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The European Union and Beyond

Party Politics and Decentralization Reforms in Central and Eastern Europe

Europe (Central and Eastern)
Comparative Politics
Political Parties
Angelika Kretschmer
Helmut-Schmidt-University/University of the Armed Forces Hamburg
Angelika Kretschmer
Helmut-Schmidt-University/University of the Armed Forces Hamburg

Decentralization towards the regional level is a research topic that has mainly been discussed with a focus on Western Europe. In these countries, regionalist movements and economic efficiency seem to be the main logics that underpin national governments’ promotion of decentralization. The pattern for Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), however, appears to be different: Decentralization has taken place largely in the absence of regionalist movements as well as of relevant efficiency requirements due to the CEE states being rather small in size. Nevertheless, regional levels have been created in all countries of Central and Eastern Europe.
This paper explores the politics of decentralization in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic since the end of communist rule. Although the historical conditions in these countries were quite similar in the early 1990s, the decentralization processes differ significantly in timing, scope and depth: While decentralization advanced quickly and steadily in Poland, it only started much later in the Czech Republic. In Hungary, initial decentralization efforts of the early 1990s have been reversed in the past couple of years.
In their explanation of decentralization in the absence of regionalist movements and efficiency requirements, scholars have mainly focused on adjustment pressures caused by EU accession as well as on democratization needs. These assumptions, however, fall short of explaining the variation observed in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. This paper presumes that party politics need to be taken into account in order to understand why and when national governments decentralize power to subnational governments.
Party positions determine which governments advocate decentralization. However, the study of how parties’ positions on decentralization are shaped is still underdeveloped. The extant literature has mainly focused on regionalist parties that force statewide parties to take a stance on decentralization. This falls short of explaining decentralization in states without important regionalist parties like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Therefore, this paper presumes divergent logics, and inquires two distinct phases:
(1) What explains the start of decentralization? For instance, the prospect of office at new levels could stimulate parties to support decentralization. Alternatively, ideological beliefs in the value of self-government could also lead parties to promote decentralization. Which parties advocate decentralization, and do they belong to the same party families?
(2) Which conditions are necessary for further reforms? Do parties maintain their position even when faced with opposing majorities in regions? Do new incentives like the availability of EU funding influence party positions? Furthermore, regional assemblies could increase support for regional politicians or new regional parties that could then take on the role of veto players preventing recentralization.
To answer these questions, the paper chooses an actor-centered approach combining findings from party politics and decentralization literature. It offers a comparison of the decentralization processes in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. By investigating motivations and approaches of parties at different stages, it sheds some light on party political reasons for the distinct pattern of decentralization in CEE.
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