What role does 1) institutional choices (parliamentary vs. presidential system in Eastern Europe and type of electoral system) play in post-communist democratization?
Institutional choices, such as political regime types or electoral system designs, play a significant role in post-communist democratization in Eastern Europe because they are in the position to steer these countries’ political direction. Electoral systems play a more significant role not only in the degree of democratization, but also in the extent of representation (Andreev 2003, p. 12). Similarly, the political regime type, i.e., parliamentary or presidential, of governance also significantly impacts the democratization process, in some instances positively and in others, negatively.
During the communist era, communist countries followed a common electoral system, which was the absolute majority run-off system. When communism collapsed, each country made its own institutional choices and any divergence in such choices in these countries usually stem from distribution of political power at the time of the collapse. In countries where the communist elites were dominant, a new form of authoritarianism is put in place and a restrictive electoral system that is designed to sustain such dominance is established. On the other hand, in countries where the communist party in power during the communist period was discredited and the opposition was able to amass enough influence at the time of the collapse, a more permissive electoral system is normally established. This chain of event is brought about by the demand for the entry of new forces that represent the opposite of what the old regime stood for. With more permissive electoral rules, the electoral system is open to challenge paving the way for political pluralism, which is not the case in regimes with restricted electoral systems (Bielasiak 2006, pp. 427-428).
The type of political regime – which can be parliamentary or presidential - has also been acknowledged to play a significant role in attaining democratization. Between these two types of political systems, it is the parliamentary form that has been associated with most of the successful democracies in post-communist Eastern Europe. This was illustrated in the case of Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia and Slovakia. Together with a proportional system of electoral representation, the parliamentary system not only guarantees a move towards democratization, but also a higher potential for attaining a superior form of democracy (Andreev 2003, p. 10). On the other hand, the presidential system has been associated with a negative impact on democratization. Some studies have suggested that the presidential system in combination with multiparty system do not foster a stable type of democracy. This combination has engendered party fragmentation in some Eastern European countries and countries that were once part of the Soviet Union (Filippov et, 1999, p. 19). In addition, a presidential system in which the chief executive exercises strong executive and arbiter powers has also shown to have resulted in a weak and defective democracy. A comparative study of 22 post-communist states illustrated this hypothesis (Beliaev 2006, p. 396).
The role of political parties in post-communist democratization in Eastern Europe is not clearly delineated and is subject to much debate. Some authors see political parties as key agents in the process of democratization, but others downplay their role as merely marginal. Although political parties may initially not matter much in the early stages of the process, they subsequently become one of the main factors in the institutionalization of democracy in post-communist Eastern Europe (Enyedi 2006, p. 229). This institutionalizing role reflects the modern conception of democracy as a representative democracy in which political parties are the central figures. In post-communist Eastern European countries where party pluralism is most developed, even parties with slim social base have surprisingly established strong presence in parliaments and exhibited high levels of democratic commitment (Lewis 2001, p. 2013).
The nature and behavior of political parties can, thus, significantly impact on the institutionalization of democratic processes, particularly in the case of Eastern Europe. This observation was highlighted about two decades after the collapse of communism in the region. A reverse wave in electoral choices echoed throughout the region, which saw the rejection by the electorates of mainstream political parties for unorthodox parties or UOPs. In Romania, the extremist Greater Romanian Party toppled the centrists in 2000 - an event that also reverberated in other Eastern European countries. The reverse wave was thought to have stemmed from the failure of mainstream political parties to meet the expectation of the people, especially the impoverished ones, and the endorsement of the UOPs was an expression of the desire to search for political alternatives. The endorsement of UOPs was a form of protest voting where non-mainstream politicians replaced mainstreams ones that failed to rise to public expectations (Pop-Eleches 2010, p. 223). In Hungary, for example, the center-right party Fidesz won the majority seats in the 2010 elections after the Socialist Party MSzP, which ruled for 8 years, was mired in scandals of corruption. The implication of this electorate reaction depends on the political ideologies of the UOPs. In the Hungarian case, the Fidesz victory resulted in a diminished constitutionalism after the ruling party, through various constitutional amendments, weakened the judicial system and curtailed the media, amongst others (Bankuti et al, 2012, pp. 138, 141). All these have resulted in a weakened democracy in Hungary.
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