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Your book, Extreme Reactions: Radical Right Mobilization in Eastern Europe, seeks to explain why there is strong support in Eastern Europe for radical right parties. Could you expand a little on this phenomenon? What is the role of ethnic minority communities in the growing support for radical right parties and what factors impact the level of support for the radical right from country to country?

Support for radical right parties in Eastern Europe has increased over time, but remains, on average, lower than in Western Europe. Support for radicalized mainstream parties, such as Fidesz in Hungary and the Law and Justice Party in Poland, is, however, remarkably strong. There are many reasons for this, but I will highlight three.

First, “niche” programmatic radical right parties are a luxury of wealthy countries, often with well-developed welfare states. As a result, the radical right is lagging behind somewhat in the countries of Southern and Eastern Europe.

Second, the boundaries between radicalized mainstream parties and radical right parties are comparatively blurry in Central and Eastern Europe, where party systems are very fluid. This leaves mainstream parties more at liberty to adapt extremist positions and siphon off support for parties on the flank. Recent developments in the United States and Western Europe do, however, suggest that blurring has become acceptable in the West as well.

Third, identity politics in Central and Eastern Europe, which traditionally revolved around ethnicity, is broadening. This shift benefits radicalized mainstream parties. Inspired by the West, Central and Eastern European politicians “discovered” the danger of Muslim immigration after the 2015 refugee crisis. They blurred the refugee threat with warrior frontier Christianity and an emphasis on family values. This contributed to the politicization of the LGBTQ community, which is now framed as a threat to heterosexual families. The radical right parties that emerged in Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall mobilized against ethnic groups that had resided in these countries for centuries—and, in most cases, had full citizenship rights. Over time, both mainstream right-wing parties and radical right parties embraced new identity issues (Muslim immigration, sexual and gender rights), resulting in a fierce competition for socially conservative voters.

My book links radical right voting to the ascendance of minorities to power, the accommodation of their demands, and policy backlash. Extreme Reactions challenges the notion that radical right voting is rooted in xenophobia and economic uncertainty. Rather, the book argues that radical right parties are fueled by dissatisfaction with and resentment of politically ascendant minority groups. This is tied directly to the mobilization of ethnic minorities within the framework of democratic politics. Where ethnic minorities remain politically quiescent, where large mainstream parties exclude them from cabinets, or where the ethnic minority is large enough to threaten the political dominance of the majority, radical right parties fail to gain traction in the electorate.

The book argues that radical right parties are fueled by dissatisfaction with and resentment of politically ascendant minority groups.

Where minorities mobilize, where mainstream parties include them within ruling coalitions, and where ethnic minorities are demographically not so weighty as to constitute a threat to the majority’s nation-building project, meanwhile, radical right parties find fertile electoral soil. By examining how these parties capitalize on feelings of discontent toward politically assertive minorities and the governmental policies that yield to their demands, the book exposes the volatile, Zeitgeist-dependent conditions under which once-fringe right-wing parties have risen to prominent but precarious positions of power.

Your work has also focused on populism and you recently coauthored a paper with Pavol Baboš about populist leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic. What novel approaches have populist leaders adopted in response to the pandemic and what do you see as the relationship between populism and radical right ideology?

My article “Best in COVID”studies the response of technocratic populists in Czechia and Slovakia to the first wave of the pandemic. It is a study of populists in power, since both Andrej Babiš and Pavol Matovič were Prime Ministers in the spring-summer of 2020. The crisis has shown that populists are better at handling manufactured crises than real ones.

Unfortunately, the responsive nature of populist governance undermined the states’ long-term ability to implement transparent, predictable, well-thought-out policies to tackle the crisis. In their quest to remain popular, populists bypassed existing institutions of crisis response and undermined their performance with ad-hoc changes and perpetual blame-shifting. Over time, this eroded public confidence in state institutions and public officials, paving the way for disastrous performance during the deadly COVID wave of winter 2020-2021.

Instantaneous responsiveness, in which politicians adapt their policies to the changing moods of the public, can sometimes be effective, as when dealing with localized issues. However, pandemic response requires long-term policy commitments and the prioritization of responsibility over responsiveness. Populists are therefore bound to fail.

Like COVID-19, populism has many variants. Once in power, populists have many tools at their disposal to mobilize the electorate; right-wing ideology is only one of these options. The Czech and Slovak populist parties in power rarely invoked vitriolic nativism during the COVID pandemic.

In Slovakia, Igor Matovič promoted minority candidates on party lists. However, his chaotic governance led to government crisis. He was forced to resign after botching the purchase of the Russian Sputnik vaccine.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš attempted to divert attention from COVID-related deaths during the parliamentary election campaign in the summer of 2021 by emphasizing the fabricated threat of non-European Muslims immigrating to the country. However, the strategy proved to be a double-edged sword: his party, ANO, lost power in the October parliamentary elections.

Technocratic populism, one of the variants of populism, is an ideology that weaponizes expertise for political purposes. However, it is not the rule of experts, but a system of governance in which expertise (or the illusion of expertise) is strategically used to garner public support. At the beginning of the pandemic, the public was scared and compliant, leading them to embrace the mask-wearing recommended by experts. This was a positive moment: technocratic populists and the experts were in sync. Later on, as the public grew tired of the pandemic and wanted more freedoms, populists used expertise as a shield, hiding behind experts and shifting the blame onto them.

Expertise, social spending, and identity mobilization are three distinct ways in which populists can mobilize voters.

Populism is a thin, flexible ideology. It can therefore invoke nativism as it sees fit. However, it is important to recognize that the toolkit of populism, especially when in power, is much broader, and nativist mobilization can backfire. Populists in power are very effective at targeting people’s purses via selective redistribution and government spending programs, which are popular and sometimes lead to positive outcomes such as poverty reduction. Expertise, social spending, and identity mobilization are three distinct ways in which populists can mobilize voters.

In an article co-authored with Petra Guasti, you argue that Central European countries, specifically the Visegrad Four, are marked by a series of “illiberal swerves,” evidenced by declining trust in democratic institutions and an increasingly uncivil society, among other phenomena. What do you mean by this term and how does this play out in practice? We often hear that Hungary and Poland are particularly troubling cases of weakening democratic principles in Central Europe, but what can you tell us about Czechia and Slovakia?

Indeed, Petra and I wrote an article on the “illiberal swerve” to challenge the notion that liberal-democratic backsliding is a linear reversal. We view Central and Eastern Europe as a very heterogeneous region marked by chronic instability, rather than as a region that is uniformly descending into illiberalism. Moreover, the literature on backsliding overlooks previous episodes of resilience and the ability of many Central and Eastern European countries to mobilize for and defend democracy.

Rather than focusing on tectonic shifts, we underscore the need to pay more attention to shorter episodes of contestation. We view the sequences of electoral cycles as a series of inherently unstable liberal-illiberal pushes and pulls. The concept of swerving allows for the possibility that the commitment to democratic pluralism has weakened only temporarily. Swerving recognizes volatility and uncertainty as an integral part of democracy and better captures the diversity and dynamics of Central and Eastern European democracies. If swerving persists unchallenged over two electoral cycles, we classify it as an illiberal turn.

We underscore the need to pay more attention to shorter episodes of contestation. We view the sequences of electoral cycles as a series of inherently unstable liberal-illiberal pushes and pulls.

Czechia and Slovakia demonstrate the validity of the concept of swerving. Slovakia has successfully corrected two swerves. The first was associated with the authoritarian nationalism of Vladmír Mečiar (1994–1998). Mečiar was defeated by a coalition of right-leaning pro-European parties. The second major defeat of populism occurred a few months before the pandemic. After a series of anti-corruption mass protests, Robert Fico lost power. In Czechia, Andrej Babiš lost power in October 2021 to two anti-populist coalitions. As in Slovakia, the electoral campaign was accompanied by a surge in civic mobilization.

Both countries had to overhaul their economies. The economic restructuring in Slovakia was traumatic. Furthermore, large-scale privatization was marred by large-scale corruption, which undermined the legitimacy of mainstream parties in both cases. Slovakia also faced the challenge of accommodating its Hungarian minority.

In comparative perspective, Czechia and Slovakia were remarkably successful. Problems persist, of course: current and future governments must address perennially low wages, reform pensions, remedy regional inequalities, and accelerate stalled efforts to transition to a knowledge economy.

The liberal democracies in Czechia and Slovakia are permanently contested. Populists have gained, but also lost, power. At this precise moment, the quality of democracy in both countries is on the upswing. However, consistent with the notion of swerving, liberal democracy is not consolidated.

Finally, our program is called the Illiberalism Studies Program. Do you consider the term “illiberal” to be useful for researchers interested in democratic decline? What do you consider to be the connection between illiberal politics and populism?

I am a passionate consumer of your Illiberalism Studies Program and I often direct my students to your website. I find the term “illiberal” very appealing because it gives us the ability to think about democratic decline in nuanced ways. Not all democracies are liberal democracies and not all decay is illiberal. For example, a shift from liberal to majoritarian democracy is illiberal but preserves the rules of electoral contestation. Political corruption and power grabs can undermine democracy but need not be illiberal. Red flags that indicate decay relate to efforts to strip away minority rights, including ethnic rights, the rights of small religious groups, and the right to sexual and bodily autonomy. Typically, the suppression of rights signals a shift to majority rule in order to buttress efforts to gain or retain power.

I find the term “illiberal” very appealing because it gives us the ability to think about democratic decline in nuanced ways.

In his famous 2014 speech on illiberalism, Viktor Orbán noted that the role of leadership is to “harmonize the relationship between the interests and achievement of individuals […] and the interests and achievements of the community and the nation.” The link between illiberalism and populism stems from efforts to dismantle the guardrails that prevent the tyranny of self-appointed representatives of the “authentic” majority. These protections may be weakened directly using laws, regulations, and policies that de-facto strip minority citizens of their legal rights. Alternatively, critical voices can be delegitimized via polarizing discourse that labels critics and political opponents as enemies of the people. The link between illiberalism and populism lies in efforts to suppress minority and alternative voices that challenge power.

Lenka Buštíková is associate professor in European Union and Comparative East European Politics (DPIR/OSGA), in association with St Antony’s College, University of Oxford (from September 2022). She holds a PhD in political science from Duke University and MA degrees from Charles University, Central European University and Harvard University. She is an Associate Professor in the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University. Her research focuses on party politics, voting behavior, clientelism, and state capacity, with special reference to Eastern Europe

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.