The “Survival in a Democracy” Project

Strategic Advantage International founded the “Survival In A Democracy Project” in 1994, originally to assisted new democratic parties in Eastern Europe in learning the skills necessary to build and maintain support. Now we are expanding our work to many other regions of the world.

THE ORIGINS OF THE PROGRAM: The objective of the Survival in a Democracy Project (SDP) was to teach the skills and understanding necessary for “new” democratic parties of the Eastern block countries to entrench themselves within society.  Strategic Advantage International raised the funds for this project by working with 13 international organizations, including the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, the Westminster Foundation, and USIS.

When Communism collapsed, new democratic parties emerged as an alternative to the ruling communist parties of the region. These parties had their roots in the various dissident movements of Eastern Europe. Supporting the new democratic parties in the former Eastern block is necessary to keep peace and stability in the region. It is also imperative to support these parties so that democracy can flourish. During the transition from communism to democracy and a market economy, many parties suffered the consequences associated with freedom. The hardship of the transition soured the citizens’ view of these parties. The ruling parties’ inexperience and lack of skills to survive in a democracy have often proved fatal; the elections in Lithuania, Poland, and Hungary evidence this. After losing the elections to the former communists, many of the “new” parties have become incapacitated and unable to function. Some parties, like the Liberal Democratic Congress, who led the ruling coalition in Poland, may never run in elections again; yet they were instrumental in laying the foundations for democracy. Although the former communists were voted back to power in free elections, we must ensure the survival of the “new” parties to guarantee the continuation of democracy and stability. Without a strong opposition, we risk the return of one-party rule.

Many obstacles lie in the way of the success of these new parties. One of the greatest problems is the population’s view of democracy. People associate the hardships and chaos that came from the transition with the “new” parties, not with democracy. Early research shows that the average post-communist citizen reacts very differently from its Western counterpart when watching Members of Parliament (MP’s) debate legislation. What we in the West view as a “healthy exchange of ideas”, they view as “chaos.” In focus groups, we heard voters say things like “the country is falling apart… someone must make order”. Prior to the second round of Hungary’s 1994 elections, this reaction resurfaced. When the electorate was asked what it thought of the coalition possibilities, the electorate responded, “we hope that the Socialists form a coalition with no one. This way, no one will argue in Parliament and they will be able to get things done”. The simplicity of one-party rule is easier for former Eastern block voters to understand; it is familiar to them. Not surprisingly, in the second round of elections Hungarians gave the Socialists an overwhelming majority.

The idea of a free market economy created equally startling reactions. These are attitudes which Socialists and extremists can easily exploit. By manipulating these attitudes, they can create enough popular support to tilt the balance of power in their favor, and implement their political will regardless of the consequences to the nation.

The lack of skill to survive within a democracy was surprising for SAI from the very beginning of its work in Hungary. One MP confessed not being back to his district in two and a half years. When we told him of the importance of keeping close contact with his constituency, he was surprised. His response was, “I have to stoop to that level?”. In the West, citizens may take for granted that their congressperson is always available, and that he or she constantly keeps us informed. For decades, Hungarians have not had delegates that truly represented their interests. On the contrary, the previous communist delegates, which were the only example they had, behaved much like this particular MP (he received less than 6% of the vote in his district).

District polling showed that in most districts, only approximately 25% of the population knew  its representatives,  and on average only 5% of the people could mention anything that their representatives had done. Consequently, people believed that their representatives did nothing but live off the taxpayers.

Many of the new democratic parties did not trust polling results or did not know how to utilize them properly. Polling was viewed more as a popularity contest than as a strategy tool. This led to many counterproductive decisions and caused voters to lose confidence in these parties. The parties had access to organizations such as the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs that offered advice on what campaigns are like in the West. Many parties tried to mimic these examples, but without taking into consideration the polling data. For example, the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) created a newspaper ad to show the number of foreigners who had invested in Hungary in the past four years. The ad was intended to show that people trusted the government. The ad named many foreign companies, but unfortunately most Hungarians were under the impression the MDF sold the country out to foreigners. This caused the ad to have the opposite effect than that intended. One integral part of surviving in a democracy is understanding how to use public opinion as a tool.

Another example was the FIDESZ campaign. At one point in 1994, the party had an incredible lead in the polls. The fact that all members were young worked to their disadvantage, however, and bothered the public. To counter this image, the party changed its bylaws to allow candidates over the age of thirty-five to run for elections. Yet, when it was election time, FIDESZ ran a very playful, childish campaign with cartoons and little or no substance. They built upon their negatives instead of their positives. From a 30% lead, FIDESZ ended up capturing only 7% of the vote.

The danger lies in the way the voters perceive the results of the recent elections. Many citizens have wondered whether democracy and market economy are really beneficial. Many Hungarians would say, “It’s not for us”. Election results could also send a dangerous message to the former Communists, now Socialists, that their old ways are justified. In order to effectively sell democracy, the West must help the new democratic parties with training and the tools of the trade. This is the goal of the Survival In A Democracy project.

Obviously, as history continues, the Survival In A Democracy Project blueprint must be applied to other regions of the world as well.