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Hollowing Democracy: Lessons Learnt From Central And Eastern Europe For Building Stronger Democracies Globally

Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) is leaving democracy behind, once again. Three decades of ‘endeavored’ democracy generated an institutional setup that is instrumentalized for its destruction.

The Governments and leading parties of most New Member States of the European Union (EU) are following the Russian model of playing democracy while capturing state institutions for private gains and abuse of power. The political context in most CEE countries is exposing an increasing push against democratic consolidation, showing us relevant lessons to be learnt for democratization efforts globally.

Author: Dr. Stefan Cibian

These recent CEE experiences, alongside the US elections and Brexit, show that democratization processes are not definitive, neither in established, nor in emerging democracies. Also, they show that democracy needs to be continuously developed and protected. Above all, the CEE story tells us that it matters how democracy is built.

After three decades of democratization efforts we see not only strong counter-reactions, but also the weaknesses of the CEE democratic setup. These weaknesses revolve around the organizational culture and functioning of political parties, the sustainability of civil society, and the values held by the citizenry.

The Citizenry
Democracies are based on citizen values and actions. In consequence, there can be no democracy without democratically-minded citizens and without citizens who poses the skills needed to practice constitutional freedoms. The CEE experience shows that it is unlikely for a political system to remain democratic when the citizenry holds undemocratic values or lack basic democratic skills, such as building an argument, listening to people with different opinions and constructing a dialogue, knowledge on how to operate civil society organizations, or tolerance that enables social cohesion. In consequence, early democratization efforts need to prioritize civic and political education and strengthen its effectiveness.

Civil Society Sustainability
Democracy expects more of its citizens than holding democratic values. It requires a significant amount of time invested in constituting and developing a functional civil society that can make political representation and accountability mechanisms work. Practicing one’s freedom of assembly and expression should lead to the creation of an organized civil society. However, donor practices that intervene early in the transition periods, combined with lack of awareness and skills needed to enact basic freedoms, lead more often to donor dependence than to independent and vigorous civil society sectors.  While democratization interventions put a strong emphasis on electoral systems, rule of law, and an independent judiciary, they overlook the centrality of a sustainable and independent civil society sector for the sustainability of a democracy. Little attention is paid to fiscal rules and independent long-term funding that is needed for a functional civil society sector, that could stand a chance at countering and surviving political leaders turned autocratic.

Political parties
The political parties are key organizations in any democratic establishment, as they are the only organizations allowed to compete for political power. In the CEE democracies, pot-1989 parties are, however, the Trojan horse of authoritarianism. Being established legally as a political party and running in elections does not guarantee an internal democratic organizational culture. In consequence, parties can be instrumentalized by authoritarian-minded leaders to enable a strong grasp over state power for non-democratic ends – see Hungary, Poland, Romania, or the Russian Federation. Although elections may be free and fair, their outcome may bring the demise of the democratic system itself, as the Russian or Hungarian cases demonstrate. CEE experiences show that in post-totalitarian contexts, when establishing a multi-party system, one needs to ensure that political organizations do not remain drivers for authoritarian values and corruption.

These three significant gaps in CEE democratization efforts are increasingly visible in all countries of the region as autocratic and illiberal leaders and parties progress with dismantling democracy.

One array of hope nevertheless exists. In several countries protests and grassroots social movements play an important role in keeping democratization efforts on track. The Romanian case goes furthest in showing how the population seems to be resolute in stopping the Government from carry out its non-democratic plans. Hundreds of thousands of people protested in the entire country against legalizing corruption in early 2017. In Sibiu, a town in central Romania, daily protests have been going on for over 400 consecutive days, since the government attempted to pass an emergency ordinance that would legalize certain forms of graft, in early 2017.

The Romanian mobilization is an inspiring story. The story of a former totalitarian society, governed for decades through fear, a society that begins to open, to exercise its freedoms, and to stand up for its new values. Freedom of speech, open borders, access to the internet, and new media play an important coalizing role. More profoundly, we are seeing a new generation that had access to experiencing the world and that is better educated about basic economic and political concepts. A generation that has higher aspirations for their country and is not afraid to stand up for fulfilling its own potential. And, not least, a generation that heals its traumas through an explosion of creativity, as many of the protest messages also indicate.

A new ‘de-democratization’ chapter in CEE’s history is now unfolding. Neither side won, nor yet lost the battle for deciding the fate of the region for the upcoming decades. While civic forces seem determined to defend democracy, the broader geopolitical context and widespread populism may limit their impact. At the same time, populist, illiberal, or autocratic leaders may benefit from holding power and re-configuring state institutions to function in their benefit, however, term limits, internal dissent and shortsightedness may limit their prospects for winning the region. 

Themes: Democratization, Civil Society, Human rights

Region: Central and Eastern Europe

Departments: The International Center for Global Affairs and Postdevelopment (IC-GAP)

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