Populism and Liberal Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe

Supported by: Trust for Civil Society in Central & Eastern Europe

Project Span:
 January 2007 – September 2007

Project Team:
  Grigorij Mesežnikov, Oľga Gyárfášová, Martin Bútora (IVO, Slovakia), Ivan Krastev, Daniel Smilov (CLS, Bulgaria), Jacek Kucharczyk (ISP, Poland), Renata Uitz, Andras Sajo (Hungary)

: Center for Liberal Strategies (Sofia), Institute of Public Affairs (Warsaw), team of Hungarian experts


The main problems to be addressed within the project are difficulties (or even “crisis”) with current development of liberal democracy in Central Eastern Europe and the rise of populist movements.

Political populism is on the rise in Europe. Traditional divisions between centre-left and centre-right parties grow increasingly blurred, and in their stead the division between the people and the political elites becomes ever more important for the understanding of political dynamics. In Central Eastern Europe, the liberal parties, which were the main political actors during the transition period, are now facing increasingly strong competition from nationalists, socialists and conservative traditionalists. Over the last two years, elections in at least five countries in the region have demonstrated that the political parties which stand behind the liberal consensus of the transition period – market economy, protection of human rights, pro-western orientation in foreign affairs - are no longer in a dominant or even comfortable position. Paradoxically, the region in the world, where liberal democracy made its most important strides over the last fifteen years, seems now ready to challenge some of its main principles and tenets. The question is whether giving support to actors, who believe that political majorities are not bound by respect for human and minority rights, and who depict parliamentarianism as a corrupt façade for a governing oligarchy, is a sign of a serious crisis of liberal democracy.

The main goal of the project is to formulate proper policy responses to populism.

There are three competing explanations of crisis of liberal democracy in CEE countries:

1.Problems are nothing but temporary aberrations from the norm within young and inexperienced liberal democracies. These aberrations are due to transition fatigue, and disappointment with the speed with which market reforms create welfare.

2.The current crisis of liberal democracy is comparable with its demise in the interwar period, when right- and left-wing extremists subverted the democratic order by abusing its instruments of representation

3.The current crisis is not just a temporary aberration, but is an expression of a lasting trend, which will lead to a serious transformation of liberal democracy.

The three interpretations of the current crisis of liberal democracy in Central Europe cannot be simultaneously valid. It needs to single out an explanation of the ongoing processes, because the current situation of cognitive indeterminacy prevents the possibility of designing a meaningful strategy for reinvigorating political liberalism in the region.

The basic assumption is that it is possible to test empirically the described three competing interpretations, or indeed any other which manages to explain better what is going on in the region. Such a test, designed to falsify some of the competing explanations, will be of enormous practical value for liberal political actors in designing their strategies and policies. This test will also make an important step towards a better assessment of the real dangers presented by the rise of populism


1. Four country studies.

2. Presentations at international conference Populism.Populism?Populism! organized by OSI and IVO in Bratislava, June 2007

3. Summarizing study on populism in Central East Europe.

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