The Quality of Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe

Contribution to “Democracy under Stress“, ed. by. P. Guasti and Z. Mansfeldová, Institute of Sociology, Czech Academy of Sciences, Prague 2018, 31-53.


The young democracies in East-Central and Southeast Europe have been particularly susceptible to the wave of populist, anti-establishment and extremist political forces that now challenge liberal democracy across the globe. These challengers claim to represent the opinion of the ordinary people against a political establishment that is portrayed as corrupt, elitist and controlled by foreign interests. Their polarizing and anti-pluralist ideological stances have contributed to a more confrontational political competition. Several countries have also seen “democratic backsliding”,  an erosion of the institutions and mechanisms that constrain and scrutinize the exercise of executive authority. Illiberal policies have targeted opposition parties, parliaments, independent public watchdog institutions, judiciaries, local and regional self-government, mass media, civil society organizations, private business and minority communities. Incumbent elites have justified these policies as measures to strengthen popular democracy and to fulfill the promises of the post-1989 democratic transitions. read more

Can Responsiveness Substitute Accountability?

Lessons from the Central and East European Laboratory of Populist Democracy. A paper presented at the conference ” Totalitarian Reverberations in East-Central Europe”, Faculty of European Studies, Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, 26 October 2018.

Responsiveness characterizes a democratic process that „ induces the government to form and implement policies that the citizens want” (G. B. Powell). Populist parties advocate public policies that reflect the preferences of ordinary citizens, and their electoral success indicates that people believe their claims. Governing populist parties in Hungary, Poland and other Central and East European countries have systematically eroded institutions of democratic accountability, justifying these policies as measures to strengthen popular democracy and to fulfill the promises of the post-1989 democratic transitions. Although this erosion has been criticized as democratic backsliding and illiberal drift by scholars and international institutions, significant shares of voters continue to view it as steps towards a more responsive democracy. read more

Patterns of Democratic Backsliding

A paper for the ECPR General Conference, Hamburg, 25 August 2018, Panel 408: Same ingredients, different recipes: EU leverage and democratic backsliding in new member states and candidate countries

The subsequent economic and refugee crises have weakened the credibility of mainstream political parties in East-Central and Southeast Europe (ECSE) since prosperity and security no longer appear to be guaranteed consequences of European integration. The declining legitimacy of incumbents has provided opportunities for populist and anti-establishment mobilization. While these crisis-induced influences have been similar in all ECSE countries, the extent to which populist challengers have been able to win elections and form governments has varied significantly across countries. To explore these differences and assess the likelihood of populist electoral victories and subsequent illiberal policies in ECSE, the paper combines case studies of Hungary, Macedonia and Poland with a multivariate analysis of party systems, issue dimensions and cleavage configurations. It is argued that populist parties have attained political majorities through bipolar party competition, facilitated by congruent cleavages, particularly the congruence between sociocultural and EU-related cleavages. Based upon a comparison of the country cases, the paper discusses conditions that could constrain the illiberal erosion of democracy in ECSE.

Illiberal Drift and Proliferation

A comparative study on the state of democracy and market economy in East-Central and Southeast Europe

In recent years, the illiberal tendencies characteristic of several East-Central and Southeast European countries have taken their toll on nearly all segments of society, from opposition parties to parliaments and judiciaries, to oversight institutions, local and regional self-governing administrative organs, the media, NGOs, the private sector and minority groups as well. This process can best be described as “illiberal drift,” because key democratic institutions – free and competitive elections, political participation rights and individual liberties, separation of powers and rule of law – are not abolished or fundamentally questioned. Rather these institutions are, over time, re-interpreted and subject to changes that pull them increasingly further away from the understanding that led the democratization processes of the 1990s and the enlargement of the EU in the 2000s. In recent years, the dismantling and erosion processes in Hungary and Poland have raised particular international attention. However, illiberal thinking and acting have meanwhile proliferated to numerous states of East-Central and Southeast Europe.

My regional report is part of the Transformation Index project, a global comparison and expert survey on democracy, market economy and governance in developing and postsocialist countries.


Crisis Trajectories and Patterns of Resilience in East-Central and Southeast Europe

Presentation at the Conference “Disintegration and integration in East-Central Europe“, Faculty of European Studies, Babeș-Bolyai University Cluj-Napoca, 26-27 October 2017

Babeș-Bolyai University Cluj-Napoca

The subsequent economic and refugee crises have questioned the promise of prosperity and security associated with European integration. Governments in East-Central and Southeast Europe struggled to bridge between the diverging policy expectations of voters on the one hand, international economic and political actors on the other. The weakened credibility of mainstream political parties provided opportunities for populist and anti-establishment mobilization. While these crisis-induced influences have been similar in all countries of the region, the extent to which populist challengers have been able to win elections and implement their preferred policy preferences has varied significantly across countries.

In my paper, I analyze the conditions and constellations that account for the resilience of countries with regard to the domestic political consequences of the European crises. I argue that populist challenger parties benefit from bipolar competition because they use polarizing frames of people versus elites to mobilize electoral support. The fragmentation and polarization of party systems reflect the nature of the electoral system and the configuration of cleavages in society. A majoritarian electoral system and congruent cleavages have supported the emergence of  bipolar party system in Hungary and Poland. In contrast, cross-cutting cleavages tend to generate and sustain multi-polar party systems. These party systems facilitate the entry of new parties, but have posed obstacles to new parties trying to broaden and consolidate their constituencies. To assess the intersection or congruence of cleavages, the paper studies the configuration of differences among parties on salient policy issues.

See also:

Assessing the Fundamentals of EU Accession

A civil society monitoring for Montenegro

Andrija Pejović, Minister of European Affairs (right), and Dragan Koprivica (Center for Democratic Transition) during the presentation of the reports

In 2015, the European Union redesigned its enlargement policy to focus on the rule of law, public administration and civic rights.  These “fundamentals” are required to meet the criteria of membership and constitute the  preconditions for a sustainable modernization of the Western Balkan states. The European Commission has monitored the state of reforms on the basis of consultations with government officials and external observers.

To involve civil society in this assessment and to provide better evidence for public debates, a Montenegrin think tank, the Center for Democratic Transition (CDT), has surveyed 41 experts and analyzed publicly available data. Drawing on the Commission’s new standardized assessment scales, CDT and I developed detailed questionnaires that assess the following areas: functioning of the judiciary; fight against corruption; fight against organized crime; media freedom; public administration reform; human rights. The results of these surveys are now published in two reports.

A key finding of this research has been that there is still a significant gap in implementing the new regulations adopted during the preparation for EU accession. Executive actors retain informal influence on the work of the judiciary. The newly established corruption-prevention agency has not effectively supervised the finances of political parties. Media outlets struggle to survive under growing economic constraints and political pressures. The judiciary has failed to sustain convictions in several cases of organized crime. Discriminatory practices persist due to a lack of both effective anti-discrimination policies and societal awareness.


Central European University und Ungarn’s illiberale Drift

Interview mit Nina Niebergall, Deutsche Welle, 5.4.2017

Am 4.4.2017 beschloss das ungarische Parlament eine Änderung des Hochschulbildungsgesetzes, die die in Ungarn existierenden Hochschulen aus Nicht-EWR-Staaten dazu verpflichtet,  an ihren ausländischen Standorten einen eigenen Campus zu errichten und darauf beschränkt, in Europa akkreditierte Studiengänge anzubieten. Außerdem sollen diese Hochschulen nur auf der Grundlage eines bilateralen zwischenstaatlichen Vertrages in Ungarn tätig werden dürfen.

Diese Neuregelung betrifft de facto nur die Central European University (CEU), die in den USA als Hochschule akkreditiert ist, aber nur in Ungarn einen Campus unterhält. Nach Einschätzung der Universitätsleitung wäre die CEU damit zur Schließung ihres Lehrbetriebs gezwungen, da sie Milliarden Dollar in einen US-amerikanischen Parallelcampus investieren müsste und keine amerikanischen Studienabschlüsse mehr vergeben dürfte.

Die Gesetzesänderung steht im Kontext einer seit Jahren von der Orbán-Regierung verfolgten Politik, unabhängige zivilgesellschaftliche Institutionen und Akteure zu kontrollieren oder  auszuschalten. Frühere Maßnahmen richteten sich unter anderem gegen die führende Qualitätstageszeitung “Népszabadság”, das private TV-Programm RTL Klub oder die Ökotárs-Stiftung zur Unterstützung ungarischer Non-Profit-Organisationen.

Leider hat die EU bisher abgesehen von einigen Resolutionen des Europäischen Parlaments und Vertragsverletzungsverfahren gegen einzelne ungarische Gesetzesregelungen nichts unternommen, um gegen die systematische Aushöhlung der Demokratie in Ungarn vorzugehen.

BTI 2018 Kick-Off and Concept Paper

On 12/13 September the core group behind the Transformation Index (BTI) met at Bertelsmann Stiftung’s always impressive Gütersloh headquarters to prepare the new survey wave.

Swans’ view of the Foundation’s headquarters

BTI is a global expert survey on the quality of democracy, market economy and governance, now in its eighth edition (!) scheduled for publication in 2018. Questionnaires will be sent to country experts at the end of October. The submission of country reports will trigger off an elaborate procedure of reviewing, revising, calibrating, editing and lesson-drawing, keeping us busy throughout the next year.

The meeting was a first occasion for Peter Thiery and me to present the draft of a comprehensive paper that situates the concepts guiding the BTI in the scholarly literatures on democratic theory, democratization, policy reform, good governance, economic transformation and aid effectiveness. Our paper also uses unpublished data from the BTI production process to evaluate the validity of the measurement and aggregation techniques underlying the composite indicators in the BTI dataset. Author-reviewer differences are studied across subsequent BTI editions. Various statistical models are constructed to assess the impact of changes among authors, reviewers and coordinators and to compare the effects of different aggregation rules. We plan to complete and publish the paper during the next months.

Democracies Adrift

How the European Crises Affect East-Central Europe, in: Problems of Post-Communism, 63 (5), September 2016

The present article proposes to study and compare the state of democracy in East-Central European countries. Such a comparative survey is deemed timely because there have been electoral landslides, corruption scandals involving political leaders and mass protests in several of these countries. Popular satisfaction with democracy has declined and democratic accountability institutions have been eroded in Hungary and Poland. These developments pose questions about where these democracies are heading and how their paths are related to the crisis of European integration.

I argue that the crises of economic and European integration together with the existing dealignment between voters and political parties have discredited the nexus between economic integration and prosperity and widened the incongruence between responsive and responsible government. The impact of the crises differs from country to country, depending on institutional constraints, socio-political cleavages and the interrelation of economic and democratic performance. Multi-dimensional policy spaces facilitated the growth of anti-establishment parties in the Czech Republic and Slovenia. Higher performance expectations of citizens, the mixed electoral system and missing institutional safeguards of societal-political pluralism rendered Hungary’s democracy more vulnerable.

(c) Martin Brusis


Download paper: Brusis_POPC_web


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The State of Democracy in Bulgaria

Interview with the Bulgarian business newspaper Dnevnik, 9 April 2014

Dnevnik journalist Aleksandrina Ginkova interviewed me on the latest Bulgaria country report written for the Transformation Index project.

Protests in Sofia, photo by Yulia Lazarova,
Protests in Sofia, photo by Yulia Lazarova,

The report mentions that a culture change within institutions is required to guarantee sustainability. Can you elaborate on the problems in the work culture and how are they related to corruption?

The notion of “culture change” used in the country report refers to entrenched practices and behavioral patterns within the Bulgarian judiciary and other state institutions. Foreign and domestic observers were surprised and shocked when the government of Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski attempted to appoint the controversial businessman Delyan Peevski as Chair of the State Agency for National Security. This decision was in striking contrast with its public commitment to combat corruption. read more