Presentation at the Conference “Disintegration and integration in East-Central Europe“, Faculty of European Studies, Babeș-Bolyai University Cluj-Napoca, 26-27 October 2017
The subsequent economic and refugee crises have questioned the promise of prosperity and security associated with European integration. Governments in East-Central and Southeast Europe struggled to bridge between the diverging policy expectations of voters on the one hand, international economic and political actors on the other. The weakened credibility of mainstream political parties provided opportunities for populist and anti-establishment mobilization. While these crisis-induced influences have been similar in all countries of the region, the extent to which populist challengers have been able to win elections and implement their preferred policy preferences has varied significantly across countries.
In my paper, I analyze the conditions and constellations that account for the resilience of countries with regard to the domestic political consequences of the European crises. I argue that populist challenger parties benefit from bipolar competition because they use polarizing frames of people versus elites to mobilize electoral support. The fragmentation and polarization of party systems reflect the nature of the electoral system and the configuration of cleavages in society. A majoritarian electoral system and congruent cleavages have supported the emergence of bipolar party system in Hungary and Poland. In contrast, cross-cutting cleavages tend to generate and sustain multi-polar party systems. These party systems facilitate the entry of new parties, but have posed obstacles to new parties trying to broaden and consolidate their constituencies. To assess the intersection or congruence of cleavages, the paper studies the configuration of differences among parties on salient policy issues.