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East European Perspectives: August 20, 2003

20 August 2003, Volume 5, Number 17


By Monica Ciobanu

The Return Of Ex-Communists To Power In The 2000 Elections
As discussed in Part 1, the apparently radical change in 1996 in political authority did not enhance the normative legitimacy of the democratic regime in Romania. On the contrary, after four years in which the Democratic Convention of Romania (CDR) had governed the country, a growing crisis of confidence in democratic institutions took place. This crisis resulted from the weakness of the rule of law, from unsatisfactory economic growth, and from a dismal performance in foreign affairs.

The task of the new political authority after 1996, that of consolidating and further developing a legal order based on the new constitution, proved to be extremely difficult. It was difficult because of the passage of an extraordinary number of emergency ordinances, and secondly, because of the sheer heterogeneity of the ruling coalition and its inability to negotiate and compromise. Added to this, the corruption scandals in which many members of the coalition were involved, as well as the image of a weak political leader presented by Emil Constantinescu during his presidency, did not convince the public that there was anything like a reliable and competent political authority. And even though they could not claim greater moral authority than the right, the ex-communists appeared to be a more plausible alternative because of their presumed experience, and also because their leadership included skilled politicians such as Ion Iliescu or Adrian Nastase.

It was under these circumstances that in December 2000 the ex-communists returned to power. They ran as the Social Democratic Alliance in coalition with the Romanian Social Democratic Party and won 37 percent of the seats in parliament. The Greater Romania Party (PRM), an ultranationalist and xenophobic party with 20 percent of the votes, followed them. The National Peasant Party Christian Democratic (PNTCD), the dominant party of the former coalition, failed to gain any seats, and the National Liberal Party (PNL) and Democratic Party (PD) won some 7 percent of the votes each.

Since the CDR broke apart during the election campaign and was not able to present its own candidate for the presidency, the election was decided in the second round between Iliescu and Corneliu Vadim Tudor, the leader of the PRM. The possibility of having an ultranationalist leader as president of Romania was perceived as threatening by the international community, particularly given the events in former Yugoslavia under Slobodan Milosevic. Such concerns were quite justified given the record and the agenda of this party and its leader. It was pressure from the international community, coupled with an active and more energetic mobilization of civil society, which determined members of the former coalition and even former dissidents to support Iliescu, no matter how much they disliked him. He won in the second round of the elections with 66.8 percent of the vote.

The question that follows is: what can be said of the political attitudes and beliefs of the 33 percent of the Romanian electorate that voted for Tudor? Do their votes express antidemocratic and intolerant views? Based on public-opinion polls and on qualitative sociological studies done at the time in Romania, it can be argued that in the 2000 election the electorate used its votes to sanction the crisis of performance of the former governments (Mungiu-Pippidi, 2001). This electoral behavior was also influenced by the unwillingness of the former coalition and the country's president to take any responsibility for the errors of the previous four years. Another possible interpretation of the election result is to see it as the result of both protest and a lack of maturity on behalf of the electorate (see Shafir, 2001). Whichever of these two explanations is embraced, ultimately the outcome of the elections points towards a problem of normative legitimacy.

In the 2000 parliamentary and presidential elections, the two main political opponents and their parties constructed their particular images and confronted each other in negative personal terms, and not in ideological ones. Tudor presented himself as uncompromised because he personally never took part in any post-1989 government, while Iliescu portrayed himself as someone who would not engage in irrational and xenophobic actions. This occurred as the citizens of a new democracy exercised their right to vote for the fourth time. It is an indicator that democracy in this instance was emptied of its deliberative content and functioned only because of a defeatist acknowledgement of the lack of alternatives. On the other hand, it may be argued that these elections were a test of democratic consolidation since the two ballots removed the threat of an antidemocratic force in power. But such an argument is not plausible, given that there is hardly any indication that strong democratic values became internalized either by the political elites or by the electorate.

A decade after the dramatic overthrow of Ceausescu's highly personalized and nationalistic communist regime, in which Romanians had acquiesced primarily out of fear, a similar mechanism of choosing and accepting political authority under the circumstances of democratic politics is again taking shape. This time fear of repression is replaced by a passive resignation towards the absence of choice. The re-emergence of a negative type of legitimacy in the 2000 Romanian elections was the outcome of a crisis of performance of the successive political authorities that governed the country between 1990 and 2000. This was in turn reinforced by the generalized weakness of a rational-legal political culture. This state of affairs is likely to influence a public increasingly vulnerable to populist, nationalist, or salvationist propaganda. In this sense, the 2001 Bulgarian elections, although they took a different direction than in Romania, followed the same pattern of search for a new electoral option. The former king, Simeon II Saxe Coburg Gotha, was elected as prime minister on the basis of his ability to present himself as a charismatic leader and to sustain this image with populist electoral promises (see Peeva, 2001).

Despite the processes of democratization that took place in the last decade in Romania and Bulgaria, a fundamental change in the relationship between political authority and the public did not occur. The polls conducted by the Romanian Center for Urban and Rural Sociology, and by the Center for the Study of Democracy in Bulgaria, both in 2001, show that in both countries the electorate is highly dissatisfied with governmental performance, that a majority of the population believes that corruption is widespread or general in the public sector, and that the communist times are positively remembered (see Mungiu-Pippidi, 2001).

Such a negative assessment of representative and legal institutions is an indicator of the weakness of normative or value-oriented legitimacy, even if democratic institutions are still widely accepted. Another poll taken in October 2001 by the Center for Urban and Rural Sociology in Romania for Euro-Barometer indicates that almost one-third of the population believe that it would be "best to get rid of parliament and elections and have a strong leader who can quickly decide everything." This is evidence that the political culture of democracy is not yet adequately developed. Here it has to be said that Romanian pre-World War II history has a record of successive authoritarian leaders including former King Carol II, Marshal Ion Antonescu (Hitler's wartime ally), and the former communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu.

Democratic Consolidation In The Czech Republic, Hungary, And Poland
In contrast to Romania and Bulgaria, the three Central European countries -- the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland -- find themselves, a decade after the collapse of communism, in a more advanced stage of transition and enjoy much more support and assistance from the West. Because of their geographical location, these countries were more exposed to Western than to Eastern influences throughout their histories, primarily because of the influence of the Habsburg Empire. Unlike the Orthodox Church of Romania and Bulgaria, the Catholic Church in these countries was less subservient towards political authority and more open to the development of a civic culture. Moreover, the communist legacies of Central European countries were not as harsh as in Romania and Bulgaria.

This does not mean that there are no differences between them, or that their political systems do not present certain democratic deficits resembling the weaknesses of Romanian or Bulgarian democracy. The differences are rooted in both their earlier historical experience and the subsequent communist legacy influencing their circumstances after the 1989 revolutions and which continue to shape their transitions.

In Hungary, successive post-1989 governments (although to different degrees and in a different manner reflecting ideological differences) manifested a strong interest in Hungarian minorities living in the neighboring countries of Romania, Slovakia, and the former Yugoslavia. Secondly, one of Hungary's distinguishing features was that at the time of the break with communism there was already an entrepreneurial middle class functioning under Janos Kadar's socialist regime in the 1980s within the framework of a secondary economy. There was also a semi-legitimate civil society, or rather "parallel" civil society acting alongside the official communist one.

Poland absorbed the strong influence of the Solidarity movement in the 1980s and effected the transition from civil society to a democratic political society in consequence (Linz and Stepan, 1996). After 1989, the main factor uniting the different factions in Solidarity, their anticommunist and anti-Soviet agenda, became less significant after these two antagonists were overcome. On the other hand, the legacy of mass opposition presented an advantage, in the sense that it determined Poland's readiness for commitment to a process of democratization. Besides this, a newly democratic Poland found it necessary to renegotiate and redefine the relationship between the state and the Catholic Church. This relationship was clarified in February 1998 through a formal concordat with the Vatican that enumerated the rights of the church but also acknowledged its separation from the state ("Transitions Online," 1998). Poland's accession to the EU also raised problematic issues. These concerned the large percentage of the working population involved in agriculture (20 percent-30 percent); the relationships with its Eastern neighbors (Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine) regarding the design of border regulations after Poland's potential EU accession; as well as regaining confidence and trust in its Western neighbor, Germany, after a painful history of German occupation during World War II ("Constitutional Watch," 2002).

In respect to the Czech Republic, the main question relates to the dissolution of Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Revolution. This dissolution "brought about a shift towards an ethnic understanding of civil society," which in turn generated a question of citizenship (Kavan and Palous, p.80, 1999). It was eventually resolved when the law on citizenship was amended in 1996 and exclusionary devices concerning the Slovaks and the Roma were lifted. Unlike other Eastern European countries, the political left is here embodied in an influential Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD). But this formation does not represent a reconstructed communist party, being rather a reconstructed version of a prewar social-democratic party.

However, despite the differences presented above, the newly established democratic regimes in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland benefited from an important advantage when communism collapsed. This was the existence of social and political actors who to a certain extent were prepared to cope with the tasks and challenges of democratic transition, as well as to function as professional bureaucratic personnel. This, along with the learning experience of the roundtable negotiations of 1989, facilitated a more profound institutionalization of democracy than in Romania and, to a degree, than in Bulgaria.

This deeper institutionalization of democracy is to be found in some essential areas of a consolidated democracy in the Czech Republic and in Hungary: a stable and mature party system that enjoys electoral support; the art of cohabitation and compromise between right and left; and, very important in the context of postcommunist societies, a left that was faster and more efficient in reinventing and readjusting itself to the rules of democracy and the free market. The Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) acted as one of the major political actors contributing to the consolidation of democracy as it drew its supporters into accepting democracy.

The last elections in Hungary in the summer of 2002 led to a balance of power between the left, represented by the Hungarian Socialist Party in coalition with the liberal Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), and the center-right represented by the Federation of Young Democrats-Hungarian Civic Party (FIDESZ-MMP) in coalition with the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF). The election results reflect some social and geographical polarization between the more prosperous and Catholic western parts of Hungary that are right wing, and the eastern parts of the country, which are nominally Protestant, as well as the capital, Budapest, where political preferences are towards the left (see Schoplin, 2002).

But, the results that brought to power a winning socialist-liberal coalition did not raise any serious concerns. Quite the opposite, they brought some relief given the nationalist and populist campaign led by the former rightist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who attempted to capture the votes of ultranationalists which this time around were unable to gain parliamentary representation. At the same time, Orban's rhetoric of governance based on dichotomies such as "us" vs. "them," former communists vs. anticommunists, created a division within Hungarian society that contradicted the logic of democratic consolidation (see Bozoki, 2002). Moreover, the previous government of Hungarian Socialists (1994-97) left behind a record of liberal policies and a quite successful foreign policy for improving relations with Hungary's neighbors and for the integration of Hungary into NATO. After a decade of democratic transition, the only serious challenge to the consolidation process in Hungary "was caused by the change of strategy" by the FIDESZ-MMP (Torok, 2000, p. 200).

The 1998 elections in the Czech Republic, despite a low turnout and the corruption scandals that removed Vaclav Klaus's center-right government coalition from power and led to a split within the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), did not destabilize or fundamentally change the political spectrum. Even if the CSSD received support from those who suffered the costs of transition (state employees, pensioners, poor youth, and in regions with a high level of unemployment), the ODS, retained its electoral base ("Transitions Online," 1998). The "opposition agreement" signed by the two opposing political parties proved to be beneficial for the country's political stability. Even the social unrest that characterized the 10th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution and the associated criticism of civil society did not break this compromise.

It must, however, be added that the pact also prompted corruption within society, particularly among political elites, and was abandoned by the new leadership of CSSD under Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla in 2002 (see Jordan, 2002; Pehe, 2002). Yet the 2003 presidential election that replaced Vaclav Havel with his chief political rival, former Prime Minister Klaus, indicate that the "balance" between left and right is likely to continue, with both its benefits and its drawbacks (see Urban, 2003a and 2003b).

Interestingly enough, the last elections in Poland resembled more the Romanian case than Hungary or the Czech Republic. In September 2001, the former center-right coalition government made up of Solidarity elements was severely attacked for its performance and was not able to reach the electoral threshold of 8 percent required for parliamentary representation. The beneficiary of this failure was the Democratic Left Alliance (SDL) led by Leszek Miller, a political party dominated by ex-communists embracing the values of liberal democracy and a free market, which also refused to assume any responsibility for the mistakes or crimes committed by the past communist regime (Gebert, 2002). The SDL took the electoral lead with over 40 percent of the votes.

At the same time, in a fashion similar to the Romanian PRM, other groups that claimed to be newcomers in politics and therefore not at all responsible for the previous failures of the postcommunist Polish political elites, gained support among the electorate. These parties had either an undefined, vague or general agenda, for example, the centrist Citizen's Platform and the anticorruption party, Law and Justice, or were guided by nationalist ideologies such as the Self-Defense party and the Christian-nationalist League of Polish Families. Even more, the leader of Self-Defense manifested the same kind of political aggressiveness, irresponsibility, and irrationality that characterized Vadim Tudor. Andrzej Lepper's party came in third in the elections with 10 percent of the votes. However, his fortunes were less durable. The justice system stripped him of his parliamentary immunity (Gebert, 2002).

So, the ex-communists came back to power in Poland through elections in the same way in which Iliescu and his party gained power in Romania, that is, in the absence of any other viable alternative and a left willing to reinvent itself and adjust to democracy. It may be said here that the imagination of the Romanian ex-communists proved quite skillful in creating a complex political identity made up of historical political traditions: the December 1989 revolution and European liberal values. On 15 June 2001, the Party of Social Democracy in Romania, as the former communists were now called, merged with the Social Democratic Party of Romania and became the Romanian Social Democratic Party. The new party considers itself the direct descendent of the Social Democratic Party of the Workers of Romania, established in 1893 in Bucharest, which six years later became part of the International Socialist League. It became a parliamentary party before World War II but in the end was destroyed and absorbed by the Romanian Communist Party (see, 2001). In other words, this is no longer a party that is a direct emanation of the December 1989 revolution, as Iliescu liked to claim in the early 1990's, but a party that claims historical legitimacy, European affiliation, and even more -- a history of earlier repression by the communists.

Despite these similarities between the last Romanian and Polish elections, the latter did not raise the same kind of concerns in the international arena because, in contrast to Romania, Poland was already integrated into NATO and well into the process of European integration. It is also more plausible that the Polish right-wing opposition will reorganize itself, since it played a crucial role in the anticommunist revolution. This was not the case with the rightist "historical" parties in Romania. It might also be added that it is less likely that the Balkan syndrome of ethnic conflict will contaminate Poland, where -- as in what became the Czech Republic in January 1993 -- World War II and postwar enforced population transfers and territorial shifts hardly left any minorities in the country except the Roma. Moreover, the adoption of a new Polish Constitution in 1997 represents a major step for the consolidation of democracy that was accomplished through compromise between the different political forces. Even if external factors played a role in this, i.e. the European Union's demands for constitutional design, what was more influential was "the establishment of procedures enabling the application of external standards including specific international (supranational) legal norms" (Sokolewicz, 2000, p. 82). This is why Poland, along with Hungary and the Czech Republic, is one of those postcommunist countries that, despite various internal obstacles, is likely to make more progress towards democratic consolidation.

How important integration with the West is for these countries emerging from postcommunism is shown by the economic, political, and even moral sacrifices that political authorities in Central European countries had to accept. In this respect, the Hungarian socialist-liberal coalition in 1997 allocated, through the Defense and Foreign ministries, significant resources to various media to publicize the importance of joining NATO in advance of the 16 November 1997 national referendum for NATO entrance ("Transitions Online," 1997).

The center-left opposition criticized the memorandum of understanding that Viktor Orban signed in December 2001 with his Romanian counterpart, Adrian Nastase, a memorandum providing that any Romanian citizen could work in Hungary for up to three months, because it departed from its original purpose of helping the Hungarian minority in Romania. It was ironic that pressures from Brussels pushed a right-wing leader like Orban to embrace such liberal principles as the free movement of labor, although it is clear in such cases that the EU's influence is positive, since it tends to push the radical right and radical left more towards the center of the political spectrum.

Similarly, in Poland the legislature was up in arms after it learnt that it had not been informed about the government's concessions to Brussels, regarding restrictions on the movement of labor and of the transition regarding the purchase of land. Both measures were required for Poland's accession to the EU ("Constitutional Watch," 2002). Similar tensions and controversies surrounding EU membership have beset Czech politics as well, but as in the Hungarian and Polish cases, the final political statement is always "pro-integration" ("Constitutional Watch," 2002).

In conclusion, it can be argued that the road towards democratic consolidation in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland is very much on its way and has penetrated the institutional, behavioral, and international-contextual levels. The contextual level has equally affected the three countries since the process of integration into the European framework is simultaneously taking place despite some specific difficulties that each of them is facing. Because of the particular strength of civil society in Poland, behavior, meaning citizen action, is in a sense in advance of the development of institutions. In Hungary, the opposite situation can be found and can be partly explained by the uniqueness of the Hungarian transition of 1989-90 that was carried out from above and which generated the "stabilizing apathy" of the masses (Torok, 2000, p. 188). Since the Czech Republic presents a more balanced relationship between these two dimensions, it is evident that the international-contextual level occupies an important place in the institutionalization of democracy in Central Europe.

Concluding Remarks On The Institutionalization Of Democracy In Eastern Europe
After presenting a brief comparative picture of the main challenges that democratic regimes are facing in these five Eastern European countries, although a more detailed account of Romania is given, it is evident that the process of democratic development is shaped by two interrelated factors: the capacity of governments to deliver perceived needed goods and services, and the interest that the West (principally Western Europe but the United States as well) takes in these countries.

This then does not mean that democracy is to be understood from a strictly social-economic reductionist angle. The reality is more complex and is partly rooted in the circumstances of the post-Cold War era that each of these countries found themselves to be in. Having been under the political, military, and economic domination of the former Soviet Union, East and Central European countries were quick to orient themselves to and adopt Western models of free markets and democratic institutions.

But when partially these models did not fulfill the expectations of ordinary citizens and were not generally successfully applied, alternative hegemonic ideologies began to re-emerge: nationalism, populism, or xenophobia. These anti-democratic tendencies were tempered by external institutional expectations, by international public opinion, and by the capacity of former communist elites to reinvent and adjust themselves to the new circumstances. This was the case in varying degrees in Romania, Poland, and, to a certain extent, in Hungary.

The fact that Romania and Bulgaria thus far have not succeeded in becoming integrated into the structures of the West and, at the same time, have not benefited from substantial foreign investment, further complicates the institutionalization of democracy in these countries. It creates a generalized feeling of apathy and resignation. Such sentiments are in fact reproducing the old grounds of acquiescence to the previous political regime. In other words, the old fear of repression by communist authorities and resignation to the conditions of the Soviet geo-political system are now being replaced by a similar mechanism of passive acceptance. It consequently is the task of governments -- regardless of their political orientation -- to conform to external requirements and expectations that might eventually generate some economic development and a better standard of living for their citizens.

At the same time, the countries of Central Europe quite accurately perceive themselves as being ahead of the game and at an advantage over their Eastern neighbors. This reality -- the reality of Brussels and Washington -- partly compensates for the internal deficits of their democratic regimes. The corruption of political elites in the Czech Republic and in Hungary, or the absence of a mature and stable party system in Poland, can be lived with in the context of future integration with the West and its real or unreal offers.

As for Romania, it is both interesting and ironic at the same time that the prospects for democratic consolidation are originating from that same political force which, at the beginning of the transition, seemed to be the chief obstacle towards full democratization. After the 2000 elections, the governing party -- the Romanian Social Democratic Party -- seems to be more capable of establishing stable links with some segments of the population. This was not accomplished by either the "historical parties" that proved incapable of reorganizing themselves after their failure in the 2000 elections, or by the PRM, whose extremist agenda and rhetoric makes it prone to lose support once peaks of crises are overcome.

However, there are still serious reasons for concern regarding the process of democratic consolidation of the party system, the economy, and the institutionalization of the rule of law. These conditions of a consolidated democracy are examined in the works of students of democratic transition and consolidation such as Linz and Stepan, 1996; Elster, Offe, and Preuss, 1998; Pridham, 2000; and others. The party system represents one of the major democratic deficits in Romania, since it does not reflect a plurality of views conducive to open debate. As for the economy, it still lags behind that of other countries seeking EU membership. The efficiency of the judicial system and the effectiveness of the political order did not improve in the last two years either in Romania or in Bulgaria.

It also has to be pointed out that even if a distinction can be drawn between the two regions (the Balkans and Central Europe) regarding their relationship to the international arena and the stages of their institutional and economic reforms, this distinction does not operate in other areas. These areas refer, regardless of the relation to the West, to the absence of a genuine pluralized political landscape in both Poland and Romania, to a much more stable party system and less fragmented liberal and pro-Western political alignment by contrast in Bulgaria, resembling that in Hungary and the Czech Republic, and to the continuation of generalized corruption in all. Differences between the two regions are also the result of a divergent historical and communist past in all of the countries concerned.

The author is a Ph.D. candidate at the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science, New School University, New York.


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