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1 / IV / zima 2002 / winter 2002Články / ArticlesTisk / PrintDownload

Parties, Poles and the Post–Communist Party Arrangements: A Study On Conceptualization of Poles and Polarity

Maxmilián Strmiska


This article is conceived of as a contribution to the process of refining the discussion on the concept and typology of several Central Eastern and Southern European post–communist party systems through an analysis of issues of polarity. It concentrates on conceptualisation of poles and polarity in consolidating party arrangements. The effective political parties–poles or alliances–poles must be ”visible”, separate formations, i.e. distant from each other in the given ideological and political continuum, with a sufficient and at the same time adequately consolidated electoral basis. Moreover, poles have to act as coherent operational units , which are relevant for the shape and working of the party system. Polarity (the number and configuration of poles) is closely related with both the party system format and the ”ideological” diversity, but is not identical with them. The article suggests that the study of polarity of party arrangements is a necessary point of departure towards their typological characteristic. This applies to both ”mature”, institutionalised systems of political parties, and to ”immature”, insufficiently or only weakly structured or ”settled” party arrangements.


post-communist party systems, Central Eastern and Southern Europe, poles, polarity

Every competitive multiparty arrangement shows certain signs of plurality and polarity. The concept of party plurality – at least in its current interpretation – is very close to that of party and political spectrum. Considering plurality (i.e. the state of being ”plural”) makes sense only in such systems, which are formed by the minimum of two (or more) independent relevant operational units (political parties or party alliances) with a distinct, separate ideological and political-organizational identity. The concept of polarity of a party arrangement thus naturally presupposes the existence of poles represented by individual parties, their alliances or blocks – as well as the existence of fields or streams of interaction between them. Such poles may represent relevant political parties or their alliances characterised by sufficient electoral support and/or a distinct ideological and political option. The actual, effective political parties–poles or alliances–poles must meet both criteria: they must be ”visible”, different and separate formations, i.e. distant from each other in the given ideological and political continuum, with a sufficient and at the same time adequately consolidated and delimited electoral basis. In other words, parties – political poles – have separate identities and it is in this sense that they use their own sources of political mobilisation and legitimisation which are ”external” to other poles, while representing different political options. These options must be relevant from the point of view of the formation and reproduction of the given party arrangement. This general definition shows that polarity (the number, configuration and shape of poles) is closely related with both the party system format (i.e. with the number of relevant parties) and the plurality (including ”ideological” diversity), but is not identical with them. The maximum number of poles of the given system is naturally determined by the number of relevant parties, or, in other words, by the number of independent operational units. Not every individual relevant party may by itself embody an individual pole, which mainly applies to formations with coalition potential. Satellite political parties, no matter how indispensable for governmental coalitions, can be at best considered as part of some of the alliances or poles. The potential and prestige of a satellite party are just those of a satellite, minor actor and nothing more. Similarly, the distinction of ideologically or culturally and politically profiled groups or blocks of relevant political parties may not necessarily result in defining a polarity. Should such blocks at the same time represent poles (alliances–poles), they would have to act as coherent operational units, at least at some levels important for the working of the party system. The definition of poles and polarity is therefore a multidimensional and often a complex task.

Leaving apart other aspects of the concept of plurality and polarity which, however interesting, prove irrelevant in the context of this article, we can conclude that plurality and polarity involve the basic features of the overall political party arrangement profile, including its mechanical predispositions (in the terms of the theory of Giovanni Sartori; cf. Sartori 1976) or, in other words, the structural conditions for the establishment and reproduction of a certain working logic of the given system. The study of plurality and polarity of party arrangements is therefore, at least in the framework of the present point of view, a necessary point of departure towards their typological characteristic. This naturally applies to both ”mature”, well structured and institutionalised systems of political parties, and to ”immature”, insufficiently or only weakly structured or ”settled” party arrangements.

The question of ”maturity” or ”immaturity”, the extent to which party systems in the post–communist countries are institutionalised and/or well structured deserves some attention due to the number of misunderstandings that affected this field in the past. Let us first mention two moments which are of interest in a wider perspective. First, the temporal dimension of ”maturity” or the state of consolidation of party and political systems is too often preferred and overestimated. It is important to understand that the condition of ”maturity” of a pluralist party system is not a mechanical or inevitable outcome of the system lasting or merely surviving (cf. Kitschelt 1999). Event though it is a matter of fact that the party system consolidation process takes place over a certain period of time, isolated perception of the period of duration of such system does not allow for any relevant conclusion as regards the ”system” properties or ”qualitative” features of such arrangement, which are of primary interest drawing its typology. Second, in examining the processes of stabilising and consolidating pluralist party systems, it is very useful to distinguish between different levels of formation, working and reproduction of party and political systems. Such distinction should be of course applied to the whole research strategy, and especially to the different levels of analysis of the processes and of phenomena in question. As a result, it is quite wrong, at least from the theoretical and methodological point of view, to speak of analysis and typology of a party system without actually having analysed the ”system” properties of the respective arrangement, i.e. the mechanical predispositions and, first of all, the prevailing patterned party interactions determining the working logic of the given arrangement as a certain type of system (cf. Mair 1997; Fiala, Strmiska 1998). Unfortunately, there has been a number of indicators in recent years that only part of research in new central and eastern European post–communist party systems is up to this requirement.

The application of the approach typical for the study of western European party arrangements to the framework of relatively ”immature” central and eastern European post–communist party landscapes naturally did not render – and still does not – quite the same results from the point of view of both the ”internal” working logic of party system and with regard to the ”external” aspects of their position and role in the respective wider political environments. The point is not just the general statement of relative ”volatility” or changing character of ”immature” party systems, or the effort to create a more or less ”invented” opposition between ”inchoate”, unstable party arrangements on the one hand and stable (if only apparently stable) party systems. Even a ”mature” system may be subject to change. The system is ”mature” if the conditions for the system working, as well as the prevailing party interactions patterns are stabilised. Last but not least, maturity means relative stability, elementary functionality and reproduction ability of the system’s mechanics and/or working logic derived from such patterns. This concept of relative stability is not the same as that of unchanging character. A ”mature” system may not be hermetically ”closed” (cf. Mair 1997). ”Mature” party systems do not exclude, say, coexistence of (potential) alternative patterned party interactions (which are, however, often subject to a hierarchy), nor do they exclude their actual substitution – provided the alternative solutions work and the system’s ability to reproduce itself is not jeopardised – at least in its key elements and mechanisms. On the contrary, ”immature” less consolidated systems are unable of this, which is the main, even though not the only, distinction between the two. The reasons for such inability may be of different nature, including instability of ”external” environment in which a party system works, too frequent and unforeseeable changes in mechanical predispositions, fragility of prevailing party competition and co–operation patterns, or simply total impotence and/or apathy of the respective party and political elites. For instance, the difference between a ”mature” and an ”immature” multipartism (conceived of as a type of system, not just as a mere format) may or, even more importantly in this context, may not be evident in the sphere of their mechanical predispositions and properties, and may be difficult to discern even in individual assessment of different prevailing patterns of interactions of the systems’ operational units. However, the difference between apparently ”mature” multipartism on the one hand and ”immature” multipartism on the other will inevitably come up if their working logic as such is subject to appreciation: while a ”mature” multiparty system uses functional coalition formulas – which have been established and legitimised in the respective context – ”immature” multipartism has no such well developed formulas or standard mechanisms, or the chances for a long term implementation of coalition variants which are at hand are so limited that the ”raison d’etre” itself of such multipartism is at doubt. In both the cases it is necessary and useful to investigate structural predisposition for setting up and reproduction of a working logic of the respective systems. However, in studying an ”immature” party system, explanation of links existing between mechanical predispositions, prevailing interaction patterns and the overall working logic of the system as such is likely to offer some difficulty also because such links may not always be of a nature and importance typical for ”mature” arrangements. Research should reflect it, including the necessary dose of sobriety in anticipating certain results, especially as far as the typological description of the different systems is concerned. Hopefully, the above context allows for a correct understanding of the methodological base chosen and the perspectives drawn on this occasion. Rather than drawing a complex typology of central and eastern European post–communist party systems or describing their working logic, the author of the paper pretends to investigate some of the key moments in party and political plurality and polarity with respect to the issues of mechanical predispositions for such party arrangements working and reproducing, while the main focus will be on the question of establishment and profiling of major party poles.

Relatively easiest is the identification of poles if the primary criteria applied are those of size and stability of the electoral base of different parties–poles. Considering, in this context, the party systems in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Macedonia, at least three or four of the above selected party arrangements allow for clear distinguishing couples of major poles if viewed with the necessary amount of simplification and with regard to the period of the late 1990s, as well as the prevailing mid- or long term development trends of electoral behaviour: the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) in the Czech Republic, the Christian Democratic Peasant National Party (PNŢCD) and the the Party of Social Democracy in Romania (PDSR) in Romania (this was the case until the autumn of 2000, when PNŢCD lost its privileged position), the Union of the Democratic Forces (SDS) and the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) in Bulgaria, and the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) and the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO–DPMNE) in Macedonia.(1) However, the situation has been slightly more complex in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia. As for Poland, a strong trend towards rivalry of two main compounded poles could be seen within its party arrangement (at least until 2001), of which one could be denominated as a post–Solidarity and the other as post–communist, even though its impact has been complicated and buffered by differentiation and fragmentation of the post–Solidarity political camp. While the post–communist pole has been transformed into a relatively homogeneous and stable party groupings (the Democratic Left Alliance, SLD) with an identifiable core party – in this particular case the Social Democracy of the Polish Republic – its anticommunist counterpart, embodied in the late 1990s by the Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS), has represented a much more heterogeneous and inherently incoherent compounded pole. After the 2001 parliamentary elections, there is only one major pole in the Polish party arrangement - the Democratic Left Alliance. The major post–communist pole in Hungary is the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), while the post–anticommunist or ”anti–post–communist” major pole which was first represented by the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) is today represented by the Alliance of Young Democrats – the Hungarian Civic Party (FIDESZ–MPP). In Slovakia, the Movement for Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and the Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK) has been the major poles in the late 1990s. However, the Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK) has represented a peculiar, inherently very fragile compounded pole–alliance and the fate of the Slovak form of bipolarity of major poles is difficult to predict. In Croatia, the predominant party system of the period until 2000 has been established only through one major pole – the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) (Hloušek, Strmiska 1999).(2) In Romania and Bulgaria, the situation has changed in 2000 and 2001, too. After the Romanian parliamentary elections of November 2000, only the Social Democratic Party (PSD; the renamed and/or transformed PDSR) could be considered a major pole. In Bulgaria, the emergence and electoral victory of the National Movement of Simeon the Second (NDSV) in 2001 has destabilized the previous kind of polarity and has created a fragile party configuration with NDSV as a new ”provisional” major pole while the issue of new status for both SDS and BSP remains unsettled.

Let us remind, however, that the definition of polarity cannot be reduced to identification of the main party poles, unless we study arrangements characterised by the presence of just the major poles and by the absence of other solid and ”visible” points of reference, which means (in the above outlined perspective) that the other political parties or alliances, if at all included in the given arrangement, have a very limited and/or very unstable electoral base. In such cases the difference between the electoral constituencies of the main formations and the other actors is simply too big. The question is, however, to what extent can this difference be quantified on a general level. If the electoral bases of the different parties or alliances aspiring to become minor poles are significantly smaller than one third of the electorate of the weaker of the two main poles, they are likely to be no poles at all. However, this consideration should not be accepted without reserve, as it is not only the size of electoral constituency that qualifies a party or alliance to occupy the position of a minor pole, but rather other factors whose action may under favourable circumstances and to a limited extent compensate the excessive difference in electoral support given to formations constituting the major and the minor poles. It may also be useful to view the whole problem from a different angle, i.e., with regard to the consequences the existence and action of minor poles may have for the formation and reproduction of major poles. This problem is not just theoretical and self–justified. In all the above examples of multipartism there are minor poles or at least political parties or alliances aspiring to such role. Drawing a full characteristic of their polarity should therefore involve configuration of the major and minor poles, as well as their mutual relations. Minor party poles are important also because of indirect influence they have on major poles, as the mere existence of the former reduces the space for expansion of the latter. Drawing an exact limit to electoral expansion of minor poles whose exceeding would have a negative impact on the position of the couple of the major poles is extremely difficult, if possible at all.(3) What could be considered in this context is but an accessory, approximate scale. For instance, if the total number of votes and especially the sum of parliamentary mandates gained by the two major poles of a certain arrangement, considered in a reasonable time framework, repeatedly fails to reach 50 %, such bipolar configuration of major parties (or alliances) can be considered rather unsettled and therefore uncertain, provided quantitative indicators were the principal criterion. This is not the case of any of the above party systems (and this also applies to somewhat peculiar case of Croatia with only one major pole from the beginning of the 1990s until 2000). But even if it were the case, similar considerations should never result in precipitated and would–be finite conclusions regarding the existence or non–existence of such kind of bipolarity or of major party poles as such. Other factors and the respective context should be taken into consideration, too.

A complex view of polarity of the above cases of multipartism and of other ”post–communist” party landscapes cannot stick to indicators which are the most easy to identify and quantify. It must also involve other quality dimensions and factors, among others, mainly the expression of separate identity, the embodiment of a clearly discernible and relevant political option and, last but not least, the position and role of parties–poles or alliances–poles in the respective arrangements. To a certain extent, the study of new cases of multipartism in central and eastern Europe is in advantage as the relatively high rate of adversariality and conflictness of interactions of party and political actors in different phases of formation of party arrangements in this part of Europe has made the profiling of the individual poles much easier.(4) The question or questions to be asked in this context could be worded in the following way: do parties and/or alliances–poles really posses separate identities and do they draw upon their sources of mobilisation which are, in this sense, ”external” to other poles? Do they represent political options that can be easily distinguished and which are relevant for the formation and reproduction of the respective party and political arrangement? If we focus on just the couples of major poles in the period of late 1990s, the answers to these questions should be basically positive: the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), the Movement for Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and the Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK; until 2000), the Christian Democratic Peasant National Party (PNŢCD; until the autumn of 2000) and the Party of Social Democracy in Romania (PDSR), the Union of the Democratic Forces (SDS; until 2001) and the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP; until 2001), the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) and the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO–DPMNE), the Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS; until 2000/2001) and the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) and the Alliance of Young Democrats – the Hungarian Civic Party (FIDESZ–MPP) could in this respect be considered as sufficiently profiled poles, which also implies the fact that distinguishing bipolarity of these major formations is (wit respect to the given period) a key component of type description of such party arrangements. With a certain reserve, we could even say that also the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) and minor party poles (the Croatian Social Liberal Party, HSLS, and the Social Democratic Party, SDP) were profiled as poles in the Croatian context (until 2000). To avoid misunderstanding, though, it should be pinpointed that this does not imply that the above formations can be automatically and easily inserted in the classic right–left continuum, i.e. that they represent in all instances a ”standard” right and left–centrist dyads or double–pole arrangement. Nothing is said about how distant the major poles are from each other. The above statements only point to the fact that the distance between the political parties is sufficient enough to prevent them from being confused.

Let us conclude that the position and system role of couples of major political poles is by definition mainly dependent on the embodiment of the basic governmental and, excluding the variant of ”grand coalition”, of the main opposition (potential governmental) alternative. This bipolar configuration makes profiling and self–identification of major pole couples much easier. In this context, attention should be also drawn to the key importance of links between legitimacy and mobilisation sources of parties representing major poles. These links can never be analysed and assessed adequately by simply applying ”quantitative” or ”qualitative” criteria in a narrow, reduced and one–sided perspective. The best perspective is that which allows for both complex view of the critical (dynamic or more or less static) moments of the respective party system mechanics, and the necessary differentiation between individual aspects of polarity from the point of view of their systemic action and impact.


AWS    (Solidarity Electoral Action)
BSP    (Bulgarian Socialist Party)
CDR    (Democratic Convention of Romania)
CDR 2000    (Romanian Democratic Convention 2000)
ČSSD    (Czech Social Democratic Party)
FDSN    (Democratic National Salvation Front)
FSN    (National Salvation Front)
FIDESZ-MPP    (Alliance of Young Democrats-Hungarian Civic Party)
HDZ    (Croatian Democratic Community)
HSLS    (Croatian Social Liberal Party)
HZDS    (Movement for Democratic Slovakia)
MDF    (Hungarian Democratic Forum)
MSZP    (Hungarian Socialist Party)
NDSV    (National Movement of Simeon the Second)
ODS    (Civic Democratic Party)
ODS    (United Democratic Forces)
PDSR    (Party of Social Democracy in Romania)
PNŢCD    (Christian Democratic National Peasant Party)
PSD    (Social Democratic Party)
SDK    (Slovak Democratic Coalition)
SDP    (Social Democratic Party)
SDS    (Union of Democratic Forces)
SDSM    (Social Democratic Union of Macedonia)
SLD    (Democratic Left Alliance)
SZDSZ    (Alliance of Free Democrats)
VMRO-DPMNE    (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity).

Poznámky / Notes

1) In Romania, the PNŢCD was the core party of the alliance called Democratic Convention of Romania (CDR). Thus, the Democratic Convention of Romania represented a major compounded pole. However, it should be remembered that the composition of the CDR changed considerably several times between 1992 and 2000. Nevertheless, the position of the PNŢCD as the core party remained unchanged during the whole period. For this reason, it seems that the PNŢCD (and not the CDR) should be conceived as one of the two effective major poles in the Romanian multipartism until 2000. A similar argument could be applied in the case of the Bulgarian United Democratic Forces (ODS). The ODS of the late 1990s has represented an ”alliance of alliances” with a dominant core–alliance, the Union of the Democratic Forces (SDS) (cf. Strmiska 2001: 44-45, 47-50, 61-66).
2) After the electoral defeat of the Croatian Democratic Community in January 2000, the process of ”rearrangement” of the whole Croatian party system has started. It seems that – with respect to the new (and still provisional) configuration – SDP and HZDS could represent the major poles couple.
3) In this context, I will leave apart the theoretical possibility of the existence of three major poles. Even though quite possible from the theoretical point of view, no such arrangement has so far been applied in the analysis of the above set of party arrangements. Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that a situation in which three actors of a party and political scene aspire at representing the main poles may not be an exception (cf. the current configuration in Bulgaria), even though such situation cannot be identified with ”effective”, established tripolarity of the major poles.
4) Naturally, the mere statement that there is a "strong" polarity does not provide solid grounds for the analysis of political interaction patterns and for drawing the characteristics of a system's mechanism. Apart from other facts, the number of poles which can be taken into consideration must be defined, as well as differences between them determined by their position and role primarily depending on the respective electoral bases (differentiation between the major and minor poles), as well as by their composition (differentiation between monolithic parties - poles and "compounded" alliances - poles).
Three basic major pole arrangements or patterns can be identified in this context:
A. Both the major poles are "monolithic", at least in the sense of being represented by individual parties;
B. One of the major poles is represented by a (pre-electoral and/or permanent) party alliance - block; this model can be further divided in two sub-categories: B1 - an alliance-pole with an identifiable key party - core; B2 - without such core;
C. Both the major poles are represented by alliances; in this case, this category can by further divided in three sub-categories: C1 - both the poles having an identifiable key party - core; C2 - both the poles lacking such core; C3 - one pole having such core, the other not.
The Czech, Hungarian and Macedonian case falls within the A category. Slovak multipartism has shown some characteristics of the B model (the subcategory B2), Rumanian multipartism oscillated (until 2000) between the A and B (B1) models, the Bulgarian party arrangement seemed to be approaching the A model (until 2001), yet possessing certain features of the C1 arrangement, while it had been very close to the B2 variant in its previous development phase. The Polish party arrangements in the late 1990s (until 2000/2001) was close to model C1.
Differentiating between parties and poles and alliances and poles, respectively, is relatively important both for the correct classification of a particular arrangement, i.e. the identification of the number of relevant parties and, subsequently, of the current and at least potentially relevant interaction trends, and for the overall appreciation of the respective interaction patterns (party-political competition and co-operation) and the functioning logic of the given arrangement. This step in itself allows for a certain degree of discrimination. For instance: bipolar structure (in the framework of the above concept of polarity) may exist both in classic bipartite arrangements and in different variants of limited and moderate multiparty arrangements. While it is always the A variant in the former case, the range of possibilities is much wider in the latter, i.e. A, B or even C ("genuine" moderate multipartism would in this case be characterised by the C2 subcategory). Similarly to predominant party arrangements, the C model is quite excluded in this case, unless we have to do with actual unipolarity, while the A and B models are probable.

1 / IV / zima 2002 / winter 2002Články / ArticlesTisk / PrintDownload

    ISSN 1212-7817

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vydává Mezinárodní politologický
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