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

Potentials and Constraints of a Visegrád Cooperation

Chapter forthcoming in “The New European Union and its Global Strategy: From Brexit to PESCO”, ed. by. V. Naumescu, Newcastle.

At the European Council of 28 June 2018, the Visegrád states successfully convinced the other European Union member states to refrain from a mandatory relocation of persons in need of international protection. The EU agreed to organize the relocation and resettlement of refugees and other recognized asylum seekers on a voluntary basis. This decision implied the abandoning of plans to reintroduce a mandatory relocation scheme similar to the temporary mechanism that had been adopted against the votes of the East-Central European EU member states in September 2015. 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

Herausforderungen der Europäischen Union

Internationales Doktorandenkolloquium der Andrássy Universität Budapest, Babeș-Bolyai Universität Cluj-Napoca und der Universität Passau, 13.-15.9.2018, Budapest

Andrássy Universität Budapest

Die Rechtsstaatsprobleme in Ungarn und Polen sowie die Interventionsmöglichkeiten der EU waren ein zentrales Thema des internationalen Doktorandenkolloquiums am 13.-15.9.2018 in Budapest. Diese von den Europastudiengängen der Babeș-Bolyai, der Budapester Andrássy und Passauer Universität gemeinsam veranstaltete Tagung diente dazu, geplante, laufende und vor kurzem abgeschlossene Dissertationsprojekte vorzustellen und zu diskutieren. 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:

Core Executives in Central Europe

Handbook of East European Politics, ed. by P. Kopecký and A. Fagan, London: Routledge

Core executives have become increasingly important political actors and arenas due to several interlinked developments affecting both states and societies. Modernisation has weakened the ties between political parties and voters, making parties more dependent on state resources and, in particular, access to government. Since the political process has become more dominated by media communication, political controversy tends to be framed between chief executives and rival political leaders. Global economic integration has narrowed the policy discretion of nation states and fostered the spread of non-majoritarian institutions entrusted with regulatory functions. These trends have been associated with the growing weight of policy output as a source of legitimacy, in contrast to “input legitimacy” derived from democratic elections. Among the three branches of state power, executives control most of the tools available to influence policy outputs and the interventions of both domestic and international regulatory agencies. The crisis and politicisation of European integration have further enhanced the salience of national (chief) executives compared to national legislatures and supranational institutions. As a result, many of the choices characterising politics and policymaking are now made or shaped at the centres of executives.

This chapter discusses the ‘core executive’ both as an empirical field of actors, institutions, and behavioural practices at the centres of Central European governments and as a theoretical concept formulated to study this field. The term ‘core executive’ was initially proposed by Dunleavy and Rhodes (1990) to describe the centre of the British government from a functional perspective. The core executive comprises ‘all those organizations and procedures which coordinate central government policies, and act as final arbiters of conflict between different parts of the government machine’ (Rhodes, 1995, 12, Dunleavy and Rhodes, 1990). In the United Kingdom, these functions are performed by ‘the complex web of institutions, networks and practices surrounding the prime minister, cabinet, cabinet committees and their official counterparts, less formalised ministerial ‘clubs’ or meetings, bilateral negotiations and interdepartmental committees’, including the coordinating departments at the centre of government (Rhodes, 1995, 12). The notion of a core executive represents a conceptual innovation insofar as it

(1) focuses on neutral functions rather than specific institutions like the prime minister or cabinet which may convey normative connotations and cultural bias;

(2) goes beyond a formal institutional analysis to investigate the empirical practice and resources of policy coordination, including both its political and administrative dimensions; and

(3) reflects the fragmented network of institutions that emerged from neoliberal reforms of government and substituted the traditional framework of cabinet government.

Replacing hierarchic, Weberian models of central government by market mechanisms, negotiations, and networks as modes of governance, these reforms are viewed as part of a broader ‘hollowing-out of the state’, a process that has also been driven by growing international interdependencies, the privatisation of public services and devolution (Rhodes, 1994). As a consequence, the spatial metaphor ‘core’ seems more appropriate than ‘top’, and heads or centres of government now appear to be more aptly characterised by their coordination and arbitration functions than by ‘instructing’ or ‘ordering’. The notion of political power underlying the concept of the core executive is relational and contingent (Rhodes and Tiernan, 2015, Elgie, 2011): in order to achieve their goals, prime ministers and core political actors depend on other actors and must exchange resources such as authority, expertise or money with them (Rhodes, 1997, 203).

Apart from these assumptions, the concept of the core executive initially did not bear any implications for the likely or desirable distribution of power, the prevalent modes of governance, or the roles of political actors in central government. This indeterminacy has facilitated its diffusion from the original British context to other Westminster systems as well as to continental European and even to presidential systems of government (Helms, 2005, Weller et al., 1997). However, the ‘essential malleability of the term “core executive” is [also] the reason why its use has become de rigueur. It is a wonderfully convenient term. The result, though, is that the universe of “core executive studies” includes a great deal of work that could, quite happily, use a different term and have no less analytical purchase.’(Elgie, 2011, 72)

The remainder of this chapter distinguishes two paradigms that have shaped core executive studies focusing on Central Europe and reflect the recent history of the region: transition and Europeanisation. A third paradigm of ‘executive governance’ is suggested as a perspective for future work. The main argument of the chapter is that the trend towards centralised executive authority in several Central European countries suggests complementing the analysis of institutional arrangements with a broader analysis of governance. Such an approach would relate institutions to policies and their outcomes, highlighting possible drawbacks of centralisation and trade-offs between different functions or policy objectives.

(c) Martin Brusis. A map of executive governance in OECD and EU member states, based on the Sustainable Governance Indicators dataset

Dunleavy, P. and R. A. W. Rhodes (1990) ‘Core Executive Studies in Britain’, Public Administration, 68(1), pp. 3-28.

Elgie, R. (2011) ‘Core Executive Studies Two Decades On’, Public Administration, 89(1), pp. 64-77.

Helms, L. (2005) Presidents, Prime Minister and Chancellors. Executive Leadership in Western Democracies. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Rhodes, R. A. (1995) ‘From Prime Ministerial Power to Core Executive’, in Rhodes, R.A. & P. Dunleavy (eds) Prime Minister, Cabinet and Core Executive. London: Macmillan, pp. 11-37.

Rhodes, R. A. (1994) ‘The Hollowing Out of the State: The Changing Nature of the Public Service in Britain’, The Political Quarterly, 65(2), pp. 138-151.

Rhodes, R. A. (1997) ‘”Shackling the Leader?”: Coherence, Capacity and the Hollow Crown’, in Weller, P., H. Bakvis & R.A. Rhodes (eds) The Hollow Crown. Countervailing Trends in Core Executives Transforming Government. Houndsmill, Basingstoke: Macmillan, pp. 198-223.

Rhodes, R. A. and A. Tiernan (2015) ‘Executive Governance and its Puzzles’, in Massey, A. & K. Miller (eds) International Handbook of Public Administration and Governance. Chelmsford: Edward Elgar, pp. 81-103.

Weller, P., H. Bakvis and R. A. Rhodes (eds) (1997) The Hollow Crown. Countervailing Trends in Core Executives. Houndsmill, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

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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Politics and Religion in Eastern Europe

An interview with Magda Crișan, Romanian TV program Digi24, 11 May 2016

Political elites in East European countries have often referred to religious beliefs or sought to form alliances with church leaders. One aim of their efforts has been to convince citizens and the public that they share common values and are committed to act ethically responsibly.

Putin_KyrillMore frequent references and appeals to shared religious beliefs in recent years reflect the growth of right-wing populism, uncertainties caused by the crisis of European integration and fears regarding the inflow of predominantly Muslim refugees. The extent to which religious references are made in political discourses also varies according to the strength of religious allegiances and the respective influence of churches in societies. Contemporary resonance structures are rooted in state identities and the influences of historical state-building coalitions with churches.

Read the full-length interview (Romanian language): INTERVIU_ReligionPolitics

Watch the video (German, Romanian subtitles):