chapter  1
30 Pages

Parliamentary elite formation after Communism: an introduction


Regime change as a turning point in elite recruitment Regime turnover is commonly associated with a founding situation. The formative years in the evolution of a political system are crucial, as they shape the interaction of political forces, the lines of conflict, the structure of the party system, and the legal and institutional framework of political competition. After the breakdown of the old regime new institutions emerge, or if the old ones do remain in place, they function differently. More importantly, the new institutions are often run by new actors. The importance of elite formation and composition in founding situations is a well-established political fact (O’Donnell and Schmitter 1986; Burton et al. 1992; Higley and Burton 2006). In the majority of Central and East European (CEE) countries, parliaments were entrusted with establishing democracy and faced the Herculean task of setting up an entirely new political system. As Blondel (1973: 76) pointed out, parliaments are also “bodies of men and women with aspirations about their own careers and the future of society which stem in large part from their own backgrounds as well as from the environment.” Olson (1994: 13) draws attention to parliamentarians as “the human dimension of legislatures” that are particularly visible in CEE countries. Indeed, Members of Parliament (MPs) are a crucial part of the political elite as those who are most easily accessible and – apart from cabinet members, many of whom are recruited from parliament, and presidents – the most visible nationwide. As individual and as collective actors, MPs are entrusted with key parliamentary functions: legitimization and recruitment of the cabinet, law-making and control over the executive branch, and public debate. Parliamentarians are important figures in the decision-making process: they can keep a government in power or bring it down; open markets and encourage privatization or curtail economic competition and preserve state industries; and integrate minorities or fuel ethnic tensions. Yet it is equally obvious that the representative elite1 (MPs) operates within politics as a specific subsystem that has its own logic, norms, and procedures. Parliamentarians are party members; they belong to parliamentary party groups and as such they are bound by party loyalty and discipline. Whether they are seated on the governing or opposition bench largely determines how they interact

with the ministerial bureaucracy. Furthermore, all MPs are exposed to pressure from both lobby groups and the mass media. Focusing the comparative study of elite formation in CEE on members of the national legislative body, more precisely on those of the lower chamber in countries where bicameral parliaments exist, reflects the fact that parliamentarians are important figures in the new political order. MPs are elected by the people and are responsible to them and are thus expected to represent conflicting interests in society. Furthermore, their social origins and occupational backgrounds often associate them as representatives of certain groups or sectors in society. Such inference between parliamentarians’ social background and political attachments and allegiances even adds a symbolic element to their representative role. To some extent, the political influence that MPs can gain in CEE is a product of the specific features of elite formation that developed after the turnover of the old regimes. While elite change usually is an incremental process, regime turnover paves the way for a rapid circulation of key political office-holders (Dogan and Higley 1998). The regime changes in post-communist CEE are an excellent illustration of this. With the annus mirabilis 1989, the very logic of politics and policymaking across the region changed radically. As the orthodox communist regimes fell like dominoes, political power was no longer monopolized by central committees, thus opening the way for unprecedented political competition. Ever since, parliamentary mandates have been distributed as a result of more-or-less free elections contested by numerous political parties and electoral lists. From the perspective of democratization and the formation of the new elites in post-communist countries, we address in this book a number of topics:

• the formation of democratic representative elites after periods of authoritarian rule;

• the patterns of elite recruitment and political careers in CEE and the relationship they bear to the democratization of political regimes;

• the changes among political elites in post-communist CEE under the conditions of Europeanization and European integration; and

• the extent of similarities among the composition of political elites but also the persistence of distinctiveness after communist domination.