Three years after the dawn of what was supposed to be a new age of freedom
in Eastern Europe, democracy is distinctly out of fashion reports Dominic
Elitism rules in the East
Who would have thought back in late 1989, when democracy arrived in Eastern
Europe, that by the start of 1993 Eastern Europeans would still be voting
for Stalinist parties? Well, they are.
In Lithuania, the country's pro-market leader, Vytautas Landsbergis, suffered
a defeat at the hands of Algirdas Brasauskas, a former Stalinist, in recent
elections. In Romania, an old stalwart of the Ceausescu era, Ion Iliescu,
was elected president once again at the expense of the pro-Western Emil
Constantinescu. Everywhere else in Eastern Europe, the reformed Stalinist
parties are winning support from disillusioned voters.
Instead of democracy, capitalism has brought political systems which have
more in common with the 'banana republics' of the third world. Take Georgia.
Georgia elected president Zviad Gamsakhurdia in its first free elections
in 1990, only to see him ousted by a military coup in January 1992, and
replaced by the former Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, after
elections in October 1992. Shevardnadze won with 96 per cent of the vote.
Sounds familiar? You guessed it. He was the only candidate. Shevardnadze
was forced to confess that it was just like the old days, when he was first
secretary of the Georgian Communist Party.
In Poland where there are plenty of candidates, nobody wants to vote for
them, and there is no enthusiasm for democracy either. Only nine per cent
of people polled in a recent survey thought that communism had been replaced
by democracy (The Foreign Broadcast Information Service 1992, No175,
p23). Given the dissatisfaction that prevails among ordinary people, it
is hardly surprising that only 42 per cent of the electorate bothered to
vote in Poland's general election in October 1992, compared to 62 per cent
in the 1989 election.
Even fewer people bother to vote in Hungary, where elections have regularly
attracted less than a third of the electorate. A by-election in Komaron-Esztergom
was declared invalid three times due to a lack of voter participation; finally
on the fourth attempt they managed a 27 per cent turnout. Abstentionism
has been the predominant response to the arrival of the parliamentary process
in Eastern Europe.
It's hardly surprising that so few people can bring themselves to vote for
parties which represent nothing and nobody other than an elite minority.
The result is that, in most places in Eastern Europe, no one party commands
the support of a majority. Most governments are made up of patchwork coalitions
of small and weak parties.
Given that political parties represent nobody, it is possible that any individual
can suddenly come to the fore as a leading politician. On the one hand,
this means that nonentities like Hanna Suchocka can go from being a law
professor to Poland's prime minister overnight. On the other hand, it means
that just about anybody with a personality (or a personal fortune as the
case may be) can make a disproportionate impact on politics. The lack of
contending political programmes and genuine political debate is leading
to empty contests between uninspiring individuals.
Having promised the East democracy, Western commentators are now desperately
trying to explain why nobody is interested. Leading American expert Charles
Gati is still seeking to pin the blame on the old Stalinist system:
'The pervasive condition of backwardness, the absence of a strong entrepreneurial
middle class and the economic ruin that communism has left behind present
formidable obstacles to economic recovery and renewal. In the absence of
a more tolerant political culture, chances for economic progress are poor;
without economic progress, chances for the new democracies to take hold
are equally poor.' (Foreign Affairs, Vol71 No4 1992, p74)
Gati is right to identify economic decline as a key component in the failure
of democracy in the East. How can politicians win popular support when they
have no ability to meet people's basic needs? The lack of any dynamic behind
the market economy in the East means that the elites have nothing to offer
people. The result is that the new political class has been discredited
even faster than the Stalinists were before it. Where new elites ousted
the communists - in Poland and Czechoslovakia as well as Lithuania-- they
too have now been ousted in turn.
So Gati is right to blame the failure of democracy in the East on the failure
of economics. But he is wrong to suggest that it is the mess bequeathed
by Stalinism which explains why capitalism is taking so long to take off.
There are plenty of past examples of backward countries becoming dynamic
capitalist economies in a relatively short period of time. In the 1970s,
South Korea was transformed from a predominantly peasant country into a
dynamic capitalist economy in the space of five years. By contrast, in the
space of four years, the gross national product of nearly every country
in Eastern Europe has declined by double-digit percentages. There is no
sign of capital investment from the West going to the East on anything like
the scale which South Korea received from Japan in the 1970s.
The truth is that, at a time of world economic slump, capitalism is simply
too weak to invest in the East. The crisis of international capitalism means
that, instead of taking the places they were promised among the advanced
industrial nations, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have been
consigned to conditions common to the third world.
As well as continuing to blame Stalinism for the failures of Eastern Europe,
Western commentators have tried to blame Easterners themselves. It is now
commonplace to criticise Eastern Europeans for having expectations which
were too high. But who gave them such high expectations of the market economy
in the first place? It's a bit rich for Western commentators to blame Easterners
for expecting too much, after all the triumphalist promises they made in
Blaming the people of the East for the problems of the East is an attempt
to mask the inability of the West to deliver on the promises of 1989. Even
former US foreign affairs supremo Henry Kissinger has admitted that the
Western powers are to blame: 'It is hardly to the credit of the West that
after talking for a generation about freedom for Eastern Europe, so little
is done to vindicate it.' (New York Post, 3 March 1992)
The ruling elites in Eastern Europe have also tried to escape the blame
for the mess they preside over by blaming others for their problems. In
the September 1992 elections in Estonia, supposedly a democratic pioneer
of the former Soviet republics, 40 per cent of the population were barred
from voting because they were not considered genuine Estonian citizens.
The disenfranchisement of half the electorate was part of the government's
attempt to scapegoat the Russian minority as the cause of Estonia's problems.
Elitist politics are fast becoming the order of the day in Eastern Europe,
as the new political class increasingly blames the masses for the economic
and political impasse.
Vaclav Havel, the former playwright and darling of the Western intelligentsia,
lost the presidency of Czechoslovakia last year. His explanation for this
defeat was that the mass of Czechs simply could not cope with a civilised
democracy: 'They aren't used to civil society', observed Havel, 'and they
are adapting to the new conditions in a very painful fashion.' (Guardian,
25 September 1992)
Lia Trandafir, writing in the Romanian newspaper Tinerama, alleged
that most Romanians are simply too stupid to know how to vote: 'After 45
years of brainwashing and terror, they can no longer tell fact and fiction
apart and may well plump for the devil they know.' (Quoted in the Independent,
26 September 1992)
Some Eastern elites have concluded that it would be better if the working
class was excluded from politics altogether. This solution has been discussed
openly in Poland, where the parliamentary system has been paralysed by the
failure of the electorate to elect a majority government.
The increasingly elitist political climate has led to the rise of authoritarian
practices. In Eastern Europe today, elected parliaments are routinely ignored
and presidents rule by decree. So in Poland, president Lech Walesa, the
West's favourite democrat, has long pushed for greater powers to avoid parliamentary
opposition to harsh economic reforms. In August 1992, the 'Little Constitution'
was passed, giving him the right to issue decrees with the force of law,
as well as to impose martial law and military mobilisation. Similar powers
have been granted to presidents from Russia to Romania.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 51, January 1993