Has There Really Been a Rise of Populism in Central and Eastern Europe?
Jodie Bradshaw is a Master's student in Development Studies at the University of Cambridge.
Across all Central and Eastern European (CEE) states (except Estonia), voting populations report that they do not trust the main institutions of their national democratic system and consider them corrupt. Such feelings often breed populism, and yet populist parties (PPs) have only achieved significant electoral success in a handful of CEE states, such as Bulgaria, Hungary, and Slovakia. Correspondingly, studies suggest that adherence to populist principles and beliefs does not directly lead to electoral success for PPs. In Hungary, for example, holding ‘anti-elite’ beliefs reduces the probability of a PP vote - a lack of trust in politicians has not translated into increased support for Hungarian populist party Jobbik, and voters who trust politicians were more likely to vote for the populist Hungarian Civic Union (Fidesz). This suggests that popular support for populist talking points is not enough for PPs to win elections.
Some existing explanations argue that PPs’ electoral success depends on the character of ethnic relations in the region, the communist legacy, the regime type of the state, and PPs’ capacity to establish ownership over their campaign issues. I would further argue that a PP’s chance of achieving electoral success depends on whether or not there is a pre-existing political gap for them to fill. The term ‘political gap’ refers to policy issues and platforms which are not already espoused by existing political parties, and this gap has emerged in some CEE countries for two key reasons. Firstly, accession to the EU has created a policy vacuum for PPs to build on as mainstream parties’ policies converge (a policy vacuum occurs when ‘the policy options of governing political elites’ are narrowed as a result of EU membership conditionalities). Secondly, the ineffectiveness of mainstream protest voting options has led voters to consider populist alternatives due to anti-incumbency bias. Protest voting is where members of the electorate vote for a political party with the intention of ‘punishing’ the parties who are currently in power. While there has therefore been sufficient opportunity for a rise in populism in the CEE region over the past two decades, this rise has been largely superficial in character due to its impermanence: it appears that PPs often fail to remain in office long-term and uphold their populist ideology.
Although the emergence of political space has enabled some PPs to thrive in the CEE region, they often follow the same disappointing cycle as previously elected mainstream parties: a short-lived incumbency with limited impact on inter-party competition.
Historically, the political space for PPs within the CEE region has been limited, as mainstream parties have emphasised social homogeneity and opposition to corruption to much the same extent as PPs have. However, the process of EU accession widened this political gap in CEE states. This is because the demanding criteria for EU membership has restricted mainstream parties’ space for individual decision-making, leading to policy convergence between mainstream parties on neo-liberal measures. This convergence has created a political vacuum that PPs have had the opportunity to exploit by presenting themselves as political alternatives. Under Ján Slota’s party presidency, the Slovak National Party’s rhetoric, for example, centred on defending 'national interests' against governmental forces, who were depicted as EU agents. Via the resulting public perception that governing parties are puppets of the EU, PPs have achieved significant success even in cases where they had previously lacked electoral support, as exemplified by the Slovak National Party. Under these circumstances, PPs capitalised on a political landscape where competition revolved around identity-based appeals, such as ethnic hatred, as seen in nationalist and populist parties in Hungary such as Fidesz. Indeed, it seems that the more that moderate parties have converged on EU accession issues, the greater the increase in extreme-right populist parties’ share of the vote. Thus, while popular support for populist ideology alone does not guarantee PPs' electoral success, the opening of political space due to EU accession facilitated their rise. PPs experienced their greatest electoral success during third-generation elections (elections where parties from the main political platforms have already had opportunity to govern), taking advantage of the political space that emerged due to anti-incumbency bias among voters. Most incumbent parties in Central and Eastern Europe struggle to achieve re-election due to growing disillusionment with mainstream parties. This dissatisfaction strengthens the appeal of anti-establishment reform parties. Centrist PPs were particularly successful in exploiting this sentiment (the cases of the Polish Law and Justice, and Self-Defence parties are prime examples of this) as they could oppose the political establishment without a detailed ideology, gaining support from diverse social groups. The scarcity of viable mainstream alternatives to the governing parties created a significant political space for PPs to break through in this way.
Although the emergence of political space has enabled some PPs to thrive in the CEE region, they often follow the same disappointing cycle as previously elected mainstream parties: a short-lived incumbency with limited impact on inter-party competition. Only a few PPs, such as the Greater Romania Party, Slovak National Party, and Slovenian National Party, have managed to sustain themselves into the second decade of transition. Furthermore, PPs are disproportionately affected by anti-incumbency bias, with Slovak PPs experiencing double electoral losses compared to other previously incumbent governments. If success is measured by long-term electoral performance and participation in government, I’d argue that PPs are typically unsuccessful.
While there has therefore been sufficient opportunity for a rise in populism in the CEE region over the past two decades, this rise has been largely superficial in character due to its impermanence: it appears that PPs often fail to remain in office long-term and uphold their populist ideology.
However, other, more centrist PPs have been able to secure electoral success by diluting their populist platform, making them more credible alternatives to mainstream parties. Examples include Jobbik and Fidesz in Hungary, which have secured nearly two-thirds of the electoral vote combined for over a decade. The Hungarian case is unique because Fidesz obtained a parliamentary supermajority in 2010, allowing it to dismantle constitutional protections that could have hindered its ongoing success. These facilitative circumstances are unavailable to PPs elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe due to differences in constitutional arrangements and the challenges of obtaining a supermajority. In Slovakia, PPs have experienced comparable success as they have remained well-established, with Smer achieving record-high support; that said, Smer’s accomplishment is arguably partly down to its backtracking on its populist appeals and consolidation of its economic and national identity messages. In contrast, the uncompromising adherence to populism by Ataka in Bulgaria has capped its success at a more moderate level. This corroborates the view that PPs are most successful when they dilute their populist platform.
Such success stories raise the question of whether PPs can be considered successful if they are no longer populist. Centrist PPs are particularly vulnerable to this phenomenon, as they often lack substantial ideological policies to implement once in office. When elected, they must choose between either developing a more substantive political agenda that aligns them closely with mainstream parties, or adopting more radical positions. The former has proven difficult for some parties, as exemplified by the People's Party – Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, which suffered voter backlash after rebranding itself as a mainstream party in the 1990s. The Polish Law and Justice Party, on the other hand, shifted towards a more national-populist stance since 2005. Most PPs, however, reduce their use of populist appeals as they spend more time in government. Therefore, it appears that PPs are mostly unsuccessful in retaining their populist character while in power.
In conclusion, due to their prominent role as protest vote parties, PPs have largely served as mere instruments for political elite turnover rather than a coherent and decisive electoral force in Central and Eastern Europe. Initially, PPs achieved electoral success by capitalising on the anti-incumbent and protest voting habits of the electorate, which intensified in the lead-up to EU accession due to a convergence in policies amongst mainstream parties. However, most PPs found great difficulty in retaining office after third-generation elections, largely due to populism’s inherent lack of solid ideological content. In most cases, those PPs that achieved re-election did so by moderating their populist principles, indicating that PPs are unsuccessful insofar as they continue to be truly populist.
However, PPs’ electoral success nevertheless has important broader implications for democratisation in Central and Eastern Europe, as their rapid rise and subsequent decline in power can undermine the stability and effectiveness of democratic governance. Frequent changes in government can lead to policy instability and lack of continuity, which can hinder long-term planning and the implementation of reforms. This can be detrimental to the overall democratic development and functioning of countries in the region. Moreover, the inability of populist parties to maintain their original populist ideology while in power can also lead to a perception among their supporters that they have abandoned their original principles, further eroding trust and confidence in the political system. In turn, strengthening democratic institutions, promoting political stability, and addressing the underlying issues that contribute to the rise of populism are essential for the long-term democratisation and political development of Central and Eastern Europe.
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