has a weekly column in one of Hungary’s most popular online news sources.