Protest against anti-pandemic measures in Warsaw. Photo: Radosław Botev/Wikimedia commons

Protest against anti-pandemic measures in Warsaw. Photo: Radosław Botev/Wikimedia commons

Conference reports Political participation during and after the pandemic. A mixed picture

The two-day conference “Political Participation in Central and Eastern Europe during the Pandemic” discussed how the profile of participants and political participation did change compared to the pre-pandemic situation and highlighted the variation in the modes of political representation in Central and Eastern European countries.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2021:4, pp 24-26
Published on on January 24, 2022

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The two-day conference “Political Participation in Central and Eastern Europe during the Pandemic” was held November 3-4, 2021 at the Centre for Baltic and East European Studies (CBEES), Södertörn University.

The Covid-19 pandemic altered the functioning of societies’ and people’s behavior in many areas of daily life. Political participation is one aspect of behavior that faced important challenges due to the social distancing regulations and general restrictions regarding personal interaction in many countries. In spite of these limitations, political participation continued during the pandemic: elections were organized, people protested, social movements continued to develop, political parties organized activities, referendums and deliberative practices took place. This was partially possible due to the broad array of technology tools available to organizers and participants. Although the political activities were organized, several questions remain unanswered: Who participated during the pandemic? What determined whether people would get involved? How important was online mobilization and interaction? What forms of political participation were preferred? What were the effects of political participation during the pandemic? Overall, how did the profile of participants and political participation change compared to the pre-pandemic situation?

This conference aimed to answer some of these questions in order to better understand the complexity of this picture. It brought together researchers who discussed developments in Central and Eastern Europe (including the Balkans and the Baltic countries), emphasizing both single-case studies and using a comparative perspective.

The conference provided the space for an academic debate in which scholars presented the most recent research findings. The event was multi-disciplinary and embraced a variety of perspectives and approaches from Political Science, Sociology, History and Economics. It was organized in five sessions with two papers presented and commented on by other presenters in each session.

In the first session, András Déri from Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest presented a paper entitled “I talk to someone about politics, that’s political participation: Youth participation in Hungary in pandemic times”, co-authored with Andrea Szabó from the Centre for Social Sciences in Budapest. The focus of their analysis is on the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic as an exogenous shock on a social generation of young people, as socialization is particularly important in the formative years. Having analyzed the European Social Survey (2002–2018), Hungarian Youth Research (2000–2020) and four focus groups discussions in spring 2021, the authors arrived at the conclusion that what they call the “asteroid effect” — an unexpected yet all-encompassing intervention by the pandemic — on the interpretation of participation takes place. From early spring 2020 to summer 2020, and from autumn 2020 to June 2021, public forms of political participation were legally prohibited in Hungary. Nevertheless, contrary to what was expected, there was no increase in the online participation of generally apolitical young people in Hungary, whereas there was an increase in traditional forms of participation. This constitutes a curious contrast in particular with Sweden, based on the study of the analogous question in which the paper is modelled.

In contrast to the case study of apolitical youth in Hungary, Maja Savic-Bojanic from the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology presented “When youth turn to protest: How political participation patterns among the young in Bosnia and Herzegovina evolved during the Covid-19 pandemic”. The departing point for this work is youth engagement in informal participation during the Covid-19 pandemic. It explores the reasons for, and the extent of, proactive reaction among youth during times of crisis. For this, Maja Savic-Bojanic applies the concept of “standby” citizens, developed by Joakim Ekman and Erik Amnå (2014) to denote citizens who appear passive but who follow politics and are ready to participate when needed. This concept helps to address the gap in the literature caused by the binary approach to the dynamics of youth political participation. The case study of young people from Bosnia and Herzegovina also fills the empirical void, explaining the practice of “learning from politics” during a crisis and the triggers that instigated their responses. Methodologically, the study is based on four focus groups and 20 interviews conducted with young persons aged from 18–25 years in seven cities across Bosnia and Herzegovina. The results demonstrate that the initial response was alignment with government policy due to insecurity and fear for the health of families. However, the extent of the measures, imposed by the government, that had no scientific basis soon turned the response to the eccentric phase, whereby the government was seen as having failed to provide and legitimize its actions, which is its moral obligation. Two subsequent trends are observed among the participants: crisis political participation among young persons was rapidly changing as the political learning process swiftly unfolded; and “standby” citizens (in this case youth) easily transformed “warranted action”, which developed from political observation, into protest and, in more extreme cases, complete distrust of government.

In the second session, Dominykas Kaminskas from Vilnius University presented the paper “The populist logics behind anti-government protests in Lithuania”. In order to analyze the largest anti-government protests to take place in the country since 2009, he assumed that mobilization is a direct result of the success of political narratives and applied the logics approach. To understand the impact of Covid-19 on political participation, in particular, mobilizing the potential that it triggered, one needs to look more deeply into why changes in discourse managed to appeal to the fantasies of the people. The argument is that Covid-19 changed the mobilizing potential of populist actors in Lithuania. The traditional populist antagonism between the people and the elite morphed to include a third group: the vaccinated people became part of the narrative by excessively enjoying what was supposed to be enjoyed by the people. Consequently, conspiracy theories became part of the narrative and the perception of the elite changed from being corrupt for their own good to being purely evil in the moral sense. The previously marginal actors rose to prominence with a radical and aggressive rhetoric, having attempted to restructure the political by articulating new political boundaries and appealing to the fantasy of the people.

Corina-Adriana Baicoană from the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration in Bucharest shifted the focus from populism to the mobilization of women in the presentation “Women mobilization during the pandemic in Central and Eastern Europe. At the intersection of global, glocal and local agendas”. Conducting the study across five post-socialist countries, Corina Baicoană studied the Covid-19 pandemic as a case of gender vulnerability: a negative influence on work, home, and childcare, as well as domestic violence, predominantly for women. She focused on online activism during the pandemic such as online movements in Serbia, Romania, and Poland, as well as offline protests. She arrived at the conclusion that women’s movements in Central and Eastern Europe are hybrid (both global and local, thus glocal) and are increasingly politicized.

In the third session, Robert Imre from Tampere University shifted the focus back to the potential of the nationalist mobilization during crises such as the pandemics in his presentation entitled “Crisis and opportunity in Hungarian politics: Converging on/off-line nationalism during Covid”. He examined the interaction of some far-right online groups that promote an overt nationalism in and around the Carpathian Basin in an attempt to (re)formulate a nationalist unity among Hungarian speakers. Likewise, the Orban government was able to promote its nationalist message overtly and covertly, converging it with an irredentist message using the pre-Trianon map of the Kingdom of Hungary. The analysis is based on set of social media conversations — and some mainstream media — around the utopic nature of the Carpathian Basin as a right-wing alternative of resistance using the theoretical framework of “everyday nationalism”.

Sergiu Gherghina from the University of Glasgow, co-organizer of the conference, in the paper “Pandemic or general apathy? Explaining voter turnout in the 2020 elections in Romania”, co-authored with Sergiu Mișcoiu from the Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj, also looked at the political implications of the pandemic by studying its impact on voter turnout. The research problem they address is the low voter turnout in Central and Eastern Europe, which became even lower during the pandemic, and they ask whether the pandemic had an effect on voter turnout as indicated by previous research. By applying the theoretical frameworks of the effect of external shocks — such as pandemics — on turnout, as well as other causal factors, they study the effect in the case that is most likely to demonstrate it — Romania. The study used 21 semi-structured interviews conducted with people who voted in 2016 but not in 2020. In contrast to previous research, the findings demonstrated that Covid-19 played only a limited role in absenteeism and lower turnout seemed to be a coincidence rather than an effect of the pandemic. More general factors such as low trust in parliament and politicians, the vagueness of electoral promises and a lack of interest in election results were the main drivers of absenteeism.

In the fourth session, Jakub Pernický studied the effect of the pandemic on policy making in the paper “The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on policy making in the Slovak Republic”. The paper analyzed the political scene and policy making in Slovakia shortly before and then throughout the entire pandemic period. The analysis revealed that most decisions were directly connected with the Covid-19 pandemic and several political elites used the pandemic for their own interests. Political parties in opposition provided unrealistic solutions to problems and thus failed to attract people’s support. Due to several protests and low levels of approval in society, some of the most important figures and policy makers, including the prime minister, were replaced to maintain calm in society. The paper concluded by briefly discussing the most recent developments in the political arena.

Anastas Djurovski from State University St. Clemens of Ohrid in Bitola shifted the focus to economic factors in the presentation “Impact of economic factors triggering the corruption on political participation during Covid-19: The case of North Macedonia”. In contrast to some of the countries presented above, Macedonia experienced an increase in political participation during the pandemic. Anastas Djurovski linked this tendency to a high perception among voters of the government’s corruption, which outlasted the impact of the pandemic. Thus, he concluded that in Macedonia, even such a major crisis as Covid-19 and its poor management by the government did not significantly change voter turnout.

Kostas Kanellopoulos from the University of Crete opened the final session of the conference with the paper “The acceleration of hybrid political participation in Greece during the pandemic: A comparative study of political parties”. He noted that in Greece, the period before the pandemic was already marked by multiple crises that significantly impacted political participation. The main effects included increased voting abstention, the formation of new political parties, and the rise of mass protest movements. These were exacerbated by the “explosion” of social media, widely used for political purposes by both political actors and the wider public. Kostas Kanellopoulos argued that the hybrid (i.e. online and offline combined) patterns of participation were accelerated by the pandemic. He based this argument on the case study of a new political party — MeRA25/DiEM25 — which appeared in 2019 just before the pandemic, yet managed to enter parliament mainly due to online means. The source of data includes a series of semi-structured interviews with political party officials. Kostas Kanellopoulos also analyzed the current building of the party’s internal organization and compared it to established political parties.

In her presentation “Protest participation during the pandemic: What is different about Central Eastern and Western Europe?”, Viktoriia Muliavka from the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw studied cases of anti-government protests in Poland, Russia, Serbia and Belarus. Having reviewed the economic and political context in which the pandemic unfolded in the region, Viktoriia Muliavka considered applying grievance and political opportunity structure theories to see how the pandemic situation triggered the popular responses. The protests clearly peaked in 2020 suggesting the interplay between domestic factors and the pandemic as a global factor.

Overall, the conference highlighted the variation in the modes of political representation in Central and Eastern European countries. The answers to the questions asked were not linear: the pandemic has really increased the number of protests, as was the case in Lithuania, for example, although voting did not increase so much, as shown in Romania. Likewise, although the hybrid political participation seems to have been boosted by the crisis, it was not the young audience that was the main beneficiary, as the party politics and the mobilization of women across the region also demonstrated. The larger and more long-term political consequences remain to be seen, although the conference started mapping the important issues which are likely to stay on the research agenda. 

  • by Olena Podolian and Sergiu Gherghina

    Olena Podolian is Research Assistant at the CBEES, Södertörn University. PhD in Political Science. Her research interests embrace change of regime and nationalism in the formerly communist Europe. Sergiu Gherghina is Senior lecturer in Comparative Politics at the University of Glasgow. Research interests: party politics, political participation, legislative behaviour, direct democracy, and Central and Eastern European politics

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