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Populism and Party Politics in Central and Eastern Europe

Tuesday, 15 December 2020, 17:00 GMT

In recent years, politicians and political parties usually labelled ‘right-wing populists’ have enjoyed a remarkable series of successes. Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, Victor Orban in Hungary and Donald Trump in the United States have dominated the political scenes in their respective countries. Several years of rule by FIDESZ in Hungary and Law and Justice in Poland show that ‘populist’ political formations are much more interested in the majoritarian rather than liberal dimensions of modern democracy, with Orban openly talking about Hungary as an ‘illiberal democracy’. These words reflect accurately the basic tenor of institutional changes in these countries where media pluralism, the protection of minorities, the sovereignty of civil society and the independence of the judiciary have been challenged and weakened. Yet, as we have seen in the recent mass protests in Poland and the US presidential election, support for populists can go down as well as up. The aim of this seminar is to present cutting-edge research on the reasons for the success and failure of populist parties from researchers from the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Innovative Training Network on ‘Delayed Transformational Fatigue in Central and Eastern Europe: Responding to the Rise of Illiberalism/Populism’ (FATIGUE) and the Horizon 2020-funded project ‘Populist rebellion against modernity in 21st-century Eastern Europe: neo-traditionalism and neo-feudalism’ (POPREBEL).

Chair/Discussant: Natasza Styczynska, Jagiellonian University

To register for the seminar, please go to:

Denis Ivanov (Corvinus University of Budapest): Adapting, Zig-zagging or Staying Put? Populist Supply, Welfare and Cultural Divisions in Lithuania and Hungary

The debate on the cause of the rise of populism between culturalists (Norris & Inglehart, 2018) and economists (Guiso, 2017) point to the fact that the demand side of illiberal politics is fueled by two growing divides along cultural and economic dimensions. The current paper introduces the supply side into the debate on the comparative example of Hungary and Lithuania. While both regions have experienced growing economic inequality within both the Baltic (Lithuania- GINI score: 0.37 – third highest in Europe) and Visegrad (center-periphery divide, growing GINI), they experience different outcomes – the former does not see constant success of populists in power, while the latter one does. The historical institutional approach is implemented through an analysis of the critical junctures on the path-dependency of the supply side of populism, including, but not limited how political parties adapt/fail to adapt to the new economic and cultural divides, through making key political decisions in terms of party strategy. The anticipated results are that through a mix of charismatic, clientelist and programmatic techniques, key political entrepreneurs in Hungary have managed to shift their positions on both dimension at the expense of niche parties. The Lithuanian counterparts, by zigzagging on positions on cultural divide and welfare, have failed to offer a new social contract of loyalty to nativist values in return for minimal welfare, which led to their demise.

Denis Ivanov is a third-year PhD student at the World Economy Institute, Corvinus University of Budapest and the Horizon 2020 Early-Stage Researcher on the study of populism (FATIGUE). His dissertation project is about socio-economic inequality and the rise of populism in Europe. He spent the last year as a visiting scholar at University College London, School of Slavonic and East European Studies working mostly on the demand side of populism. While back to Budapest in the upcoming year, he is focusing on the supply side of populist, and in particular, how political parties adapt to the new economic and political realities. Prior to his PhD, Denis obtained an MA in Interdisciplinary Research and Studies on Eastern Europe (MIREES) from University of Bologna, Italy.

Vassilis Petsinis (University of Tartu): The rise and fall of Jobbik

Since the April 2018 elections, Jobbik (Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom/Movement for a Better Hungary) stands as the second largest party in the Hungarian parliament with 26 out of 199 seats. However, throughout the last couple of years, the party has been suffering from a steady decline in public appeal. In the latest ratings, Jobbik’s popularity is hovering around 7% of the electorate’s preferences, that is below newer parties such as (centrist-liberal) Momentum Movement/ MM and (centre-left) Democratic Coalition/DK. Following the departure of former chairman, Gábor Vona (October 2019), the new leadership has been struggling to refashion Jobbik’s rhetoric, as well as the party’s organizational structure, in an attempt to reclaim at least a fraction of its former target-groups from the preponderant Civic Democratic Union/FIDESZ. Nevertheless, this endeavour has not yet met success. What are the reasons behind Jobbik’s steady decline of popularity? How does this impact on Jobbik – both in terms of ideology and party-organization?

Vassilis Petsinis (PhD Birmingham) is a Senior Researcher in Comparative Politics at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies (University of Tartu).  He is a political scientist with an expertise in European Politics and Ethnopolitics. His Marie Curie individual research project at the University of Tartu (2017-2019) was entitled: ‘Patterns and management of ethnic relations in the Western Balkans and the Baltic States’. He has developed a regional specialization in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Vassilis Petsinis has conducted research and taught at universities and research institutes in Estonia (Tartu University), Germany (Herder Institut in Marburg), Denmark (Copenhagen University), Sweden (Lund University, Malmö University, Södertörns University and Uppsala University), Hungary (Collegium Budapest/Centre for Advanced Study), Slovakia (Comenius University in Bratislava), Romania (New Europe College) and Serbia (University of Novi Sad). Vassilis Petsinis is the author of National Identity in Serbia: The Vojvodina and a Multiethnic Community in the Balkans (Bloomsbury Publishing and I.B. Tauris: London, 2020).

Allan Sikk (UCL): Party people: electoral candidates, party change and party system evolution in Central and Eastern Europe

Politics and political parties are nothing without the people involved. Electoral candidates can be conceptualised as “party genes” to develop a candidate-based view of party evolution. This offers major new perspectives on party evolution and better incorporates the fluidity and transience of many contemporary parties. This approach highlights the phenomenon of partially new parties, challenging the traditional dichotomy between new and old parties and provides a better understanding of party fission and fusion. The paper explores links between candidate change – their entry, exit and movement between parties – and other types of party change. This sets the theoretical groundwork for a new database Electoral Candidates in Central and Eastern Europe (ECCEE) covering 200,000 candidates in nine countries and more than 60 elections (see This “big but thin data” – extensive in coverage if limited in detail – can be used to resolve complexity in party system evolution. It is also the basis for a forthcoming monograph on a comparative study of electoral candidate change that advances the understanding of party politics by using ideas from evolutionary biology and, more generally, argues that change at the “micro” level can help us to understand “macro” level changes beyond the realm of party politics.

Allan Sikk is Associate Professor in Comparative Politics at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. He joined UCL SSEES in 2007, after receiving his PhD from Tartu University and working as the head of the Estonian parliament’s research service. Hi research mostly concerns political parties and elections, particularly new parties and party system change. His contributions to the field include but are not limited to: developing the concept of genuinely new parties to distinguish them from mergers, splinters and coalitions with strong connections to past parliamentary parties; demonstrating that new parties can become successful based on a project of newness and are not necessarily products of social cleavages or compete on specific policy issues, and; developing a new approach to party newness and conceptualizing it as a multidimensional continuous variable.

Natasza Styczynska holds a PhD in Political Science from the Jagiellonian University. Her doctoral thesis tackled the issues of European discourse of Polish political parties and Euroscepticism. She obtained MA degrees in Political Sciences (from the Pedagogical University of Krakow) and in European Studies (from Jagiellonian University). Currently, she is a researcher in two H2020 projects entitled “Populist rebellion against modernity in 21st-century Eastern Europe: neo-traditionalism and neo-feudalism” (POPREBEL) and “EU Differentiation, Dominance and Democracy” (EU3D). She is also engaged in the ‘Negotiating Brexit: national governments, EU institutions and the UK’ project funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council. Her academic interests include transformation processes in Central and Eastern Europe, party politics, nationalism, populism and Euroscepticism in the CEE region and the Balkans, as well as identity issues in CEE.