Turn Left, Turn Right

WARSAW: Electoral fortunes in the transition countries now swing like a pendulum. Three years ago, there was a sharp tick to the left; now an opposite tick, equally powerful, is pulling to the right. Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania and Estonia in their presidential elections: all have seen the right stage surprising comeback victories; Poland and perhaps Hungary may see the right regain parliamentary control next year.

The surface reasons for this shift are obvious. People are disappointed that the left has not delivered a gentler yet growing economy. In the case of Poland, for example, postcommunists delivered rapid growth, but their performance in the fields of social security, health, and other social issues has been nothing short of disastrous.

Still, there is a kind of normalcy to these electoral shifts. Governments fail and the people replace them at the ballot box. In the case of Lithuania, Poland, and possibly Hungary, however, this is already the second turn of the screw: only a few years ago it was the right that was seen as failing so the left was given its chance. Now the left is deemed a failure and the right returns to power. What if it is again perceived as a failure?

Pendulum shifts in the region's politics mask a fundamental failure: people are unable to define their political preferences in a coherent way. Was the left, for example, really defeated in Lithuania only because of its poor performance? It is far from obvious that Poland's postcommunists can be deemed as failed overseers of an economy growing faster than any other in Europe. So, was the postcommunist left undemocratic? Only Romania's President Iliescu fits that description. Perhaps corruption was the cause: but no government in the region has been able to avoid that charge. Moreover, what proof exists that the right will govern more effectively than the left? Evidence, indeed, exists for the contrary. After all, Lithuania's first rightist Sajudis government was no paradigm of managerial competence.