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Democracy devours its middle class

January 20th, 2014

A sociologist believes that populism is on the rise in East Central Europe. In Hungary, he argues, the middle class was weakened during the years of transition to the market economy, and is therefore defenceless against the rising tide of anti-market populism.

The middle class is structurally too weak to challenge populism, sociologist Tamás Pál writes in Élet és Irodalom. The democratic turn in 1989 was initiated by the middle class, and in the early years of the transition they were indeed the beneficiaries of free institutions and a market economy. In addition to exercising basic civil and democratic rights, they could travel, send their children to universities in Western Europe and North America, and afford better health care, while less privileged Hungarians suffered under the social shock of transition to the market economy, Tamás continues. He adds that in the early 1990s, the interests of the middle class were in the focus of parties both on the left and the right. Nonetheless, the standard of living of the middle class in Hungary and other East Central European countries was still far behind what was common in Western Europe, and “the rule of the middle class” turned out to be ephemeral. As a result of deindustrialization, the Hungarian middle class was also affected by unemployment, Tamás remarks. In Hungary, foreign investors seek cheap labour, and thus there is less demand for better paid middle class jobs. Many educated middle class Hungarians could not find proper jobs and decided to leave for more developed countries with more opportunities. As a result, the Hungarian middle class has lost both weight and stamina. Similar processes have taken place in other post-Communist countries as well. Taking all this into account, it is no surprise that politicians in the region, including PM Orbán, are mobilizing a broad constituency by resorting to populist anti-market rhetoric, Tamás concludes.

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