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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).

Denis Ivanov: Adapting, Zig-Zagging or Staying Put? Populist Supply, Welfare, and Cultural Divides 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.

Vassilis Petsinis: 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?

Allan Sikk: Party people: electoral candidates, party change and party system evolution

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.