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Authoritarian tendencies in emerging democracies

Written for the symposium “Pluralism and Authoritarianism in the Transition Period—Social Representations and Political Attitudes,” organized in Bucharest by the Goethe Institute Inter Nationes Bucharest and the Black Sea University Foundation, 19-20 June, 2003

Democracy can be, on one level, understood as a system of governance—in essence, as a system of institutions, processes, and mechanisms (checks and balances) that ensure that governments regularly change. It is a rule of the people that most often manifests itself as a rule of majority.

On a different level, of course, democracy is much more than just procedures. It can work well as a system guaranteeing freedom only if--within the general framework of the rule of majority--individual and minority rights are also respected. American journalist and political scientist Fareed Zakaria speaks of the need for “constitutional liberalism”— a system of institutions independent of political power, whose existence and independence are guaranteed by the rule of law.

Thinkers from Alexis de Tocqueville and Karl Popper to Charles Taylor also stress other qualities that are important for functioning of democracy, such as openness, active civic engagement, tolerance and respect for certain values. Many of those thinkers speak of the need for the existence of a civil society. A democratic regime is not much more than an empty shell of institutions open to political manipulation if it is not supported by such—sometime intangible—qualities. Czech religious philosopher Tomas Halik describes the problem well when he says that “democracy without a civil society is like a body without blood circulation.”

Zakaria points out that democratic regimes that are not rooted in constitutional liberalism (he calls such regimes “illiberal democracies”) can very often be as corrupt as dictatorships; democratic procedures can be used by authoritarian elites to confirm their rule. At the same time, he warns that combining a democratic majority rule with constitutional liberalism that protects individual and minority rights is not an easy task, as the two are naturally antagonistic.

To make things more complicated, Alexis de Tocqueville and other thinkers have warned that while the protection of individual rights is desirable, individualism can be dangerous to democracy. Tocqueville wrote that “the individual” is the worst enemy of “the citizen.” Citizens, in his view, strive for the welfare of the community, whereas individuals are skeptical when it comes to notions of just society or communal welfare. The growth of individualism that gives preference to self-centered individuals, rather than to active citizens, threatens democracy.

Charles Taylor, in his book “The Ethics of Authenticity,” also sees individualism as hazardous for democracy. In his view, increasing individualism, accompanied by what Max Webber described as the instrumentality of reason, leads to the loss of moral horizons, the loss of meaning, and, ultimately, to the loss of freedom.

Already 150 years ago Tocqueville warned against “mild despotism.” In societies in which individuals are “closed in the loneliness of their hearts,” very few people will want to be actively engaged in public affairs. “Mild despotism” does not necessarily have to result into a tyranny. The government can keep its democratic form and hold regular elections. In reality, however, everything will be directed by an immense protectoral power over which people will have little or no control. According to Tocqueville, the only defense against this danger is a political culture, in which civic participation in government at various levels is appreciated.

Former Czech President Vaclav Havel has often warned that without active citizenship, democracy will degenerate into a system that lacks freedom. He has warned that political parties which do not draw inspiration from a civil society will wither away or will become closed bastions protecting only their own interests. Havel points out, however, that in post-communist democracies the task of reviving a civil society is complicated by the fact that the communist regime completely destroyed the notion of citizenship; the system consisted of indifferent individuals. Public space was totally colonized by the omnipresent state.

Efforts to colonize the public space with the help of private interests were the first, most logical reaction to the era of totalitarianism. However, those private interests were initially expressed by individuals, not by citizens. The growth of an active citizenry has required much more time. One result of this process is that the public space has been left wide open to political parties and various interest groups, whose power has remained unchecked by a self-confident public (consisting of active citizens).

Moreover, attempts to give the public space back to citizens take place at a time when in the West an opposite process has been occurring. Thinkers such as Zygmunt Bauman, Gilles Lipovetsky and Robert Putnam warn that the public space is being privatized by individual and group interests that are not at all rooted in active civic engagement. In fact, active citizens are very often their enemies, which makes it is necessary to manipulate them. Private interests are expelling everything that cannot be expressed in the language of individualistic goals from the public space.

Lipovetsky speaks about an era of collective narcissism, while Putnam warns against the decline of civic activities and a civil society in general. Public space is becoming increasingly depopulated. According to Taylor and Bauman, we live in an era in which media that work in the service of private interest fill the public space with virtual stories that often have only one purpose—to manipulate. This means that public space is at the mercy of politicians and virtual reality.

One attempt to fight this trend is represented by the concept of “deliberative democracy,” which stresses discussion and searching for consensus, rather than fighting for power through the rule of majority. Much manipulation in today’s democracies is caused by the need to win a majority at any cost. The concept of deliberative democracy is close to Jürgen Habermas’s “discourse ethics.” Czech philosopher and first Czechoslovak President Tomas G. Masaryk stressed that “democracy is discussion.”

Taylor and Habermas both describe the public as a space of rational discourse in which rational opinions and views are formed through discussion. The public has replaced God as the institution that serves as the most important check on political power and a source of legitimacy.

Emerging democracies

The purpose of this short theoretical expose is to show that emerging democracies face two major tasks. One is instituting a system of mechanisms and institutions that make possible regular elections and that make it difficult, owing to the system of checks and balances, for one source of power to dominate over others.

At the same time, they have a much more difficult, and much more prolonged, assignment of instituting “constitutional liberalism” which protects the rights of individuals and minorities, while also guaranteeing the existence of independent institutions, such as banks, courts and media outlets. The most difficult task is creating a viable civil society in which people can function as active citizens who gradually acquire democratic qualities, such as tolerance, respect for minorities, or—to use Havel’s expression—a democratic spirit.

The example of Latin American democracies is telling. Attempts to install democracy from above in the form of mechanisms that guarantee free elections failed if such attempts were not accompanied by the growth of a civil society and institutions that are independent of the central political power. The United States, the state which installed some of those “democracies,” was repeatedly faced with regime changes in which various undemocratic juntas took power. Sometimes this happened with the help of the very same democratic procedures that were to guarantee freedom.

As a result, in the 1980’s, the Americans began to put much more emphasis on the activities of institutions such as the American Endowment for Democracy, whose task it was to support the growth of a civil society and teach people in emerging democracies how to use their civil and political rights. This concept has worked much better. Freedom House surveys show that many former dictatorships in Latin America are today at least partly free.

Zakaria points out a very important link between the state of a country’s economy and democracy. In fact, he goes so far as to claim that if a democratic regime is installed in a country whose per capita GDP exceeds $5,000-$6,000, a democratic form of government will not be ousted, and, in fact, it will gradually adopt the elements of constitutional liberalism. Conversely, Zakaria warns that a democratic system will be inherently unstable in any country whose economy is poor.

At the same time, he points out that not every rich economy supports democracy. The states whose wealth heavily depends on the exploitation of natural resources usually do not do well, especially if wealth is controlled by a central government. In other words, democracy thrives where wealth is created by a functioning market economy. A market economy is a form a civil society—a source of independence from political power.

Robert Putnam, in his book “Making Democracy Work,” draws a strong link between a civil society and economic performance. In this empirical study of differences between southern Italy and northern Italy, he shows that the economy thrives in the environment with strong civic traditions, rather than traditions of tribalism, clan ties and nepotism.

Post-communist democracies

It is clear that for democracy to really take root in post-communist states, much more is needed than just establishing institutions and mechanisms that make possible regular elections and guarantee checks and balances among various sources of power. What is needed even more is the growth of civil society, a strong emphasis on the rule of law (constitutional liberalism) that guarantees the existence of institutions that are independent of political power, and the creation of a transparent, regulated market economy.

The fact that all post-communist states initially had, or still do have, weak civil societies, weak legal systems, and non-transparent market economies has made it possible for political elites not only to dominate the public space, but also to repeatedly resort to undemocratic political behavior. Such tendencies have been prominent, in particular, in countries where, for whatever reason, the political pendulum did not regularly swing back and forth, making possible regular shifts of power from the right to the left, and vice versa. Ruling parties in such countries were tempted to misuse their power and many became corrupt.

The most typical example of undemocratic behavior in emerging democracies in post-communist states have been attempts by governing political elites to gain control over media, courts, and central banks. Virtually every post-communist country has a tale to tell with respect to those problems. Even the countries that are considered by the West as the most advanced on the way toward establishing well-functioning democratic regimes have experienced such problems.

At the end of the year 2000, the Czech Republic experienced mass demonstrations against attempts by some political parties to gain control in Czech Television. Similar attempts, in some cases more successful than in the Czech Republic, took place in Hungary and Slovakia.

The Czech Republic experienced from 1998 to 2002 a period during which the Social Democratic Party, which won the elections in 1998, formed a minority government with the help of the strongest opposition party, the Civil Democrats. The two parties signed a pact that became known as “the opposition agreement.” Under this pact, the Civic Democrats allowed the Social Democrats to govern and promised never to trigger a vote of confidence in the government (and to foil any attempts to trigger such a vote by other parties) in exchange for receiving high posts in the parliament and for sharing other spoils of power.

At the same time, both parties agreed to work together on changing the Czech Constitution and the electoral law in ways that would be advantageous to them. In the end, these attempts did not succeed only because the constitutional changes were rejected by the Senate that had come to be dominated by the opposition; the electoral law was struck down as unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court. The two parties also tried to change the law that guarantees the independence of the Central Bank. Again, they were stopped by the Constitutional Court.

The institutions of democracy in the end saved the Czech Republic from undemocratic attempts to establish a semi-authoritarian rule. Slovakia was not as lucky during the rule of Vladimir Meciar. Institutions, such the Constitutional Court, were not able to stop Meciar from gaining control over public television or from misusing secret services to intimidate his political opponents.

In the end, Meciar was defeated only because his undemocratic actions galvanized Slovakia’s civil society. Various civic organizations in Slovakia created a broad anti-Meciar alliance before the elections in 1998 and in the end managed to persuade enough Slovak voters to vote against him. The ruling coalition that was subsequently created, however, managed to hold together mainly because of individual parties’ fears of Meciar’s return to power. This was not enough to guarantee radical changes. The coalition in the end was able to reverse unfavorable international views of Slovakia, managing to move Slovakia to the threshold of NATO and EU memberships; but the legacy of Meciar’s rule is apparent in Slovakia even today, after Meciar was defeated again in the elections in 2002.

The same is true about the Czech Republic with respect to the legacy of the opposition agreement. That political arrangement helped to create clientelist networks that still operate in Czech politics and economy today, despite the fact that the opposition agreement was defeated in the 2002 elections.

In Hungary, whose political scene has been divided into two large, almost equally strong blocs, politicians in the victorious bloc find it difficult to resist the temptation of controlling institutions that should remain independent. A battle over control of Hungarian Television thus erupted almost immediately after the current socialist-dominated coalition replaced Victor Orban’s bloc. Some of this coalition’s actions were in fact just reactions to the previous attempts of Orban’s party to control institutions that in democratic regimes should be independent.

It can be argued that in some post-communist countries, democratic regimes would have probably been replaced by authoritarian regimes, had it not been for the pressure and incentives from NATO and the European Union. Meciar’s rule in Slovakia ultimately failed to a large extent because the EU and NATO made it clear that Slovakia will not become a member of either organization if Meciar’s practices were to continue.

Aspirations to NATO and EU membership served as important encouragement to build functioning democracies in all post-communist countries. In fact, it is possible to argue that the absence of the vision of NATO or EU membership in some former Soviet republics is, at least partly, responsible for the fact that those states have slid back into the authoritarian rule.

Equally important, however, has been the ability of any particular country to quickly build a vibrant civil society which is able to act as a check on the behavior of politicians. To build a civil society is very difficult because it is an organism that cannot be created from above. Much depends on traditions and the broader cultural context of each country.

In some post-communist countries a civil society has sprung up quite vigorously. The fact that Czech politicians tried to gain control over Czech Television is unfortunate but, at the same, the mass protests that followed showed that the Czech Republic has a relatively strong civil society which acts as a source of independent opinion and action.

The same is true about Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland, where civic groups have served as active guards of the democratic regime, playing the role of a counterbalance against political parties. It is also important that in all of these countries, the need to fulfill criteria for membership in the EU and NATO has accelerated the process of establishing the rule of law and of creating functioning market economies. The EU, in particular, has played an active role in guiding the candidate countries toward implementing the standards that have long been common in the developed democracies in the West.

The EU and NATO, as well as the CSCE, have also played major roles in putting pressure on those countries, in which problems of the treatment of ethnic minorities and nationalism could have weakened democratic institutions. Hungary, Slovakia and Romania are good examples of countries in which the encouragement and pressure from those international organizations have been very important.

Thirteen years after the fall of communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe, it seems that various dangers to democracy are minimal and that the democratic regimes in most countries are stable. At the same time, it is clear that democracy will be safer in those countries that are already members of the EU and NATO as well as countries with strong civil societies and strong civic engagement.

Authoritarian tendencies in emerging democracies Goethe Institute Inter Nationes Bucharest and the Black Sea University Foundation, Bucharest, Romania 19.-20. 6. 2003