Events

Reds, Greens, Blues and Browns: Party Development, Electoral Volatility and On-Going Surprises in East European Elections

October 18, 2006 // 12:00pm1:00pm

Since the fall of communism, most postcommunist countries in Eastern Europe have held five or six successive elections, giving researchers an adequate data set with which to evaluate political party development in the region. Steven Deets has used this data in order to determine whether the party system that has emerged is coherent or disjointed, compared to the systems of Western Europe; whether political parties were held to their electoral promises by their electorates; and whether the party systems are generally stable or still in the process of evolution.

Deets tested the claims he made in an earlier publication. His first claim was that several successive elections offer a high degree of learning by both party elites and voters. Ultimately, voting patterns are rational, as people vote based on what happened in previous elections. The second claim was that successive electoral cycles would produce party convergence. This seems reasonable when considering institutional engineering that has taken place, most of these states have proportional representation systems in which electoral thresholds have been raised over time. The third claim is that most of the postcommunist parties that have managed to transform themselves and to survive into the late 1990s, are expected to further stabilize and remain relevant well into the foreseeable future. Fourth, there is something unusual about the Soviet Experience, since ex-Communist parties tend to be more volatile and unstable than others.

With data gathered from the elections held over last 15 years, Deets determined that there has indeed been a trend of party consolidation and stabilization in the rgion. By the third round of elections, politicians cease forming new parties unless they are convinced they will win. Over time, parties have acquired more sophisticated poling techniques to help them succeed. Voters are now voting more strategically and have become much less likely to vote for a small party which they do not believe will have a high chance for success. If the story where to end here, we can assume that political parties in Eastern Europe are on a clear path toward consolidation and stabilization, leading to stronger and more accountable political leaders.

However since 2000, political parties in the region have become more volatile, not less. The complete collapse of parties in Poland, Serbia, Slovakia and Bulgaria has led to more in-depth questioning about this party volatility. Why does such volatility arise, so late in the transition?

Part of the answer may lie with the parties that have the most problems in terms of volatility are the "reds"—the reformed Communist parties. These parties, which had seemed to be the best established in the region, are beginning to show signs of wear. Fifteen years after the fall of communism, ex-communist parties have not been consistently successful in filling the ideological vacuum that the fall of communism created. In Slovakia, Latvia and the Czech Republic, there has been a rise in consolidated social democratic parties that are actually new, and have no really roots in their post communist cousins, and therefore compete for the political space on the left. Another explanation is that the process of European Union accession has masked party volatility in some of these countries. Ultimately the path that these parties will take in the future seems difficult to predict.

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Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
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