Why East Central Europe’s flawed liberals leave democracy vulnerable [James Dawson, Politics]

Why East Central Europe’s flawed liberals leave democracy vulnerable [James Dawson, Politics]

Dr James Dawson, Politics, with Associate Professor, Seán Hanley, UCL

Originally published on the JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies blog


The newer EU member states of East-Central Europe (ECE) were long held up as a textbook illustration of how the attractiveness of the EU’s political and economic model, backed by tough accession conditions, could keep shakier democracies on track to liberal democracy  by empowering local pro-European liberal forces.

Today this narrative of democratic progress is increasingly challenged, replaced by one of democratic backsliding – and even sliding into authoritarianism – under the auspices of populist and nationalist politicians.

Frontrunners turned backsliders

Polls suggest that PiS, like Fidesz in 2014 and 2018, will expand its parliamentary majority in October’s upcoming elections.

More strikingly, Fidesz and PiS were not radical outsiders, but large right-wing parties once considered part of a pro-Western centre-right mainstream who sat with German Christian Democrats and British Conservatives in the European Parliament.

Much of the growing literature on ECE backsliding has focused on the actions of illiberal entrepreneurs in Hungary and Poland’s national-conservative governments and asked if and how EU institutions can respond through procedures like the Union’s Article 7 rule-of-law mechanism (now invoked against both Warsaw and Budapest).

Rethinking democratic backsliding

However, there has been limited reflection on why expectations of ECE democratisation have proved so wrong. The dominant line of argument has been that existing analyses were right in theory – correctly picking out key factors driving or obstructing democratisation –  but, unfortunately, wrong in practice: EU democratic leverage, for example, now appears to many, on second glance, to have been too weak, too short-lived or too patchy to lock in democracy.

We find this unconvincing.  In our recently published article, we call for a more fundamental rethink of the reasons scholars misread ECE democratisation – and for a broadening of attention beyond troubling authoritarian dynamics visible in Hungary and Poland to include ECE member states where backsliding is less overt.

We also suggest that the focus needs to be less on populist outsiders, but on the established, outwardly liberal-democratic, mainstream parties, whose emergence and growth was central to the previously-told story of ECE democratic success.

A discursive institutionalist perspective

We argue for a rethink of how political institutions work – whether the domestic institutions of ECE states, the conditionalities that applied to them as candidate states, or the EU rules binding them after they joined the Union.

This means moving away from the familiar image of institutions as (hopefully) an external check on voters and politicians steering their behaviour into democratic channels through carrot-and-stick incentives until liberal democratic politics finally become second nature, or the political and economic cost of unmaking a democratic settlement becomes too high to be a practical political proposition.

In the place of these familiar incentive-based frameworks, we argue, the ‘discursive institutionalism’ developed by Vivien Schmidt offers a fresh perspective. Schmidt’s work sees actors and the institutions they inhabit as symbiotically linked: institutions work as they do, not by fencing actors in, but because of the underlying ‘background ideas’ that politicians and citizens bring to them. It is actors that make even well-established institutions what they are.

This means that in a democratising region like ECE, the quality and stability of democracy depends not only on the institutional frameworks chosen, but also on the domestic actors implementing the liberal-democratic institutional settlement. Assessing the potential for democratic backsliding in the region thus means more than just tracking the rise of overtly illiberal parties, but also examining the discourse of parties of this (supposed) liberal mainstream.

The limits of the liberal mainstream

We test out this approach by examining the evolution of two groups of mainstream politicians in countries which, despite the rise of populist parties, have weathered the storm of recent backsliding in ECE relatively well: Bulgaria’s (declining) camp of pro-European liberal parties and the Czech Republic’s (also declining) Social Democrats.

Using the issue of minority rights as a touchstone, we find that while both camps foregrounded liberal pro-European politics during the pre-Accession period, the scope of this project was persistently limited by underlying ‘background idea’ of the state as the property of the ethnically-defined majority nation.

Bulgaria’s uninclusive pro-European liberals

Recent turbulence in domestic and European politics –  new populist parties in both Bulgaria and the Czech Republic and the impact of the Great Recession and refugee crises – has had different (and unpredictable) impacts which serve to highlight the discursive agency of political actors.

In Bulgaria, despite the crisis triggered by protests against high electricity costs and corruption in 2013 and relatively high numbers of refugees entering the country in 2015-6, the discourse of the small liberal groupings like the Reformists was still framed as it had been in the pre-Accession period: a liberal middle class struggle for ‘European’ values against a corrupt neo-communist establishment with Roma, Turks and poorer citizens quietly written off as unadaptable underclasses bolstering clientelist and populist politics.

Czechia’s illiberal social democrats

In the less crisis-hit Czech Republic, by contrast, we found overt reorientation to illiberal politics by some prominent politicians on the social democratic left, seeking to foreground a narrow ethnically-defined notion of national identity, which had previously remained in the background. These illiberal social democrats have developed a conception of centre-left politics that introduces the alleged need to defend the Czech Republic against the (supposed) threat of mass immigration to defend the welfare state alongside older preoccupations with pushing for a high-wage social democratic economy.

A mainstream route to illiberalism

These developments do not necessarily pave the way for frontal assaults on liberal institutions of the type seen in Hungary. However, conservative-nationalist background ideas have long set the limits of the politically possible even for pro-European liberal and mainstream forces in ECE which has, in turn, limited the development of fully liberal institutions.  Applying a ‘discursive institutionalist’ perspective to ECE democratisation does, however, bring  some good news: if the ability of citizens and leaders to think and rethink institutional settlements means that democracy cannot easily be locked in, the same applies to illiberal institutional settlements, which may prove equally changeable.


Seán Hanley is associate professor of comparative Central and East European politics at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies.  His research interests include the rise of anti-establishment parties democratic backsliding in Eastern Europe. He has a special interest in Czech politics


James Dawson lectures in Politics at Coventry University and is author of Cultures of Democracy in Serbia and Bulgaria (2014, paperback 2016). His research focuses on the tension between liberal norms underpinning liberal-democratic institutions and ethnic-nationalist and pro-authoritarian norms.


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