Fall of the Eastern Bloc a challenge to parties in the West

When the Eastern bloc collapsed, the countries in Eastern Europe were faced with rebuilding their nations into democracies. This also brought a challenge for the established political parties in the West in forming partnerships with their Eastern sister parties – not least given the then upcoming enlargement of the European Union. Mats Öhlén at Örebro University, Sweden, has in his doctoral dissertation studied the approaches chosen by the different party groups.

There has been a steady rise in the number of member states in the EU and since the 1970s, the different party groups have become increasingly institutionalised, with the hope that this will boost the democratic legitimacy of the union. Mats Öhlén's research is looking at the measures taken by three of these party families – the Christian Democrats, the Liberals and the Social Democrats – for the integration of like-minded parties, pre-existing or new ones, from Central and Eastern Europe following the events of 1989.

– When parties in the new democracies in the former Eastern Bloc were formed, there was widespread political division, with many different conflicts. Politicians were inexperienced, parties unstable and there were strong elements of populism and nationalism, but also of anti-Semitism, says Mats Öhlén, who has studied the party systems of all former communist states joining the EU between 2004 and 2007.

Division and alliances

For the parties in the West, forming partnerships at a European level with the new party formations became both an ideological and organisational challenge.

– From an organisational point of view, it was difficult to relate to the new parties since they often split up or entered into new alliances. The Western organisations placed their practical focus on training younger politicians without any historical baggage, who could be shaped for future cooperation at the EU level. The Christian Democrats also sought to support strong personalities rather than certain political parties.

In his doctoral dissertation, Mats Öhlén also explores the motives that drove the European party families to seek collaboration with the new party formations. These range from pure self-promoting motives, rising from what one's own party would gain in terms of power and influence; to altruistic ones, i.e. the resolve to support those of a like mind; those who stick to the right ideals when it comes to democracy and human rights.

The party families studied have here chosen different approaches.

Ideology and pragmatism

– The Christian Democrats have been the most pragmatic party, seeking partnerships with a number of political parties. They have assumed a fostering role and focused on backing individuals who share their values and around whom a party can be built. They have emphasised the importance of collaborating with major parties in governing positions, thus gaining more members in the EU Council of Ministers.

The Christian Democratic group also already from the start had a parallel organisation, the European Union of Christian Democrats, which served as a waiting room of sorts for the new parties. This informal organisation was later copied by the Social Democrats, who created their European Forum for Democracy and Solidarity. These organisations allowed the new parties to learn and mature, and to prepare for the upcoming enlargement of the European Union.

The Social Democrats navigated between focusing on power and keeping to their ideals.

– There was disappointment within the Social Democratic alliance that their sister parties in Eastern Europe were so incompetent. There was also a surprising amount of animosity between the Social Democrats and the former communist parties. Their journey, so to speak, went via the disappointment at the failure of their sister parties and a gradual acceptance of the old communist parties.

The liberal party family, which is also the smallest of the three discussed in the dissertation, was the one whose collaboration efforts, more so than the others', were guided by ideology and in that respect, they stuck more firmly to their principles than the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats did.

Alluring power

– What the three party alliances have in common is that their power focus grew stronger as enlargement drew closer – it became important to include as many as possible to increase one's influence in the European Parliament and in other EU institutions.

Mats Öhlén says that the contacts between the parties in Eastern and Western Europe to some degree did play a role in paving the way for the enlargement of the European Union. In addition, the party families required their new members to respect human rights and minorities and in that sense, they indirectly had a positive effect on the democratisation of Central and Eastern Europe.

Text: Lars Westberg
Translation: Charlotta Hambre-Knight