E. Europe Swings Back to the Center Elections Show Voters Want Realistic Promises in the Rocky Road to Open Markets

By Michael J. Jordan, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 22, 1996 | Go to article overview

E. Europe Swings Back to the Center Elections Show Voters Want Realistic Promises in the Rocky Road to Open Markets


Michael J. Jordan, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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