A paper for the ECPR General Conference, Hamburg, 25 August 2018, Panel 408: Same ingredients, different recipes: EU leverage and democratic backsliding in new member states and candidate countries
The subsequent economic and refugee crises have weakened the credibility of mainstream political parties in East-Central and Southeast Europe (ECSE) since prosperity and security no longer appear to be guaranteed consequences of European integration. The declining legitimacy of incumbents has provided opportunities for populist and anti-establishment mobilization. While these crisis-induced influences have been similar in all ECSE countries, the extent to which populist challengers have been able to win elections and form governments has varied significantly across countries. To explore these differences and assess the likelihood of populist electoral victories and subsequent illiberal policies in ECSE, the paper combines case studies of Hungary, Macedonia and Poland with a multivariate analysis of party systems, issue dimensions and cleavage configurations. It is argued that populist parties have attained political majorities through bipolar party competition, facilitated by congruent cleavages, particularly the congruence between sociocultural and EU-related cleavages. Based upon a comparison of the country cases, the paper discusses conditions that could constrain the illiberal erosion of democracy in ECSE.