When the glory of change faded and populism strengthened. An analysis of voter turnout since the fall of communism.
With Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, three Eastern European countries have recently voted. The results are by no means homogeneous. While in Hungary the right-wing populist Viktor Orban once again secured his absolute majority, in Bratislava the left-wing populist Robert Fico succeeded in gaining votes compared to the previous election. In contrast, the right-wing populists of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) won a narrow majority in Poland, but it could still lose its mandate to govern after eight years.
The people of the former Eastern bloc have long been haunted by the reputation in Western Europe of not understanding anything about democracy. This is because their electoral decisions very often deviate from what is hoped for in the narrative of liberal newsrooms. The differences in voter preferences can even be traced back to the borders of past empires.
In 2024, numerous elections will again be held in former communist countries – first and foremost Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. Likewise, Romania, Moldova, Georgia, Croatia, Serbia, northern Macedonia, Bosnia, and the former communist eastern German states of Thuringia, Brandenburg, and Saxony are all heading to the polls. In the latter, the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany is leading, according to current forecasts.
Regardless of voter preferences toward liberal, conservative or populist parties, however, it was trust in the newly emerging democratic institutions that was lost first. As a result, voter turnout in the former socialist countries rapidly slid. While there can be many reasons for electoral absenteeism, one of the most weighty is approval of existing institutions and a lack of confidence in their ability to function.
Despite playing a leading role in the demise of the Eastern bloc with the Solidarność trade union movement, Polish voter turnout in the first free election in 1989 was only 60 percent, lower than most other post-communist states. In further nationwide elections, these fell steadily until the turn of the millennium (it was not until the extremely polarized parliamentary elections on October 15, 2023, that Poland achieved its highest levels since 1990, with a turnout of 72 percent).
A similar pattern emerged in the Czech Republic’s turnout, while Slovakia even started with a turnout close to 100 percent, which fell rapidly in subsequent years. It was not until 2005, with the accession of most Central Eastern European states to the European Union, that voter turnout rose again – but this seems to be related more to the emergence of populist forces critical of Europe, such as the Czech ODS or the Polish PiS, than to a surge of confidence in the European institutions (although the referendum on EU accession in Poland, for example, resulted in 77 percent in favor of accession, with a surprisingly high turnout of 59 percent).
Hungary, where Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party has held an absolute majority since 2010, turnout balanced out across elections. Under the polarized atmosphere of the last rounds of elections, in which the opposition gradually succeeded in forming itself and a showdown loomed on the horizon, many more Hungarians finally flocked to the polls.
Romania and Bulgaria
While the polarizing effect of the European Union had contributed to an increase in voter turnout in the Central Eastern European countries, this was not the case in two of the newest EU member states, Romania and Bulgaria. Neither pro-European reforms in the run-up nor accession in 2007 succeeded in regaining voters’ trust in the institutions and attracting them to the polls. Yet the two poorest countries in the Union had started out very promisingly: More than 80 percent of the citizens of the Eastern Balkans turned out to vote in the first elections after the end of the communist regimes. But in the years that followed, this figure fell rapidly to barely more than 50 percent, and in Romania the figure was as low as 30 percent. Even the preparations for EU accession and the modernization of democratic institutions that were necessary for this did not succeed in winning back the trust of Romania’s and Bulgaria’s citizens.
Developments in the countries of the former Yugoslavia are hardly more optimistic: Slovenia, Croatia and what is now northern Macedonia started with voter turnouts of between 80 and 90 percent. The percentage of eligible voters who went to the polls in subsequent years declined rapidly and in recent years has barely exceeded 50 percent. Serbia started low during its formative years and settled between 50 and 60 percent after the fall of autocratic President Slobodan Milošević at the turn of the millennium. There were also other processes of disintegration and the secession of minorities, such as Kosovo and Montenegro before their secession.
The populations of the two war-torn countries Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo do not seem to have any more confidence in their democracy at all. Although they, too, are receiving lead support from the EU in building a liberal democracy along Western lines, countless international (or Western-funded) non-governmental organizations and the UN are contributing, and huge amounts of development cooperation are flowing into both countries, none of it seems to be crowned with success. Some of the downward outliers in Kosovo can be attributed to the Serb minority boycotting elections, but when this minority does go to the polls, they regularly do so in far greater numbers than their Kosovo Albanian neighbors, despite being much more skeptical of state institutions.
Former Soviet Union
In the countries of the former Soviet Union, too, there is hardly any difference between those countries that have moved closer to the European Union and those that have remained in Russia’s wake. Although above average, EU accession also failed to attract more citizens of the Baltic countries to the ballot box. Here, too, turnout was high in the first elections, but subsequently dropped like a stone in the water.
Interestingly, this pattern also applies to Azerbaijan, which is Muslim-majority and located in the South Caucasus. Even its Christian-majority neighbor Georgia, which marched resolutely toward the West with the election of Mikhail Saakashvili and his party, managed only a small jump in voter turnout. In the years that followed, turnout plummeted again. Only Armenia managed to break out of this pattern and significantly increased voter turnout from a low level – but here, too, the enthusiasm of the pro-Western Velvet Revolution of 2018 lasted only briefly – and already in the following year it fell to the lowest level in the young country’s existence.
Ukraine’s voter turnouts also fell very sharply since independence, and even the Euromaidan and the emerging war in 2014 had the population flocking to the polls at just over 50 percent (not including the populations in the separatist areas of Lugansk, Donetsk, and Crimea) – very little to derive a pro-Western statement from, as the people of eastern Ukraine in particular stayed away from the ballot boxes. And things did not get any better in 2019, with the Eurosceptics “For Life” platform, of all things, the only relevant opposition to win a majority in the frontline areas of Lugansk and Donetsk.
Russias Red Belt
Russia, the most powerful artifact of real existing socialism, struggled from the beginning to get citizens to the polls. The country suffered from hyperinflation due to the solution of prices fixed under communism; within a few years, prices shot up by 2,000 percent. 15,000 state-owned enterprises, from factories to newsstands to media, were privatized. Elsewhere, hidden unemployment circulated in the doomed industrial enterprises, compounded by the threat to economic survival posed by the collapse of any state safety net. The state was broke and could no longer perform its most basic functions, paying wages to its employees and social benefits to pensioners. Instead, the mafia began to rule the streets of Moscow as well as most other centers. This shock therapy, consisting of a rapid succession of economic liberal reforms, put most Russian citizens off the urge for Western-style liberalism.
Similar to the American Rust Belt, a collection of industrial ruins, decaying cities emerged where, along with unemployment, an opioid and alcohol pandemic spread; for the first time in history, life expectancy dropped in the country’s formerly prosperous coal, steel and textile industries. Struck by the shock, the Russian Communist Party regained victory in most regions. It won a total of 22 percent of the vote. The ultra-nationalist and right-wing populist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia came in second with 11 percent.
Only then followed, with 10 percent, Nash Dom Rossiya (Our House of Russia), founded by Kremlin functionaries who tried to use it to push through their technocratic free-market reforms. Since they did not get this from the population, most of them were subsequently waved through by means of presidential decrees and backroom deals – far from any democratic legitimacy.
Under this atmosphere, it was easy for the Communists to grab power again with the promise of restoring the old structures. President Boris Yeltsin, who was largely responsible for this chaos, nevertheless managed to defeat his Communist challenger, Gennady Zyuganov, thanks to the massive financial support of the oligarchs who had become rich through his policies. The same oligarch clique eventually hoisted the unassuming KGB agent Vladimir Putin to the top. In this 1996 election, Mikhail Gorbachev, celebrated everywhere in the West as a liberal liberator and democratizer, also ran. But the Western “Gorbimania” did not quite take hold: after the failed liberalization of the Soviet Union and its disintegration, he achieved just 0.5 percent of the vote.
What Remains of the Democratic Transformation of the Former Eastern Bloc
At the dawn of multiparty suffrage in the 1990s, after the fall of the one-party states, there can be no question of democracy fatigue or lack of understanding of democratic elections on the part of the citizens of the former Eastern bloc countries. The former subjects of real existing socialism flocked to the polls en masse. But for them, numerous promises of the West seem not to have come true. In particular, the promise of prosperity turned into the opposite for many in the 1990s: chaos broke out. This can often be traced back to decisions, for the most part of an economic policy nature, that were made with the help of Western advisors and organizations, first and foremost the International Monetary Fund, bypassing the newly created democratic institutions. This with devastating effect on the citizens. Why vote, when the only alternative is always to decide against one’s own interests?
Across the board, citizens lost their trust in the new system of government. In an interview with phoenix, Gregor Gysi, the last chairman of the German Socialist Unity Party (SED) and later a Left Party politician, explained the displeasure of many East Germans: the two German republics had not been reunified, but the new federal states had simply been annexed.
The self-image of many in the West, of a superior system that simply needed to be applied elsewhere as a blueprint, was likely to falter. On the contrary, approval of the emerging institutions declined markedly in most countries, especially after pro-Western reforms were introduced.
It was not until the emergence of parties generally regarded as populist and mostly critical of Europe that more citizens again participated in elections, which was viewed very critically in the West. What’s more, apathy at the polls has long since gripped the West itself. Especially in those regions that have been similarly destructively affected by structural change as the former communist countries. What they have in common is high unemployment and low prospects for the future. And here, too, populist movements are making their way into parliaments with Donald Trump in the USA, the Alternative for Germany, the Fratelli d’Italia or France’s Rassemblement National.