Until recently, the study of politics in the Communist and then the post-Communist world was considerably removed from the mainstream of political science. While most political scientists focused on rigorous hypothesis testing and increasingly quantitative methodologies, the majority of writing on Eastern Europe politics was historical, descriptive and occasionally even philosophical.
This state of affairs was understandable. Most specialists on Central and Eastern Europe earned their stripes at a time when many of these new techniques did yet not exist and, perhaps more importantly, when it was impossible to apply them to the region. For much of the past half-century, the data necessary to apply the standard toolkit of political science were simply unavailable.
Public opinion polls did not exist, elections were rigged and policy-makers were incommunicado. Moreover, cross-country comparisons, the staple methodology of political science research on non-American lands, was either futile (because the countries were too similar) or overly arduous (because of the difficulty in gathering data). It was inevitable, then, that scholars would develop methods that were more akin to the humanities than the social sciences.
Though much work immediately after 1989 continued this trend (again mainly due to necessity) things are changing, and studies which use standard techniques to test hypotheses are gradually emerging. Easily the best and most comprehensive of these works is Post-Communist Party Systems: Competition, Representation and Inter-Party Cooperation co-authored by Herbert Kitschelt, Zdenka Mansfeldova, Radoslaw Markowski and Gabor Toka.
Like a number of recent scholars on the region, Kitschelt, the leader of the team, is not a specialist on East European politics; rather he is known for his work on political parties in Western Europe. His co-authors are native experts on the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary, respectively.
A convincing historical argument
What may interest non-political scientists in this work, though, is not the hypothesis testing or even the cross-national comparison, but the integration of these elements with a powerful and convincing historical argument. Indeed, the beauty of this work is the merging of detailed contextual knowledge of each of the four countries with a rigorous methodology that is both qualitative and statistical.
The book's central argument is that the historical legacies of both pre-Communist and Communist regimes have shaped the post-Communist politics of these states. The most important of these legacies can be summarized in two separate dimensions. The first is whether the country had a formal-rational (that is, relatively efficient and uncorrupt) or clientelistic (that is, based on patronage and nepotism) state apparatus. The second is the degree to which the Communist regime used co-optation or repression, carrots or sticks, to enforce its rule.
These two dimensions produced three types of Communist systems. Patrimonial regimes, typified in the book by Bulgaria but also including most of the states of the former USSR, had corrupt bureaucracies based on clientelistic or personalistic ties and used repression to keep social peace. National accommodative regimes (Poland and Hungary are the ideal types here), by contrast, were characterized both by Weberian bureaucracies and a co-optative approach to society. The final type, bureaucratic authoritarianism, was a mixture of the two: it combined a rational state with repressive instruments of control. This type applied to Czechoslovakia and, though it is not treated in the book, East Germany.
Aside from a few hard-to-categorize cases, mainly Slovakia and Croatia, these classifications do not seem controversial. Scholars will be most interested, however, in the way the authors extend these typologies both backward to their pre-war roots and forward to their consequences for post-Communist politics.
Taking the backwards direction first, as it is not the book's main subject, the authors conclude that not only socio-economic development, but also the date at which a professional bureaucracy and universal suffrage were introduced, determine the type of Communist regime.
This conclusion, like all of the arguments in the book, does not proceed merely from association. In every case, the authors attempt to explain the mechanisms that connect cause and effect. Here they emphasize the demands of middle class citizens for clean government and the impact of the bureaucracy on politicians' strategies for winning voters, both mechanisms that were originally explored in work on American politics.
Indeed, the authors offer valuable guidance for scholars interested in the new vogue for historical or path-dependent accounts. Such analyses, they argue, should not degenerate into mere narration, but should always meet two criteria: they should be phrased with enough generality to be testable on other cases and they should explain why actors act the way they do. This is advice well worth heeding.
Tracing the contours of party systems
The more substantive and important part of the work, however, is its attempt to describe and explain the contours of post-Communist party systems. Party politics, of course, are a staple of political science, but, as the authors note, it has only been studied in a schematic way in the third-wave democracies, that is those that have arisen since the mid-1970s.
Given the importance of parties to democracy—despite the claims of some Eastern European theorists of anti-politics—such an analysis is essential to understanding not just the durability of these democracies (the focus of most analyses to date), but also a frequently ignored factor: their quality.
To construct their picture, Kitschelt and his colleagues conducted interviews with elites from virtually all the major parties in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in which the respondents were asked to identify their party's and other parties' views on a variety of substantive issues. These data are then combined in later chapters with public opinion surveys. It is worth noting that the authors are able to test an impressive number of hypotheses with a fairly modest data set.
Rather than detail the substantive results of six chapters of detailed statistical (though lucidly presented) data analysis, I will sample some of the most interesting results. The authors first consider whether parties forge linkages with voters through programmatic appeals to policy, or whether their policy stands are so diffuse that they must turn to clientelism or charisma to win elections. Though most scholars would expect the latter, especially in 1994, the answer is the former (although to a lesser extent in Bulgaria). Parties have developed clear and distinctive profiles based on concrete issues.
The authors then turn to the substantive contours of these party systems. Here they reach two general conclusions. First, party systems in these countries are marked by "structured diversity and non-randomness." That is to say, there are clear and consistent differences between and within these countries that can be explained without reference to chance. This result casts doubt on what they call the tabula rasa theory which hypothesized that 40 years of Communism so disoriented both voters and politicians that programmatic links, consistent political divides and real representation would be a long time in coming.
Their second conclusion is that historical legacies, or in the profession's lingo, path dependence, best explain this diversity. This explanation proves to be a better predictor of most elements of party systems than its main competitor, political institutions (for example, electoral laws, presidential powers). This may come as a surprise to political scientists, but the authors are careful to state that their conclusion applies mainly to the early years of transition. They expect institutional effects to overwhelm legacies, after several iterations of elections and policy-making.
It is worth detailing some specifics here because the conclusions are often initially surprising, but intuitive once explained. For example, the authors find that national accommodative regimes (Hungary is the ideal type) do not structure party competition around economic issues, but rather on social and cultural issues. That is, parties mainly agree on basic questions of liberalization and privatization, but disagree on, for example, nationalism or the role of the church.
The legacies argument explains this in two ways. First, in Hungary (and to a lesser extent Poland), Communism had reformed itself enough before 1989 that Communist successor parties could plausibly present themselves as market reformers. Second, the tradition of co-optation through payoffs made social services such a part of citizens' expectations that neo-liberal parties were not viable on a mass level.
Competition on economic issues was thus severely restricted and politicians were forced to turn elsewhere, for instance to nationalistic and religious themes, in order to win voters. Bureaucratic authoritarian Communism (the Czech Republic is the prototype), by contrast, produced a political field dominated by parties taking divergent positions on market reform, but largely ignoring cultural questions.
The result is that Poland and Hungary have a tripolar political field with market liberals at one pole, socialists at another, and Christian-nationalists at a third. In the Czech Republic, parties compete in a single dimension that ranges from free market liberalism on the right to state intervention and social protection on the left. Bulgaria, and presumably other patrimonial states, follows the Czech type, though the single dimension here is broader and more diffuse, including both economic and cultural issues.
What public opinion reveals
The authors find these trends not only in the opinions of party elites, but also in those of the general public. Surprisingly, the public overwhelmingly shares the views of elites on the programmatic differences between parties. This overturns much conventional wisdom on the inability of post-Communist voters to distinguish between parties based on concrete issues and suggests that there is a very substantial amount of real representation in these countries. In fact, the relationship between politicians and voters closely resembles that in Western democracies.
Interesting as this is, Post-Communist Party Systems is not content just to characterize the party systems, but also focuses on their implications for coalition formation and economic policy. Here the authors introduce the interesting concept of the regime divide, or the affective dislike between former Communists and anti-Communists not explained by differences in policy positions.
The regime divide, of course, should be most pronounced in previously repressive regimes and should make it more difficult for parties to form stable governments and enact necessary reforms. This is not the only factor determining governability—institutions also matter—but it is an important one.
Predictions come true?
On the question of governability, the authors take the very useful step of making predictions and it is worthwhile to check these against the two years of experience since the book was published. The authors seem to be on target in describing Hungary as the country with the best chances of forming workable majority coalitions due to the lack of a serious regime divide and consensual political institutions.
The country has not yet had early elections or changed prime ministers in mid-term. They also accurately predict the continued problems of Poland's Christian-nationalist sector, divided by affective dislikes inherited from Communism and a meddling president, whose lack of intra-party discipline recently led to the Freedom Union's withdrawal from the governing coalition.