E. Europe Swings Back to the Center

Elections show voters want realistic promises in the rocky road to open markets

If Geza Jeszenszky needed a reminder of being held accountable, point taken.

In July 1994, Hungary's former foreign minister saw an exasperated electorate oust his conservative-nationalist party from power, replacing it with mostly ex-Communists - part of a leftward shift throughout Central and Eastern Europe.

In recent weeks, however, the pendulum has swung back as leftist governments in Romania, Bulgaria, and Lithuania were trounced in national elections. But the results signal more than simply an ideological reorientation or anti-incumbent fervor.

The public is voting with its purse strings and expressing disgust with politicians who dreamily promise then fail to deliver a painless free-market transition.

Heeding this message are politicians on the comeback trail, like Mr. Jeszenszky.

His Hungarian Democratic People's Party now controls only 4 percent of the seats in parliament. But it hopes to form a center-right alliance and topple the ruling, though wobbly, Socialist-liberal coalition in mid-1998 elections.

"Now we know there is no panacea," said Jeszenszky, a member of parliament and the chairman of the pro-NATO Hungarian Atlantic Council. "We have to present realistic answers and restore public confidence in politics. People have learned not only to elect their government, but also how to replace it."

Indeed, the recent elections show that more than merely democratic procedures have taken root behind the old Iron Curtain. Naked populism and virulent extremism are losing ground as savvier, better-informed electorates hold their leaders accountable for their actions. And realizing there's no shortcut to prosperity, the public is gradually more resigned to a rocky road of economic transition in the short term, in exchange for longer-term benefits.

After the collapse of communism in 1989, the opening of markets became inevitable. Right-leaning governments, led mostly by dissidents and intellectuals, sprouted across the region. The Czech Republic, Poland, and, to a lesser extent, Hungary, dove into the economic transition with a "kamikaze"-type shock therapy that has riled the public - and punished the latter two governments at the ballot. But the reforms pleased Western lending institutions like the World Bank. Together with Slovenia, these countries lead the pack to join the European Union and NATO.

Nostalgic for the security of the old days, Lithuania, Bulgaria, and Romania favored a go-slow approach. In particular, Romania's now-deposed President Ion Iliescu, a former aide to Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, had held uninterrupted power since 1989. Ultimately more grueling, the go-slow approach to market reform fueled popular discontent, and these countries lost ground on their neighbors in the march westward.

"The government promised slow reforms without sacrifice, unemployment, and inflation," said Jonathan Eyal, an international relations expert with the Royal United Services Institute in London. "What [voters] got were no reforms and huge unemployment and high inflation."

In Romania and Bulgaria, in particular, there is a growing fear of being left behind altogether by Western Europe and trapped in the Russian sphere. Recent elections in both countries were "true revolutions," Mr. Eyal said. Bulgaria, though, has severe economic challenges, while foreign investors rave about Romania's potential.

In Romania, the victory by the center-right Democratic Convention - an alliance led by the historic Christian Democrat and National Peasant parties - indicates a revival of Christian Democratic values in the region, Eyal noted. The alliance members seek to "anchor themselves in a new legitimacy" that focuses on monetary stability, deficit reduction, national pride, and Christian influence.

Yet with only seven years of democracy under their belt, the political parties are still finding their place within the political spectrum. Party loyalty is low, voter volatility high. Analysts expect more alliances to be formed and a broadening of platforms in the future, leaving the electorate with clearer choices.

In general, there is already public consensus on the need for privatization and integration into European and Euro-Atlantic structures. Meanwhile, people are indignant about rampant corruption and falling living standards. So the competition of ideas will leapfrog populist rhetoric.

"After you've been through two cycles of change, everybody's been in power once," said a Western diplomat in Budapest. "I'm waiting for the next cycle. Then you'll have two camps with experience that will be judged on their performance, not on what they were doing in 1956, 1968, or 1981."

And while the parties hone their message, there's another factor to consider: organization.

Heirs of the old Communist Party structures are far better organized than fledgling groups. Ex-Communists routinely get their constituency out to vote and can easily relay messages from the top down. Opposition parties have received help in strengthening their organization from US-based democracy building organizations like the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute.

While most of the region has pulled off elections without intimidation or ballot irregularities - Serbia, Albania, and Armenia were notable exceptions - unfulfilled promises and arrogant, autocratic-style rule in some countries have generally eroded faith in the system, says Scott Carpenter, IRI program director for Poland and Bulgaria. In advising Bulgaria's anti-Communist opposition and President-elect Petar Stoyanov, IRI stressed openness, transparency, and consensus-building.

"Even if the ship is sinking, you've got to straighten the chairs on deck," Mr. Carpenter says. "Being in politics doesn't mean you deserve the public's respect; you have to earn it."

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