Democracy and Election in the New East Central Europe: a Report from the Field.
A drive through the countryside of either Hungary, Romania, Slovakia or Bosnia-Herzegovina forces one to come to terms with the fact that in these countries, in the 1990’s, it is still common to witness a 40 year-old farmer walking across a field pulling an old plow with a steer. It is almost as if in many parts of these countries, the Industrial Revolution has not yet taken place. In many respects their society has changed very little in the last 50 years. When I arrived in Hungary to work for Prime Minister Jozsef Antall in 1992, most people still didn’t have telephones and, in rural areas, running water was being introduced to homes for the first time. By stark contrast, the dramatic end of communism has opened these countries up to the most modern campaign techniques available. The contrast between the old and the new world was almost chilling. It was not only noticeable in the infrastructure of the country, but also in the psyche of its people.
As a political consultant about to immerse myself in the emerging democracies of the region, there were lots of hurdles I was going to have to jump in order make use of the techniques we take for granted in more modern democracies. The communications system, for instance, was not conducive to modern campaigning. In many areas, telephones, faxes and computers were missing from the standard arsenal that most political organizations naturally assume they have available when waging a campaign. Poor roads slowed down candidates running from one campaign appearance to another. I was once stuck behind a horse drawn cart carrying hay for forty-five minutes before the road widened enough for me to pass. For reasons like these, unless your political party had a strong organization in rural areas, you were severely limited in your ability to communicate with voters living outside of urban areas. The press often had their limitations as well, often carrying editorials as if it were hard news.
One of the greatest challenges facing a western political consultant when entering the political fray of an emerging democracy is overcoming the psyche of the nation after 45 years of communist rule. This psyche impregnated every aspect of society, from the intellectuals surrounding the Prime Minister to the blue-collar crowd surrounding the bus stops in working class neighborhoods. In each corner of society the word democracy met many definitions. I mention this because with the collapse of communism and the introduction of democracy, how people defined this new order affected their expectations of it. In Hungary, for example, the first democratically held election in 1990 was won by the party that best personified democracy and freedom. It was the party of Jozsef Antall, the Hungarian Democracy Forum (MDF). The 1990 election was a clear rebuke of communism, with the breakaway “reform” communists (now “socialists”) receiving only 10% of the vote and the MDF- led government receiving 43%. The country was about to embark on a new life. An interesting observation at the time was the nation’s fascination with its number one-rated television show, Dallas, about an wealthy oil family from Texas. Those viewers who thought this show represented democracy were bound to be disappointed, as many had become by 1992 as MDF’s popularity plummeted.
The voters’ perception of what democratic life would be like was obviously important, but equally important was the perception of the newly elected democratic politicians. This element is not so great a consideration in more mature democracies where politicians have a democratic tradition and history from which to draw. However, in the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe this tradition did not exist, and the lack of this tradition resulted in a generation of political leaders with slightly skewed perceptions. These skewed perceptions had repercussions. All this had to be taken into account when assessing and learning the environment in which we were about to contest a series of elections.
In newly emerging democracies, there are certain distinct areas that need to be examined to clearly understand the environment in which elections were, and will be, contested. One obvious aspect to examine is the reality in which the voters perceive themselves. This is true in any democracy. In simple terms a consultant needs to understand how the voters perceive their environment, the candidate, and the candidate’s policies. Once this is understood, strategies must be developed that best communicate the specific benefits a candidate or party has to offer. These benefits should relate to the various problems which exist in the environment as the voters perceive it. The next area is unique to emerging democracies; it is understanding the reality in which the newly elected politicians perceive themselves. The way they perceive democracy will affect the way in which they operate in a democracy. Then, of course, there are the deficiencies in the infrastructure to take into account. These areas will be explored in more detail, as will the steps, or programs, that we developed to compensate for certain unique circumstances.
In the minds of the Hungarian voters, the MDF had successfully connected itself to the principles of democracy and freedom. As a matter of fact, people still associated them with these principles three years later when they became the most unpopular party among the six major parties. By September and October of 1993, in a government-commissioned Gallup poll, respondents were asked whether they felt democracy was more representative of the new MDF-led government or of the former communist-led government. Despite their low approval rating, 67% felt the MDF-led government was more representative of democracy to only 12% who felt the former government did so.1 The same response was received when the word “democracy” was replaced with the word “freedom.” But if people wanted democracy so much in 1990, why was MDF’s popularity suffering so much in 1993? Was people’s definition of democracy not living up to expectations? Other events taking place in the region also gave reason for concern. Just that year in Poland, Lithuania and Estonia the ruling parties comparable to MDF could not even muster the 5% threshold to secure seats in Parliament. Like these parties, MDF was about to contest its re-election campaign for a second term in office. As in these countries, polling data showed a strong shift in priorities away from values like democracy and more towards issues like unemployment.
This was understandable and even in mature democracies people’s priorities shift during times of economic hardships. What was startling was the reaction that voters had to one of the pillars of democracy, the multi-party system. Hungary, prior to 1990, had a fairly orderly Parliament, or at least the citizenry was unaware of any bloodthirsty debates between its Members of Parliament (MP). This was mainly because there were no opposition MP’s in parliament. By 1992 parliamentary debates, an outgrowth of the multi-party system, were broadcast on national television and to focus groups. The response to these debates was a sense of disdain. Having never seen this before, people reacted by saying things like, “it’s chaos”, “the country is falling apart,” or “the government has lost control.” In the Gallup poll mentioned earlier, when respondents were asked which government was more representative of “order” and “discipline,” 66% said the old communist government, versus 11% who said the MDF-led government. By this point the trend showed that voters associated democracy with the lack of stability which engulfed their lives.
Many pundits blame economic conditions for the resurgence of the reform communists, or socialists. Although this was no doubt a major contributing factor, I think it would be careless to leave it at that. The transformation from communism to democracy created an instability in the political, economic, and personal lives of people that they did not understand and for which they were not prepared. This led the Hungarian public to the conclusion that the present government was more or less to blame for the new “chaos.” Interestingly enough the Prime Minister of the last communist government seemed to get exonerated from the blame.2 Under his leadership the people had a sense of stability. For reasons we will discuss later, MDF was unable to convince the electorate that they knew how to lead the nation out of the present crisis. In another poll seven months before the May elections of 1994, when asked which party had a program to lead the country out of this crisis, of the six major parties, respondents placed MDF last. By then, 87% of the respondents felt the MDF-led government had no program to lead the nation. During this period, as MDF was sinking in the polls, the socialists were slowly gaining. Eventually the socialists would win by stating what conventional wisdom already implied. The socialists campaign slogan was simply, “Expertise.” It strengthened the negative impression people had about MDF and built on the perception that life was more reliable when the socialists were in control of the last communist government.
Confidence in the present democratic structure in Hungary was also fading. Democracy encouraged debates in Parliament, and many voters felt this was to the detriment of solving the country’s problems. Many MPs found it difficult to explain the importance of democracy to those voters who found themselves disappointed with the results. One of the most vocal groups of voters were the pensioners who were also the single largest voting block in the country. Opposition politicians had it easy because they could just criticize the government and leave the governing politicians to try to explain their policies. From this situation grew a natural distrust of both the governing MPs and the democratic process.
History had undoubtably dealt the MDF-led government a difficult hand. Antall himself told his cabinet during the early days of the transition that they were part of a “Kamikaze government.” He knew well that the necessary steps toward democratizing the nation and liberalizing the economy were going to lead to hardships that the nation would find difficult to endure. However, the MDF-led government had problems other then their historic duty to change the direction of the country. They also had different expectations of democracy which effected the way in which they approached governing. This was not only true in Hungary, but in all the emerging democracies in which I worked. These politicians usually came out of the dissident movements which existed in their countries during the decades of communism. As dissidents they fought a secret war against communism that promoted democracy and freedom. But none of them ever lived in a democracy or fully understood its intricacies. Their knowledge of democracy came primarily from books or the hearsay of those who traveled to the west. They understood that governments are voted in by popular vote. Once candidates won an election, they went to Parliament and began drafting and voting on laws. In their mind, and justifiably so, they thought if they did a good job, they would naturally win re-election. It was in working with these dissident candidates that I would discover my greatest challenge.
Shortly after I arrived I began interviewing various incumbent candidates. One of the first candidates I met was the parliamentary faction leader for MDF. I asked him when he last visited his district. He scoffed as though I should have known the answer and said, “I was last there two and a half years ago during the elections.” As it turned out he never stayed in touch with his voters. I suddenly realized that, if this was indicative of the other candidates, the spiraling polling number should come as no surprise. When I explained the importance of communicating regularly with the voters to justify the necessity of certain initiatives and engaging them in regular dialogue he became pale white. To my amazement he asked, “I have to stoop to that level?” As I discovered, this attitude permeated every level of government, all the way up to the Prime Minister’s office.
These politicians born from the dissident movements understood that they were voted into office by the public, but representing the public’s interest was not as understood. Their belief was that once they were in office, they were to make decisions on the public’s behalf, hence, why go back to the district? This was not done maliciously. Antall truly believed that if he closed the doors to his office and made the right decisions people would re-elect him. Unfortunately, if they close the door and the public doesn’t see what they’re doing, the public assumes they’re doing nothing! The result was evident in a June 1993 Gallup poll that revealed that only 15% felt Antall was an effective Prime Minister and 72% no longer trusted the government. Most politicians found it almost offensive when I encouraged them to meet and greet the public. Antall’s handlers were totally against me subjecting him to this type of campaigning. In their eyes it was below his stature to be seen with average people, and the public picked up on this.
This seemingly bizarre behavior of a candidate not greeting the electorate can, however, be explained. The only example they had of how a politician should behave was that of the communist politician. Under communism it wasn’t the court of public opinion that helped govern a nation, but rather fear of the police. The communist MPs were never out pressing the flesh with their constituency, it was not necessary. In an effort to show that communism was for the working person, the only person to publicly do anything of the sort was the communist Prime Minister. Every time we tried to encourage Prime Minister Antall to do anything that had to do with greeting the public, his handlers claimed that people would recall their communist leaders from the past. At times it seemed as though I couldn’t win. I often heard that the western campaign techniques that I advocated were not meant for the region. One of the MDF vice-presidents put it to me very succinctly, “These techniques may work on the ignorant American public, but Hungarians are too sophisticated to be massaged for support.”
In short I was faced with a number of disturbing elements. The electorate was losing faith in the transition to democracy and the leaders associated with it. The policies that would help articulate a solution to the transitional problems were not in the national dialogue. The political leaders did not understand the need to campaign using various techniques and messages. To top this list off, there was the lack of infrastructure that I was used to. This last point, however, was the least of my problems. My greatest problem was encouraging the politicians themselves to take action.
Although this behavior was not symptomatic of all the politicians, it did apply to most, especially the party leadership who was older and more ingrained in their past. One tactic I used to try to motivate them into action was to scare them with polling results. Of all the six major parties, the MDF ranked last when asked which party was concentrating on raising the standard of living for the average person. They were also last when asked which party had a plan to lead the country out of its crisis situation.3 The majority of the respondents couldn’t name one success that they felt the government could attribute to itself.4 The closer election day came, the more support grew for the socialist party. It was the socialists who attracted the most disgruntled voters, and among the socialist sympathizers were the largest number of those who felt the transition was not even necessary. But despite the results, the MDF leadership remained unpersuaded. As it turned out, polling was a science they didn’t believe to be accurate. Worse, they felt that the polling companies were all manipulated by the opposition liberal parties. The chairman of the party once explained to me that the polls were manipulated to misguide me in the advise I was giving. I was faced with a party who refused to believe what the polling results showed. Thus, the way in which they perceived their environment was much different from the way in which the electorate perceived it. This led to some grave errors in the party’s judgement and strategy.
One such dilemma surrounded a newspaper advertisement the party chairman created. It was an advertisement thanking foreign companies for having confidence in MDF and for moving their businesses to Hungary. In the ad they listed numerous foreign corporations. In a vain attempt I explained to the Chairman of MDF that the electorate had a real problem with privatization. They felt that foreigners were coming in and buying up and, in some cases, “stealing” the industrial resources of the country. Many felt Hungary was an economic pawn to the West. What this ad did was strengthen MDF’s perceived negatives and fed into the charges that the opposition was claiming. I even reminded him that the Liberal Democratic Congress in Poland, that was in charge of privatization, was one of the parties that never reached the 5% threshold to get back into parliament. I was told that I didn’t understand the soul of the average Hungarian. The ad ran. MDF had wounded itself.
There were, however, many candidates in MDF who wanted to try and run a “modern” campaign. Since the party had no real campaign headquarters to assist these candidates I was able to convince the leadership to open an office called the Constituency Relations office. The sole purpose was to train staff and candidates on how to reach out to the electorate, who they should reach out to and how to develop a message that will help them connect with the voters. Since MDF as a party was so unpopular and the leadership seemed too grid-locked to make any strategic decisions, we decided to concentrate extra resources on the campaign of the individual candidates.
Most candidates never imagined running a campaign for themselves. I often heard the argument that people didn’t vote for candidates, they voted for parties instead. There was some legitimacy to this argument because the way in which voting was structured, voters voted for a national party list. But they also voted for individual candidates in their district, where, if we could do well, we could garner support and win seats. This also gave us a chance to dodge the national media, to do a guerilla warfare style campaign and try to soften the image of the party. Most candidates, and voters for that matter, had never seen a candidate campaign in the district before. It was a very foreign concept to them, with a foreigner advocating it. Also, since none of the candidates believed the polling results, no one believed how unpopular they were, or that the voters in their district didn’t even know their MP’s name. Most had never dealt with the press, they avoided contact with the voters and had no idea what to say to either. The responsibility of the Constituency Relations office would be to overcome these hurdles with as much speed as possible.
First of all there needed to be a mechanism by which I could get the candidate’s perception of the environment more in line with that of the voters. We needed to make sure we were contesting this election on the same plain. Two factors made it difficult for me to use Gallup or another polling organization for research to help the candidates in their districts. The first was that most candidates didn’t trust the polls and secondly, the party could not afford to do polling in each district. The only solution was to begin polling with the help of party members, knowing in advance that its accuracy could be questionable. Through the Constituency Relations office we organized and trained a volunteer army that could ask a minimum of 300 voters in each of the 176 districts, each month, five simple questions. The questionnaire served a number of purposes. The first question requested the respondents to name their district’s MP. In most districts, of course, people could not do this, which immediately humbled most candidates. The danger here lied in the fact that if voters are unfamiliar with a candidate, they will vote strictly according to party. If your party in unpopular, by association, so are you. Respondents were then asked if they knew anything that the candidate had done. Often the response was “he didn’t do anything.” This gave me a chance to explain to the candidates the importance of always briefing the press and speaking to groups in the districts. In the third question we asked the respondents to list the concerns to which they felt the candidates should turn their attention. This helped the candidates create the dialogue necessary to allow them to develop a connection with the voters. The last two questions of the questionnaire dealt with local issues.
Due to the poor infrastructure and lack of telephones in many areas, volunteers would approach voters in the marketplace or at busy bus and train terminals. Since we had less than a year until elections it was necessary that everything we did was designed to be as effective as possible. In an effort to build the trust that every candidate wanted to enjoy with his voters, the volunteers would hand out a pre-signed thank you letter to all those who responded to the questionnaire. This letter said:
I want to thank you for answering these questions. In the last year I’ve spoken to many citizens, but to speak with everyone is simply impossible. This is why I’ve chosen the method of using questionnaires. I am asking these questions because I need to know your opinion in order to do my job well. If I understand your problems and expectations, then I can represent you better, and after all, this is my job. So that I may represent you to the best of my abilities, please write me with any additional thoughts you may have.
I gladly await your letters. Write so that I can help!
The response to this surprised even me. It seemed as though people were starved for this type of attention and dialogue. Remember, this was not only new to the candidates but to the voters too. We first started asking the questionnaire and handing out the thank you letters in a district on the outskirts of Budapest for an MP by the name of Laszlo Dobos. Practically half of those who received the thank you letter that first weekend responded by writing him a letter. Some wrote comments like, “I’ve been disappointed by your party, but since I received this letter from you with your kind words I will turn to you after all.” Unfortunately, not everywhere was the response this good, but it was an opportunity to begin breaking through the perception barrier.
Once candidates who started working with the Constituency Relations office saw the results of their district poll they quickly began looking for ways to promote themselves. They were shocked by how few of the people in their district were familiar with them and that most had no idea of their accomplishments. Since candidates had no idea where to start we next needed to create mechanisms through which the candidates could promote themselves. We created a three step outreach program.
First, candidates would be able to turn to the Constituency Relations office where one of our staffers would help them design a newsletter. Usually the topics discussed in the newsletter were the same topics that voters offered in the district polls when asked which concerns they would encourage the candidates to focus on. Each candidate could do one newsletter a month which would be distributed to most households in the district.
Second, we developed a press relations operation to assist the candidates with writing press releases, organizing press conferences and developing themes. Traditionally MPs never had to deal with the press, and many were dismayed that the press naturally didn’t cover their accomplishments. When we began this process, I visited an MP in his district located about three hours southwest of Budapest. He detailed how he had done many wonderful things to help the community and the country, yet the local papers never covered them. As if he were purposefully trying to contradict himself he began waving full page articles in front of me. The articles were written about him and even contained huge pictures of his smiling face! When I called his attention to the contradictory nature of his actions he paused in dismay. He said, “Dan, you don’t understand! I had to go down to the publisher’s office and tell him what I was doing.” The Constituency Relations office made it so easy that a candidate had to just call our office and we would help them brainstorm ideas. Then our staff would actually write the press release. We would create charts and graphs for press conferences and help research facts. We would also write sample press releases about national policy issues that each candidate could modify and distribute to the local and regional press. This helped elevate the candidate’s status in the district and also helped promote MDF’s national agenda throughout the country.
The third step consisted of developing personal out-reach tools for the candidate so he or she could meet with constituents and speak articulately about their concerns. Our office developed packages targeting various groups within each district. For example, we created packages aimed at pensioners, farmers, entrepreneurs, environmentalists and teacher groups. Each package contained brief vital demographic and policy information, including charts, graphs and interesting facts supporting the government’s position. Most packages included a specialized questionnaire that the candidate could hand-out at the beginning of the meeting and collect at the end. For attending the meeting the voters also received personalized thank you letters from the candidates in the mail. Sample thank-you letters were also included in the candidate’s package. By using this package, an MP who was a specialist in defense policy and knew nothing about the government’s position on pensioners could sound articulate and concerned when meeting a group of pensioners. Each step of the way we encouraged candidates to begin building a data base of names.
From a tactical and logistical aspect the Constituency Relations office became very important. We became a center on which local operations relied. There were many offices around the country without a telephone, fax, or computer. For these outposts we acted as a surrogate office, typing and faxing as well as consulting. We filled an important void which helped catapult these offices into the twenty-first century. We also acted as mentors to candidates, party volunteers and workers who were looking for guidance and assurance.
The Constituent Relations office also helped candidates and their workers develop themes for their campaigns. Most candidates relied 100% on party money to pay for their campaigns so it was a mistake to think or expect that all of the candidates would have their own consultant. The Constituent Relations office acted as 176 individual consultants.
Through this office we developed ways in which candidates and their workers could begin developing good relationships with their constituents. This part of the campaign, although it did not result in victory, did show the fruits of our labor. The most unpopular member in MDF was the Privatization Minister, Dr. Tamas Szabo. Most people thought he was corrupt and untrustworthy because he sold Hungary’s industries to foreigners. Yet in his own district he faired well and received more votes then MDF did as a party. Aside from promoting the candidate, each element of the Constituency Relations office served a second purpose. Each element attempted to build the credibility of the democratic process and that of a representative government. The thank you letters people received during our district polling helped explain why polling was important in a democracy. They also helped strengthen the notion that politicians were there to help the voters. The fact that they could contact their representative helped strengthen the concept that they could influence their government. In essence, through the candidates we tried to create a guerilla warfare style campaign for the principles of democracy. On the national level this became much harder to do for a variety of reasons. The main reason being the lack of cooperation from MDF party leaders.
Nationally we continued using Gallup, and I continued attempting to frighten the party leadership into action. In all the emerging democracies where I worked with politicians that blossomed out of the dissident movements, one element was constant. The issues they promoted were usually inconsistent with those issues in which the electorate was concerned. For example, the MDF leadership felt very strongly about the Hungarian minorities in neighboring countries. They saw the leaders of these minority organizations as fellow dissidents fighting for a greater cause. The MDF also expended incredible energy promoting Hungarian patriotism. They thought like dissidents, and saw the world through dissident eyes. The way in which they perceived reality was very different from the way in which the average voter saw reality. To the dissident, issues of patriotism and Hungarian minorities living in neighboring countries were of major importance. Yet to the average voter, issues of survival, unemployment and inflation were most important. A September 1993 poll showed that employment and inflation were among the top three pressing problems for 77% of the population and the Hungarian minority issue was among the top three for only 1%.5 The less mature the democratic system, the less the candidates seemed to focus on policy initiatives like taxes, defense or education.
In Bosnia, things were not much different. I had worked there with a coalition trying to promote multi-ethnicity as it campaigned against the strong nationalist parties. It was the first election since the end of the war. The electorate showed signs of war fatigue, but continued to vote for the nationalist parties. Each ethnic group hoped that in this way they were ensured jobs for at least their people. The multi-ethnic parties did little to promote the idea of prosperity at the time and instead they focused on multi-ethnicity. Unfortunately Bosnian citizens of all ethnic backgrounds were more concerned with unemployment than with multi-ethnicity. For example, in January of 1997, 59% of Bosnian Serbs felt that unemployment was the most urgent problem facing the country while only 2% felt that political/democratic reform was the most urgent.6 After we shared polling results with the candidates, they were so torn between the concrete message that I advised about creating jobs and the plain message of multi-ethnicity that they missed their deadline to produce television commercials and nothing aired.
I met with the President of the Bosnian Republican Party as he prepared for the up-coming election. Earlier in his career he had been the president of the leading Nationalist Croatian party. After the Bosnian war the population was consumed with unemployment and rebuilding their lives, yet he continually spoke of democracy and freedom. Despite the recent poll, he claimed he knew best what was right for the people. In an attempt to make a point, I asked him if he was sure he understood the problems better then the single mother who comes home to three starving children each night. His response was, “Of course, the only people left if Sarajevo are illiterates.” It is difficult to engage a candidate with this mentality in developing a message necessary for a modern campaign which must show compassion and sensitivity.
Issues, as we know, are not the only aspect of a campaign. It is no secret that a good leading candidate can turn the image of an entire party around. One must look no further than Britain to see what Tony Blair has done for Labor, or to America to see what Bill Clinton has done for the Democrats. Upon arriving to Hungary I was greeted by a Prime Minister who was severely ill with cancer. Instead of campaigning, he was receiving radiation therapy or was in Germany undergoing high-risk bone marrow transplants. This posed a bit of a problem. We had a campaign with no real full-time candidate and even when we had a part-time candidate, his handlers blocked his participation. Regrettably, however, Jozsef Antall passed away three months prior to the election. He was replaced by Peter Boross, the former Minister of Interior, whose first words to me were, “You do your campaign, but leave me out of it.” I was still left without a candidate for the nations most important office.
One universal attitude in these countries was the electorate’s desire for a strong-handed leader. They wanted someone to take charge; take control. Listening to phrases like “its chaos”, “the country’s falling apart” and the “government has lost control” as the public’s reactions toward certain democratic norms, it should come as no surprise that most Hungarians wanted an assertive, self-assured and “hardened leader.” 7 It was a natural reaction to expect since prior to this chaos they had years of iron-fisted rule. In Romania, while I was there to work with members of the Democratic Coalition, 88% of respondents believed that they needed specifically “authoritative” political leadership.A Summary of FBIS-EEU document# 94-211, 11-94, entitled “Poll Reveals Attitudes Toward Privatization” The new democratic leaders however spoke only of the necessity of democratic values. Although this was admirable they came across as weak and out of touch. It seemed that the more democratic and polite a leader was, the more useless the public thought him to be. When Hungary’s new Prime Minister, Peter Boross, forbade the NATO planes to do bombing runs over Bosnia from Hungarian airspace the international community was aghast, but his popularity jumped among the Hungarian public. To them he showed resolve and leadership qualities.
There was also a laissez faire attitude among the politicians in the region. The old saying that a good plan today is worth more than a great plan tomorrow wasn’t well received. The intensity of modern campaigning has yet to find its way into the blood of the region’s candidates. I’ve sat through many meetings where decisions were never made. In Hungary the MDF never agreed on a campaign strategy — the campaign came to an end before a strategy was decided upon. In Bosnia, television ads never got produced because no one could make a decision in time, the deadline passed, and nothing aired.
At the time Peter Boross’ popularity rose regardingo his NATO decision I was able to convince the leadership to use him actively in the campaign. It was already only two or three months before the elections, but Peter Boross’ popularity was double that of the MDF and only within a point or two of the socialist candidate for Prime Minister. We were pitching a campaign around the slogan, “Sure steps – Secure future” in which we could insert different steps the MDF or Boross would take and the expected result. We planned to highlight jobs, an increased standard of living and lower inflation. Due to disagreements within the leadership, the plan never progressed and the outcome was disastrous. We were left with huge billboards around the country with “Sure steps – Secure future” written across the top and a picture of Boross to the left. To the right was a picture of a boy writing graffiti that said, “we’ve grown a lot in four years.” It was meant to imply the country grew a lot in four years, but the public took it to mean the MDF grew a lot. Gallup’s data showed that voters perception of MDF was that the leaders were not well prepared and didn’t really know what they were doing. Our billboards actually strengthened this perception.
Making matters even worse was that citizens took to painting their own graffiti on our billboards. Next to the line, “In four years we’ve grown a lot”, citizens would write, “yes, taxes and unemployment!” It just so happened that 5 months before the election, in an open ended Gallup poll, when respondents were asked what they believed the MDF-led government had accomplished, there was a strong undercurrent of sarcasm among the responses. Many people claimed that the MDF was successful at both raising taxes and increasing unemployment.
The billboards actually did more harm than good. It strengthened our negatives, it created the perception that the MDF was admitting it was unprepared to govern and was playfully saying that they’ve come a long way in the past four years. Meanwhile, the socialists also had a billboard that also strengthened our negatives, and at the same time strengthened their positives. It had a picture of Gyula Horn, their Prime Ministerial candidate, and it said only one word. That word was, “Expertise.”
Since the MDF leadership’s only experience came from its 1990 election when poetic slogans for democracy and an end to communism sent a powerful message, they were constantly trying to recreate that campaign. It was a knee-jerk reaction. One of the posters in 1990 was a picture of many of communism’s memorabilia stuffed into a garbage can with, “Its time for spring cleaning” written across the top. In 1990, issues were not important, but by 1994 people wanted to know what MDF was going to do to improve their lives. As an attempt at a poetic gesture in 1994, the MDF leadership sent out 1 million packets of flower seeds as a random direct mail piece. The piece created no reason for people to consider voting for MDF. It had only a picture of the MDF emblem and “a flowering future” written across the top. It would have been a nice gesture to give them to volunteers, but it was a big waste of money to randomly mail them out to your opposition’s supporters.
The 1990 election was a euphoric period in history when the communist structure which had governed the country had collapsed. The opposite of communism was democracy, and MDF, with a loosely run campaign embracing democracy and freedom and rejecting communism, scored a magnificent win. To them this was a recipe for a successful campaign. The only problem was that times had changed, people’s needs had changed and the MDF’s recipe for success was no longer appealing. The polls showed this, but one would have to believe the polls in order to learn from them. This was not specific to Hungary alone; in Bosnia and Romania I encountered the same predicament.
The freedom of the press was one element of democracy that the dissident politicians knew was important if freedom and democracy were to remain. Despite their firm commitment to this principle, however, the novelty quickly wore off when the press launched attacks on them. As in all democracies, political parties have their favorite and least favorite press organizations. This was true in Hungary as well, but a fundamental difference was that in emerging democracies both the press and the politicians were a bit uncertain of how to handle these newly found freedoms. One of the first official press conferences I attended for the Prime Minister’s office was held by his chief of staff. Among the reporters present was a gentleman from a newspaper that had recently written an unflattering piece about the Prime Minister. When this reporter asked a question the Prime Minister’s chief-of-staff reprimanded him in front of everyone and told him that as long as the paper published articles like the recent one he had written, they should never expect an interview with the Prime Minister. In effect, he was punishing the newspaper!
The press also seemed to have a rough start once it became free. When I first arrived to the region it was not uncommon to read a journalist’s opinion written as a news story. Journalism centers quickly sprang up to educate journalist and we began a series of workshops to educate politicians. As we enter the 1998 election cycle, this whole issue is normalizing.
The psyche of the electorate and the candidates will always prove to be the biggest impediment to modern electoral campaigns in emerging democracies. In Hungary, I would like to believe, the psyche of the electorate could have been overcome, but only if we, as consultants, would have had the full cooperation of the candidates. As long as candidates do not believe in polls and avoid the electorate, cooperation will always be impossible. Older candidates in Slovakia, Bosnia and Romania also resisted much of the campaigning style we in the west have come to take for granted. Younger candidates are far more prone to embrace them. Younger candidates are also more open to discussing the uncomfortable issues of the transition process. In the early period of an emerging democracy the job of a consultant is to become an election professor and hope that the pupils have an accelerated learning curve, because as we know, elections do not wait until everyone is ready.
In just about every country in which I worked, the party leadership was in a bit of disarray. In retrospect this is not surprising. History thrust these politicians into an unexpected situation in which they had to focus on governing, message development, party building and, the most distracting of all political elements, fighting the daily partisan battles. This was one of the reasons we placed such a great emphasis on creating a structure in which the individual candidate campaigns would support the party campaign instead of vice versa. As I stated earlier, due to the severe unpopularity of the MDF and the leadership’s inability to adapt, we saw the individual candidate campaigns as a way to break down the wall that voters erected between themselves and the party. Also, the fact that these campaigns were more sovereign, hence more controllable, we were able to campaign in ways in which the party refused.
There were two problems with this plan. The first problem was that the state and maturity of Hungary’s democratic evolution was not entirely up to the level of western democracies. Although at the time the approach of the candidate campaigns supporting the party campaign did result in limited success, in a decade or so it will have the same effect it would have in a western democracy. Many voters, after emerging from forty years of communist rule, still thought more in terms of parties than in terms of candidates. In mature democracies we are seeing a trend away from party loyalty and more voters classifying themselves as being independent. The second problem stemmed from the unfortunate late start of the Constituent Relations office and the fact that only a fraction of the candidates took part in the program. Still, because of the effort of these candidates and the image they helped create in various regions around the country, the MDF was successful in avoiding the same fate as their cousins in Lithuania, Estonia and Poland. After all the dust settled, the MDF was left standing. It didn’t win re-election, but it remained in Parliament as the largest opposition party.
All the elements that make up a successful campaign were at different levels of maturity in Eastern Europe. Strategies, mechanics and logistics must work in concert with one another if a campaign is to be successful. Just like a symphony, each section relies on the other in order to complete a masterpiece. The mere fact that strategies from the MDF central campaign headquarters could not be approved put our campaign at a severe disadvantage. But even when strategies where implemented at the regional level certain logistical realities, such as the lack of telephones and computers, created obstacles. In these new democracies, voter lists were also not available which made direct mail and phone banking operations suffer.
In stark contrast to the Eastern European phenomenon, for example, I returned to the states afterwards to join a group of consultants to help Steve Forbes, the billionaire entrepreneur, contest the Republican Presidential primaries in 1996. In this campaign there was no room for error because Forbes, who was a political novice, was virtually unknown to the voting public when we began. This meant we had only five months to create a campaign in which he could compete against candidates who prepared for this opportunity for decades. When I joined the campaign in September, Forbes was at five percent in the Gallup polls. By February 11, he was in a dead heat with the front runner, Senator Bob Dole at 25%. 8 Although Bob Dole would eventually win the primary and go on to contest Bill Clinton in the general election, it was a great feat for a political novice to become such a formidable challenger to a senator who has spent his entire adult life in public service. This feat was accomplished only through the careful coordination of strategy, logistics and mechanics.
Strategy is the most basic element in political consulting because it lays the groundwork to how the other elements of a campaign will be employed. Strategy itself has two components, the message and the implementation. The strategy behind Forbes message was to keep it simple because within the short period of time allotted we couldn’t inundate the voters with many issues. One of Forbes’ issues was a flat tax and for the next few months we built our campaign solely on that one issue. This may seem simplistic to some, but it was a sure way to guarantee that in the time the campaign had to establish itself we could give Forbes an identity and positive name recognition. The fact that no one likes to pay taxes and the flat tax appeared to be simpler and fairer made it attractive to the public. So attractive did it become through a series of TV ads that by January 7, 51% of the voters felt that the flat tax would be better for the country than the existing tax code.9 Having the strategy of message decided on, the next step was to devise a strategy for implementation. We wanted to take our opponents by surprise, like a Blitzkrieg — hit hard and hit quick. In the beginning our main weapon was the 30 second television commercial. Millions of dollars were spent in states that played a key role in the primary process. Soon the concept of a flat tax and its advocate, Steve Forbes, were being talked about on all the national political talk shows. By the last week of January 1996, both Time magazine and Newsweek had Forbes on the cover and he was running neck and neck with Bob Dole. As we flew into Iowa for the caucuses I remember thinking that Forbes really stood a good chance at winning.
We would go on to loose both Iowa and New Hampshire because we were not fully prepared. Television media alone was not going to be enough; it never is. But we won both Delaware and Arizona when we took full advantage of our polling and phonebank operations. In the US there is no such thing as “campaign silence” on the day of elections. The extent of our silence is that within the vicinity of the buildings where people vote you cannot campaign. This allowed us to continue our GOTV (get out the vote) operations right through to the last moment that people could vote. In Arizona and Delaware we kept polling and phoning supporters to remind them to vote on election day. Through our last minute polling we were able to create a profile of those who were most likely to be Forbes supporters. Then we ran the profile against our data-base of voters in both states and directed the phone banking operation to call only those who met the profile. As we continued this throughout the day, we saw our vote increase by almost a full percentage point each hour. By the time the polls closed, Forbes had inched his way to victory in both states.
In Eastern Europe this type of operation was still impossible during most of the campaigns in which I took part. Although Gallup’s polling results proved to be quite reliable in Hungary, we still had the problem of communicating with the voters. The only way to strategically communicate with the voters was through the media. Target marketing to certain demographic groups through the use of direct mail, one of the most successful tools in the US, was not feasible in Eastern Europe due to the lack of developed lists. Where in the US the parties have in-house lists which they also make available to individual candidates, in this region these lists did not exists or were not made available. This, thankfully, is slowly changing.
Is there a future for political consultants in the region? Absolutely; however, there are some pitfalls. Western consultants will often be faced with defending their advise against the wicked complaint that as foreigners they cannot fully understand the voters of a particular country. This can be especially frustrating when the polls clearly indicate attitudes which the client flatly refuses to believe. There are certain universal problems in consulting that are magnified in this region. As I mentioned, candidates in emerging democracies lack the historical tradition from where to draw their experiences. This will lead to temporary misunderstandings between the candidates, the electorate and the consultants that will last until their democratic traditions develop. As emerging democracies mature, many of these problems will disappear.
Cost is another factor. Unless the candidate is leading the party ticket, relatively few candidates can afford to pay the cost of a western consultant. A MP in Eastern Europe will have only a fraction of the capital available to a Congressman in the United States, much less a Senator. Their fund-raising opportunities are much more limited, and the size of their constituencies are smaller as well. They rely mostly on state funds to campaign. Fund-raising, the way it is done in the US, is still a long way off. Once again, in their tradition and experience, candidates never asked for money. The concept is very foreign to them. We had some fund-raising successes where it was tried, but few candidates were willing to participate. As I helped certain candidates four years later, this process was slowly beginning to evolve too.
Following the 1994 elections in Hungary, with the help of certain international pro-democracy foundations, I started a program called “Survival in a Democracy.” This project was aimed at assisting the younger politicians in the new opposition parties gain access to polling data as well as help them develop effective campaign strategies. Gallup was commissioned to periodically provide polling data which was distributed and analyzed at conferences held for the members of these opposition parties. Foreign campaign experts and pollsters who worked with parties of similar ideology were also invited to speak.
10 Survival in a Democracy and other efforts, great changes began taking place in the political landscape in the years following the 1994 election. Voter apathy still remained high and most politicians continued their intellectual ramblings; however, by April 1998, the party of 35-year- old Viktor Orban found itself neck and neck with the socialists. His party, the Federation of Young Democrats (FIDESZ), had taken a very active role in “Survival in a Democracy.” His was also the only party to clearly promote concrete issues like tax relief, faster economic growth to cut the jobless rate, a return to free university tuition, and crime reduction as its campaign message.
Despite the gains FIDESZ made among decided voters, Gallup still showed that 45 percent of the electorate was undecided. That posed a danger because if only the party loyalists turned out for the May 11, 1998 elections it would help such parties as the socialists and various fringe fanatic groups. On the day of the first round of elections (Hungary has a two-round election process) exit polls began painting a picture of what was to come. Among the five parties to exceed the 5 percent parliamentary threshold and move on to contest one another in the second round, the Socialists were in the lead with FIDESZ only a few percentage points behind. But voter turnout was the lowest since the end of communism which also allowed a right wing radical party, the Hungarian Truth and Life Party, to reach the 5 percent threshold for the first time. The apathy in the eastern part of the country, which didn’t enjoy the prosperity the western part had experienced, had caused voter turnout to be so low that the election results were pronounced null and void and would have to be re- contested during the second round.
During the campaign, FIDESZ provided an optimistic and positive image of the future. By contrast, the governing parties used slogans like “Keep the right direction” which gave apathetic voters no reason to get interested in the election. Another slogan the governing parties used was ,“Pay for one, get three” which played on the fear that if FIDESZ were to win, it would form a coalition with the right wing extremist parties. During the two weeks between the two rounds of the election, the two Prime Ministerial candidates, FIDESZ’s Viktor Orban and the socialist’s Gyula Horn, held a televised debate. Going into the debate Horn’s favorable rating was at 43 percent and his unfavorable was rating was at 33 percent to Orban’s favorable rating of 46 percent and his unfavorable rating of 34 percent. After the debate Horn’s favorable rating fell to 39 percent and his unfavorable rating jumped to 47 percent. Orban was the clear winner with everything to gain by the debate: his favorable rating jumped to 66 percent and his unfavorable rating fell to only 18 percent.11 It proved to be a bad judgement call on the part of the Socialists to debate the young, optimistic and witty Orban. It was the turning point of the campaign.
As I write this in the summer of 1998, Hungary’s newly elected Prime Minister prepares to take office. He is 35 year old Viktor Orban who clearly won in the second round of the elections, which saw the highest voter turnout in the second round since the political change.
This shows that Democracy is well on its way!
All said and done, for the adventurous political consultant emerging democracies are becoming a place to consider. Those willing to enter the political stage in the region, if they are patient and creative in overcoming some of the present deficits, will sooner or later reap some big rewards.
1. Gallup Hungary, September/October 1993 poll completed for the Hungarian government based on 1500 responses from a national sample. This was from a questionnaire titled “C”).
2. Gallup Hungary, September/October 1993, “C” questionnaire
3. Gallup Hungary, November 1993 poll completed for Hungarian Government
4. Gallup Hungary, November 1993 poll completed for Hungarian Government
5. Gallup Hungary, September 1993 poll completed for Hungarian Government
6. Public Opinion in Bosnia Hercegovina, Volume IV: One Year Of Peace, February 1997. Commissioned by USIA and conducted by PULS in Hercegovina and central Bosnia and Medium in Serbia. Based on a total of 2,967 face to face interviews
7. Public Opinion in Bosnia Hercegovina, Volume IV: One Year Of Peace, February 1997. Commissioned by USIA and conducted by PULS in Hercegovina and central Bosnia and Medium in Serbia. Based on a total of 2,967 face to face interviews.
8. The Gallup Poll, public opinion 1996, pg 18 -22 (Wilmington, Delaware, Scholarly Resources Inc.)
9. The Gallup Poll, public opinion 1996, pg 15-16 (Wilmington, Delaware, Scholarly Resources Inc.)
10. Batthyany Report #36, “Report on the political situation”, Batthyany Foundation pg. 1 based on polls published by Gallup
11. Batthyany Report #36, “Report on the political situation”, Batthyany Foundation pg. 1 based on polls published by Gallup