Boosting Party Engagement in Central and Eastern Europe

July 10, 2020
Jan Jakub Chromiec
3 min read
In Central and Eastern Europe, political parties are among the least trusted institutions, and politicians among the least trusted professional groups.

In Central and Eastern Europe, political parties are among the least trusted institutions, and politicians among the least trusted professional groups. In fact, anti-party sentiment is so strong that hardly any political entity in the region uses the word “party” in its name.

This does not augur well for the political future of the region. The legitimacy and effectiveness of democratic systems depend to a significant extent on the quality of political parties: the kind of members and leaders they have, the degree to which they have a link to the electorate, or the level of expertise they can bring to designing and implementing reasonable policies. In an environment dominated by mistrust toward parties, as seen in the region, it is hard to expect a “positive selection,” whereby the most talented and public-spirited citizens get engaged in parties.

This paper outlines the status quo of party engagement in Central and Eastern Europe thirty years after the fall of the communist regimes, and suggests options for how to improve it.

First, the status quo of engagement in political parties is presented across the region, and specifically in three representative cases: Poland, Serbia, and Ukraine. In Poland, party membership is very low, at around 1 percent of the electorate. This can be explained to some extent by bad memories of party politics under communism, but it is also a product of conscious choices of political leaders who consider a “cadre party” model as superior to a “mass party” model. In Serbia, a very high number of people are members of parties, but often for clientelistic reasons. Ukraine stands out due to its system of “virtual” party politics in which genuine parties with active members find it hard to compete against “political projects” supported by wealthy individuals.

Second, it is argued that boosting party engagement in the region requires a tailored approach that takes into account specific barriers preventing engagement in three clusters of countries.

In “cadre democracies” (the Visegrad and Baltic states), engagement could be boosted by incremental changes of the regulatory environment for parties, by civic education (especially among youth), and by stronger experimentation by parties with new forms of membership. A major challenge lies in preventing damages to a level playing field for parties.

In “patronage democracies” (Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, and the Western Balkan states), party engagement could be boosted by reorienting political competition toward a contest of different visions of public policies rather than competitive clientelism. An important measure for boosting engagement in this cluster is to create fair framework conditions for all parties. This includes fair access to the media, fair elections, and ending political violence.

Creating a level playing field for all parties is also a challenge for “captured democracies” of Ukraine and Moldova. When powerful private interests dominate politics, public-spirited engagement in parties becomes a frustrating, and ultimately futile, experience. Besides levelling the field for parties, it seems necessary to improve the regulatory environment for parties in these countries, and to invest in civic education.

Overall, the picture of party engagement in Central and Eastern Europe is not as bleak as it might seem by looking at levels of engagement and key barriers to in the three clusters. Over the last three decades, a reservoir of citizens interested in party engagement has developed in the region. International donors, the EU, and European party families have the capacity to support necessary changes. All it takes is awareness about the necessity of healthy party engagement and the will to improve it.


Download the full PDF »

Photo credit: Dziurek/