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The virus of authoritarianism in Europe

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“The pandemic teaches us that we needed not only a vaccine against COVID-19, but also that we are in desperate need of vaccination against non-democratic tendencies in some parts of Europe, as the virus of authoritarianism may easily spread.” (“The State of Democracy in Europe 2021: Overcoming the Impact of the Pandemic”)

On December 13th, 2021, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), a global intergovernmental organisation supporting democratic government, published a sinister report on the current state of democracy in Europe amid the pandemic. Its diagnosis? – rather unsurprising: another virus is haunting Europe – the virus of authoritarianism. And so far, unlike with Covid-19, there is no vaccine.

European democracy is in a state of malaise

Initial democratic progress after the fall of the Iron Curtain has witnessed worrying backsliding. Progressively succumbing to authoritarian tendencies, many (Central-)Eastern Europe countries – amongst them Belarus and Turkey – are plunging the continent into deepening autocratisation. Indeed, even member states of the EU, supposedly the beacon of consolidated democracies, have not been immune to democratic regression. Issues centered around the rule of law in Hungary and Poland have prompted a further divide in the European Council, the latter states having vetoed essential budgetary decisions to ease economic devastation in face of the pandemic. Meanwhile, judicial independence and media integrity, along with freedom of expression, are also under threat. Accompanied by waves of disinformation to destabilise governments, democratic discourse in Europe is severely suffering.

– The picture is clear: European democracy is in a state of malaise.

Democratic backsliding, autocratisation, and erosion are not a novelty in Europe. If in many regards, the shift away from democracy has begun prior to the pandemic, the latter has, however, entrenched an extraordinary geographic divide between democratic fragility and resilience – in other words, illness and immunity. The implications of the pandemic in the context of democratic governance are manifest – and its aftermath might be disastrous if not handled with great vigilance.

A novel instrument of power has emerged

As previously observed in past states of emergency, representative governments deteriorated in many states when the pandemic struck the European continent. Much to the detriment of democratic legitimacy if not conducted transparently and communicated clearly, elections had to be postponed, leaving incumbent political leaders in office for an extended period – some regional governments in the United Kingdom, for instance, by more than a year.

More controversially, in what the IDEA classifies as mid-range or weak-performing democracies, namely Albania, Georgia, Moldova, Poland and Serbia, researchers noted blatant abuses of public funds, disguised as an opaque “fusion of state and party resources”: According to the IDEA, communications concerning Covid-19 have been exploited as an instrument to “draw electoral benefits”.

Thus, politicising pandemic-related policy, Europe’s ruling autocrats have discovered public health restrictions as a novel instrument of power. Hence, what distinguishes the scenario of the pandemic from the status quo ante is that autocratic governments have successfully taken advantage of emergency legislation and time pressure as a pretext to contain the spread of the coronavirus, or much rather, to accelerate the spread the virus of authoritarianism.

Meanwhile, fraud, corruption, abuse of public resources, and electoral justice have continued to impair fair democratic elections, as exhibited by the indicator “Clean Elections” below.

Further, as national lockdowns were imposed, international election observers, such as election monitoring authorities by the OSCE, faced tight constraints to scrutinise electoral procedures, most notably in Russia and Belarus, where elections have been severely sabotaged, as many international watchdogs asserted. For the first time in almost three decades, the OSCE did not send any observers to the 2021 Russian legislative elections following dubious, severe public health restrictions.

On imperilled journalism

As for the protection of fundamental rights, researchers contend that access to justice, freedom of movement, freedom of association and assembly, and the freedom of religion were most notably restricted during lockdowns. Naturally, proportionality concerns have been subject to public debate since the beginning of the pandemic, having torn societies apart between the seemingly irreconcilable notions of security and freedom.

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Insidiously compromising – one might say holing out – the fundamental freedom of information, however, should not have been on any government’s agenda. In times of upheaval, the very opposite ought to be the case. And yet, the state of the public press in Poland, for instance, has dramatically deteriorated during the pandemic.

Media integrity has been undermined for years by a government-led initiative to “re-Polonise” the national, and more recently the local media landscape. As Reuters reported on December 7th, 2021, Poland’s state-run oil company PKN Orlen officially announced its acquisition of Polska Press, a national network of local press agencies, thereby capturing the entirety of private media. While the country’s Ombudsman has temporarily halted the transaction, the Law and Justice (PiS) party government’s intent to bring private media under its control ahead of the approaching 2023 elections remains menacing for democracy in Europe.

Accompanied by several infringements of fundamental democratic principles – namely, the separation of power in Poland and Hungary with violated judicial independence – the democratic crisis is apparent. Hitherto, the European Union has not proved itself resilient enough to effectively sanction these apparent violations of the rule of law.

Antagonised minorities amid rising discrimination

As the report elaborates, social rights and equality have likewise been infringed by the rise of non-democratic government. In the past decade, instead of redressing racial, ethnic, gender, and LBTQIA+ inequalities, many European governments have provoked quite the opposite. Predominantly immigrants, people of colour, and the homeless in the West, and in particular Roma and Sinti communities in the East, have been subjected to extraordinary discrimination and brutality by government policy, law enforcement, and the public.

The perils of democracy-free zones

In Eastern Europe, discrimination of LGBTQIA+ individuals has been an immediate outcome, if not the purpose, of far-right populist legislation. As criticised by large majorities in the European Parliament, governments have deliberately been perpetuating narratives of “LGBT propaganda and ideology” with the intent to demonise minorities for electoral campaigning. While the Hungarian Parliament enacted discriminatory legislation, for instance, local communities in Poland established “LGBT-free” zones under the government’s consent, prompting outrage across Europe.

Therefore, as with many crises, scapegoats had yet to emerge for collective indignation to be relieved. This sense of historical continuity – antagonising minorities in times of precariousness –, is unsettling. Constituting the very foundation of our democratic consensus, minority protection, amongst other democratic principles, thus deserves our utmost attention in this decade.

All of this has, of course, been accompanied by ravaging income inequality. Just like everywhere on the globe, the pandemic has further entrenched the already looming socio-economic disparities prevailing in Europe. According to the IDEA, the consequences may be calamitous: Experts warn that the risk of pan-European social unrest and public discontent is substantial.

Inevitably, this has many implications. Merely analysing political leadership and administration, however, does not suffice.

Observations from the other side

Indeed, all over the world, people’s confidence in democracy is declining. Europe is currently at its third peak in relative dissatisfaction with democracy, according to another report compiled by the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge (“Global Satisfaction with Democracy Report 2020”). Two elements distinguish this record from the precedent ones, which render the present situation all the more concerning. First, European democracy’s current state of malaise has been of an unprecedented length, as the graph below illustrates: “Europe has experienced legitimacy crises in the past; yet in episodes of 4 – 6 years, rather than a decade-long malaise”.

Second, the Bennett Institute assessed that the continent is torn between “complacency” and “internal divergence”. Indeed, attitudes towards democracy greatly vary across Europe. Amid the pandemic, the magnitude of this geographic fragmentation of confidence in democracy has become even more alarming. In matters of governance cohesion across the continent, new evidence has revealed why several European countries are prone to contagion – and why the odds of contracting the virus of authoritarianism are high.

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What determines (dis-)satisfaction with democracy?

Researchers of the Pew Research Centre have gathered data from 27 countries to find an explanation for global discontent with democracy, having reached a new record of dissatisfaction since 1995 (“Global Public Opinion in an Era of Democratic Anxiety”). Empirical evidence suggests, or rather validates the assumption, that people’s beliefs about the state of the national economy are the strongest predictor for “dissatisfaction with democracy”, that is, weak inclination to democratic governance.

Herein lies the imminent danger for democracy in Europe: That the state of the national economy and economic opportunity largely influence confidence in democracy is rather bad news in a post-pandemic era shaped by threatening economic devastation and rising inflation levels. The Bennett Institute’s quantified data appear even more appalling: “if a country has an economic shock of -6%, this reduces satisfaction by -3% pts: but if a country experiences five years of -6% growth the cumulative effect is around -11% pts.” Hence, the question we ought to ask ourselves is not necessarily how robust democratic aspirations in Europe are, but much rather, how quick comprehensive economic recovery will be. Otherwise, declining public support for democratic governance and non-democratic government policy will perpetuate one another, exacerbating and accelerating the shift towards repressive authoritarianism as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ceasing these reinforcing effects is therefore a matter of urgency.

Checks on government – An endangered lifeline for democracy

Another source of democratic discontent resides in the rising levels of general frustration with political representatives, the Pew Research Centre has found. That this tendency coincides with the decline of parliamentary control of governments has made researchers of the IDEA ring the alarm bells: Indeed, checks on government are an essential instrument to prevent discontent with a seemingly entrenched political class. To the detriment of satisfaction with democracy, Covid-19 has had profound implications on parliamentary oversight with respect to emergency legislation and social distancing enforcement.

When the executive branch took the – not seldom – necessary decision to restrict fundamental rights of assembly and adopted decisive economic policy to prevent socio-economic upheaval, parliamentary scrutiny was often poor in mid-range and weak-performing democracies: “Public consultation or meaningful parliamentary debates on proportionality and the scope of limitations” were restricted or absent in many European countries. Communications between citizens and the state have been neglected, if not deliberately ignored in some cases. It therefore does not come as a surprise that many believe their elected representatives do not “care what people like me think”, as a recent survey illustrates.

Between ambiguity and lucidity – Evaluating the pandemic’s effects

As the international IDEA’s researchers conclude, the pandemic’s unprecedented effects on national political systems in Europe have been a comprehensive “stress-test”; and some young and vulnerable democratic societies Central-East Europe may not have passed it.

What renders the pandemic’s effects obscure is that many ambiguous interdependencies complicate the process of disentangling cause and effect between Covid-19 and the decline of democracy. That is, in many regards, the pandemic did both – it laid bare myriads of prior tendencies and aggravated them. And thus, the institute’s report both is and is not a novelty: “executive overreach, majoritarian and polarized law-making, weak parliamentary oversight, illiberal measures to limit fundamental rights and civil liberties, […] intimidation of the political opposition” … The list of previously detected symptoms is long, and so will the recovery be.

So how is Europe supposed to surmount its enduring malaise?

Twelve ingredients for the vaccine

Fortunately, the IDEA provides us with brief yet compelling answers – twelve policy recommendations that are supposed to contain and ultimately eradicate the highly virulent virus of authoritarianism.

First and foremost, the institute urges that the European social contract be re-negotiated and adapted to the 21st century. A very broad proposal, the question of how we want to live together as a society has indeed re-emerged as the pandemic shed light on the structural social inequalities in and within Europe and their burden on the political landscape. The social contract here has an ambiguous connotation, referring to both, individual states yet also the political configuration of the continent, and in particular, the institutional architecture of the European Union. As the Bennett Institute posits in the context of democratic satisfaction and consolidation, “whether and when Europe can escape its longest period of institutional dissatisfaction on record, will depend in large part upon the capacity of governments to escape its underlying pressures – economic stagnation, regional inequality within and between countries, demographic anxieties, and imbalances of power between nation states in the post-Lisbon Treaty European Union.” – Thus, questions that all pertain to the notion of the contrat social, and for which the latter was conceived to provide answers to.

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Democracy’s raison d’être

Yet, perhaps the most convincing policy recommendation discerns the implications of communication between state and citizens. As the institute delineates, broad public information campaigns are a tool to facilitate the “gathering and dissemination of accurate information and to counter disinformation”, which can be regarded as one of the most imminent threats to social cohesion. In effect, allocating more resources to information campaigns and independent journalism could advance citizen acceptance and government oversight. An open and free media landscape is a crucial asset to uphold indispensable government accountability in times of emergency.

And this is where Tra i Leoni comes into play. As emphasised in our December 2021 editorial, integrity and independence constitute an inherent part of our mission: With the intent to foster the ideals of a deliberative, yet dynamic contemporary democracy, we strive to simulate critical discourse on issues that shape the Bocconian community.

So far, as a wide array of evidence suggests, European 21st century democracy has not been delivering for its citizens. Henceforth placing the latter at the heart of public policy has thus revealed itself to be a matter of urgency. Essentially, it has been neglected that democracy remains in a constant quest for legitimacy, an enduring process of justifying itself as a superior form of governance, rather than self-perpetuating once established. Just as with Covid-19, the virus of authoritarianism necessitates rigorous and consistent vigilance to be eradicated. Whatever concrete policy will ensure herd immunity; it is obvious that democratic governance must rise to its responsibility of convincing the other. That is, democracy must be more virulent than the virus of authoritarianism. If not, the risk of contagion will be high – and the pandemic lethal.


The graphics by the International IDEA and the Bennett Institute are screenshots of the reports. The source can be found in or below the picture.

Author profile
Chief Editor

I am a Franco-German first-year student in the BIEM program. I am passionate about European politics, history, and classical music.

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