Post-Ballot Box Communism

Eastern European elections left the adherents of Marx and Lenin down, but not totally out

WITH the Bulgarian parliamentary elections having ended on June 17, Eastern Europe's season of the ballot is over. The spring of elections was expected to finish the job started by the spectacular revolutions of the previous fall. In some countries it did, while in others the post-electoral situation is still rather ambiguous. It will take some time before the experts analyze the full impact of the elections on the East European political landscape. The region's first free elections since the end of World War II tested the strength and mass appeal of the newly emerged democratic movements as well as the resilience and adaptability to change of the old communist regimes. It also added a further wrinkle to Gorbachev's dilemma of sacrificing empire for the sake of Soviet democratization in accordance with the Marxist dictum that no nation that subjugates other nations can be itself free.

Above all, the election results have been viewed as a kind of popular referendum on the future of East European communism. Here, the verdict is somewhat mixed.

It was the East German Socialist Unity Party which suffered the most momentous defeat - not because the communists with just over 16 percent of the vote made a bad showing, but because the election results opened the floodgates of German reunification and thus paved the way for the disappearance of the Soviet-built East German party-state. It can be argued, however, that the East German vote was as much nationalist and pro-unity in its message as it was anti-communist. Still, the East German communists face a very bleak political future, indeed, in a united Germany.

The Hungarian Socialist Party, successor to the communists, suffered the most crushing electoral defeat among all the ruling communist parties in Eastern Europe. It won just 8.5 percent of the vote, in spite of its image as the region's most liberal and reform-minded communist party. In fact, the Socialists may have fallen victim to the success of their own liberalization program, although another possible explanation is that Hungarian communism never really recovered from the wrenching trauma of events of October 1956.

In Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel's Civic Forum not only trounced the communists at the ballot box, but the totalitarian idea for which the Communist Party has long stood was dealt its most devastating moral blow. Although winning just 13.6 percent of the vote, the Czechoslovak Communist Party - which appears to have been reduced to its post-Prague Spring hard-core - is defiantly unrepentant and threateningly waiting in the wings for another opportunity to return to power.

Although a pioneer of Eastern European reform, Poland faces an extremely complex internal situation. The Communist Party, renamed the Polish Socialist Party, still maintains its hold on important structures of state power such as the presidency, the Sejm (the powerful lower house of Parliament), the ministries of defense and the interior. Solidarity won overwhelmingly in Poland's municipal elections but appears unable to snatch all levers of power away from the former communists. For their part, the latter are patiently waiting for the radical economic reforms undertaken by the Solidarity-led government to unravel - an eventuality the renamed communists hope could revive their plummeting political fortunes.

The Bulgarian Socialists were the only former communist party to win elections in Eastern Europe. The Socialist Party should be given credit for running an extremely slick and manipulative campaign by adopting as its own most opposition demands and going as far in its liberalization policies as any other communist party in Eastern Europe. In the end, the difference between the Socialists and their opposition was reduced to the question of the pace of reforms, which largely accounts for the Socialist victory, given the electorate's fear of political upheaval and economic uncertainty. Yet the ruling Socialists have refused to form a one-party cabinet, while the opposition has so far rejected their calls for a coalition government. With 211 deputies in the 400-seat National Assembly, the Socialists also lack the two-thirds majority necessary to dominate the writing of a new constitution.

Romania's turbulent post-Ceausescu political life is marked by escalating tensions amid a bitter confrontation between the opposition and the governing National Salvation Front. The front, led by high-ranking holdovers from the former communist regime, won overwhelmingly in the voting for president and also enjoys a comfortable 66 percent majority in the national parliament. Nearly two months after the elections, however, the government's control over the country seems as tenuous as ever.

But it is in Romania that a relapse to the repressive policies of the past is most likely to occur, in spite of the fact the communist party virtually disintegrated during the popular uprising of last December.

Their umbilical cord to Moscow severed, the East European communists have suffered their worst political setback in the postwar period. In most East European countries the ruling communist regimes were handed crushing and humiliating defeats at the ballot box - an indication that the transplanted Marxist ideology had never taken deep roots in the region. Even in Romania and Bulgaria, where ex-communists succeeded in retaining power, they had to retreat so dramatically from past ideological dogmas and practices that their current policies bear very little resemblance to the familiar Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy. The more the former communists move away from the totalitarian impulse of the past, the more they will resemble the less militant parties of the social democratic left in the West.

AS events in Romania recently demonstrated, East European communism may be down and out, but is not yet dead. At this point it would be premature to relegate it to history or even to the now fashionable ``post-communism'' academic studies. The burial of communism in the region may be a much more prolonged and drawn-out affair than people in the West expect. Its slow withering away will take time and may last for at least another decade or two, during which time local communist parties will hold onto power in some countries and may even stage a comeback in others, depending on the success or failure of market-oriented economic reforms. One thing is certain though - if there was ever a time for the West to relax its interest in the area, it certainly is not now.

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