The Illiberal Turn in the Post-communist Region

Europe (Central and Eastern)
Comparative Politics
European Union
Political Parties
Transitional States
Section Number
Section Chair
Aron Buzogany
Freie Universität Berlin
Section Co-Chair
Christian Hagemann
Bavarian School of Public Policy

A decade ago, the outlook for political and economic liberalism in the post-communist region was rather optimistic. The accession of ten countries from Central and Eastern European (CEE) to the European Union (EU) and the lack of severe immediate post-accession backsliding seemed to be good news for their political and economic prospects as well as the EU’s transformative power. This path also seemed preassigned for the Western Balkan countries, who had received the crucial EU membership promise and were hopeful to proceed towards candidacy. Even in the hybrid regimes of the former Soviet Union, attempts to close political competition had regularly failed, and ‘color revolutions’ have helped to sack unpopular incumbents from Chișinău to Tbilisi. These displays of Western willingness for engagement and people’s readiness to oust their elites sent shock waves even across the post-communist divide to Eurasia’s stable autocracies. Even though floating on high oil and gas prices, autocratic leaders seemed terrified by the likes of the ‘Orange Revolution’ and desperate to find counter-strategies to avoid being toppled in the next round of regime changes. A decade later, however, none of these optimistic prospects has materialized.

Over a quarter of a century after the end of the communist regimes, illiberal politics is clearly on the rise in the region. The financial and economic crisis has hit many countries hard and worked in some places as a catalyst for dissatisfaction with unreliable post-communist social contracts. Several consolidated party systems have collapsed, with even long-time ruling parties suffering extreme losses or outright extinction. The importance of alternative strategies of political legitimation like populism or nationalism, crack-downs on the opposition or independent civil society, or symbolic foreign policy victories has increased steeply. This development is probably most surprising in CEE, where most countries were regarded as consolidated democracies. In contrast to high expectations, especially the earlier front runners of democratization have now turned to Eurosceptic and anti-liberal rhetoric and politics (Poland, Hungary, partially the Czech Republic). The situation is worse in the Western Balkans, who have except for Croatia hardly made progress on their way towards EU membership and mostly declined on their democracy scores (WGI, BTI, SGI). When it comes to the countries of the former Soviet Union, hybrid regimes in Ukraine and Georgia have continued patrimonial politics, even after several rounds of elite changes. The closed autocracies of the region from Minsk to Dushanbe seem today more stable than ever, with Russia using a self-confident strategy of projecting hard and soft power far beyond its traditional sphere of influence.

How can we account for this illiberal turn? The Section invites Panels and Papers focusing on all aspects of the described developments. We are interested in contributions that combine diverse area specialisms with a solid embedding into different subfields of comparative politics or international relations. Of interest is, on the one hand, the domestic politics of the illiberal turn, its main political actors, their ideologies; the role of political economies of the region and the continued importance of patrimonialism and patronage. Papers might also look at the role of public opinion, citizen’s political participation, civil society or the politics of protest. On the other hand, we are also interested in examining the role of external actors like the EU and Russia in the region, their channels of influence, and mediating factors on their leverage. Important questions could be: Why did some CEE countries experience serious democratic backsliding, while others, especially less promising cases did not? Are CEE countries moving in the direction of the post-communist grey zone, or is their development part of the general trend toward populism also in Western liberal democracies? What tools have domestic and supranational actors at their disposal to stop this trend? Do citizens care enough about democracy to defend it in difficult times (thus focussing at the attitudinal level)? Why do we see stagnation or even decline in the post-Soviet and post-Yugoslav grey zone? What are the domestic factors supporting regime stability in hybrid regimes and autocracies? Why do we see further regime closure and high levels of stability in the Eurasian autocracies? What are the domestic and international mechanisms and institutions supporting stability and enabling regime reproduction in hybrid regimes and autocracies? How does the post-communist region compare to other regions or global trends in terms of democratic backsliding and the rise of illiberalism?

Biography of Section Chairs

Dr. Aron Buzogány
Aron is an assistant professor at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna. He holds a doctorate in political science from the Freie Universität Berlin and has previously held academic positions or scholarships at Yale University, the German Research Institute for Public Administration, the FU Berlin and LMU Munich, where he was a visiting professor for political economy in Eastern Europe. His research focuses on comparative policy analysis, the politics of representation and the influence of the EU in Eastern Europe. He serves on the Editorial Board of East European Politics and has published in journals such as the Journal of Legislative Studies, Eurasian Geography, and Economics, Europe-Asia Studies, Democratization or the Journal of Common Market Studies.

Dr. Christian Hagemann
Christian is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Bavarian School of Public Policy at the Technical University in Munich. He holds a doctorate in political science from the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich, where he also worked before at the Chair of Comparative Politics (CEE and Eurasia). He also serves on the scientific advisory board of the Southeast Europe Association, a German publicly funded think tank. His research focusses on public policy analysis, party politics, and EU external governance. He has published in journals such as the Journal of European Public Policy and the Journal of European Integration.

Proposed Panels for the Section.

1. Same ingredients, different recipes: EU leverage and democratic backsliding in new member states and candidate countries
Panel Chairs: Natasha Wunsch, ETH Zurich and Ulrich Sedelmeier, LSE

This Panel tackles dynamics and patterns of democratic backsliding in the wider EU enlargement region. It proposes to distinguish between two phases of backsliding, namely its onset and its persistence over time. Covering both new EU member states and candidate countries, the Panel analyses the causes of backsliding in both phases, with a particular view to the role and limits of EU leverage. When, about the EU accession process, does backsliding occur? Which conditions favor its onset, and is it for the same reasons that it persists over time? Can we detect a difference in quality between backsliding during the membership negotiations and deteriorations in a democratic performance that occur once a country has entered the EU? The Panel welcomes Papers focusing on individual countries as well as comparative studies of backsliding across countries.

2. Constitutions, Constitutional Change, and De-Democratization
Panel Chairs: Prof. Astrid Lorenz, Chair for the Political System of Germany/European Politics, University of Leipzig and Prof. Petra Stykow, Chair for Comparative Politics of CEE and the Former Soviet Union, University of Munich

As a rule, constitutions in "defective" democracies, as well as hybrid and authoritarian regimes, are considered ill-designed, ineffective, or both, so that systematically studying them might appear as a waste of effort. By contrast, scholarship on Comparative Constitutional Law contends that written constitutions matter even in these contexts. They perform a wide range of roles ranging from billboards that signal the intentions of leaders to purely fictional window-dressing, and from operating manuals that define the distribution of power in the polity to aspirational blueprints for the future of the respective society. Typically, these roles are mixed, and they vary across time and countries.
Over the past decade, the post-communist region has become a laboratory where constitutional designers experiment with increasing frequency, producing very different outcomes. For example, in Hungary and Poland blueprints of “illiberal democracies” were drafted that promise to adapt democracy to local conditions and national traditions, thereby legitimizing rearrangements in the polity. In Eurasia, the “parliamentarization” of president-centered regimes indicated window-dressing in countries like Kazakhstan and Tajikistan rather than “real” changes, while similar reforms in, for example, Kyrgyzstan or Ukraine, codified shifts in the constitutional regime type, which is primarily related to constitutions as operating manuals. Thus, in many places, the current condition is reminiscent of the early post-communist period, when constitution-making in postcommunist Eastern Europe was about "rebuilding the ship in the open sea" and actors were bargaining for higher-order decision-making rules rather than being constrained by them in usual political practice. However, the current picture is different from the early 1990s in that the drafters of constitutional revisions refuse to rely on Western templates as the single most important source of inspiration.

Variation in the post-communist region promises new insights into the functions of constitutions in less-than-liberal democracies, constitutional dynamics including the tools of constitutional reforms, and the many nuances of “constitutions without constitutionalism” as enshrined in the textual documents. Papers submitted to this Panel are expected to present case studies and small-to-medium-N studies that aim to understand constitutions “from within” and scrutinize the interaction of parchment with politics in a case-sensitive, process-oriented manner.

3. Does European Integration Sponsor Populist Politics?
Panel Chairs: Ireneusz Pawel Karolewski, University of Wroclaw and Timofey Agarin, Queen’s University Belfast

The Panel focuses on majoritarian nation-state institutions and how they affect publics across European societies. The Papers put the institutions-publics nexus into the context of the European Union integration to explore, how the EU deals with the populist response from ethnopolitical entrepreneurs agitating nation-state-oriented publics. In the context of all Papers, the dynamics of identity politics make frequent reference to ‘internal others' and determine the exclusionary identity politics towards ‘external others.' The main focus of the Panel revolves around the impact of European membership on the salience of ‘identity politics' domestically, which constricts and constrains diversity through the use of identity discourse pivoted on ethnocultural, language and religious symbolism. We examine these dynamics by offering sets of comparative studies of EU member-states all of which have three discursive elements: intolerance of autochthonous ethnic minorities; opposition to the accommodation of newly arriving residents (refugees); and discrimination against gender minority groups. The Papers look at how the ‘national self' is being constructed in opposition to notional ‘Europe,' to external regional others, and to domestic others who violate the perceived (ethnocultural, linguistic, religious) identity, which props up the state majority's ownership claims to the state.

Contributors to the Panel are particularly interested in how dominant groups’ preference for safeguarding the institutions of the nation-states impacts non-dominant groups. These effects are caught between two extremes: segregation of minorities particularly in states designed to serve a defined ethnic constituency and co-optation in societies divided by ethnic allegiances. We expect that multinational institutional design of the state and deep-seated division in societies militates not only the non-dominant groups but also de facto majorities to radicalize their rhetoric in favor of majoritarian decision making. This, in turn, showcases the potential for identity-based mobilization in ethnically diverse societies served by polities that by design are not ethnically blind. Against this background, the Panel looks at EU integration as a (missed?) opportunity to demobilize the populist sentiments across European societies.

Proposed Papers:
No space to hide: Do Nation-State Institutions Create Populist Publics? (Timofey Agarin, Queen’s University Belfast )
Populism or Neo-Authoritarianism in diversified Europe? Comparing Poland and Austria (Ireneusz Pawel Karolewski, University of Wroclaw)
Minority Accommodation as a Trigger of Populist Politics in the Czech Republic and Slovakia: Populist Backlash? (Petra Guasti, Goethe University Frankfurt, Lenka Bustikova, Arizona State University)
Breaking EU’s Eastern Democracies – Populism in Romania and Hungary (Robert Sata, Central European University, Budapest)

4. Populism and Nativism as Legitimation Narratives of Illiberal Politics
Panel Chair: Bartek Pytlas, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich

In recent decades, nativist and populist politics shifted from the margins to the mainstream of the political process within contemporary European democracies. While the growing resonance of these claims is not limited to Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), it is in this region that the consequences of this phenomenon for party competition, public debates and the democratic rule of law as such have become most palpable. Across the region, old and new political actors alike use populist and nativist rhetoric to establish an illiberal counter-narrative to the underlying values and institutional framework of democracy. Where these parties moved from mainstream to power, populism and nativism are being used to legitimize policies widely criticized for their deteriorating consequences on constitutional checks and balances and the rule of law through a paradox political invocation of "true" or "better democracy." What more, these narratives have been deployed as discursive tools to justify the representative de-legitimization of political and societal actors, as well as institutions opposing the illiberal turn.

Extant research has put increased attention on the impact of populism and nativism on liberal democracy. Yet, there is still need to systematically explore how exactly political entrepreneurs use these narratives in the political process to establish and most especially uphold mainstream legitimacy of illiberal democratic politics and policies. Observing how political actors both in opposition and in power use populist and nativist discourses to legitimize the illiberal transformation of the normative and institutional frameworks of democracy carries increased relevance beyond CEE cases.

This Panel, therefore, aims to explore patterns and mechanisms of populist and nativist legitimation strategies behind illiberal politics in a comparative perspective. Which strategies do political challengers use to legitimize their illiberal "ideology of democracy" within mainstream party competition? How do populist and nativist actors in power justify and "cement" their illiberal rule? What effect do these narratives have at the individual level of trust in democracy and its institutions, diffuse and specific support for the political system, as well as liberal pluralist values? What are the reactions of parties and other actors that oppose illiberal politics and how can we explain the success or failure of their discursive counteraction strategies?

To answer these and further interrelated questions, the Panel brings together conceptually funded contributions that explore the relationship between populism, nativism, and legitimation of illiberal politics. The Panel equally welcomes Papers employing qualitative, quantitative or mixed-methods approaches. Contributions can perform a cross-sectional, cross-temporal or cross-process comparison of Central and Eastern European cases, as well as contrast developments in CEE with cases from other regions. Conceptual Papers and single case studies are welcome so long as they highlight their wider comparative contribution to the topic.

5. Illiberalism or Something Else? Governance and Populist Policy-making in Central-Eastern Europe
Panel Chair: Attila Bartha, Institute for Political Science, Centre for Social Sciences of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences
Discussant: Umut Korkut, Glasgow Caledonian University (tbc.)

Recent political changes in several Central-Eastern European (CEE) new democracies have implied that populist and illiberal parties are in a government position. While research devoted particular attention to the ambiguous relationship between populism and liberal democracy, the policy aspects of illiberal populism have been neglected. The survival of some CEE illiberal populist governments throughout various electoral cycles provides an interesting research puzzle. What is the theoretical and empirical relation between populist governance and illiberalism? What are the major substantive, procedural and discursive components of policy-making of governing populist parties in CEE? How can these policies survive? These are the major problems that this section seeks to investigate.

6. Entrepreneurial Parties: Danger to Democracy in East-Central Europe?
Panel Chair / Discussant: Prof. Vít Hloušek, Masaryk University

The phenomenon of political entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial / business-firm parties is far from being new. The seminal Hopkin-Paolucci´s study is almost two decades old, and the empirical evidence it has been based on is an even stringer. Since this founding period of the studies on political entrepreneurs, conceptual, exploratory and comparative studies are booming in the context of both Western and East-Central European research of the party politics. One of the still underdeveloped fields of the study is the impact of favorable entrepreneurial parties on the quality of democracy. This issue has two dimensions: the political effect of governmental participation of such parties, and the ideas these parties have about democracy. The presented Panel wants to discuss both of this dimension based on empirical evidence of predominantly East-Central European countries and in addition to that to contribute to the current debates on the quality of democracy and elements of democratic backsliding. The members of the Panel will discuss examples from the Czech Republic, Poland, or Baltic Countries and compare them to assess the visions these parties have on democracy and its modernization regarding their ideological profile and issues debated in their party manifestos. Furthermore, particular Papers will evaluate the practical contribution of the political entrepreneurs regarding accelerator or impediment of quality of democratic politics in East-Central Europe addressing the basic research question of the Panel: To what extent are the political entrepreneurs a tool for enhancing or undermining the liberal democracy in Europe.

Paper proposals:
"Manage the state like a company": Andrej Babiš and his visions of democracy (Prof. Lubomír Kopeček and Prof. Vít Hloušek, both Masaryk University)
Analysis of organization and appealing strategies in Freedom and Direct Democracy party of Tomio Okamura (Ms. Petra Svačinová, Masaryk University )
The Polish Entrepreneurial Parties’ Attitudes towards the Liberal Democracy (Dr. Beata Kosowska-Gąstoł, Jagiellonian University and Prof. Katarzyna Sobolewska-Myślik, Pedagogical University)

7. Is Illiberal Democracy a Danger? The Causes of Escaping from the Rule of Law and Liberal Values.
Panel Chair: Dr Rafał Wonicki, Department of Philosophy and Sociology, University of Warsaw

In my presentation, I intend to show causes and mechanisms of ‘illiberal democracy' in Poland. I will analyze them in comparison to other countries in Western and Middle East Europe. In doing so, I focus on such factors as populism, the economic crisis of 2008, outrage to neoliberal market and liberal elites, as well as lack of mainstream parties awareness regarding emotional needs of society. Among others, these are the most important factors which help us to understand ‘illiberal democracy’ phenomenon and nationalistic turn in Western Europe.

The EU is as well a part of the equation because its action strengthens the populist, nationalist and separatist tendencies (Brexit, Catalonia). However, in the context of Central and Eastern Europe, we must focus mostly on local context and try to answer whether a contemporary situation is a result of our communist past or post-communist period of transformation. For example, in a case of ‘illiberal democracy’ in Poland in order to better understand reasons why people support such conception we need to understand why there is common lack of trust to political class among citizens and be aware that there are a shared feelings of revenge on the elites after years of their neglection of economic, social and symbolic needs of majority.

Nevertheless, looking at the Western European situation the questions appear. Is ‘illiberal democracy’ a correct description of the contemporary political situation? And what kind of outcome is legitimized once we agreed to accept the existence democracy without liberalism? Thus, in my presentation, I am going not only to reconstruct and uncover causes of contemporary illiberal move in Poland (and broader in Europe) but also to normatively assess it and defend a claim that liberalism seems to be the necessary limitation that prevents democracy from turning into tyranny.

8. From a Neo-liberal to Non-liberal Context: Social Movements in (and of) the Dark Times?
Panel Chair: Ondrej Cisar, Charles University
Discussant: Jiri Navratil, Masaryk University

Recent political developments in liberal democracies suggest that both political conflicts and actors are undergoing significant transformations. First, old types of societal cleavages are rising (center/periphery, socio-economic) and merge with new socio-cultural trends (new nationalism, de-Europeanization, new conservatism). Second, new actors enter the arenas of both protest and electoral politics; new forms of populism arise, new repertoire is being employed. Third, political opportunities have been transformed into the existing forms of social and political activism. In our Panel, we aim at an analysis of social movement groups driving and facing the rise of the populist right in Eastern Europe. In 2010, Fidesz won the majority of seats in the parliamentary elections in Hungary, and also Jobbik succeeded. We have witnessed a near regime change, a move towards self-proclaimed illiberal democracy, since then. A very similar development defined Polish politics since 2015. In both countries, a series of protests accompanied these developments. In the Czech Republic, political populism has recently taken a managerial/anti-political form. Although semantically different, all these parties run on the platform, which challenges political pluralism and liberal tolerance of the past. Similar trends can be observed in other countries too. What are the consequences for social movement groups? Can we observe any transformations in the way they act publicly and cooperate with their partners? Are they declining, adjusting their agenda and strategies, or calling to arms? Are they innovating their strategies? We aim at identifying the dynamics of these aspects of political activism in the current period.

9. Hungary: illiberal turn, democratic backsliding, or a new model?
Panel Chair: Attila Gyulai, Institute for Political Science, Centre for Social Sciences of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences

It is almost generally held that fundamental changes had taken place with regard the Hungarian political system since 2010 when Viktor Orban’s Fidesz gained a two-third majority in the parliament. However, the exact nature and scope of these changes are debated as there is no scholarly agreement whether they exemplify a case of democratic backsliding or a sharp illiberal turn after two decades of liberal democratic consensus. Sometimes, it is also claimed that Hungary served as a model and foreshadowed similar changes in other countries, established and new democracies alike. After the 2018 election, the governing party is expected to remain in power winning the chance to solidify the existing political regime. But what are the specific building blocks of this regime, how were they established after 2010, and how have they been functioning for the past few years?

Investigating the recent changes in a cross-sectional view, the proposed Panel offers Papers on different aspects of the Hungarian political system: leadership, party system, governance, ideology. According to participants of the Panel, the Hungarian turn cannot be understood examining a sole aspect of the political system only. Instead, the change should be considered on multiple levels at the same time. The participants of the Panel are both country and field experts on their topics and offer complementary evaluations of the changes of the Hungarian political system.

10. The irresistible rise of populist and anti-establishment parties?
Panel Chair: Martin Brusis, Faculty for European Studies, Babes-Bolyai-University

Unstable party systems in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) have enabled new populist and anti-establishment parties to intrude and broaden their electorates at the expense of established mainstream parties. However, illiberal policies in Hungary and Poland are pursued by established parties that have already led governments in previous periods. While some established parties have adopted populism to mobilize their voters and stay in power, some anti-establishment parties have attracted voters with public integrity agendas, avoiding the anti-pluralist stance of populism. The Panel aims at analyzing the varying trajectories of populist and anti-establishment parties in CEE. How do they manage to enter party systems and build majorities? How vulnerable or resilient are individual party systems about these newcomer parties? How do populist and anti-establishment parties reconfigure the political divides structuring party systems? How do these parties affect the notoriously weak party-voter alignments and the patterns of protest-voting in CEE? Single case studies and cross-national comparisons, as well as qualitative or quantitative studies, are invited to this Panel.

11. A Popular Political Leadership: Social Movements and Politics in Central and Eastern Europe
Chairs: Sergiu Gherghina, University of Glasgow & Adam Fagan, Queen Mary University of London

The phenomenon of social movements and their actors entering formal politics to contest elections and challenge extant elites has, over the past decade, become widespread across Europe. These movements propose both a new type of discourse and political leadership. Where and when this has happened in Eastern Europe, with social movements gaining terrain and registering important electoral performance in local and national politics, there is immediate historical resonance with the collapse of communism and the transition to liberal democracy. Nearly three decades later, the unconventional formation of these new political actors and their electoral performances begs some questions: How close are they to populists, both ‘good' and ‘bad'? What does their emergence suggest about the conventional way of doing politics? Does expertise matter? What does the leadership of these movements looks like? We seek to attract Papers that directly answer these questions, particularly from a comparative perspective drawing on cases from across the region broadly defined (including the Balkans, the Baltic region, and the Caucasus).

Panel List

P005A Popular Political Leadership: Social Movements and Politics in Central and Eastern Europe View Panel Details
P044Causes and Consequences of Illiberal Policies View Panel Details
P086Constitutional Politics and De-Democratization View Panel Details
P121Does „Western“ Democracy Still Mean „Liberal Democracy“? View Panel Details
P122Does European Integration Sponsor Populist Politics? View Panel Details
P139Entrepreneurial Parties: Danger to Liberal Democracy in East-Central Europe? View Panel Details
P169From a Neo-liberal to Non-liberal Context: Social Movements in (and of) the Dark Times? View Panel Details
P203Illiberal Turn, Democratic Backsliding, or a New Model? View Panel Details
P348Populism and Nativism as Legitimation Narratives of Illiberal Politics View Panel Details
P408Same ingredients, different recipes: EU leverage and democratic backsliding in new member states and candidate countries View Panel Details
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