Local Democratic Resilience in East-Central Europe
Cities mean more in terms of economic activity, population, budgetary resources, and international standing than they once did. Despite persistent east-west divides in terms of development in the EU, cities from East-Central Europe (ECE) have showed remarkable economic growth potential. Hubs of innovation and high-value-added activities, they also created economic multiplication effects in their regions, and as such became primary vectors of convergence in Europe. More than half of the national GDP in these countries comes from the capital city or other metropolitan areas. Still, many cities in ECE are bound to an overdependent status through an array of economic policies—related to public budgets, foreign investments, state aid, financing, or European funding—designed to keep discretionary control over resources in the hands of the national government. These do not only stifle growth but allow incumbent national leaders to sanction opposition in local governments and constrain political competition.
Cities are one of the most powerful vectors of democratic values in East-Central Europe. As environments of progressive, cosmopolitan concentration of ideas and values, cities increasingly are where there is electoral success for opposition parties that stand up to autocratic national regimes. The increasing level of political dealignment between local and national leaders has become visible in recent years, especially in countries with illiberal tendencies such as Hungary or Poland. Last year, eight of 11 mayors of capital cities in ECE were not aligned with the national ruling party or coalition, and six were political outsiders, coming from new political parties and civil society organizations.
This paper focuses on democratic resilience in cities in three ECE countries: Poland, Hungary, and Romania. The level of urbanization, the quality of democracy, the level of capital influx, and of the degree fiscal decentralization differ among them. At the same time, in all three countries cities are highly important for the national economy, and there is a significant positive correlation between the level of economic development and civic engagement in all leading cities.
Cities everywhere have been at the forefront of the coronavirus pandemics in terms of capabilities and vulnerabilities. While East-Central Europe provides numerous benchmark examples of how local governments, civil society, and private companies have worked together to tackle the crisis, it also shows how national governments have taken advantage of the situation by re-centralizing administrative functions and resources. It is therefore more important than ever before that ECE cities have proper institutional and economic instruments (for example, sustainable local budgets, deliberative and regulatory powers, or municipal functions in providing public services) as an integral part of rule of law and democratic accountability.
Strengthening democratic resilience in ECE cities starts with a propre diagnostic of local capabilities and vulnerabilities. Better, more comprehensive datasets at local level should be developed by national authorities and international organizations. Local governments’ capacity is linked to resources and boosting their budgetary fiscal sustainability can help address some of the constraints ECE local governments face and strengthen democratic accountability. Connecting ECE cities within larger international cities’ networks can also contribute to the exchange of good practices and strengthening local capacities. Finally, local communities should engage more with their local governments, and leading CSOs should develop peer-networking, capacity-building programs, and collaborative projects with other local organizations in different ECE cities.