Populism’s false promise could ‘reinvigorate liberal democracy’


The resurgence of populism has disrupted the post-Cold War political order and raised the prospect of instability in Europe and Eurasia, according to Nations in Transit 2017, the 22nd edition of Freedom House’s annual report on democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Eurasia.

“A critical mass of leaders in the region openly reject the idea of liberal democracy. Populism increasingly is combining with crude ethnic nationalism in a way that threatens peace in Europe,” said Nate Schenkkan, project director of Nations in Transit.

“Leaders and ordinary citizens should respond to the direct challenge to democracy by speaking up for its basic principles: diversity of opinion and identity, constraints on the will of the majority, and checks on executive power,” he added.

Populists’ stunning electoral victories in Europe and the United States have shaken the post–Cold War order in Europe and Eurasia, but they could ultimately reinvigorate liberal democracy, Schenkkan suggests:

In the democracies of the Nations in Transit region, populism has seized on deep frustrations with the European Union and the post–Cold War socioeconomic model, capitalizing on fears of eroding identity, economic insecurity, and inequality. Nations in Transit’s research shows that de-democratization is possible. The populist moment should be taken as a call to shake off the dangerous assumption that progress is inevitable, and to appreciate the constant work that is required to create and sustain an inclusive civic nationalism in a diverse society—or societies, in the case of the EU. The only thing that will preserve democracy is people who believe in it, and act on their beliefs.


  • In 2017, more than half of the 29 countries in the report had declines in their Democracy Scores: 18 countries’ scores dropped. This is the second biggest decline in the survey’s history, almost as large as the drop following the 2008 global financial crisis.
  • For the first time since 1995, there are now more Consolidated Authoritarian Regimes than Consolidated Democracies.
  • Hungary now has the lowest ranking in the Central European region. Poland’s score reached its lowest point in the survey. In these countries, populist leaders have attacked constitutional courts, undermined checks and balances, and have turned public media into propaganda arms.
  • Kyrgyzstan fell back in to the category of Consolidated Authoritarian Regimes, a category it had left after competitive parliamentary elections in 2011.
  • The bright spots in NIT 2017 were Ukraine, Romania, and Kosovo. Ukraine and Kosovo made modest gains due to gradual structural reforms, and Kosovo’s category improved to Transitional/Hybrid Regime. In Romania, a caretaker government addressed a number of outstanding issues, such as problems in the voting process during the previous elections.


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