Interview with Piotr Zagorski on Education and Support for Right-wing Populist Parties in Central and Eastern Europe

Piotr Zagorski and Andrés Santana, of Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Spain, recently presented their paper, “Voice or Exit: Education, Support for Right-wing Populist Parties, and Abstention in Central and Eastern Europe,” at the Politics and Inequality conference held December 2018 in Warsaw, Poland.

Piotr Zagórski is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Faculty of Law, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. He holds an MA in Sociology from Universidad de Granada. His research interests include electoral behavior with a special focus on turnout and comparative politics with an emphasis on European populist parties. Zagorski’s co author, Andrés Santana, is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the Pompeu Fabra University, an MA in Sociology from the Juan March Institute, and a Graduate Degree in Data Analysis from the University of Essex. Dr. Santana has published in the European Sociological Review and Politics & Gender, among others, as well as several book chapters and books. His fields of interest are electoral behavior, populist parties, political elites, women’s representation, research methodology, and quantitative research techniques.

We asked Piotr Zagorski for an extended abstract of their Politics and Inequality conference paper and, via email, some questions about their research.

Extended Abstract of Zagorski and Santana

The growth in the success of populist parties in many developed democracies has prompted a parallel increase in the studies on the electoral sociology of right-wing populist parties (RPP) in Western Europe and, to a lesser extent, in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). However, the relationship between populism and turnout has been understudied in the literature. Existing scholarship fails to clarify whether voting for RPP and abstention are two largely interchangeable outcomes provoked by a common set of factors or two alternative courses of action undertaken by different types of individuals. If the former were true, RPP might be a corrective for democracy in terms of closing the representational gap for citizens whose preferences are unmet by the political supply of other parties. Thus, RPP might manage to reduce the existent political inequalities in political participation. This paper aims at examining the sociodemographic characteristics of those who vote for RPP and those who abstain, in comparison to those who cast their ballots for other parties. As education reduces the propensity of both voting for RPP and of abstention, we focus on explaining when low levels of education lead to voice (voting for RPP) and when do they increase the chances of exit (abstention). We estimate multinomial logistic regression models using cross-sectional data of the 2014 European Elections Study for 9 CEE countries. This approach enables us to show that education affects RPP voting and abstention differently. We find that, after taking into account anti-immigration attitudes and Euroscepticism, education has no independent effect on RPP support. Moreover, anti-immigrant and anti-EU attitudes do not mobilize highly educated citizens to cast a ballot for RPP. We also show that, although RPP are successful in drawing the low educated and anti-immigrant or Eurosceptic citizens to the polls, many of them choose to stay home on the election day.


The research co-authored with Andrés Santana that you presented at the Politics and Inequality conference was on voting for right wing populist parties in Central and Eastern Europe. How did you get interested in this topic? And how is this topic connected to other research that you are doing?

Nowadays it is quite hard to avoid to study populism in Political Science. Due to a remarkable number of papers presented on this topic during the last ECPR (European Consortium for Political Research) General Conference in Hamburg, the joke was that it should be renamed as “European Consortium for Populism Research”. Given the recent surge of populist parties and candidates around the world, it does not come as a surprise that political scientists try to understand and explain this phenomenon. From my own perspective, as I come from Poland, my interest in right-wing populist parties (RPP) in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) is obviously related to the success of Law and Justice and its consequences for democracy in my homeland.

As we point out in the paper, research linking RPP voting with electoral turnout is scarce, especially for CEE. Both Andrés and I are passionate about studying electoral turnout. Andrés wrote his dissertation on the rational calculus of voting, and he is also one of the supervisors of my dissertation on electoral turnout in CEE. In this paper, we wanted to assess the connections between turnout and voting for populist parties. The rationale behind it was to see whether RPP can have a corrective effect on democracy, by reducing some of the political inequalities produced by the distinct levels of electoral participation among citizens with different social profiles. To put it differently: can voting for RPP and abstention be considered as two alternative courses of action (voice or exit, respectively) for citizens who do not find non-populist parties as attractive options?

What is most challenging about studying right wing populist parties, and why?

Studying them is tricky mostly due to the conceptual stretching of populism. It is well known that populism is a basket where pretty much everything fits. Some scholars argue that it is a political style, for others, it’s a matter of discursive frame, yet most comparative work on populism treats it as a thin-centered ideology, especially among those works that fall within the electoral sociology of voting.

What surprised you most about your research on this topic?

I think that what struck us most was the lack of a recent and consistent list of populist parties in CEE. There are plenty of works that gather radical right populist parties from Western Europe. But until recently, CEE has been neglected in the literature. On top of that, the radical right category does not travel well to Eastern Europe. We spent a lot of time discussing which parties should be included as RPP, and which not. There are a lot of borderline cases such as Ataka in Bulgaria or Jobbik in Hungary.

piotr zagorski polinq warsaw

Imagine that you only have a minute or two to tell someone about your paper. What is the main message of your paper that you want people to remember?

Education hinders support for RPP and it also lowers the propensity to abstain. Thus, the question arises: when does low education lead to voting for populists and when to staying home on election day? In order to answer this question, we focus on two key dimensions of right-wing populism: nativism and anti-establishment. We find that lower (and medium) educated citizens choose RPP because of their anti-immigrant attitudes rather than because of the educational gap itself. University education completely shelters from the effects of anti-immigrant attitudes (both for national and European Parliament elections) and Euroscepticism (only in case of EP elections) on the propensity to vote for RPP.

What’s the next step for your research on this topic?

In this paper, we showed that neither nativist nor anti-establishment attitudes are driving the support for RPP of highly educated citizens. Therefore, the following question arises: why does university education make citizens immune to anti-immigrant (or Eurosceptic) attitudes regarding their propensity to vote for RPP? Is anti-immigration a less salient issue for them?  Or do they have enough knowledge to avoid falling for the simplicity of populist arguments?

Additionally, and related to populism, we are working on a project about the urban/rural divide and RPP voting in Europe. Finally, with regard to political inequality, our plan is to write a piece as well on wasted votes and how they produce political inequality in different institutional contexts.

Please list two of your recent favorite articles or books in the field of politics and inequality, and why you chose them.

I would highly recommend Aina Gallego’s (2015) Unequal Political Participation Worldwide (New York: Cambridge University Press and CIS). It is a methodologically sound (she uses both cross-national survey data and survey experiments) illustration of how the interactions of individual and institutional factors produce different outcomes in terms of political inequality caused by electoral turnout.

And if you are interested in populism, I greatly enjoyed reading a piece by Matthijs Rooduijn (2018) for European Political Science Review, “What unites the voter bases of populist parties? Comparing the electorates of 15 populist parties,” in which he argues that ‘the’ populist voter does not exist (although it is also true that anti-immigrant stances are the characteristic most commonly shared by voters of populist parties).

What’s an older article or book in the field of politics and inequality that you like, and why?

In a similar vein to Gallego’s book, Eva Anduiza’s paper from 2003 in European Journal of Political Research, “Individual characteristics, institutional incentives and electoral abstention in Western Europe,” sheds light on the relationship between the contextual incentives and individual characteristics affecting electoral turnout. I find the cross-level approach very stimulating for studying political participation and inequality. If you happen to know Spanish, an older book of Anduiza (1999) ¿Individuos o sistemas? Las bases de la abstención en Europa occidental (Madrid: CIS) is one of the best things written on turnout in Europe.

Going back further in time, I find it amazing that whatever the particular subject you are working on, if it is in the field of political behavior, you will surely find plenty of ideas by going back to the classic Political Man by Seymour Martin Lipset (1960).

The interview was conducted via email by Joshua K. Dubrow, who also edited this piece, including the embedding of web links. This work was funded by the National Science Centre, Poland (2016/23/B/HS6/03916).