Democratic Downturn in Europe: Closer than We Could Imagine?

Estimated Reading Time: 8 minutes

 

“Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” 

When we hear the word “democracy”, the very first thing to cross our mind might be the famous Churchill quote above.

Over the past century, peoples have fought wars and sparked revolutions just for the belief that defining your own life and future is much better than getting dictated to by rulers. Now, when democracy finally has a foothold in the world, some might seem to have remembered only the “the worst form of government’’ part of the quote and surely forgotten “except for those that have been tried”.

In this article, I will point out and scrutinise a few (ostensibly) democratic countries, whose policies display their stepping-back from the core principles of democracy and even their switch toward authoritarianism.

 

Belarus: Lukashenko’s regime

 

This country resides in clear first position within the theme explored by this article, as it is a vivid example of a swift transition from fragile democracy to pure authoritarianism. 

We witnessed the point of no-return for the country in 2020 when full-blown protests raged on Minsk streets, which concluded with mass illegal imprisonments and another “election” in Lukasheko’s favour. 

However, the democratic turndown here dates back to the dawn of the 20th century when Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin tied their countries closely to one another - confirming their mutual goals on common currency, defence, and natural resources extraction not long after Belarus had managed to free itself from Russia’s totalitarian grasp. None of the so-called “democratic” elections in Belarus have been recognised as free either by the opposition or by observers. Those who dared to speak out against the regime were persecuted and imprisoned or have been forced into exile. Every unfavourable mass media source at Lukashenko and his accomplices’ arm’s length has been brought down. The status quo for the country remains the same: Belarus remains a puppet in the hands of the Kremlin and poses a big threat to Europe’s security as a potential launchpad for Russian boots  to advance into Poland or the Baltics. 

The Belarusian regime can be considered as a “How to earn the democratic world’s distrust and isolate yourself” manual for beginners. Taking into account that it has already become a case study for most political schools, it is worth  keeping its example in mind, so as to be able to draw comparisons with the following countries’ policies.

 

Hungary: Orban’s playground

 

The first - and probably one of the most important - principles of democracy is a legal change of power secured by a national voting. From this, the red flag which signals democratic decline is power sequestered in the same political figures’ hands. This has become the case in Hungary: Victor Orban has remained in office for over 10 years now, with Fidesz holding a two-thirds parliamentary majority for much of this time.

Hungary, worryingly, has experienced a heavy politicisation of local public administration, which has started serving Fidesz’s goals after most leading positions were filled with cadres. Opponents in the civil service have become  easily and legally dismissable from their positions. 

One more democratic principle that has been undermined in Hungary is freedom of assembly, and the right of workers to strike. Strict regulations on trade unions have been imposed, while the government has sought to discredit the trade unions through campaigning against their most outstanding leaders. 

What is happening in Hungary now might be called a “constitutional coup d’état” accomplished by Viktor Orban to consolidate power. His length of time in office has led Orban to believe that he is in the position to dictate his own rules to every political game. However, Hungary has not completely turned into Orban’s playground - it is still a member of the European Union, which condemns any such deviations from the constitutional rule. In 2018, the European Parliament triggered the Article 7 procedure pursuant to systemic breach of the principles on which the Union was founded in Hungary. The problem was brought up again in 2022 and in 2023, when Orban threatened Europe to ban essential financial aid for Ukraine unless the Union’s cohesion funds that had been frozen for Hungary over rule-of-law shortcomings a year earlier are unblocked. In the end, the deal on financial aid for Ukraine was negotiated in early 2024, as  withheld money was released partially for Hungary with amendments to the initial agreement. Rule of thumb: never appease a totalitarian regime by negotiating its terms. 

However, though Orban is often compared with notorious leaders as Putin or Lukashenko, he is not them. Yet. Despite all the worrisome criteria described above, Hungary still has a chance to revive itself as a democratic country, for which it needs a pinch of pressure from the international community and the will of the people to overthrow Orban and Fidesz’s regime. 

We from our side must encourage them to do so in all the ways possible.

 

Slovakia

 

A newly-emerged problem for  the democratic world has followed right after the latest parliamentary elections in Slovakia in 2023. 

Three of seven elected parties - “Smer” (“Direсtion”), “Hlas” (“Voice”), and the Slovak National Party (SNS) - signed a coalition memorandum in October 2023. Yet, even though the first two are believed to be adherents of social democratic values, the text of the agreement failed to mention such apart from a vague promise of improving living standards - unlike to see fruition, as the latter party - SNS - is right-wing. 

Smer is said to be stepping back from democratic ideals through Robert Fico, its chairman, who has spoken out against sanctioning Russia - the centre of anti-democracy - and lifting military aid to Ukraine. supporting pro-Russian propaganda, leaning on the false belief that Ukraine attacked Russian citizens in Donbas in 2014; opposing immigration and LGBTI+ community rights, and blasting national independent media and non-governmental organisations. 

Similarly to Hungary, Smer loyalists started occupying top offices including ministry portfolios of defence, foreign affairs, and justice. Given  their leader’s pro-Russian and illiberal positions, this may seem an ominous  sign. 

Hlas - the other party to the coalition - is counted on by Fico to secure the parliamentary majority, but appears  reluctant in joining Smer in their ideas. However, media reports suggest that there has been a decrease in Hlas’s electoral support; the number of seats in the national parliament they have taken this year comes third in the electoral rating - with only 27 seats secured against Smer and SNS obtaining 42 and 32 seats respectively. 

It is evident that the Fico-led government will try to pursue policies unfavourable for the EU. Yet, there are certain limitations to Smer’s rule: including the veto power of the sitting Slovak President. On top of that, compared to Hungary’s experience, Fico can hardly enjoy a  parliamentary majority as Smer still depends greatly on its coalition allies. 

All in all, the democratic rule in Slovakia is not likely to fold over soon, despite his ambitions to the contrary. However, it is under  menace and has to be restored in order for the democrats of Europe to breath a sigh of  relief. 

 

Poland

 

Unlike the aforementioned countries, Poland barely shows any sign of a democratic setback. Having reacted unequivocally to Russia’s aggression against bordering Ukraine, Poland has been its partner and ally against the existential threat of democratic rule in Ukraine and the EU. Non-EU countries such as Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine often look up to the Polish experience of fighting off the Soviet and Russian authoritarian and totalitarian influence. However, a few Polish political experts themselves claim that Poland is endangered by a lasting democratic crisis.

The ruling party “Law and Justice” (PiS), headed by Jarosław Kaczynski, is believed to “press the wrong buttons” in foreign policies, says Krzysztof Bledowski, a Polish researcher and a professor. Others add that the party has tamed the constitutional court to protect ministers and justify political actions. Rule of law also suffers from amendments to the Polish criminal code, which include sanctions against corruption and violations of human rights. 

The fine line between the state, the party, and the church is also a Polish uniqueness. Catholic influence here has great importance, though it sometimes leads to various displays of homophobia and gender inequality. Poland is also known for people taking to the streets to protest whenever they feel their human rights are under threat; a highly advantageous fact, if Polish democratic sanctity is to be preserved. 

As the national vote shows, PiS keeps losing the trust of the people. In the Autumn election, it managed to secure a third of the Sejm’s seats: unlike in 2019, in the second-to-last elections, in which PiS was close to the absolute parliamentary majority. 

Such polls might signal that Poles are not ready to put up with potential dismantling of democracy in Poland. 

 

Ukraine

 

A country which has been trying so hard to keep up to the European standards so as to integrate itself as the next  EU member, Ukraine’s democratic experience is worth talking about in the light of the recent tragic events that have taken place there. The Russian aggression has endangered all the democratic progress the country has made in over 30 years of independence. Undoubtedly, Russia remains the biggest menace for the democratic world in general. 

There is more to it, however. Ukraine is still being challenged by a few problems that cause a lot of contradictions in the society. “Servant of the People”, the ruling presidential party, having secured the absolute parliamentary majority in the 2019 election, has tried to pass unfavourable legislations numerous times and is drowning in corruption scandals. Their deputies, hiding behind consistently high trust ratings of Zelenskyy, have accepted bribes, tried to cover their illegally obtained properties, and breached the law by taking a holiday abroad during the war time and neglecting Covid-restrictions.

On the other hand, Servant of the People is one of the two only liberal parties in Ukraine which are members of European liberal unions and pursue ideas for the acceleration of European integration for the country. Moreover, the absolute majority in the national parliament has turned out to be far less effective than initially imagined. Some legislations failed only because of the internal contradictions in the party, which hinder the feared devouring of the parliament by a single political force.

Ukraine’s martial law has suppressed a few democratic principles, portraying Ukraine in a dim light to its allies. However, all these precautions are initially regulated by the country’s constitution, which does define the strengthened authority of state bodies and martial entities. The acting legislation forbids elections and referendums, limits public gatherings, and, of course, includes mandatory recruitment to the armed forces. The paradox of the situation is that these undemocratic limitations have been empowered with a view to protecting the democratic institutions in the future, and defending the citizens and the sovereignty in the short run. 

So, what is the feared democratic turndown? Is it a scary bedtime story or a fast-approaching future? It is said that there is no greater danger than underestimating your enemy. We must take precautions and cherish democracy to ensure that it lasts long and effectively. But keep in mind: barking at the wrong tree will serve no good - it is always better to prevent the danger whilst still possible, and not to fight it when it is already too late. 

That is until a new and better political regime has materialised. 



References:

 

The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) alone. These views do not necessarily reflect those of LYMEC.

 

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