The Concept of Democracy in the Political Transformations of Central and Eastern Europe

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

19 Pages, Grade: A-



1. Introduction

2. Transition to what kind of democracy ?
Poland and Hungary
The political stalemate
Revolution ruled out
How ‘minimalist’ was negotiated transition to democracy?
The benefits of negotiated democratization
The implications for the consolidation of ‘negotiated’ democracies

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography


The short time span of 1989/90 marked a period of fundamental change in Central and Eastern Europe. Communist one-party dictatorship was replaced by democracy, accompanied by the introduction of a free market economy. Despite the deep and historical changes taking place this period was marked by its striking peacefulness and restraint by both opposition and the old regime, not regarding the case of Romania. In most Central and East European countries democracy was established through some kind of settlement between old and new elites securing an organized and peaceful regime change.[1] Especially in the cases of Poland and Hungary, the first countries in the region to start transition round-table talks were the key process to democratization. Instead of an act of a ‘new beginning’, a ‘zero hour’ with a constituent assembly the rules of transition were agreed on the basis of the legal framework of the old legal system. Not some kind of popular will expressed by the masses was put into action but a limited set of rules for the first free elections and some accompanying arrangements based on an agreement between old and new political leaders. The apparently missing democratic legitimacy of the actors on the round table and the lack of broad participation stands in contrast to the aim and ultimate outcome of the transition. This puzzle deserves some closer examination.

Focusing mainly on the Polish and Hungarian examples my aim in this paper is not to redraw the course of the round-table talks but to examine the underlying concept of democracy. At first I will briefly outline the historical situation which lead to the talks ruling out a revolutionary approach to democratization. Building on that I will attempt to explain why and in how far these coordinated transitions were focusing on the procedural aspects of democracy, i.e. the establishment of free elections following a procedural or ‘minimalist’ concept of democracy. I will discuss in how far this approach was conducive to the establishment of a complete democracy. Moreover, I will briefly address some implications and problems resulting from the legacy of this mode of transition for subsequent democratic consolidation. These considerations also lead to a more general question: In how far can democracy be introduced in a democratic way? I will not explicitly address this question but my considerations belong to this larger debate and might point to some answers.

2. Transformation to what kind of democracy ?

The end of communism in Central Eastern Europe and its rapid replacement with democratic systems came as a surprise for most observers. Yet, the end of communist rule and the installation of a democratic system came about in an orderly and organized way almost everywhere. Although in most countries popular mass action in the form of demonstrations or strikes had been decisive in forcing the old leadership to concede its defeat or at least to start a dialogue with the opposition, soon democratization became an elite-driven process. Transformation scholars termed this process ‘pacted’ or ‘negotiated’ transition.

Poland and Hungary

The classical examples for this category among the Central and East European countries are Poland and Hungary which will also serve to illustrate my points. Poland in particular and also Hungary as the first transition countries were regarded as trailblazers for the other Central and East European transitions to democracy. Strong elements of pacted transition were actually present in virtually all the Central East European countries’ transitions. Yet, Poland and Hungary offer the most striking examples as unlike elsewhere neither the opposition nor the old regime were strong enough to dominate the course of the talks.[2] Moreover, questions of nation building or national reorganization which soon dominated the transition agenda in the GDR or in Czechoslovakia were not topical in the two countries. Since completed national formation is widely seen an essential precondition to successful democratization[3] I will leave out the above mentioned cases and concentrate on Poland and Hungary. Nevertheless, the observations with regards to the underlying concept of democracy derived from these two cases can also claim a certain validity for the other Central and East European cases whose transitions entailed some degree of coordinated change.

The Political Stalemate

In both Poland in Hungary the key process in the transition process were round-table talks between the opposition and the communist leadership. The decisive outcomes lead to the first partly free (in Poland) or free elections (in Hungary) in which the communists lost against opposition parties. In the following I will briefly sketch the historical situation that lead to the initiation of the round-table talks and also had a decisive influence on the course of the negotiations.

Communist rule was experiencing a deep crisis in the 1980s, which increasingly undermined its legitimacy. Ideological mobilization had long been abandoned. Economic success and welfare growth, which had been some kind of substitute legitimacy were no longer sustainable. Simultaneously, the politics of glasnost and perestroika in the Soviet Union were opening new avenues for reform debates but also contributed to undermine ideological unity of the Soviet camp. Moreover, Soviet military backing to secure hardline rule at any cost became more and more doubtful. At the same time opposition forces were gaining more and more popular support and moral authority. In Poland the opposition was mainly represented by the underground Solidarity independent trade union with millions of workers as their supporters besides strong links to intellectual dissidents and the Catholic church. The Hungarian opposition was less visible and more heterogeneous with a number of groups based in intellectual circles ranging from the nationalist populist Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) to the cosmopolitan liberal Free Democrats (SZDSZ) and Young Democrats (Fidesz).

In the beginning the communist leadership in the two countries sought a dialogue with the opposition groups in order regain some kind of legitimacy for their policies and to broaden the base for inevitable reforms, especially in the economic sphere. In the Hungarian case the drive to approach the opposition (or parts of it) for consultation or cooperation was also supported by increasingly deep divisions in the post-Kádár leadership. This development was only possible under the legacy of ‘softer’ reform communism in the two countries as compared to other communist countries. This legacy made the development of a recognizable opposition movement in society possible, but also the growth of a moderate reform camp within the communist party, which established cautious contacts to some moderate opposition groups.

The invitation to talks offered both a chance and a danger to the opposition. On the one hand there was the opportunity to become an accepted political actor, to take on a role on the political scene and to realize programs which were developed and propagated for a long time. On the other hand, of course, there was the danger of becoming compromised in the eyes of the population and abused by an unpopular but still powerful opponent who pursued much more limited intentions.

Revolution ruled out

If a new beginning and genuine democracy was the aim of the democratic opposition why did they not choose the revolutionary path? Revolution as a mass movement from below to topple an illegitimate leadership and to destroy the old regime with the people as the sovereign subsequently deciding about a new order seems to be the more convincing approach to achieve this aim. Revolution in this sense would have fulfilled the more Rousseauvian idealist and participatory concept of democracy.

In fact, it can be claimed that the victory of the masses had removed the claim of the monopoly to power by the communist party in the first place. This was especially visible in the mass support for Solidarity strikes in Poland or the mass demonstration in favour of rehabilitating the 1956 revolution and its leaders in Hungary which undermined the communists claim to power. Thus a participatory factor in ending communist one-party dictatorship was clearly in place. Yet, the basic rules for the transition were not decided by the masses but agreed among new and old elites.

As Rose et al. point out, democracy cannot be sustained by spontaneous mass action and therefore elites need to propose institutions.[4] Only in certain moments mass mobilization and participation becomes vital again. This was for example the case with the referendum in Hungary initiated by the radical liberal opposition in order to counter an advantageous position for the communist party prior to the first parliamentary elections.[5] In the Polish case the overwhelming mandate for Solidarity in the first elections giving them all of the freely contested seats in the Sejm and all but one in the Senate soon demonstrated the illegitimacy of preferential treatment of the Communists with reserved seats in the Sejm as agreed upon in the talks.


[1] I apply the terms regime change and transformation according to János Kis’ definition (J Kis (1995), Between Reform and Revolution: Three Hypotheses About the Nature of the Regime Change, Constellations, Vol. 1, No. 3, pp. 399-421; J Kis (1998), Between Reform and Revolution, East European Politics and Society, Vol. 12, No.2, pp. 300-389).

[2] Czechoslovakia is an example for opposition-dominated round-table talks whereas in Bulgaria the power balance favoured the communist party.

[3] D Rustow (1970), Transitions to Democracy – Towards a Dynamic Model, Comparative Politics, p. 350.

[4] R Rose / W Mishler / C Haerpfer (1998), Democracy and Its Alternatives – Understanding Post-Communist Societies, Cambridge: Polity Press, p. 8.

[5] A Renwick, The Role of Non-Elite Forces in Hungary’s Negotiated Revolution, in: A Bozóki (ed.), The Roundtable Talks of 1989 – The Genesis of Hungarian Democracy, Budapest: CEU Press, pp. 191-210.

Excerpt out of 19 pages


The Concept of Democracy in the Political Transformations of Central and Eastern Europe
Central European University Budapest  (Dep. of Political Science)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
463 KB
transition, democracy, democratization, hungary, poland, round-table talks, negotiated revolution
Quote paper
Maximilian Spinner (Author), 2003, The Concept of Democracy in the Political Transformations of Central and Eastern Europe, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The Concept of Democracy in the Political Transformations of Central and Eastern Europe

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free