The Socialism of Central Europe’s Populists


Christopher A. Hartwell

About Christopher A. Hartwell

Dr. Christopher A. Hartwell is President of CASE-Center for Social and Economic Research (CASE) in Warsaw, an Associate Professor at Kozminski University (also in Warsaw), a Visiting Professor at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), and a leading scholar on the evolution of economic institutions. Dr. Hartwell’s interests are in institutional development, especially the interplay between financial institutions and other political and economic institutions. He also has published on international trade and economic integration, with an emphasis on Eurasian integration and transition dynamics. Dr. Hartwell holds a PhD in Economics from the Warsaw School of Economics, a Master’s in Public Policy from Harvard, and a BA in Political Science and Economics from the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Two Roads Diverge: The Transition Experience of Poland and Ukraine (Cambridge University Press, 2016), as well as Institutional Barriers in the Transition to Market: Examining Performance and Divergence in Transition Economies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

The success of the FPO party in the Austrian parliamentary elections, coupled with billionaire upstart Andrej Babiš in the Czech Republic becoming prime minister in the waning days of 2017, means that it appears that Central Europe will be facing another year of political upheaval in 2018. Governments in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Austria (and more conventional left-wing politician Robert Fico in Slovakia) have rearranged the political map substantially from where it was just three years ago. At a loss for how to describe this phenomenon, political commentators and the EU especially have been lazily relying on terms such as ‘right-wing’ or ‘far-right’ to describe what is more accurately an upsurge in populism. In fact, the one thing uniting these disparate governments across the region is a very left-wing trait, a reliance on government planning that can only be called socialist. And Poland’s ostensible ‘anti-communist’ government has been the greatest proponent of these socialist policies in the region.

The drift in Central Europe towards populism is difficult to characterise, mainly because ‘populism’ itself is a malleable term. Properly understood, populism need not be attached to a particular ideology, and in reality, it can be co-opted by both left-wing and right-wing ideologies. For example, the ultimate goal of populism may be equality for a left-wing populist government, while for a right-wing populist government, slogans related to ‘national renewal’ might predominate. In each case, populism is more a description of tactics used to achieve and retain power rather than a coherent ideology in its own right.


Indeed, populism relies on three core tactics to sway a population in its direction: a demonisation of the ‘other,’ some group responsible for the state of a country at the moment; reliance on a charismatic leader promising to transcend normal politics; and an unhealthy obsession with redistribution, in order to reduce the power of the ‘other’ and bring it back to the people. Who the ‘other’ is can change depending upon the government, with entrenched elites, foreigners, specific foreign countries, social classes, or the like all coming under fire from various populist leaders. Similarly, a fiery and charismatic leader can also come from any point on the ideological spectrum, and some populist governments do not even need this attribute (it is hard to claim that Jarosław Kaczynski in Poland holds crowds breathless with his soaring oratory).

However, while these first two tenets of populism may be used in service of right- or left-wing ideology, in terms of its economic prescriptions, populism never contains a right-wing element, as every strain of populism is based on redistribution and entitlement. The sense that something has gone wrong, that real democracy has been corrupted and thus power must be taken back, permeates populist thinking and leads inexorably to policies of redistribution, taxation, and punishment. If the elites/Brussels/capitalists have been enriching themselves at the expense of ‘the people’ for so long, once the populists are in power they have a duty to return the power and/or riches to the people. Such an obsession on redistributing the spoils of power is hardly right-wing and has more in common with garden-variety socialism than any conservative economist.

Additional confusion on this point comes from the imprecise nature of terms such as ‘right-wing’ versus ‘left-wing.’ In too many news outlets, ‘right-wing’ means ‘everything I do not like,’ and thus a socially-conservative party like Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland is branded right-wing across the board. But there is a cultural dimension to these classifications as well, in that Americans (such as myself) interpret right-wing to mean social conservatism but also free market or business orientation and religious freedom (what a European would call liberal, which means something entirely different in an American context). To an American, there need not be a contradiction between being socially conservative and a fiscal liberal (in the European sense): in the United States today, ‘right-wing’ can now encompass everything from a die-hard Trump supporter who sees no logical impossibility between trade protectionism and ‘draining the swamp’ to a libertarian minarchist who believes that government should guard the shores and nothing else. More succinctly put, right-wing parties can have conservative social views, but they never adopt redistributive policies, as these are the exclusive purview of the left-wing.

Far to the Left

This is precisely the reality in Central Europe today, as the governments of Poland and Hungary may be right-wing in their social attitudes, but they are decidedly far to the left on their economic policies. A primer for those who may be confused should help to illustrate this point. Right-wing (i.e. free-market) economic thinking believes in individual choices and individual responsibility, with no subsidisation of behaviour. On the contrary, left-wing thinking believes that markets fail, and thus benevolent government is needed to correct the inherent failures of capitalism. These two viewpoints lead to very different policy prescriptions, with one being much more interventionist than the other.

Applied to current policies in Central Europe, it is easy to see that economic thinking remains mired in socialist, left-wing thought. Most egregious in this respect is Poland, a government which claims to be staunchly anti-communist but in fact has adopted the economic thinking of a people’s republic:

  • Financial intermediation remains the core of a capitalist economy, and thus right-wing policies would encourage the flourishing of finance. Instead, left-wing policies from PiS in Poland have levied a tax on financial institutions in order to fund their other welfare policies;
  • The biggest of these policies is the 500+ programme. Decisions to start a family are predicated on many social and economic issues, personal feelings, and the circumstances between a mother and father. Right-wing adherence to individual responsibility would leave such a momentous decision to the parents. Instead, PiS has instituted the 500+ plan to pay people to have more children, using increased taxation to increase the population;
  • Last but not least, the ‘plan’ of new Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki relies on heavy government investment in ‘strategic industries’ to help grow Poland’s economy. Such an approach would be eschewed by a true right-wing economist, who knows that the market picks winners, not governments.

The Real Loser

It is unlikely that the new year will bring any moderation or tack to the right with these policies, and instead see increased government spending, more intervention, and attempts to change Poland’s institutions for PiS’s own gain. Ironically, as this is going on, PiS will continue to wear the right-wing mantle and claim its policies are new and innovative. Taking a page from Viktor Orban and his followers in Hungary, it is likely that any criticism of the PiS government will be erroneously but vociferously branded left-wing, even if it comes from actual conservatives, libertarians, minarchists, or anarcho-capitalists. Some followers of PiS have even taken to calling those who helped to defeat communism and successfully guide Poland to a market economy ‘communist,’ unaware of the irony.

Who is the real loser in this battle of definitions? Most obviously, the Polish people, who are being led to believe that basic socialist policies are instead a new innovation in the fight against Brussels. But in the longer-term, it is the ideas of liberalism which are most at threat, as the inevitable failures of socialism tend not to be blamed on governments or the ideology itself, but on the market. Without true defenders of right-wing economic thinking, Poland and indeed all of Central Europe may be facing the dilemma of having two left-wings.

The views expressed in this opinion editorial are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Emerging Europe’s editorial policy. 


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TALLINN ESTONIA- JUNE 17: View of the modern high rise buildings on border with an old part of the city on June 17 2012 in Tallinn Estonia

Beyond Borders: Immigration Within the EU

refugees immigrants

CEE Tech Growth Continues: Poland and the Czech Republic Lead the Way


Georgia’s Sweetest Export Targets EU & Japan Expansion

Kiwi fruits growing on the branch on autumn

Outsourcing Sector Driving CEE Office & Graduate Demand

wroclaw office

Georgia’s Great Potential

The highland agriculture lands in Gudauri with the herd of sheep grazing here Georgia.

The Morawiecki Plan Promises a Brighter Future for Poland

The EU’s Choice: Fundamental Reform Or Disintegration

Armenia Opens New Free Economic Zone on Iranian Border

Bags headgear boxes made of traditional fabrics of Armenian patterns and colors lying on the stalls at the Yerevan market in Armenia

Is there any prospect of ‘Polexit’?

poland european union polexit

How Did We Get Here?

Amazing Panorama to City of Plovdiv from nebet tepe hill, Bulgaria

Slowly, Tech Brand Belarus Emerges

belarus tech

Emerging Europe Key to China’s Belt & Road Plans

freight, ship, trade

Ukraine’s Reputation for Cheap Labour May Not Ring True in the Long-term

ICT Growth Continues to Boost Bosnian Economy

ict, it

Serbia’s New PM Is Cut From a Familiar Cloth

Serbian flag emerging europe

Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Boss Survives, For Now

Artem Sytnyk

P&O Maritime Enters Ukrainian Market

Logistics and transportation of International Container Cargo ship and cargo plane in the ocean at twilight sky Freight Transportation Shipping

How Will Poland Approach the Brexit Negotiations?

Continental Launch Largest Ever Lithuanian Greenfield Investment

kaunas lithuania

New Political Crisis Hits Moldova


ArcelorMittal Kryvyi Rih Gets EBRD Boost

Landscape with two mine head frames . Ukraine, Kryvyi Rih, Iron-ore mine Gvardeiskaya. An autumn sunny day with blue sky. Complex for Mining

Czech Republic Renaming Has Real Economic Costs

Digital Business Space Gives All Businesses an Office in Sarajevo

Sarajevo Bosnia and Herzegovina - August 24 2015. View from Vraca Memorial Park with building of Avaz Twist Tower

HSBC Opens Warsaw China Desk

Romanian Competition Council Approves OTP Purchase of Banca Romaneasca

BUDAPEST HUNGARY - JUNE 22 2014: People walk by OTP Bank in Budapest. OTP is the biggest commercial Hungarian bank with 1500 branches in 9 countries.

PE and VC Investment In CEE Is At an Eight-Year High

venture capital

The Azerbaijani Laundromat: Why It Matters

azerbaijani money laundering

CEE-Benefits and Disadvantages of Joining the Eurozone

forint zloty euro

Is the CEE Region About to Steal the Outsourcing Crown From India?

Amazing view on the Taj Mahal in sunset light with reflection in water. The Taj Mahal is an ivory-white marble mausoleum on the south bank of the Yamuna river. Agra Uttar Pradesh India.

21st century Manufacturing Arrives at Great Stone

Great stone

Emphasising the Incongruence Between the V4 Countries

Macron emerging europe

Romanian President Appoints Country’s First Female PM

viorica dancila prime minister of romania

Belarusian Journalists Still Face Huge Problems

Brexit: Let’s Learn the Lesson and Hope a Better Europe Will Arise

Romanian Cabinet Reshuffled as New Splits Emerge in Ruling Party

BUCHAREST ROMANIA - MAY 25 2014: The Victoria Palace. Victoria Square.

Where’s My Cheese? – The GREAT British Food Tour 2014

Cheese Shop

Political Tensions Rise As Croatia Allegedly Breaks the Dublin III Refugee Regulation

croatia migrants

Romanian Car Maker Dacia Sees Sales Boom

Sables d Olonne France - May 07 2017 : Dacia Tour 2017 is a commercial operation organized by the car builder in order to present its cars throughout France - Close-up on cars

Why Was Zapad-2017 So Important?

russian tank belarus zapad

Growth Increase Offers Glimmer of Hope for Moldova


Business Moving Forward with Cautious Optimism — Can Investors Win the Confidence Game?

Azerbaijan Showcases ICT Potential

BAKU AZERBAIJAN - SEPTEMBER 25: People goes by the seafront of Baku on September 25 2016. Baku is a capital and largest city of Azerbaijan.

Škoda too Strong for VW Group

MLADA BOLESLAV CZECH REPUBLIC - MAY 30: Skoda Octavia on conveyor line during Doors Open Day at Skoda Auto a.s. factory. Skoda auto celebrated 120 years since its founding on May 30 2015 in Mlada Boleslav.

Efficient Innovation: Entrepreneurship in Bulgaria

Beautiful photos of modern buildings under blue sky. Europe, Bulgaria, Sofia.

Romanians Take to the Streets in New Mass Protest

Poland’s New PM Defends Attacks on Justice System

warsaw supreme court

Emerging Europe Internet Speeds: Could Do Better

3d rendering internet speed meter close up

Mixed Results for Emerging Europe in New WEF Equality Report


Ukraine’s Gas Reserve Estimates Revised Upwards

Industrial concept. Liquid gas container. Gas storage in the port. Pipelines in the refinery

Moldovan Government Hails Business-Friendly Legal Reforms; NGOs Remain Cool

Chisinau, Republic of Moldova, Eastern Europe, 29th June 2017: view to the Parliament Building in Chisinau, Moldova

Is Prague the New Face of Overtourism?

prague tourists

Poland to Switch from Emerging to Developed Market by September 2018

warsaw stock exchange

Slovenia: Emerging Europe’s Hidden Giant

ljubljana slovenia

Bulgaria: Real Estate’s New Frontier?

Japanese PM Announces Western Balkans EU Initiative

TOKYO JAPAN - Apr 06 2016: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his meeting with President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko in Tokyo

Serbia, Belarus and Ukraine Ranked Lowly by Wharton Business School

Kyiv Ukraine - April 172017: The postal square in Kiev on Podol the Dnipro river. view of the square from the river panorama

Lithuanian Grocery Giant Maxima Set For Polish Expansion


Outsourcing in Germany: Stop Talking at and Start Talking to

Ask for Georgian Campaign Set to Expand Abroad

Traditional Georgian carpet. Carpets with typical geometrical patterns are among the most famous products of Georgia.

E-lifestyle and Cyber Security: Some Views From Estonia

Cyber Security Protection Firewall Interface Concept

Belarus Introduces New Business-Friendly Auditing Procedures

MINSK, BELARUS - AUGUST 15, 2016: Aerial view of the southwestern part of the Minsk with Palace of Sport and old and new other buildings. Minsk is the capital and largest city of Belarus.

Serbia Drafts New Competition Law

serbia belgrade flag

EU May Offer Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine Customs Union and Schengen Access


More Brexit Fears As the UK Proves To Be A Needed Member

City of London view from Waterloo Bridge. This view includes: St. Paul`s Cathedral The Gherkin Tower 42 and Blackfriars Bridge.

Valga and Valka – Where Estonia and Latvia Work Together

Valga valka emerging europe

Larisa Manastirli: Where is Bulgaria After Ten Years in the EU?

Changes Are Making Ukrainian Banking More Aligned with International Standards

Will a Two-speed European Union Side-line the Visegrad Four?

Warsaw Rising: The Polish Capital’s Skyline Gets Even Taller


Romanian Inflation Hits Four-Year High

supermarket, prices, inflation

Regional Relations in the Western Balkans: Moving Beyond Folklore

Bosnia and Herzegovina flag with Serbia flag, 3D rendering

High Real Estate Prices at Home Force Czech Investors Abroad

Construction of the Petrin lookout tower in Prague Czech Republic

World Bank: Western Balkans Need to Speed Up Growth For Faster Convergence

world bank

Business Standards Are High in SEE But Vary Widely

Aerial view of The Cathedral of the Assumption in Varna

Azerbaijan: The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Nothing


Falling into Old Ways in 2017? Ukraine’s Struggle for Functioning Economic Institutions

Fitch And the World Bank: Economic Growth To Remain Solid Within CEE In 2016

Belarus’ Economy Is Slowly Recovering From Past Declines

Stuck in Neutral: Georgia’s Constitutional Reforms

Tbilisi Parliament Georgia

The Right to Water: Who Can Change Today’s Situation?

Impact of Brexit on EU-CEE Not Overstated

theresa may brexit

Polish Tax Laws — Fighting a Winning Battle Against Tax Evaders

Poland: Is it Ready, and is it Time to Adopt the Euro?

Albania’s Election Apathy

tirana albania

Investigations Into the Corrupt Ukrainian Fuel and Energy Sectors

Ukrainian money hryvnia. The national currency. Corruption in Ukraine

Economic Confidence Rises Across Eurozone

Poland Needs to Cling to the Eurozone

zloty euro emerging europe

Assaults on the Judiciary: How CEE Governments Are Trying to Restrict Judicial Independence, and Why It’s Not Working… For Now

poland romania justice system

Budapest’s Property Boom Goes Nationwide


Polish Convenience Store Sector Booms

Poland’s Unicorn, Slovakia’s Flying Car and the Future of Europe

The Reality in Romania Exposes False Perceptions Of The Country

Ex-Banker to Become Poland’s Next Prime Minister

Erste Group: Public Debt Falling Across CEE

erste group

Putin Urges Belarus to End Oil Transit Through Lithuania

Athens Greece - May 27 2016: Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers

China and Central Europe: Don’t Believe the Hype


Czech PM Loses Confidence Vote

andrej Babiš

Romanian Opposition Unites Against ‘Crime Syndicate’ Government

GSA Names Ukraine as UK’s Offshoring Destination of the Year

map of ukraine emerging europe

Investment in Croatia’s Regions Key to Further Development

CAKOVEC, CROATIA - JULY 02: Parish Church of Saint Nicholas in Cakovec, Croatia, on July 02, 2016.

CEE — Do We Need a Launch Pad For Our On-Site Tech Intelligence in the Silicon Valley

International Women’s Day — Let’s Take Action And Then Celebrate

Ukraine to Make New Privatisation Push

Prospering Czechia Still Needs a Bigger Workforce

prague emerging europe

Poles Still Keen on German Jobs

Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in Germany. The Brandenburg Gate is a triumphal arch a city gate in the center of Berlin. It is one of the most known sites in Berlin.

Budget Chaos Hits Romanian Leu

Different Romanian Lei Banknotes on the table

CEE Boosted by Positive Tourism Trends Across the Region

cruise ship in Kotor Bay Montenegro. Aerial view panorama. Kotor bay Montenegro.

Will the New Five-day Visa-free Regime Encourage More Visitors to Belarus?

Regional News Outlets: The Real Target of Poland’s New Media Law?

poland media

Kraków: Officially Emerging Europe’s Most Elegant City

Krakow. Image of Krakow Market square, Poland during sunrise.

Not All Quiet on the Eastern Front

Romania Warned Again by European Council Over Budget Deficit

romania finance ministry

Belarus 2020: Turning the Vicious Circle Into an Upward Spiral

Slovenia’s Presidential Election: Pahor Expected to Romp Home

Slovenia flag against blue sky waving in wind

Slovakia: Growth Continues But Problems Remain

Czechs Hold Emerging Europe’s Most Powerful Passport

Kaczyński Defends PiS Record

IMF Increases Growth Forecast With Emerging Europe Prominent

Dambovita river and center of Bucharest at sunset time Romania.

Visegrád Divided


UK Economic Growth Slows as Brexit Uncertainty Bites

flags of UK and EU combined over icons of London - Brexit concept

Poland Challenges the European Identity

Poland emerging europe

History as Destiny? Institutional Erosion in Ukraine and Poland

Romania’s PM Resigns

BUCHAREST ROMANIA - June 29 2017: Romanian Prime Minister Mihai Tudose during a swearing-in ceremony at Cotroceni palace in Bucharest capital of Romania June 29 2017.

Lithuania Set to Streamline Competition Legislation

Industrial dock with cranes on the quay

Doing Business Across Eurasia Could Be Easier

Eurasia emerging europe schneider group

Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey Launch New ‘Silk Rail’ Link

How strong is V4?

Viktor Orban

The GREAT London Food Scene

Bakery in London

Measure, Strengthen, and Grow

dacia brand

Montenegro Accelerates Legal Reform

montenegro law reform

The Global Outsourcing Industry — the Rise of the Phoenix

IMF: Institutions Key to Sustainable Growth


The End of Poland’s Shale Gas Eldorado

GE Inaugurates Its New Bucharest Software Centre

Asian Outsource Developer Team Sitting At Desk Working Laptop Computer Mobile Application Software Real Office

Let’s Stop Wasting Time Redefining our Place in Europe

Moldova Falls Victim to Politicising

moldova emerging europe

Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict Moves from Frozen to Kinetic


EconMin: Bulgaria — Number One Outsourcing Destination And an Island of Stability in Europe

EU Membership and Transition into Market Economies Have Helped CEE Achieve Social Progress

Defending EU Values in Poland and Hungary

Eu hungary poland

Poland Is Set To Become a Large Economic Zone

Aerial view over the building materials processing factory. View from above.

Poland’s Q2 2017 Growth Is Stronger Than Expected

WARSAW, POLAND - MAY 07, 2016: Building Palace of Culture and Science among the modern buildings of the city

Czech Republic Raises Interest Rates

czech koruna

Mixed Results for Emerging Europe in Legatum Prosperity Index


Belarus Refinery Boss Upbeat Despite Challenges

oil refinery

Steep Jump in Georgian Exports

container ship in import export and business logistic.By crane Trade Port Shipping.cargo to harbor.Aerial view.Top view.

China-Georgia FTA Takes Effect

TBILISI GEORGIA - SEPTEMBER 28: Top view of Tbilisi downtown Georgia on September 28 2016. Tbilisi is a capital and largest city of Georgia.

EU Commissioner Launches Veiled Attack on Poland and Hungary

eu commission

Old Fashioned Skulduggery Overshadows the Elections in Moldova

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