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.

To analyze this ambivalence in CEE’s emerging populist democracies, I have proposed a concept of democratic quality that comprises both accountability and responsiveness. Both attributes are considered as necessary for a high-quality democracy, implying that none of them can replace the other one. It is argued that citizens’ “satisfaction with democracy” does not constitute an appropriate proxy measure of responsiveness because it does not take the formation of preferences and their translation into public policies into account. My presentation therefore suggests a notion of governmental responsiveness that focuses on the institutional capacities for inclusive government and “good” policy outcomes. EU interventions to restore horizontal accountability will have only limited resonance, if governmental responsiveness is neglected.