Why illiberal democracies?


The rise of illiberal democracy in Central Europe is at least partly due to incomplete or inadequate democratic transitions from Communist rule, Le Monde’s Sylvie Kaufmann writes for The New York Times:

The effort to transform the economy was so demanding for the new democratic elites that little attention was paid to nurturing a new political culture. Modern Hungarian and Polish politics look riven with the legacy of Communism, trouble with sharing power, conspiracy theories and exclusionary discourse toward opponents.

Another, overlooked, factor is that most people in these countries are still poor. Despite nonstop economic growth since 1992, Poland’s gross domestic product is only 68 percent of the European Union’s per capita average. When Poland’s foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, says the world should not move in one single direction — “toward a new mix of cultures and races, a world of cyclists and vegetarians” — he is rejecting the progressive social values perceived as part of the Western European economic model.

In Central Europe, in a dark mirroring of EU democracy promotion efforts in the ex-USSR, Russian intelligence is seed funding the far-right underground, notes analyst Ben Judah.

The way these leaders practice democracy, bending the rule of law as far as they can within an elected government, is equally unsettling to the older democracies of Western Europe. Another French political scientist, the Czech-born Jacques Rupnik [a regular contributor to the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy], has identified two converging trends, Kaufmann adds:

“We are witnessing a democratic regression and identity-related tensions on migration, and both phenomena are strengthening each other,”’ he told me. “The same nationalist conservative authoritarianism at work in domestic politics also applies to the response to the refugee crisis, notably different from the European Commission’s and most other member states’ responses.”…

The Romanian-born French political scientist Pierre Hassner has reminded us of the concept of “collective neurosis,” a notion devised by the Hungarian philosopher Istvan Bibo in his 1946 book “The Misery of the Small Eastern European States.” Bibo described the existential angst of Eastern and Central European states leading sometimes to “political hysteria.”


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