Europe’s Precarious Democracies​

This report is a result of a credited Honors Research Project.


The exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union and the Mediterranean refugee crisis both pose substantial threats to the integrity of the European Union. Yet, the most formidable threat, of all the prominent internal and external challenges to European integration, lies in the erosion of democracy in the Union’s most eastern members. The post-communist governments of East-Central Europe, which joined the EU in 2004, have overseen a steady dismantling of democratic institutions created during the period of accession and democratization. Battling for media time with figures such as Dutch politician Geert Wilders and French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, the backslide of democratic principles in the EU’s eastern bloc has occurred mostly out of the spotlight, but not without condemnation from Brussels. Once thought to be consolidated democracies, countries like Poland and Hungary have diverged towards authoritarianism after the rise of center-right and right-wing parliamentary majorities. Countries under coalitions of center-left governments, such as Czechia and Slovakia, have not been immune to such trends. (Slovenia, a post-communist country which ascended to the EU in 2004, will serve as a control country for this regional examination of democratic backslide.) If these countries continue to defy EU values and laws, they could prevent integration or be removed from the union entirely, setting a dangerous precedent. While the policies of these governments evidently display a backslide in democracy, journalists and scholars cannot agree on the conditions which precipitated it. The future success of the European Union will depend on its ability to not only thwart populism but also reinvigorate the processes of democratization in its recently added members.

Before post-communist countries ascended into the European Union, their governments were required to construct “well-designed formal institutions [to] provide a guarantee against the erosion of democracy”  (Ágh 277). They were also required to become parties to such treaties as International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. One school of thought holds East-Central European democracies have “not been effective in the absence of a vibrant civil society and deeply ingrained democratic norms” (Ágh 277). Sean Hanley, argues in Foreign Policy, liberal democracy has never been deeply rooted in Eastern Europe. Rather, the EU failed to implement “policies aimed at instilling such norms as political equality, individual liberty, and civic tolerance” (Hanley) within the populace. Instead, they opted for the bureaucratic construction of hollow institutions. Hanley argues the backslide of democracy in the region was precipitated by the lack of democratic values among these new European citizens.

Democratic “institutions do not hold up well if they promote norms that too few people believe in” (Hanley) and these societies have “not been able to internalize democratic values” (Pehe). Yet according to others, “right-wing parties were less enthusiastic about making good on promises to uphold liberal norms and instead focused on passing laws that served only their own interests” (Hanley). This lack of a “modern, moderate social conservatism, necessary to form the other half of any functional democracy” (Hanley) was not remedied by the EU. The EU’s failure to ensure sustainable democracy in the eastern region of its bloc did not come because they failed to reach the people but rather they failed to convince the elites, the politicians, of the value of liberal democratic values. The technocratic institutions they constructed became hallow not because the people they served did not believe in them but rather because the people in them did not believe in the values they represented and were constructed to uphold. While some voters prefer nationalism and have picked up on the subtle signaling of illiberal parties, many turned to the parties now dismantling democracy as the only alternative (as they were the major opposition party to the right) to the corruption or economic failings of liberal governments. If the EU had encouraged the formation of pro-democracy center-right parties, like those of Gaullism and the Christian Democrats, this current backslide in democracy could have been avoided.

This project will examine the changes in liberal values and attitudes in four East-Central European countries and one control country since their accession into the European Union (i.e. Poland, Hungary, Czechia, Slovakia, and Slovenia). Furthermore, this project will examine the attitudes and values of the supporters of center-right parties, whose rise to power have precipitated the most egregious and institutional backslides in democracy. The project will seek to determine if the erosion of democracy resulted due to the lack of consolidation of liberal values among politicians of center-right political parties, a majority of voters, or both simultaneously.

Democratic Backslide:

Every year, Freedom House releases a report ranking countries in seven categories, of which five are included in Figure 1. The assimilation of these seven scores of democratic principles provides an overall democracy score. The closer to zero the more liberal a democracy and the higher the rating the more illiberal or authoritarian.

From the period of 2007 to 2016, Hungary’s democratic score saw an over 50 percent increase (see Figure 1a) and continued to worsen between 2015 and 2016. Hungary, under Prime Minster Viktor Orban and his right-wing Fidesz party, has seen a consolidation of political power and an uptick in nationalism (Zalan). While Poland and Czechia both saw improvements in their overall scores, this trend has reversed in Poland over the last few surveys (see Figure 1a). Slovakia and Slovenia experienced an erosion of democracy but not on the scale of Hungary. Recent scores of Slovakia indicate democracy is improving in the country (see Figure 1a).

As part of their accession to the EU, the East-Central European countries were required to create, on paper, strong democratic institutions meant to establish a system of checks and balances within governments. Both Poland and Hungary’s judicial system, which combats corruption and abuses of power, has seen a decline in independence and authority (see Figure 1b). Scores indicate this trend will continue and has spread to other democratic institutions such as national democratic governance and an independent media.

During 2007 to 2016, Czechia was never controlled by a center-right government. It is the only country that appears to be maintaining a trend of improving their overall democracy score. While their civil society and independent media scores have worsened, they have improved in other categories (see Figure 1d, e). A worsening civil society and independent media indicate a population with a lack of political engagement and literacy. Yet even with this apparent erosion of opportunities for individuals to express and be ingrained with liberal values, the independence of their judiciary and their score for national democratic governance have increased (see Figure 1b, c). Indicating, their democratic institutions and therefore democracy remains strong.

Corruption has increased across the board except for in Czechia and continues to rise in Hungary (see Figure 1f). Slovenia, the control country, experienced a worsening of their democracy score, a trend which continues. The decrease in an independent media and an increase in corruption account for the majoirty of their change in score (see Figure 1d, f).

The Freedom House provides no doubt that over the period of 2007 to 2016 East-Central Europe experienced an overall decline in democracy. Countries currently under center-right or right-wing coalitions (Hungary and Poland) are seen to be continuing this trend while countries governed by center-left coalitions (Czechia and Slovakia) have either improved their overall scores or are on the path to do so.

Liberal Values:

According to one school of thought, the backslide seen in democracies of the East-Central European region can be explained by the failure of the EU to instill democratic norms within voters following accession to the union. It is argued that because of this, the democratic institutions the EU did seek to create are hollow and were always destined to fall apart because the values they were built on were not deeply rooted in the populace. The democratic institutions these countries created to satisfy EU authorities are meant to promote the enforcement of their new international obligations and secure their democracies into the future. The respect of gay rights, the willingness to accept immigrants in an open-borders Europe, and the government’s responsibility to limit economic inequality were used as indicators to determine the change in liberal values among the populaces of this region following their ascension into the EU.

The European Social Value Survey is a cross-national survey of attitudes and behaviors in Europe. The survey has been given 7 times, every two years between 2002 and 2014. Data on the attitudes and behavior of citizens of the test countries Poland, Hungary, Czechia, Slovakia and the control country, Slovenia, were obtained from this survey (with Slovakia not surveyed in 2002 and 2014 and Czechia not surveyed in 2006).

The survey shows a percent decrease in the belief the government should intervene in the economy in order to reduce economic inequality. The opposition to such action appears to be strengthening in Poland and Hungary and weakening in Czech and Slovakia, where it is already least deeply held but has seen the most increase since 2002 (see Figure 3a, d). Opposition to gay rights has increased in each country except for Slovakia since 2002. The opposition to the belief gays and lesbians should be able to live as they wish is increasing in Poland and Slovakia but more opposition than supports remains (see Figure 3e). The pro-immigration sentiment of the population was measured by a series of questions which ranked beliefs on and support of certain types of immigration with a 0 to 10 scale. Overall this value has averaged greater opposition in all countries but Poland where it has increased (see Figure 3f). Yet, support for immigration is on the decline in every state in this analysis and all states are likely to soon reach a negative percent change as compared with 2002. This can be seen as a result of the refugee crisis and rise in fears of terrorism. Since their accession to the EU, the citizens of these five countries have not seen a strengthening of liberal values but rather a negative percent change. On average, the countries which have experienced the most democratic backslide, both in score and in other analyses, are continuing to see these values worsen.

Rates of political participation and protest were gathered with a set of yes or no questions (such as have you contacted your political representation in the last 3 months). While political participation, voted in the last election, and political protest have generally decreased since 2002, the trends seem to be reversing in key countries (see Figure 3g, h, i). Political protest in Poland and Hungary is on the rise, adding to the increase in Poland since 2002, but remains the lowest in these countries (see Figure 3i, l). Political participation is on the rise in Poland and Hungary as well but again, on average, the value was lowest in Poland and Hungary. It would appear the backslide of democracy occurred during a period of low political participation and protest but while other countries values continue to decline, Poland and Hungary’s populace appear to be responding to authoritarian tendencies with increased political involvement (see Figure 3k, g, j).

Liberal democratic values such as support for gay rights and political participation have overall declined since 2002 in these five countries. Most notably, illiberal values in Hungary and Poland appear to be increasing to new highs compared to their peers. This is occurring in conjunction with an increase in their low political participation, protesting, and voting which appears to be catching up to the other three countries. Nevertheless, it is clear the EU failed to instill and increase democratic values among the populace of their new eastern members.

Support for Center-Right Parties:

While one school of thought holds democratic backslide results from hollow institutions without the support of deep rooted values in the populace, another argues the center-right parties which emerged after communism and the EU believed would follow in the pro-democratic footsteps of Gaullism and the Christian Democrats seized power with authoritarian intentions. Without an opposition party on the right which believes in democratic principles, democracy is bound to fail no matter the beliefs of the people or the strength of institutions. Now, we will examine if the beliefs of the supporters of center- right parties, whose rise have precipitated the worse erosion of democracy in countries like Poland and Hungary, enjoy the support of voters with liberal values and attitudes.

On an ideological scale, Poland and Hungary have noticeably shifted to the right since 2002 while Czechia and Slovenia have shifted to the left (see Figure 4d). This closely corresponds to the support enjoyed by the center left and center right parties in those countries (see Figure 4b, c). Poland is the most conservative on the spectrum and the support for right parties continues to rise, yet, the percent of voters who identify with a particular party is on the decline after an increase since 2002 (see Figure 4h, a, b). Center-right parties enjoy the most support in Hungary and Poland (see Figure 4f). There is no discoverable trend in the change in support for a particular party. Support for center-right and center-left parties aligns with changes in the countries’ ideological spectrum value (see Figure 4).

Yet, political trust (from a series of questions) and more specifically trust in politicians and parties is decreasing in all countries but Czechia. In Hungary and Poland, trust and trust in politicians had already decreased dramatically, their positive increase in trust of political parties since 2002 appears to be decreasing (see Figure 2a, b, c). Czechia’s trust values will soon pass those of the quickly backsliding democracy of Hungary and have already passed Poland (see Figure 2 d, e, f). Always being historically low, the values for trust in the backsliding, center-right governments of Poland and Hungary appear to be worsening among the populace, an indication of a disdain for the current concentrating of political power by the elite.

Supporters of center-right parties appear to be motivated by economic conservatism rather than social conservatism. Over all the countries and surveys, center-right party supports are 106 % more likely to support gay rights and 109 % more likely to have pro-immigration sentiments than supporters of left-wing parties. They are 87% as likely to support government intervention to reduce economic inequality (see Figure 7). Voters who desire an alternative to center-left economic parties to have no choice but to support center-right parties. These voters are clearly in favor of economic conservatism rather than social conservatism. With center-right parties who do not support democratic norms, supporters’ votes put their countries on the path to authoritarianism, like in Hungary, a path which they do not support.

Individuals who are opposed to the government reducing levels of inequality or who are unemployed are significantly less likely to be satisfied with the state of democracy in their countries (see Figure 6). In fact, changes in satisfaction with democracy and satisfaction with the economy are closely intertwined (see Figure 2 g, f, h, i, j, k). The belief that the government should not reduce economic inequality is also tied to a lower political trust and government satisfaction (see Figure 5).

Clearly, satisfaction with democracy and support for center-right parties is closely tied to satisfaction with the state of the economy and the belief in economic conservatism. Voters of center-right parties do not hold more illiberal values compared to supporters of left-wing parties in these countries. While the average for liberal values is lower than in the rest of the EU, the backslide of democracy precipitated most by the rise of center-right parties is not with a mandate of their voters but rather because of the existence of their authoritative tendencies which the EU allowed to continue.


The EU helped create since eroded democratic institutions in its eastern members. No significant and lasting increase in democratic values occurred in the populaces of these counties since joining the EU. While the new institutions may have been hollowed from this lack of common support, they were dismantled by politicians on the right, which also failed to integrate EU values into their platforms. As the analysis has shown, the ability for right-wing parties to enter into government and erode democratic institutions was not because the people did not believe in democracy or not hold democratic values but rather they had no alternative to a left-wing government whose economic policies, not intention to uphold democratic institutions, they opposed.

In Hungary and Poland, trust and trust in politicians had already decreased dramatically, and their positive increase in trust of political parties appears to be disappearing (see Figure 2a, b, c).The belief that the government should not reduce economic inequality is tied to a lower political trust and government satisfaction (see Figure 5). Political protest in Poland and Hungary is on the rise, adding to the increase in Poland from 2002, but remains the lowest among the five countries (see Figure 3i, l). Political participation is on the rise in Poland and Hungary as well but again, on average, the value was lowest in Poland and Hungary. It would appear the backslide of democracy occurred during a period of low political participation and protest but while the countries libral values are on the decline, Poland, and Hungary’s populace appear to be responding to authoritarian tendencies with increased political involvement (see Figure 3k, g, j).

The EU now must make “smart and well-placed bets on domestic politics” (Hanley) to bring parties, from both ideological poles, to power. When only one side of the aisle supports democracy, the democratic values of the people can be overridden for more immediate economic concerns, a consideration the EU did not strongly take into account.

These specific lessons of Europe’s failed program of institutionalization as a mechanism for democracy building can be applied to improve strategies for democratization around the world.


Works Cited:

Ágh, Attila. “The Decline of Democracy in East-Central Europe.” Problems of Post-Communism 63.5-6 (2016): 277-87. Taylor and Francis Online. Web. 17 Jan. 2017.

“Freedom House.” Countries in Transition (2007-2016): n. pag. Web.

Hanley, Sean, and James Dawson. “Poland Was Never as Democratic as It Looked.” Foreign Policy. N.p., 3 Jan. 2017. Web. 19 Jan. 2017.

“The European Social Survey.” (2002-2015): n. pag. Web.

Zalan, Eszter. “Hungary Is Too Small for Viktor Orban.” Foreign Policy. N.p., 1 Oct. 2016. Web. 19 Jan. 2017.

I would like to thank Dr. William Mishler, Professor in the UA School of Government and Public Policy and my mentor for this project. Without his guidance and help collecting and interpreting this survey data, this project would not have come together.

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  1. Carol Bender · · Reply

    This is an interesting paper and one that I bet Dr. Salim Murad (a Czech political scientist you will be meeting) would be interested in seeing (I suspect he would disagree with some of your assertions and data about the Czech Republic…). I hope you will share this with him this summer….I know he would be interested in talking with you about your observations. Carol


    1. I would love to talk to Dr. Murad and learn more about the political environment in the region firsthand!


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