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After Looking for Miracles, Voters Slump Into Apathy

By Eric Bourne / December 4, 1990



VIENNA

THESE are historic anniversary days in Eastern Europe. But reading the newspapers there you'd hardly notice it. Few flags have been raised to celebrate the first year of democratic rule, which replaced communist regimes a year ago.

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Instead, striking workers have lately been out with banners, protesting the new austerities that are unavoidable in a realistic switch to market economics. Some governments are also beset with revival of old nationalisms - at home and across borders - which were kept under wraps during communist rule.

Each of the governments faces diminishing credibility. Disenchantment, or at least disappointment, is apparent from Poland (front-runner in the return to democracy) to Bulgaria and Romania (where communists retain much of the power, under new names and reformist labels).

The fact is that East Europeans, as the first round of Poland's presidential election underscored, are looking for miracles. But as it dawns on them that there are no simple solutions to complex problems, euphoria about liberation is giving way to apathy.

In Czechoslovakia and Hungary, political coalitions that rode high at their first free parliamentary elections have since fallen from grace, with low voter turnouts - and reverses - at subsequent local government polls.

Some observers say this means the communists are holding on at the grass roots. Maybe. What it really shows is a loss of trust and patience with political parties and with governments generally.

Nowhere has this been more strikingly exemplified than in the Polish presidential elections, in which a prime minister gamely trying to carry out the most unequivocal reform in the old East bloc was eliminated by an unknown challenger - 20 years absent from Poland - whose highly populist slogan of ``a democracy of money'' caught an astonishing 23 percent of the vote.

There is something of Polish tragedy here. For more than a year, Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki piloted reforms, with considerable success, of a boldness no one has yet ventured to emulate. But he was clearly brought down by the same public distrust of politicians and political immaturity of voters that besets all these new rulers. A wrinkled peasant filmed by Austrian television said he ``voted for ['emigr'e Stanislaw] Tyminski because he is the only candidate I don't know.''

The apathy and voting trends generally suggest that reform is struggling in a political vacuum in which personalities and demagogy about private, material concerns far outweigh hard-headed practical consideration of what is possible in present situations.

Old political structures were toppled, in which the communists decided on issues alone, without consulting anyone. New structures still have to be put in their place - soundly based parties, capable of serious debate. Here, in the view of highly experienced East European observers, lies the crux of the matter.

Poland's Solidarity and the later ``civic'' movements in Czechoslovakia and Hungary have all lost ground because of failure in this area. None has managed to establish an identity as a political party per se; none has a clear philosophical perspective with which various groups of the population might identify.

Vigorous liberal, social democratic or socialist, or peasant/agrarian parties existed all over the region before World War II. Many people thought that, with the communists gone, these traditional parties could come back.

Some, in fact, were resurrected. But they were too emasculated from communist rule. New generations of skeptical voters, hungry not for power but for decent living, had scarcely heard of them. None has made any impact.

The absence of clear party identities normal to an open, democratic political system is a legacy of communist rule and to that extent is understandable. But until it is corrected, the East Europeans - quite apart from their immense economic problems - must face a highly uncertain future.