Authoritarian footprints in Central and Eastern Europe

What is the state of democratic quality in Central and Eastern Europe? We find clear warning signs in some places, but no evidence for a systematic, regional backsliding in our new article in East European Politics.

Since the 1990s, Central and Eastern Europe has seen a rapid transition towards democracy. However, prominent recent accounts increasingly highlight an anti-liberal process of democratic backsliding in this region in the last years. Most prominently, parties with illiberal programmes have entered government not only in Poland, Hungary, and Serbia, but also in Bulgaria, Slovakia, and most recently in the Czech Republic. This has prompted dramatic warnings that democratic quality may suffer or that these countries are even on the verge of a de-democratization process.

Many of these pessimistic accounts are based on assessments of single countries or of in a small number of countries. We contribute to this debate in two ways. First, we assess the quality of democracy in all 19 democracies in Central and Eastern Europe. We do so using systematic ‘objective’ data from the Democracy Barometer, which is mostly based on socio-economic statistics and surveys, as opposed to the expert assessments we seek to investigate. Second, we discuss the three most widely-cited explanations for democratic backsliding in Central and Eastern Europe: (1) the increasing role of anti-elite, populist parties in government, (2) the European Union’s inability to sustain democratization once an applicant state has joined it, and (3) the financial crisis of 2008.

Our results indicate that the widespread perception of a deep democratic crisis in Central and Eastern Europe may have been overstated. Improvements in the quality of democracy that started in the 1990s have indeed faltered. Moreover, some democratic functions are indeed under threat in some countries. However, this does not appear to constitute a general trend of deteriorating democratic quality across the region. We further find some correlational evidence that populist governments and the EU accession process indeed profoundly shaped democratic quality in the region. In contrast, we do not detect systematic democratic changes in the wake of the financial crisis.

We start by assessing overall democratic trends in Central and Eastern Europe, differentiating between nine key functions of democracy (figure 1). We find a clearly visible positive democratic trend in the 1990s. In this time period, Central and Eastern Europe made substantial advances, especially as regards to competition, transparency, and the public sphere. This upwards trend has slowed down markedly since around 2000. Some democratic functions even appear to show (slight) decreases. However, we find no general trend of democratic backsliding, at least in the time period until 2016, which is included in our analysis. Hence, our analysis using the ‘objective’ data sources underlying the Democracy Barometer – based on socio-economic statistics and surveys – fails to corroborate prominent claims by academics and analysts of widespread democratic backsliding in Central and Eastern Europe.

Figure 1. Key functions of democracy, averages in Central and Eastern Europe between 1990 and 2016.

Next, we unpack these regional averages and focus on country-specific trajectories (figure 2). The most systematic development we observe is the erosion of the rule of law in several countries. Our measurement for rule of law in Central and Eastern Europe reached its speak in the late 1990s, when several countries reinforced judicial independence. However, since the 2000s, we observe accelerating erosion processes in Slovakia, Ukraine, Bulgaria (since 2000), Romania (since 2012), and Albania (since 2011). We also find a drastic reduction of political competition in three countries in 2010s: Hungary, Romania, and Serbia. However, while these changes are suggestive, they clearly do not represent an overall regional trends. Moreover, developments on the other democratic functions we study are even more heterogeneous. Hence, this more disaggregated analysis also fails to offer support for the notion of an overall regional deterioration in the quality of democracy.

Figure 2. Development of democratic principles in Central and Eastern Europe, 1990-2016. Periods where populist parties were in government are highlighted in red.

Finally, we discuss evidence for and against the three most widely-discussed factors that have been accused of engendering a democratic reversal in Central and Eastern Europe:

  1. First, we find some evidence that populist governments have negatively affected the quality of democracy since the 2000s. Most notably, we detect a drop in the rule of law in four countries right after populists take office (Moldova in 2011, Czech Republic in 2006, Slovakia in 2006, and Bulgaria in 2009). We also find that, under some populist governments, transparency deteriorates. For example, this applies to Croatia after 2003, Slovakia after 2006, Hungary after 2010, and Poland after 2014. Moreover, we find sharp drops in competition after populists take office in Hungary (2010), Bulgaria (2009 and 2015), and Moldova (2001). However, according to our measures, populist governments are neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for eroding the quality of democracy (see again figure 2).
  2. Second, we find some evidence that the EU accession process has decisively shaped the trajectory of democratic quality in the region. Before granting membership, EU conditionality creates incentives for governments to increase several aspects of democratic quality. However, after accession, the EU cannot prevent the erosion of democracy. This is illustrated by the so far fruitless EU disciplinary proceedings against the illiberal governments of Poland and Hungary. In consequence, we find evidence for de-democratization in several states after they acceeded the EU, including Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic. Most notably, we find negative developments in the rule of law, media, and academic freedom.
  3. Finally, we do not find a reversal of regional trends in democratic quality after the 2008 financial crisis for any of the nine democratic functions we measure.

In sum, our article offers a new, systematic assessment of the alleged illiberal turn of Central and Eastern European democracies. We find correlational evidence consistent with some of the purported democratic consequences of populist governments and the EU accession process. However, our analysis does not point to a general trend of democratic backsliding in Central and Eastern Europe, at least until 2016. Moreover, the explanations we have investigated – populism, EU accession fatigue, and the 2008 financial crisis – are clearly neither sufficient or necessary on their own to explain any erosions of democratic quality we detect.

For detailed findings and methodology, please check out the article here.

Authoritarian footprints in Central and Eastern Europe
We assess changes in the Quality of Democracy in all 19 democracies in Central and Western Europe between 1990 and 2016. We investigate the driving role of three factors: the rise of populist parties, the reduced influence of the European Union after accession, and the 2008 financial crisis.
Bochsler, Daniel & Juon, Andreas (2020). Eastern European Politics 36 (2): 167-187.
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