Rekindling Democracy’s Promise in Europe

An Op-Ed for “The European” and “Balkan Insight“, jointly written with A. Bekaj

A little more than 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the jubilation felt over the dawning of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe has dissipated. The region faces challenges that make the promise of democracy look like a mirage.

Anti-government protesters march in Belgrade, Serbia, in April 2019. Photo: EPA-EFE/Srdjan Suki

Over time, regimes in countries such as Poland, Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria have taken steps to curtail civic space, undermine checks and balances and concentrate power in the hands of a few.

Aspiring authoritarian leaders and populist politicians are encouraged by divisive politics within mainstream political parties. They feel emboldened by blatant attacks on civil liberties by seasoned autocrats such as Russian President Vladimir Putin or Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

Enthusiasm over democracy’s expansion in the 1990s was followed by a more sober assessment of its dividends in the 2000s. By the end of this third decade since the fall of communism, skepticism has set in and political leaders openly talk about preferences for more illiberal forms of democracy.

Political regimes from Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic to Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria have turned their backs on liberal notions of democracy by branding them as Western impositions.

In doing so, they have stripped democracy of its constitutive parts in favour of a more minimalistic version built around the act of free and fair elections. They then use election results as a carte blanche to exert uninhibited power without any cumbersome checks and balances.

In the process, they have assaulted the judiciary, weakened parliamentary oversight, interfered in independent media and stifled civil society and freedom of expression.

As a result, although the Central and Eastern Europe region remains “democratic”, the past decade has not brought significant advancements in the quality of democracy. Rather, it has seen the phenomenon of democratic backsliding, a constant reminder of creeping authoritarianism and populism.

Calling on the people

How is democratic backsliding to be reversed? At a time of political uncertainty and social polarisation, when governments are no longer bulwarks of liberal democracy, who do we turn to? What is the remedy for the democratic malaise?

The answer: the people. 

But there is a problem with this solution. Any suggestion that the people will reawaken the liberal values of democracy tends to ignore the fact that it is the people who voted for the very political leaders who are putting those liberal values at risk.

The question is why people vote for leaders who end up eroding liberal values in the first place. Relying on “the people” as a panacea for all of society’s ills, without understanding the underlying causes of democratic backsliding and authoritarian encroachment, is a lazy solution to complex problems. 

Even so, people are the solution. More equitable representation, more accountability and transparency, greater emphasis on the liberal tenets of democracy — the formula for all of these things lies within the people.

More equitable representation, more accountability and transparency, greater emphasis on the liberal tenets of democracy — the formula for all of these things lies within the people.

However, we should also recognise that mainstream political parties are to a large degree responsible for losing electoral support, as they have not been sufficiently attentive and responsive to the concerns of all citizens.

These parties need to renew their engagement with their electorates. Decentralised and inclusive deliberation and decision-making within parties is one way to bring people back in. 

However, party leaders and party representatives holding public offices also need to revise public policies to meet citizens’ expectations. In particular, policies should reach out to those groups of society that have felt excluded from decision-making and from the fruits of economic development.

Responsive policies are not tantamount to myopic spending or fiscal irresponsibility. Policy tradeoffs and cost-benefit considerations can be explained to citizens, so as to ensure a sound knowledge basis for informed choices.

Political elites should engage in rational dialogue with people about solving problems. These public consultations should be shielded from misinformation and demagoguery.

When politicians and mainstream political parties undertake such actions, the people’s choice will be clearer too. Constructive dialogue between political representatives and citizens is the key to reviving trust in political institutions.

By contrast, populist politicians usually substitute meaningful dialogue with fictitious claims about understanding the “will of the people”.

Election majorities are then re-interpreted as popular mandates to ignore and erode institutional checks and balances while promising policies that serve “the people” directly.

To address populist challengers, supporters of democracy need to expose such pretensions for what they are. Only then can they light a path toward a more responsive democracy and stronger institutions with mechanisms for democratic accountability.