CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1 What remains to be said regarding the European reunion that occurred on May 1, 2004, following the enlargement of the Union to include ten new countries? Among them, no fewer than eight were part of what had come to be called, before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR, the “Eastern bloc.” From north to south, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Slovenia joined Europe, thus continuing what had been started at Yalta but suspended for so many years by the Cold War (Sellier and Sellier 1991). In the wake of this historic day—a decisive step towards the reunification of Europe—a broad sense of euphoria prevailed.

2 The elections of June 2004 cruelly put an end to this period of enchantment, due first of all to a record level of abstention by voters from the twenty-five member states. When called upon to choose their deputies for the Parliament at Strasbourg, central and eastern European member states demonstrated a greater indifference than their counterparts in the west. In Poland and Slovakia, for example, voter turnout was at less than 20%, which represents the most significant voter abstention. Levels of participation were scarcely better in the Czech Republic or in Estonia, with abstention rates of 72% and 73% respectively recorded in these countries. In short, these first elections, involving 450 million citizens in a continent that nobody considered “new,” [1] resulted, whether we like it or not, in a genuine fiasco.

3 The reasons for this disaffection at polling stations among the European Union’s new arrivals are numerous, and the transition to a liberal society without the retention of certain social safeguards is not the least of them. Our intention here is not to analyze these reasons in depth. On the other hand, part of our purpose is to examine in detail the political manifestations that have stemmed in recent years from the sense of unease among populations at risk of instability or various identity crises, in the face of the European venture. Even though it took on different forms in different places, protest helped movements that were hostile to Europe and that fed off populism to grow.

4 Here we undoubtedly have a catch-all concept that has tended, over a considerable number of years, to be overused in the domain of media-politics, where more often than not it is infused with a strong dose of polemic intended to disqualify any adversary that may prove to be somewhat of an annoyance (Durand 2004, 185-193). This comes to a point where the observer is faced with the “impossibility of finding a definition capable of covering what its very diverse manifestations across time and space could have in common” (Hermet 2001, 19). Nonetheless, notwithstanding its polymorphic essence, and, if one follows the typology of Pierre-André Taguieff (2001), two major types can be identified. The first of these is the “protest” type, where the contestation of a social order viewed as unjust predominates, serving primarily as an outlet for communities in precarious, even left-behind, positions; and the second is the “identity” type, where the dominant concept is the defense of a nation considered to be threatened in its substantive homogeneity—or its supposed original purity—by non-native elements. It goes without saying that these two types of populism frequently intermingle in central and eastern Europe, and, what is more, along with the western half of the continent (Betz 2004).

5 A rejection of the system is one of the major traits of the populist protest phenomenon (Taguieff 2004). In the east, the success of parties with an independence agenda, combined with a high rate of abstention, contributes, to a greater or lesser extent, to this political direction. Eurocracy, perceived as distant, technocratic, and demanding in regard to the sacrifices it requested, seemed to gradually become an object of rejection, chiefly among populations struggling with what some people began to refer to as the “precariat” (a social class below that of the “salariat” with its permanent-contract jobs). This disaffection reached such heights that, aside from entrepreneurs with voracious appetites and limited scruples, it was not uncommon to hear large numbers of the precariat—especially those who were particularly deprived—acknowledging their sense of nostalgia for the old system: the period that preceded all-out deregulation and liberalization. This all goes to show that Euroscepticism feeds off societal angst that is linked to the prospect of an uncertain future. These citizens are on the verge of feeling like second-class Europeans, with the rules of the game—the acceptance of the community acquis and respect for norms above all—having been previously established, without their involvement (Frybes 1998). This feeling will become all the more evident in the near future, if this is not already the case, and this is before the question of the high social costs of entry into the EU even arises. In this regard, the slogan “stop stealing our goods” of the former Polish farmer’s union Samoobrona (“Self-Defense”) is symptomatic. The charismatic and provocative leader of this populist movement, Andrzej Lepper, was already declaring in 2002 that: “When they are in the European Union, the Poles will be slaves. They will wipe the buttocks of German women or else sweep the streets of this country.” [2]


7 The League of Polish Families movement advocates similar values, but places a greater focus on identity. It is an ultra-Catholic and nationalist party that secured second place in the elections to the European Parliament of June 13, 2004—just behind the moderate right Civic Platform—and whose motto is “Poland for the Poles.” Its other sayings—repeated constantly—speak for themselves: “Get out, foreign invaders,” “Yesterday Moscow, today Brussels,” “Pedophiles and pederasts, these are Euro-enthusiasts,” “Yesterday’s party secretaries are today’s commissioners,” “EU = USSR,” “Your nation is your mother, and you don’t sell your mother.” [3] One can clearly observe, alongside their attachment to the strictest Christian values, that this far-right movement’s unrestrained passion for its homeland is omnipresent in its agenda. A similar national-populism is embedded within the Hungarian Justice and Life Party, which called for a “No” vote in the referendum on its EU membership on April 12, 2003. Its spokesperson, the writer István Csurka, became the champion of the Hungarian spirit, and his writing carried all the elements of an anti-Semitism that Ferenc Szalasi’s Arrow Cross Party would not have disowned—as attested by a long article he wrote in November 2004 in a Budapest newspaper. In it feature the words: “Moscow is slowly taking back the lands that it temporarily lost. In this endeavor, Israel will come to its aid. After making use of American firepower, Israel will also do as it pleases with the renewed Soviet power, the new tyranny.” [4] But his opposition to the government does not end there. The movement denounces a policy that allegedly favors the settling of foreigners in Hungary—notably Jews from Russia, Ukraine and the Middle-East—over Hungarian minorities beyond its borders, principally in Slovakia and Romania. While this is of course a harsh, minority form of discourse, the Fidesz Party of the former Prime Minister Viktor Orban—the winner in the last European election—is far from being unmoved by the nationalistic themes that it commandeers.

8 Similar thugs can be found elsewhere, in particular in Slovakia, where Vladimir Meciar, a populist personality and the head of government from 1993 to 1998, failed to become President of the Republic in spring 2004. Indeed, on April 3, at the end of the first round of the presidential election, during which he tried hard to tone down his ranting and raving, this former boxer of an authoritarian nature who was known for his willfully brutish comments came in first place, an unexpected result that is somewhat reminiscent of the result achieved by Jean-Marie Le Pen on the evening of April 21, 2002. In the Czech Republic, a Eurosceptic mood can also be detected. Václav Klaus, founder of the Civic Democratic Party and the double speaking, unruly head of state, shares an opinion with other long-standing working-class democracies, according to which, in joining the EU, the Czechs are on the road to losing their sovereignty. Avoiding taking in foreigners is not the only contradiction to be noted, since it is well-known that the Eurodeputy Jan Zahradil, a self-professed enemy of the European project, had suggested in a manifesto that his country should be aligned with the United States! In the Baltic countries, where Atlanticism and pro-Americanism prevail, it is the threat posed by their large Russian neighbor that explains certain contractions of identity (Nies 2004). In Latvia for example—the country that has the most significant Russian speaking minority—, an unfettered Russophobia is at the epicenter of the ideological corpus of the For Fatherland and Freedom Party, the winner of the last European election. [5] There are hardly any peaceful nations to be found other than Slovenia, which remains free of thunderous nationalistic leaders and flamboyant loudmouths. Until the arrival of a new order, perhaps?


10 At the end of this brisk examination of certain manifestations that can be qualified as populist, we certainly cannot speak of a swing to the far-right on the part of central and eastern European voters, since the statistics contradict this analysis. These manifestations can be viewed as displays of populism due to the fact that they supplant universality with ethnicity, and exalt calls to a supposedly homogenous people; a people who are glorified, and who must be protected from a class struggle and from a foreign or cosmopolitan enemy. Despite the lack of mass support for the far-right, it would be naïve to think that the evolution observed is devoid of danger for the democratic achievements of these countries. Jean-Yves Camus, an analyst of the most radical right-wing movements, observed in March 2004—several weeks before the European elections—that “far from being a simple form of protest without a real cause, far-right xenophobic populism is based on a well-defined worldview that combines nationalism, pessimism and radicalism. In other words, a precise vision of the world that, henceforth, places blame on social democracy and the liberal right, thereby freeing up space for expressing a disavowal of the system.” [6] All of this leads us to believe that this populism is far from disappearing from the political landscape of our democracies, in both the East and the West (Ihl et al. 2003). Hence the need to keep a close watch on its development (Blaise and Moreau 2004).

Results of European parliamentary elections: June 11-13, 20041

38.6 million people - 54 seats
Political PartiesPercentage of VotesNumber of Seats
Civic Platform (PO – moderate right)24.1 %15
League of Polish Families (LPR – Catholic right)15.9 %10
Law and Justice (PIS – nationalist right)12.7 %7
Samoobrona (Self-Defense – populist right)10.8 %6
Democratic Left Alliance (SLD – moderate left)9.3 %5
Freedom Union (UW – center-right)7.3 %4
Polish People’s Party (PSL)6.3 %4
Social Democratic Party of Poland (SDPL)5.3 %3
10.1 million people - 24 seats
Political PartiesPercentage of VotesNumber of Seats
Hungarian Civil Alliance (FIDESZ – nationalist right)47.4 %12
Socialist Party (MSzP – ex-communist left)34.3 %9
Alliance of Free Democrats (SzDSz – liberal center-left)7.7 %2
Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF – center-right)5.3 %1
5.4 million people - 14 seats
Political PartiesPercentage of VotesNumber of Seats
Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU – Christian Democrat)17.1 %3
Movement for a Democratic Slovakia – People’s Party (HZDS-LS - populist)17.1 %3
Direction (SMER – Social Democrat)16.9 %3
Christian Democratic Movement (KDH - conservative)16.2 %3
Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK)13.2 %2
10.2 million people - 24 seats
Political PartiesPercentage of VotesNumber of Seats
Civic Democratic Party (ODS – nationalist right)30 %9
Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM)20.3 %6
Union of Independents – Christian Democrats (SN-ED – center-right)11 %3
Christian Democratic Union – Czechoslovak People’s Party (Christian Democrat)9.6 %2
Social Democratic Party (CSSD)8.8 %2
Nezávislí (independent)8.2 %2
2.3 million people - 9 seats
Political PartiesPercentage of VotesNumber of Seats
For Fatherland and Freedom (TB-LNNK – nationalist right)29.8 %4
New Era (JL - center-right)19.7 %2
For Human Rights in United Latvia (PCTVL – pro-minority Russian left)10.7 %1
People’s Party (TP - center-right)6.6 %1
Latvian Way (LC - center)6.5 %1
2 million people - 7 seats
Political PartiesPercentage of VotesNumber of Votes
New Slovenia – Christian People’s Party (NSI – center right)23.5 %2
Liberal Democracy of Slovenia (LDS – center left)21.9 %2
Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS)17.7 %2
United List of Social Democrats (ZLSD – ex-communists)
  1. %
tableau im1

Results of European parliamentary elections: June 11-13, 20041

tableau im2
tableau im3
1. Only the results of countries mentioned in the text are shown.


  • [1]
    On this subject, see the special edition published by Le Monde on April 29, 2004, bearing the title “Europe, continent neuf.”
  • [2]
    Libération, June 28, 2002.
  • [3]
    Katarzyna Czernicka, “La Ligue des familles polonaises. Montée en puissance d’un parti anti-européen,” in Le courrier des pays de l’Est, No. 1045 (Paris: La Documentation française, September-October 2004), 92.
  • [4]
    Magyar Forum, November 4, 2004.
  • [5]
    On this subject, see Sergueï Panov, “Discours nationaliste et politique linguistique en Lettonie indépendante,” in Mots, Les langages du politique, No. 74 (Lyon: ENS Éditions, March 2004).
  • [6]
    Le Monde diplomatique, March 2004.

Since the demise of the Soviet bloc, political parties with catch-all programs and demagogical rhetoric have been emerging in the countries of central and eastern Europe. Even though these parties did not come close to gaining the upper hand at the last European elections in June 2004, their charismatic leaders may eventually find a following thanks to an all-out liberal policy that has left the population helpless and confused and has jeopardized their wellbeing. This is yet another reason to be aware of the populist phenomenon that such political groups and individuals embody, especially since this phenomenon is present in most of the twenty-five states of the European Union.


  • populism
  • Eastern Europe
  • Central Europe
Henri Deleersnijder
Henri Deleersnijder is a professor of history and a researcher at the University of Liège (Department of Arts and Communication Sciences). His most recent publication is Les Prédateurs de la mémoire. La Shoah au péril des négationnistes (Brussels: Labor/Espace de Libertés, 2001).
Uploaded on on 06/07/2017
Distribution électronique pour C.N.R.S. Editions © C.N.R.S. Editions. Tous droits réservés pour tous pays. Il est interdit, sauf accord préalable et écrit de l’éditeur, de reproduire (notamment par photocopie) partiellement ou totalement le présent article, de le stocker dans une banque de données ou de le communiquer au public sous quelque forme et de quelque manière que ce soit.
Loading... Please wait