Brandt School Universität Erfurt

Democratic Backsliding in Eastern Europe: Guest Lecture by Dr. Thilo Bodenstein

Dr. Kemmerling's 'Politics of Reform' class had the pleasure of attending Dr. Thilo Bodenstein's guest lecture on July 3, covering the topic of democratic backslide. Dr. Thilo Bodenstein is an Associate Professor at the School of Public Policy and the MA Director at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. The topic of his speech covered Hungarian politics and the recent events that have ushered in many changes for the once democratic nation. The case for democratic backsliding in Hungary was brought forth by the recent wave of populism that has found a footing in mainstream politics.

To support this, Dr. Bodenstein discussed how Hungary has undergone several major changes in a short amount of time, including the adoption of a new constitution that shifted the power from the people of the nation to the crown of the nation. Another example is the loss of freedom of the press and the shift towards government-controlled media.

One of the overarching themes in Dr. Bodenstein's lecture was trying to find a clear definition that fits all forms of populism. He went on to state that while there were many working definitions for populism, none were able to conclusively explain the different forms without contradiction. His definition, which he said is still a work in progress, defines populism as 'a total conquest for power'. He went on to explain that a populist government wants to retain power through the implementation of policies and its growth in the control over the many functions of the government. This can be accomplished through the establishment of a more authoritarian machine. The use of geo-political situations like the refugee crisis allows governments to scapegoat the situation and make a case for why they must retain power. The creation of an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality allows for the further conquest for power. Consolidation of power for a populist regime doesn’t necessarily happen overnight, rather it is a process of chipping away at a democracy through incremental changes until it is a shell of its former self. 

Dr. Thilo Bodenstein's lecture gave a very compelling and balanced overview of the unfolding situation in Hungary. It was a lecture that was eye opening and interesting for all involved. The lecture by Dr. Bodenstein was the topic of much discussion for the weeks following.