Liberal Democracy Index in East-Central Europe

By Ana Laura Ferrari Sept. 22, 2020 Weekly Graphs

Democracy has retreated globally since 2009. The V-Dem Democracy Report  2020 shows a growing decline in liberal democracy in all regions, from Sub-Saharan Africa to Latin American. East-Central Europe is no exception. In fact, the region is constantly in the spotlight for having emblematic cases of autocratization. Here, we will look at the development of democracy in some East-central European countries in the last decades.

The graph below shows the Liberal Democracy Index (LDI) comparison for all countries in the region between 2009 and 2019. The LDI measures the quality of elections, suffrage, freedom of expression and the media, freedom of association and civil society, checks on the executive, and the rule of law. Five countries (marked in red) have experienced a substantial decline in the LDI over the last decade: Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Croatia, and Ukraine. However, there are important differences in terms of the countries’ political trajectories.

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Hungary and Poland are well-known examples of democratic backsliding. Leaders who attained the Executive office in both countries were able to centralize political power and reduce the opposition's chances of electoral victory. These countries sustained free and competitive elections for two decades before the episodes of backsliding. Even so, political leaders have managed to threaten the regular functioning of these democracies. After ten years on this path, Hungary is now the first European Union Member State to have an (electoral) authoritarian regime, according to the V-Dem data.

Democracy in the Czech Republic is also weakening. The main problem is corruption. The country's variation in the LDI is less pronounced than the ones in other cases. Yet, a lack of accountability can lead to distrust in democratic institutions, which can be another factor driving to democratic backsliding.

Unlike the previous countries, Croatia transitioned to democracy more recently. The disintegration of Yugoslavia and subsequent conflicts have influenced the development of democratic institutions in the country. Despite having sustained high levels of democracy during the 2000s, the country has recently faced issues regarding media freedom, judicial functioning, and bureaucracy independence. These problems are partially the result of a weak consolidation process. More than an example of democratic backsliding in a consolidated democracy, Croatia is a telling instance of a failed democratic consolidation.

Ukraine also went through a process of autocratization. In this case, the difference is that the country never reached a high level of democratic quality.

We can visualize all these differences in the Variable Graph below. The line graph shows the LDI’s development over time for these five countries since 1990. As expected, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic sustained the highest scores among our examples. The graph also shows the recent democratization of Croatia. For most of the 1990s, the country was struggling to build a democratic environment. Finally, we can see that Ukraine has never reached high levels of liberal democracy.

In sum, the trend towards less democracy is real in East-Central Europe. Nevertheless, relevant differences exist among the cases of loss of democratic quality in the region.

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