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SSEES Research Blog


A showcase of research from UCL's School of Slavonic and East European Studies staff and students


What drives the rise of Europe’s new anti-establishment parties?

By Sean L Hanley, on 2 September 2013

A new breed of protest party is being propolled to success in Central and Eastern Europe by a mix of economic hardship, rising corruption and ossified party establishments find Seán Hanley and Allan Sikk.

The spectacular breakthrough of Pepe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy in February underlined the potential for a new type of anti-establishment politics in Europe – loosely organised, tech savvy and fierce in its demands to change the way politics is carried class, but lacking the anti-capitalism or racism that would make them easily pigeon-holeable as traditional outsider parties of far-left or far-right.

 But for observers of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), the dramatic eruption of new parties led by charismatic anti-politicians promising to fight corruption, renew politics and empower citizens is nothing new. Indeed, over the last decade a succession of such parties – led by a colourful array of ‘non-politicians’ ranging from aristocrats to central bankers, journalists and businessmen – have broken into parliaments in the region.

  Some have achieved spectacular overnight success in elections on a scale easily comparable to Grillo’s and (unlike Grillo) have often marched straight into government. Some examples include Simeon II National Movement (NDSV) in Bulgaria in 2001, New Era in Latvia in 2002 and Res Publica (Estonia 2003) and, more recently, the Czech Republic’s Public Affairs party (2010), the Palikot Movement (Poland 2011), Positive Slovenia (2011) and Ordinary People (Slovakia 2012).

 In a new paper we explore what these parties, which we term anti-establishment reform parties, have in common and what drives their success.

Not just the far right

Much commentary about rise of new forms of protest politics has been confused. Some simply view all forms of anti-establishment politics through the distorting lens of the ‘rise of the far-right’, although as careful consideration of the evidence shows, the electoral performance of radical right parties in both Western and Eastern Europe has remained distinctly patchy. In CEE the extreme right is largely stagnant or in decline with the important exception of the Jobbik movement in Hungary.

For some, the new parties are part of a backlash against austerity and economic hard times, after the global downturn and the Eurozone crisis. In an era when traditional ideologies of the left are receding and (at least in Europe) the traditional working class and its organisations are declining, it is unsurprising that protest at the ballot box sometimes takes the form of a surge by unconventional new ‘centrist populist’ parties – especially given that the some of biggest losers in the current economic crisis are a generation of networked, well educated and individualist young people. In this view such parties are – to borrow the title of Paul Mason famous blog and book – simply one facet of things ‘kicking off everywhere’ in a climate of global austerity.

 A crisis of politics?

For others,  the rise of new anti-establishment parties is the expression of a crisis of politics not economics. It is argued that the new parties and movements bubbling up from the social and political margins are concerned with accountability, democracy and empowerment, driven by a pervasive disconnect between the governors and governed. Often, especially in newer democracies such as in CEE, such distrust and disgust is created by the (real or perceived) corruption of established political elites. One earlier paper exploring the new anti-establishment parties in CEE even terms them ‘anti-corruption’ parties.

A third, less often heard explanation can be found in academic works on party change and electoral volatility. In this view, most eloquently expressed by the late Peter Mair, the crisis of representative democracy should really be understood in terms of a long decline traditional party politics. As parties have retreated from civil society and become entwined with the state, they have left increasingly volatile electoral markets, feeding the rise of often short-lived new parties.

In Central and Eastern Europe electoral volatility has been particularly high.  The parties that emerged after the fall of communism failed to establish strong organisations and forge strong ties with voters. Such volatility has, as Grigore Pop-Eleches convincingly argues, led voters to turn to unconventional new parties of all kinds.

Paths to anti-establishment breakthrough

In our paper, we use Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA), a computer-based technique, to examine breakthroughs of anti-establishment reform parties in CEE between 1999 and 2012. We relate their breakthroughs to five potential causes, broadly reflecting the alternative interpretations above: economic hardship; rising unemployment; high levels of corruption; rising corruption; and the previous success of new parties in earlier elections.

QCA allowed us to move beyond broadbrush blanket explanations to pick out distinct combinations of causes. We found four main contexts which accounted for but three of our cases of anti-establishment breakthrough:

  • A situation of corrupt socially painful growth where rising unemployment is combined with economic growth and high perceived corruption. This corresponded to the phase of post-communist reform for some states shortly before the EU accession in 2000-2 (Lithuania 2000, Poland 2001, Slovakia 2002).
  • A context of growth but increasing corruption in unstable party systems suggesting that voters turn to new anti-establishment parties even in economic good times if there was already a tradition voting for new parties.
  • A context of low but rising corruption in economic good times. This pathway suggests that corruption can interact with a benign socio-economic climate to create a favourable context for anti-establishment reformers – perhaps by shifting voters’ attention from economic concerns to issues of governance.
  • A pathway of recession and rising corruption in previously stable party systems covers elections in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovenia in 2010-11. In all three cases the inability of (some or all) established parties to respond to economic crisis coupled with de-legitimation by growing concerns with corruption prepared the way for an anti-establishment reform party.

Rethinking protest parties

Our findings allow some important conclusions to be drawn:

First, early debates framing the rise of anti-establishment parties as products of a crisis of politics or the fallout of recession are misplaced. Instead, we need to refocus on relationship(s) between hard times, corruption and the travails of established parties.

Second, many of the relationships cut counter-intuitively against expectations. In Central and Eastern Europe, anti-establishment reform parties do not appear to be ‘crisis parties’.  They have broken through more often in economic good times than bad.

Third, we find that party system stability rather than party system fluidity can be more conducive to anti-establishment party breakthroughs. The stability of established parties may, at least in CEE, have represented rigidity and ossification, rather than democratic consolidation. This – as the rise of Italy’s Five Star already highlights –may hold particular lessons for some Western European states.

Finally, we find that in many contexts changes in perceived corruption matter more than levels of corruption. Rising corruption in a low corruption environment has been notably effective in mobilizing voters behind anti-establishment reformers.

While diverse, these paths suggest new breed of anti-establishment reformers are significant new protest phenomenon has appeared which may so far has been incompletely understood. . Their growing success has potentially far-reaching consequences for party systems and party-based democracy in both Western and Eastern Europe.

Seán Hanley is Senior Lecturer in East European Politics at UCL-SSEES and Allan Sikk is Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics at UCL-SSEES.

Their paper Economy, corruption or promiscuous voters? Explaining the success of Anti-Establishment Reform Parties in Eastern Europe is being presented at the ECPR General Conference in Bordeaux on  5-7 September. They are also convening a panel on New Anti-Establishment Parties in the Mainstream at the same conference.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.

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