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Vol 2, No 31
18 September 2000
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Falling DownFalling Down
The steady decline of Central European liberalism
Kai-Olaf Lang

A good start

It was widely anticipated by political activists and observers alike that liberal parties would assume an important role on the political scenes of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) which emerged after 1989. After all, liberalism offered an unambiguous alternative to the shortcomings of Communism: free market instead of central planning, parliamentary democracy instead of one-party government, freedom and individualism instead of collectivism.

At the beginning of the 1990s, confidence among liberally minded politicians was riding high. In all countries of the region, liberal organisations, proto-parties or parties emerged. Yearning for a "capitalist democracy," many voters turned to these newly established liberal formations. It is thus not surprising that liberal parties did quite well in the series of "founding elections" of the early 1990s.

In the 1991 elections in Poland, two parties with a liberal background, the yuppie-like neo-liberal Liberal Democratic Congress (KLD) and the more moderate and programmatically heterogeneous Democratic Union (UD), gained parliamentary representation, obtaining 8.0 and 13.5 per cent, respectively, of the vote. The UD became the strongest party in the Sejm and the Senat, the two houses of the Polish parliament. From 1989 to 1991, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the chairman of the UD, and Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, a leading figure of the KLD, had been the first democratically legitimated prime ministers of Poland.

In Hungary, liberals fared even better. In 1990, the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), a liberal party established mainly by former anti-Communist dissidents, and the Alliance of Young Democrats (FIDESZ), a party of non-conformist and anti-Communist university students, won 21.3 and 8.9 per cent, respectively. Despite these impressive results, the liberals were not able to form the government, which was made up by a coalition of conservative and Christian parties.

In contrast to Poland and Hungary, where the liberal forces have their roots in the anti-Communist opposition, the ancestry of Slovenia's liberalism lies in the Communist camp. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDS), which after a merger with some minor parties in 1993 became Liberal Democracy of Slovenia, is the successor of the former Communist youth organisation. At the end of the 1980s, the League of Socialist Youth of Slovenia was enormously critical of the situation in the country and of the "mother party." This made a later evolution from reform-socialist positions to a leftist liberalism possible. In the elections of 1992, the LDS obtained 23.5 per cent of the vote; four years later, it received 27.0 per cent. These are thus far the best results of any liberal party in the region.

Only in the Czech and Slovak republics have liberal parties never attained a strong position after 1989. In both countries the wide anti-Communist umbrella movements—the Czech Civic Forum and the Slovak Public against Violence—fell apart in large conservative or national-populist parties (Václav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party [ODS] in the Czech Republic and Vladimír Mečiar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia [HZDS]) on the one hand and in smaller liberal groups on the other.

None of the latter were represented in national parliaments—neither the left-liberal former dissidents gathered around Jiří Dienstbier in the Czech Civic Movement (OH) nor their allies in Slovakia, who had founded the Democratic Civic Union (ODU) and the ethnic Hungarian Civic Party (MOS). But whereas Dienstbier and his party (later called Free Democrats [SD]) failed completely, in Slovakia Mečiar's critics in the HZDS re-launched the idea of a liberal party. In the 1994 elections, their Democratic Union (DÚ) obtained almost nine per cent of the votes.

Summing up, one can say that liberal parties had a strong beginning in the young democracies (see Appendix). Compared to West European norms, the electoral performance of Hungarian and Slovenian liberals, who won between 20 and 30 per cent of the votes cast, was remarkably high. The support of Polish liberal parties was also clearly higher than the West European average of 12.5 per cent, and the second attempt at forming a liberal party in Slovakia gave liberalism a new chance. Only the Czech Republic remained without a relevant liberal political force.

Mixed fortunes

This surprisingly positive picture of CEE's new liberalism rapidly changed. During the second half of the 1990s, liberal parties in the region suffered a considerable decline in popularity and influence. The most obvious case is the Hungarian SZDSZ. In 1994, the party repeated its good result of 1990. But the subsequent four years of power sharing with the ex-Communist Socialist Party (MSZP) made SZDSZ voters sceptical. In the 1998 elections, the Free Democrats lost almost two-thirds of their electoral support.

True, the FIDESZ, once an ally of the Free Democrats, turned out to be the real winner of the elections, expanding its share of the vote from seven to 29 per cent, but, in fact, the FIDESZ had moved substantially away from its old image of a liberal party. Since the middle of the 1990s, the FIDESZ leaders grouped around current Prime Minister Viktor Orbán have been trying to transform the party into a centre-right formation, based on a combination of conservative, liberal and "civic" values. Given the weakness of the traditional conservative and Christian parties in Hungary, the FIDESZ leadership has aimed at occupying the vacuum on the right. For example, the party extended its name and is now called the FIDESZ-Hungarian Civic Party. As a result, a "new alloy of liberalism, republicanism and patriotism," as the Hungarian political scientist András Bozóki put it, emerged.

In Poland, liberalism also lost its momentum. After a merger of the UD and the KLD, the new Freedom Union (UW) attracted some attention, but the elections of 1997 showed that the party was not able to regain the support which the UD and the KLD lost in the early 1990s. Deteriorating relations with its conservative senior coalition partner, the Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS), led the UW to pull out of the government of Jerzy Buzek in May 2000. What's more, the UW has begun a programmatic evolution towards conservative, or even Christian democratic, politics.

Even the old UD had never been an explicitly liberal party. Rather, it embodied an alliance of social-liberals, moderate dissidents and enlightened conservatives. The UD prime ministers Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Hanna Suchocka represented a type of modern Christian politician rather than relativistic liberal agnostics. With the election of Leszek Balcerowicz, the "father" of Poland's economic reforms, as chairman of the UW, the party's face became more technocratic and less sensitive to questions of social justice. All in all, the UW today seems to comprise more elements of a centrist, pro-European and pro-business conservative party than of a traditionally liberal group.

After the promising start of Slovakia's DÚ in 1994, the belated attempt at forming a liberal force was aborted last August. The DÚ joined the anti-Mečiar block Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK), which became the leading force in a broad government alliance aimed at keeping Mečiar's nationalists down. But relations in the SDK have lacked transparency. In particular, the ambitious Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda has been attempting to extend his influence.

One of his moves was the establishment of his own party, the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ). For most of the DÚ's leaders co-operation with Dzurinda's new centre-right party held better prospects than the continued existence of their own party. At the end of this August, an extraordinary congress of the Democratic Union decided to merge the DÚ with the SDKÚ. The delegates vowed to "continue [advocating] the basic attributes of liberal politics in Slovakia" within the SDKÚ. Only a small faction of DÚ members intended to go their own way and to found a new liberal party. According to the initiators of this new Liberal Democratic Union, the party was accepted by Liberal International and by other foreign partners even before it was formally established.

Shattered dreams

It is no exaggeration to say that CEE liberals, perhaps with the exception of the Slovene LDS of Janez Drnovšek, have lost support. They are not relegated to the fringes of political life, but they are far from being key players on the political scene. But why did liberal parties in Central and Eastern Europe encounter such substantial difficulties after a promising beginning in the early 1990s?

Three principal reasons can be adduced for the liberals' downfall.

The first is related to the programmatic orientation of CEE's liberals. Liberalism is not a coherent ideology. In contradistinction to, let's say, social democracy, which rests on a clear-cut programmatic foundation, liberalism includes different ideological strands and sub-orientations. In terms of political parties, one can identify a traditional division between social-liberals and conservative- or even national-liberals. In CEE, too, the liberal family is best seen as a continuum ranging from left-wing liberalism (SZDSZ, LDS, the former OH later SD, the original DÚ and FIDESZ) to right-wing conservative liberalism (UW, FIDESZ since the mid 1990s, DÚ in its last years). But whereas the CEE liberal parties were relatively ambiguous in the first years of their existence, later on, they became more and more univocal.

During their coalition with the MSZP, the Free Democrats began to be perceived as an unimportant arm of the Socialists, as a second, merely a bit more centrist, version of this party. Given the weakness of Slovenia's ex-Communist successor party, the LDS occupies the position of the standard-bearer of the Slovene left. On the other hand, the UW and especially the FIDESZ are transforming into centre-right parties with strains of conservative, liberal and Christian elements.

This re-orientation is also evident in the chosen affiliations with international party alliances. On the European level, the UW is co-operating with the European People's Party (EPP), that is, the federation of conservative and Christian democratic parties in the EU. The FIDESZ, although formally a member of the Liberal International, is also considering a shift to the EPP.

In short, one of the decisive features of CEE liberalism is its centrifugation, which makes formally liberal parties, in fact, less and less liberal and more and more socialist or conservative.

The second factor is a direct implication of centrifugation. Broadly speaking, liberal parties try to establish themselves in a pivotal position between the left and the right. This often gives them the opportunity to act as kingmakers. However, by moving away from the centre and defining themselves as either right or left, liberal parties reduce their blackmailing and coalition potential. Moreover, the liberals' freedom to manoeuvre is severely circumscribed by a general polarisation of the political scene in CEE.

In the second half of the last decade, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary have witnessed the emergence of large centre-left and centre-right blocks: the Solidarity-led AWS versus the ex-Communist Democratic Left Alliance; Václav Klaus's ODS versus Miloš Zeman's Social Democrats (ČSSD); and FIDESZ versus MSZP. An even sharper confrontation exists in Slovakia, with the two hostile camps of Mečiar's HZDS and the pro-Western conservatives, liberals and social democrats united in Dzurinda's government. Liberal parties remaining between the powerful blocks stand the risk of being crushed.

Electoral systems with elements of a majority vote (Hungary's mixed proportional and plurality system as well as the system employed in Poland's 1993 and 1997 elections and the new electoral system of the Czech Republic, which are both proportional systems with majority elements) further the tendencies of bi-polarisation and work to the detriment of smaller and centrist parties.

Finally, emphasis must be placed on the role of the competitors of liberal parties. In their bid to attract new voters and become socially heterogeneous catch-all parties, conservatives and social democrats have incorporated liberal values and displayed a moderate image. The Czech "civic parties" (Klaus's ODS, the Democratic Civic Alliance [ODA] or the Freedom Union [US]) have defined themselves as neo-conservative parties with a strong liberal commitment or even as liberal-conservative parties.

Poland's SLD and Hungary's MSZP contain, apart from standard socialists, trade-union traditionalists and new social democrats, influential pragmatic centrists and social-liberals. Politicians such as Poland's former privatisation minister Wiesław Kaczmarek of the SLD or the MSZP party strategist Iván Vitányi could easily be imagined as members of liberal parties. The course of harsh fiscal austerity and economic reforms implemented by the MSZP's finance minister, Lajos Bokros, was closer to the ideas of liberal economists than to the aims of socialist bread-and-butter-politics.

The future: exploiting the assets

At the moment, the odds do not favour the liberal option in Central and Eastern Europe. This is not to suggest that party political liberalism in the region is undergoing an existential crisis. There are still many assets which liberal parties possess.

In terms of elections, most liberal parties continue to hold on to a core of faithful supporters, which gives them at least the chance of achieving parliamentary representation. This electoral core consists mainly of a better educated, well-off, younger or middle-aged, urban population. In fact, this dynamic mixture of intellectuals and real or potential "winners" of the post-Communist transformation, such as university students, entrepreneurs or artists, forms a stable foundation for liberal politics. Moreover, if economic growth continues, the traditional social basis of Western liberalism, that is, the middle class, will broaden in CEE, too.

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Owing to their electoral and social roots, CEE's liberal parties can draw on a considerable intellectual potential. With many artists, writers and journalists being sympathetic towards liberal thinking, liberal parties are able to (re-)gain the favour of public opinion.

Finally, there is the organisational level. In this context, it has to be pointed out that most liberal parties have access to substantial financial resources. This is not surprising since liberal parties are perceived as advocates of the free market and economic reforms, and therefore big business and small entrepreneurs are interested in supporting the liberal representatives of their interests. Hence, despite a small membership and a low number of party activists, liberal parties in CEE have built highly professionalised organisational structures, which are capable of efficient electoral campaigning and projecting a positive image in the media.

All in all, the picture varies markedly between countries. The case of the LDS, which retains high levels of popular support, despite the recent collapse of Prime Minister's Janez Drnovšek governing coalition, shows that not all parties are affected to the same degree by the current problems. If the liberal parties of the region are able to adapt to the ongoing changes and to exploit the peculiarities of political competition, they can improve their prospects and return to the high time of the early 1990s. If this were to be the case, then the current period could be seen as one of re-construction rather than downfall.

Kai-Olaf Lang, August 2000

The author is a member of the Bundesinstitut für ostwissenschaftliche und internationale Studien in Cologne, Germany.

Appendix: Election results of liberal parties in CEE (%)


Czech Republic

[DÚ in SDK]



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