Recently, former White House adviser Anthony Scaramucci declared that President Trump is a “blue-collar president” — which some observers find curious, given his wealthy upbringing and boasts about being a billionaire. And in Sweden’s general election in September, the far-right Sweden Democrats finished in third place with 18 percent of the vote, while the center-left Social Democrats had their worst electoral performance in more than a century.
Why? My research in Hungary and Poland suggests that the right-wing populism’s rise and center-left parties’ decline result from the same process: blue-collar supporters shifting away from the left to embrace the populist right.
The left and the populist right in Hungary
In Hungary, two populist right-wing parties — Fidesz and Jobbik — have been extraordinarily successful over the past decade. Fidesz, founded in 1988, secured a supermajority in the Hungarian parliament after its landslide victory in the 2010 elections, and retained it in 2014 and in 2018. Jobbik, founded in 2003, rose to popularity by 2009 and quickly became the most electorally successful radical-right party in Central and Eastern Europe. Jobbik’s first electoral success came in the 2009 European Parliament election, in which the party received 14.8 percent of the Hungarian vote. In the parliamentary elections of 2010, 2014 and 2018, Jobbik received 16.7 percent, 20.2 percent and 19.1 percent of the vote, respectively. It is the only radical-right party in the region to mobilize more than 10 percent of voters in three consecutive elections.
My research shows that’s because these parties managed to attract blue-collar voters who previously voted for Hungary’s former communist Socialist Workers’ Party. Starting in 1989, the Hungarian Socialist Party rejected the old Communist Party image and adopted a pro-European program, which combined a universalist welfare state and acceptance of the market economy.
This approach originally worked very well. However, in June 2006, the then-ruling Socialist Party adopted austerity measures, the “New Balance Program,” which dramatically increased gas and electricity prices, and some taxes. As a result, the Socialists’ approval ratings dropped 10 percentage points by August 2006. In September 2006, Magyar Radio leaked the Socialist prime minister’s comment that he had lied, minimizing the difficulties facing Hungary’s economy. Hungarians rioted in several cities, and the Socialists lost popularity even more precipitously. When the 2008 financial crisis hit, the Socialist Party was essentially finished.
The populist Fidesz took advantage of this popularity nose-dive, launching a campaign arguing that only stopping the corrupt neoliberal policies of the former communist left could lead to strong growth again. The radical-right Jobbik accused the Socialists of misleading the country and causing devastating economic conditions during the transition from communism.
In the 2010 election, Fidesz won a landslide victory with a two-thirds majority in parliament; Jobbik secured 16.7 percent of vote and got into parliament. The Socialist Party has never been able to recover. New leftist parties emerged but have failed to gain substantial popular support. Dissatisfied voters consistently shifted to the right.
In my research, I found that over this period Hungarian blue-collar workers were less and less likely to vote for the Socialist Party and more and more likely to support Fidesz and Jobbik. Polls showed that Fidesz had the strongest support among blue-collar workers and lower-middle-class voters and the weakest support among managers, while the Socialist Party had the strongest following primarily among managers and middle-class professionals.
Fidesz and Jobbik were overrepresented in the blue-collar quarters of Budapest during the 2010 parliamentary elections. In in-depth interviews with workers at Hungary’s factories, Eszter Bartha and Andras Toth found that the majority supported Fidesz and Jobbik, while only a small margin backed the Socialist Party. Some respondents even wondered why workers and trade unions should vote for the left. Many argued that while they, the workers, produced the profit, the owners and the technocrats profited — once the argument made by the left.
Similarly, in 2010, Jobbik won many of the counties in northeastern Hungary previously considered the bastions of the Socialist Party. A Hungarian Election Research Program survey discovered that about a third of Jobbik’s 2010 voters had supported the Socialists in 2006. Overall, the populist right-wing parties’ success in Hungary came from their ability to win over blue-collar voters.
Poland saw a similar trend
Something similar killed off the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), a Polish center-left party, which was the successor party of the Polish United Workers’ Party. Participating in pro-market reforms and promoting strong support for European integration enabled SLD to portray itself as a modernized Western-style social democratic party and to distance itself from the communist past. To allow Poland to enter the European Union, an SLD-led government instituted economic changes that made business interests a priority, introduced a more flexible labor code, expanded support for entrepreneurship and proposed a flat income tax.
Over the next years, substantial numbers of former SLD supporters turned to the Polish populist right-wing party Law and Justice (PiS), which promised to improve the conditions of Polish workers. PiS argued that what Poland needed was leaders dedicated to true Polish values, included banning abortion, purging former communists and distributing state property to all citizens. Political scientist David Ost argued that Polish workers voted for the populist right to punish the intelligentsia and the new neoliberal elite for the economic changes that impoverished many workers.
When leftist parties survive
In some Central European countries, leftist parties preserved protectionist economic policies and kept their blue-collar voters, leaving fewer political openings for the populist right to exploit. For example, in Slovakia, one left-leaning party, SDL, supported its government’s austerity program. In response, another Slovak left-wing party, Smer, campaigned on a traditional left platform, criticizing the Slovak center-right governments for ignoring Slovakia’s growing disparities and catering to multinational corporations and financial interests. As a solution, Smer emphasized a return to the basic principles of solidarity and state involvement in the economy, offering changes in the labor code, pensions and education. Smer further pledged to increase public spending on health care, pensions and education and to introduce a second sales tax on basic goods. The SDL lost its supporters and disappeared. Smer-SD (since Smer absorbed the SDL in 2005) has won each parliamentary election since 2006.
Overall, the experiences of Central European countries suggest that when left-leaning parties turn their backs on working people, other parties will willingly step up to channel their frustration.
Maria Snegovaya is a postdoctoral associate at the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies and an adjunct fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis and the Free Russia Foundation.