There is growing concern that democratic institutions in Eastern Europe are fragile. This brief compares two perspectives on the state of democracy: expert assessments and surveys of the general population. We show that while experts’ perception of some countries’ institutions has worsened in recent years, voters are increasingly satisfied with their own democracies. This trend is broad-based, encompassing almost all new EU member states and all age groups. We provide evidence that over time, survey respondents’ assessment of democracy has become more closely tied to the outcome of elections rather than actual institutional change. Where governments have imposed restrictions on media freedom or judicial independence, their supporters continue to report high levels of satisfaction with the way democracy works.
“Across the world, democracy is backsliding”
UN’s Secretary-General António Guterres, 2022
In recent years, the prevailing narrative around democracy in Eastern Europe has been negative. The reform momentum that propelled countries towards EU membership has not been sustained after accession. Discussions of global democratic backsliding frequently cite countries from the region as examples (Grillo and Prato, 2023; Chiopris et al., 2021; Mechkova et al., 2017). Following restrictions on judicial independence and media freedom, some new EU members have seen their ratings slide on indices that measure the quality of democratic institutions based on expert opinions. This brief contrasts these expert assessments with a different perspective on the state of democracy: that of the voters themselves.
Data from Eurobarometer surveys show that satisfaction with ‘the way democracy works in our country’ has been increasing in the new EU member states. This upward trend is visible for all age groups and in almost all countries – including those where experts’ assessment of democracy has worsened. We document patterns in the data that may help to explain this divergence. Survey responses increasingly reflect an instrumentalist view of democracy; respondents who are aligned politically with the winning party are more likely to feel that democracy is working well. This trend can be observed across the EU, but it is most pronounced in the new EU member states where the governing parties are right-of-centre.
Perceptions of Democracy
The quality of democracy is hard to measure. A range of indices classify countries by regime type or provide numerical ratings of institutional quality (the Polity, V-Dem, and Freedom House measures are among the most prominent). These indices have somewhat different objectives and methodologies, but they all rely on subjective judgements by expert coders.
Some academic research casts doubt on the prevailing narrative of a global phenomenon of democratic backsliding. For instance, Treisman (2023) and Lueders and Lust (2018) show that there is little consensus across indices, both in terms of individual countries and the global trend. A recent paper by Little and Meng (2023) contrasts subjective indices with more objective indicators of democratic health (e.g. the rate at which incumbents lose elections). The authors find no evidence for global democratic backsliding using the objective measures and suggest that the pessimistic narratives around democracy may have biased coders’ assessment.
There is less disagreement about the development of democracy in Eastern Europe. Treisman (2023) cites Hungary as the only example of a country that has recently been downgraded both from the status of “liberal democracy” by V-Dem and “free state“ by Freedom House. Little and Meng (2023) highlight three cases where both objective and subjective measures indicate backsliding: Hungary and Poland (as well as Venezuela). Further, Becker (2019) shows that downgrades to V-Dem democracy scores in Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania are relatively broad-based, driven by declines across multiple sub-categories including freedom of expression and constraints on the executive.
Surveys of Public Opinion
We use individual-level data from the Eurobarometer – a survey of public opinion in the EU Member States and candidate countries conducted by the European Commission. The surveys are conducted at an approximately monthly frequency and comprise of a representative sample (about 1000 face-to-face interviews) for each state. We combine data from 42 surveys, spanning 20 years (2002 to 2022), with a total of 1.3 million respondents. The main question we are interested in is: “On the whole are you very satisfied, rather satisfied, not very satisfied or not at all satisfied with the way democracy works in [our country]?”
At the beginning of the sample period in 2002, around a third of respondents in Eastern European EU countries were satisfied with their respective democracies compared to close to twice as many respondents in Western Europe (Figure 1). Over the past 20 years, the share of Eastern Europeans satisfied with their democracy has grown to around 50 percent, narrowing the gap with Western Europe. Figure 2 shows that this pattern is broad based across age groups. All cohorts of Eastern Europeans are more satisfied with democracy than earlier generations and among the youngest respondents, satisfaction is almost as high as in Western Europe.
Figure 1. Satisfaction with Democracy vs V-Dem Score.
Figure 2. Satisfaction with Democracy by Age Group.
Figure 1 also shows a stark divergence in expert assessment of the state of democracy in Eastern Europe compared to public opinion in the same countries. While the V-Dem democracy scores for Eastern Europe have declined rapidly since the mid-2010s, average satisfaction with the own country’s democracy has increased. A much smaller gap between these two measures has also started to open up in Western Europe over the past couple of years.
In Figure 3, we show the same patterns of satisfaction with democracy and expert opinions for individual countries. Satisfaction with one’s own democracy has increased in almost all Eastern European countries, including in Poland and Hungary which at the same time showed the largest declines in democracy scores.
Figure 3. Satisfaction with Democracy vs V-Dem Score by Country.
This divergence in individual survey responses and expert assessments is not altogether surprising. First, the Eurobarometer surveys a sample of the population in each country, while V-Dem (and most other similar democracy indices) relies on country experts. Another likely explanation for the difference is the interpretation of the question. Democracy ratings tend to emphasise institutional aspects of a democracy, for instance, the V-Dem liberal democracy index is designed to capture rule of law and checks on executive power (see, e.g., Becker, 2019). In contrast, the survey responses are likely to reflect both satisfaction with the state of democracy in a country, as well as the outcomes of that democracy.
Satisfaction with Democracy and Political Alignment
In this section, we investigate whether stated satisfaction with democracy depends on the outcomes of elections and the political ideology of the respondents. A common way of measuring political ideology is the placement on a right-left scale, where the right favours a free-market economy and traditional values while the left favours economic redistribution and socially progressive policies. We compare the right-left placement of each country’s governing party as coded by the Chapel Hill Expert Survey (CHES), with the self-identified right-left placement of Eurobarometer respondents. We calculate the ideological distance from the government as the absolute difference between these two scores.
Figure 4. Relationship Between Ideological Distance from Government and Satisfaction with Democracy.
We find that people are on average less satisfied with their country’s democracy when they are ideologically further from the parties in government (Figure 4). This is consistent with prior evidence (Anderson and Guillory, 1997; Ezrow and Xezonakis, 2011). The alignment effect has become stronger over time – even when taking into account average satisfaction levels for each country and demographic characteristics of the respondents, such as their age and gender. In the past three years, political alignment with the government has become a major factor in explaining satisfaction with democracy, especially in Eastern Europe. Svolik (2019) suggests that voters trade off democratic principles and partisan interests. As political polarisation increases, voters become more willing to accept a government that undermines democratic institutions, as long as it is on ‘their side’ ideologically.
Figure 5. Satisfaction with Democracy and Political Ideology. Western Europe in the Left Panel and Eastern Europe in the Right Panel.
In Figure 5, we break down the effect of political alignment on satisfaction with democracy according to individuals’ political leanings. On the x-axis is the respondents’ left-right placement and on the y-axis there are two series of dots showing satisfaction with democracy depending on whether the government is left of centre (lighter coloured dots) or right of centre (darker coloured dots). As before, being politically aligned with the government increases satisfaction, that is, to the left of the chart, the lighter coloured dots are placed higher than the darker coloured dots and vice versa for the right of the chart. The further from centre a person’s political leanings, the less satisfied they are with a government of the opposite ideology. There is also some evidence of asymmetry across the political spectrum in Eastern Europe, with respondents on the political right reporting much higher levels of satisfaction with right-wing governments compared to voters on the left under a left-wing government.
Over the past decade, there has been increasing concern over democratic backsliding in some of the Eastern European countries that are members of the EU. This is reflected in commonly used democracy indices whose country experts note the worrying trends in countries’ institutions – such as the reduction of freedom of expression, the strengthening of rule of law and constraints on the executive, all hallmarks of a liberal democracy. In this policy brief, we investigate whether this erosion of institutional safeguards affects people’s stated satisfaction with democracy in one’s respective country. We find a broad-based increase in satisfaction with democracy in the Eastern European EU countries, including in the countries that have seen some of the largest declines in liberal democracy ratings. We show that stated satisfaction with democracy reflects less the institutional changes in countries, but more the outcome of democratic elections. Voters who are politically aligned with their government are systematically more likely to report that they are satisfied with the state of democracy in their country. And this effect has become stronger in the most recent years, particularly in the Eastern European EU countries. We also find that this effect is not symmetric across the political spectrum. In the Eastern European EU countries, respondents on the political right are more satisfied with right-wing governments than those on the left are with left-wing governments.
The descriptive patterns outlined in this policy brief illustrate a worrying disconnect in the minds of many voters between institutions and outcomes of the democratic process. The threat of democratic backsliding in Europe and across the globe is predominantly not due to electoral democracies being replaced by autocratic regimes. Rather, genuinely popular (and often populist) governments are democratically elected and, once in power, proceed to undermine and dismantle liberal democratic institutions, such as a free press, an independent judiciary, and a fair electoral system. This process in turn makes it more difficult for opposition parties to win future elections, further cementing the power of the rulers of these illiberal democracies. While the electorate might support these governments now, voters need to be aware that these liberal institutions are designed to safeguard their democratic future.
- Anderson, C. J. and Guillory, C. A. (1997). Political institutions and satisfaction with democracy: A cross-national analysis of consensus and majoritarian systems. American Political Science Review, 91(1), pp.66-81.
- Becker, T. (2019). Liberal Democracy in Transition – The First 30 Years. FREE Policy Brief.
- Chiopris, C., Nalepa, M. and Vanberg, G. (2021). A wolf in sheep’s clothing: Citizen uncertainty and democratic backsliding. Working Paper.
- Döring, H., Huber, C. and Manow, P. (2022). ParlGov 2022 Release. Harvard Dataverse. https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/UKILBE
- Eurobarometer (multiple waves: 2002-2022), European Commission. Brussels
- Ezrow, L. and Xezonakis, G. (2011). Citizen satisfaction with democracy and parties’ policy offerings. Comparative Political Studies, 44(9), pp.1152-1178.
- Grillo, E. and Prato, C. (2023). Reference points and democratic backsliding. American Journal of Political Science, 67(1), pp.71-88.
- Little, A. and Meng, A. (2023). Subjective and Objective Measurement of Democratic Backsliding. Available at SSRN 4327307.
- Lueders, H. and Lust, E. (2018). Multiple measurements, elusive agreement, and unstable outcomes in the study of regime change. The Journal of Politics, 80(2), pp.736-741.
- Mechkova, V., Luhrmann, A. and Lindberg, S. I. (2017). How much democratic backsliding?. Journal of. Democracy, 28, pp.162-169.
- Svolik, M. W. (2019). Polarization versus democracy. Journal of Democracy, 30(3), pp.20-32.
- Treisman, D. (2023). How great is the current danger to democracy? assessing the risk with historical data. Comparative Political Studies, https://doi.org/10.1177/00104140231168363.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.
In many parts of Eastern Europe, the transition towards stronger political institutions and democratic deepening has been slow and uneven. Weak political checks and balances, corruption and authoritarianism have threatened democracy, economic and social development and adversely impacted peace and stability in Europe at large. This policy brief summarizes the insights from Development Day 2019, a full-day conference organized by SITE at the Stockholm School of Economics on November 12th. The presentations were centred around the current political and business climate in the Eastern European region, throwing light on new developments in the past few years, strides towards and away from democracy, and the challenges as well as possible policy solutions emanating from those.
The State of Democracy in the Region
From a regional perspective, Eastern Europe has seen mixed democratic success over the years with hybrid systems that combine some elements of democracy and autocracy. Based on the V-Dem liberal democracy index, ten transition countries that have joined the EU saw rapid early progress after transition. In comparison, the democratic development in twelve nations of the FSU still outside of the EU has been largely stagnant.
In recent years, however, democracy in some of those EU countries, such as Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Romania have been in decline. Poland, one of the region’s top performers in terms of GDP growth and life expectancy, has experienced a sharp decline in democracy since 2015. Backlashes have often occurred after elections in which corruption and economic mismanagement have led to the downfall of incumbent governments and a general distrust of the political system. Together with low voter turnout, this created fertile ground for more autocratic forces to gain power helped by demand for strong leadership.
An example from Ukraine illustrated the role of media, both traditional and social, for policy-making. In some countries of the region, traditional media is strictly state-controlled with obvious concerns for democracy. This is less the case in Ukraine, where also social media plays an important role in forming political opinions. The concern is that, as elsewhere, opinions that gain traction on social media may not be impartial or well informed, affecting public perception about policy-making. A recent case showing the popular reaction to an attack on the former governor of the Central Bank suggests that those implementing important reforms may not get due credit when biased and partial information dominates the political discourse on social media.
Another case is the South Caucasian region: Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. The political situation there has been characterized as a “government by day, government by night” dichotomy, implying that the real political power largely lies outside the official political institutions. In Georgia, the situation can be described as a competition between autocracy and democracy, with a feudalistic system in which powerful groups replace one another across time. As a result, trust in political institutions is low, as well as citizens’ political participation.
In the case of Azerbaijan, there is an elected presidency, but in reality, power has been passed on hereditarily, becoming a de facto patrimonial system. Lastly, in Armenia, the new government possesses democratic credentials, but the tensions with neighbouring Azerbaijan and Turkey have given increasing power to the military and important economic powers. Overall, democratisation in these countries has been hindered by a trend for powerful politicians to form parties around themselves and to retain power after the end of their mandates. Also, the historical focus on nation-building in these countries has led to a marked exclusion of minorities and a conflict of national identities.
The last country case in this part of the conference focused on the current political situation in Russia and on the likely outcomes after 2024. The social framework in Russia appears constellated by fears – a fear of a world war, of regime tightening and mass repressions, and of lawlessness – all of them on the rise. Similarly, the economy is suffering, in particular from low business activity, somewhat offset by a boost in social payments. Nonetheless, it was argued that it is not economic concerns, but rather political frustration, that has recently led citizens to take to the street. Despite this, survey data shows that trust in Putin is still over 60%, and that most people would vote for him again. However, survey data also points out that the most likely determinant of this trust is the lack of another reference figure, and that citizens are not averse to the idea of political change in itself. Lastly, Putin will most likely retain some political power after 2024, transiting “from father to grandfather of the nation”.
Voices from the civil society in the region also emphasized the importance of a free media and an active civil society to prevent the backsliding of democracy. With examples from Georgia and Ukraine, it was argued that maintaining the independence of the judiciary, as well as the public prosecutor’s office, can go a long way in building credibility both among citizens and the international community. The European Union can leverage the high trust and hopeful attitudes it benefits from in the region to push crucial reforms more strongly. For example, more than 70% of Georgians would vote for joining the EU if a referendum was held on the topic and the European Union is widely regarded as Georgia’s most important foreign supporter.
Weak Institutions and Business Development
The quality of political and legal institutions strongly affects the business environment, in particular with regards to the protection of property rights, rule of law, regulation and corruption. Research from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) highlights that the governance gap between Eastern Europe and Central Asia and most advanced economies is still large, even though progress in this area has actually been faster than for other emerging economies since the mid-‘90s. This is measured through enterprise surveys as well as individual surveys. In Albania, for instance, a perception of lower corruption was linked to a decrease in the intention to emigrate equivalent to earning 400$ more per month. Another point concerned the complexity of measuring the business environment and the benefits of firm-level surveys asking firms directly about their own actual experience of regular enforcement. For example, in countries such as Poland, Latvia and Romania the actual experience of business regulation measured via the EBRD’s Business Environment Enterprise Performance Survey, is far worse than one would expect from the World Bank’s well known Doing Business rating.
From the perspective of Swedish firms, trade between Sweden and the region has remained rather flat in the past years, as the complexity and risks of these markets especially discourage SMEs. Business Sweden explained that Swedish firms considering an expansion in these markets are concerned with issues of exchange rate stability, and the institutional-driven presence of unfair competition and of excessive bureaucracy. Moreover, inadequate infrastructure and the presence of bribery and corruption make everyday business operations risky and costly. It was generally emphasized that countries have to create a safe investment environment by reducing corruption, establishing a clear and well enacted regulatory environment, having dependable courts and strengthening domestic resource mobilization. Swedish aid can play a part, but there is a need to develop new ways of delivering aid to make it more effective.
An interesting example is Belarus, that has seen more economic and political stability than most neighbours, but at the same time a lack of both economic and political reforms towards market economy and democracy. Gradually the preference towards private ownership, as opposed to public, has increased in recent years and the country has seen a rising share of the private sector, even without specific privatization reforms. Nonetheless, international businesses are still reluctant to invest due to high taxes, a lack of access to finance as well as to a qualified workforce, but most importantly due to the weak legal system. An exception has been China, and Belarus has looked at the One Belt One Road Initiative as a promising bridge to the EU. Scandals connected with the two main Chinese-invested projects have damped the enthusiasm recently, though.
The economic and political risks of extensively relying on badly diversified energy sources, as is the case with natural gas imports from Russia in many transition states were also discussed. It was shown how some countries such as Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania have improved their energy security by either benefitting from reverse-flow technology and the EU’s bargaining power or building their own LNG terminals to diversify supply sources. However, either of these, as well as other energy security improving solutions are likely to come with an economic cost, though, that not all countries in the region can afford.
A Government Perspective
The main focus of this section was the Swedish government’s new inspiring foreign policy initiative, “Drive for Democracy”. Drawing from a definition of democracy by Kerstin Hesselgren, an early Swedish female parliamentarian, democracy enables countries to realize and utilize the forces of the individual and draw them into a life-giving, value-creating society. It was emphasized that the values of democracy are objectives by themselves (e.g. freedom of expression, respect for human rights) but also that democracy has important positive effects in other areas of human welfare. The Swedish government views democracy as the best foundation for a sustainable society, equality of opportunity and absence of gender or racial bias.
The “Drive for Democracy” specifically identifies Eastern Europe as one of the main frontiers between democracy and autocracy, and the Swedish government promotes human rights and stability through various bilateral programmes through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Sida, and multilateral initiatives within the EU, such as the Eastern Partnership. It was also emphasized that democracy is a continuous process that can always be improved, as indeed experienced by Sweden. Political rights were granted to women only in 1919 followed by convicts and prisoners in 1933 and to the Roma people only in 1950. Political and democratic rights are thus never once and for all given, and it is crucial that the dividends from democracy are carried forward to the younger generation.
In sum, the day illustrated clearly how democracy engages all segments of society, from the business sector to civil society, and the potential for but also challenges involved for democratic deepening in Eastern Europe. To get more information about the presentations during the day, please visit our website.
Participants at the Conference
- PER OLSSON FRIDH, State Secretary, Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
- ALEXANDER PLEKHANOV, Director for Transition Impact and Global Economics at EBRD.
- TORBJÖRN BECKER, Director, SITE.
- CHLOÉ LE COQ, Associate Professor, SITE and Professor of Economics, University of Paris II Panthéon-Assas.
- THOMAS DE WAAL, Senior Fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
- NATALIIA SHAPOVAL, Vice President for Policy Research at Kyiv School of Economics.
- ILONA SOLOGUB, Scientific Editor at VoxUkraine and Director for Policy Research at Kyiv School of Economics.
- KETEVAN VASHAKIDZE, President at Europe Foundation, Georgia.
- MARIA BISTER, Senior Policy Specialist, Sida.
- HENRIK NORBERG, Deputy Director, Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
- YLVA BERG, CEO and President, Business Sweden.
- LARS ANELL, Ambassador and formerly Volvo’s Senior Vice President.
- ERIK BERGLÖF, Professor in Practice and Director of the Institute of Global Affairs, London School of Economics and Political Science.
- KATERYNA BORNUKOVA, Academic Director, BEROC, Minsk.
- ANDREI KOLESNIKOV, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Moscow Center.
This year marks 30 years since the first post-communist election in Poland and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Key events that started a dramatic transition process from totalitarian regimes towards liberal democracy in many countries. This brief presents stylized facts from this process together with some thoughts on how to get this process back on a positive track. In general, the transition countries that joined the EU are still far ahead of the other transition countries in terms of democratic development.
The recent decline in democratic indicators in some EU countries should be taken seriously as they involve reducing freedom of expression and removing constraints on the executive, but should also be discussed in light of the significant progress transition countries entering the EU have shown during the first 30 years of transition. The brief shows that changes in a democracy can happen fast and most often happen around elections, so getting voters engaged in the democratic process is crucially important. This requires politicians that engage the electorate and have an interest in preserving democratic institutions. An important question in the region is what the EU can do to promote this, given its overloaded political agenda. Perhaps it is time for a Greta for democracy to wake up the young and shake up the old.
This brief provides an overview of political developments in transition countries since the first post-communist elections in Poland and the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago. It focuses on establishing stylized facts based on quantitative indices of democracy for a large set of transition countries rather than providing in-depth studies of a small number of countries. The aim of the brief is thus to find common patterns across countries that can inform today’s policy discussion on democracy in the region and inspire future studies of the forces driving democracy in individual transition countries.
The first issue to address is what data to use to establish stylized facts of democratic development in the region. By now, there are several interesting indicators that describe various aspects of democratic development, which are produced by different organizations, academic institutions and private data providers. In this brief, three commonly used and well-respected data providers will be compared in the initial section before we zoom in on more specific factors that make up one of these indices.
The big picture
The three indicators that we look at first are: political rights produced by Freedom House; polity 2 produced by the Polity IV project; and the liberal democracy index produced by the V-Dem project. Figures 1-3 show the unweighted average of these indicators for two groups of countries. The EU10 are the transition countries that became EU members in 2004 and 2007 and include Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. The second group, FSU12, are the 12 countries that came out of the Soviet Union minus the three Baltic countries in the EU10 group, so the FSU12 group consists of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.
Figure 1. Freedom House
Source: Freedom House and author’s calculations
Note: Scale inverted, 1 is best and 7 worst score
Figure 2. Polity IV project
Source: Polity IV project and author’s calculations
Note: Scale from -10 (fully autocratic) to 10 (fully democratic)
Figure 3. V-Dem
Source: V-Dem project and author’s calculations
Note: Scale from 0 to 1 where higher is more democratic
All three indicators convey the message that the democratic transformation in the EU10 group was very rapid in the early years of transition and the indicators have remained at high levels since the mid-90s only to show some decline in the most recent years for two of the three indicators. The FSU12 set of countries have made much less progress in terms of democratic development and remain far behind the EU10 countries in this regard. Overall, there is little evidence at the aggregate level that the democratic gap between the EU10 and FSU12 groups is closing. While the average EU10 country is more or less a full-fledged democracy, the average FSU12 country is at the lower end of the spectrum for all three democracy measures.
The average indicators in Figures 1-3 obviously hide some interesting developments in individual countries and in the following analysis, we will take a closer look at the liberal democracy index at the country level. We will then investigate what sub-indices contribute to changes in the aggregate index in the countries that have experienced significant declines in their liberal democracy scores.
For the first part of the analysis, it is useful to break down the democratic development in two phases. The first phase is from the onset of transition (1989, 1991 or 1993 depending on the specific country) to the time of the global financial crisis in 2009 and the second phase is from 2009 to 2018 (the last data point).
Figure 4. Liberal democracy, the first phase
Source: V-Dem project and author’s calculations
Figures 4 and 5 compare how the liberal democracy indicator changes from the first year of the period (measured on the horizontal axis) to the last year of the period (on the vertical axis). The smaller blue dots are the individual countries that make up the EU10 group while the red dots are the FSU12 countries. The 45-degree line indicates when there is no change between start and end years, while observations that lie below (above) the line indicate a deterioration (improvement) of the liberal democracy index in a specific country.
In the first phase of transition (Figure 4), all of the EU10 countries increased their liberal democracy scores and the average increase for the group was almost 0.5, going from 0.26 to 0.74. This was a result of many of the countries in the group making significant improvements without any countries deteriorating. The FSU12 group had a very different development with the average not changing at all since the few countries that improved (Georgia and Ukraine) were counterbalanced by a significant decline in Belarus and a more modest decline in Armenia.
Figure 5. Liberal democracy, the second phase
Source: V-Dem project and author’s calculations
The very rapid improvement in the liberal democracy index in the EU10 countries in the first phase of transition came to a halt and also reversed in several countries in the second phase of transition. Of course, as they had improved so much in the first period, there was less room for further positive developments, but the rapid decline in some of the countries was still negative news. However, it does point towards that reform momentum was very strong in the EU accession process, but once a country had entered the union, the pressure for liberal democratic reforms has faded.
Overall, the EU10 average fell by 0.1 from 2009 to 2018. This was a result of declining scores in several countries. The particularly large declines in this period have been seen in Hungary (-0.28), Poland (-0.27), Bulgaria (-0.14), the Czech Republic (-0.14), and Romania (-0.12). Again, the average FSU12 score did not change much, although Ukraine (-0.2) put its early success in reverse and lost as much in this period as it had gained earlier.
Since much of the current discussion centers on how democracy is being under attack, the figures name the countries that have seen significant declines in the liberal democracy score in the first or second phase of transition. Figures 6 and 7 show the time-series of the liberal democracy index in the countries with significant drops at some stage of the transition process.
Figure 6. FSU12 decliners
Source: V-Dem project and author’s calculations
In many countries, the drop comes suddenly and sharply, with the first and most prominent example being Belarus. There, it only took three years to go from one of the highest ranked FSU12 countries to fall to one of the lowest liberal democracy scores. In Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and Armenia, the process was also very rapid and significant changes happened in 2-3 years.
Figure 7. EU10 decliners
Source: V-Dem project and author’s calculations
In the Czech Republic and Hungary, the period of decline was much longer and in the case of Hungary, the drop was the most significant in the EU10 group. Ukraine stands out as more of an exception with a roller-coaster development in its liberal democracy score that first took it up the list and then back down to where it started. For those familiar with politics in these countries, it is easy to identify the elections and change in government that have occurred at the times the index has started to fall in all of these countries. In other words, the democratic declines have not started with coups but followed election outcomes where in most cases the incumbent leaders have been replaced by a new person or party.
How democracy came under attack
We will now take a closer look at what has been behind the instances of decline in the aggregate index by investigating how the sub-indices have developed in these countries. The sub-indices that build up the liberal democracy index are: freedom of expression and alternative sources of information; freedom of association; share of population with suffrage; clean elections; elected officials; equality before the law and individual liberty; judicial constraints on the executive; and legislative constraints on the executive (the structure is a bit more complex with mid-level indices, see V-Dem 2019a).
Table 1 shows how these indicators have changed in the time period the liberal democracy indicator has fallen significantly (with shorter versions of the longer names listed above but in the same order). The heat map of decline indicated by the different colours is constructed such that positive changes are marked with green, smaller declines are without colour, declines greater that 0.1 but smaller than 0.2 are in yellow and larger declines in red. Note that the liberal democracy index is not an average of the sub-indices but based on a more sophisticated aggregation technique (see V-Dem 2019b). Therefore, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria can have a greater fall in top-level liberal democracy index that what is indicated by the sub-indices.
Table 1. Changes in liberal democracy indicators at times of democratic decline
Source: V-Dem project and author’s calculations
For the countries with the largest changes in the liberal democracy index, it is clear that both freedom of expression and alternative sources of information have come under attack together with reduced judicial and legislative constraints on the executive. Among the EU10 countries, Hungary and Poland stand out in terms of reducing freedom of expression, while Romania has seen most of the decline coming from reducing constraints on the executive. Not surprisingly, Belarus stands out in terms of the overall decline in liberal democracy coming from reducing both freedom of expression and constraints on the executive in the most significant way.
On a more general level, the attack on democracy does differ between the countries, but in the cases where serious declines can be seen, the attack has been particularly focused on information aspects and constraints on the executive. At the same time, all countries let all people vote (suffrage always at 1) and let the one with the most votes get the job (elected officials).
This brief has provided some stylized facts on the first 30 years of liberal democracy in transition and some details on how democracy has come under attack in individual countries. It leaves open many questions that require further studies and some of these are indeed ongoing in this project and will be presented in future briefs and policy papers here.
Some observations have already been made here that can inform policy discussions on liberal democratic developments in the region. The first is that changes can happen very rapidly, both in terms of improvements but also in terms of dismantling important democratic institutions, including those that provide constraints on the executive or media that provides unbiased coverage before and after elections. What is also noteworthy is that these changes have almost always happened after an election where a new person or party has come to power, so the democratic system is used to introduce less democracy in this sense.
It is also interesting that in all of the countries, the most easily observed indicators of democracy such as suffrage and having the chief executive or legislature being appointed by elections are given the highest possible scores. In other words, even the most autocratic regime wants to look like a democracy; but as the old saying goes, “it is not who votes that is important, it is who counts”.
The regime changes at election times that have led to declining liberal democracy scores have also in many cases come as a result of the incumbents not doing a great job or voters not turning up to vote. It was enough for Lukashenko in Belarus to promise to deal with corruption and rampant inflation that was a result of the old guard’s mismanagement to turn Belarus into an autocracy. In Hungary, the change of regime came after the Socialist leader was caught on tape saying he had been lying to voters. While in Romania, only 39% voted in the 2016 election. And in Bulgaria, around half of the voters stayed at home in the presidential election the same year.
In sum, both incompetent and corrupt past leaders and disengaged or disillusioned voters are part of the decline in a liberal democracy that we have seen in recent years. It is clearly time for policy makers that are interested in preserving liberal democracy in the region and elsewhere to think hard about how democracy can be saved from illiberal democrats. Part of the answer clearly will have to do with how voters can be engaged in the democratic process and take part in elections. It also involves defending free independent media and the thinkers and doers that contribute to the liberal democracy that we cherish. The question is if the young generation will find a Greta for democracy that can kick-start a new transition to liberal democracy in the region and around the world.
For those readers that want to participate more actively in this discussion and have a chance to be in Stockholm on November 12, SITE is organizing a conference on this theme which is open to the public. For more information on the conference, please visit SITE’s website (see here).
- Freedom house data downloaded on Oct 4, 2019, from https://freedomhouse.org/content/freedom-world-data-and-resources
- Freedom house methodological note available at https://freedomhouse.org/report/methodology-freedom-world-2018
- Polity IV project data downloaded on Oct 4, 2019, from http://www.systemicpeace.org/inscrdata.html
- Polity IV project manual available at http://www.systemicpeace.org/inscr/p4manualv2018.pdf
- V-Dem project data downloaded on Sept 24, 2019, from https://www.v-dem.net/en/data/data-version-9/
- Coppedge, Michael, John Gerring, Carl Henrik Knutsen, Staffan I. Lindberg, Jan Teorell, David Altman, Michael Bernhard, M. Steven Fish, Adam Glynn, Allen Hicken, Anna Lührmann, Kyle L. Marquardt, Kelly McMann, Pamela Paxton, Daniel Pemstein, Brigitte Seim, Rachel Sigman, Svend-Erik Skaaning, Jeffrey Staton, Steven Wilson, Agnes Cornell, Lisa Gastaldi, Haakon Gjerløw, Nina Ilchenko, Joshua Krusell, Laura Maxwell, Valeriya Mechkova, Juraj Medzihorsky, Josefine Pernes, Johannes von Römer, Natalia Stepanova, Aksel Sundström, Eitan Tzelgov, Yi-ting Wang, Tore Wig, and Daniel Ziblatt. 2019a. “V-Dem [Country-Year/Country-Date] Dataset v9”, Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem)
- Pemstein, Daniel, Kyle L. Marquardt, Eitan Tzelgov, Yi-ting Wang, Juraj Medzihorsky, Joshua Krusell, Farhad Miri, and Johannes von Römer. 2019b. “The V-Dem Measurement Model: Latent Variable Analysis for Cross-National and Cross-Temporal Expert-Coded Data”, V-Dem Working Paper No. 21. 4th edition. University of Gothenburg: Varieties of Democracy Institute.