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East/Estonia: Analysis From Washington -- Obstacles To Party Loyalty

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 11 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Relatively few people in post-Soviet countries have developed much loyalty to the new political parties.

This state of affairs has raised concerns about the prospects for representative democracy in this region--despite the slow development in the West of party loyalty in the past and recent declines in party loyalty there.

Most discussions about absence of party loyalty in the post-Soviet countries have focused on the unwillingness of people to commit to a particular party because of their experiences with the single Communist Party in the past. Or they have focused on the lack in these countries of the kind of clear-cut social and economic cleavage lines on which parties and party loyalty normally rest.

But two recent studies of the development of political parties in Estonia point to a third factor that in the short run at least may prove to be even more important: the absence of loyalty to any particular party by members of the political elite and their willingness to hop from one party to another in the elusive pursuit of votes and power.

In his book, "Parties and Democracy in the Post-Soviet Republics: The Case of Estonia," David Arter traces the remarkable career path of Tiit Made, a former communist who founded the Green Movement but refused to join any of the Green parties. After that, Arter wrote, Made shifted to the left-wing Democratic Labor Party, only to jump to the rightist Entrepreneurial Party before leaving that to chair the Centre Party.

And Made, who has jumped yet again since Arter's book was published--the Estonian politician has now founded a new Development Party--is not alone. As American social scientist Rein Taagepera points out in the current issue of "Party Politics," many other Estonian politicians have done the same.

He points out that in the 1995 parliamentary elections, 44 of the 101 incumbents were re-elected, but 16 of these--more than one-third in all--had run and won under a new and different party label. And that has led Taagepera to ask: "How on earth could voters develop any party loyalty before the politicians themselves do?"

But in asking this question, Taagepera raises three broader issues that most of those discussing this "problem" in post-communist countries generally ignore. First, Taagepera notes, those who bemoan the absence of party loyalty in the post-Soviet states forget just how long it took Western countries to develop modern political parties.

In Scandinavia, he argues, it took "half a century to proceed from the first proto-parties of the mid-1800s to constellations that could be called party systems, without utterly diluting the meaning of the term 'system.'" Estonia and her neighbors have moved far more quickly, even if they do not yet have the kind of parties and party loyalties typical of Western and Northern Europe.

Second, Taagepera suggests that most studies of party development in post-Soviet countries ignore just what the Soviet system did to atomize the population, destroying the kind of social and economic integuments that bind people together for collective action of the kind political parties represent.

He acknowledges that Estonia like other countries "where democracy existed before an authoritarian or totalitarian interlude" has done better than those countries lacking such a foundation. But he pointedly notes that "the atomization of society and economy under Soviet rule was far more severe than in Spain under Franco or even the communist regimes in Central Europe."

And third, Taagepera argues that the "central assumption" of many of them that "democracy without parties is unthinkable" may not be true or at least not true in the way its supporters claim. Not only does it ignore that party loyalty is declining rapidly in most Western countries, but it fails to take into account the new media environment that allow politicians to advance themselves without the support of the party apparatus.

Indeed, Taagepera says, "if dealignment is real in the West (partly because TV stresses personalities and displaces the parties from their information-providing role), then Estonia could actually be seen as taking a shortcut into the Western future," rather than moving off in ways that preclude a democratic outcome.

Almost certainly parties, party loyalty and party development will affect further development of the post-communist countries. But Arter's findings and Taagepera's arguments suggest that their role may be far more complicated and differentiated than some both there and in the West have assumed.

And that in turn suggests that those monitoring the development of democracy need to take into account a variety of factors--including the loyalty of politicians to parties--before decrying the absence of party loyalty by the population at large.