Political Preferences and Party Development in Post-Communist States: A New Approach with an Illustration of the Russian Case

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Abstract: In the wake of the collapse of communist regimes between 1989 and 1991, political scientists turned their attention to explaining the variation in the development of political parties and party systems as a means of exploring the variation in regime outcomes. These efforts waned as parties and other representative institutions appeared to be weak and unrelated to patterns of democratic consolidation, backsliding, or a return to authoritarian rule. This article summarizes the progress scholars made in exploring both party and party system development and the link between those developments and regime outcomes and suggests a way forward that highlights the role that parties might play in linking voters and government through their impact on legislative decision-making.

Political party formation emerged as a core element of theories of democratization developed to describe the third and fourth waves of transitions from authoritarian rule. In the first decade of post-Communist cases, party development became a central focus of research. (1) However, despite both the diverse approaches and sheer volume of work focused on party development, scholarly analyses got bogged down in attempts to understand the mechanisms that drive political party and party system consolidation in new democratic regimes. As a result, students of democratization missed a unique opportunity to clarify the common mechanisms that link partisan development to regime outcomes, including the nature of state-society relations.

As theoretical development stalled, and parties seemingly became marginal for governance, students of party politics adopted new research agendas. The dense cluster of party-based studies conducted in the 1990s gave way to a much more limited set of studies in the next decade. Yet, during this period, party organizations continued to evolve across the region while the relationship between party development (or the lack of party development) and regime outcomes became more evident. The variation in outcomes over this period is remarkable. In East Europe, there was a rise of moderate right parties rooted in nationalist appeals that reshaped the political landscape and a move toward consolidated systems in some states. (2) In 1999, the partisan chaos in Russia gave way to a hegemonic organization, United Russia, an organization that evolved over time. (3) In other states, such as Moldova and Latvia parties systems remained inchoate while in Estonia and Lithuania there were movements toward consolidation by the mid-2000s. Viewed through a longer lens, these developments in parties and party systems map to the variation in regime outcomes--or the level of democratic consolidation--achieved by individual states since the collapse of communist authoritarianism.

Arguably, scholars abandoned the study of parties just as parties became more important political players, shaping both variation in the trajectory of democratic consolidation and variation in the nature of statesociety relations across the region. Moreover, the study of parties in the post-Communist context failed to address critical questions defined in the broader literature: how different preference structures influence party development, how elites tap into mass sentiment to define clear policy agendas, and whether or not parties that embody alternative linkage structures can evolve into accountable and responsible representative institutions.

This article draws on both intellectual history and the intersection between party development theory and democratic consolidation theory to reconsider why the institutional approach promulgated to study party development in the 1990s fizzled. I argue that in adapting an institutional framework to understand post-communist outcomes, scholars generally failed to accurately assess both the importance and variation in preference structures across these cases. In other words, we failed to understand what voters, politicians, and social actors wanted from their new regimes and how parties come to aggregate individual preferences in order to achieve those goals. …