Illiberal democracies are products of democracy itself

Voters in eastern Europe are disenchanted after three decades of democracy

May 14th, 2019: US President Donald Trump congratulated the controversial Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán for doing a “tremendous job”. Video: The White House

 

During the last European elections in 2014 the participation rate in Croatia was one of the lowest in the European Union, slightly more than 25 per cent. Even worse was the participation rate in the Czech Republic – 18.2 per cent – and Slovakia – 13.05 per cent (the lowest rate) – while Poland and Hungary scored slightly better, where the participation rate was 23.83 per cent and 28.97 per cent respectively. All these countries had a much lower participation rate than the western member states. Why aren’t their citizens motivated to vote?

The EU is often seen to act as a “policeman” alerting member states to corruption or failure of the judiciary or some other irregularity. And when it comes to EU funding,they are also on the losing side for an obvious reason: there are not enough people who know the mechanisms of the EU funding, hence the country cannot fully reap the benefits of available EU funds.

Power functions in the same way as in the old authoritarian system, so democracy exists but only in an empty form

The EU is also unpopular because it is apparent that instead of real support for democratisation, rule of law and anti-corruption measures in this region, the EU has chosen stability and has agreed to work with authoritarian, corrupt regimes.

National psychology

There are also problems that are not so much to do with external circumstances as with national psychology. Citizens in these states do not like to vote and hardly even vote in national elections. And this is actually the most interesting part because they are directly affected when they vote for national elections, while the EU is still far away and large. The participation rate in the general parliamentary elections in Croatia was about 52.59 per cent in 2016.

Are they lazy? No, it is more likely they do not see any sense in voting. The experience of almost three decades of of democracy has taught the “ordinary man” the following: “Vote or not vote, you will be dealt the same hand. One party is like the other, because all of them are against us the ordinary people. They only promise and when they come to power, they start to behave quite differently. They all lie and steal.”

It should not be forgotten that democracy has never reigned in this part of the world and that authoritarian political traditions are not easily dispensed with

There is a clear mistrust of political elites as well as of democracy itself in Croatia – a phenomenon seen in other eastern European countries. The worst thing is that the citizens are right to be distrustful. Political systems are called democratic and they have basic democratic institutions. Yet, the power functions in the same way as in the old authoritarian system, so democracy exists but only in an empty form.

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán is a vocal supporter of anti-immigrant rhetoric in Europe. File photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty Images
"In eastern Europe, Vladimir Putin is actually becoming more and more popular as the numbers of followers of Viktor Orbán or Jaroslaw Kaczynski are growing." File photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

A Eurobarometer survey showed that 79 per cent of respondents in Croatia had no confidence in political parties, and 64 per cent of them were not satisfied with the functioning of democracy in the country. This is what makes voters unwilling to vote.

It should not be forgotten that democracy has never reigned in this part of the world and that authoritarian political traditions are not easily dispensed with. More than half of Slovaks will not vote for the European elections because they think their voice “does not mean anything” – while voters in Denmark are convinced that their voice is not only important, but voting is their democratic duty.

Strong leaders

Many citizens of former socialist countries are supportive of strong leaders. In a democratic process you need to listen to various ideas and programmes, weigh the arguments and make decisions. Democracy is complicated, but if there is a leader you believe you do not need to do anything.

In eastern Europe, Vladimir Putin is actually becoming more and more popular as the numbers of followers of Viktor Orbán or Jaroslaw Kaczynski are growing. This phenomenon of illiberal democracy was completely unpredictable and what is particularly worrying is the fact that it is a fruit of democracy itself (albeit a transitional one).

The system can change overnight – but not habits, traditions, customs, and everything we call the mentality of a region, or of a country such as Croatia. Sociologist Ralph Dahrendorf wrote that it takes six months to change the political system, it takes six years to transform the economic system and it takes 60 years to change the society.

That is why EU elections in these countries will be extremely interesting. In Croatia, not only the voter turnout will be an interesting indicator, but also the answer to one of this election’s most burning issues: the Europe-wide surge of the nationalist right. Does the swing towards authoritarianism at all bother Croatian voters? Or will they rather contribute to further increasing right-wing influence in the EU? If the future of the EU depends on voters in Croatia and eastern Europe, it is poorly written.

Slavenka Drakulic is a Croatian journalist, novelist, and essayist. This column is part of 27voices4Europe, an initiative of Voxeurop.eu, with 27 journalists from 27 media outlets writing about the main issue at stake in the election campaign in their country. For additional articles see irishtimes.com/news/politics/european-election

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