Political Transition in Hungary and Poland

Positive Signs for Lasting Democracy         

Thomas Lundberg

        The recent return to power of communists in Poland and Hungary surprised many observers, given that it was just five years ago that communism was overthrown in Eastern and Central Europe and founding elections established economically liberal governments. The political reversals have raised questions about the stability of these new democracies and role of electoral systems in facilitating or inhibiting democratic consolidation.
        While the party systems in Hungary and Poland are in flux and will likely take time to settle down -- as has been the case in most new democracies -- five years of post-communist government provide an important opportunity to examine how the party systems are developing in countries widely expected to be good candidates for a successful transition to democracy and a market economy.
        Early indications are that, despite the return to power of former communists, Poland and Hungary are moving toward a moderate degree of pluralism similar to well-established democracies in Western Europe.

Poland: 1991 Fragmentation

        A major difference between Poland and Hungary was initially apparent in terms of party fragmentation. The Polish parliament's lower house, or Sejm, elected in 1991 contained 29 parties. Hungary's unicameral parliament, on the other hand, only had six parties represented after its 1990 elections. Some of this difference can be attributed to the fact that Poland used a highly proportional electoral system in the Sejm election, while Hungary used a semi-proportional, mixed member system.
        The Polish Sejm electoral system in 1991 was highly proportional because parties did not need to cross a national legal threshold to win seats and because most seats were allocated in constituencies where the effective threshold was low. This combination allowed a party to win a seat with a very small percentage of the vote in one part of the country. Although there was a national seat allocation for parties polling at least 5% of the national vote (or winning seats in five different constituencies), it filled only 69 of 460 seats.
        But those who might vilify proportional representation would be wise to withhold judgment pending analysis of the Senate's election results using a plurality electoral method. Held at the same time as the Sejm election, the Senate elections produced a body with 22 parties -- nearly as many as the Sejm -- despite using plurality voting in constituencies electing two or three members.
        Observers like David McQuaid and Krzstof Jasiewicz have put the blame for the massive fragmentation on the dynamics of Poland's political structure, which is beset by rivalries. As Jasiewicz has pointed out, electoral laws are sometimes powerless in the face of enormous "political factionalism and fragmentation, because their major sources are outside the political and legislative process: in the specificities of the social structure of a society undergoing rapid economic, social and political change."

1993 Voting System Changes

        Yet despite this assessment of the underlying pluralism in Poland, the country held its second free election of the post-communist era in 1993 under a modified electoral law designed to artificially reduce the fragmentation in parliament. The new law for the 1993 Sejm election established a 5% national legal threshold for individual parties and an 8% threshold for parties in coalition, which effectively abolished extreme PR.
        The result was a new Sejm composed of only seven parties (one of which was for the German minority that was exempted from threshold requirements), with the former communists winning first place. The cost of this change was a great deal of disproportionality in translating votes into seats. The Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), the successor to the communist party, won 20.4% of the votes, but 37.2% of the Sejm seats, and the Polish Peasant Party (PSL) took 28.7% of the seats with only 15.4% of the vote.
        This disparity was a result of a large number of "wasted votes" cast for parties which did not cross the winning thresholds. Wasted votes accounted for almost 35% of the electorate, prompting Jan Zielonka in the Journal of Democracy to warn that "moderating PR is hardly a cure-all for shaky institutions, and it may exact a price in the form of reduced representativeness and damaged legitimacy. In the worst instance, unrepresented voters (and possibly also nonvoters) might come to feel so frustrated that they start down the road of nondemocratic politics." Indeed, in a national television address after the 1993 election, the president of Poland, Lech Walesa, stressed the fact that one-third of the voters would not be represented in the Sejm.

Early indications are that, despite the return to power of former communists, Poland and Hungary are moving toward a moderate degree of pluralism similar to well-established democracies in Western Europe.

Hungary's Manufactured Majorities

        In Hungary, a different electoral law helped to reduce the number of parties which would enter parliament from the 29 which placed candidates before the voters to six successful ones. It involved both a double-ballot majority vote and a party list PR system with a 4% national threshold, as well as strict requirements for the distribution of party support to be eligible for list seats on the two-tiered allocation system; the law is "rather complicated" by the government's own admission. (See preceding article by Martyn Rady - ed.)
        As might be expected by those familiar with the workings of the French double-ballot majority system -- where the current governing coalition won 80% of seats with 39% of the first ballot vote in 1993 -- disproportionality of votes to seats was extreme in 1990. The Hungarian Democratic Forum, the largest party, won 42.5% of parliamentary seats with 24.7% of the party list vote.
        The 1994 parliamentary elections were held under essentially the same electoral law, although the winning threshold was raised from 4% to 5%. The results again showed extreme disproportionality between votes and seats. This time, the Hungarian Socialist Party -- the renamed communist party -- won 33% of the party list vote, but 54% of the seats and, therefore, an absolute majority. Hungarian society probably is more pluralistic than the composition of its parliament leads one to believe, which helps explain why the Socialist Party chose to form a coalition government despite its majority (the party asked the economically liberal Alliance of Free Democrats to join the government, in part to reassure potential investors).

Pluralism and Co-Existence

        As Giovanni Sartori indicates, it is important not only to quantify pluralism, but also to qualify it as to what parties exist, what kind of cleavages they represent and whether they will be able to co-exist. Looking at Poland as an example, the Sejm went from 29 parties in 1991 to seven parties in 1993, but in the process of that reduction, significant political forces went unrepresented.
        The most important left-wing parties now are the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and the Polish Peasant Party; the SLD is the successor to the communist party, and the PSL is descended from an ally of the communists from the previous era. The SLD is more economically liberal, and likely to continue the policies of the previous governments, while the PSL has more protectionist tendencies. This difference, combined with the SLD's more secular social views compared to those of the religious, rural-based PSL, makes their coalition government in the wake of the 1993 election somewhat prone to conflict.
        These parties replaced the center-right government led by the Democratic Union. This party and Catholic Action, the Center Citizens' Alliance (another Christian party) and the Liberal Democratic Congress are all offspring of Solidarity. However, of these parties, only the Democratic Union surpassed the threshold to enter the Sejm in 1993 -- even Solidarity failed to win seats. The "Fatherland" Catholic Election Committee also came in under the 8% threshold for parties running in coalition. These results meant that the new, less fragmented Sejm has close to a right-wing vacuum, with only the Democratic Union, President Walesa's Nonparty Bloc to Support Reform and the populist Confederation of an Independent Poland representing right-wing or related views.
        On the left, another party with roots in Solidarity, the Union of Labor, did succeed in crossing the threshold, representing the victory of a new social-democratic party. This means that the former communists do not have a monopoly on the left. More extremist parties on both sides of the spectrum did not make it into parliament.
        A comparison of Poland's 1991 and 1993 results shows an alternation between right- and left-wing governments, even though continuity on economic policy is expected to be maintained. But the sparsity of right-wing representation does raise questions of whether bipolarity will remain and provide the "moderate pluralism" advocated by Sartori and more clearly evident in Hungary, where there is a clearer alternation from right to left, thanks in part to the electoral system.
        Poland and Hungary share the presence of successful, renamed communist parties. This comes as a result of a painful economic transition along with superior party organization and the lack of another adequate left-wing alternative. Such circumstances have made the former communists a viable option for many Eastern Europeans. Their general support for economic liberalization demonstrates that they have changed more than simply party labels.
        For now, both countries provide a left-right cleavage similar to the Western model. The formation of coalition governments also indicates that some parties are mutually compatible and can govern together, at least so far -- helped in part by the lack of ethnic cleavages found in some other Eastern European countries. These indicators show that the "polarized pluralism" that concerns Sartori is not evident in either country. Whether the ideal of moderate pluralism will firmly take root over the long term, however, will depend upon the success of economic reforms. It is still too early to tell whether these favorable conditions will remain; the party system is still fluid, and the voter's party identification likely is not well-established.
        Poland and Hungary may settle into a pattern discussed by Guillermo O'Donnell and Philippe Schmitter, who state that a country's macroeconomic performance, especially in new democracies, will have a profound influence on its politics. Their analysis may have particular relevance to Eastern Europe: "Voters are therefore more likely to punish incumbents, of the Left or the Right, for what they perceive as mismanagement of economic affairs. This produces a 'pendular effect,' rather different from the 'critical elections' of the past, which sporadically and irreversibly shifted voter alignments."
        Such an effect is similar to Sartori's moderate pluralism -- and to what we see in most Western democracies today. With economic success, Poland and Hungary will reach that point. Then, the only major "Eastern" characteristic -- the presence of renamed communists -- will be less worrisome.

        Thomas Lundberg received an MA in political science at George Washington University in 1995.

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Chapter Seven