East European democracy: Sliding back or hollowed out?


2010 Fidesz fahaz MSZP sator” by Czank Máté – Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

For some time analysts and commentators have understood that all is not well with democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. In the immediate aftermath, the region defied a raft of predictions that the dislocating effect of economic reform and resurgence of nationalist traditions would lead to a Latin American style breakdown of democracy. Democratic change and marketization were – certainly compared to other parts of the post-communist world – peaceful, quick and far-reaching, with the EU membership achieved within a relatively short time.

Indeed, much conventional wisdom has it, that the incentive of EU membership ‘leveraged’ politicians and electorates in some CEE states away from illiberal and nationalist politics. In short, while CEE democracy might have been short on civil society and public engagement and high on corruption and inefficiency, it seemed consolidated and safe.

All this seems to have changed since EU accession. Commentators looked for and quickly found ‘backsliding’ in Poland in 2005-7 as short-lived minority government headed by the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, which included two small populist-nationalist parties as coalition partners, took office. And post-transition fears of breakdown seemed belatedly to come true with onset of the Great Recession in 2008-9 and the landslide victory in Hungary in the 2010 parliamentary elections of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz.

Orbán’s subsequent use of his huge majority to rewrite the Hungarian constitution, strip back checks and balances and entrench his party in deep in the state, media civil society are well documented, as are his questioning of liberal democracy and formulation of a deeply illiberal nationalist project for the future of Hungary.

But discussion of the wider malaise seemingly gripping democracy in CEE has often been stronger on sounding the alarm and itemizing symptoms than on analysis.  Indeed, the term ‘backsliding’ was so loosely applied  that it covered phenomena ranging from the rise of right-extremism to difficulties negotiating coalitions.

Much writing has simply boiled down to the idea that development across the region simply can be understood as Hungary writ small.  Hungary’s illiberal political turn was a ‘cancer’ spreading to the rest of the region and Orbán, to quote the Guardian’s Ian Traynor simply the most prominent example of a new breed of ‘democratically elected populist strongmen …  deploying the power of the state and a battery of instruments of intimidation to crush dissent’.  Some journalists painting a bigger picture (or airing common geo-political concerns) preferred the term ‘Putinization’.

But such broad-brush treatment would never do. Anyone who knows the Czech Republic, for example, would see a democracy disfigured by corruption, disengagement and distrust. But neither its assertive head of state, president Miloš Zeman, nor ambitious billionaire populist newcomer Andrej Babiš quite fit the bill of a Czech Viktor Orbán. A nationalist turn, a new constitution, a dominant ruling party or a spectacular breakthrough by the extreme right. None of this is on the Czech agenda – or indeed quite  on the agenda elsewhere in CEE.

Clearly a much better comparative take on how to understand the travails of CEE democracy is called for, capable of embracing the political realities of both Prague and Budapest and all points in between.

And in an article in latest issue of Global Policy the Hungarian political scientist and political economist Béla Greskovits has now offered precisely this.

Hollowing and backsliding

The problems of CEE democracies, he argues, can be seen as a varying mix of backsliding – understood as a turn to illiberal and authoritarian practices by rulers and the radicalisation (and extremist voting patterns) of sections of the electorate – and hollowing, by which he understands public disengagement from politics, the atrophying of civil society (including organised economic interests) and decline of trust in elected politicians.

While backsliding (distantly) echoes Putin-esque authoritarian subversion of democratic institutions in the East, the hollowing out of democratic politics, he suggests, is a local version of long-term trends seen in many established Western democracies. Except, as Greskovits notes, in CEE, it is less a matter of the hollowing and decline of traditional mass politics, than of their being ‘born hollow’ and never been filled out in the first place.

Measuring backsliding and hollowing using a basket of indicators, Greskovits finds distinct patterns of hollowing and backsliding.

Greskovits table cropped

Sources: Greskovits/ Global Policy

Hungary, unsurprisingly, represents a case of extreme backsliding, but one that takes place in the context of relatively well rooted parties and a relatively solid civil society. Here, it seems, it was the strength of parties and society that has facilitated the authoritarian backsliding, as can perhaps been seen the well-organised and well-mobilised nature of both the ruling party and its dynamic far-right challenger Jobbik. Both seem the ability of both to put down roots in and colonise parts of civil society, a pattern already, as Sheri Berman argued , seen in  classic, if more  extreme form, in  Weimar Germany, although now extending to youth and pop culture.

Latvia, Bulgaria and Romania represent further cases of backsliding, but – Greskovits finds – these are socially and politically hollower democracies, perhaps explaining differences in their political trajectories.

Greskovits table 2

Source: Greskovits / Global Policy

At the opposite pole to Hungary, we find Estonia and Lithuania, which appear as hollow democracies which have experienced little backsliding. This raises the same question, but in opposite form: could the elite-centred hollowness of their political systems in some way protected them from authoritarian drift?

But Hungary aside, the other three Visegrad states (Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland) do well, appearing in the familiar role as most successful and resilient democracies in the region: they are least hollow in terms of participation and civil society and have undergone no substantial authoritarian backsliding.

Drilling down

Like all path-breaking work Greskovits’s article raises more many more questions than it answers. Slovenia, for example, appears, perhaps, oddly in the same category as Hungary: a case of backsliding of a socially and politically solid (‘low hollowness’) democracy, but it politics seems characterised by fragmentation and volatility.

To some extent, this may reflect the indicators used: the indexes used are rankings of average rankings and the backsliding index includes the scope and scale of anti-austerity protests which, given powerful trade union and interest groups and the crunching impact of the Great Recession in Slovenia, were large could drag the country down . However, a closer look at the other backsliding sub-indices does show backward movement in Slovenia since 2009 in areas such as voice, accountability and freedom of the press.

Drilling down, the difference seems to be one of degree: put somewhat differently, it is truly striking just how  far and how fast and how consistently Hungary has moved back compared to other backsliders. Backsliding has generally been mild and indeed Romania and Bulgaria seem to be backsliders mainly in the sense that they have failed to overcome dismally low pre-Recession levels of democracy, rather than because of post-crisis deterioration. Hungary is the great exception.

Here, as the detailed concluding discussion on Hungary and Latvia –  two of the most badly Recession-hit backslider – makes clear, it is the nature of Hungarian right and right-wing elites that make the difference, as well as perhaps the majoritarian nature of Hungary’s democratic institutions, especially the strong first-past-the-post element in its electoral system.

Drilling down still further, we a see a still more complex in the relation to hollowness. The relative solidity of Poland’s democracy, for example, seems to be rooted indicators for civil society (including trust in the Church), but (as measured by membership; levels of electoral turnout during the good pre-crisis years of 2000-7) its party politics are woefully hollow.

Conversely, the hollowness of  democracy in Romania and Bulgarian (as measured in the same period) stems from extrenely weak civil society indicators, although Romania (where religious bodies are the most trusted in Europe and (until 2011) binding national wage agreements existed) does better than Bulgaria. However, here we may wonder whether healthy looking levels party membership and mid-level turnout are partly an expression patronage politics and clientelism (although, if they are, some might see this as low grade form of democratic linkage rather than hollowness).

 Wallowing in the hollow

Pulling together the indicators to look at the patterns more closely, I struggled to replicate the Global Policy rankings for some of less clear cut case, especially in terms of hollowness.  Estonia’s relatively high levels of party membership, turnout and trust in NGOs, for example, should not mark it out as the hollowest democracy in CEE, even if neo-liberal economics and weakness of organised religion pull in that direction. A similar pattern is also present, although to a lesser extent in Latvia putting it closer to the low hollowness/high backsliding pattern seen in Hungarian case, even if ethnic division and proportional institutions have held back the conservative nationalist bloc more than in Hungary. The Harmony Centre party in Latvia (heavily backed by Russophone voters) also seems a more embedded left party than the Hungarian Socialists, who came unstuck in 2010.

Categories edited

Source: Author’s estimates

And the Czech Republic – whether approached by ranking average rankings or (as above) loosely categorising indicators as high, medium or low and pooling these –appears considerably more hollowed out than Global Policy article finds. This seems due to rather anaemic civil society indicators (diminished trade unions, low support for organised religion and a relatively weak (if highly trusted) NGO sector) The latter may be  a legacy of the Klaus and Zeman years).

Such divergences are, however, unsurprising.  For reasons of space the article does not give down-to-the-last-detail about how different sub-indicators have been bundled together and, as Greskovits himself points out, ranking, while it offers a quick and convenient first cut on comparative democratic decline will inevitably  blur some of the subtler differences between cases.

Even allowing for this, however, the question of democratic hollowness – and its relationship with more authoritarian and headline grabbing backsliding tendencies-  seems emerge as a key phenomenon, which depending on the circumstances, may either help sink or  safeguard CEE’s post-accession, post-Recession democracy.

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