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  • Strategies and Outcomes in Eastern Europe
  • Josep M. Colomer (bio)

Contemporary studies of political change and democracy hold two paramount lessons for scholars and practitioners alike. The first is that institutions matter. By their very nature, institutions cannot be perfectly neutral: rather, they define the available political options, wholly excluding some otherwise-feasible alternatives from the array of choices presented to the public, making others less likely to be chosen, and positively favoring still others. 1

The second lesson is that “strategic” behaviors are crucial in transitions to democracy. The shift away from authoritarianism, during the course of which democratic institutions must be designed and established, is often a time of great uncertainty for all political actors. The various “strategic” behaviors that they adopt in the face of an unknown future—and not some set of allegedly irresistible social or cultural factors—should be the focus of analysis. 2

Thus political institutions—electoral systems, constitutional provisions governing relations between the legislative and executive branches, and degrees of decentralization—often get chosen more because of calculations made during the process of change in a given country than because certain versions of these institutions are somehow uniquely appropriate to the economic structure, social patterns, or political tastes of that country and its citizens.

Eastern Europe in the 1990s offers a small, but still larger-than-usual, set of cases in which changes have occurred at about the same time, in pretty much the same international context, and with comparable [End Page 74] socioeconomic starting conditions. Yet in spite of these similarities, the processes of democratic transition and constitutional construction in these countries have been guided by strategic behaviors that vary from country to country and have therefore produced a variety of institutional outcomes.

Although there are several approaches to classifying institutional strategies in processes of political change, I find it most useful to distinguish between preelectoral strategies, which are usually dominated by the need for bargaining amid uncertainty, and “constitution-making” strategies, which are typically adopted after the first competitive election has been held.

Preelectoral Strategies

Recent discussions of decisions concerning institutions stress two variables: 1) the relative bargaining strength of the incumbents and their opposition, and 2) the expectations about electoral outcomes that each side harbors. 3 By taking bargaining strength and electoral expectations into account, we can define four possible strategic situations:

  1. 1. If at the beginning of the process of change the incumbents judge themselves to be in a favorable position and at the same time are optimistic about their electoral chances, they will opt for a majoritarian-plurality electoral system, unicameral parliamentarism, and centralization, for these should afford them the best grip on the levers of institutional power.

    As it happens, this was the formal institutional pattern of communist rule that was in place as the winds of change began to blow across Eastern Europe in 1989. Every one of the region’s “people’s republics” had an electoral system based on single-member districts winnable by plurality, and a written constitutional scheme under which a single-chamber parliament chose a nonexecutive president as head of state and an executive prime minister as head of government with formal responsibility to the legislature. The sole—and then only partial—exception was Czechoslovakia, which after 1968 had a two-chamber federal parliament. As long as the communists ruled and elections were noncompetitive, such mechanisms were mere “scraps of paper”; nonetheless, they were capable in principle of becoming the basis of authentic multiparty elections once the communists began to lose power. Thus we should expect to find more institutional continuity in those cases where the communists were able to impose most or all of the institutional rules at the beginning of the reform process and where they were optimistic about their electoral chances.

  2. 2. If the incumbents cannot simply impose the conditions of change, they will try to ensure some opportunity to claim a place for themselves by advocating pluralist institutions and a division of powers. In [End Page 75] particular, they will favor electoral systems featuring proportional representation (PR), a separately elected president, and a two-chamber parliament.

  3. 3. If the incumbents can dictate the conditions of change but harbor...

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