Eastern Europe: When and why the radical right cuts through


Photo: Michael Thaidiggsmann CC BY-SA 3.0

Radical right parties have firmly established themselves in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) since 1989. However, their support has waxed and waned far more than that of their counterparts in Western Europe.

This paradox  Bartek Pytlas argues in Radical Right Parties in Central and Eastern Europe: Mainstream Party Competition and Electoral Fortune, a new comparative study of Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, can be explained by the fact that ideological boundaries between radical outsiders and mainstream parties are more blurred. Conservative nationalists (Hungary, Poland) and social populists (Slovakia) provide stiff competition for the CEE radical right, but can also legitimise radical right themes and offer it a route into coalition government (Poland, Slovakia).

 Competition between radical right parties and the mainstream ‘near radical right’, Pytlas argues, should be studied not just in spatial or directional terms (as in conventional party competition theory), but also in discursive terms: what matters is how parties frame and interpret radical nationalist narratives already widely resonant in CEE. Radical right success cannot simply be read as a backlash by ‘transition losers’ against post-communist socio-economic modernisation.

 Pytlas uses Computer Assisted Qualitative Data Analysis (CAQDA) of newspapers and party programmes supplemented by polling and expert survey data to pick out the key nationalist frames in the three states  – for example, Poland as a ‘bulwark of Christianity’, or ‘Gypsy crime’ in Hungary – and to establish their resonance and ‘ownership’. Using Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) the book then identifies how these patterns combine into ‘synergy frameworks’ which can explain the undulating electoral fortunes of the radical right.

 Radical Right Parties in Central and Eastern Europe is a methodologically bold and sophisticated fusion of several streams of academic literature: party competition theory, notions of political opportunity structures and ideas about framing. Its thoroughly argued analysis generates conclusions that are both credible and original. The book’s key finding is that radical right parties succeed where they have ownership of resonant frames on salient issues. Mainstream competitors can block off the rise of the radical right either by keeping the nationalist issues it owns off the political agenda or – if it cannot – by taking over these frames, albeit it at the risk of mainstreaming them.

 The book’s only real weaknesses are arguably an over-focus on the discursive, screening out a raft of organisational and social factors, and the many unresolved questions about why far-right parties’ ability to make their messages cut through varies. It is unclear, for example, why Hungary’s Jobbik party successfully created the ‘Gypsy crime’ frame while, with similar levels of public anti-Roma prejudice, the radical right in Slovakia did not.

This review is forthcoming in Political Studies Review

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