Teildokument zu: Can the young democracies of East-Central Europe cope with the double impact of transformation and integration?

2. Structural Problems of the Democratic Systems of East-Central Europe

The central weakness of the East-Central European democracies is their short history. No appreciable segments of their populations have lengthy experience with democratic systems - the possible exception being individuals at least seventy years old in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. This is particularly true for the political elite and the administration, who thus frequently approach problems and conflicts in the undemocratic "old" style. The inexperienced public then blames these and other shortcomings on the democratic governments and then quickly on the entire democratic system.

Most people in East-Central Europe rejected the Communist party dictatorship. Yet the system characterised itself as "democracy" and cultivated formal democratic procedures and institutions (elections, parties, parliaments, etc.). This Orwellian double-speak and the resulting misunderstandings burden the new democracies, even if in the first phase of the transition it allowed a certain formal continuity. In general, however, many observers presume that the long totalitarian past has deprived these states of the values that form the basis of democracy (solidarity, tolerance, civic courage, engagement, etc.); very narrow material interests and possible national (istic) values tend to be more widespread[11]. The public's understanding of democracy is primarily focused on the political-institutional level (freedoms, rights, multi-party systems), whereas social values (prosperity, women's rights, equality, employment) and individual aspects (moral freedom) are perceived to be less associated with democracy[12].

Opinion polls[13] confirm that the East-Central Europeans are not very satisfied with the consequences of democracy and that a large minority fundamentally holds democracy in low esteem. The polls show that regard for democracy has improved (exceptions: Slovakia and to an extent Hungary), but only very slowly. One reason for the skeptical stance was certainly the severe recession that all the transformation countries experienced in the years 1990-1994. The populations responded to this in part by distancing themselves from democratic processes (declining voter participation), in part by voting a democratic change of government (victory of the reform Communists in Poland and Hungary).

The party systems in East-Central Europe are rather fragmented and unstable. The parliaments are less fragmented, however, due to the limits on small parties entering parliament. Yet this comes at the price of preventing parliamentary representation for relatively large parts of the electorate: e.g. in Poland in 1993, 34 percent; in Hungary in 1990, 22 percent and 1994, 13 percent; in Slovakia in 1994, 13 percent. The parties are by no means securely anchored in large voter groups, whose interests they articulate[14]. This situation also expresses itself in very low memberships (with the exception of the post-Communist parties). A consequence of this disjunction is the large swings in voter support and - in a number of cases - party split-ups. The volatility of the voters corresponds to the high turnover among the parliamentarians, which compromises their professional quality. As such, in Poland 69 percent of the deputies were new in parliament after the 1993 elections and in Hungary in 1994, 64 percent. The variations in the party votes are higher in East-Central Europe than in Germany, Austria, Italy, and in Southern Europe, after the fall of the dictators 1945 and 1974 respectively, and much higher than those in stable democracies[15].

Voter turnout was also often very low, which indicates the conviction of many voters, that they do not expect politics to bring about any significant improvements in their situation. Opinion polls also show that only a minority of the public believes it is possible to do something about political decisions that harm their interests (under 20 percent in East-Central Europe, particularly in Poland with only 5 percent; but over 70 percent in the USA, 20-40 percent in Europe and Latin America). The majority of the electorate does not believe that they have more influence over politics under democratic governments than under the Communist ones[16].

The subjective helplessness corresponds to transition's objective impact, both of which translate into minimal participation in the political process. Voter turnout is low, particularly in Poland and Hungary. In all four countries, the large parties represented in parliament advocate not only the reform consensus regarding democracy, free-markets and western orientation, but also the usually explicit policies of stabilisation and accession to the EU and NATO. Reform losers, who often view western integration sceptically, have little representation in the parliaments, often only in the form of extremist parties. This self-exclusion of the reform losers and sceptics fosters the short-term stability of the democratic system and strengthens the image of the East-Central European countries as successful reformers. In the long-term, however, this large group represents a potential for destabilisation.

In the mid-term, the winners and losers in the transformation process will articulate their respective interests, whereby the potency of their party political organisations will be dependent on the location of the other political cleavages. The new social groups (self-employed, entrepreneurs) will organise themselves. It will be more problematic if the winner-loser cleavage overlaps with other relevant cleavages (statist/authoritarian/interventionist/ nationalist/religious vs. liberal/democratic/cosmopolitan/secular). It would be favourable to continued stabilisation if the specific interests continue to organise themselves in society and if cleavages continued to intersect one another instead of combining to form one deeper cleavage.

Largely absent under the level of the central state in the East-Central European countries are the building blocks of civil society (organisations, associations, etc.) that articulate interests and feed them into the political system, thereby assuring a vital democracy[17].

  • The church (above all in Poland) and the unions are practically the only large social organisations. At the same time, only the post-Communist unions have high - though declining - membership. The unions in all the countries are tied into tripartite arrangements, which suffer, however, from the weakness of the participating parties. They thus limit themselves primarily to addressing the short-term questions of wage levels and labour market policies.
  • The legal and factual manoeuvring room for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is limited. Following years of forced membership in various organisations, the East-Central Europeans show little interest in societal engagement. The large number of NGOs should not conceal their marginal significance and their low membership numbers.
  • While legally the electronic media in the East-Central European countries are largely independent, they continue in practice to suffer from strong governmental interference, with governments still finding it difficult to accept an effective forth power. Private media primarily pursue economic objectives. But they are often dependent on the good will of the government in numerous ways (e.g. distribution in Slovakia) and they thus tend to engage in government-friendly reporting. The intermediary area that allows a pluralistically structured dialogue on the central political issues is limited to a number of quality newspapers and is very sparsely developed.
  • While the East-Central European countries have now formally allowed greater regional and local self-administration, administrative practice and the distribution of resources remains largely centralised. In Slovakia, the government exerts pressure on the cities and communities that are frequently governed by the opposition. In the Czech Republic, the prime minister has blocked regionalisation. In Hungary, the communities are dependent on the central government for 70 percent of their revenues. In Poland, the reform Communist government is showing a tendency toward recentralisation.

In all, one can speak as Richard Rose does of "hourglass societies" in East-Central Europe, where the informal networks at the base (family, client relationships) and at the top (past "old-boy networks," "network corporatism") continue to grow. Yet the middle layer of civil society that is so important for democracy remains underdeveloped[18].

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | März 1998

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