X Close

SSEES Research Blog

Home

A showcase of research from UCL's School of Slavonic and East European Studies staff and students

Menu

Archive for the 'democracy' Category

Eastern Europe: how to be a pessoptimist

Sean LHanley15 December 2019

Demonstration in Prague

Photo: Martin2035 [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Three decades after the fall of communism, Eastern Europe’s democratic development is seen in increasingly gloomy terms. However, we may need to find a more pragmatic, middle way in assessing the region, argues Seán Hanley.

The region termed Central Europe or Central and Eastern Europe – the body of small and medium-sized states between the former USSR and the established democracies of Western Europe – was once seen as the great success story of post-communist democratisation:  rapid and peaceful political transition in 1989-90; a quick return to economic growth; flawed but functional liberal democracy; relatively rapid integration into the EU; political elites who seemed, whether out of conviction or pragmatism, willing and able to imitate West European political, economic and ideological models – although these were (and are) diverse, ranging from Nordic style welfare capitalism to British-style deregulation and neo-liberalism.

Since mid-2000s, however, the intellectual climate  among both commentators and political scientists the agenda has shifted from one of understanding consolidation, integration and consolidation or remedying the flaws of stable, but weakly performing post-communist democracy to one of deep gloom.

Now, compared to early hopes of the liberal project, the narrative has become a pessimistic one. Of democratic decline or even backsliding toward authoritarianism. The rejection by voters and elites in Central and Eastern Europe of Western European models – and the EU status quo – as too socially and economically political for their traditions and societies. And of constitutional liberalism as constraining the democratic will of the people, or holding back the emergence of a capable modernising state.  Economic catch-up with Western Europe, especially in terms of the living standards of poorer, older, less educated, seems a chimera.

Populist critics now decry the locking in of Central and Eastern Europe as, once again, an exploited peripheral Europe (including Mediterranean democracies of Southern Europe and the Balkans) – analogous, but on a much bigger scale to the “left behind” marginalised regions within Western European countries, which have fuelled populist electoral insurgencies.

Given ineffective and cumbersome procedures for enforcing the rule-of-law – in what was supposed to a club of liberal-democratic nations – the EU, as R. Daniel Kelemen has suggested, is becoming a patchwork of  regimes encompassing democracies, semi-democracies and downright authoritarian states, hamstrung by North-South and East-West splits.

What is especially jarring is that some of the supposed frontrunners democratisation in the region – Hungary and Poland – are now the vanguard of “democratic backsliding”, conservative counter-revolution and experiments in liberal governance. Some prominent governance indices, such as Freedom House’s ‘Freedom In the World’, now classify Hungary as having slipped below out of the zone of fully liberal democratic ‘Free’ societies. Poland is rapidly heading the same way.

Worse still, some of the treasured mechanisms of building democracy such as civil society development and grassroots activism have turned out work in ways quite opposite to that  envisaged in 1990s. In Hungary and Poland, the electoral breakthroughs of the Fidesz and Law and Justice (PiS) parties were prefigured years before through the development of networks of conservative civil organisations and right-wing civic initiative at grassroots level.

Moreover, the main vehicles for illiberalism have not been ‘red-brown’ alliances of ex-communists and fringe nationalists, but parties and politicians with often impeccable roots in the anti-communist opposition, accepted by West European centre-right as mainstream conservative parties and political allies.

That said, there are many varieties of populism and democratic decline, ranging from the conservative electoral revolutions of Hungary and Poland, to the longstanding weak, but oddly stable corrupt democracies of Bulgaria and Romania, to the fragmented and feverish political landscapes of  Slovakia and Czechia – and the strange “technocratic populism” of Czechia’s billionaire prime minister Andrej Babiš ,who still unsure if he wants to be the Czech Macron or the Czech Trump.

George Orwell’s dictum that “All revolutions are failures, but they are not the same failure” is, unsurprisingly, often quoted these days in relation to East Europe. We could also paraphrase Tolstoy and say that all unhappy democracies are unhappy in their own way. Or we might remember the historians Joseph Rothchild and Nancy  M. Wingfield’s characterisation of the region – made originally after the decline and fall of communism in late 1980s – about Eastern Europe’s “return to diversity”. (more…)

Political Cynicism: The Case of Poland

Patryk AWloch4 October 2019

Dr Przemyslaw Sadura is a lecturer in the Institute of Sociology, University of Warsaw, and a visiting scholar at UCL SSEES. 

Slawomir Sierakowski is a founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement and Senior Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

Following surprising increases in Polish voter turn-out during the 2019 European Parliamentary elections, we conducted field research on the attitudes and voting behaviors of the rural and semi-rural voters in Poland. Upon analyzing existing data, we formulated a questionnaire and conducted our own survey, following which we carried out a series of focus groups. The research looked at the existing and potential electorates of all major parties in order to develop a complete picture of political attitudes across the country. Their findings reveal that Polish voters remain rational actors with a good grasp of politics — at least as far as they think it concerns them — but are still vulnerable to partisan manipulation.

(more…)

When and why parliaments are closed by political leaders

Lisa JWalters6 September 2019

The White House (Moscow, Russian Federation) following President Yeltsin’s 4 October 1993 attack. © AP / Shutterstock

Dr Ben Noble is Lecturer in Russian Politics at UCL SSEES. He was awarded a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award in 2019 for his project Parliaments Under Fire. He is on Twitter @Ben_H_Noble; the project’s account is @parlsunderfire.

This blog was first posted on 2 September on the British Academy website

In August 2019, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to prorogue Parliament caused an uproar. It’s not difficult to understand why. Insofar as the aim is to frustrate the ability of the legislature to debate and scrutinise the executive, then this appears to be an attack on the sovereignty of Parliament – the core of the United Kingdom’s constitutional system.

But Boris is not Charles I. Nor is he Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president, who violated the Russian constitution in September 1993 by dissolving the country’s legislature (the Supreme Soviet and the Congress of People’s Deputies). Parliamentarians in Russia responded by, among other things, barricading themselves in the parliament building – something that MPs in Westminster have threatened in response to prorogation. Frustrated by this legislative intransigence, Yeltsin eventually ordered tanks to fire on the White House, the seat of the Russian parliament in the heart of Moscow. In this battle between the executive and the legislature, the president won. This allowed Yeltsin to beef up the powers of the executive in the new Russian constitution – adopted in a referendum in December of the same year – leading many to label it ‘super-presidential’ and Yeltsin a dictator. 

This wasn’t the first time a legislature was closed by the executive in Russian history. Tsar Nicholas II dissolved the first Imperial State Duma merely months after it opened in 1906, annoyed by the vocal way in which legislators pressured for sweeping social and political reform. Rather than barricade themselves in the Tauride Palace in St Petersburg, the seat of the imperial legislature, a number of Duma representatives assembled in Vyborg to write a declaration calling on the Russian people to stand up to authoritarian overreach. This didn’t work: most of the signatories to the declaration were imprisoned. But Boris Johnson is also not Tsar Nicholas II.

Authoritarian leaders and parliaments

These particular historical examples vary in how well they are known. Although we have lots of general and expert knowledge about the most prominent cases of attacks on legislative powers – especially when these bodies have been dissolved in defiance of the constitution – we know much less than we should about the full range of cases. This is particularly surprising given the resurgence of interest in political science in non-democratic politics – a trend sustained by the use of this work to help make sense of developments in recent US politics.

We have developed sophisticated theories that explain why authoritarian leaders set up and maintain legislative bodies. These theories suggest that parliaments in non-democracies are used to appease members of the political opposition; to share power between the ruler and other members of the elite; and to gather information on citizens’ concerns. We have, therefore, multiple insights into why these bodies are created. We know much less, however, about why they are dissolved.

Legislative closure might be puzzling to consider when starting from the conventional wisdom that legislatures in non-democracies are unimportant, entirely subservient bodies, filled with regime loyalists who simply ‘rubber stamp’ policy initiatives from the regime leadership without critical debate. Recent work – including my own – has challenged this ‘rubber stamp’ model of authoritarian legislative politics. But we still need to know much more.

Studying parliamentary closures and near misses

That’s where my new project, Parliaments Under Fire, comes in. The goal is to collect detailed information on moments of parliamentary closure. This is no mean feat. To make it possible, the project involves creating a network of political science scholars with country- and region-specific expertise. By drawing on, and pooling, this case-specific knowledge, the project combines the depth of area knowledge with the comparative political science tools that all members of the network share.

Currently, cross-national datasets only include information on whether a legislature existed in a particular year for a particular regime. That’s very basic, and some of this information is of questionable quality. My project will improve the detail we have publicly available of when legislatures have operated, while also improving our knowledge of the pathways leading to, and the actors involved in, parliamentary closures.

The project will also focus on ‘near misses’ – episodes when political leaders have attempted to close down legislatures but were prevented from doing so. PressOne example is from Ukraine in 1994, when President Leonid Kravchuk wanted to close down the Verkhovna Rada, but was prevented from doing so by the military. The executive intent was there, but the capacity was not. Beyond near misses, the project will also analyse moments of closure in the context of other, less extreme ways in which the powers of legislatures are weakened.

The project outputs should help provide a richer set of historical cases with which we can help navigate contemporary moments when legislatures come under pressure from executives. It should also help enrich existing theories of non-democratic parliaments, as moments of shutdown throw into sharp relief relations between actors that are usually shrouded in secrecy.

Boris Johnson is not a dictator. But his steps to hamper the constraining function of Parliament put him in awkward company. My project will allow us to understand in much greater depth why authoritarian leaders sometimes shutter their assemblies.