From Red Square to Square One

What’s left of the Left in the post-socialist world?


The fall of the Soviet-backed People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) and the victory of the Mujahadeen in 1992 splintered the Afghan left and sent it underground. It survived in the form of groups like the left-nationalist Watan Party of Afghanistan (a successor of the PDPA), the small, urban Left Radical of Afghanistan, and the Solidarity Party of Afghanistan, a left-wing, anti-imperialist party currently out of parliament but aligned with independent woman senator Bulquis Roshan.


After the fall of Communism, two parties have dominated the Albanian political spectrum: on the right, the Democratic Party of Albania and on the left, the Socialist Party of Albania (PS). The PS has formed a government four times since 1992, including in 2017, when it won 48% of the vote. While it previously tacked to the center, it has moved somewhat left recently, introducing a progressive tax system. The center-left Socialist Movement for Integration, which spun off from the PS in 2004, has dodged corruption scandals to become the country’s largest third party.


Since the vicious Cold War-infused civil war between the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola ended in 2002, the country has remained in the hands of the corrupt, violently repressive MPLA while maintaining the veneer of a multiparty system. Though the disputed 2017 election saw longtime dictator José Eduardo dos Santos step down, the MPLA retained power. No left-wing parties threw their hats in the ring, though the National Patriotic Alliance promised various generous social programs and was rewarded with a mere 0.51% of the vote.


Armenian politics is extremely fragmented, personality driven, and largely nonideological, but the Armenian Revolutionary Federation serves as a decidedly left-of-center choice. It has pushed for a parliamentary form of government since 1995 and calls on the state to provide a decent standard of living for all Armenians through minimum wage increases, universal health care, and more. It was the third largest party in 2007, winning 16 seats, and came fourth this past April, winning seven seats, far behind the 58 won by the ruling (and ideologically opposed) Republican Party of Armenia.


Over the 24 years it has ruled Azerbaijan, the Aliyev regime (first the father, now the son) has systematically crushed all political opposition, from parties like the dissident Popular Front and the liberal, pan-Turkist Müsavat (Equality), to student movements in the late 2000s that protested corruption, repression, pollution, and forced resettlement. The most popular opposition group today is Republican Alternative, which supports the rule of law and free markets. Even it is facing suppression.


Left-wing opposition to the authoritarian Lukashenko regime has been somewhat dampened by events in Ukraine, as well as government repression of anarchists, environmentalists, unions, and opposition activists. A stronger left could have capitalized on recent protests against the government’s so-called parasite tax.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

2011 was the center-left’s biggest electoral victory since the end of World War II: the Social Democratic Party of Bosnia and Herzegovina (SDP) won almost 18% nationally. Massive defeats in 2014, when its support dropped to 6.65%, and 2016, when ethnic nationalist parties won 34 municipalities to the SDP’s eight, have consigned the left parties to irrelevance.


The Bulgarian Socialist Party, successor to the country’s Soviet-era Communist Party, was powerful through the 1990s, peaking at 43.5% of the vote, but it has suffered a remarkable decline in 1997, when it lost 67 seats. Since then it has taken turns at power with the center-right, dodging corruption scandals and pursuing its own austerity agenda.

Burkina Faso

A popular uprising in 2014 ended the brutal, autocratic twenty-seven-year rule of Blaise Compaoré. The next year, longtime government critic Bénéwendé Sankara — a disciple, not a relation, of the country’s original Marxist revolutionary president, Thomas Sankara — ran on a promise to continue his idol’s program. His fourth-place result was disappointing (and lower than the third and second he placed in the last two elections), but his Union for Rebirth / Sankarist Party won five seats and two cabinet positions.


After losing the UN-sponsored 1993 election, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) — an outgrowth of Cambodia’s former Communist Party that replaced Marxism-Leninism with an embrace of market principles and membership in the Centrist Democrat International — never lost another election and has grown increasingly authoritarian. The party has faced sustained pressure only from the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), a centrist reform party that’s facing severe repression. From July 2013 to July 2014, the country saw protests against election fraud, political corruption, and poor working conditions.


With Croatia’s Social Democratic Party dragged down by neoliberalism and empty sloganeering, the hunger for alternatives fostered some leftist activity, as seen in the annual Subversive Festival and the Workers’ Front. The latter, dubbed the “Croatian Syriza,” recently entered into a coalition with three other left-of-center groups for the Zagreb local elections and won 7.64% of the vote, gaining four seats.

Czech Republic

The Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), a center-left party that was a dominant force since the end of Communism, suffered a monumental collapse in this year’s elections, falling 13 points and becoming the lowest-polling “large” party. The country’s largely unreconstructed Communist Party still receives a steady percentage of the vote (a rarity in post-Communist Europe), governs in several regions, and slightly outpolled the ČSSD in 2017.

East Germany

After German reunification — which felt more like annexation for many East Germans — the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) regularly won a quarter of the vote in the former DDR. The legal successor to the former ruling Socialist Unity Party, it transitioned fully to democratic socialism. In 2007, the PDS merged with the West German-based Electoral Alternative for Labour and Social Justice to form Die Linke. Die Linke today still commands around 10% of the national vote, but it’s watching its traditional strongholds in the East erode as its support base ages and it faces challenges from the far-right Alternative for Germany.


The Left has struggled in Estonia, where left-leaning parties have only ever been in power as junior partners of center-right-dominated coalitions. Despite economic decline, crushing austerity measures, and actions like the elimination of the corporate tax, left-wing activism is barely visible.


Since the overthrow of the self-described Marxist-Leninist Derg dictatorship in 1991, Ethiopia has been ruled by the nominally leftist Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, which has gradually turned the country into an authoritarian developmental state.


Georgia’s post-Soviet politics have been defined by a combination of nationalism and free-market economics that has sent inequality soaring. 2012 saw the end of the eight-year authoritarian and corrupt reign of the United National Movement thanks to the six-party Georgian Dream coalition. A billionaire political novice headed this formation, promising greater social spending, including a public health-insurance system. In 2016, it brought three lawmakers from the antiwar, pro-labor Social Democrats for the Development of Georgia (SDD) into parliament. SDD now makes up one-third of a smaller Georgian Dream coalition, giving it greater influence.


The country’s New Jewel Movement (NJM) took power in a 1979 coup under the leadership of Maurice Bishop. The Marxist-Leninist People’s Revolutionary Government instituted a series of reforms with Cuban and Soviet aid before bloody infighting led to Bishop’s murder. A 1983 US invasion saw the NJM completely overthrown. Afterwards, the Maurice Bishop Patriotic Movement contested in democratic elections without much success.


From 1998 to 2010, a semi-two-party system existed in Hungary. The Hungarian Socialist Party (MZSP) — a center-left party that renounced Marxism and embraced austerity in 1994 — had support from its coalition partner, the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ). But over the eight years it was in power from 2002–2010, the MZSP lost 60% of its voters and the SZDSZ was knocked out of parliament, allowing a proliferation of low-polling left and liberal movements devoted to bringing down Viktor Orbán’s right-wing government.


Though nominally a democracy, Kazakhstan is in practice a one-party state dominated by authoritarian president Nursultan Nazarbayev and his Nur Otan (Fatherland) party, in power since 2007. Left-of-center parties do exist, such as the Social Democratic Auyl Party, but Kazakhstan’s personality-based politics and onerous rules (a 50,000-member requirement and a 7% parliamentary threshold) hamstring the development of real electoral contests. The Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan (CPPK) scraped into parliament the last two elections — owing largely to the ongoing ban on the Communist Party, from which the CPPK split in 2004 — but it supports Nazarbayev, so it’s not much of an opposition.


The Left has had tremendous success in Kosovo with Vetëvendosje (Self-Determination), a political movement and now parliamentary party. It won more seats (26% of the vote) than any other left party this June. First emerging in 2004, Vetëvendosje has a unique message that resists both Western efforts to manage Kosovan affairs and the power of former domestic warlords.


Known as the “democratic experiment” of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan’s political parties largely serve as vessels for elite interests rather than divide along ideological lines. Still, the center-left Ata Meken (Fatherland) Socialist Party has been a fixture since 1992. This pro-Western, pro- democracy party wants a strong social safety net, including health care and housing guarantees. It belonged to a four-way coalition with the more centrist Social Democrats until 2016, when it quit over proposed executive-power-centralizing reforms. The country also had a Communist Party, which called for the reconstitution of the Soviet Union and opposed the formation of a parliamentary republic. It was the country’s largest and most influential party through the 2000s, after which it has all but disappeared.


Latvia’s political spectrum is split along “Latvian” and “Russian” lines rather than the traditional left/right divide, and it has a fragmented and unstable party system. Despite socioeconomic conditions that seem ripe for left-wing triumph, the small parliamentary left has been constrained by various factors, most notably ethnic divisions.


Through the 1990s, Lithuania’s political left was dominated by the Lithuanian Democratic Labour Party (LDDP), the reformed Lithuanian Communist Party that broke from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1989 and won 73 of 141 seats in the country’s first post-Soviet election. In 2001, it merged with a left-wing rival to form the Social Democratic Party of Lithuania, which took up the LDDP’s former spot on the center-left, but a number of scandals and mistakes forced it to cede ground to a centrist coalition of farmers and environmentalists in 2016.


After decades in the wilderness, various movements came together in 2015 to form Levica (the Left), the country’s first unapologetically left-wing party since Yugoslav breakup. Though it failed to cross the electoral threshold in 2015, ongoing grassroots protests over the right-wing government’s corruption may boost the Left’s chances.


Moldova was the first European nation where an unreformed Communist Party (PCRM) was elected to power in 2001. But nothing is as it seems in Moldova: the PCRM is nationalistic, authoritarian, and socially conservative, and the party that eclipsed it in 2014, the Party of Socialists, is much the same. Then there’s the Democratic Party of Moldova, a social-democratic party whose chairman and funder is a current deputy president of the Socialist International and a crooked oligarch.


Mongolia’s former ruling communist party, the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party — now simply the Mongolian People’s Party — has dominated post–Cold War politics, winning parliamentary elections in 1990, 1992 (where it took 95% of the seats), 2000, and 2008. Though it recently returned to power with 45% of the vote and 65 seats, it has moved ever further to the center. The two social-democratic parties are little better: the first joined the right-wing coalition that anti-communist GOP political operatives helped take power in 1996; the second ran on a soft neoliberal platform in 2016.


Since the country’s first multiparty elections, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) has loomed over Montenegrin politics: its party membership comprises around a fifth of all registered voters, it has triumphed in every parliamentary election (51.9% of the vote most recently), and its leader won seven terms as prime minister before stepping down last year. Despite its progressive trappings, the DPS is a neoliberal party and its president a devoted kleptocrat. The Social Democratic Party, the other nominal left force, in fact partnered with the DPS from 1997 to 2016.


Through a combination of patronage, experience, an already existing party structure, and the institution of a first-past-the-post electoral system, the formerly Marxist-Leninist Frelimo (the Mozambique Liberation Front) has stayed in power since the end of civil war in 1992. It’s getting hard to tell where the party ends and the government begins. Frelimo abandoned socialism for “modernization,” cutting social services and privatizing assets to benefit ranking officials’ wallets. It has recently started committing human rights abuses in a renewal of its conflict with the former rebel group, Mozambican National Resistance. Though unions remain under the government’s thumb, popular frustration has found outlets in protests over rising prices and recent transport, education, and sugar mill strikes.


The parliamentary left has been all but put out to pasture, with no even remotely left-of-center party winning an election since 2001. As of 2015’s electoral massacre, no left-wing party sits in parliament for the first time since 1989. However, Razem (Together), a Podemos-like movement, has emerged. It fell short of the 5% threshold in 2015 but won enough support to receive public funding. It organized a successful series of large protests against a proposed 2016 abortion ban.


The center-left Social Democratic Party (PSD) has had unique staying power in Romania, ruling through the first half of the 1990s and much of the new millennium. It won 46% of the vote — more than double its center-right opposition — in 2016 parliamentary elections, despite a string of scandals associated with its former prime minister and other prominent party members, including corruption, election fraud, and a nightclub fire that left 32 dead.


The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) once controlled many regional authorities, its leader nearly beat Boris Yeltsin in 1993, and it continues to maintain some support, even after a major party split in 2004 sent it increasingly toward neo-Stalinism and social conservatism. But it has significantly declined, and the other major alternative — A Just Russia — is viewed as a “pocket opposition.” It won just over 6% of the vote in 2016.


The student-led, left-of-center movement Otpor! removed dictator Slobodan Milošević from power before dissipating in 2002. Today, the Serbian left finds political expression in the Left Summit of Serbia, a coalition of activists that has helped organize the more-than-yearlong series of anti- neoliberal protests known as Ne(da)vimo Beograd.


It’s been five years since Robert Fico’s social-democratic Direction-Social Democracy won a landslide electoral victory with 44.4% of the vote, giving it more than half the parliament’s seats. During this time, it has raised the minimum wage, reintroduced a progressive income tax, and offered free railway tickets to certain groups, among other measures. The party underperformed in 2016, but its 28.7% still far outdid its rivals. More radical movements remain dormant.


After 2013 anti-corruption protests brought down the government, left-wing activists founded Združena Levica (United Left), inspired by Syriza and Podemos, which has since morphed into Levica (the Left). Supported largely by youth, it won six seats in parliament in 2014 and remains a model for other radical movements in former Yugoslavia, though it recently suffered an exodus of 94 members who cited a lack of internal democracy and a decline in outreach efforts.

South Yemen

Communists made their biggest Middle East breakthrough in Yemen, where most of the country was once governed by the Marxist-Leninist National Liberation Front (NLF). The NLF and its successor, the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP), ruled the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen from 1967 until after the USSR’s collapse and the unification of the country.

Following a 1994 civil war, the party declined and fragmented. As a more moderate, democratic-socialist opposition, the YSP received 4.7% of the vote in 2003, the last time parliamentary elections were held. It also played a part in the 2011–2012 Yemeni uprising, giving hopes of a left resurgence, which were soon dashed as a result of the ongoing civil war.


Things are not good for the Left in this Central Asian country, which has been ruled by an authoritarian president since 1994. The sham 2015 election results say it all: the Socialist Party entered parliament for the first time ever, but it’s considered a puppet opposition; the Communist Party lost its parliamentary seats, but it largely backed the government anyway. The regime’s only true opposition is the Islamic Renaissance Party, which was kicked out of parliament for the first time since 2000.


On paper, Turkmenistan has three political parties: the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, which has ruled unopposed since 1991, the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, and the Agrarian Party of Turkmenistan. But the latter two were created at the government’s behest after 2012, and they serve as opposition in name only. Movements calling for democracy and freedom do exist, but repression has driven them underground and forced their leaders into prison or exile.


The Left in independent Ukraine was at first represented by parties that grew out of the initially banned and unreformed Communist Party of Ukraine (KPU), such as the Socialist Party of Ukraine — which moved gradually toward middle-of-the-road social democracy — and the Peasant Party of Ukraine. The KPU itself took the largest share of the national vote in 1994 and 1998 and nearly won the 1999 presidential election. Partly because of this, socialism remains linked to Stalinism in the popular imagination. Amid current turmoil, the pro-Russian KPU fell below the 5% for the first time in 2014 before being re-banned. In the meantime, the far right is ascendant and left-wing activists from groups like Social Movement — a local analogue to Podemos — are being attacked and kidnapped.


For virtually its entire post-Soviet existence, Uzbekistan has been ruled by the authoritarian government of Islam Karimov, and its various political parties — including the renamed Communist Party — supported him unanimously. The chief opposition has been the radical Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which aims to set up an Islamic state in the region.