Research & Book

My research is located in the field of comparative politics with a particular focus on party competition, democratic governance and voting. The aim of my research agenda is to understand how societal transformations such as rising social inequality, individualization and rising political distrust shape political competition. Moreover, I want to shed light on the consequences party system transformations for liberal democracy and to contribute to a better understanding under which conditions challenger parties influence democratic governance and its institutions. 

Centrist Anti-Establishment Parties and their Struggle for Survival [Book forthcoming in Oxford University Press]

Party politics in Central and Eastern Europe are characterized by high electoral volatility and dissatisfaction with politics. Centrist anti-establishment parties (CAPs) are one of the main symptoms of and beneficiaries from these phenomena. CAPs successfully challenge mainstream parties by accusing them of being corrupt and dishonest, although unlike radical left or radical right parties, they do not attack them on ideological grounds. Numerous CAPs, such as the Bulgarian GERB, the Slovak OL’aNO and the Czech ANO, have won large numbers of votes, which have very often resulted in government participation. However, CAPs seldom survive more than one election because they struggle with the loss of their newness, which is the only characteristic that sets them apart from the political establishment. In this book, I explain CAPs’ survival and death and argue that electoral persistence requires that CAPs abandon their initial strategy of pure protest. Instead, they need to adopt one of three strategies of survival that rely on more sustainable electoral support: a reframed anti-establishment strategy, an anti-corruption strategy, or a mainstream strategy. An analysis of CAPs’ programmatic transformations over time, which uses a novel expert survey that covers more than 41 elections and 120 parties (Engler et al. 2021), confirms this claim. Furthermore, case studies integrating data from interviews with MPs and party officials not only provide a more in-depth picture of strategic change, but also point towards some potential pitfalls and constraints the parties may face when they make their strategic choices. In the second part of the book, I loosen the assumption that all CAPs are equally capable of strategic change and argue that the ideological diversity of CAPs’ voters particularly interferes with strategic change. Voter-level data support this. My book provides the first thorough analysis of the origin, persistence and death of centrist anti-establishment parties. It shows that change is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for a CAP’s survival. The adoption of a new survival strategy bears risks for CAPs with very diverse electorates, because a new strategy always also requires that CAPs adapt ideologically. Eventually, ideology determines which CAPs persist, and thus it structures party competition even in highly volatile environments.

Additional work on anti-establishment politics in Central and Eastern Europe

Challenges to liberal democracy

In various parts of my work I analyze challenges for established democracies such as the pandemic, or the transformations of party systems. Together with colleagues from the University of Zurich, I explore how political parties and voters think about different conceptions of democracy, what factors change their understanding of democracy and how questions surrounding democratic governance are politicized by different political actors. 

Income inequality and voting behavior in Europe (with David Weisstanner)

Income inequality has increased in many Western democracies since the 1980s. As a result, a larger share of voters, in relative terms, is less well off than they used to be. Together with David Weisstanner, we want to understand how this shapes voting behavior in Europe among different societal groups and how status perceptions and class identity of voters and the parties' elites for challenger parties' ability to attract more voters. 

Corruption, clientelism and party competition

Corruption and clientelism are prevalent in many European democracies. In my research, I explore the impact of corruption and clientelism on party competition from three different angles. First, corruption influences the playing field for party competition and can thus influence political parties in their strategic choices. Second, corruption is a source of political dissatisfaction and distrust and can thus influence voting decisions. Finally, corruption and the fight against it is a political issue itself that can be politicized by different actors for different reasons and with different implications for party competition and democracy.