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Illiberal parties’ grasp on power has relied on economic and social policy as much as on the demise of checks and balances and the distortion of electoral rules. Democratic actors should not overlook the ways in which these parties attract formerly neglected social groups with their welfarist approach. They should offer policies that respond to people’s increasing insecurities in times of severe crises.

 

Dorottya Szikra

June 17, 2024

 

 

“It is very hard for liberals to accept that bad politics can produce good economics, and that good politics can produce bad economics.” (Robert Skidelsky, 2018)

 

 

In his essay drawing lessons from the 2008 great crisis and its aftermath, the economic historian Robert Skidelsky referred to the interventionist, Keynesian economic approach of many of the illiberal leaders in Europe, including Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Vladimir Putin in Russia. He wrote that “[p]roponents of liberalism—and those to their left—neglect these issues at their peril”.

This provocative statement draws our attention to the economic and social consequences of governance. There is a growing realization that the current rise of illiberal and right-wing populist parties is at least in part due to the “ill-fare” policies of democratic forces. Post-communist Eastern Europe provides evidence to understand how the new democratic-capitalist rule ruined many welfare institutions present under communist rule and led, for example, to increasing mortality rates. The neoliberal reforms of the 1990s and 2000s in Eastern and Western Europe alike privatized much of health care and pensions, and emphasized the responsibility of citizens in providing for themselves rather than investing in a stronger and caring state attentive to citizens’ needs. Overall, as the social scientist Zsuzsa Ferge put it, states “individualized the social”.

Three consequences of this paradigmatic turn have had a profound impact on the rise of illiberal parties. First, market-oriented changes hit the vulnerable hardest. People with high salaries and good savings can pay for private health care or schools. Those earning low salaries or out of the labor market cannot afford privatized services and have been stuck with the increasingly underfinanced public ones. Second, such “dualization” of institutions of welfare led to the demise of solidarity in society. The rich tend to question the importance of public services as soon as they do not use them and are increasingly reluctant to finance them. At the same time, the consequence of cuts in funding is lower quality of these services.

Third, decreasing solidarity finally led to an ill-prepared state when it came to dealing with the crises in the past decade and a half. The 2008 great crisis and its aftermath exposed millions to the volatility of the financial markets and fostered skyrocketing unemployment. Mass migration from the Global South since the mid-2010s tested the solidarity capacity of countries in Europe. The Covid-19 crisis showed the importance of coordinated state effort in building up and maintaining efficient and easy-to-access public health care and social assistance.

The ill-preparedness of states that could not provide sufficient protection against social, economic, and health crises contributed to people moving away from traditional left-wing and liberal parties that had often reacted with austerity measures without sufficient care to vulnerable social groups. Voters started to turn toward illiberal and populist right-wing parties that promised new ideological and material anchors to growing uncertainties. This is particularly true to those social groups that were more exposed to hard times. Illiberal parties without exception have targeted the losers of globalization and neoliberal processes. Their typical core voter is the low-income, precarious worker whose economic security is no longer guaranteed by their jobs and by the welfare state.

What kind of social policies do right-wing illiberal actors propose? One would expect their ideology to translate into market-oriented economic and social policies, emphasizing the role of individuals in determining their fate. Certainly, right-wing  illiberal actors analysed in this study, including Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz party in Hungary, Jarosław Kaczyński and Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland, Georgia Meloni and FdI in Italy, and Heinz-Christian Strache in the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ),  all suggest to decrease taxes but they also  embrace a caring state. A close look into their manifestos and reforms when in government shows their attempts to carefully balance pro-market and statist ideas. In the longer run, these parties’ preferences shifted from a market-centered minimalist state during the 1990s to an interventionist welfare state since the 2010s.

Besides differences reflecting mainly the historical features of welfare institutions in individual countries, illiberal social policies have striking commonalities. First, all the illiberal parties came to power in severe crises that triggered austerity policies by the outgoing governments. In opposition, illiberal parties and populist leaders presented themselves as the saviors of the nation from internal and supranational neoliberal actors that initiated cuts to social provisions. In this vein, they proposed welfarist ideas, sometimes joining forces with other pro-welfare actors like trade unions. Their social policy proposals were often more leftist than those of nominally left-wing parties. In opposition, illiberal strongmen and their parties—President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Justice and Development (AKP) party in Turkey just as its EU-member counterparts—campaigned against supranational agencies, like the International Monetary Fund, that constrained social spending. They all joined forces with trade unions and proposed welfare reforms to protect the losers of global capitalism. Orbán and Kaczyński also initiated welfare-related referenda prior to the elections that brought them to power.

In power these actors were true to their words: they carried out important and often paradigmatic social-policy reforms serving formerly neglected social groups. In Turkey, the AKP increased payments to poor pensioners and universalized access to health care in the 2000s. Citizens engaged in informal work got access to the same services as those with formal employment. In Poland, Kaczynski decreased the pension age for men and women alike, and introduced the most generous family payments ever. In Hungary, Orbán, while having a more diverse record of social and economic policies, restored parental leave and stopped the privatization of the health-insurance system.

The case of two Western European countries enables us to identify further defining features of illiberal social policy.

The Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) campaigned for more welfare for the native population and stringent restrictions for immigrants. It exemplifies exclusionary welfare chauvinism that treats immigrants as scroungers on the welfare state and dismisses the vast contribution they make to the economy. This was the central idea of the FPÖ when it was in government as the junior coalition partner in 2000–2007 and 2017–2019. On both occasions, it was given the Ministry for Welfare and carried out paradigmatic reforms to the social-insurance system that equalized and unified social rights for native citizens. Like the AKP in Turkey, it believed in equal access to health care across class and social status and changed the system in this direction. As the FPÖ’s manifesto stated in 2011, “We are committed to the political goal of avoiding multi-class medical care in public health care. Public health care must rule out privileges based on social origin or religious orientation”.

The FPÖ also aimed to create a separate social-security system for “foreign citizens”. Thus, it has had a two-track approach in social policy, tied to its central claim that “Austria is not a country of immigration”. In its view, social policies should be generous, equal, and universal for the “insider”, native citizens, providing an answer to the concerns of those Austrians who feel hurt by growing inequalities and precarity.

A similar dualistic approach is present in Italy’s illiberal, right-wing populist Brothers of Italy (FdI) party that has been in power since 2022. In this case, however, it is not so much the native status of citizens but rather their “performance” that should determine access to social rights. The party makes a sharp distinction between those who deserve state help and those who do not on the basis of work and employment. Reflecting similar distinctions from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the deserving poor are those not able to work (like children, the elderly, or the disabled) and the undeserving poor are adults who are able to work but for some reason do not. The party thus believes in merit-based rather than need-based redistributive justice. As the FdI leader Georgia Meloni put it during the election campaign, “[W]e are convinced that a just state does not put on the same level of assistance those that can work and those that cannot, those that need assistance and those that need a job. We want to distinguish these two aspects”.

Accordingly, one of the first measures that FdI implemented via an emergency decree in 2023 was to eliminate the universal social minimum income that was provided regardless of people’s work record. The change limited access especially for the “undeserving”—unemployed people. This was about more than just saving the state money; it demonstrated the party’s ideological stance in contrast with the left-wing populist Five Stars Movement that stood for inclusiveness. In general, FdI has a selective and exclusive approach to social policy based on merit, similarly to the workfare approach Fidesz has pursued since 2010.

In sum, illiberal parties’ grasp on power has relied on economic and social policy as much as on the demise of checks and balances and the distortion of electoral rules. Democratic actors should not overlook the ways in which these parties attract formerly neglected social groups with their welfarist approach. As much as their actions hurt liberal democratic values, their social and economic policies may offer protection from increasing global uncertainties and vulnerabilities in symbolic and real terms. These parties also exclude “unpopular” social groups based on nativism and workfare. Left and liberal democratic actors should see these illiberal social policies as a wake-up call not to repeat earlier mistakes and instead find inclusive ways to protect all citizens from economic and social crises.

 

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Dorottya Szikra is a Research Fellow at the CEU Democracy Institute, and Head of Department and the Centre for Social Sciences in Budapest.

For more information, see the author’s accompanying working paper entitled “Illiberalism and Social Policy: A four-country comparison” published in the AUTHLIB Working Paper Series.

The AUTHLIB consortium does not take collective positions. Publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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Photo credit: Noin90650 via Shutterstock

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