Barbara Pisciotta and Daniela Verena Huber explore how populism fuels societal divisions and provides fertile ground for democratic backsliding. In Hungary and Tunisia, as elsewhere around the world, this has allowed populist leaders to increase their own power at the expense of the opposition
Populism can feed progressive democratic backsliding in a variety of political contexts, pushing some countries below the democratic threshold. Populists can exploit large parliamentary majorities achieved through free, recurring, fair, and competitive elections. Within a constitutional framework, populists can introduce institutional changes that progressively undermine pluralism and competition. Think of the role played by Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, or Kais Saied in Tunisia.
Democratic backsliding is incremental institutional change that weakens democratic procedures and norms without compromising their effectiveness definitively. This finds expression mainly in a strengthening of executive power, a decrease in the competitiveness of the electoral process and greater government control over the judiciary and the media. Cornerstones of democracy, such as elections and the distribution of power among institutional bodies, remain. However, they are weakened to the incumbent's advantage.
Populist politicians from Poland to Israel and Turkey are undermining democratic institutions. Research shows how populists exploit societal grievances and cleavages to create us-versus-them narratives. Such polarisation, though, might not necessarily be harmful for democracy. Rather, it might merely respond to existing grievances. After all, a resilient democracy can accommodate strongly diverging preferences.
When people's interests line up along a single divide, politics becomes not a struggle between political competitors, but between political enemies
But this process turns pernicious when 'people’s identities and interests line up along a single divide'; when they overshadow other cross-cutting identities and become entrenched in political groupings. Politics thus becomes increasingly a struggle not between political competitors, but between political enemies. The transformation of opponents into enemies is typically accompanied by a decrease in social trust in the political system and in society. As a result, citizens may become less attached to democracy as a norm. They may also become more inclined to accept, or even support, measures which erode the democratic polity.
Let’s look more closely at how this has happened in Hungary and Tunisia.
Hungary is a Catholic-majority country with a parliamentary system. Tunisia is a Muslim-majority country with a semi-presidential system. Hungary is surrounded by democracies; Tunisia is the only country which democratised as a result of the Arab uprisings. Despite these cultural and political differences, both countries have experienced a growth in populism that has undermined trust in the previous political class, and in democratic institutions as a whole. This growth has modified the traditional interaction between majority and opposition.
In Hungary, the populist 'bomb' detonated after the 2008 economic crisis and the resulting inability of the then socialist government to resolve the country's economic woes. Four successive elections from 2010–2022 confirmed the rise and consolidation of Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party. This period also saw a trend for strengthening right-wing parties worldwide, and a consequent increase in political polarisation.
In Hungary, the trend incited pride in national identity. It encouraged suspicion towards ethnic minorities and mistrust of external political pressures, from Brussels in particular. It generated a sense among ordinary Hungarians that their identity was under threat, and it fuelled xenophobia.
In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has restricted the freedom of the media and academia, and compromised judicial autonomy
Hungary's democratic backsliding path relies on two institutional tools: executive aggrandisement and strategic manipulation. Orbán carried out the first by restricting the freedom of the media and academia, and by compromising judicial autonomy. The second he enacted through electoral reforms, systematically altering party competition to Fidesz advantage.
The Islamist Ennahda Movement Party was formed in the wake of the 2011 Tunisian revolution. With its entrance into Tunisia's political landscape, a religious-secular divide began to dominate public debate and the party system. In 2013, in wake of Egypt's military coup, Ennahda agreed a compromise with the old regime's elites. On one hand, this prevented Tunisia succumbing to the same fate as Egypt. On the other, however, it made democratic consolidation highly unlikely.
In the absence of structural reforms to tackle Tunisia's economic challenges or stop endemic corruption, Tunisians' trust in the political system collapsed
Tunisia's government pursued no structural reforms to tackle economic challenges, to create a real transitional justice process or to stop endemic corruption. As a result, ordinary Tunisians' trust in the political system collapsed. The most marginalised sectors of Tunisian society became increasingly alienated from the political system. And since 2016, the country has been riven by contentious politics.
Kais Saied – an outsider not associated with either old or new political elites – won the presidency on a populist election campaign. Amid an ongoing economic crisis, sharpened by the Covid-19 emergency in 2021, the president began his onslaught on parliament – an attack which later spread to the judiciary, media and civil society.
Comparing the cases of Hungary and Tunisia is a revealing exercise. It shows us that populism, pernicious polarisation and democratic backsliding (see Freedom House data) have taken similar pathways despite the differences in regional, political, institutional and cultural contexts.
The ‘majority populism’ that prevails in the Hungarian decision-making process seems to reinforce the hybrid nature of Orbán's regime. Only a significant change in electoral orientation will be able to defeat it. This is a problem that Orbán himself has sensed. To overcome it, he has chosen to divert the electorate's attention towards security; notably, his policy of non-intervention in Ukraine, as recently confirmed by Fidesz opposition to Kyiv's entry into NATO.
In Tunisia, in the wake of the war on Ukraine and a deteriorating economic situation, demonstrations against the president became frequent. Saied, like Orbán, seeks to divert attention from his poor governance by advocating the great replacement theory, and turning Tunisians against the country's most marginalised people: migrants. Unlike Orbán, however, Saied lacks the backing of a populist party. Nor has he, to the same extent, at least, succeeded in institutionalising a hybrid regime. As a result, Saied is de facto dependent on security actors in Tunisia.
Both Orbán and Saied continue to use populism as a strategy which – while undermining civilians' trust – is enough to keep both leaders in power. For now.