Prague, Czech Republic – While dissatisfaction with democracy is said to have reached its highest level in almost 25 years, the major new democracies of central and eastern Europe are experiencing a steady consolidation of faith in their new political institutions since their transition to democracy and market economy.
At least that is what tries to demonstrate a recent study published by University of Cambridge researchers tracking views on democracy since 1995. It argues that, if across the globe democracy is in “a state of deep malaise”, countries such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary have all seen democratic satisfaction rise in recent decades.
The ‘democratic malaise’
The study, from the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Future of Democracy, has tracked views on democracy since 1995 and found that the share of individuals who are “dissatisfied” with democracy has risen by around +10% points, from 47.9 to 57.5%.
This rise in democratic dissatisfaction is seen as being especially sharp since 2005 and the beginning of the so-called “global democratic recession”. The study suggests this could reflect political and social consequences of the “economic shock” of the financial crash of 2008 and disquiet from the refugee crisis of 2015.
“We find that dissatisfaction with democracy has risen over time and is reaching an all-time global high, in particular in developed countries,” report author Roberto Foa said.
In fact, the report argues that, in the West, growing political polarisation, economic frustration, and the rise of populist parties have eroded the promise of democratic institutions to offer governance that is not only popularly supported, but also stable and effective. It goes on by stating that, in developing democracies, the euphoria of the transition years has also faded, leaving endemic challenges of corruption, intergroup conflict, and urban violence that undermine democracy’s appeal.
Optimism in the East?
Yet, while the West is becoming increasingly disillusioned, the former communist countries of the Eastern Bloc, many of which joined the European Union in 2004 and 2007, have all seen a gradual strengthening of civic confidence in democracy.
Admittedly, the report points out that these countries began from a very low base, with only a small minority of respondents – between a fifth and a third – expressing “satisfaction” during the economic transition years of the 1990s.
Notably, central Europe is one of the few regions to have witnessed an increase in satisfaction with democracy since the global financial crisis. In fact, the report points out that only since the onset of the global financial crisis has satisfaction with democracy in post-Communist Europe “improved in a uniform fashion”.
The study suggests this could be due to the fact that in countries such as Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the first generation of liberal post-Communist elites had by then been swept aside by the election to high office of populist politicians and parties, often on a platform of nationalism, social welfare, and anti-immigration.
The report concludes by stating that satisfaction with democracy is not the same as the belief in liberal principles or values, but is as much due to “congruence between popular sentiment and the attitudes expressed by the political class, whatever those sentiments may be”.
The rise of populism and the fight for democracy
Conversely, a wide-ranging study conducted by the Open Society Foundations to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall recently showed that in most CEE countries, a majority of the population agrees with the fact that democracy is currently under threat in their respective countries, with high levels of distrust found in Slovakia (61%), Hungary (58%), Poland (51%) and the Czech Republic (47%).
“Parallel to the rise of populism and the coercive political climate, a robust spirit of dissent, and a readiness to challenge those in power, persists”, writes the author of the study, primarily driven by the younger generations who are slowly emerging as “a very special avant-garde” picking up the torch of their elders who brought down the Iron Curtain.
With 2020 marking the 10-year anniversary of Viktor Orban’s rise to power as Hungary’s Prime Minister, mayors of Bratislava, Budapest, Prague and Warsaw recently signed a “Pact of Free Cities” promoting democracy and the rule of law.
Meanwhile, George Soros also announced his plans to set up worldwide network of universities to “fight for democracy”.
Photo credit: Hungarian Spectrum