Academically-authored death-of-democracy and liberalism-under-siege books are a rapidly expanding genre. The latest of these slim doomy volumes is Jan Zielonka’s Counter-Revolution: Liberal Europe in Retreat.
The book is an extended essay written in the form of a letter to the late Ralf Dahrendorf, whose Reflections on the Revolution in Europe (1990) offered a similar, but more optimistic take on Europe’s prospects in the immediate aftermath of 1989. Tellingly, while Dahrendorf addresses an anonymous ‘gentleman in Warsaw’, this imaginary exchange takes place between two British-based European scholars.
From the outset, Zielonka makes clear he’s not setting out to write yet another tract about populism. Instead, he offers us a reflection on the weaknesses and limitations of liberalism in Europe – ‘a self-critical book by lifelong liberal.’
Whether in economics, democracy, European integration or when meeting the challenges of migration and climate change, liberals have, Zielonka argues, mucked things up since the fall of communism. Liberalism has mainly served elites, economic winners and vested interests becoming ‘a comprehensive ideology of power: set of values, way of government and cultural ethos’. Read More…
One election, it seems, really can change everything.
Once feted for having bucked both the populist trend and the global recession, in early 2017 Poland was facing international condemnation. Moves by the Law and Justice government have come straight out of the playbook shared by the likes of Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán. It’s moved quickly to neuter the constitutional court; to take control of the state media; to defund unfriendly NGOs or regulate them into irrelevance; to put its own people in charge of public institutions; and has given every sign of being prepared to ride out waves of protests and ignore international criticism.
Recent footage of opposition deputies occupying the podium of the Sejm and chaotic and hastily convened parliamentary voting by government deputies in back rooms was more reminiscent of the crisis-hit democracies of southern and southeastern Europe than the democratic trailblazer once hailed by European Union heavyweights.
To be clear, Poland is not yet Hungary, the EU’s other major backsliding headache. Law and Justice has only a small parliamentary majority, not the supermajority needed for a Hungarian-style constitutional rewrite. Protesters have been more assertive and quicker to take to the streets.
Nor does Poland have a powerful far-right party like Hungary’s Jobbik waiting in the wings to claim the role of “real” opposition if the ruling party falters. Poland’s opposition may yet manage to use social movements as a rough-and-ready substitute for weakened constitutional checks and balances — and may perhaps eventually make a winning return at the polls. But even in this (far-from-certain) best-case scenario, the country’s institutions are likely to emerge from this period badly damaged.
But the speed at which Poland’s and Hungary’s apparently successful democracies have unravelled points toward a problem that has tended to be overlooked amid the latest political developments: Contrary to appearances, liberal democracy was never solidly rooted in Eastern Europe. Read More…
The spectacular rise and fall of new anti-establishment parties has been one of the constants of Central European politics over the last two decades. But, despite the headlines, the region’s most successful new protest parties have not been right populists surging in Western Europe. The successes of Hungary’s Jobbik or, more recently (and more modestly) Marian Kotelba’s People’s Party – Our Slovakia (ĽSNS) are more the exceptions than the rule.
Instead the big winners have often been loose-knit, personality-driven groupings with a vague rhetoric of fighting corruption, speeding up reform and “doing politics differently”. Variously led by businessmen, journalists, technocrats or celebrities, who had deftly reinvented themselves as anti-politicians, this new breed of anti-establishment party lambasted conventional party politicians as a failed self-serving cartel in the best populist style, but retained sufficient mainstream credibility to appeal to large chunks of the electorate and move straight into government.
One of the most striking examples of such a party is the Czech Republic’s ANO (‘Yes’) movement led by the Slovak-born billionaire Andrej Babiš. Founded in 2011, ANO swept into parliament and into government in elections in 2013 winning 18.7% of the vote with a hastily assembled ticket of technocrats, businesspeople and figures from culture and the media. Mr Babiš is currently Finance minister in an uneasy centre-left coalition and until recently has regularly topped opinion polls. Read More…
A powerful coalition of forces – ranging from the driest of conservatives to Greens and the radical left and taking in big business, trade unions, churches and universities – has come together to underline the negative economic, social and political consequences of Brexit.
The UK leaving the EU, it is argued, will not only do lasting damage to the country’s economic prospects and political influence, but could have wider repercussions and might even cause the Union to start unravelling.
This is not simply a matter of absorbing a mighty economic shock, the complexities of negotiating the terms of Brexit, or the umpredictable effects of a sharply changed balance of forces within a downsized Union – the greater weight of Eurozone vis-a-via the non-Eurozone, for example – but the new political dynamics that might take hold.
Some have argued that, emboldened by the example of Brexit, eurosceptics across the EU, will start to push for the exit option, triggering a kind of ‘domino effect’. Writing for France Inter. Bernard Guetta gloomily takes for granted that post-Brexit
… so many politicians and political parties would follow headlong down this route to get a slice of the action. The pressure for similar referendums would arise all over Europe. The defenders of the European ideal would find themselves on the defensive. In such a crisis it would be very difficult to rebuild the EU.
Available evidence does suggest potential for such a process. Polling by Ipsos Mori shows high public demand for referendums on EU membership in with significant minorities France (41%), Sweden (39%) and Italy (48%). favouring withdrawal. Other polling even suggested that post-Brexit a majority of Swedes would support exiting the EU.
French, Dutch and Danish electorates do have experience of rejecting EU treaties in referendums – with voters in the Netherlands getting further practice in last month’s referendum on EU-Ukraine trade deal, which some see a dry run for a Nexit vote.
And demands for exit from the EU – or referendums about it – have been raised by expanding parties of the populist right pushing their way towards power: Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party in Holland advocates Nexit, while French Front National plans to organise a referendum on Frexit within six months of coming to power.
FN leader Marine Le Pen, who relishes the idea of becoming Madame Frexit, also recommends that every EU member should have one (although her offer to visit the UK and help out the Brexit campaign has been abruptly turned down). Read More…
This commentary on liberalism and the responses to the refugee crisis in East Central Europe was co-authored with James Dawson.
Images from Hungary showing security forces turning tear gas and water cannon on refugees from behind a newly fortified border will come as little surprise to many observers of East Central Europe. The government of Victor Orbán has systematically exploited the refugee crisis to ramp up a long-standing rhetoric of nationalist intolerance and consolidate its grip on power by passing a raft of emergency powers, further eroding Hungary’s once robust legal checks and balances. Such actions have drawn a storm of international opprobrium – including harsh criticism from the governments of Austria, Croatia and Serbia, all of which have taken a more humane and pragmatic approach to managing the influx of refugees.
Few criticisms of Hungary’s actions have come from neighbouring EU states in East Central Europe still widely seen as front runners in liberal political and economic reform. Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic initially opted to close ranks with Orbán to head off the European Commission’s proposals for compulsory quotas. Wrong-footed and exasperated by the sudden re-discovery of liberal compassion on the part on Germany and other West European governments, leaders ranging from Slovakia’s social democratic prime minister Robert Fico to Poland’s newly elected conservative president Andrzej Duda provoked astonishment in Western European capitals by conceding that they might take a handful of those fleeing the war in Syria hand-picked on the basis of their religion. Poland has lately broken ranks by responding to pressure from Berlin, Paris and Brussels to sign up to quotas, yet even the deal’s supporters doubt it will ever be implemented against a backdrop of consistently hostile public attitudes towards refugees in the region. As one social media visualisation graphically showed, widespread use of #refugeeswelcome stopped abruptly at the old Iron Curtain. Such stances have been widely lambasted as hypocritical, ungenerous, lacking in compassion, and contradicting the long-term interests of East Central European states themselves.
Yet just a decade ago these same former Eastern bloc countries acceded smoothly to the EU on the basis that they had fulfilled the Copenhagen Criteria as ‘functioning liberal democracies’. Why has liberalism, once a rallying cry for pro-European leaders from Warsaw to Sofia and a condition built into the EU’s demanding pre-accession acquis, suddenly gone missing when it is needed most? Read More…
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.
25 years on from the fall of communism, the Wall Street Journal recently told its readers, Central and Eastern Europe is still playing catch-up. The reasons are mainly economic and infrastructural. Too little growth by the standards of the Asian tigers. Too few high speed rail links. Not enough motorways. Viktor Orbán bossing it over Hungary in an ever more worrying project of illiberal transformation. A bad subsidy habit fed by an indulgent EU. A Middle Income Development Trap waiting to be sprung. And –when did this ever happen before? – progress that “ has fallen short of what many of its citizens had hoped”.
But we shouldn’t be too harsh. The WSJ is not particularly well known for the quality of its CEE reporting. And this occasion it’s absolutely right: Central and Eastern Europe is playing catch-up. The politics of catch-up, rather than geography or culture or post-communism, are probably what define the region best. If it wasn’t catching up, it wouldn’t be Central and Eastern Europe. Historians of East Central Europe such as Andrew C. Janos or Ivan Berend have long been preoccupied by the region’s long-term efforts to push its levels of socioeconomic– and political – development into line Europe’s core West European states – although they have sometimes bluntly simply spoken of “backwardness”.
The post-1989 project of European integration and enlargement, although more usually referred to in terms of ‘convergence’ or ‘Return to Europe’ is also all about one catch-up – and a very ambitious form of catch-up: overcoming deeply rooted east-west divide, which as Janos and others have noted, predates the Cold War division of Europe. Enlargement and integration – and liberal reform in CEE generally –been sold politically on the basis that the poor, historically peripheral societies of CEE will (and after a painful process of adjustment) reap the full benefits of prosperity, social welfare, democracy and freedom enjoyed by core West European societies that had the good luck to stay out of of the Soviet zone of influence after WWII.
If, in the long term, integration fails to deliver, there may be significant consequences both for the EU and for the fate of democracy and liberal institutions in Central and East European countries themselves. As recent developments in Hungary show, liberal and democratic reforms are not irreversible or consolidated as once thought or hoped. If the European project fails to deliver catch-up – or the Western model CEE was busy catching up on with proves exhausted and unattractive – it will exacerbate both centrifugal pressures in the EU and erosion of democracy in some or all of CEE. There is the uncomfortable possibility that in his nationalistic rejection of liberalism, Viktor Orbán may be a leader rather than a laggard as far as the future direction of the region is concerned – the Central European vanguard of the revolt against a broken Western model that Pankaj Mishra sees rippling out from Asia. Read More…
In the immediate aftermath of the fall of communism many Western analysts feared that, far from ‘returning to Europe’, Central and Eastern Europe would slip into a spiral of Latin-American style instability and authoritarianism.
Stanford professor Ken Jowitt predicted that ‘demagogues, priests and colonels more than democrats’ would shape the region’s future, while Polish-American political scientist Adam Przeworski famously wrote that the ‘East has become the South’.
Even as astute an observer of the region as Timothy Garton Ash was moved to conclude in mid-1990 that ‘Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia are the countries where the fate of democracy hangs in the balance today’.
But the region quickly confounded the doomsayers. Central Europe emerged as one the most successful newly democratizing regions in the post-Cold War world. Many states including the Czech Republic made smooth and rapid progress to OECD and EU membership and were soon marked down by Western political scientists as consolidated, if flawed democracies. In the Czech case, the flaws were readily apparent. The democracy that emerged was, for example, far from the optimistic vision of a prosperous, settled Central European state sketched out by Václav Havel when he looked into the country’s future in his 1991 Summer Meditations.
As well as failing to sustain the common state with the Slovaks, Czechs saw overblown claims of a post-communist ‘economic miracle’ disintegrate amid corruption scandals that ended the Klaus government in 1997. And, while the Czech Republic did generate a stable system of ‘standard’ parties of left and right recognizable to West European eyes, Havel’s warnings that party politics would become the preserve of a caste of career politicians seemed, in hindsight, prophetic.
The strong locally-rooted civil society and political decentralization Havel envisaged as the bedrock of Czech democracy were present only in fragments. Local democracy was too often expressed in the murky world of municipal politics and a system of belatedly implemented regional government that become a still greater byword for corruption. Non-ideological consensus politics that Havel and others hoped would be a defining feature of Czech democracy have existed only in bastardised form of Grand Coalitions and power-sharing deals that had more to do with dividing the spoils of office than agreeing inclusive, balanced policies.
To most outside observers, however, the Czech Republic remained one of a belt of successful, stable Central European democracies, scoring well on most indices of governance, reform, and democracy, albeit with a clear lag behind West European democracies. Most would have agreed with the assessment of the Hungarian economist and political scientist Béla Greskovits that CEE states, including the Czech Republic, had created poor quality, but essentially ‘crisis-proof’ democracies where market economics co-existed in ‘low equilibrium’ with democratic politics.
However, following the enlargement of European Union in 2004 and, particularly, the onset of the global economic downturn and the Eurozone crisis, many commentators have started to view the future of Central Europe in much darker terms seeing the onset of ‘democratic backsliding’ or a ‘democratic recession’. Hungary has been at the centre of such concerns. The metamorphosis of Viktor Orbán from pro-Western Christian Democrat to authoritarian populist exploiting an electoral landslide to impose an illiberal constitution, rein in the media and emasculate the judiciary, was particularly shocking.
In 2012 Romania’s Prime Minister Victor Ponta tried similarly to exploit a landslide election victory to overturn of established procedures and strip away constitutional checks and balances to unseat his country’s president Trajan Basescu. Elsewhere voters across CEE have turned not to establishment strongmen but to a range of to protest parties ranging from Poland’s ultra-liberal Palikot Movement to neo-fascists of Jobbik in Hungary. Where does the Czech Republic fit into this picture? Read More…