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Social-Democratic Liberalization and Electoral Outcomes in Post-Communist Europe

Sun, October 3, 8:00 to 9:30am PDT (8:00 to 9:30am PDT), TBA


While the general link between center-left incumbents’ economic policies and subsequent electoral performance has received considerable attention in research on post-communist Europe, scholarship has not yet offered precise mechanisms specifying how particular economic policies relate to outcomes at the ballot box. Are center-left parties’ electorates concerned more about labor policies, redistribution, taxation, or privatization, and under what conditions do they punish or reward reformist social-democratic incumbents enacting economic liberalization?

To explore how various dimensions of market reform translate into electoral outcomes for social-democratic incumbents, we compile a new dataset of ruling center-left parties' major economic policies by combining data on indicators of social spending, deregulation, and privatization (from existing data by the EBRD, IMF, World Bank, etc.) with data on cabinet composition in 13 post-communist democracies. We show that the presence of center-left parties in ruling coalitions during periods of economic liberalization (as instrumentalized by several measures of decrease in social spending) is significantly and positively associated with electoral losses in subsequent elections. We hypothesize that this effect is particularly strong after social-democratic incumbents enact policies liberalizing welfare and labor market institutions, as reflected by cuts in universal entitlement programs, unemployment insurance, and employment security.

We then discuss these findings in the context of a broader literature on the demise of center left parties in Europe. We argue that whereas the pro-market policies of center-left incumbents generally lead to electoral declines – a development similar to Western European dynamics – not all economic liberalization efforts have equally negative effects on these parties’ electoral performance. Overall, our dataset and findings contribute to debates about the political fortunes and direction of social democratic parties in Central and Eastern Europe, the electoral effects of specific economic policies, and the uniqueness of the post-communist transition to democracy and the market.