Group B Seminar: Party Systems-East and West

The logo of the Slovenian Communist party today, which is marginal. But how are parties in such countries different from ours in western Europe, in the Post-Communism era of the last twenty years?

The essay and discussion topic for the class on Monday October 17th will be:

‘Why and how do party systems in post-Communist European states differ from those in western Europe? In your answer make sure to describe and explain differences between the typical features found in west European and European Post-Communist party systems, as they relate to party ideologies, party organization, and the relationship between parties and their electorates”.

The core reading is Robert Ladrech’s chapter in the textbook by Colin Hay and Anand Menon.

I suppose a good way to start is by being clear what the question is about and that can be achieved by rephrasing. One could say this is a “compare and contrast west European party systems with east European party systems” type question. Or one could rephrase it as ‘why are East European party systems since the fall of Communism (1989-1991) different from those found in the west?’ Some students might probe a little that assumption that they are different, and you should not forget to highlight points of similarity, if you can find them. However, as we shall see, it is the differences that do stand out.

The crucial thing to understand is that political parties in Europe have a specific historical story, or trajectory. They emerged after a collection of historically quite specific circumstances that shaped them, and they were shaped in turn at key moments in time. A key time period was the initial first stirrings of party politics from the 1860s onwards in most European states. One begins to see liberal and conservative parties emerge around this time in many European states, and the essential divide between them was that conservatives typically wanted to retain some aspects of monarchial or aristocratic (semi-feudal) power. They were also usually very suspicious towards elections and even parliamentary democracy. Liberals, ranged from mild reformers to those who explicitly were informed by the French revolution (1789), had as their objective quickly the overthrow or reform of monarchical governments and their replacement with ‘liberal’ constitutional government. A second wave of parties emerged in the later 1880s, and many of these were parties of the working class…socialist and social democrat parties begin to emerge, and their mission was to compete for a growing working class vote. Many of these parties had Marxist and revolutionary leanings, rhetoric and ideology, but in most cases they quickly became focused on winning elections and reforming constitutional politics so that they could achieve their aims peacefully. These social democratic parties emerged from before the 1900s, but sharped their profile as they distinguished themselves from truly revolutionary parties, which after 1917, were often explicitly Communist, Leninist or in a few case semi-Anarchist and later Trotskyist.

The freedom to vote was not granted evenly across Europe at this time, the idea of universal male suffrage being an idea associated with the French revolution. The idea that women could or should vote was also regarded as revolutionary.

Greece had all male voting by 1844, but the more important examples were the German empire, created in 1871, which granted universal male suffrage (voting), but in practice it was restricted by ensuring that conservative rural constituencies were over represented. France had in theory votes for all men since 1848, but in practice it was at various times restricted by property/income  qualifications and literacy requirements. Moreover, French women were not given the vote until 1946! Finland, then a dependency of Russia, introduced universal suffrage for men and women in 1906, in the context of a national liberation struggle. The point one can see is that it took a long time for any mass European electorate to emerge: from roughly the 1860s up to 1930s.

Adam Przeworksi points out in his 2009 article*, that as of the year 1900, only one country (New Zealand**) had genuine universal suffrage for men and women and only 17 had universal suffrage for men! (Przeworksi, 2009, p.291).   In fact it was only by the 1920s and 1940s that we see genuine universal voting rights for all men and women without any property qualifications becoming the ‘norm’. That means the parties that emerged in the 1920s and 1930s were shaped by this massive increase in the electorate. These parties in many countries remain dominant.

West European parties were then formed by a long period of political struggle, and were shaped by the industrial revolution (which gave us socialist parties), and by the French revolution (which gave us liberals versus conservatives). The industrial revolution also divided urban and rural electorates, and some parties began to appeal to a specifically rural electorate, even with farmers’ parties emerging. The emergence of a modern powerful and scientific state provoked opposition from Catholics, who formed Catholic parties in many states to fight for Catholic Church control of schools and hospitals or other forms of welfare. West European voters belonged and identified with these parties which each had deep historical and social roots.

This is the so called ‘cleavage’ based model of explaining west Europe party systems; the question raised here is whether it works well in explaining the type of parties one finds in post-Communist eastern Europe.

In that context, the Communist experience was far from uniform between 1945-1991 across Eastern Europe, but it did interfere with the development of electoral party politics, because elections were almost always heavily rigged and opposition parties to the Communist regimes were often either small and limited, or just ‘fake’ fronts. When Communism collapsed rather suddenly in 1989-1991, the electorate of eastern Europe were suddenly thrown into a series of genuine democratic elections.

As a result, have they the same type of party ideological families? Typically in western Europe, on the left one finds a large social democrat party, a small historical (ex)communist party, and usually some small parties of the far left or so-called new left (new in the sense of emerging in the 1960s and reflecting 1960s radical ideas about personal freedom-a libertarian left). Green parties are often included here.

On the right, we in the west, have liberals (now usually much smaller than they were in the 19th century), Agrarian parties (now usually called centre parties), Christian Democrats (many of which come from old Catholic parties, which confusingly were sometimes called centre parties as well!), Conservatives, and the far right.

Your job here is to spot the extent of differences between east and west and also be mindful that while parties may label themselves alike, they may be different. For example the Polish SLD (Democratic Left Alliance) styled itself a ‘labour/social democratic’ party, and it actually was as regards its policy ideas, but in fact much of its membership was drawn from old members of the Polish Communist Party (PZPR), this would make them quite different from say the British labour party!

Pages 212 to 214 have a whole section on East European Post Communist Europe and their parties, which should obviously be your focus for reading.  Notice that this discussion stresses the obvious differences, like how in some countries ex-Communists (often without a great deal of reform in style) continue to be electorally significant. Romania and Hungary would be good examples of countries where a significant number of ex-Communists ‘recycled’ themselves as ‘social democrats’. This means that social democrats in western Europe and Eastern Europe are different historically and mean different things for their electorates.

Only in a few countries of the former Communist bloc did openly, nostalgic and unapologetic Communist party remain and get votes in any numbers. For example in the Czech Republic a Communist party (and several splinter groups) remain and do reasonably well-often getting over 10% of the vote. Moldova would also stand out as an extreme example where the old Communist party simply re-established itself and calls itself explicitly Communist. Once again its share of the vote is large-often as much as 30-40%, and between 2005 and 2009 they actually formed the government of this tiny and very troubled country. In most other East European countries, explicitly communist parties are very small and rarely important. Its worth noting however, that in some west European countries by the way, Communist parties do rather well.  In Cyprus, their Communist party gets still well over a quarter of the vote and even won the Presidency; The Italian ‘Refounded’ Communists get between 5-8% in various recent elections, and Greece had historically two Communist parties, who together got close to 10% of the vote.

Another oddity is the absence of Christian Democratic party type in much of Eastern Europe***, for example in Poland where one would think the importance of Catholicism would suggest such a party would emerge, like in Germany. In fact, only Slovakia has much of a an explicitly Christian Democratic Party like we find in Germany.

As you can see, you need to probably pick careful examples of similarities and differences, across the range of features: organization, ideology, and voters links or identification with parties. You might also find some useful information as well in some of the slides on my first lecture on Politics in Post-Communist Europe, the case of Slovakia and Poland.

Yet in summary the differences do appear to be striking between Eastern Europe and Western Europe: lots more parties; more ‘new’ parties; more turnover of parties that rise and then fall and disappear; greater volatility in voting patterns; lower turnouts by voters; and in some case party types are weaker or different-as for example can be seen with the Christian Democrat and Social Democrat example.

**Przeworski, Adam (2009) ‘Conquered or Granted? A History of Suffrage Extensions’, British Journal of Political Science, Vol.39, No.2, pp. 291-321.

**In the case of New Zealand, the native Maoris were given just four parliamentary seats to vote for, which was a lot less than their population would have been entitled to. So it is important to remember that while New Zealand did introduce universal suffrage, this was limited more or less to Europeans.

*** See for more details on this point: Grzymala-Busse, Anna (2011) ‘Why there is (almost) no Christian Democracy in Post Communist Europe’, Party Politics, Vol.17, No. 5, pp.1-24.


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