In March 2021, literally days before I have set about writing this essay, the renowned V-Dem group of experts released its new annual Report on the state of democracy around the world  . In addition to more general observations supporting the gloomy proposition made in the very title of the Report, the authors remark that two countries are on the top of the list of countries which declined the most in terms of the Liberal Democracy Index: Poland and Hungary. As the Report notes, “States in Eastern Europe such as Hungary, Poland, and Serbia have continued their downward decline after continued assaults on the judiciary and restrictions on the media and civil society. […] While Hungary’s ongoing autocratization is still conspicuous, Poland has taken over the dubious first position with a dramatic 34 percentage points decline on the LDI [Liberal Democracy Index], most of which has occurred since 2015”  .
My thinking about the erosion of democracy these days is largely colored by my knowledge of and experience with democratic backsliding precisely in these two countries: Poland and Hungary. These are two states where ruling populists have succeeded in dismantling the constitutional liberal-democratic structure that had been largely established – with a good deal of success – after the fall of Communism. Their examples contrast with populists in power who work, by and large, within the existing institutions without severely damaging or changing them, as is or was the case in the Czech Republic, or Slovenia, or Italy for that matter. Both Poland and Hungary are members of the European Union, and both were, until some years ago, regarded as post-communist transition success stories.
The Third Wave of “Autocratization“
The fundamental starting point for reflecting on the erosion of democracy today – not just in Poland and Hungary specifically, but more in general – is realization that we are dealing here with authoritarianism that has – at its origins – democratic electoral legitimacy. It is estimated that of the so-called “3rd wave of autocratization” that followed the “3rd wave of democratization” during the 1980s and after, over two-thirds of “autocratization” cases were orchestrated by democratically elected incumbents. In (relatively) free and (relatively) fair elections. (The caveats in brackets are necessary but not puzzling, in fact, no democracy in the world can boast unquestionably fair elections, under the most elevated criteria of fairness). This fundamental feature raises both moral and cognitive problems and dilemmas.
The moral problems are obvious: the governments we (we, liberals) abhor originate from the people’s will as expressed via the ballot box. These voters are our fellow citizens. So, if we live in one of those countries, we must face the fact that our compatriots – quite a lot of them, in fact – have made electoral choices that we deeply disvalue. And it is not just mere disagreement, but a real disrespect, even abhorrence, for the choices which have brought bad people to power. The resulting political polarization is deep and moralized, going well beyond a routine policy disagreement, and we, the liberal democrats, are actively engaged in erecting and consolidating this divide.
Of course, in the day-to-day practical rhetoric of democracy, we have a large repertoire of arguments such as “the majority is not necessarily right” or “democracy is not merely a matter of statistics or counting heads”, or (most emotionally and only partly truthfully) Hitler also came to power by democratic electoral means) – but none appear satisfactory. Our compatriots, whose choices we reject so strongly, are not mere “statistics”, they tell us: they are real people, with their own minds and hearts, and they demand equal respect, the same as every other citizen, liberal or not. And their favorite politicians are no Hitlers. By refusing to grant them this, we may be seen to be guilty of the very tribal divisiveness of which we accuse the populists.
However, I will not ruminate any longer on the moral dilemmas stemming from the democratic pedigree of modern authoritarian populism. I will refrain from going along this path not because these dilemmas are unimportant; if anything, they are too important for treatment in a short essay, and they are also too important to be left to constitutional scholars. They require attention and sensitivity in other forums: in civil society’s discussions, in public debates, in newspapers’ op-eds, in social media, or in town hall meetings. Instead, I will focus on the second category of problems resulting from the elected democratic pedigree of this type of authoritarianism, namely on the “cognitive” problems. In short, my remarks relate to the factors which render non-democratic characteristics of these regimes obscure – invisible, opaque, almost clandestine.
The Incremental Backsliding
The first such factor is that in these cases of democratic backsliding, changes have been incremental, even if they occur quickly. As a result, there is no clear, easily identifiable turning point; a caesura between democracy and authoritarianism. Incrementalism is an ally of new autocrats. It is difficult to mobilize democratically oriented citizens to protest against something which, by itself, does not seem to be so devastating to the democratic system. Our language – the language of liberal democrats outraged by these piecemeal changes – may seem often to be disproportionate and inflated in its critique, and this sense of incommensurability of a response to the causes is aptly exploited by the propagandists for autocrats.
The relative obscurity – even invisibility – of democratic backsliding is magnified by the fact that the truly invidious effect is produced not by particular laws or actions, considered in isolation, but rather by how they interact with each other. It is the relationship between the different kinds of changes that truly erodes democracy, and it is the cumulative effect of various, seemingly disparate, changes that matters. Taken separately, each of the legislative changes may seem innocuous enough, and our protests may sound exaggerated or even paranoiac. This is also exploited by pro-authoritarian propaganda: to any of the changes, an equivalent may be found in unimpeachably democratic systems. (“You accuse us of X? Belgians also have that. Or Canadians”). But in those democratic systems, those features which may be problematic in many ways exist in a context that reduces their possibly negative effect. In contrast, under populist authoritarianism, context bolsters the anti-democratic effects of these changes. There is a mutual reinforcement rather than a self-immunization effect.
The Practice of “Hollowing Out” Institutions
The third factor in the relative invisibility of democratic erosion is that elected authoritarians often proceed without dismantling formal institutions and procedures: they leave them in place, but completely change their functions and meanings. Rather than being abolished, these institutions are “hollowed out”. The fate of the Constitutional Tribunal in Poland after 2015 is a case in point. It had been initially (now over three decades ago) set up as a counter-majoritarian institution par excellence, tasked with scrutinizing legislative and executive action under constitutional constraints (and had performed this function reasonably well). However, at the end of 2016, the Tribunal was transformed into a willing helper and facilitator of the government’s will, in fact reducing the political costs of many unconstitutional actions by the government or the ruling party, or even more precisely, by the leader.
The fourth and final factor explaining the obscurity of democratic erosion in the era of elected authoritarians is the uneven pace with which different pillars of democracy are dismantled. For the sake of simplicity, I will take it that a fully-fledged definition of democracy, even in its narrow, procedural sense, must incorporate these four characteristics: (1) free, fair, and regular elections resulting in a government aligned with political preferences of the majority; (2) civil and political rights, in particular those which are instrumental to unconstrained political communication necessary for a democratic electoral choice; (3) separation or dispersion of powers which guarantees, at a minimum, that the entire political authority is not concentrated in a single person or a small group of persons, and (4) the rule of law requiring the government to comply with legal rules, and in particular with constitutional rules which it cannot change at will, whenever political expediency so demands. Contemporary elected authoritarians do not assault all these pillars of democracy at the same time and with equal intensity. Now it is probably true that pillars (1) and (2) are the most visible and evident when they are breached, as electoral fraud or violations of individual rights are easily and immediately discernible (think about ostentatious electoral frauds or prisons filled with political opponents). By comparison, breaches to pillars (3) and (4) are much more obscure: to detect them requires some degree of legal knowledge, often arcane, and great attention to context (which may require such a seemingly trivial skill as a local language) while being somewhat less visible, ironically these breaches are more corrosive of democracy because they are of a systemic and generalized character, and contaminate all institutions, procedures, and rights. You can release prisoners overnight; it is much harder to manufacture dispersal of power and the rule of law just as quickly and effectively.
The Sunset of the “Transition Paradigm”
Which general lessons can be drawn from the phenomenon I have just described, other than a ritualistic but ultimately non-constructive lamentation over our cognitive incapacities in the face of in the face of events whose significance is obscure, complex, and context-sensitive? Perhaps the most important lesson I can offer is about the definite end to the “transition paradigm”. The paradigm that so many of us shared around the 1990s and after, rested on the optimistic prediction that after the fall of Communism, apartheid, military regimes in Latin America, or authoritarian systems in East Asia, all newly-established electoral democracies were slowly but inevitably moving towards thicker, more robust forms of democracy. We believed that mechanisms had been firmly put in place whereby there would be a self-reinforcing and steady move toward the stronger representation of citizens’ interests; higher levels of political participation going beyond mere voting (not that that is unimportant); decreasing abuse and breaches of law by political officials; consolidation of political parties; elections of undeniable legitimacy and fairness; higher levels of public confidence in institutions, and steadily more robust institutional performance by state apparatuses. These transitional states, many of us thought (and I am using the first person plural advisedly, as it is also mea culpa), will equip themselves not just with free and fair elections and bolster the governments issued from these elections, but will also acquire resilient and effective institutions and procedures ensuring civil and political rights, the strong separation of powers, and the rule of law with judicial independence as its pinnacle.
We now see how naive these predictions were, and these days we do not hear much talk in comparative constitutional law about “transitional constitutionalism” or “transitional democracy”. Rather, we hear about “autocratization turning viral”, as exposed in the Report I cited right at the beginning of this essay. Some countries have regressed from having achieved rather impressive levels of constitutional democracy (Poland, Hungary); but some others never even got there: they remained at a mildly unsatisfactory plateau and are neither conventionally oppressive nor robustly democratic. And they may stay on that plateau for quite a long time. This of course does not preclude a possible happy development towards an improved democracy: “competitive authoritarianism” or a merely “electoral democracy” (whichever label for such hybrid systems one prefers) are both inherently unstable states of affairs. But with the entrenchment of authoritarian populism, especially once it enters into the second electoral cycle of its rule (as, unfortunately, is the case for Poland and Hungary, but also for instance Venezuela), and then the third, the fourth… etc., the decline of “illiberal democracy” into illiberal non-democracy is more likely than further progress into liberal democracy.
It is not surprising that the odds are that such entrenched populisms will tend towards consolidation of autocracy. This is intuitively plausible. The populist officials in power have many mechanisms with which to constantly tilt the playing field in their favor. They can co-opt more and more people to their side by the politics of graft, corruption, and patronage. They use devices of state or state friendly propaganda to strengthen the culture of populism in the minds of electors. In addition, they can keep engineering welfare handouts tailored to electorally most important constituencies. Perhaps most importantly, the passage of time erodes society’s collective memories of democratic norms and practices.
But I do not want to finish this essay on such a grim note. We have noted, around the world, also good transitions from a populist to a non-populist regime, as in post-Berlusconi Italy, post-Correa Ecuador, and post-Fujimori Peru. Often populism becomes absorbed by other, more mainstream parties, which successfully build up their constituencies by taking in the narratives and programs of populists (Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands, comes to mind here). Whether such absorption of populist agenda by non-populists is toxic to the political culture of the system as a whole, surely depends on a number of factors which are country-sensitive, so it is difficult, perhaps unwise, to generalize. Much will depend on the actual departure (political or natural) of the charismatic populist leader.
Populism does not disappear but becomes dispersed, domesticated and in many ways disarmed, de-weaponized. As long as it does not fatally contaminate those who absorb these programs with ideologies of hatred and exclusion, such a scenario may be a tolerable second best. And we need to learn to live with it, despite the fact that it may appear unwholesome to us.
This may well be the future of Central European populist regimes discussed in this essay as well. There is no inevitability in the entrenchment and endurance of authoritarian populism. As the great Polish philosopher Leszek Koakowski wrote, in half-jest, about “the struggle between the devil and God in history”: it “is not a merry spectacle. The only comfort we have comes from the simple fact that we are not passive observers or victims of this contest but participants as well, and therefore our destiny is decided on the field on which we run”. And having an awareness of the nature of populist authoritarian regimes, such as those we currently see on Poland and Hungary, may help their opponents when reflecting upon “the field on which [they] run”.
1. Autocratization Turns Viral, Democracy Report 2021, V-Dem Institute, University of Gothenburg, March 2021, https://www.v-dem.net/files/25/DR%202021.pdf
2. Ibidem, p. 19.