The subject of this study by Andrea Pirro is the rise of populist radical rights (PRR) parties in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) during these countries’ post-accession period. This phenomenon has has alarmed many a commentator, given this party family’s unappealing ideological mix of nativism, authoritarianism and populism:
In their quest for homogeneity of the nation-state, these parties discriminate between an in-group (the native people) and an out-group (non-natives); call for severe punishments in the face of infringements of authority; and consider society (and politics) to be divided into two groups: the ‘good or pure people’ and the ‘bad or corrupt elite’. The populist radical right is the champion of exclusionary and authoritarian ideals and sets itself in defence of the allegedly superior common sense of the (good) native man.
Despite the electoral and political successes of PRR parties, there still is surprisingly little scholarship analysing their ideological features. In this respect Pirro’s contribution is at the same time incremental, as it is solidly anchored in existing research, and path-breaking, as he innovates the research methodology in tackling the phenomenon of PRR parties.
At the core of PRR parties’ concerns lie pre-communist issues such as territorial irredentism and clericalism; post-communist concerns with ethnic minorities, the corruption of the establishment and the stance towards further European integration, and an economic agenda that is somewhat indebted to the legacy of state socialism.
The book has three main objectives. First, it places party ideology at the centre of the investigation, thereby reinstating the role of party agency in determining the constituting success or decline of the party in question. Second, the contribution traces the interaction of PRR parties with their mainstream competitors (mainly, but not exclusively other conservative and right-wing parties) in their quest to push their agenda and policies. Third, it assesses the reasons for the PRR parties’ electoral success by juxtaposing the demand, coming from the public, for radical right populism with the PRR parties’s supply of a coherent ideological platform.
The radical right’s ideology
The part of the book dedicated to ideology is the volume’s strongest. The aim here is twofold. On the one hand, the author tries to differentiate PRR parties in Central and Eastern Europe from their Western counterparts in that the former’s emergence is neither linked to adverse economic conditions (e.g. the Great Recession) nor to the unfolding of a silent, post-materialist revolution of the kind first conceptualized by Ronald Inglehart. At the core of PRR parties’ concerns lie pre-communist issues such as territorial irredentism and clericalism; post-communist concerns with ethnic minorities, the corruption of the establishment and the stance towards further European integration, and an economic agenda that is somewhat indebted to the legacy of state socialism—or better that condemns the foreign penetration and doubtful privatization practices during transition from a command to a market economy.
Second, Pirro tries to differentiate between the parties that make up this ideological family. Electoral manifestos—with at times unconventional names, such as “The Siderov Plan against Colonial Slavery” for Bulgarian party Ataka (National Union Attack)—semi-structured interviews with party leaders as well as existing and ad hoc expert surveys are all employed to gauge the presence and salience of each issue (the necessary conditions to be constitutive of a party’s core ideology) in the worldview proposed by Ataka, Jobbik (Movement for a Better Hungary) and the SNS (Slovak National Party).
Of the six issues that are both multivalent and often intertwined, three represent the core of PRR ideology in Central and Eastern Europe: clericalism, that is the return to traditional Christian values and interpenetration between church and state; opposition to ethnic minorities (the Roma in primis, but also the Hungarians in Slovakia and Turks in Bulgaria); and EU-pessimism. Instead irredentism, i.e. various territorial claims such as repealing the Trianon treaty, social-national economics, (whereby the parties strive for fairly naive and/or unattainable goals), and anti-corruption do not feature prominently in all parties’ programmes. While Jobbik is an ideal-type PRR party because it acts consistently with regards to all six ideological features, SNS espouses a kinder version of populism in its economic centrism and an unclear anti-corruption agenda (the probable consequence of several scandals while a junior coalition partner of Direction-Social Democracy). Finally, Ataka has an underdeveloped irredentist agenda, presenting only weak claims vis-à-vis external homelands.
The influence of PRR parties on mainstream politics
Moving on with the analysis, political parties exert their influence on agenda-shaping (political discourse and public opinion), institution-shaping (structural impact on the party system), and policy-making (influence on legislation and policy initiatives). Pirro focuses on the populist radical right’s impact on problems of ethnicity and nationality. In this field, the PRR’s aim is to nudge mainstream parties’ positions towards nativism, authoritarianism and populism.
Once a PRR issue enters the agenda, mainstream right parties have three responses: dismissive (for example if the issue is unrealistic or complex to address), accommodative (prompting ideological and/or policy convergence) or adversarial (striving for divergence). In CEE, the radical right has definite ownership over ethnic minorities, it affects nearby competitors (mainstream right parties) and is relatively independent of electoral performance. Hence, it managed with relative success to influence “the very identity of other parties by causing them to change key issue/ideological position” on “law and order” and anti-immigration policies. In contrast to previous research, Pirro employs an issue-specific approach, which is deemed better than looking at the whole left-right continuum, as the populist radical right in CEE does not embody a radical version of neo-conservatism tout court, as posited by Michael Minkenberg, and ideological boundaries are blurred within the post-socialist context. The methodology is that of expert surveys, either external (taken by Chapel Hill in 2006 and 2010) or original and ad hoc (devised by the author in 2012).
PRR parties thrive electorally when there is a high demand for policies tackling the minority issue, which is matched by competent and coherent supply. Conversely, neither the anti-corruption nor anti-EU platforms seem to offer a guarantee for success.
The study’s main finding is that PRR parties in the region neither own all the issues they preach on, nor do they influence mainstream parties over all of them equally. If the clearest ownership is over minority issues, even here the influence exerted—beyond progressively normalizing the issue when entering parliament—is varied, thereby ranging from relative neglect (in Bulgaria), to substantial adaptation to its external dimension—Hungarian minorities living outside the homeland—but less so internally, to proper and perduring radicalization in Slovakia. In sum, on a range of issues, Ataka had the least influence on the centre-right and pro-European GERB (Citizens for European Development in Bulgaria), Jobbik successfully engaged the increasingly populist, nationalist and Eurosceptic Fidesz (Alliance of Young Democrats) with respect to minorities, the economy and clericalism, and, finally, SNS is a rather successful owner of minority issues and the Eurosceptic agenda even within the coalition with soi-disant social-democratic Smer-SD.
The demand and supply sides of electoral success
The third and final part of the book analyses the electoral performance of the three parties. Their success is more likely when high demand for PRR policies provides the right triggers for populist radical right mobilization. Public attitudes towards the issues where PRR parties are competent and their salience constitute the popular demand for their ideological profile. Individual attitudes on minority issues, corruption and EU integration are all covered by Candidate Countries Eurobarometer surveys. The salience of, for example, the minority question, is instead proxied via the strength and inclusion of ethno-liberal parties in governing coalitions (e.g. the pro-Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms in Bulgaria and the pro-Hungarian-Slovak-dialogue Most-Híd in Slovakia).
The flip side of the coin is a matching supply by PRR parties. Its strength is a combination of three elements: their ideological stance vis-à-vis their core beliefs, their congruence (whether words are matched by deeds) and issue ownership of a particular problematic. The most notable finding of this part of the book is that PRR parties thrive electorally when there is a high demand for policies tackling the minority issue, which is matched by competent and coherent supply. Conversely, neither the anti-corruption nor anti-EU platforms seem to offer a guarantee for success.
In general Pirro provides a comprehensive account of the ideology, impact and emergence of populist radical right parties in three Central and Eastern European countries. However, as all exhaustive and theoretically rich research, the study raises more questions than it answers. This being a relatively new and unexplored phenomenon, political scientists have been taken aback by the rise of PRR parties in the region. The transformative force of this party family should not be underestimated: both its potential to provoke democratic backsliding in the countries where they operate as well as fostering disunity within the European party system are great, and scholars seem to be doing too little, too late to understand the intertwinement of these events.
Photo Credits CC J R
Also published on Medium.