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STANFORD - Low voter turnouts might be interpreted as a sign of a political legitimacy crisis in Central Europe, says Szonja Szelenyi, a Stanford professor who studies that region's transition to post- communism.

Women also are losing political and economic ground in the region, the assistant professor of sociology said, because political debate is more stifled than in mature democracies. The ideology of conservatism has replaced the ideology of communism so that voter concerns on social welfare issues are difficult to address.

Szelenyi's analysis of public opinion polls and election data in her native Hungary reveals that people have stayed away from polling booths because their social democratic views were not represented by any of the political parties during the 1990 elections.

"The no-vote was, in fact, a protest vote," she said. "It was a vote against the absence of a viable social democratic alternative in Hungary.

"Central European politicians did not make much of an effort to reach 'the silent majority,' " she said. "Instead, they were absorbed in the politics of symbols - they chose to wage their election campaigns simply on ideological terms."

Szelenyi and her collaborators Tamas Kolosi, Ivan Szelenyi and Bruce Western were impressed by how few Hungarians voted when given their first opportunity in 1990. Despite their euphoria over the collapse of communism, voters also have stayed away from the polls in large numbers in neighboring Poland, Czechoslovakia and the newly united Germany.

"In the first round of the national elections in Hungary, only 66 percent of those eligible voted, and even this rate declined further to 45 percent by the second round," she said.

Judged by American standards, a turnout rate below 50 percent might not seem so low. However, it is well below the usual levels of political participation in most European democracies.

Nonvoters in Hungary are young, less educated and blue-collar workers, she said. They also are more likely than voters to favor social democratic agendas.

In public opinion polls, 9 of every 10 Hungarians say that the government should provide full employment, old-age pensions, price controls and medical care. Popular support for welfare entitlements is substantially more widespread than support for civil rights: Only 7 out of 10 Hungarians think the government should permit demonstrations, 6 out of 10 think it should support freedom of the press, and 5 out of 10 think it should authorize general strikes.

"What is interesting about the 1990 Hungarian elections is that politicians virtually ignored welfare issues and emphasized mainly broad-based concerns relating to civil rights," she said.

Szelenyi believes that the problem, in part, is that many of the words and images associated with a welfare state have been discredited by the previous communist regime.

For example, one of the political parties tried to secure the support of the Hungarian electorate by using the image of a worker with a hammer in his hand. "This came across as an entirely inauthentic symbol, and it cost the party a large number of votes," she said.

To avoid the same fate, other parties fought over the use of more conservative emblems, such as the Hungarian coat of arms or the Hungarian crown. They did this not necessarily because they favored a royalist state but because these images were "as distant from communism as possible."

"It is now linguistically difficult even to talk about social welfare issues," she said. "For example, women are losing ground in the transition to post-communism, but women's rights are difficult to discuss because words like 'equality' and 'affirmative action' are identified with the communist state," she said.

Szelenyi lived in Hungary until 1975, when her sociologist father, Ivan, was arrested for his book on the class privileges of Central European intellectuals. Her family moved first to England, then to Australia and finally to the United States. She earned her doctorate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she began studying the impact of communism on class and gender relations.

Between 1949 and 1989, the Hungarian socialist regime made a deliberate effort to undo the privileges of the old elite by favoring children from working class and peasant origins in occupational and educational recruitment, she said. During the 1950s, class-based quotas specified that half of all students admitted to universities had to come from less advantaged families.

These political interventions had very little impact. Already by the 1970s, the elite managed to recover many of its pre-socialist privileges, Szelenyi shows in a collaborative study with graduate student Karen Aschaffenburg.

"In some instances, outright bribes were used to subvert the quota system," Szelenyi said. "The most well-known example of this was the case of an assistant professor who accepted money from students in return for a guaranteed pass on the university entrance exam. There is also evidence that some parents may have misrepresented their class position on school application forms in order to ensure their children's admission."

Not all forms of inequality remained unchanged under the socialist regime, however, she said. Women, in particular, have greatly improved their social standing over the past 40 years.

Without the assistance of affirmative action quotas, women entered universities in large numbers and began to occupy class positions that were previously reserved for men. "Socialism did not eliminate gender inequalities," Szelenyi said, "but it made significant advances in that direction."

Now, women are losing the gains they made under communism.

In a paper with graduate students Winifred Poster and Gordana Crnkovic, Szelenyi shows that recent changes in Central Europe have disproportionately increased women's unemployment. In 1990, women made up 52 percent of the unemployed in the former East Germany, 60 percent in Bulgaria and 75 percent in Croatia.

Although all women are affected by these changes, it's increasingly difficult for women with children to continue to work, Szelenyi said. "State-run child care facilities are closing down, and private facilities haven't yet emerged to take their place.

"Employers also unabashedly discriminate between men and women when they advertise new jobs: They ask for men when they are recruiting for managerial occupations and for women when they are filling secretarial work," she said.

Women also have lost ground in political life. Under communism, women held approximately one third of all parliamentary seats. Now their representation is as low as 13 percent in Poland, 8 percent in Czechoslovakia, 7 percent in Hungary and 5 percent in Romania.

Advocates of gender equality find themselves in a difficult position, she said. This is because Central European feminists, much like the politicians, feel obligated to distance themselves from communism.

"They claim that the socialist experiment was nothing more than an instance of 'forced emancipation'; that women's representation in the political arena was 'artificially high'; and that women's incorporation into public life was 'insincere' because it was motivated by economic interests, rather than by feminist concerns."

For these reasons, women's interests are not represented in the newly elected parliaments, she said.

"Central European societies are still a long way from being fully mature democracies.

"The contours of political correctness have flip-flopped virtually overnight in Central Europe," Szelenyi said. "Before, the failures of socialism could not be discussed; now its achievements are taboo."

-kpo/central europe-


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