Understanding Party Politics in the Former Soviet Union Authoritarianism, Volatility, and Incentive Structures

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Abstract: Party politics in the former Soviet Union is fundamentally different from party politics in Western democracies in many ways. Since 1991, two crucial aspects of party politics in the less-than-democratic former Soviet republics have been the impact of authoritarian practices on party politics and the volatile nature of party politics. Starting with the observation that the creation and operation of parties in the former Soviet Union is driven by elite actors, the author seeks to better understand these two aspects of party politics by studying the incentive structures for elite actors from both within the political regimes and outside the region.

Keywords: authoritarianism, incentive structures, institutions, models of party behavior, political parties

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In the semiauthoritarian and authoritarian states of the former Soviet Union (FSU), political party creation and operation are essentially top-down affairs. With rare exceptions, FSU parties, whether they are the ruling power or the opposition, maintain shallow organizational structures, lack credible roots in society, and are operated by elite actors, including ruling regimes and wealthy businessmen. The high degree of electoral volatility that has been characteristic of party politics in most FSU states results not so much from changes in voter demand as from changes in elite actors' support for parties. These actors have tended to regard parties as disposable "projects" that can be abandoned when the parties do not deliver the anticipated benefits. Considering the dominant role of elite actors in the development of party systems in Central and Eastern Europe, some argue that "much more emphasis should be put on understanding the incentive structures of elites that encourage or discourage stability [of party systems]." (1) In this article, I study the incentive structures of political party actors in the semiauthoritarian and authoritarian states of the FSU, a part of the post-Communist world where electoral volatility generally has been greater than in Central and Eastern Europe.

Party politics in the FSU since 1991, compared with party politics in most of Central and Eastern Europe, has a higher degree of volatility and shows the impact of authoritarian practices. These characteristics can in large part be explained by taking the incentive of political party entrepreneurs into account. Volatility in party politics in the FSU is seen as stemming from the fact that elements in institutional design, most notably executive-legislative relations and electoral legislation, provide insufficient incentives for the creation of viable parties, whereas a range of other factors additionally hold back nonregime actors from engaging in party building or affiliating with parties. At the same time, actors within the authoritarian or semiauthoritarian regimes or with ties to the regime often have explicit incentives for creating "undemocratic" parties that distort the electoral playing field.

In the first section of this article, I identify the outcomes, and the scope of these outcomes, of party politics in the FSU since 1991, compared to outcomes in Central and Eastern Europe. In the second section, I look at the phenomenon of "elite ownership" of parties, a factor that greatly reinforces contingency and volatility in party politics in the FSU. In the third section, I discuss the ways the design of political institutions throughout most of the FSU depresses incentives for party building. In the fourth section, I examine the impact of authoritarianism on party politics through a discussion of the party types that dominate party politics in most FSU states. The next section synthesizes the argument about the role of incentives in party politics in the FSU and illustrates that argument by extending Kaare Strom's "three models of party behavior," originally conceived for the political systems of industrial democracies, to the less-than-democratic context of the FSU. …