Communism, Democratic Transition and Debates on the Rule of Law

by Norbert  Rebow

A glance at news headlines on Poland and Hungary in recent years would suggest that the radical changes to judicial systems can be explained fundamentally by describing them as the actions of two parties, Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary, aiming to consolidate power in their respective countries[1]. This, however, begs the question of why changes to state and especially judicial institutions would be necessary when these parties consistently record high levels of public support[2][3]. Given the experience of communist dictatorship and subsequent transition to democracy common to both these countries, we could suspect that these could be related to the underlying issues associated with the developments in recent years. To investigate this proposition, I spoke to two Leiden University professors – Professor Antoaneta Dimitrova at the Institute of Global and Security Affairs and Professor Petr Kopecky at the Institute of Political Science – as well as my parents who experienced the later stages of the communist regime in Poland and the subsequent transition to democracy themselves.

How might the experience of communist dictatorship help explain decisions made by PiS and Fidesz today as well as the public reaction to them? Professor Kopecky suggests that having lived in a dictatorial period, the leaders of the political parties may be more afraid of the consequences of defeat – in their minds it might not just lead to a change of policy but could be a threat to the party’s ability to ever win in the future. Just as important is the effect on ordinary citizens – it is difficult to imagine how state institutions that served dictatorships propped up by the Soviet Union could inspire trust among citizens. My parents remembered the alienation of the political process during this era – elections with predetermined outcomes just seemed like a game for a staunch party loyalists. My mom also mused on the effect of conscious exposure to propaganda in schools and the media, suggesting that it had an impact undermining general trust in Polish society, making people more sceptical of others’ motives.

The democratic transition has many potential avenues for influencing the current political situation. Professor Dimitrova believes that the privatisation of state assets during the move towards a market economy deserves particular attention: it was the members of the former communist elite that had the best information on these assets and in the 1990s and early 2000s – they were able to gain ownership of them for themselves and their political allies. This led to a sense of injustice among the populations of the former communist countries, a sense that the former elites from that time still held disproportionate power. Parties such as Fidesz and PiS have been able to harness this in their political strategies. The behaviour of the former communist elite has been used as a justification for personnel changes in state, including judicial institutions. This was the case recently in the Polish government’s defence of the changes to the Polish Supreme Court[4]. Professor Dimitrova also suggests that the exploitation of state resources by former communist elites also provided a model for how any party in power may use state institutions for the material gain of key member or supporters.

My parents’ take on this issue was that originally in the 1990s there was a sense of optimism about the transition, giving way to a feeling of injustice more recently. A large segment of Polish society is now critical of the ‘Round Table’ talks between the communist government and the democratic opposition that led to the first partially free elections in Poland in June 1989. Could then a negotiated settlement ending the communist era be the determining factor leading to frustration with the persistence of access to wealth for former communists? Professor Dimitrova is not convinced. She points out that while the end of dictatorship was particularly violent in Romania and remarkably peaceful in Hungary, in both countries former communists were successful in guiding privatisation in their favour.

This discussion raises the question – how common are the underlying factors that have influenced developments in Poland and Hungary across the former communist-dominated states that have become members of the EU? There are already signals that the Romanian government’s moves to roll back anti-corruption measures are causing some in the EU to think about action similar to the steps taken in the cases of Poland and Hungary[5]. Professor Dimitrova pointed to Bulgaria as another case where the economic elite’s relationship with political parties was not conducive to healthy democracy. On the other hand, as Professor Kopecky noted, the Czech Republic’s political scene is divided in a more standard way along class lines – there is less appetite for parties to make appeals to history.

It can be difficult to tease apart how exactly the communist past and the transition to democracy are affecting the politics of Poland, Hungary and other central-eastern European states today – it is by no means a homogenous region. However, an image seems to emerge of publics that are less trusting and more frustrated, and political leaders that are able to harness this thinking to pursue radical changes to how these states are run. As the EU acts against the governments of Poland and Hungary it must remain aware of the effects of history on how the citizens of these countries relate to their political institutions and how they perceive political parties.

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