European Studies Conference, 29-30 June 2021

29-30 June 2021.

East Central  European democracies during the COVID-19 pandemic: a double-dip decline?

Panel convenor: Prof. Dr. Aleksandra Maatsch

Without doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic generated an unprecedented global crisis that not only affected our health, but also many other aspects of our lives. In March 2021 it is exactly one year since the WHO recognized the coronavirus as a pandemic. While the crisis is not over yet, it is time to take stock of its impact.

This panel focuses on the impact of the pandemic on ECE democracies. Whereas in economy we have a phenomenon of a double-dip recession, in ECE states we seem to witness a double-dip decline of democratic standards. In particular, in some ECE states the pandemic seems to have catalysed the prior process of democratic decline. Against that background we pose the following questions:

How prominent is the trend towards de-democratization in ECE in general?

Which factors explain the ‘double-dip’ decline of democracy in ECE states?

Which theoretical approaches can be helpful is explaining the observed changes? In particular, is the democratic consolidation approach still helpful?

The papers presented in this panel  aim at contributing to the discussion concerning democracy in unusual circumstances. We are interested in case-studies or comparative papers (comparisons across country-cases or comparisons of crises – financial crisis versus the COVID-19 pandemic).

Riders on the Storm: European rulers and the politics of disruption in the time of COVID-19

Veronica Anghel (European University Institute) & Erik Jones ( SAIS – Johns Hopkins)

The democracies of Central and Eastern Europe have shown tendencies toward significant and substantial autocratization in recent years, sparking an important debate about ‘democratic backsliding’ in the region. Nevertheless, those countries are not alone in facing the challenge of balancing leadership and the rule of law. Public authority has been in crisis across Europe; the severe disruption stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic only made matters worse. Rulers took contentious steps to deal with the effects of the health situation and satisfy public needs and demands, challenging the institutional status quo in the process. Based on a comparison between Romania and Italy, we show that policymakers faced similar trials in dealing with political disorder and declining respect for the rule of law. Even if their decision-making process resulted in a mix of policy tools that were enacted at different speed, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed a wider tendency to react in ways that threaten to undermine delicate constitutional balances over the longer term. This finding has implications in assessing the risk for falling standards of liberal democracy across the European Union and not just in its Eastern periphery.

Hungary at a critical juncture

Gabriella Ilonszki (Corvinus University of Budapest,

Hungary appears as a prime example of defunct democracy in East Central Europe. The Covid 19 pandemic has only strengthened the authorisation tendency. This contribution to the panel discussion will evolve around two main arguments. First it will highlight the government steps that in the form of different regulations further constrained the working of diverse institutions and the popular activities. Second, it will examine the opportunities and strategies of diverse social and political actors to change the apparently set route that the country follows for some time now.  In face of the upcoming 2022 parliamentary elections the major question is whether the former trend continues – with substantial implications even on Hungary’s international positions – or a turn will take place. The situation is full of uncertainties. The agents involved, their actions and reactions will define the outcome of this critical juncture.

Has democracy become a victim of the rule of law backsliding in Poland?

Barbara Grabowska-Moroz (CEU Democracy Institute)

The paper discusses the results of post-2015 rule of law backsliding in Poland in context of the electoral process. The central point is the analysis of the framework of the 2020 presidential elections. The paper aims to answer two questions. The first, general one, is how did the dismantling of the main elements of the checks and balances system affect legality and fairness of those elections. The second one deals with the “COVID-19 legislation mode” – how did the time of emergency change the decision-making process regarding the public matters (i.a. electoral process)? These two analyses will allow to verify the hypothesis that a democratic “double-dip decline” can be detected in Poland.

In search of a new model: illiberal democracy and the authoritarian temptation during the Covid-19 Pandemia in CEE (Pl, Cz, Sk, Hu)

Stefan Garsztecki (Institute for European Studies and History, Technical University Chemnitz)

The pandemic situation strengthened already existing tendencies toward illiberalism in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). A crisis is beyond doubt the time of the executive but it is also a time of fear and conspiracy theories. In this paper I’ll compare the core countries of CEE on a rather general basis and try to answer three questions. First: Did governments in CEE use the pandemic crisis to implement their conception of democracy circumventing and/or ignoring the parliament or in other words how was the role of the government? Second: Did governments supported conspiracy theories, focused on scapegoating or anything similar or were they more interested in decent information for the public? Third: How was the support for democracy in general and for the specific measures of the governments among the populations following the famous model of diffuse and specific support developed by the American political scientist David Easton. The analysis will allow a preliminary answer to the question, if the pandemia caused a further crisis of democracy (double dip decline).