Angry mainstream: Eastern Europe’s new ‘centrist populists’

By Blog Admin, on 20 January 2012

Allan Sikk and Sean Hanley detect a new breed of anti-establishment party emerging centre-stage in Eastern Europe.

Magyarországi választás 2010 Jobbik vadplakát Fidesz óriásplakát

Photo: Beroesz via Wikicommons

In both Western and Eastern Europe extremist populism and illiberal movements, we are told, are strong, politically influential and relentlessly on the rise.  In countries such Austria, Slovakia and Poland radical right parties have already held government office. Elsewhere they have sufficient parliamentary representation to influence government formation and help make the political weather. Recent electoral breakthroughs in countries without strong illiberal populist traditions by parties such the True Finns (2011), the Sweden Democrats (2010) or Hungary’s Jobbik (2010) seem to highlight the accelerated growth of such parties.

Given the greater impact of recession and reduced EU leverage in the region, the new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) would seem to be especially vulnerable to such tendencies. However, notwithstanding the spectacular rise of far-right in Hungary, recent elections in key CEE states suggest that voters in the region are turning to new parties, which combine familiar anti-elite, anti-establishment populist rhetoric with mainstream pro-market policies, a liberal stance on social issues and calls for political reform.

 Poland’s October 2011 elections, for example, saw the wholly unexpected emergence as the country’s third force of a grouping led by maverick and political showman, Janusz Palikot, on a platform combining anti-clericalism and social liberalism with flat taxation and a slimmed down, citizen-friendly state. In May 2010 a new pro-market anti-corruption party, Public Affairs (VV), campaigning to kill off the ‘dinosaurs’ of the political establishment enjoyed a similarly meteoric rise in the Czech Republic, winning 10% of the vote. In Slovakia in elections a few weeks later the Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) party formed in 2009 by the economist and businessman Richard Sulík entered parliament with a similar vote share on a programme of fiscal conservatism and socially liberal reforms such as the introduction of gay marriage and decriminalisation of soft drugs. Hungary’s Green-ish  Politics Can Be Different Party (LMP) can, with some qualifications, be regarded in a similar light.

 Such centrist or (neo-) liberal populists, or as we prefer to call them anti-establishment reform parties (AERPs), are we believe, a growing and important phenomenon in Central and Eastern Europe and, perhaps Europe more generally.  A more careful and wider look at the CEE region over the last 10-15 years suggests that such AERPs are a widespread and common phenomenon which can, in some contexts, enjoy landslide electoral success: the Simeon II National Movement in Bulgaria (2001), New Era in Latvia (2002) and Res Publica in Estonia (2003) were all new, anti-establishment reformers, which topped – or came close to topping – the poll at their first attempt and headed new coalition governments.

Although highly diverse, anti-establishment reform parties share a number of features: a common broad outlook; an inclination towards loose, flat structures using internet and social networking as key organisational tools; and an anti-political sheen involving the transformation of non-partisan public figures and celebrities into anti-establishment political crusaders: aristocrats, academics, artists, technocrats, bankers, businesspeople, bloggers, journalists and entertainers have all fronted successful AERPs.

In our research, however, we initially focused on a narrow question: why have anti-establishment reform parties have broken electorally through in some times and places in CEE but not others? We took as our starting point the  observation of US political scientist Grigore Pop-Eleches that unorthodox parties have tended to become electorally successful in the region only in ‘third generation’ elections after parties of conventional centre-left and centre-right (usually rooted in the regime-opposition divide) have already won elections and held government office.

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Janusz Palikot. Photo: Peterson via WikiMedia

However, looking more closely at ‘third generation’ elections it became clear breakthroughs by new anti-establishment reform parties – or indeed anti-establishment parties generally – were a far from a uniform or clear trend across. Moreover, we found explanations for such parties’ success in the early literature, such as the politicisation of corruption as an issue or the impact of the global recession, while not implausible, unsatisfactory because they were over-focused on single causes and were often contradicted by key cases.

To address such complexities we turned to Fuzzy Set Qualitative Comparative Analysis (fsQCA), a computer-based technique pioneered by Charles Ragin, which uses Boolean algebra and set theory to generate rigorous case-based comparison across a relatively large number of causal factors and cases: fsQCA is highly sensitive at picking out when combinations of causes are in play and when multiple paths led to a single outcome.

In our analysis we used fsQCA to examine ‘third generation’ parliamentary elections since 1998 in nine CEE states in which anti-establishment reformers varying levels of success. Using a two stage procedure we examined a range of possible social and political causes, including levels and trends of perceived corruption and unemployment; economic stagnation and recession; the presence of pro-market (neo-)liberal centre-right government; previous (in)stability of the party system; and strength of far-left and far-right challengers in the party system.

We found that anti-establishment reform parties broke through electorally in three distinct sets of circumstances. All are characterised in different ways by the weakness and malaise of mainstream parties (especially those of the centre-right) to which an AERP appear may suddenly appear as an attractive remedy.

  • When a relatively narrow core of established mainstream parties, flanked by strong far-left or far-right challenger, faces a deteriorating social situation characterised by rising corruption and/or rising unemployment – as, for example, in the Czech Republic and Hungary in 2010.
  • When established governing parties of the mainstream pro-market right fail to engage new or formerly passive voters – as in Bulgaria in 2001and several recent elections in Lithuania.
  • When the left is in office and opposition mainstream pro-market right – and perhaps the party system generally – is weakly consolidated and/or fragmented – as, for example, in Slovakia in 2010.

These findings are, however, provisional and need both need case study and further fsQCA testing, as they leave some hard-to-account-for outliers (notably New Era in Latvia in 2010 and the Palikot Movement in Poland). Our early work, however, has a number of implications. First, ‘centrist populist’ type parties are a distinct phenomenon, not simply a variant of well studied radical-right and illiberal populisms. Second, although often interpreted as anti-corruption parties, our finding suggested that it was rising corruption in low corruption states not corruption per se that mobilized voters such parties. Third, AERPs are not simply ‘crisis parties’: even in those cases where economic factors were in play, contractions in growth mattered less than the concrete effects of recession on employment.

Overall, all our three scenarios suggest that what is at issue is the ability of established governing parties in CEE to hold together big tent coalitions and retain a grip on corruption and the economy to stem electoral insurgencies of discontented, frustrated but largely moderate voters.

Allan Sikk is Lecturer in Baltic Politics at UCL-SSEES and Sean Hanley is Senior Lecturer in East European Politics at UCL-SSEES.  A paper outlining this research can be downloaded here.  The authors have also discussed their work in a podcast.

This article was also published in the Spring 2012 edition of  Euroscope , the newsletter of the Sussex European Institute.