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The Visegrad Group

Eastern Europe's Path to Democracy

February 26, 2013 | by OLGA GYARFASOVA

Presidential palace in Bratislava, Slovakia © Eishier/Fotolia.com

In the post-Communist Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, democracy has become the only game in town. But how well is it played, and who plays it best?

Over the past two decades, the Visegrad Four (V4) countries – Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – have become consolidated democracies and reliable partners of the European and international communities. But democracy never has been a destination; it is a process, and one not immune to setbacks.

Each of the V4 countries has its own development trajectory. This is because they each have a distinct internal capacity to face and tackle those who break basic democratic principles: Slovakia did so in 1998 with mass electoral mobilization against Vladimír Me?iar; Polish voters did the same in the parliamentary elections in October 2007, which ended two turbulent years in Polish politics. The Czechs did it in 2010 when they declared a preference for two new parties. For Hungary, this test is still to come.

Many transition countries are “stuck” in electoral democracy

Measuring the quality of democracy poses enormous methodological challenges. There are a range of international indices: for example, Freedom House’s Index of Freedom in the World and Nations in Transit, the Polity IV Project, and the Bertelsmann Foundation’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI). Let’s take a closer look at the four V4 countries as as they were evaluated by the SGI survey 2011.

The SGI not only assess the quality of democracy in, currently, more than 30 OECD and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries, but also examine specific policy areas such as economy, employment, security, education, health and the environment. The quality of democracy is conceptualized in four key dimensions: electoral processes, access to information, civil rights and the rule of law.

Overall, the Czech Republic and Poland are doing rather well here: in an international comparison, they are in the upper middle group for most survey indicators. The performances of Hungary and Slovakia, on the other hand, are weaker, and those two countries are in the lower middle cluster for most survey indicators, and for some even in the bottom group. Significant differences are evident, however; not only in a comparison of the countries, but also in a comparison of individual dimensions.

All V4 countries, except for Hungary, perform best in the area of electoral processes; that is, candidacy procedures, media access for candidates, voting and registration are awarded comparatively high scores. This means that the V4 countries can be seen to have accomplished free and fair elections.

This, however, is merely a necessary condition of a liberal democracy, rather than a sufficient one. Many transition countries indeed remain stuck in the so-called “electoral democracy,” because free elections lead to the election of semi-autocrats.

Corruption remains a major challenge

The Achilles’ heel of all V4 countries is the rule of law, according to the SGI. This dimension explores whether national institutions act in accordance with the law, whether they check and balance each other, how corruption is prevented, and whether judicial appointments guarantee the independence of the judiciary.

On corruption prevention, for instance, the best score by a V4 country in the SGI survey was achieved by Poland, but it still scored only 6 out of 10 points. The Czech Republic and Hungary obtained 4 points, while Slovakia’s 3 out of 10 put it in the bottom group. This score indicates serious problems in relation to corruption and legal certainty.

In the Czech Republic, government efforts to implement effective anti-corruption measures have thus far failed. Corruption is also facilitated by a widespread public acceptance of the practice as a normal part of life. Recently, however, there have been some positive signs that corruption might not go unpunished forever. David Rath, for example, the former Minister of Health from the Czech Social Democratic Party, has been in custody since May 2012 after being charged with bribery.

In Poland, too, corruption is a challenge. However, the government of Donald Tusk is working hard to fight it. And indeed, compared to SGI’s previous survey in 2009, Poland has made considerable progress in the quality of democracy and the economic realm.

Hungary, on the other hand, performs rather poorly in several policy areas. Unlike other V4 countries, it has witnessed setbacks even with respect to the electoral process – especially in party and campaign financing.

A recent attempt by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, for example, to pass a constitutional change that would force voters to register prior to elections, is outrageous. The amendment lacks any credible justification and has a clear political motivation: to strengthen the electoral potential of the ruling Fidesz party. In this case, however, the Hungarian Constitutional Court stopped the Prime Minister’s ambitions and ruled that the provision was unconstitutional.

Corruption, clientelism, nepotism, party-cronyism and huge deficits in transparency represent negative factors, which foster the public distrust of political parties and a detachment from politics in general.

Missing checks and balances

Another problem the V4 countries share is in the realm of the judiciary, which plays an important role in relation to institutional checks and balances. In Slovakia, one of the latest examples of a blatant breach of democratic processes can be observed in the appointment of a new Prosecutor General.

Jozef ?entéš was elected by the Slovak Parliament to become the next Prosecutor General in June 2011, but President Ivan Gašparovi? refused to appoint him to the office. The President, acting in accordance with the ruling party Smer-SD, announced that he would not appoint ?entéš despite the Constitutional Court confirming the legitimacy of the vote.

This case also illustrates insufficiencies in the modus operandi of institutions: the institutional design is theoretically fully backed by legal checks and balances, but often particular interests find ways to adapt these processes to their needs. This undermines legal certainty, and decreases the quality of democracy.

Some citizens are more equal than others

Slovakia also performs very poorly in the area of non-discrimination, and in the SGI survey is ranked among states where anti-discrimination efforts have had limited success and discrimination is frequent. Good laws exist only on paper, and in practice are not enforced.

Slovakia does have very progressive anti-discrimination legislation. Yet discrimination, directed mainly towards the Roma minority, is an everyday reality. Although a Slovakian court recently ruled that the segregation of Roma students in schools is illegal, for example, this practice has not changed.

In short, one of the greatest challenges for Eastern Europe is basing the procedures on the law and the facts of the case. The authorities have too much space for discretion, which discourages the belief in democracy as the best way to manage public affairs. This is a matter of governance capacities and public policies.

The SGI survey provides an accurate reflection of the state of democracy in the V4 countries. Some may argue that it is the mirror’s fault that things do not look as nice as we would like them to. But democracy is a process that never ends. The mirror, therefore, and the situation it reflects, is an important guide to our next steps. The Visegrad societies, with a mixed report card in democracy performance, need it more than anybody else.

Olga Gyarfasova is lecturer at the Institute of European Studies and International Relations at Comenius University in Bratislava and analyst at the Institute for Public Affairs in Bratislava.

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