In the last three decades, Europe has undergone a “Right turn” in politics. We can see evidence for this shift in the continued electoral success of radical right parties across many Western European countries, such as France, Denmark, and the Netherlands. Radical right parties share a strong nationalist and anti-establishment ideology, with grievances aimed at immigrant or minority populations. Popular support for such parties worries scholars and political observers because radical right parties present a potential threat to social democratic principles, such as multiculturalism, social rights for ethnic minorities, and pluralism. And yet, when ringing the alarm bell over the threat to democracy in Europe observers tend to refer only to the western half of the European Union (EU) and neglect Central Eastern European countries (CEE). This omission is particularly odd given that post-socialist countries’ relative economic and political instability should, theoretically, make these countries ripe for radical right movements.
However, when compared to Western Europe, radical right parties in CEE have not been nearly as electorally successful. Since 1991, radical right parties in CEE have never outpaced similar parties in Western Europe in terms of electoral support in national parliamentary elections. Of course, the CEE region is not homogenous, and some radical right parties have received relatively high levels of electoral support at the national level. Parties like Russia’s extremist LDPR (deceivingly named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia) and Poland’s LPR (League of Polish Families) entered parliament and coalitions with centre-right parties, and Romania’s PRM (Greater Romania Party) gained 19.5 per cent of the national vote at its peak in 2000. Overall, however, support for radical right parties in the CEE region has not been consistent since the 1989-91 collapse of state socialism.
Among the CEE countries, Ukraine stands out as an interesting case for understanding the failures and successes of radical right parties. Prior to the 2012 parliamentary elections, Ukraine’s radical right parties received the lowest level of support in the entire region, an average 1.19 per cent of the popular vote in parliamentary elections from 1990 to 2007. Then in October 2012, Ukraine’s radical right party, Freedom (Svoboda) received 10.4 per cent of the national vote, a first in Ukraine’s electoral history. While Freedom’s high electoral success puzzled some observers, the more puzzling question it not, “why now?” but rather, “why not before?”
In 2006 and 2007, Ukraine exhibited numerous political and socio-economic characteristics that should have led, according to certain political and sociological theories, to a surge in support for radical right nationalist parties much earlier. These included poor economic conditions and a proportional electoral system that privileged small parties. In terms of economics, Ukraine is one of the poorest countries in the region – GDP per capita averaged 1,465 dollars between 1989 and 2009 (World Bank). Bulgaria, which has the second lowest average GDP per capita (2,618 dollars), is still nearly twice as prosperous as Ukraine. In terms of electoral systems, Ukraine instituted a proportional representation system in 2006 (prior to which it was semi-proportional), which allowed small parties to gain representation in parliament as long as they pass the electoral threshold of three per cent – a relatively low threshold in comparison to some of its neighbours. But in parliamentary elections in 2006 and 2007, directly after the reform, a radical right party did not even gain one per cent of the popular vote.
Ukraine’s low electoral support for radical right parties throughout the 1990s and 2000s, followed by a sudden surge in support in 2012, is particularly interesting given that economic conditions leading up to the 2012 elections were improving and that a semi-proportional electoral system that disadvantages small parties was reinstituted for the 2012 elections. Yet, the assumption that radical right parties should be most successful in the “backward East” due to relatively poor economic conditions is all too commonly made among scholars and lay observers alike. Studies of Western European radical right parties have shown this hypothesis to be tentative at best, because macro-level factors (e.g. a country’s economic situation) cannot explain micro-level outcomes such as individuals’ voting behaviour.
In light of this, it is particularly surprising that in the CEE case this hypothesis has not been studied to the same extent as in Western Europe. Therefore, there is good reason to examine the relationship between economic factors and support for radical right parties across the CEE region – and situate Ukraine’s experience with radical right parties within the broader CEE experience. For, analysis of voting trends for radical right parties and economic indicators in CEE shows that the relationship between the two is neither clear nor obvious. It may be that social scientists need to reformulate the way they study and understand radical right parties – and shift their focus from the economy to civil society.
I. Defining radical right parties in western Europe and CEE
What is “radical” and what is “right” about parties such as France’s National Front or Hungary’s Jobbik? Can, and should, these parties be placed in the same category? While much ink has been spilled on arguments over definitions, there is still a lack of consensus on how to define the “radical right” and which parties to include in this definition. Various labels such as extreme right, far right, radical right-wing populism, populist radical right, and national populism – just to name a few – have produced a “war of words” without reaching a definitive conclusion. I would suggest that the difficulty in defining the radical right in both Western and Central Eastern Europe has to do with the fact that such parties do not always conform to Left-Right distinctions typically made in terms of economic ideology, historical legacies, social policy, or the parties’ constituencies.
Grouping both Western and CEE radical right parties together only makes sense if such parties are defined in terms of their cultural ideology, which is based on romanticized notions of pure nationhood, the exclusionary politics of minority groups, and xenophobic rhetoric – especially in relation to non-white, non-Christian immigrant groups. This ethnic vision of nationhood and the explicit desire to defend the nation from outsiders (be they individuals or other nations), is precisely what makes these parties both “radical” and “right.”
Economic platforms: left or right?
Neoliberal economic policies are most closely associated with the Right in political and sociological theory. In a well-known study on Western European radical right parties, political scientists Kitschelt and McGann proposed a “winning formula” thesis, which states that radical right parties enjoyed electoral success in the 1980s because they combined xenophobic rhetoric with stringent free market economics. According to Kitschelt, this also explained why some radical right parties were more successful than others in gaining electoral support and influencing mainstream parties. Beginning in the early 1990s, however, Western European radical right parties generally dropped neoliberalism from their economic agendas in a shift toward economic protectionism and social redistribution policies. Since then, some radical right parties like the Danish FDP and Bulgarian Ataka have purported to be the carriers of social democracy – something traditionally associated with the European Left. This points to the fact that within the radical right party family, there is a wide range of economic programmes, spanning the liberal-socialist scale. As Cas Mudde argues, radical right parties tend to support a “social market economy”, with CEE parties leaning more towards national protectionism than Western European parties. As such, radical right parties in CEE tend to be even more critical of neoliberal policies of deregulation and privatization than their Western European counterparts.
To further complicate the Left-Right scale, studies of radical right supporters in Western Europe show that these individuals are less neoliberal in their attitudes than centre-right voters. The radical right’s ideological shift from neoliberalism to social welfare has also shifted the base of support for such parties in Western Europe in particular. Beginning in the late 1980s, workers and middle classes turned out to support the radical right agenda leading to a process of “proletarization” of the radical right electorate in the 1990s. Workers, the traditional constituency of the Left, continue to be overrepresented among radical right party supporters.
The difference between left and radical right parties’ economic platforms lies in how social democratic and radical right parties envision the relationship between state and society. Left parties’ egalitarian vision of universal social rights stands in stark opposition to radical right parties’ policy of social redistribution only to a favoured, national ethnic group with limits on government transfers to “unpopular” ethnic groups. Scholars refer to this brand of social protection as “welfare chauvinism” or “economic nationalism” in order to emphasize the combination of exclusionary ideology and support for extensive welfare spending. In Western Europe, immigrants are usually targeted as unjust recipients of welfare benefits whose social rights to such state funds should be rescinded. Extreme-right parties in CEE have the same xenophobic characteristics as their counterparts in the West but, given lower immigration levels in CEE, welfare chauvinism targets indigenous ethnic minorities.
Both the “Left-turn” in radical right parties’ economic programmes and the attitudes of radical right voters complicate the Left-Right spectrum as we commonly understand it. Economic ideology in itself is not sufficient for identifying radical right parties. Recognizing this, scholars have looked to the relationship between the “Old Right” of interwar Europe and the “New Right” of contemporary politics.
Historical Legacies: Old vs. New Right
Are contemporary radical right parties recycling the ideologies of the past? Fascist regimes of interwar Europe, or the “Old Right”, serve as a reference point for the “New Right” radical parties in Europe. Indeed, at the ideological and practical level, there is an implicit commonality between the New and Old Right’s emphasis on ethnic purity and homogeneity. However, as David Art points out, historical legacies of authoritarian or ultra-nationalist regimes do translate into strong contemporary radical right parties. Germany is a clear of example of this. History serves a more complex role than ideological mimicry. For the new radical right parties, historical legacies provide what Art calls “indigenous resources, or the means, for radical right party building”. New radical right parties build on a pre-existing foundation, such as nationalist subculture or the remaining, old party infrastructure, and use it as an initial reservoir for recruits and activists. In this sense, historical experiences of nationalist movements can help new party formation or organization, while pre-existing ideologies work differently across national contexts.
Both Western European and CEE radical right parties have sought to distance themselves from the ideological legacies of fascism, even while relying on some of the symbols (e.g. Austrian Freedom Party’s black uniforms) and scapegoating rhetoric similar to that of inter-War fascist parties. The New Right parties differ from the Old Right with regard to their stance on democracy: contemporary radical right parties are anti-establishment and are critical of liberal democracy, but they are not anti-democratic per se. In a sense, never having been in power counts as an advantage insofar as it provides radical right parties with a standpoint from which to criticize established parties and policies.
CEE parties, such as the Hungarian Jobbik party and the Romanian Greater Romania Party, also rely on implicitly fascist symbolism (uniforms, red and black colours, slightly altered symbols) and have purged overt references to fascism. Yet, the CEE differs from Western Europe because of the region’s experience with state socialism. This legacy, as opposed to fascism, is of greater salience to the ideological and practical concerns of the radical right in CEE, because it simultaneously serves as the embodiment of an enemy from within while discrediting new left parties or movements.
Successor communist parties are still active in many CEE countries and receive a consistent, though minor, share of the vote. Whereas in Western Europe, communist or far left parties tend to be progressive, in CEE, with some exceptions, they are reactionary and culturally conservative, advocating a return to the law and order of state socialism. In practice, this means that contemporary communist parties and radical right parties find themselves in agreement on such issues as nationalization of key industries, employment or benefit rights that should be provided by the state, and support for a traditional family structure. Therefore, unlike in Western Europe, radical right parties and communist-successor parties often cooperate and become strange bedfellows in CEE. Nonetheless, while the two far wings of the political spectrum may find themselves in ideological agreement on some cultural or moral issues, the radical right’s vision of ethnic national belonging separates these parties from the communist successor parties and the centre-right.
The cultural radical right: ethnic nationalism
Culture trumps economics as the key feature of radical right parties. As Cas Mudde points out, the most striking commonality in the rallying cries of radical right parties is the variation on the slogan, “France for the French!”, or, “Bulgaria for the Bulgarians!” This ubiquitous motto, while a bit stale, speaks directly to the distinguishing feature of radical right parties in Western Europe and CEE: ethnic nationalism, or the idea that the political boundaries of the state should correspond to the ethnic boundaries of the nation. In this version of nationalism, the “imagined community” of the nation includes only a privileged, “pure” national group and excludes other foreign “non-natives”, such as non-white immigrant Muslims in Western Europe or indigenous Roma or Jews in CEE.
In contrast to multiculturalism, which posits that ethnic minorities can maintain their traditions in conjunction with political participation in the nation-state, ethnic nationalism or ethno-pluralism “states that to preserve the unique national characters of different peoples, they have to be kept separated. Mixing of different ethnicities only leads to cultural extinction.” Whereas traditional forms of racism include a hierarchical ranking of ethnic groups, ethno-pluralism emphasizes a “separate but equal” ideology. Thus, for the radical right, the ideal nation is an ethnocracy characterized by the dominance of an idealized homogenous ethnic group. This drive for ethnic homogenization is not limited to exclusion of internal minorities. The notion of geographic expansion or remapping of borders to include fellow ethnic populations living outside the country in the “lost lands” of the nation appears often in radical right parties’ platforms. Correspondence between ethnic and political borders underlies this rhetoric. The problem is, of course, that nations as political entities are modern inventions, which have never been ethnically or religiously homogenous.
The imagery of cultural loss, be it language, tradition, or religion, underpins all radical right ideology but expresses itself in various forms across countries. For example, the EU acquis communautaire requires that member states give up certain national rights to the supra-national EU polity, including control over economic trade, financial policy, and acceptance of human rights legislation. For radical right parties and their supporters, this move towards a supra-national system implies a loss of national identity and culture. In support of this point, recent research suggests that individuals turn to the radical right because they see EU expansion as a threat to their national traditions and a worldview specific to the nation’s political culture. Indeed, some of the most successful radical right parties in Western Europe, such as the National Front in France or the Freedom Party in Austria, have incorporated a critique of the EU project into their programmes while simultaneously claiming cultural rights to European traditions. Radical right parties from West to East are largely “Eurosceptic”: critical of EU’s infringement upon national rights and increasing political centralization but still cautious of rejecting EU membership out right.
In post-socialist countries, sentiments of cultural loss manifest themselves as a critique of state socialism or Soviet influence. Soviet policies of rapid industrialization, language homogenization, and re-settlement drastically altered the former East Bloc’s economic trajectories. In countries that were part of the Soviet Union, this meant imposition of Russian as the language of higher education and officialdom combined with settlement of Russian speaking populations in countries like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine and the Caucus States. In satellite countries, industrial development in lieu of language and resettlement policies reshaped countries structurally and architecturally. For post-1991 radical right parties, this period of Soviet dominance becomes a tool for romanticizing a national past – a trajectory interrupted and corrupted by a period of imperialism during which national culture was lost. The theme of a return to or the resurrection of a romanticized national past prior to state socialism places radical right parties alongside historically conservative right movements including fascism. A desire to reclaim a national culture that was corrupted by an outside force – the Soviet Union in the case of CEE and the EU in the case of Western Europe – is a powerful ideological tool at the heart of radical right parties.
Thus far, I have argued that neither radical right parties nor their voters are driven by strictly economic concerns alone. The radical right party family is instead united in its cultural ideology of ethnic nationalism, anti-minority and/or anti-immigrant sentiment, and rhetoric of cultural loss. Economics are not the driving force for radical right parties: party platforms on economic and social policy have wavered drastically in all European countries.
Looking at the numbers, studies of Western Europe have already shown that aggregate level economic factors alone do not determine electoral support for radical right parties: some studies find a positive correlation between unemployment and support for radical right parties and others a negative one. Similarly, there is no scholarly consensus on how economic downturns in general, measured in terms of GDP per capita, affect the fortunes of radical right-wing parties. For CEE, there is no clear evidence on how national unemployment rates and economic health affect support for radical right parties. Thus, the question remains: do changes in the economy correspond to electoral outcomes for radical right parties in CEE in particular?
II. Electoral support for radical right parties and the economy
An analysis of voting trends for radical right parties in national parliamentary elections in eleven CEE countries, in conjunction with trends in unemployment and GDP per capita from 1990 to 2011, sheds new light on received notions of the relationship between support for radical right parties and the economy. The countries included here are: Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine. They are all democratic, unlike Belarus or Uzbekistan, and had a peaceful transition in the early 1990s, unlike former Yugoslavia. Furthermore, my focus on comparing Ukraine to its western regional neighbours excludes Russia and Central Asia. My categorization of parties as “radical right” is based on existing surveys of party platforms, which identify ethnic nationalist and exclusionary discourses in parties’ programmes.
It is worth looking at trends in unemployment and GDP per capita, because radical right parties consistently link immigrants or ethnic minorities with increased unemployment. Political scapegoating of this kind might be expected to emerge during times of high unemployment, when individuals are more likely to place blame for their economic misfortunes on an outsider group. In turn, voters may turn to a radical right political party that is able to speak to their grievances and provide easy answers. According to this logic, which stems from relative deprivation theories, there should be a positive relationship between unemployment rates and support for radical right parties and a negative one between GDP per capita and electoral support.
In terms of average support for radical right parties over the past 20 years, the figure below shows that CEE countries fall into three categories of electoral support: high-support countries above the CEE mean of 5.8 per cent (Romania, Latvia, and Slovakia), medium-support countries near the CEE mean (Poland, Slovenia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Estonia), and low-support countries below the mean (Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Ukraine).
If, as the argument goes, bad economic conditions give rise to radical right parties, then unemployment should be highest and GDP lowest in the high-support countries. Yet in Romania, where radical right parties have on average been most successful, average unemployment is 6.96 per cent, which is below the CEE average of 9.87 per cent. However, Slovakia, one of the high-support countries, exhibits the highest average unemployment rate in the region of 14.45 per cent. Poland also exhibits a relatively high unemployment rate but the country’s radical right parties are only marginally successful with an average of 6.78 per cent popular vote. Overall, there is no clear relationship between average unemployment rates and support for radical right parties.
Turning now to the relationship between economic wealth (GDP per capita) and electoral support for radical right parties, the data do not show a clear connection. It is true that Romania is a relatively poor country with a GDP per capita of 3,361 dollars compared to a CEE average of 6,410 dollars, and also has the highest levels of support for radical right parties. Yet Ukraine has the lowest GDP per capita for the region (1,540 dollars) and also some of the least successful radical right parties. On average, low economic development does not correspond to higher support for radical right parties across countries. Such aggregate level data, however, provide only a cursory overview. It is useful to look at trends over time and pay attention to changes in the economic situation, because according to relative deprivation logic, individuals are more likely to support radical ideologies when their life chances and opportunities decrease from one time period to the next.
Economic conditions and support for radical right parties in three countries
Instead of analyzing the entire CEE region, let us focus to three cases: Romania, Bulgaria, and Ukraine. These three neighbouring countries are the poorest among the eleven but exhibit varying levels of average support for radical right parties, with Romania in the high-support group, Bulgaria in the average-support group, and Ukraine in the low-support group. Comparing the trends in unemployment, GDP per capita, and electoral support for radical right parties across these three cases helps situate Ukraine’s experience of the radical right in relation to its close economic neighbours.
In Romania, support for radical right parties peaked in 2000, with almost 21 per cent of the popular vote going to the Greater Romania Party (19.48) and the Party of Romanian National Unity (PUNR), as compared with the previous parliamentary elections in 1996, when Greater Romania (PRM) and PUNR split 8.82 per cent of the popular national vote with 4.46 and 4.36 per cent respectively. In the same time period as PRM’s electoral surge, unemployment increased very marginally from 6.7 to 7 per cent, and GDP per capita was steadily increasing. Nonetheless, as Romania grew wealthier and GDP per capita peaked in 2008 at 9,300 dollars, PRM lost almost all of its share of the vote, which dropped to 13 per cent in 2004 and 3.16 per cent in 2008 parliamentary elections. PUNR disappeared completely. This correlation between increasing wealth and decreasing support for radical right parties seems to lend some support to the relative deprivation argument: as individuals’ life chances increase, they are no longer interested in supporting political parties with radical agendas. However, similar economic changes were taking place across the CEE region without resulting in the same outcomes for radical right parties.
As in Romania, GDP per capita began increasing in Ukraine and Bulgaria in 2000, reaching a high point in 2008 at 6,798 dollars (Bulgaria) and 3,891dollars (Ukraine). The voting pattern for radical parties does not follow the predicted path of decline, however. In Bulgaria, support for radical right parties hit an all time low in 2001, with 0.07 per cent of the popular vote going to the Bulgarian National Radical Party (BNRP) before its complete disappearance. By 2001, other one-hit-wonder parties of the early and mid-1990s disappeared as well. Just as the fate of the Bulgarian radical right seemed to be sealed, the Bulgarian National Union Attack (Ataka), took 8.14 and 9.36 per cent of the popular vote in the 2005 and 2009 parliamentary elections respectively. And yet, from 2000 to 2008, GDP per capita increased almost four times, from 1,729 dollars to the aforementioned high of 6,798 dollars. Unemployment between 2001 and 2008 also decreased dramatically, from an all time high of 19.9 per cent to a low of 5.6. By these measures, the economic situation in Bulgaria was improving substantially while the radical right was gaining strength. The case of Bulgaria clearly contradicts the assertion that radical right parties only succeed during economic decline.
How does Ukraine compare to its neighbours? The numbers show that Ukraine is a difficult case to classify, because radical right parties have been far less successful there than in countries like Bulgaria and Romania. In 1998, support for radical right parties reached a high of 3.29 per cent, broken down between three political groups: Fewer Words Bloc (0.17), National Front Bloc (2.71), and Ukrainian National Assembly (0.4). After the late 1990s, these parties disappeared and the All-Ukrainian Union Svoboda (the Socialist Nationalist Party of Ukraine prior to 2004) emerged to take 0.36 and 0.76 per cent of the vote in 2006 and 2007 respectively. Unemployment reached a peak of 11.6 per cent in 1999 and decreased to 6.4 by 2007. GDP per capita followed a similar pattern to the rest of the region, rising from a low of 636 dollars in 2001 to a high of 3,891 dollars in 2008. Whereas it may appear that the economic situation was improving at the same time as support for the radical right was declining, there had in fact never been a significant peak for radical right parties in Ukraine for the period beginning 1991. And leading up to Freedom Party’s electoral surge, GDP per capita in Ukraine increased from 2,545 dollars in 2009 to 3,615 dollars to 2011 – a proportionally large increase.
Thus, based on Ukraine’s experience, as well as that of its neighbours, support for radical right parties cannot be linked to economic factors. The same is true for all the other countries in the CEE region: economic downturns do not correspond to increased support for radical right parties in most cases. A simple examination of longitudinal trends since 1991 shows this to be a false assumption at best and ignorance at worst. Laying the economic argument to rest once and for all in favour of more robust explanations would serve social science and public discourse well.
III. Rethinking the radical right: civil society and radical right movements
If economic factors are not sufficient for explaining support for radical right parties, then what other avenues or research should social scientists explore? A rarely addressed issue in research on radical right parties is the relationship between political parties and non-political organizations in civil society. Scholarly focus on economics and party competition (not addressed here) overlooks how radical right movements garner and maintain support and the role that civil society might play in building the social networks, membership base and organizational resources needed to sustain radical right parties. Civil society is the associational space between the state and private sphere, consisting of formal voluntary organizations, professional associations, recreational clubs, religious groups, veterans’ organizations, and local or community organizations. Studies of right-wing parties in Europe do not directly address the relationship between such civic organizations and contemporary radical right parties, choosing instead to examine the historical case of the interwar period. But research on the contemporary radical right is necessary to understand how radical right parties develop their organizational capacity for recruiting new members and sustaining support between election cycles.
Theories of democracy have long highlighted the importance of civic participation for democracy and political participation. Empirical studies show that civic and political participation are inherently connected; individuals who participate in civic life are more likely to participate in political life. According to the classical Tocquevillian tradition, a robust civil society is necessary for the success of liberal democracy. In addition to nurturing civic voluntarism and political engagement, both necessary ingredients for a healthy democracy, civic associations act as a “buffer” simultaneously constraining the reach of the state while shielding elites from mass demands. Robert Putnam argues that without sustained civic participation, the core of liberal democracy is threatened as individuals become more disconnected from the government and each other. This classical Tocquevillian thesis – that civic associations act as “schools of democracy” – is at the core of democratization theories.
Research on the interwar period in Europe, however, challenges the link between civic participation and liberal democracy to show that a robust associational sphere with high participation can lead to authoritarian regimes, such as state fascism, as opposed to liberal democracy. Examining the historical cases of fascism in Germany, Italy, and Spain, these studies find the roots of fascism took hold in regions where civic participation was strongest, because the party was able to co-opt civic associations in support of its agenda. Instead of acting as schools of democracy and pluralism, civic associations with active participation can facilitate the spread of a radical, anti-democratic agenda. In other words, there is no guarantee that high civic participation inevitably leads to the positive outcome of liberal democracy. In fact, it could lead to very opposite: dominance of radical right parties or movements.
The problem in deciphering between the two conflicting roles of civil society for either liberal democratic or radical right outcomes is that civil society looks different in post-socialist spaces than in the West. The scholarly vision of the types of organizations that legitimately constitute civil society is clearly specific to the Western context. The legacy of state socialism in the CEE region bred a certain suspicion of formal organizations among the populace. For example, while NGOs exist in countries like Ukraine, it is unclear how many of them are actually active or whether they function in a similar fashion to NGOs in the western world. According to estimates, less than ten per cent of NGOs registered with the government in Ukraine are actually active, and out of those, some function merely “on paper” as shell organizations that exist only for the purpose of receiving grants from international aid organizations. This misrepresentation is so rampant, that NGOs in Ukraine are colloquially referred to as “grant-gobblers” – a reference to the financing of NGOs by international funding agencies and foreign government organizations.
As a result of the Soviet legacy and distrust of formally organized groups, CEE countries rank very low in terms of civil society development, measured as the number of organizations and rate of individuals’ organizational membership, and civic participation in comparison to Western European countries. Individuals in CEE are unlikely to participate in organizational life, such as voluntary groups and clubs, and generally distrust political parties. Yet, citizens in CEE do organize to pursue collective goals, such as petitioning local government councils to resolve disputes over building construction or social welfare benefits, albeit in small, informal groups. Some of these citizens’ groups look like typical western civic groups: student organizations, veterans groups, sports clubs, environmental groups, movie clubs, volunteer groups focused on helping the poor or children, and religious groups.
These “informal civic groups” become essential for emerging political parties seeking to organize support, because such groups provide a social base for building a political organizational infrastructure and developing social networks through which information can easily travel. Without these groups, recruitment and mobilization of supporters for rallies and demonstrations is practically impossible, which means that in places where there is a shortage of civic groups, any grass roots political party or social movement will have trouble mobilizing and sustaining support. This is particularly true for emerging parties that must rely on bottom-up, as opposed to top-down, political strategies to build support (the mainstream political parties in Ukraine are top-down in the sense that they are centred around a particular person as opposed to an ideology or agenda). Thus, emerging parties look less like formal hierarchical organizations (though of course, this is a key element of political organization) and more like webs of informal social connections. When parties fail at developing such networks, they fail at the polls as well.
Thus, instead of examining economic factors and party competition, social scientists should ask what the consequences of post-socialist civil society are for liberal democracy in the CEE region and Ukraine. Doing so requires more than aggregate level survey measures, which do not adequately reflect the reality of everyday life, for reasons already mentioned above. With a few exceptions, research on radical right parties has been quantitative and comparative on the broad level of nation states. This level of analysis, however, only glosses over the complex dynamics of how radical right parties and movements use social connections and create or co-opt supporting organizations in pursuit of their political agenda. And in particular, how individuals are drawn to and recruited by radical right parties, which often cannot offer clear economic agendas. While social scientists avoid engagement with radical right activists, doing so is a mistake. Understanding how individual choices fit into a broader economic and political structure and how radical right parties “work” as organizations, requires qualitative research designs that focus on how parties interact with civil society organizations through their members.
Research often cites declining economies as an explanation for support for radical right parties in Western and Central Eastern Europe. My analysis of trends in GDP per capita and unemployment shows that there is no clear association between economic changes at the national level and support for radical right parties in national parliamentary elections. Between 1991 and 2010, the CEE region experienced similar trends in economic growth but within the region support for radical right parties varied dramatically. The relationship between unemployment rates, another popular measure of economic health, and support for radical right parties does not follow the expected pattern either. In the CEE region, Ukraine stands out as an anomalous case of relatively poor economic indicators paired with low support for radical right parties. Thus, at least at the country level, economic changes do not correspond to electoral outcomes for the radical right.
Of course GDP and unemployment measures do not fully capture the economic conditions in a nation, much less in a region or city. Moreover, objective changes in economic indicators may not correspond to individuals’ propensity to take up radical ideas (left or right). Aggregate level indicators cannot explain individual level behaviour. To suggest that they do, amounts to a logical fallacy. Recent research shows that individual level explanations, which simultaneously take into account country level factors, are more useful (though not conclusive) in explaining an individual’s propensity to vote for a radical right party. Future research seeking cross-national, quantitative explanations should expand this avenue of study further.
Given the lack of evidence for an economic argument, I would implore researchers not to shy away from going “into the field” and engaging members of radical right parties to understand the motivations behind individuals’ behaviour and party strategies. Why and how people participate in politics and the role that social networks or civic groups play in that participation is an important question that cannot be answered with even sophisticated survey methods. Researchers’ discomfort with grounded, qualitative research when it comes to studying the radical right does a disservice to our understanding of how radical right political movements develop not just in Europe but globally as well.