Data

Can Shrinking Population Contribute to Populism?

Abcug.hu published a photo report about typical, multi-generational family houses on the Hungarian countryside that are only inhabited by one family member now. Hundreds of square meters of living space go unused as the children and the rest of the family has left for the cities or abroad.

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To be fair, these houses were never fully occupied. They were built during the 80s goulash communism when mock-market reforms provided easy and safe ways to accumulate wealth – while the unfunded welfare state offered free healthcare, education, pensions and other perks. The houses were built to show off and store wealth, and they are now empty. In the 1970s and 80s, the migration was from villages to towns and it caused a lot of tensions. In the 2010s, it is from Hungary to abroad. And of the previous wave of migration within Hungary has left people heartbroken, the new emigration to western Europe (and further) is even harder on those left behind.

The phenomenon is not specifically Hungarian. Eastern Europe is the world’s fastest shrinking region in terms of population. According to UN estimates, the top 10 fastest shrinking countries in the world by 2050 will all be in Eastern Europe.

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The world’s top 10 fastest shrinking populations are ALL in eastern Europe. RIGHT COLUMN: Estimated population change between 2015-50 in % Data: UN Chart: portfolio.hu

The worst off is Bulgaria that is forecast to lose 24.4% of its current population by 2050 to natural loss and emigration. Hungary is the world’s 9th fastest shrinking country (15.4% by 2050). The latest official estimates have put the number of people born in Hungary working and living abroad to 600 thousand – but that still sounds like a conservative estimate.

No wonder governments in the region have sounded the alarm, Croatia is calling it a state of emergency. Because if things continue in this manner, they will have a much smaller population to reign over and milk for taxes. And that doesn’t bode well for debt service and the continuation of redistributive governance – the only thing they know how to do to stay in power.

Actually, cross that out. There is one more thing they can do: warmongering and scapegoating. The future political landscape will be shaped by ever-more desperate populism to distract ageing voters from the fact that their countries had been rendered undesirable by their governments – and blaming someone else for it.

Most of the 600 thousand Hungarians who left the country since 2011 didn’t want to leave the place they were at home. Leaving behind your social network, your friends, the places where you’re known, the house that you would inherit is not a decision that comes easily. Uprooting yourself and becoming a nobody somewhere else is undignified and it makes you resentful and nostalgic. Nostalgic to a country that doesn’t exist anymore. Maybe never did.

And those who stay behind aren’t left in the best mental state either. The stage is set for any populist to tap into those resentments and false nostalgia. Even today, hatred against refugees (strictly always called migrants in Fidesz-media) and migration is entangled with resentment for emigration and the loss of family members. Pitting generations against each other is another fruitful way to go for politicians who want to stay in power, no matter how small the cake is getting.

Dividing people is the best way to distract from the fact that the tax system is byzantine, regulation is politically motivated, the tax authority is punitive and hostile, private property is not safe, housing costs are out of whack, labor is tight and unskilled, while the oligarchs win billions of EU-funds for overpriced developments where the only thing certain is that the trees will be cut and the money will be spent – the things that chase unwilling emigrants abroad in search for better opportunities. As I said, a lot to distract from.

The Orbán-regime has already announced that they will dedicate the next term (actually, they are planning until 2030) to “demographic governance”, whatever that means. I’m sure they find a way to cash in on that as well. And it is easy to stay in power on the back of such anger and resentment. Orbán knows how to ride it.

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