Nikolay Doychinov (AFP)

Eastern European democracy in the face of the 'great mistrust'

Sarah Engler

6 mins - 14 de Mayo de 2022, 07:00

Last November, Bulgarians went to the polls to vote for a national parliament for the third time in a year. On two occasions the political parties had failed to form a government and on both occasions a new party received a majority of the votes. However, the new party that won the last election (We continue the change) was not the same party that had won months earlier. The latter saw it lose the majority of its supporters.

The topic with which the new parties won the elections, however, was the same: corruption. Both parties highlighted the high levels of corruption in Bulgaria and the unwillingness of the established parties –the conservative Gerb and the Socialists– to tackle the problem. Indeed, Bulgaria ranks lowest among all EU member states when it comes to its corruption performance, together with Romania and Orbán-led Hungary. It is thus not surprising that citizens tired of corruption scandals turn their backs on the establishment and vote for new parties instead. 

What we have observed the past months in Bulgaria, however, is nothing unique –neither for Bulgaria, nor for Central and Eastern Europe. Since the early 2000, we see new political parties succeeding in elections against mainstream parties on the left and the right and in almost all cases, the topic of corruption forms the most salient topic of their campaign. The first party that promised cleaner politics for Bulgaria and won a landslide victory in 2001 –the National Movement Simeon II– has long gone, but many parties promising the same followed. We see similar stories in all other Central and Eastern European countries. The Czech ANO by Andrej Babiš, Zatlers Reform Party in Latvia, or Smer in Slovakia are just a few examples out many.

[Recibe los análisis de más actualidad en tu correo electrónico o en tu teléfono a través de nuestro canal de Telegram]

has shown that an increase in perceived corruption is indeed one of the reasons why new parties are often successful. Certainly, corruption can be used by those in government to further consolidate their power, as the example of Victor Orbán who built up a highly centralized corrupt system illustrates. However, in countries were elections take part in a more even playing field, corruption scandals simply fuel the distrust in the political elites.

This is not just a problem of Central and Eastern Europe. Citizens in Spain, France, or Italy exhibit similar levels of political distrust. In Central and Eastern Europe, however, the erosion of the mainstream parties is more advanced and there are no indications for a re-emergence of more a stable party competition. 

A reason for this might be the negligible role that ideology plays in the new parties' campaigns. Not an ideological vision is their main selling point, but new political faces with little to no ties to the corrupt political elite. Where trust is low, there is no need of radical ideological agendas to break the dominance of established parties. 

If we look at the supporters of these so-called centrist anti-establishment parties, we see that their voters are different to what we know from populist parties elsewhere. Usually, these parties attract younger, higher educated voters with rather centrist ideological positions, and they differ from other voters only in terms of their low levels of political trust.

Once the new parties take over political responsibility, and enter government, their voter base often changes. In many cases, such as in the Bulgarian example, the young and dissatisfied voters simply move on to a newer political party and the old new party loses in electoral significance. In other cases, the party transforms over time and provides a more pronounced political program. The Slovak Smer, for example, relabelled itself to Smer-Social Democracy and adopted an economic leftist but nationalist platform. Law and Justice, which has ruled Poland for almost 6 years now, has adopted a nationalist-conservative rhetoric. Both parties resemble a radical populist party more than a centrist anti-establishment party that they used to be. As a result, their electorate has evolved as well and can now be found among the older generation in rural areas.

What does the Central and Eastern European experience tell us about the challenges that democracy faces in Europe? Clearly, in a context of high political distrust, voters are willing to vote for new parties that promise little more than not being corrupt. New parties can win elections without providing any kind of ideological innovation. On the contrary, the more they abstain from the left-right dichotomy, the easier it is for them to draw a line between themselves and the established parties. Corruption scandals that further fuel political distrust facilitate such a party strategy. It comes as no surprise that the few examples of centrist anti-establishment parties that we find elsewhere are located in Italy, and Spain, where parties such as Cinque Stelle or Ciudadanos attracted many dissatisfied voters. As the parties' ideologies pose no threat to the ideas of liberal democracy, these voters perceive them as a chance for democratic renewal.

However, the Central and Eastern European experience also tells us that their strategy is not sustainable. Most centrist anti-establishment parties fail to survive more than a few elections. Fighting corruption is no easy task and where citizens are suspicious of politicians, already small scandals can lead to large outcries. Furthermore, even though ideology is not important to criticize the establishment as an outsider, once an insider itself, a lack of ideology can backfire. Not mainstream parties benefit from this weakness, but newer parties that promise to do better. What happens to democracy when new parties with little ideological offers dominate politics for many years? Do elections under such circumstances still translate the interests of citizens into coherent policy agendas? Or do elections become a meaningless tool that only allows punishing politicians retrospectively, but not choosing the direction of change? At which point are voters tired of new competitors and start questioning the political system as such? So far, voters continue supporting new parties in the hope of change. It is too early to say for how long they will continue to do so. 

Countries where new parties managed to stay, however, often face even greater challenges for democracy –as the Polish example illustrates. When a topic such as corruption is replaced by ideologies, it may deviate from what the new party originally promised. Instead of a party that just fights corruption, Polish voters are now confronted with a government that fights democratic institutions instead. 

In both cases, it might have been better when the mainstream parties had restored the trust in politics and cleaned up corrupt practices in the first place.
(Here, the Spanish version)

¿Qué te ha parecido el artículo?