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>Political parties in the Baltic (and beyond) – Is unstable is the new stable?

>Came across a very interesting 2004 paper by Estonian political scientist Allan Sikk – the HTML ‘ghost’ of a PDF file – on “Successful new parties in the Baltic states”. The rise of new parties and fall of old ones has been a repeated and marked phenomenon in the three Baltic states since early 1990s, and but echoed in some other (similarly successful) post-communist democracies(Slovakia, Poland). Traditional sociological explanations of new party formation (cleavage and value change – the rise of Green parties in W Europe for example) Sikk suggests play poorly in the Baltic/post-communist context. There are simply no signs of major social or value change fast enough to keep up with the rapidity of new party formation. This leads us to look at factors like resource mobilization and political opportunity structures. although parties are rather good at mixing and matching resources (‘substitutability’) when the traditional building blocks of party formation (grassroots activism, new social demands) ain’t there.

Rather he suggests, the formation of new parties (and, as he astutuely notes, its logical flip side the break-up of old one – an understudied area – but part of the same process) serves as a kind of democratic control mechanism giving vent to public frustration with (real and imagined) corruption and a vehicle for innovative and reform in an ultra-competitive and changing electoral market. Sikk also, very interestingly, argues that the high stakes of early transition politics (opportunities shaping state and society through privatization and marketization, if necessary through radical or unpopular policies) provide incentives politicians to, in effect, create disposable parties. The logic is that incentives for party stabilization will – all other things being equal (perhaps a big assumption) – grow as the scope of decisions that politicians can make narrows to what is normal in a small, reasonably well established democracy locked into EU membership.

Sikk’s work, which seems to some extent a response to the specifics of the Baltic sub-region (and an attempt to think more widely about post-communist parties and democracy on the basis of it) feeds into a growing academic interest with the volatility of many CEE party systems and a realisation that that party political instability can be ‘normal’ and even ‘good’. Well entrenched parties and party systems such as Hungary and the Czech Republic tended to viewed these days as a source of stagnation and clientelism – and thus on the whole an obstacle to liberal reform – rather than a facet of democratic consolidation (the academic consensus of the early-mid 1990s). Indeed a recent article in the journal Democratization argues that once stable West European party systems and once volatile CEE party systems are (for different reasons) convergent around a European model of workable-to-beneficial instability with a dose of populism.

In any case, I’ll be first in the queue to buy Allan Sikk’s book…. Although, being Estonia, perhaps I should judt expect an e-book.