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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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