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All tomorrow’s parties? The future (and past) of politics in Eastern Europe

By Sean L Hanley, on 19 January 2015

By ŠJů (cs:ŠJů) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo ŠJů (cs:ŠJů) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0]

In this post we present a discussion between  Kevin Deegan-Krause, Tim Haughton, Stephen Whitefield and Jan Rovný on the current state of knowledge on political parties in Eastern Europe, what we still needs to learned and how researchers can get there.  The discussion had its origins in the Whither Eastern Europe conference held at the University of Florida in January 2014 and accompanies a special section on parties in the forthcoming issue of East European Politics and Societies.

Deegan-Krause: Let’s start with a simple question: Is there anything we know we can agree about?

Whitefield: I found it highly instructive to ponder the lessons from three intertwined perspectives. First, what do citizens want from parties? Second, what do parties have to offer to citizens? Third, how does the communication between parties and voters help deliver good democratic governance?

In terms of the citizen-party relationship, I believe that Robert Rohrschneider and I have already established that the underlying cleavage structure at the party-level differs between East and West: largely one-dimensional in the East but – importantly – no sign as yet of a shift in the axis of the dimension to resemble the West: in the East, party competition is still based on pro-West/Europe, pro-market, pro-democratic parties versus their opposite.

Rovný: Depending on country circumstances and legacies, you should find different combinations of the left-right versus gal-tan and different degrees of salience. The key is ethnicity (and state-building).

Whitefield: Of course, there is local variation. In some countries – historical national boundaries in Hungary for example or ethnic divisions in Ukraine or Latvia – specific issues are present that give national distinctiveness to party competition. But nonetheless, there exists powerful evidence of the importance of a Communist legacy on the nature of cleavages in the region as a whole and even of the freezing of the party systems there.

Deegan-Krause: To the extent we do see programmatic patterns (or other patterns), where do they come from? Do you see them anchored in the experiences of the region and if so, which ones?

Rovný: One of the most interesting debates has been the one on structure versus volatility of politics in eastern Europe. This debate has by now found a set of generally accepted conclusions. First, the literature on party systems and voting behaviour clearly and continuously finds increased levels of organizational volatility — parties get born, merged and dissolved more frequently than in the west — as well as increased levels of voting volatility — voters switch between parties at a higher rate than in the west, while fewer people turn out to vote.

At the same time, the literature on ideological structure continuously concludes that parties in the region offer reasonably framed ideological choices, and voters select parties on the basis of their political preferences. These two conclusions are seemingly contradictory: organizational and electoral volatility contrasts ideological structure. I believe that we should aim at the theoretical reconciliation of these findings by accepting that structured stability and volatility can coexist.

Deegan-Krause: Let’s talk about stability first. Given the kinds of electoral results we see in the region, it is interesting that there is any talk about stability at all.

Whitefield: We agree with what Jan [Rovný] is saying. Work that I did with Geoff Evans in the 1990s and 2000s did indeed point to the importance (contra some expectations) of most of the usual demographic suspects. Social class, measured using the Goldthorpe-Eriksson class schema—which is really based on characteristics of occupations, particularly manual/non-manual and the supervised/supervisory distinctions—was surprisingly useful in the post-Communist context.

Given what might have happened to the nature of occupational structures, this class scheme appears both internally valid but it also has good predictive value to both attitudes and political behaviour, as much as in the West.

As in the West, it doesn’t work as well in all countries—the cleavage structure and what parties offer helps explain variance—but it works. Age and education also work in wholly expected ways. Gender differentiates little. But where some of the most interesting results come are from the comparative study of the impact of religion and religiosity in the region.

At the extremes, Catholicism – and in Catholic countries church attendance – matter significantly for public political values and behaviour; in Orthodox countries, religion appears to matter little. I am intrigued to know whether this is a dog that continues not to bark in Russia and Ukraine.

Historical Legacies

Deegan-Krause: If there are deeply rooted competition patterns in the region, where do they come from? And why aren’t they more obvious in the day-to-day politics.

Rovný: Let me take the first of those two questions. Although there has been significant focus on the role of various historical legacies on the partisan divides in the region, I feel that more work needs to be done.

In this regard I am an unashamed Lipset-Rokkanian. I think we can profitably apply Lipset and Rokkan’s ideas about cleavages in the east and I believe more effort and resources should be spent on exploring the historical, pre-communist, bases of political competition in the region.

Despite its particularities, eastern Europe has been exposed to many of the same core formative historical forces, theorized and demonstrated as crucial for the west, such as the Reformation, centre-periphery divides, and industrialization. It state-building, elites and the core conflicts between them in the past are crucial to what we see today. The usual suspects—conflicts over economics, religion, ethnicity—all pop up with predictable regularity, and I suspect that, as in the west, the varying exposure and response to these is likely to be a fundamental source of political conflict in the region, though of course not the only one.

In this context, it seems that we, as a discipline, may have overestimated the effect of communism on the region. While communist rule certainly had significant impact on the societies and polities under study, its effect is varied, and possibly diminishing with time. When I want to be provocative, I argue that communism was a cul-de-sac for eastern Europe. A foreign imposed, post-war temporality, and I think Hebert Kitschelt makes a good point when he says that even communist regime types were determined by pre-communist legacies

Haughton: The older legacies have played an important role, though we often see them through the filter of communist legacies which often overshadowed them and sometimes reshaped them. The deepest legacy is ethnicity—the key legacy was the demographic legacy of empire. This still shapes politics in many countries in CEE and will do for years to come. In terms of the communist legacies, they matter, but increasingly in different and less direct ways. I wrote an article once where I talked about the past’s role in the ‘battlefields, uniforms and ammunition’ of party political conflict.

Although lustration is still, perhaps surprisingly, an important theme to be used as ammunition in political debate, who did what to whom is far less significant in politics today a quarter of a century on. Where communist legacies do still matter are on the terrain of politics.

Communism bequeathed social and economic legacies that have shaped both the ground on which party politics is conducted and how political actors think about conducting and resolving such conflicts. Nonetheless, there are not simple, straight lines to draw from the communist experience to today. The impact of the communist experience is mediated through the experiences of the post-communist period (which is now over half as long as the entire communist experience in Central and Eastern Europe).

Deegan-Krause: Does communism, and your place or the place family in the communist system then become another long term structural variable that affects the east rather than the west, a regionally-specific variant of Lipset and Rokkan’s list of cleavages? Or do we need to think about it in some other way?

Whitefield: Let me weigh in here with an example from work that Robert and I have done followed up by some work by Paul Chaisty and myself. There are dogs that continue not to bark.

For example, there is the curious ongoing absence of any real association between environmental or Green politics in the East with other political issues or with the left-right dimension. While at the same time the environment does not emerge as an important political division in its own right.

It appears to remain largely disconnected from what most parties stake themselves on – though there is some evidence that indicates that Green parties in the East take stances on the environment that are quite ‘normal’ in the West.

Why is this? Why should it be that post-Communist citizens not only are less supportive of environmentalism than people in the West or the developing South, but are distinct from them in the way in which they ‘process’ environmental issues into the rest of their political attitudes?

This after now a number of years of ‘Europeanisation’ of environmental issues in law and institutions. Of course, there are features of the transition process that are shared across the region, but if variation in experience is increasingly the order of the day, why would it be that on issues like the environment the region as a whole remains distinct. I think the best explanation has to do with the stickiness of political culture at the mass level, which is supported by something like freezing at the party level.

We know from West European politics since the 1960s and perhaps the contemporary scene that eventually political change comes and I am sure it will in the East. But so far, the Communist legacy remains vital to understanding the region. What was it about Communism that made its influence so lasting? That’s a complicated discussion.

Haughton:  There is some nascent agreement that most voters have certain structural tendencies that push their voting in certain directions, that there is a certain stability of voter attitudes and relationships to ‘sides’. But at the same time voters are not always certain who exactly to vote for because there is a high degree of institutional volatility, both in the choices on offer and in the likelihood of dissatisfied voters jumping to another party on their ‘side’.


Whitefield: One of the most pressing and contested questions arise from the character of party organization in the region. We know that many parties come and go, that the choices available to voters have shifted dramatically in some cases between elections, and that the organizational characteristics or parties in the East are often quite different from the classical mass party organization found in the West.

I wonder what difference this makes to important political outcomes – to the nature of cleavages and to democratic representation. Richard Rose famously referred to ‘floating parties’ in a quite derogatory way, since he thought that voters would be unable to hold parties accountable from election to election.

There are a number of assumptions about party behaviour in Europe that presume institutionalization and programmatic consistency across parties — often on a single ideological dimension. One such issue is that that parties may not have a programmatic identity that is shared between voters’ perceptions, their electoral organizations, their candidates and their office-holders.

Rovný: Under all the institutional instability there is a structure in placements of parties in (some) ideological space. The parties may differ, but they come and go in similar places) (the various liberals in the Czech Republic are a very good example): and yes, I think voters vote for similar type parties, though again, their names and organizations come and go

Haughton: Likewise the amazing thing about Slovakia is that we see the ‘right’ for example with an incredibly stable share of the vote even though the menu of parties is updated for every election.

Whitefield: I agree entirely that party organization and party volatility are vital areas of study in the region. There is research – for example, Alison Smith’s work on incentives driving parties to build mass membership – that shows that there are trends towards the establishment of more stable organizational party bases. But two points I think need to be made.

First, as Jan Rovný has shown and as I have argued even about the Russian party system in the 1990s, voter-party ideological alignment is quite possible – in fact, it appears to happen – even in conditions of rapidly shifting party supply. I think this is a consequence of the rather simple one dimensional ideological structure of political cleavages. Parties can come and go, but the new ones end up competing on the same axis of division. Parties present themselves in those terms and voters are primed to recognize where parties stand.

Second, Robert Rohrschneider and I noted ‘a paradox of equal congruence’ in our recent book. What we found was that parties and their various voters were more or less equally aligned ideologically in the East and West. Part of this, we argued, was the result of the very simple nature of cleavages in the East, which made it easier for voters to locate parties, even new ones, while in the West voters were faced with a much more complex and multidimensional cleavage structure, which raises the bar for ideological alignment. But why were voters not more incongruent with parties in the West?

Here is where the organizational factor comes into play, because in the West parties can draw on strong mass party ties and resources which significantly enhanced their capacities to represent all sorts of voters. These are largely absent in the East, so post-Communist parties can’t yet draw on organizational strengths. This is just one of a number of ways in which Robert and I are finding organizational factors in the East to work quite differently.

Deegan-Krause: We are trying to understand what seems to be a change in the way parties operate, shifting toward a much more fluid environment, though one which still has significant islands of stability.  Toward that end we are interested the balance between legacies (some regionally specific) and pervasive newer developments related to technology, media, and finance.

There is evidence that are seeing a global shift in how electoral political institutions organize themselves and relate to voters, a shift that is related closely to new communications technology, especially the dramatic lowering of the cost of people to coordinate across distances (a reduction in relational transaction costs that discourages short-run investment in traditional organizations) and the increase in the role of individual celebrity and visibility accompanied by the success of start-up models, and a further aging of generations of ‘members’. This has hit every field that deals with large-scale information transfer and organized persuasion, from advertising and journalism to education to political parties.

There is a lot of justified talk about the role of legacies in post-communist Europe, but the biggest may simply be that the timing of the transition meant that these changes hit when the parties in this system were new or relatively young and therefore vulnerable. Combine established but sometimes vulnerable older parties and new parties that are not built (in some cases not even designed) to survive for very long, and you get the kind of institutional instability that we see in the region. This bifurcation of the old and stable and the young and fragile creates two separate party worlds.

Haughton: Don’t underestimate how disillusioned ordinary voters have become in Central and Eastern and indeed in Western Europe. Desperate times call for desperate measures. How often do we get a sense from ordinary voters that they have confidence in any elected politician? It’s very rare. They want their lives and the life-chances of their families to be better, so they take a chance on an investigative journalist (‘he seems nice and cares about corruption’) or on a local billionaire (‘he’s rich so maybe he can make me rich too’). And of course the new parties never point out that they are trying to replace previous ‘new’ parties. They’re usually careful to assign the last lot of new parties to the bad old camp.

Deegan-Krause: There does seem to a shortening of the time horizons of political leaders (and their backers) and a preference for immediate return on party investment. These differences should affect basic elements of what we can expect parties to do, from positioning themselves electorally, to choosing coalition partners, to organizing legislatures.

This is happening in the West, too. Maybe not as much. We seem to have 2 theories about why this is happening in the east first they are not necessarily contradictory but 1) says that there are legacies in the east that cause this to happen, i.e. communism, weaker civil society, more economic dissatisfaction 2) (ours) says that even if 1) weren’t the case, there would be something like this because /general/ trends (weaker organization, media, the triumph of celebrity) tend to press against institutional frameworks and that East European parties are simply easier to push over than western ones.

East and West

Deegan-Krause: The tension between uniquely communist legacies on one hand and more universal influences on the other—both pre-communist structural legacies and post-communist changes in organization and communication—raises the constant questions about the similarities and differences between Eastern European parties and those parties in the west that tend to be their reference points. How should we think about the differences between east and west.

Rovný: In many ways Eastern Europe is an advanced laboratory for studying phenomena that are also affecting older democracies, such as the disestablishment of political organization and shifts in party competition.

Deegan-Krause: Yes, Eastern Europe gives us an excellent set of cases for studying what happens when new forces encounter weak parties. We see the same instability in certain places in older democracies—Italy, Israel, and Greece in a big way, and Netherlands and Belgium in a smaller way and many other countries in the West to a limited extent. Crises in many of the Mediterranean parities has not only produced volatility but has produced volatility to new kinds of parties that are themselves not built to last. The gift of the east (and much of the rest of the world) to the west, therefore, is the ability to think about how party systems change when they are not protected by ‘old growth’ forests of established parties and what might happen when, either all at once or piece by piece, the established parties fall and are replaced by parties that look like ferns or mushrooms rather than oaks.

Haughton: I second Jan [Rovný]’s point about Eastern Europe being a laboratory. I think that the effects of post-transition legacies on forming governing and voting coalitions make studying Eastern Europe relevant to other areas in the world.

The matter of legacies is an example of the broader phenomenon of contexts where incentives exist to use political institutions and parties for purposes other than ideological or policy-based representation. We see the region as an excellent place for studying how parties adapt to formal and informal institutions. The variation in levels of institutionalization among parties in the same system allows us to see how parties can differ in how they interact with the same institutions. The result is that we see a wider range of situations than Western Europe allows, such parties as with very low ideological cohesion and or facing imminent collapse in support.

Rovný: There are also other interesting ‘experiments’ going on in the eastern laboratory, and surprisingly they are ones that pertain to ideology. The east is been a testing ground for populist ideological frames connecting socially conservative and economically left-leaning positions, combined not only by some post-communist left parties, but also by most radical ‘right’ parties in the east (which are in economic terms anything but pro-market).

But this is no longer just an Eastern European phenomenon. While initially unparalleled in the west, some ten years ago Herbert Kitschelt suggested that western ideological politics, depicted in two-dimensional (economic and social-cultural) space, is rotating. Western parties are less divided over economic issues and more over social cultural issues as the left becomes more economically centrist and the right becomes more socially conservative. Given the latest developments in radical ‘right’ positions in the west, which are slowly taking more economically left-leaning stances (the French Front national is the best example), we may see a reproduction of eastern patterns of party competition in the west.

Additionally, my recent work suggests an intimate ideological connection between ethnic minorities, their views about civil liberties, and general ideological outlooks of parties associated with them — a relationship which I argue significantly co-shaped party competition in the east. It may also come as some surprise but it may be that the differences between East and West are smaller than they seem, even at this structural level. Ethno-linguistic and religious conflict are more potent in the east than in the west, but I am struck by the Cold War absurdity of putting Finland and Greece into one ‘Western Europe.’

The ethnic questions so pronounced in many eastern European countries are also visible in the west, and I suspect that similar dynamics may be at work in the west especially as ethno-regional identities become more salient in the context of the economic crisis and mobilized by (possibly failed) referenda on independence.

Whitefield: Just a further word in defence of Central and East European parties here. I mentioned earlier that parties in West and East seem equally capable of representing voters at least in their programmatic offerings.

Actually, there is one increasingly important issue – European integration – on which mainstream parties in the East may outperform their Western counterparts in representational terms. As the European issue has loomed larger and citizens have over the past years since the onset of the financial crisis become increasingly Eurosceptic, it is interesting that mainstream parties in the West have not adjusted their stances on integration to reflect that Euroscepticism nor have they increased the salience of Europe in their electoral appeals, in fact quite the opposite. This means that almost all of the representational strain of rising Euroscepticism in the West has been taken up by extreme parties – and these are often parties that are not just extreme on integration but on other issues also.

But, as Robert Rohrschneider and I show in a recent paper, the representational strain is being taken up much more by mainstream parties in the East, which may mean that there is less of an opening for extreme parties and may also mean that the rise of anti-politics associated with representational failure by mainstream parties may be mitigated in the East.

Why are post-Communist parties more willing to move on integration issues than their Western counterparts? Because, in our view, the issue of Europe is bound up on the main axis of political competition rather than, as in the West, sitting orthogonally to it. In the East, mainstream parties always competed on Europe. In the West, mainstream parties don’t compete on it, don’t own the issue, and don’t want to talk about it, leaving it to other parties to take up. That is quite dangerous in my view.

Next steps in party research

Deegan-Krause: So in light of all of the discussion to this point, what is it that our field needs most? Where should we be putting our attention?

Haughton: I am particularly interested in the success and failure of parties at the ballot box: why some succeed, why some have lasting success, some merely fleeting success and why other parties fail to persuade voters to support them. I’d want to conduct large-scale comparative research to work out why voters cast the ballots the way they did (interviewing, focus groups etc. plus polling) over a series of electoral cycles.

Much of what we have to do is make educated guesses based on opinion polling and surveys which are often not easily comparable or in a form which makes satisfactory comparison possible. We are left to infer from these statistics which may be accurate, but ultimately we don’t know. Beyond that, I’d love to be able to visit every branch of every party in the region to talk to the activists and party workers.

Rovný: I would like to see a research agenda focusing on the historical state-building elites, on the formation of political camps, and on their social bases of support. Provocatively, such an agenda should question whether these historical factors may ‘return’ to frame eastern European politics as the experience of communism recedes into the past.

Deegan-Krause: I think we need to work in Eastern Europe on the general topic of alignment-dealignment-realignment and whether what we are seeing is a general reduction in the socio-demographic underpinnings of political attitudes and voting behaviour and to what extent there is a shift to socio-demographic underpinnings that have not traditionally been the subject of inquiry (sector, professional group).  There is a related question of method and data with regard to these questions of things that parties fight about.

The range of sources is great: what experts say about where parties stand, what elites say (to scholars in surveys, or with their votes—-or with their speeches or with their manifestos), what voters say about parties, what voters of parties believe (according to focus groups, according to surveys).  In some cases disagreements about what is going on in countries rests on these different indicators point in different directions.

I’m wondering to what extent we can integrate these perspectives and what kinds of additional we need and what computational methods might allow us to find some common positions for parties on multiple dimensions. I’d also like to see us develop much more sophisticated measures of party change to replace our binary determination of ‘successor’ v. ‘not-successor’ and therefore allow improved understanding of the nuances of supply side shifts and voter decisions that appear to be dealignment but may reflect voters following their preferred party leaders from one new party to another.

A longer version of this discussion can be found here on Kevin Deegan Krause blog Pozorblog with specific additional discussion on the themes of electoral volatility, East-West differences, future direction for research on political parties and party specialists’ recommendations of key works in their field.

Kevin Deegan-Krause is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Wayne State University.

Tim Haughton is Reader in European Politics at the University of Birmingham.

Stephen Whitefield is Professor of Politics at the University of Oxford.

Jan Rovný is Assistant Professor of Politics at Sciences Po, Paris.

East European Politics and Society Special Section: http://eep.sagepub.com/content/29/1?etoc

Kevin Deegan-Krause, Political Parties in Eastern Europe

East European Politics & Societies February 2015 29: 10-11, first published on February 6, 2015 doi:10.1177/0888325414567328

Full pre-production text (no subscription necessary): http://www.pozorblog.com/archive/publications/EEPS567328_Deegan-Krause_Special-Section-Introduction.pdf

Stephen Whitefield and Robert Rohrschneider, The Salience of European Integration to Party Competition

East European Politics & Societies February 2015 29: 12-39, first published on February 6, 2015 doi:10.1177/0888325414567128

Full pre-production text (no subscription necessary): http://party-competition.politics.ox.ac.uk/materials/news/EEPS567128_REV1.pdf

Jan Rovny, Party Competition Structure in Eastern Europe: Aggregate Uniformity versus Idiosyncratic Diversity?

East European Politics & Societies February 2015 29: 40-60, first published on February 9, 2015 doi:10.1177/0888325414567535

Full pre-production text (no subscription necessary):http://www.rovny.org/Site/Publications_files/Rovny_Aggregate.pdf

Tim Haughton and Kevin Deegan-Krause, Hurricane Season: Systems of Instability in Central and East European Party Politics

East European Politics & Societies February 2015 29: 61-80, first published on February 6, 2015 doi:10.1177/0888325414566072

Full pre-production text (no subscription necessary): http://www.pozorblog.com/archive/publications/EEPS567328_Deegan-Krause_Special-Section-Introduction.pdf

Commentary: Herbert Kitschelt, Analyzing the Dynamics of Post-Communist Party Systems: Some “Final Thoughts” on the EEPS Special Section

East European Politics & Societies February 2015 29: 81-91, first published on January 22, 2015 doi:10.1177/0888325414567327

Full Text for subscribers (PDF)

The editors of East European Politics and Societies Wendy Bracewell (UCL-SSEES) and Krzysztof Jasiewicz (Washington and Lee University) are grateful to the SSEES Research Blog for hosting this discussion and complementing EEPS in supporting and promoting the best in East European studies.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL

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