“Polarization and Democratic Decay in Central Europe”
(Lenka Bustikova and Petra Guasti)
Is polarization a cause or a consequence of democratic backsliding? We ask whether polarization precedes democratic decay or whether polarization accelerates after the initial steps were taken to dismantle liberal democracy. On October 19, 2017, a 54-year old chemist set himself on fire in Warsaw to protest the dismantling of democracy in Poland. Piotr Szczęsny died from his injuries ten days later. His death symbolizes the decay of the democratic order in the so-called Visegrad Four (V4)—the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia—the symptoms of which include declining trust in democratic institutions, emboldened uncivil society, the rise of oligarchs and populists as political leaders, assaults on an independent judiciary, the colonization of public administration by political proxies, increased governmental control over media, civic apathy and nationalistic contestation. These processes signal that the liberal-democratic project in these polities has been stalled, diverted or reversed.
We investigate two conditions that contribute to democratic decay: executive aggrandizement and contestation of sovereignty. Our primary objective is to untangle whether attempts to expand executive powers (and subsequent weakening of democratic structures) precede cultural (non-economic) polarization. Is polarization is reactive and fabricated by entrepreneurial elites? Alternatively, polarization creates an opening for illiberal political entrepreneurs and ‘causes' decay. Aggrandizement refers to an increase in the concentration of political power (Bermeo, 2016). It undermines the constitutional order and reduces checks and balances. Unresolved sovereignty leads to polarization. If sovereignty becomes contested, often with the help of populist appeals, ethnic, religious and social minorities can face exclusion from the sovereign, which limits pluralism. When sovereignty becomes contested, support for radical right parties often follows. An illiberal swerve cannot be accomplished without access to power, which is limited for most niche parties. Radicalized mainstream parties, on the contrary, are in a prime position to combine exclusionary identity politics with executive aggrandizement. However, if mainstream parties are perceived as having betrayed the sovereign, new, niche parties gain support. This implosion manifests itself in a decrease in support for existing political parties and the emergence of new, populist parties (e.g., ANO 2011, SMER). Attempts to concentrate power are not new to the V4 region. In Slovakia, Mečiar’s attempt at establishing a nationalist, centralized and illiberal political system failed. In the Czech Republic, one episode of a failed power grab is particularly important: the Opposition Agreement of 1998, an attempt by two major parties to strengthen the majoritarian character of the Czech polity. This gambit failed due to political opposition and the Constitutional Court (2000). Similarly, Constitutional Tribunal blocked the first PiS-led government’s illiberal swerving in Poland (2005–2007). All four V4 political leaders (Babiš and Kaczyński) and Prime Ministers (Fico and Orban) differ in the degree to which they embrace executive aggrandizement and emphasize sovereignty. Orban and his party FIDESZ have been able to concentrate power gradually over the past seven years, and have successfully reshaped the Hungarian polity. Orban’s playbook has provided a blueprint for the other V4 countries, particularly for Poland. While the governments of Poland and Hungary share a similar desire for a power grab, Kaczyński is an ideologue aligned with the church, whereas Orban is a corrupt ideological entrepreneur aligned with oligarchs. The project is based on a variety of publicly available data sources: public statements, public opinion surveys, datasets on party positions and parliamentary transcripts and original data collection of political statements that relate to sovereignty issues in V4 countries.