Freedom to choose your own leaders

In today’s Europe, we live in democracies. We elect our own leaders, kick them out when we decide they’re no longer doing a good job, and have the freedom to join or affiliate ourselves with any political party we choose.

It’s easy to take democracy for granted; but up until thirty years ago, people were prepared to put their lives on the line to win the right to vote for who they wanted. Prior to the revolutions of 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet regime, citizens of the Soviet Union lived under strict communist rule.

The political system of the time did involve a facade of democracy, but the reality was anything but.

In theory, each city and region had its own ‘elected’ council. Voters were organised into three groups: soldiers, company workers, and the inhabitants of each district. These three groups would elect the council, which would in turn elect politicians further up the chain.

Sounds democratic, doesn’t it? Not exactly…

There was just one problem.  While everyone had a vote, you couldn’t stand for election unless you were a member of the Communist Party. So you could vote for anyone you like, so long as they were a member of the Communist party. There was no alternative.

If you rebelled and refused to vote, or defaced your ballot paper, your vote would be counted as a vote for the Communist Party by default.

Nowadays we are free to vote for whichever party or candidate we want in elections, and as a general rule we know that the candidates have already gone through a robust selection process based on their suitability for the job.  But this wasn’t always the case. 

In the Soviet Union, the way a leader was chosen was much more complicated – often shrouded in mystery and the result of power struggles at the highest levels of government. This is how Nikita Khrushchev installed himself as General Secretary of the Soviet Union in the fifties following Stalin’s death.

By outmanoeuvring his adversaries and organising their demotion, Khrushchev managed to convince enough members of the Politburo – the highest decision-making assembly – that he was the best person to govern the country – and the citizens of the Soviet Union had no power (or vote) to overturn the secretive decision.

Once installed, these undemocratic leaders wielded fearsome power.  It is estimated that in total, the communist leaders of the Soviet Union were responsible for around 15 million deaths, with many opponents ruthlessly executed, imprisoned, or exiled to the Gulag.

So you could vote for anyone you like, so long as they were a member of the Communist party.  There was no alternative.

One of the most hated of all communist leaders was Nicolae Ceaușescu, who built an outlandish personality cult for himself as the First Secretary of communist Romania from 1965 until his death in 1989. Bookstores were obliged to carry a showcase to the 28 volumes of his speeches; painters and poets were obliged to produce works celebrating him; and any hint of criticism led to harassment, arrest or even murder. Ceaușescu– compared by many citizens to his famous countryman, Count Dracula – became a hate figure to his people, who grew angry with his outward displays of luxury while the population was starving under his rule.

This brutal and unelected leader held onto power for almost 25 years before the people finally succeeded in rising up against his rule in 1989. After a bloody coup which left many dead, Ceaușescu and his wife were eventually executed by firing squad on Christmas Day.

Real people: Václav Havel

Václav Havel was a Czech playwright and political activist who rose to fame during the sixties in Czechoslovakia when he went from dissident to president. His activities during the Prague Spring of 1968 – eight months of political reforms and protest which were eventually quashed when the Soviets invaded – brought him to the attention of the secret police.

He was imprisoned on many occasions for his political beliefs, and because of this became a hero in the eyes of the people. He played a major part in the Velvet Revolution which was instrumental in peacefully overthrowing Communist rule in 1989.

In 1990, the first free elections in Czechoslovakia in 44 years took place and Havel was elected President.

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