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Central Europe’s Democrats Need to Learn from Each Other, Just Like Authoritarians Do

November 17, 2021
8 min read
Photo credit: M.Moira / Shutterstock.com
This year appears to have been a rather good one for democracy in Central Europe.

After a decade in which it swung strongly in an illiberal and authoritarian direction, the political pendulum appears to be swinging back. However, the positive developments do not mean the reconsolidation of democracies in the region. For that to become more of a reality, Central Europe’s democratic forces need to learn from each other, just like its authoritarians do.   

The October 2021 parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic saw the opposition oust the government of Andrej Babiš—a victory of pluralist liberal democracy over populist illiberalism. Babiš is not the only populist strongman in the region to have been ousted from power. In Bulgaria, following the third consecutive elections this year, veteran illiberal leader Boyko Borisov was also expelled from the prime minister’s office after he dominating politics since 2009.

In Poland, the stability of the governing coalition is on the edge, with potential by-elections posing a serious political threat for the ruling Law and Justice party PiS. In Hungary, the April 2022 elections might witness real political competition first time in a decade, with the governing Fidesz party and the United Opposition alliance currently neck-and-neck in the polls.

The recent democratic success stories offer important lessons for pro-democracy forces struggling against autocratizing regimes throughout the region. To exploit the positive momentum, they need to maintain active exchange, learn from each other, and adopt the democracy best practices developed in the region.

Asymmetric Policy Learning

Over the past decade, there has been a striking asymmetry in policy learning among democrats and authoritarians in Central Europe, with the pace and extent of learning among the latter greatly outstripping those of the former.

Russia’s foreign-agent legislation and other measures to intimidate and suppress critical civil society have been the blueprint for anti-NGO bills throughout Central Europe, from Hungary to Romania and Bulgaria.

Fidesz in Hungary and PiS in Poland have also adopted the disinformation toolkit of authoritarian powers like Russia or China to neutralize critical media coverage and establish the dominance of illiberal narratives in social media. They have deployed paid trolls and paid influencers in a highly organized and sophisticated manner, an approach pioneered by the Russian troll farms, in order to confuse discussions on social media or to intimidate users with a liberal democratic mindset.

The playbook Prime Minister Viktor Orbán used to establish a government-friendly media empire in Hungary through acquisitions conducted by cronies also was copied by PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński and the state-owned energy giant PKP Orlen in Poland. In Slovenia, Prime Minister Janez Janša has also mobilized significant resources to implement this playbook.

When it comes to using scapegoats and alleged public enemies to build up political support, Orbán’s extreme anti-immigration position was quickly emulated in 2015 in the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia. In 2020 and 2021, the anti-LGBTQ campaigns of the PiS government in Poland was not only copied by Orbán in Hungary, they also inspired radical-right parties throughout Central Europe, triggering similar anti-LGBTQ legal initiatives and violence in countries like Romania and Bulgaria.

Central Europe’s illiberal and authoritarian actors have thus demonstrated a great ability to learn from each other ways to significantly enhance their toolkit for undermining checks and balances, dividing society, and suppressing vulnerable groups.

In contrast, pro-democracy actors—who in the 1990s and early 2000s pioneered transnational policy learning in the region—have been unable to convert their exchanges into any meaningful domestic political resources. Although key advocacy and watchdog NGOs are better integrated into transnational networks than ever, democratic political actors—often in the opposition in countries with increasingly illiberal settings—have struggled to maintain meaningful and purposeful relations with their regional and international peers.

Pro-democracy actors have been unable to convert their exchanges into any meaningful domestic political resources.

There are three broad explanations for this.

First, with Western democracy assistance coming to a halt after the countries in the region joined the EU between 2004 and 2011, and as there was neither EU conditionality nor dedicated funds to support it, the culture of transnational democratic policy learning slowly evaporated in Central Europe.

Second, the direction of democratic policy learning became unclear. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Western countries provided their experiences, institutional solutions, and democracy assistance to the emerging democracies of Central Europe. Today, such an approach to policy learning does not necessarily make sense anymore. Even if certain older democracies, like the United States, have experienced the rise of illiberal populism, they have been unable to find effective and sustainable social and political responses. There is barely any relevant best practice they can share.

Third, and perhaps most important, the policy learning illiberal actors have successfully used and the one pro-democracy actors need is different. The main policy learning of authoritarian actors is instrumental, focused on legislative solutions, acquisition of media outlets and other key assets, organizational patterns, and campaign strategies, which are easily transferable and simple to implement when in power.

In contrast, the knowledge pro-democracy actors need is not instrumental but strategic. It touches upon questions how to organize or to reorganize a political community, and how to mobilize it in order to forge new majorities in deeply divided societies with often skewed political playing fields. Simple, easily transferable policy instruments do not provide answers to these questions. Even if certain lessons exist, their transfer is rather difficult if not impossible. Mainly because these best practices are deeply rooted in a particular social and political context (including the attitude structures of the society, the constitutional framework, the broader political agenda, and the number and positions of the relevant political actors) which they were tailored to and in which they worked. Uprooting these strategies and placing them in a different context often simply does not make any sense.

Lessons for Combating Autocratization in Central Europe

There are important lessons pro-democracy forces across Central Europe can learn from the recent successes in the fight against autocratizing actors in the region. However, while there is sharing and learning between experts and civil society organizations (CSOs) in Hungary and Poland, it is mostly absent in relations involving the other countries in Central Europe. This is due to the tendency to emphasize differences among them, especially among the Visegrád Four, when it comes to challenges to democracy, to the weakness of expert networks and exchanges between these four countries on the one hand and Romania and especially Bulgaria on the other, and the general tendency of pro-democratic forces to look westward instead for inspiration.

There are at least three approaches that have played a crucial role in political dynamics that contained illiberal developments in Central Europe in recent years, and that should be learned and applied across the region.

First, electoral cooperation between civil society and democratic parties. This pattern emerged during the 2019 municipal elections in Hungary and the 2019 presidential and 2020 parliamentary elections in Slovakia. These polls demonstrated that CSOs can play a crucial role in candidate nomination, mobilization, and campaigning, and that they can also provide higher legitimacy and extra mobilization resources for the democratic actors they ally with. Such partisanship on the part of CSOs is not sustainable or desirable in the long run, as it weakens their independence and legitimacy, but it can provide a distinct advantage for pro-democracy forces in neck-and-neck electoral races and might be essential to compensate for an uneven political playing field that favors the incumbents.

Second, successful mobilization of diasporas. This was perfected by Romania’s pro-democracy forces with the diaspora playing a crucial role in the 2018 anti-corruption movement and the 2019 presidential election. Diaspora mobilization also had some sporadic forms and positive impact during the December 2018 labor code protests in Hungary. With elections due in 2022 in Hungary and in 2023 in Poland, its importance cannot be overestimated, even if laws regulating diaspora participation vary among countries. More than 300,000 Hungarian citizens have left the country since 2010 and they constitute an important voter pool for the opposition parties. Campaigning effectively in the diaspora and helping its members exercise their right to vote is an important task for opposition parties and civil society in Hungary. The approximately 2 million Poles who have left their country since 2004 can be of equal importance for Poland’s democratic forces as well.

Only if the pro-democracy forces start actively learning from and coordinating with each other do their countries have a chance at proper re-democratization.

Third, reframing elections as referenda on autocratizing leaders. This can be labeled “good polarization.” Polarization is often perceived as a negative phenomenon that undermines the stability of established democracies. This might be well true, but it can also bring down autocratizing regimes. Mitigating the negative impacts of polarization can be an important task for pro-democracy forces when they are in government, but they have to learn to instrumentalize polarization in election campaigns against governments with authoritarian tendencies.

The message at the heart of such efforts in Central Europe in recent times has been not democracy but anti-corruption—in Slovakia in 2020 and in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic in 2021. However, campaigns aiming to profit from “good polarization” do not need to be centered around a single message to be successful. What is important is any campaign messages or topic—pro-democracy, anti-corruption, or social welfare issues—refer to and reinforce the same cleavage of being with or against the autocratizing leader.

Even if policy learning among themselves is more challenging for the pro-democracy forces in Central Europe than it is among their illiberal and autocratizing opponents, they should strive to do so better to enhance their political weaponry. As crucial elections near in Hungary and Poland, the lessons from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Romania, and Slovakia can be more relevant for the opposition in the two countries than experiences from Western Europe. More generally, only if the pro-democracy forces start actively learning from and coordinating with each other do their countries have a chance at proper re-democratization. And, with this in mind, if U.S. or European actors restart their democracy assistance for the Central European countries, fostering such policy learning across the region should definitely be one focus of their efforts.