The democratic transition of the post-communist countries provided political scientists with an unique opportunity to study the development of political institutions and structures. Few developments are more vital than the one of democratic parties, which form the backbone of representative democracy. That is why in this essay I will explore to what extent have we seen the development of left-wing and right-wing parties in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). The focus will be on the evolution of party systems, as it is key to emphasize that the formation of party positions happens over time (Olson 1998). For the sake of clarity, the left-right dimension tackled in this paper is concerned with issues of welfare, redistribution and regulation, when the left prefers economic equity through government intervention, while the right stands for market freedom (Marks et al. 2006, p.156). The thesis put forward is that although there has been some consolidation of parties on the left-right political axis, it happened to a different extent in the individual countries throughout the region and has been quite fluid in the last thirty years. This conclusion will be supported by both cross-national comparative analysis and looking at the state of the party system in particular countries. This will be achieved in three main steps. Firstly, I will layout the theoretical considerations that are relevant for the transition from a communist regime and though this build basis later empirical considerations. Secondly, I will contextualize empirical evidence from countries in the region and show how it can suggest certain degree of consolidation. Lastly, I will look at the more recent advent of populism in the region and relate it to the fluidity and lesser consolidation of the party systems.
First of all, it is necessary to build the theoretical foundation for the development of party systems in in general. The traditional Lipsett and Rokkan 1967 model of parties arising from cleavages in society is still to this day focal point for assessing the patterns of party competition in various regions of the world (Kitschelt 1995, p.447). More concretely in this model the explanation of current distribution of party positions on the left-right dimension stems from broad divisional patterns in civil society which come as a result of historical events, which are then in turn “frozen” by the rigid nature of political institutions (Evans and Whitefield 2000, p.10-11). This model would imply that whether left-wing and right-wing parties form would come as a result of divisions created under communism in the CEE region, however as Lipsett and Rokkan point out themselves cleavages do not “translate themselves into party positions as a matter of course” (Lipsett and Rokkan 1967, p.12). It is necessary to include the deliberate choice of politicians that play a direct role in the positioning of the parties, as it is upon them to mobilize and react to the demand within the society (Evans 2006, p.248). In the CEE region this seems particularly relevant as the political agents did not have information about prior voting behaviour of the population, they thus played a significant role by betting on organizational an electoral strategy (Evans and Whitefield 2000, p.11-12). Thus, the key points of examination will be the influence of communism on societal cleavages and the role of political agents as entrepreneurs.
Building upon these general considerations about partisanship development I will now move on to apply them concretely to the CEE region. My theoretical argument will be based on the “structured diversity” thesis put forward by Rohrschneider and Whitefield (Rohrschneider and Whitefield 2009, p.285-287). It fundamentally claims that given the common historical legacies of communist rule and the consequent challenge of marketization and democratization there will be similarities in the structuring of the party systems, however there are going to be difference based on national contexts (Rohrschneider and Whitefield 2009, p.286). The common communist legacy can be interpreted from two competing angles. The “missing middle approach” focuses on how the atomization of the communist system of production and the absence of civil society mezzo-structure lead to “amorphousness and homogenization” of the society, suggesting that parties will have no cleavages around which to distinguish themselves on the left-right scale (Evans and Whitefield 1993, p.529). This approach points out a significant structural impact of the communist rule, however, is limited and does not capture the complex nature of the transition toward market democracy the CEE countries undertook in the 1990s. It further does not consider the ability to learn through “system time”, as the newly democratic country shapes its own understanding of the party system through a sequence of elections and parliamentary terms (Olson 1998, p.433). The “modernization” approach on the other hand puts forward the thesis that the industrialization that the region undertook under communist rule created bases for similar cleavages present in the West, particularly that it put given strata of population to an advantageous position for the marketization process (Evans and Whitefield 1993, p.531). This model could be strengthened by considering the differential opportunities that came because of the transition away from communism (Kitschelt 1995, p.453), as that is when the structure of the societies underwent a more significant change. Further the modernization approach is too forcing on its own, as it does not allow for the variation in national contexts that is clear from empirical evidence (Innes 2002, p.85-86). If the model is modified accordingly, to point out national differences and the role of market transition is included, it provides a better explanation than the “missing middle” approach.
The modified modernization approach finds substantial evidence in cross-national empirical evidence. I will now analyse in detail two such studies and explain how exactly they provide support for consolidation of party positions on the left-right dimension. The first study discussed is by Rohschneider and Whitefield from 2008 and it builds on expert survey from the years 2003-2004 conducted in 13 post-communist countries and targeting 87 parties (Rohrschneider and Whitefield 2009, p.288). Their survey had 111 overall expert respondents, averaging 8.5 respondents per party, which were selected based on in-depth knowledge of the given countries. Each of the experts were then asked to tentatively indicate the main lines of conflict in the party systems, by ranking several options (Rohrschneider and Whitefield 2009, p.290). From their answers it became obvious that conflict regarding socioeconomic division, pro-welfare and anti-welfare, was universally the most important across the countries with mean ranking 2.03, when 1 indicates the most important issue and it is out of 5 (Rohrschneider and Whitefield 2009, p.291-293). Although the results are based on personal qualitative assumptions, they might be seen as decently reliable due to the high number of respondents and due to their results closely mirroring another similar survey conducted in the year 2006 (Marks et al. 2006).
The second study discussed is by Kitschelt and colleagues from 1999 which assess programmatic crystallization in four CEE post-communist countries based on data from interviews with political elites in the countries (Kitschelt et al. 1999, p.158). Although having fewer data inputs this study is methodologically more robust, as it uses standard deviations of scores assigned to parties rather than simply means of the rankings (Kitschelt et al. 1999, p.159-160). Likewise, they find out that various economic issues, including welfare issues, privatization and unemployment, are the most important for party positioning with score 4.49 out of 5 salience points (Kitschelt et al. 1999, p.163). The two studies taken together provide significant evidence for the formation of left-right economic cleavage and parties positioning themselves on it in the CEE region as suggested by the modified modernization approach. That is because they provide two relevant point of views that clearly distinguish parties alongside the dimension, which in turn suggests that there is a class cleavage that drives this positioning. If the missing middle approach has been correct, there would be no distinguishable positioning along this dimension and the issue would not have any salience for perception of parties. It must be acknowledged that both studies employ relatively similar measure, therefore a more quantitative research could potentially strengthen this conclusion.
I will now provide particular country examples to show that despite this general trend towards development of left-wing and right-wing parties in the CEE region, there are considerable differences in degree of development. The three countries I have used as examples are the Czech Republic, Poland and Bulgaria, as their context is different enough as to illustrate the point. Firstly, the beautiful Czech Republic is commonly taken to have the most stable party system in the CEE region (Balík and Hlušek 2016, p.103). The development of left-wing and right-wing is the most pronounced here, which can be seen historically from the dominance of the ODS (centre-right) and ČSSD (centre-left) parties (Deegan-Krause and Haughton 2009, p.229). It is their position on the left-right economic spectrum that defines more than any other issue position (Olson 1998, p.462). This could be attributed to high-levels of homogeneity and relative success of the marketization in 1990s (Evans and Whitefield 1993, p.540), as well as the clear programmatic endeavours and stable inner structures of the parties themselves (Deegan-Krause and Haughton 2009, p.235). Secondly the neighbouring Poland has shown considerably more fluidity in party positions, especially in the 1990s (Lewis 2001, p.124). Although it had a very similar socioeconomic and ethnic background as the Czech Republic “frequent change and addition” to the electoral laws prevented the parties from creating a more decisive profile on the left-right scale (Krasnov, Volchkova and Tuzov 2016, p.263). Lastly Bulgaria had significantly more diffuse positions of parties on the left-right scale. Here the possible interpretation is that the marketization did not go as well as in the two previous countries, while Bulgarian politics in the 1990s was swept by controversies and various crises of government (Kitschelt et al., p.160). From this brief consideration of various examples, it is clear that due to varying structural conditions and different choices of political agents left-right and right-wing parties developed to a different extent.
The strength of the left-right party positions has been further relatively recently challenged by the advent of populism and democratic backsliding in the region, I will relate this trend to fluidity of the party systems. The most paradigmatic cases have been Hungary and Poland, however similar trends have begun to emerge in other countries as well (Ágh 2016). This means in essence that a strong anti-system party with illiberal and populist tendencies has emerged, challenging the previously unquestioned path towards democratization and economic liberalism (Ágh 2016, p.278). Fidesz in Hungary is the worst-case scenario, as this initially centre-left party has won a super-majority in the 2010 elections and since did not leave power, transforming the countries electoral system, judiciary and laws on media (Bátory 2016, p.286). These problems can be attributed to problems with civil engagement within civic society (Cianetti et al. 2018, p.244) and the existence of informal oligarchical structures that run alongside the official legal structures and undermine it (Ágh 2016, p.280). This undermines the conclusion that stable left-wing and right-wing parties have developed in the CEE region for two reasons. The quite obvious reason is that the populist parties themselves stand quite outside the economic left-right positioning, therefore undermine the modernization basis of the explanation, as well as the empirical facts. The second reason is that populist parties shift the focus from left-right economic dimension to the left-right libertarian to authoritarian dimension (Inglehart and Norris 2016). Through their strong position on this alternative dimension, they force other parties in the party system to turn their focus away from the economic issues. In light of these considerations the significant fluidity of party positions on the left-right dimension has to be recognized.
In conclusion, I have argued in this essay that although there has been some development of left-wing and right-wing parties in the CEE region, it is not uniform and it is considerably fluid. This finding has been supported by the development of theoretical argument that rests on the thesis of modernization, however, adapts it to accommodate for specific national contexts and the actions of political agents. It is clearly fitting within a broader pattern of qualitative empirical analysis, although only two studies have been considered in depth. The populist developments are relatively recent, therefore the exact long-term impact on the party systems in the CEE region is yet to be fully known. This connection, however, provides an excellent area for further contemporary study of this problematic.
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Cover Image Source: “Distribution of nationalities in southeastern Europe”, early 20th cent. by J. N. Larned et al via Wikimedia Commons
The author, Quido Haskovec, is a third year Politics and Philosophy student at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He also serves as an Editor at the LSE Undergraduate Political Review.