Ben Margulies

It was once conventional wisdom that democratization was a one-way street, leading from the Cold War to “the end of history,” and from dictatorship to Robert Dahl’s notion of liberal, checks-and-balances democracy. It is now conventional wisdom that we face a “democratic rollback,” the result of inadequate democracy promotion efforts by the West and the rise of newly empowered authoritarian regimes, especially Russia and the People’s Republic of China. Some high-profile experiments in democracy have failed; while other countries that seemed to be developing into liberal democracies seem to, at the very least, be dropping the “liberal” bit.

As we examine the faltering process of democratization, we should perhaps look at some of the mechanisms we previously thought would guarantee the process. This post looks specifically at “linkage,” as defined specifically by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way. In their 2010 book, Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War, Levitsky and Way defined linkage as “ties (economic, political, diplomatic, social, and organizational) and cross-border flows (of capital, goods and services, people, and information)” between liberal democratic states and transnational networks and the semi-authoritarian states. When strong “linkages” form between Western democracies and certain types of authoritarian states, these states would become very likely to democratize and remain democratic.

Levitsky and Way’s theory dealt with a specific category of non-democratic regimes, called “competitive authoritarian” regimes. These are states where power passes in free, but not fair, elections, and where the incumbents have privileged access to funding and the state’s regulatory and coercive power (rather like Fareed Zakaria’s illiberal democracies). Thus, Levitsky and Way’s theory implied that linkage promoted not just democracy, but liberal democracies with the legalism and pluralism we expect from that model. They also argued that these networks helped cement liberal-democratic norms in new democracies by preventing or arresting backsliding (eg in Romania in the early 2000s). Think of the logic of EU expansion; much of the rationale for this was the development of links between Western European leaders and elites would cement democratic practices in the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe. Since 2010, that argument has proved harder to make.           

Perhaps the most notorious retreat from liberal democracy has taken place in Hungary. Since winning office in the spring of 2010 with a two-thirds majority, the Fidesz government led by Viktor Orbán has unilaterally enacted a new constitution without input from the public or opposition, which undermined the judicial review powers of the Constitutional Court. Orbán’s government has removed hundreds of judges, and created a new Media Council composed of Fidesz appointees with powers to “fine media outlets for a number of nebulous offences.” A 2015 statute sharply restricted the scope of freedom of information laws. The government also adopted highly controversial electoral reforms prior to the 2014 elections which included gerrymandering in Fidesz’s favour. Orbán even openly stated he was building an “illiberal democracy” in a 2014 speech.

Hungary may exhibit the most thorough assaults on liberal democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, but these are far from the only ones. The Law and Justice government elected in Poland in October 2015 had launched an ongoing battle with the Constitutional Tribunal, while the new government has also moved to politicize state televisionstate-owned enterprises, and the uppermost levels of the civil service. In Macedonia, the government has faced more than a year of protests over a vast program of illegal wire-tapping, electoral manipulation and interference in the judiciary; attempts at a settlement between the government and opposition faltered when the president pardoned all involved. In Romania, the government of Victor Ponta attempted to circumvent the Constitutional Court in an attempt to impeach President Traian Băsescu; in that case, EU pressure was sufficient to compel respect for independent institutions.

All of these countries are either in the European Union (Hungary, Poland, Romania) or EU candidate countries. Therefore, they all, by definition, have dense economic, political and professional links with Western democracies. So why is liberal democracy facing such struggles in the region? Why have Levitsky and Way’s links been replaced by so many error messages?

To begin with, some of the links between Western democracies and Central and Eastern Europe are weaker and more dysfunctional than we expected. The post-Communist elites did integrate with Western Europe and the global economy, to be sure. But it is less clear that they really adopted liberal-democratic norms in a genuine sense. Dawson and Hanley note that Eastern European elites adopted the dominant Western practices and policies in foreign policy, defence and economic management, but that this does not mean they actually internalized liberal philosophical beliefs about power, law and the individual. “The only clear philosophical threads that linked the projects of liberal elites from Warsaw to Sofia in the late 1990s and early 2000s were Euro-Atlantic foreign policy orientations and conformity with the liberal economic recipes of the World Bank, the IMF and the acquis communautaire”. In the meantime, the economic crisis that has roiled Europe since 2008, and the broader structural crisis of the neoliberal economic model, have damaged Western Europe’s ability to act as a source of attractive, persuasive behavioural and legal norms. Democratization has not just carried the values and norms of Western Europe eastwards, to Poland and Hungary. It has also carried the social cleavages, conflicts and frustrations of the modern, globalized neoliberal world. In Eastern Europe, as in Western Europe, this has created large categories of “modernization losers,” who are drawn to illiberal forms of populist politics and government. 

Furthermore, not all the Western linkages have actually exerted pressure very effectively on their Central and Eastern European counterparts. Take the transnational party federations, like the Party of European Socialists (PES) or the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP). Fidesz is a member of the latter federation, but its leaders have frequently defended the conduct of its government, and the EPP leadership, if not all its MEPs, objected to the Tavares Report, which condemned  Fidesz’s reforms and called for EU monitoring. The PES has similarly enmeshed itself with Romania’s corrupt Social Democrats (Ponta’s party). Martin Schulz, the PES president of the European Parliament, defended the Romanian government in 2012 when Ponta’s administration launched an irregular impeachment process against the president and tried to undermine the powers of the constitutional court to prevent any judicial interference.

The second factor weakening the positive, pro-democratic effects of linkage structure is the rise of illiberal, majoritarian populism in all parts of Europe. Although Eastern and Central Europe right-populism evolved separately from the Western variety, they have increasingly established formal links. Jean-Marie Le Pen went east to gather support for his EURONAT grouping in the 1990s. The later Alliance of a Europe for the Nations (2002-9) and Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty group (2007-09) linked right-populist parties across the old post-Communist divide, and there are a small number of Eastern European MEPs in the current right-populist European Parliament groups, Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy and Europe of Nations and Freedom.

Non-party organizations are also forging ties across the former Iron Curtain. The PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West), which originated in Dresden, has spawned chapters in EstoniaHungary, and Serbia. In late January 2016, anti-Muslim groups from 10 European countries, including the Czech Republic, Estonia, Slovakia, Poland and Bulgaria gathered to sign the “Prague Declaration” and found the Fortress Europe alliance, followed on February 6 by rallies in cities throughout Western and Eastern Europe. The Declaration’s signatories proclaimed that “We shall not surrender Europe to our enemies. We are prepared to stand and oppose political Islam, extreme Islamic regimes and their European collaborators.” Eastern European populism traditionally defined native ethnic minorities, not immigrant groups, as “the Other,” but increasingly, Islamophobia seems to have become a common tool of populists in both halves of Europe, from protests against a new mosque in Warsaw to the use of a Swiss anti-immigration poster in Czech election campaigns.

Finally, there is the increasing role of linkages to authoritarian states, most notably Russia. Moscow frequently supports radical-right populist parties in Europe, partly to weaken the European Union and any unity it might have on policy issues. The right-populists share Moscow’s Euroskepticism, social conservatism and nationalism. Thus, Bulgaria’s Ataka party opened its 2014 European Parliament electoral campaign in Moscow, not Sofia; while several right-populist parties, including Ataka and Hungary’s Jobbik, endorsed the Russian-sponsored reunification plebiscite in Crimea. Russia also seems eager to forge links with the Fidesz government in Hungary: Budapest accepted a €10 billion loan from Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned atomic energy corporation, to expand the Paks nuclear power plant; Freedom House cites the case of a Russian company that won a tender to provide subway cars in 2015, defeating an Estonian competitor offering a cheaper alternative.

In this current decade, democratization theorists have faced a panorama of stalled or failed transitions. At the same time, liberal-democratic standards have eroded in places where they seemed securely in place. The field now has to explain why this is occurring. An excellent place to start would be to re-examine the ways and means democratization came to pass in the first place. In the ‘90s, we were promised a global democratic superhighway. It appears that bandits found the onramp.


Ben Margulies is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow on the ERC Diasporas Project at the University of Warwick. He tweets @ChequeredFuture.

Image: Randy Colas