Depleting democracy? The radical right’s impact on minority politics in Eastern Europe

Published date01 November 2021
Date01 November 2021
Subject MatterArticles
International Political Science Review
2021, Vol. 42(5) 649 –671
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0192512120972883
Depleting democracy? The
radical right’s impact on minority
politics in Eastern Europe
Michael Minkenberg , Anca Florian,
Zsuzsanna Végh and Malisa Zobel
European University Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder), Germany
Radical right parties’ calls for a strong and illiberal nation-state have travelled across the political spectrum
into the mainstream in Eastern Europe since the 2000s, contributing to a rightward shift in the region’s
politics. The mechanisms behind such influences in Eastern Europe are not yet fully understood. Focusing on
the strength of radical right parties and mainstream parties’ strategic reactions to them, this study explores
how and under what circumstances radical right parties exert influence on mainstream parties’ general
political positions and on their positions concerning ethnic and national minorities – a group frequently
targeted by radical right intolerance in the region. Shifts in parties’ positions are analyzed using comparative
data from the Chapel Hill Expert Survey and the authors’ own Viadrina Expert Survey. The study finds
that where mainstream parties formally or informally cooperated with radical right parties or coopted
their agenda, lasting rightward position shifts are observable. Consequently, the authors argue that by
contributing to rightward shifts, especially on positions concerning minorities, radical right parties play a
role in undermining liberal democratic values, thus contributing to the ‘depletion of democracy’.
Radical right, Central and Eastern Europe, party interaction, ethnic minorities, quality of democracy
Many signs point to a significant rightward shift in East European politics over the past three dec-
ades.1 In the 1990s, the mainstream left’s and right’s rush to embrace democracy made the radical
right’s ultranationalist agenda appear rather marginal. Nevertheless, the constant calls of radical
right parties (RRPs), defined here as anti-liberal and ultranationalist parties, for a strong and illib-
eral nation-state did not subside with democratic consolidation; rather, they have moved across the
political spectrum into the mainstream.
Corresponding author:
Michael Minkenberg, European University Viadrina, Grosse Scharrnstr. 59, Frankfurt (Oder), D-15230, Germany.
972883IPS0010.1177/0192512120972883International Political Science ReviewMinkenberg et al.
650 International Political Science Review 42(5)
This article systematically investigates the interaction between RRPs and mainstream parties in
Eastern Europe and argues that rightward shifts in mainstream party positions are more likely to
occur if mainstream parties pursue a strategy of positive engagement with RRPs, and that the dis-
appearance of the RRP from the parliamentary or electoral arena does not automatically lead to the
affected parties’ ‘return to the center’. For the analyses, the article uses existing and novel com-
parative data on party positions in East European countries between 2000 and 2016. This coincides
with the end phase of the adoption of the European Union’s (EU) acquis communautaire in most
countries under study, and an ensuing reconfiguration of their radical right party sector, as well as
covering the aftermath of the migration crisis in Europe. The latter introduced a new contentious
issue for the radical right and triggered competition dynamics for parties in the region.
More specifically, we argue that while direct effects of RRPs on democratic quality may be
limited (thereby differing from Huber and Schimpf, 2016), these parties have pushed mainstream
parties’ general positions and those on minorities to the far right in many countries. With inclusive-
ness being understood here as a fundamental value of liberal democracy, the restrictive shifts in
mainstream parties’ positions regarding ethnic and national minorities contribute to a ‘depletion of
democracy’; that is, a process of undermining the values of liberal democracy, such as equality and
The article is structured as follows: the first part introduces the key concepts and an analytical
model of radical right impact, conceptualizing impact as the outcome of interactions between
RRPs and mainstream parties. These are either parties’ position shifts or policy developments; for
example, legislative changes. For reasons of scope, we focus in depth on parties’ position shifts,
but highlight examples of concrete policy changes reflecting their influence in support of our argu-
ments. Parts two to four analyze the interaction between RRPs and mainstream parties in three
country groups established according to the strength of the RRPs within them. The analysis dis-
cusses parties’ position shifts based on data from the Chapel Hill Expert Survey (CHES) and the
authors’ own Viadrina Expert Survey (VES). The article concludes with the key findings and their
relevance for the question of democratic quality and future research.
Analyzing radical right impact: positions, policies and democratic
Whatever definition of the radical right is chosen in the literature, a central concern is its relation-
ship to the concept and reality of liberal democracy in general and its fundamental contestation of
the multicultural/multinational realities of most nation-states in particular (Müller, 2016). In that
vein, the radical right is understood here ‘in an ideological way and as part of the political-pro-
grammatic spectrum in distinction to other party families, most of which constitute the main-
stream’ (Minkenberg, 2013: 6). Given its ideological core of nativism or a romantic and populist
ultranationalism, which is directed against the concept of liberal and pluralistic democracy and its
underlying principles of individualism and universalism (Minkenberg, 2017; Mudde, 2007), the
radical right’s impact on mainstream parties can be seen as an indirect attack on the ‘underlying
liberal values and legitimizing constitutive principles of liberal democracy’ (Pytlas, 2019: 177).
Our article builds on this approach and explores the radical right’s impact on mainstream par-
ties’ positions in general, and those on ethnic and national minorities, which have been the East
European RRPs’ core issue, in particular.2 We argue that the positions of many East European
governments have been affected as a result of political processes in which the ultranationalist poli-
tics of the radical right have infiltrated the political mainstream, and have thus had an impact on
the quality of democracy through the process of depletion.

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