Since 2011, TransparenCEE has been operating in a number of populist environments in Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia, a region with significant concentrations of post-communist authoritarian “strong men” leaders or politicians engaging in polarising populist-driven agendas to legitimise their rule and influence. This includes Hungary and Ukraine, which are described elsewhere in this report.
Romania has not received as much international attention in terms of illiberal populist politics. However, prominent politicians, notably the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD)’s leader Liviu Dragnea, who has recently been convicted of corruption, have deployed narratives and tactics used by better-known populist leaders in neighbouring countries in support of their brand of populism. This has ranged from invoking “Soros network” conspiracy accusations against those who push for minority rights to “enemy of the state” rhetoric against foreign influence to inciting fears about EU attempts to transform Romania into a Western colony, characterised by the appearance of “we do not sell our country” slogans in mainstream media. The PSD was elected to power in 2016 with an exceptionally low voter turnout (39%) and a host of popular but unrealistic policy promises such as lower taxes, higher pensions and public sector salaries and increased social assistance.
In contrast, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been described as the “inventor of 21st century populism”, and the evolution of his rhetoric has been extensively analysed. According to the Global Populism Database, a comparative study of the speeches of global leaders, Turkey has witnessed the largest increase in populist rhetoric of the 40 countries analysed. Despite being classified as “not populist” when taking power back in 2003, Erdoğan is the only right wing leader in the world to reach the “very populist” categorisation in 2019, indicating a huge shift in his discourse during his 16 years at the top of Turkey’s political system. These cases exemplify the two core elements of populism:
anti-elitism: pitting “the people” (i.e. Islamists in Turkey) against a “corrupt elite” (i.e. secularists in Turkey).
anti-pluralism: the absence of any serious contestation of power or moral authority except that of these “strong men” leaders.
The other four additional features of populism are also present to varying degrees in the region:
anti-debate: Elections are formally or informally dismissed, for example, Erdoğan dismissed the results of the Istanbul municipal elections and demanded a rerun, while Dragnea dismissed his party’s EU parliamentary loss as a “hate storm”.
resistant to countervailing facts: Populist leaders and politicians across the region often lie, exaggerate, misrepresent or manipulate information to support the particular narratives they are promoting. Moreover, they often contradict their public statements in order to be provocative or generate controversy, and dismiss or do not engage properly with public challenges from other actors who have credible contrary data or evidence.
rejects intermediaries: Threats against traditional mediating institutions, such as the media, the courts and civil society organisations (CSOs), are common. crisis, breakdown or threat: Rhetoric of crisis, such as the breakdown of social order due to immigration or corruption (such as in Romania), is used to justify strong-handed, illiberal policies.