Political culture in post-colonial Africa and post-communist Eastern Europe: Towards explaining democratic underdevelopment – Fellows’ seminar by Petr Skalnik

10 December 2019

“By 1990 most African one-party states and European communist totalitarian countries embarked on the course of pluralist democracy with regular free elections seen as the main indicator of democracy,” said Petr Skalník, formerly of the Department of Politics at the University of Hradec Králové, Czechoslovakia.  “However, in many of these countries the governing personnel may have changed but the pre-change ethos, which I call political culture, continued to influence political life. In other words, the emergence of political pluralism did not prevent the practice of treating the state as a monopoly asset of those in power. Instead of working for elimination of blatant inequalities the new ruling parties and especially their leaders tended to use the state as a means for private wealth appropriation. The state has been perceived as a goose laying golden eggs to those who rule.”

STIAS Fellow Petr Skalnik during his seminar on 5 December 2019

Skalník was presenting ideas from his book project which will look comparatively at post-communist Eastern Europe and post-colonial Africa in an attempt to understand why both – with very different histories – are characterised by democratic underdevelopment.

He will aim to understand the role of political culture which he described as the values, attitudes and practices of the past that influence political processes in the present. “Political culture is everywhere,” he said, “even if you are uncultured – like the Nazis. The past is important for the present. I am venturing into the anthropological dimension of political culture.”

“Political culture concentrates in itself attitudes to politics and power which refer to the past. In the liberal democratic part of Europe political partisanship seems to be autonomous. But in Africa and ex-communist Eastern Europe the substance of politics is determined decisively by political culture and political/economic interests, presented as parties. These are, in fact, personal or group formations that have their roots elsewhere than in political programmes. The dominant recruitment principles are from kinship and leadership of a monarchic, autocratic type. Both in Eastern Europe and Africa modern political parties only superficially copy the characteristics of partisanship common in pluralist Europe and North America.”

“They don’t come from a liberal tradition and many of these countries are Illiberal democracies.” he added. “Westernisation has not succeeded. It’s a failure of imported statehood.”

He traced some of the history of these very different parts of the world.

“Post-communist Europe comes from a long heritage of suppression,” he said, “with occupation first by Germany and then Russia. Communism was initially welcomed in many parts as well as the father-figure type leaders who were seen as having liberated countries from Nazi occupation. But under communist rule there was no freedom, dependence on the state, lack of justice and widespread fear which led to quickly suppressed uprisings in the 1950s and 60s in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia.”

The fall of the Soviet Union from 1989/91 was experienced differently in these countries – some negotiated change, whereas some came to a bloody end like Yugoslavian leading to wars in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s.

Despite a push to re-join Europe after 1991 – as evidenced by European Union membership by many of these countries, Skalník believes “Eastern Europe has not caught up with the West”.

He highlighted Africa’s equally traumatic past from colonialism to independence. “In post-colonial Africa out of 55 countries only 10 have not experienced coups, civil war or drastic regime change. There remain ongoing low-level civil wars in the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Somalia.”

He described many African countries as being in “awkward democracy – electocracy – where elections are held but mean nothing as the same rule continues”.

“This has led in many cases to decades of one-party or one-individual rule – ranging from King Leopold II who was the sole owner of the Congo to Mugabe and Zuma who have ‘captured states’ with the full backing of their political parties.”

He also described the ongoing impact of post-colonial foreign influence including the extraction of mineral wealth and structural adjustment programmes which perpetuated economic underdevelopment.

“African countries, some of them potentially very wealthy because of their mineral deposits and potential for commercial agriculture for export, developed special relationships between the foreign companies and the ruling regimes. This is called neo-patrimonialism because the rulers consider the country and its wealth as their private asset. The majority in those countries enjoyed no bonus. The rulers, now ‘democratic’, have to ensure that they are repeatedly elected. The proceeds from the wealth were not ploughed into the economy benefitting all, but used privately.”

He described similar outcomes in many Eastern European countries where privatisation in practice meant that companies were allocated to ‘friends’ leading to the creation of wealthy, politically powerful oligarchs.

“The former communist regime elites have either entered newly formed democratic parties, or used their ill-gotten wealth as starting capital in their now allowed entrepreneurial activities. Privatisation became a way to ‘tunnel’ the assets out of former state-owned enterprises.”

“Corruption as a rule of the game was accepted by all in the belief that the liberation movement now in power in an independent country would act in favour of all. Favouritism, nepotism and kinship solidarity were, however, stronger than national interest and large majorities have been left in poverty. The political culture of solidarity and equality is missing. Instead it is non-participatory subject political culture which is dominating both in Africa and the eastern part of Europe today.”

“This has all led to increasing criminalisation, clientelism, neo-patrimonialism and corruption, the failure of amenities and infrastructure, increasing unemployment and the rise of informal economies.”

Skalnik will also attempt to unpack the complex issue of whether synthesis between the traditional and the modern is possible. “It’s about traditional values versus modern influences,’ he said. The long pre-colonial past in Africa was based on a different political culture – one of consensus and chiefdoms. Modern conditions don’t blend easily with traditional rule and practices. It only works in some African countries.”

He also briefly touched on other issues including the role of religion and social media; media ownership by politicians; the impact of the rising middle class; fear of immigration into Eastern European countries especially by those of African or Middle Eastern descent; the re-emergence of racism and chauvinism; the rise of mediocrity and decline of intellectualism; the decline of the rule of law in many countries, as well as the rise of non-conformist or ‘pirate’ parties.

“People no longer vote for or care about established parties in Eastern Europe. However, the silent majority still mostly remains silent.”

“I hope to describe and explain the vicissitudes of democracy and underdevelopment in Africa and Eastern Europe. The point is to describe and explain socio-political features that differ from Western models of politics and economy. The book will show that the world, and especially Africa and Eastern Europe, is not following one trajectory unequivocally, and that political culture in its pluralism is not only relevant but an indispensable prism through which true understanding of diversity is possible.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw


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