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The jumble of political parties in Poland and other nations just fosters volatility.

By Timothy Garton Ash The Los Angeles Times

October 25, 2007

Every so often, just when you're getting tired of it, you are reminded what a wonderful thing democracy is. Last Sunday, young Poles queued up patiently, not just in Warsaw and Wroclaw but in Dublin and London, to vote for a Poland in which they would have a future.

The most elementary pleasure of democracy -- we, the people, choose our government -- is something their parents had never enjoyed until the end of communism in 1989. The 18- and 19-year-olds were themselves experiencing it for the first time. Voter turnout, though still low, was the highest since the historic election of 1989. It was younger Poles, above all, who turned out in unexpectedly large numbers to produce a result that surprised everyone.

Enough was enough. Time for a change. And so, to use a sturdy Anglo- Saxon phrase, they "threw the rascals out." The milder of the "terrible twins" remains as president, but the more conspiratorial and bloody-minded Jaroslaw Kaczynski will no longer be prime minister. His party, although it still garnered nearly a third of the vote, suffered a decisive defeat. As satisfying was the fact that two populist and pigheaded smaller parties, the so-called Self Defense party and the League of Polish Families, fell below the 5% hurdle and so will not be represented in Parliament. On election night, I particularly enjoyed the moment when Polish television went to the headquarters of the ghastly Self Defense party and showed a brightly lighted, totally deserted hall. There appeared to be no one there except the TV reporter and one melancholy, mustachioed spokesman. The party's over. Last one out, turn off the lights.

This result is good for democracy, good for Poland and good for Europe. A xenophobic, provincial, backward-looking, Germanophobe tendency, which had been there all along in Polish society, had its chance in government. It made a mess of it in just two years. A clear majority of voters then decided in free and fair elections that this was not the sort of Poland they wanted to live in, nor the face they wished to show the world. They want a country that is more modern, liberal, European and Western.

Unfortunately, the Kaczynski twins did not just make a mess politically for themselves. They also made a mess of a weak state, plagued by partisanship and corruption. They promised a stronger, cleaner state and delivered an even weaker, dirtier one. The new government will have its work cut out to restore -- no, to create for the first time -- good governance under the rule of law. I am not confident it will succeed.

There's another side to this story that has wider significance. One characteristic feature of Polish politics since the end of communism is the failure to consolidate any large, durable political parties, on either the center-left or the center-right. Over the years, parties have come and gone like hopeful singles at a speed-dating session. The acronyms have been reshuffled like an alphabet in a kaleidoscope. For a time, the post-communists looked like they might become a modern social democratic party, but they collapsed in a morass of scandal and corruption.

Nor has this overwhelmingly Catholic country yet managed to create a modern Christian democratic party, like that in Germany. The same old politicians keep popping up, but the parties keep changing. Only one party has been represented continuously in Parliament since 1989: the Peasants Party. It seems to me no coincidence that this is also the only party to represent a single, well-defined social group: the peasants, God bless 'em.

The kaleidoscope of the acronyms is not just a Polish phenomenon. If you look at the election records of other post-communist countries -- and countries elsewhere as well -- you often find a similar volatility. Take Italy, which went through an earthquake in its political system after the end of the Cold War. As far as I can see from the records, no single party that was represented in Italy's lower house of Parliament in autumn 1987 is there today.

To countries like Britain and the United States, which stolidly go on having the same two or three main parties, these may seem like giddy Latin and Slavonic dances. To lose one political party is understandable; to lose all of them looks like carelessness.

But consider this: If our old, established parties did not exist, would we invent them? Almost certainly not. They're there because they're there because they're there. They no longer represent distinctive social groups (e.g. Labor for labor) or distinct, coherent sets of principles.

In Britain, Labor and Conservatives now cross-dress all the time as they compete for the affections of a broadly liberal (small "l") middle class. They are mere aggregators of interests and prejudices, election-winning machines held together only by history and the shared lust for power. Yet for all that, having a stable party system remains a great advantage.

The problem is: How do you create it if you never had it, as in Poland, or re-create it if it has collapsed, as in Italy? Timothy Garton Ash, a contributing editor to The Times' opinion pages, is professor of European studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.


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