Piloting the ESSR: Elections Without Choice – From the Newborn to the Military

September 10, 2019

Although one may assume that parallels in recent history may be easy to draw between the formerly socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, bringing in a lesson about another country’s experience with a totalitarian regime is not always easy. Yet, in the spirit of the ESSR project, the approach to teaching on the experiences with an authoritarian past from abroad through historical sources renders the task very much achievable.

The palpable mobilization and the extent of the election process’ militarization present in the historical sources did not escape the rigorous student eye. Students described the lack of genuine choice in such elections as a form of symbolism, which above all aims to falsely induce a) a sense of self-governance and b) a sense of purpose, in being part of the larger process of building the socialist society. Students recognised this strategy of inclusion in the decision-making processes as a tool to ensure the acceptance of power; elections acted as a cornerstone for a regime to gain legitimacy as well as a tool for one party to stay in power for longer. Students saw the notions of propaganda, repression, and control in the emphasis on children’s participation in the process. They saw the children’s presence as a representation of the value placed on the future and as participation as a family event, but most of all they noticed the military presence as a manifestation of order and security.

Although students often find totalitarian concepts to be of interest, elections were at the centre of their attention while piloting ‘The Election Experience During Czechoslovak State Socialism,’ and not only in the classroom. The context of the European Parliament elections that took place in May 2019 was a welcome addition to the learning environment. It allowed students to take a comparative framework in their analysis of the purpose of elections under state socialism as well as in contemporary democratic regimes. Spontaneous in their reactions, students quickly adapted to their new role of active citizens and voters. The historical sources that truly help history to be re-imagined in the classroom are those that seemingly depict every-day or ordinary events, yet also allow students to go into more depth in their analyses of policies, societies, and ideologies. Drawing parallels between not only places but also processes naturally brought students to examine systems of government in a comparative framework.

The comparison with contemporary election processes not only allows for a crossroads in terms of representations, but also for a broader discussion on the practice of governance with any rudiments of demonstrative, routine, and skewed political messages treated critically by the students. Some of the questions students deliberated on in their discussion spanned from ‘Can democracy represent the interests of all? Should it?’ to ‘How does one differentiate deceitful campaign messages, and how important is it to seek alternative information sources and a plurality of opinions?’

Interpreting the purposes of symbols and references to contemporary events proved to be a shortcut to understanding the history and aim of elections during state socialism. Students concluded that percentages achieved by the respective communist parties in elections in the socialist regimes are not possible in a democratic system. Yet, they still recognised the disadvantages of low participation today, and now they are impatiently awaiting their chance to make a choice as grown-up citizens at the ballot box.