12 January, 2023
Szikra, D., & Öktem, K. G. (2022) An illiberal welfare state emerging? Welfare efforts and trajectories under democratic backsliding in Hungary and Turkey. Journal of European Social Policy, 0(0). https://doi.org/10.1177/09589287221141365
Mainstream western-centric welfare state research has mostly confined itself to studying social policy in consolidated democracies and tends to assume a synergy between democracy and the welfare state. This article shifts the focus to welfare states in countries with declining democratic institutions and rising right-wing populist rule to explore a complex relationship between (de)democratization and welfare state reforms. We conduct a comparative case study of two extreme cases of democratic decline, Turkey and Hungary. We employ a sequential mixed method approach. First, we assess welfare efforts in the two countries to understand which policy areas were prioritized and whether autocratizing governments retrenched or expanded their welfare states. In the second stage, we explore the trajectory of welfare reforms in Hungary and Turkey, focusing on three analytically distinguishable dimensions of social policy change: policy content, policy procedures (including timing, parliamentary procedures, veto players); and the discourses accompanying reforms. We find that democratic decline facilitates rapid welfare state change but it does not necessarily mean retrenchment. Instead we observe ambivalent processes of welfare state restructuring. Common themes emerging in both countries are the rise of flagship programmes that ensure electoral support, a transition towards top-down decision-making and the salient role of discourse in welfare governance. Overall, similarities are stronger in procedures and discourse than in the direction of reforms. Differences in spending levels and policy content do not suggest that the two cases constitute a coherent illiberal welfare state regime. Instead, we see the emergence of authoritarian features that modify their original welfare models.