My dissertation examines the rise of populist and radical right parties in post-Communist Europe. I argue that specific policy choices made by left-leaning parties played a decisive role in the rise of populist and radical right parties. In particular, in the countries where left-leaning parties launched market austerity reforms (Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia) and relinquished their protectionist policies, traditional left constituencies—mainly blue collar workers—felt abandoned. Eventually, these traditionally left-leaning constituents switched to embrace parties on the right of the political spectrum. In these countries, rightwing parties adopted anti-reform populist agendas to challenge the reformist left.

In my research, I use the example of Hungary to illustrate my argument. Hungary’s post-Communist left party, MSzP, was historically associated with a more reformist economic policy, which offered Hungarian rightwing parties an opportunity to oppose it from a more redistributionist and populist economic platform. Following the implementation of tough austerity reforms by the MSzP during the mid-nineties, voters’ alignments started to shift. Those with more redistributive preferences, such as the working class, gradually moved to the right. While the post-Communist left embraced the neoliberal reform agenda, rightwing parties became increasingly redistribution-oriented in their economic policies and capitalized on the economic dissatisfaction of the Hungarian working class. In my dissertation, I demonstrate that the first shift of the blue-collar working constituency in Hungary away from the left MSzP, and toward right-wing parties, occurred around the same time that economic reforms were adopted between 1995 and 1996. The next wave followed another round of neoliberal reforms by MSzP, between 2006 and 2010. Blue-collar workers’ dissatisfaction with mainstream parties in Hungary over the years kept pushing them further to the right, leading to their increasing support for the radical right Jobbik party.

I test my hypotheses using various levels of analysis: cross-country observational and quantitative comparisons, individual-level surveys, and experimental surveys. In a series of cross-country surveys and case studies, I apply my argument to post-Communist transitions. Specifically, I run a baseline model on data from eight rounds of the European Social Survey to illustrate working class respondents’ continual exodus from post-Communist left parties, and their embrace of populist and radical right parties in the region. Using individual-level surveys in Hungary, I trace the dynamics of working-class support for the post-Communist left party MSzP. I demonstrate that while blue-collar working class status was positively and significantly associated with the odds of supporting MSzP in 1994 (prior to the implementation of the Bokros package), the working-class population in Hungary exhibited a political shift after the implementation of austerity reforms. After this point, the blue collar working class became increasingly associated with support for the populist (Fidesz) and radical right (Jobbik) parties. In an experimental survey in Hungary, I demonstrate that working-class constituencies are more likely to embrace radical right parties if center-left parties adopt a pro-market and pro-globalization economic platform.

My argument makes an important contribution to the understanding of the dynamics of political systems, and the rise of radical right parties in Europe.