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East: New Faces Spell Election Success In Central And Eastern Europe

  • Kathleen Moore

In several countries in Central and Eastern Europe, new, often populist parties have emerged and enjoyed success at the ballot box. It happened on the weekend in Latvia, where voters put New Era into office. Slovakia last month and Bulgaria last year are two other notable examples. What's behind the phenomenon?

Prague, 8 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In elections in Western Europe and the United States, the candidates' names may change but the parties they represent nearly always remain the same.

That has not been the case in recent elections in Central Europe, where entirely new parties have come out of nowhere to win the vote.

It happened on 5 October in Latvia, where voters put New Era into office. In Slovakia on 20-21 September, two new parties polled strongly and one, Pavol Rusko's New Citizens' Alliance, is in the new coalition government.

Last year in Bulgaria, a movement founded by the former king just two months before the elections swept to power. Looking further back, two newcomers dealt a blow to Lithuania's established parties in elections two years ago.

To be sure, the phenomenon is not limited to Eastern Europe. The Netherlands delivered a surprise earlier this year when a new anti-immigration party did well in polls.

Yet, the phenomenon has not been seen in all Central European countries. The Czech Republic is a notable example of where initiatives to start new parties or movements in recent years have fizzled out.

Nevertheless, new, populist movements are becoming part of the political landscape of Eastern Europe.

Often, these parties run on an anticorruption platform that is vague on other points. They play on voter dissatisfaction with the ruling powers and the painful reforms of the transition from communist central planning.

Kyril Drezov is a researcher with the Keele European Parties Research Unit in Britain. "I would argue that probably the voters' greatest dissatisfaction is not so much with politicians but with the transition as such, because the transition itself has been so complex, so volatile, and plainly difficult for very many people in the countries in question. As a result of that, they are perpetually dissatisfied with whoever is in power," Drezov said.

New parties in the region don't face the same obstacles to success as those in more established democracies. Here, media access can be key. In Slovakia, Rusko of the New Citizens' Alliance owns the most popular private television station.

Strong personalities are another feature of the newcomers. Take Slovakia again. For months before Slovakia's election, Robert Fico consistently topped polls as the most trusted politician. His SMER party gained some 14 percent of the vote last month.

Jurate Novogrockiene of Vilnius University's Institute of International Relations and Political Sciences said this holds true for Lithuania and Latvia. "In the Latvian context, political parties are relatively small, but they have very strong leaders, and a new leader, an especially attractive leader, [can ensure] victory for a newly established political party. The same happened in Lithuania in the 2000 elections. New political parties with very attractive leaders were elected to the Seimas, the Lithuanian parliament," Novogrockiene said.

Initial electoral success, of course, is no guarantee the new parties will have staying power.

Latvia's New Era is just the latest of several new parties to emerge in that country. Typically, they flourish in one election only to decline in the next.

Two Slovak parties formed shortly before previous elections, the Workers' Association and President Rudolf Schuster's Party of Civic Understanding, quickly faded from prominence after they entered government. In Bulgaria, the former king's movement is not likely to survive the next election.

Drezov said it's possible other newcomers will emerge in Bulgaria, but he added that the king's movement had some unique attractions. "It would be very difficult for a new party to repeat the success of the king's movement, because there are certain unique elements that pertain to this movement, like, obviously, the aura of the royal origin, the personality of Simeon II himself, someone who was expelled from his country and then came back. These things are very difficult to repeat, so even though the potential is there for the time being, I do not quite see the situation of June last year when the king's movement succeeded itself," Drezov said.

The newcomers' success also shows how slowly the political-party system in many countries is being stabilized.

The trouble is, there's no prescription or guideline on how to build strong parties based on programs rather than personalities. And it's not something that can be directed from the top down, like other reforms.

Janusz Bugajski is director of the Eastern Europe Project at CSIS, a Washington think tank, and the author of a new guide to politics in the region.

He argues that this needs to be the focus on the future, so that a growing percentage of the population settles on specific parties. "This is why it's so important to build strong, nationwide constituency parties throughout the region, so we're not surprised either by nationalist or populist or some other bizarre combination of charisma and sort of visionary politics. I think this is where the focus should be, on creating strong parties that will appeal to an increasing number of voters," Bugajski said.

However, he said it's likely that new parties will come and go in the region for some years to come.

Still, there's a positive element to the phenomenon. It shows that voters have not succumbed completely to cynicism by choosing to stay at home on election day.