Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) has seen both highly unstable party systems and high rates of corruption. As a result, lots of new parties keep popping up, and an anticorruption focus has proven to be a great way for them to get noticed. In fact, studies have found that new parties are more successful when they center their message on fighting political misconduct.
Among those that actually win, some of these anticorruption parties have been modestly successful in passing reforms. But many other anticorruption parties have floundered when in office. Part of the problem is that these parties often make lofty promises but fail to put forward actual, workable plans. Enough voters will still vote for the “anticorruption” party as a way of expressing disapproval for the incumbent government, without necessarily paying close attention to whether the anticorruption party and its leaders are willing or able to follow through on their promises. As a result, numerous CEE countries have had bad experiences with anticorruption parties that, when in office, appear to have little idea how to govern differently from their predecessors—and sometimes little apparent interest in doing so. Consider a few examples:
- Bulgaria’s National Movement for Simeon II (NDSV), an anticorruption party, rose to prominence in 2001. The party leader—and former tsar of Bulgaria—famously promised that the party would fix the country’s corruption issues in just 800 days. As Professor Daniel Smilov observed, the party’s plan against corruption pretty much amounted to the (implausible) idea that “it would be impossible . . . for a (former) tsar and all his men to dirty their hands in inappropriate activities.” Yet despite the lack of anything resembling a concrete platform or plausible theory of change, Bulgarian voters rewarded this party with 42.7% of the national vote. Unsurprisingly, NDSV could not deliver on its promises, and the party lost all its seats within eight years.
- The problem recurred in Bulgaria in 2009, when, shortly after NDSV’s collapse, a former NDSV member founded a new party, Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB). Like its predecessor, GERB used a focus on anticorruption to help propel itself to power. And while the party came to dominate Bulgarian politics over the next decade, it not only did not take serious action against corruption, but in fact the GERB party perpetuated the sorts of political corruption it had claimed to oppose.
- Czechia has seen similar problems. In the years leading up to the 2010 parliamentary elections in particular, faith in the national government was at a low, largely due to persistent political dishonesty. Sensing an opportunity to capitalize on voter anger over corruption, a local populist party, Public Affairs, decided to enter the national election. Unlike any party before that election, Public Affairs espoused no ideology and took no positions on major issues other than good governance. And on that issue, the party did not focus on proposed solutions, but rather launched a general populist critique against political elites, who it claimed had lost touch with the people. That message worked: Public Affairs earned 10.9% of the vote, while the shares of the incumbent parties dropped significantly. But in short order Public Affairs collapsed, after its de facto leader, Vít Bárta, was accused of and later tried for bribery-related offenses. Other officials were implicated too. Members began to split off following these and other scandals, and eventually the party announced its dissolution.
- In 2011, just as Public Affairs was falling apart, a prominent Czech businessman named Andrej Babiš founded a new party, Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO). Like Public Affairs before it, ANO made anticorruption its central campaign issue. But also like Public Affairs, the party remained vague about its ideology and preferred to focus on chastising the establishment. That message resonated with voters across the political spectrum, and ANO earned nearly 19% of the vote in the 2013 parliamentary elections—second among all parties. In 2017, fueled by ANO’s further success, Babiš assumed the role of Prime Minister. But while Babiš, along with his party, never abandoned their anticorruption message, he has been embroiled in a daunting list of controversies, many of which concern Babiš’s melding of his business and political interests—which create substantial conflicts of interest and have led to numerous accusations of misconduct. Today, Babiš stands trial in a $2 million fraud case involving his former business. Yet he maintains his grip on ANO. Unlike Public Affairs, ANO has not fallen apart, but like Public Affairs, it seems to have come to embody many of the same practices that the party was ostensibly founded to oppose and defeat.
Now, we cannot just lay the blame for the failure of these parties at the feet of the voters. It is often hard to predict how new parties will perform. Still, in all the above cases the self-declared “anticorruption parties” were quite vague about what they intended to accomplish in office—so much so that it’s reasonable to characterize their anticorruption stance as more of a posture than an actual platform. That should be a red flag: Voters, including voters whose highest priority is anticorruption, ought to demand that politicians and parties present more concrete plans and demonstrate some capacity for actually governing. The impulse to throw the (incumbent) rascals out needs to be balanced against the need to properly vet the newcomers.
The news about anticorruption parties in the CEE region is not entirely bad, however. Indeed, on the whole the trend toward the emergence of anticorruption parties is encouraging, and many of these parties, like Estonia’s Res Publica and Latvia’s New Era, have developed implementable solutions and made important gains. And these encouraging examples reinforce the lesson from the cautionary tales from Bulgaria and Czechia: anticorruption parties should develop tangible strategies rather than relying on vague rhetoric, while voters should reward those efforts, scrutinizing the plans and motivations of anticorruption parties, rather than viewing elections as a mere referendum on the incumbents.