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The Impact of EU Enlargement on Central European Party Systems and Electoral Alignments

January 2004 - July 2009

The British Academy-funded project focuses on the process of EU enlargement and its impact on party systems and electoral alignments in the eight Central European countries involved in the process since 2004. EU enlargement and the membership of these countries is likely to have had a significant impact on the character and spectrum of parties present in these countries during the process of enlargement and the early phase of a European Union that numbered twenty-five in 2004 and reached twenty-seven in 2007. At the outset of the project it was thought likely that EU membership would affect the way the parties operate and the role they play both in the newly integrated countries and within the EU political system.

Parties were seen as central actors helping or preventing the formation of pan-European political identities during this period, developments critical for the emergence of a broader European polity. One possibility, together with the institutional development of the European Parliament and the possible emergence of a new constitutional order, was the emergence of a pan-European political party system in which party goals are not just increasingly similar but develop as shared packages defining party objectives and activities across national borders. Effective parties and stable party systems may serve to sustain a democratic and increasingly integrated Europe; their absence could be likely to have the opposite effect. But the relatively short history of post-communist party growth and development in central Europe has shown it to be an uneven and turbulent process. Another conceivable effect of enlargement for party systems in Central Europe was in fact less one of integration and political stabilisation but more turbulence and destabilisation for the party systems that have evolved so far.

Broader theoretical issues are also involved. Party systems and electoral alignments are critically linked with the theory as well as the practice of modern democracy. Since the early phase of modern democracy parties have been regarded by some as antithetic to effective democratic practice, while others have seen their continuing operation as essential to the functioning of any representative democracy. Over recent decades many have proclaimed the end of party-based politics, but the death of political parties has clearly been overstated. What has happened, more realistically, is that the nature of the modern party has changed against a backdrop of evolving democratic practice. 

New perspectives on party development have been opened up by the recent political changes in Central and Eastern Europe, and progressive EU enlargement has offered a major new context in which to investigate the changing role of parties and their links with shifting electoral alignments. These have been studied since 2004 within the framework of a British Academy-funded Research Network and the issues discussed at series of workshops held in Prague, Ljubljana, Warsaw, Florence, Budapest and Sofia. The primary objective has been the publication of two books, one published in 2006 by Palgrave Macmillan and a second currently (April 2009) in preparation.

Principal Investigator: Professor Paul Lewis

Collaborators: Radoslaw Markowski (Warsaw), Zdenka Mansfeldova (Prague), Zsolt Enyedi (Budapest) and Alenka Krasovec (Ljubljana).