Democracy in Emerging Europe: Flawed at Best

Ballot box with person casting vote on blank voting slip

Central and Eastern Europe does not have a single, full democracy according to the 2017 Democracy Index released early in February by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). Azerbaijan and Belarus are still classed as authoritarian regimes; seven countries are considered hybrid (Armenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Albania); and the rest are still characterised as flawed democracies.

“Eastern European countries usually register low scores in two categories of the Democracy Index: political culture and political participation,” Agathe Demarais, regional manager for Europe at The Economist Intelligence Unit tells Emerging Europe.

“These low scores are due, at least in part, to chaotic political transition and weak political culture. As these two factors are structural, and have long-term roots, we believe it will take many years to see marked improvements in the politicisation of the population,” she explains.

In fact, the regional average democracy score fell to its lowest ever level, at 5.40 (compared with 5.43 in 2016 and 5.76 in 2006, when the index was first published). In particular, among the ‘flawed democracies’ in the region, every country except Bulgaria experienced a fall in its score in 2017. The main cause was a decline in public confidence in governments and political parties, something which is happening in the most developed countries of the region, such as Hungary and Poland.

“Poland and Hungary scored well in the electoral process, functioning of government and civil liberties categories, but more poorly in the political participation and political culture categories. The Polish and Hungarian governments were both elected in free and fair elections, so it is not that the countries are not democratic. Rather than a ‘democratic failure’, the regression in the score of these countries reflects recent illiberal, conservative policies, which we believe could undermine democratic institutions and processes,” said Ms Demarais.

According to EIU, the Polish government has subordinated the Constitutional Tribunal, which rules on the constitutionality of laws, into a politically pliant body; replaced the management of state-controlled media and the civil service; exerted greater control over the funding of civic organisations; passed a law restricting the freedom of assembly; and changed the rules governing the appointment of judges.

Romania also experienced a sharp decline in its score, reflecting continuing attempts by the ruling coalition to weaken the independence and effectiveness of the judiciary and to block the efforts of some bodies tackling corruption. Serbia too fell behind, reflecting the informal consolidation of power in the hands of the president, Aleksandar Vucic, the weakness of the political opposition, a poorly functioning parliament and a deterioration in media freedom, the EIU reports.

Several countries from the region will hold elections this year (Armenia, Hungary, Montenegro, Slovenia, Azerbaijan, BiH, Georgia, Latvia and Moldova). Is there reason to be optimistic?

“We certainly always hope for improvements in the Democracy Index score of eastern European country,” says Ms Demarais. “Unfortunately, this is not what the data suggest. A high level of disconnect between the population and the political elite, persistent issues with corruption and a decline in public confidence in governments and political parties weighed on the score of many eastern European countries this year.”

However, there are bright spots. Armenia is one.

“In 2017 Armenia became a hybrid regime (it was an authoritarian regime in the 2016 Democracy Index). This marked improvement stems from recent constitutional amendments, which will shift power from the presidency to parliament,” Ms Demarais adds.