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.

The legitimatory references to popular democracy, the incremental nature of institutional change and the embeddedness of governmental actors suggest an analytic approach that places instances of democratic backsliding into a broader theoretical context. Such a framework should specify criteria of democratic quality that allow to assess legitimatory claims and to analyze how the incremental manipulation of interlocking democratic institutions affects democracy as a whole.

This chapter sets out such a conceptual framework based on democratic theory and the scholarly debate about the quality of democracy. The insights from this debate are applied to identify attributes of democratic quality that are then employed to structure the empirical analysis. Key attributes include public accountability, government responsiveness, and policy performance. The chapter maps selected developments in 17 CEE countries with regard to these three attributes.

Following a qualitative and inductive approach, the paper tries to integrate individual causal process observations into larger trends that characterized the situation in the region in 2017. The empirical analysis draws mainly on country reports that have been prepared in early 2017 for a global expert survey, the so-called Transformation Index, a comparison and ranking of democratic and economic developments in 128 countries. Three main empirical findings are presented in this chapter.

Firstly, governing political elites in some countries intentionally weaken the mechanisms and institutions of public accountability.

Secondly, political competition has become more confrontational, resulting in more exclusionary government.

Thirdly, most CEE countries have failed to achieve an economic performance meeting the expectations of citizens who have associated EU accession with rapid convergence to West European levels and tangible prosperity gains. .

These developments have evolved in parallel and are causally linked, but none is fully endogenous. The concluding section suggests an interpretation to account for the reasons that have motivated populist governing parties to weaken public accountability, but the chapter does not aspire to fully disentangle the causal interdependencies linking the three trends. Rather, its aim is more modest, that is, it focuses on providing empirical evidence for the trends and seeks to demonstrate that the proposed conceptualization of democratic quality yields analytic benefits.

The chapter is based on a paper I presented at the Conference “Measuring Democracy: What are We Measuring and How Does CEE Fit in? , Prague 21-22 September 2017