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Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Illiberalism and post-ideology party politics in South East Europe

On March 8 2017, Dr. Adis Merdzanovic and Dr. Othon Anastasakis presented two separate papers and shared the findings of their recent research in a SEESOX seminar, chaired by Nancy Bermeo.

In his presentation, Dr. Merdzanovic, who is a junior research fellow at SEESOX, first provided definitions to the key concepts of the seminar. The first concept he explained was “party politics,” which he argued was linked with the concept of “cleavages.” Merdzanovic agreed with assessments that the four ruptures that Lipset and Rokkan in their seminal piece (1967) stressed, has been reduced to two dimensions in most European countries, as argued by Kriesi et al. (2006).  The two cleavages that seem to matter the most are the economic and cultural, with the latter’s exact content being contested and spreading from materialist versus post-materialist values to the cosmopolitan versus communitarian values. The second and third concepts Merdzanovic explained were “ideology” and “illiberalism”. He argued that illiberalism was not an ideology, but a mode of political rule which negated liberal values through rhetoric and took action against liberal rules and practices, targeting institutions.

Moving on to his case studies and the region of SEE, Merdzanovic argued that in South East Europe (SEE) recent research conducted by Szöcsik and Zuber (2014) demonstrates that economic issues are not salient within the party systems, meaning that the parties do not differ much on this dimension. What matters more is cultural polarization along two dimensions: (1) the libertarian/post-materialist versus traditional and authoritarian, and (2) ethnonationalism, in other words, the majority versus minority nationalisms. These two dimensions, however, are highly correlated, suggesting that any types of concerns get channeled through political culture.

In providing an explanation of this salience of the cultural cleavage in SEE, Merdzanovic argued that the process of EU integration over-emphasizes technocratic form of rule, which has led to the depolitization of issues. On important matters, there is no public debate and parliamentary scrutiny. Parliaments are simply expected to accept the reforms advocated by the post-1989 liberal consensus and deemed “necessary” for EU membership. This has resulted in the prevalence of cultural and ethnonational issues. Political emotions, feelings and historical narratives have become ends in themselves because other policies are out of discussion. Without policy discussions, however, the narrative turns into an “us” versus “them” dichotomy, making the question of “who captures the state” the most central one. 

In his concluding remarks, Merdzanovic pointed out that the SEE countries did not slide back to illiberalism, rather their democratic transition was held back. Democratic institutions were not developed when the EU integration process had started. This is why it is essential that democracy must be strengthened by encouraging debate and public scrutiny of issues salient to the reform process.

The second speaker of the seminar, Director of SEESOX Dr. Othon Anastasakis, discussed the current state of social democratic party politics in SEE, based on his fieldwork in the context of a project coordinated by the European Forum for Solidarity and Democracy in the Netherlands. He started by pointing out that almost all of the current ruling parties in the former Yugoslav Western Balkan states were involved in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, they advocate nationalist policies and have illiberal practices. This right wing conservative dominance in the region, except for the case of Albania, demonstrates the weakness of social democracy at present. Yet, Anastasakis stressed the importance of social democratic parties in the politics of South East Europe in the course of their transition from the communist rule to democracy and market economy.

Before providing his analysis of the political parties in the region, Anastasakis described what social democracy would mean in an ideal world. He listed pro-European values, conciliatory attitudes toward ethnic minorities, support for human rights, advocating welfare state, social policies, labor rights, a more equitable distribution of income, and progressive values among the core attributes of social democracy. In matching this description with social democratic parties in SEE, however, it is clear that there is a gap between rhetoric and reality. Some of these parties are reformed communists while others advocate nationalist principles. Although at the discursive level, the leaders of these parties support what they term the true social democratic ideals, when it comes to practice, they face problems, including neoliberalisation, nationalism and personal politics

Anastasakis argued that the weakness of social democracy in SEE is due to international and domestic factors. First, external factors, such as EU disengagement, the rise of geopolitics, the Eurozone crisis, and the existence of other illiberal neighbors, have made a negative impact on the overall political performance of social democratic parties. Second, social democratic parties have been affected by neoliberalism, as the dominant economic strategy in the region, imposed by EU/IMF involvement. As a result, most social democratic parties in the region advocate right-wing economic policies and are unable to deal with the social problems of rising poverty and inequality. Third, the post-communist social democrats cannot convince the electorates that their parties are truly “new” and “reformed”. Fourth, some social democrats have adopted nationalism and have gradually turned into ethnic parties such as Dodik’s social democratic party in Republika Srpska. Fifth, the parties with strong leaders, a top-down approach, low party membership, and internal divisions are unable to democratise.

Anastasakis concluded that social democratic parties in the Western Balkans are in a post-ideological vacuum which reflects the wider problems with European social democracy but carries also many of the particularistic problems of the post-communist and post-conflict transition in the region. The current weak state of social democracy in SEE is both the cause and outcome of rising illiberalism, at present.

Yaprak Gürsoy, St Antony’s College, Oxford & Associate Professor, Istanbul Bilgi University

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