Is populism in Western Europe and Central Eastern Europe the same thing?

By Lise Herman | 9 January 2012

To quote this document: Lise Herman, “Is populism in Western Europe and Central Eastern Europe the same thing?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Monday 9 January 2012,, displayed on 19 June 2018

Few scholars have attempted a systematic comparison of populism in Western and post-communist Europe: studies of populism tend to be limited to one region or another, and when pan-European studies do occur, regional specificities disappear in an attempt not to essentialize “east” and “west”. The more theory-driven work on populism, however, offers useful tools to compare the nature and the causes of populist discourse at both ends of the European Union. 

The challenge of a pan-European comparison of populism

Most of the literature on populism starts out with a careful note on the extreme difficulty in defining this phenomenon. Not only has the term has been used to describe very different situations, but the significant swell of scholarly attention to issue over the last 30 years has resulted in the adoption of multiple definitions and diverse interpretations. However, an increasing consensus has emerged on defining populism as a discourse, which has a defining core and a structure, but can have different contents. This allows one to take into account the multiple forms which populism can embody. Following Canovan (1999), I will define this common core as "an appeal to the people against both the established structures of power and the dominant ideas and values of society".

The increase in scholarly interest surrounding this topic reflects the empirical reality of an increasingly pervasive presence of populist discourse in the European political landscape. More specifically, it is the electoral success of populist radical right parties since the 1980's, currently stabilised in most European countries at around 10% of the electorate, which has spurred academic concern. Here, I will be looking on the one hand at the Central Eastern European (CEE) countries of the 2004 and 2007 EU enlargements, and on the other at the countries on the western side of this former communist bloc. With “East” and “West” so defined, populist radical right wing parties have had very comparable scores on both sides of the former iron curtain in Europe since the beginning of the 1990's. Despite this common trait, most authors tend to focus their analysis on Western European Populism, avoiding both the pan-European perspective and a thorough examination of populism in post-communist countries. The little literature which has attempted comparative studies of populism in this regard is fundamentally divided, as some authors focus on the intrinsic difference between populism in CEE and Western Europe, while others point to the risk of essentialising “East” and “West” in artificially created categories. This latter trend considers the growing success of the populist discourse at both ends of the European Union as essentially stemming from a common discontent with democracy.

If we focus on the definition of populism underlined earlier, however, these two approaches are not necessarily contradictory. In other terms, a "common analytical core" (Panizza, 2005) or structure can be found in both eastern and western populism. However, because populism emerges in two fundamentally different political environments, well-established democracies in the west and post-communist democracies in the east, it takes different forms on both sides of the former iron curtain.

Populism's "chameleonic quality" (Taggart, 2000)

Before analysing the different expressions of populism in Europe it is necessary to define more precisely the "common analytical core" which Francisco Panizza (2005) uses to bind different forms of populism together. According to this approach, populism is "an anti-status quo discourse that simplifies the political space by symbolically dividing society between 'the people' and its 'other'". The "people", here, is not the abstraction necessary in any democratic theory, but a unitary and homogeneous body defined through opposition to its enemies. The latter is constituted first of the elite, which usurps its political power, and second minorities, which threaten its homogeneity and identity.

Crucially, these features of the populist discourse have what Paul Taggart calls an "intrinsic chameleonic quality" (Taggart, 2000), in that they fundamentally vary according to the specific context in which the populist discourse emerges. In other words, they are "empty signifiers" that can take on many forms. According to Canovan (1999) the structure of power in place is essential in the formation of this specific populist discourse, as populism is above all a reaction to the elite in power and the dominant political discourse. From here, it is possible to identify the specific forms taken by populist discourse in CEE and Western Europe.

The “other” in post-communist and Western populist discourse

When the definition of the 'other' is considered, differences can be found between Eastern and Western populist discourses: while in Western populist rhetoric the 'other' is described as an invasive external threat to the people's homogeneity, a category into which immigrants and asylum seekers fall, the "other" in Eastern populist rhetoric is often a long-established insider who doesn't belong, such as the Roma population or the Jews. More generally, in Eastern Europe the populist discourse tends to be more openly exclusionary, that is more openly racist and xenophobic. As Mudde (2005) underlines, anti-Semitism and racism are fundamentally more widespread and accepted within Central European societies, and as a result, they are more overtly part of the radical political discourse while at the same time "mainstream political parties (...) are less willing to speak out against racist extremism than in the West". On the other hand, the exclusionary arguments of Western European radical right parties prefer to rely on an economic discourse ("they steal our jobs") or a sociological one ("they refuse to integrate") as a politically correct form of xenophobia.



Anti-elitism in post-communist and Western populist discourse

While populism in the West has a quite traditional anti-establishment discourse, the elite being defined as those who hold political and economic power in general, in the East the anti-elitist discourse is often coupled with anti-communism. More fundamentally perhaps, anti-elitism in Central Europe is frequently directed against the main party at the left of the political spectrum. From here, another fundamental difference between post-communist and Western populism emerges. In general, and perhaps with the exception of the Italian Forza Italia, mainstream political parties in Western Europe recognise the political legitimacy of their political opponents, or, in other words consider political pluralism as a necessary component of a functioning democracy. The "monopoly of the opposition to the existing order" (Mouffe, 2005) is consequently left to populist radical right parties and, as a result, the mainstream political response to right-wing populism is that of isolation and moral condemnation. 

This is not necessarily the case in post-communist Europe, where centre-right parties tend to have a similar populist discourse to that of their extreme counterparts. In this discourse the "other" of the people becomes the main left-wing political opponent, often considered as illegitimate in representing the nation because it is at least symbolically associated with Communism. Viktor Orban, leader of the party now governing in Hungary, has been quite typical of such a tendency. For example, after having lost the 2002 legislative elections in Hungary, he declared: "We, who are here today, are not and never will be in the opposition. The homeland cannot be in the opposition". Although held by a “centrist” party, this populist discourse questions the very principle of representative democracy, in which parties are required to recognise one-another's legitimacy in representing the nation. Also because of this trivialisation of populism and nationalism in CEE, centre-right parties do not necessarily distance themselves from or condemn radical right populist parties, and are more open to forming coalition with them. I will now go on to explain some of the factors that can help us understand the rise of populism in both post-communist and Western Europe.

Populism as "democratic malaise" (Meny and Surel, 2002)

According to Panizza (2005), populism thrives in "times of unsettlement and dealignement" as a consequence of "the failure of existing social and political institutions to confine and regulate political subjects in a relatively stable order". In other words, populism is most seductive when the institutional system is unable to resolve the imbalances provoked by change or crisis in the political, economic or social sphere. As unmet demands and expectations grow in times of turmoil, the populist party offers an explanation of the problem, in the figure of the "other", and a solution to the problem, through the restoration of true popular sovereignty.

In this sense populism also offers to fulfil a vital function of representation, to "bridge the gap between representant and represented" (Panizza, 2005), in times when traditional parties fail to do so. Populism is therefore not only a demand for effective economic or social change, but also a fever revealing an undelt with "democratic malaise" (Meny and Surel, 2002).

A similar state of social and economic turmoil in CEE and Western Europe

Within this analytical framework, the rise of populism in both Western and post-communist European societies can at least partially be linked to the accelerated social and economic changes they have had to face in the last 30 years. Both ends of the EU have had to cope with the increasing openness of their economies to international competition, Europeanization, the shift to a post-industrial economy and an ageing population. Not only have these changes entailed high social costs, they have also posed severe constraints on the state's capacity to remedy to these costs and considerable Welfare retrenchment. In this context, populist parties have been able to build on the discontents provoked by these changes by appealing to the "losers" of globalisation in the West, and to the "losers" of transition in the post-communist countries.

A specific crisis of representation in CEE and Western Europe

However, while European countries may be facing comparable social and economic changes, albeit clearly more fundamental ones in Central Europe, the political changes they are going through are radically different. Populism emerges in Western Europe in a time of redefinition of cleavages in well-established party-systems operating within well-known democratic benchmarks. On the other hand, populism emerges in CEE in a time where democracy and political identification are in the process of invention rather than re-definition. This difference can also be defined by using the concept of legacy: while most West European political systems build on a fundamentally democratic legacy, Central European countries build on an authoritarian one, often called "communist" or "Leninist" legacy. It is from the perspective of these legacies that the specificities of the "crisis of representation" at both ends of the EU can best be analysed.

Populism in Western Europe has often been viewed as a side effect of the depolitisation of public action and the growing importance of consensual politics in contemporary democracies. According to Mouffe (2005), populism in the West springs from the predominance of liberal values over democratic ones, and from the end of adversarial politics in Western democracies. The crisis of representation is key here, as those who disagree with the established consensus can neither identify to mainstream parties, nor feel that they have any capacity of influencing their politicians. In this sense, populism is the symptom of a dysfunctional democracy: it is because the principle of popular sovereignty has been neglected, that, in the words of Canovan (1999), it "reasserts itself in the form of a populist challenge".

On the other hand, the depolitisation of politics cannot account for the specificities of populism in Central Europe, especially its mainstream character and its more openly exclusionary character. Firstly, politics in the new EU members can hardly be described as consensual. Although covert consensus has existed at least on matters of foreign affairs and economic policy in the 1990's, most CEE party systems have rapidly become polarised in an extremely adversarial mode around socio-cultural issues. Moreover, if it makes sense to interpret anti-system radical right populism as a reaction to "politics as usual", mainstream populism, within the system itself, can hardly be interpreted as a protest against consensual politics. Invoking past legacies, and more specifically, the communist legacy, provides for a much more convincing explanation of the specific form taken by the populist discourse in Central Europe.

As Mudde (2002) analyses, post-communist societies are particularly prone to populism because of the strong anti-political and anti-elitist sentiments which have been nourished under communism. The dissident elite, which in most countries had an important role to play in the immediate political transition of the early 1990's, was socialised in a political environment where politics could only be conceived in a non-political way. In this context, in Mudde's terminology, the "moral non-communist people", that could also be called "civil society", was united against the "corrupt communist elite", strongly identified to the state structure in general. During transition this "anti-political" discourse achieved great popularity, as former dissidents where ironically joined by what Mudde calls, the "post-communist political actors", essentially "opportunists and anti-democrats". Populism was indeed a seductive rhetoric amongst a population which, when it wasn't genuinely anti-communist and anti-elitist, was required to be so under the new circumstances of national emancipation and collective self-rule.  The strong exclusionary nature of populism in CEE societies can be explained in similar terms. Nationalism has also taken on a particularly positive connotation in societies that have dealt with four decades of "dissolution of the nation state into an international socialist order" (Minkenberg, 2002). Also, communist authoritarianism strongly limited the possibility to openly reflect upon the issue of human rights violation after WWII, which did not help the elaboration of an inclusive conception of the polity post-1989. 


The populist discourse in both CEE and Western Europe has a "people" and an "other", and it is anti-pluralist and anti-elitist. Populism has been successful in both parts of Europe because of the discontents provoked by important economic and social transformations. In both regions populism has emerged as a solution to a deep crisis of representation. Despite these facts, populism in CEE and Western Europe is not the same thing, because populism is a discourse, and a discourse adapts to its public and nourishes itself of its context. The populist discourse has therefore taken on different forms, as it emerges in societies that have had a radically different democratic experience, and are undergoing a fundamentally different process of redefinition. It is still to be seen whether, in the words of Mudde (2007), the "differences between East and West (...) will soon be irrelevant given the homogenising effect of EU membership" or whether legacies will prove more resilient than may be expected.

To go further

On Nouvelle Europe website

To read

  • Canovan, Margaret (1999), "Trust the People! Populism and the Two Faces of Democracy", Political Studies, 47(1), pp. 2–16.
  • Minkenberg Michael (2002), "The Radical Right in Postsocialist Central and Eastern Europe: Comparative observations and interpretations", East European Politics and Societies, 16 (2), pp. 335-362.
  • Mouffe (2005), "The 'End of Politics' and the Challenge of Right-wing populism" in Panizza, Francisco (ed.), Populism and the Mirror of Democracy, London: Verso.
  • Mudde, Cas (2002), ‘In the name of the Peasantry, the Proletarian, and the People: Populism in Eastern Europe’, in Meny, Yves and Yves Surel (eds.) Democracies and the Populist Challenge, Basingstoke: Palgrave.
  • Mudde, Cas (2005), "Racist extremism in Central and Eastern Europe", East European Politics and Societies, 19 (2), pp. 161-184.
  • Mudde, Cas (2007), Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe, Cambridge: CUP
  • Meny, Yves and Yves Surel (2002), "The Constitutive ambiguity of Populism", in Meny, Yves and Yves Surel (eds.) Democracies and the Populist Challenge, Basingstoke: Palgrave.
  • Panizza, Francisco (2005) "Introduction, Populism and the Mirror of Democracy" in Panizza, Francisco (ed.), Populism and the Mirror of Democracy, London: Verso
  • Taggart, Paul (2000), Introduction to Populism, Philadelphia: Open University Press, 2000.

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