>CEE: A democracy of no qualities?


Notions of ‘democratic quality’ have become increasingly widespread over the past decade in the study of both new and established democracies. However, Andrew Roberts notes in his excellent new book The Quality of Democracy in Eastern Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2009) the concept remains fuzzy and ill-defined Scholars, who have used the notion, he rightly notes have basically tended to define it in three ways: 1) superabundance of the basic components that make up the procedural minimum of liberal democracy; 2) a set of favourable social and cultural prerequisites standing outside the political system; or 3) a set of desirable or efficiently arrived at policy outcomes promoting the public good, loosely overlapping with the concept of ‘good governance’ championed by many international organizations and NGOs.

However, he convincingly argues, all are unsatisfactory either because they conflate the attributes of high quality democracy with those of democracy in general, or because they confuse democratic quality with things such as social structures or policy outputs that, strictly speaking, fall outside the nature of the relationship between citizens and their elected representatives. Democratic quality, he suggests, must instead be understood in terms citizens’ abilities to influence their rulers through three forms of linkage: 1) electoral accountability (voters’ ability to dismiss politicians, who have broken promises or performed unsatisfactorily); 2) mandate accountability (voters’ ability to make meaningful choices from a range of distinct programmatic party positions) – and politicians’ willingness and ability to deliver on campaign promises; and 3) policy responsiveness (politicians’ willingness when in office to fit policy to public opinion – and voters’ ability to monitor and pressurize them to ensure that they do).

The book then seeks to operationalise and measure democracy quality (thus defined) across the new EU member states of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), widely considered to be stable and functioning liberal democracies, but also to have consolidated democracy in a flawed and low quality form burdened by legacies of the communist past, a detached and alienated citizenry, and a corrupt and self-serving politicians – you know the standard journalistic-cum-academic shtick you have probably come across a million times in The Economist and The Journal of Democracy or wherever. But is that really the case?

In successive uses a mixture of quantitative analysis and re-analysis of existing literature assesses electoral accountability, mandate accountability and policy responsiveness in CEE as well as comparison of the region with Western Europe and Latin American and finds that it ain’t necessarily so simple.

Based on data on economic performance, Roberts finds that CEE democracies show high level of electoral responsiveness. Despite significant general anti-incumbent voting, voters in the region do hold governments to account for poor economic performance. However, although CEE party systems are programmatic, mandate accountability in the region is much weaker – and, he finds, has remained consistency weak since the fall of communism. Party positions in the region are less clear and – usually as result of a politics of populist outbidding – the range of party positions on offer to voters tends to be less varied than in either Western Europe or Southern Europe. Examining politicians’ follow-through on campaign promises, Roberts finds that the relationship between winning parties’ campaign promises on (economic) reform and the subsequent direction of policy weak, although they are few volte faces on reform commitments of the kind common in Latin America. In CEE we are talking shades of economic liberalism from full-on to half-hearted.

However, contrary to the image of ‘lonely reformers’ by-passing popular preference through blame avoidance strategies, Roberts finds that, when making policy, CEE politicians are relatively responsive to public opinion. Although there is little active public input into policy making, qualitative case studies of pension and housing reform in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, highlights how favourable public opinion has been a key prerequisite for reforms to go ahead.

Overall, Roberts argues, CEE enjoys a reasonable quality of democracy, albeit democracy characterised by distinct patterns of accountability. Weak civil societies, constraints imposed on left and right imposed by international and European conditionalities and CEE voters’ tendency to punish all incumbents at the polls, reducing politicians’ incentives to fulfil campaign promises, sharply depresses mandate accountability, Roberts suggests. The region’s surprisingly good democratic quality, juxtaposition with Western Europe and Latin America suggests, can be traced to a single factor: its relatively high levels of socio-economic development and, in consequence, its well educated, capable and rational citizenries.

Overall, the book offers an elegant, and generally convincing set of arguments about how we should view democracy in CEE, cutting through much current conceptual fog and going rounding in circles and – what’s more opens to way to genuine pan- comparison of democratic systems in the old and new EU. What are debates in the ‘advanced democracies’ if not about ‘democratic quality’?

True, the empirical basis of book’s findings is, in some respects, rather limited and broadbrush (not really much sharp cross-national comparison) and its formulations leave some questions unaddressed. The stress on citizen-state linkages as at the heart of its conception democratic quality might, for example, be taken as implying that forms of direct democracy offer better quality democracy. Not a conclusion I personally would shy away from or loose any sleep over, but an issue that goes unmentioned in the book, which is quite party-centred.

Such limitations, however, arguably reflect a concern with mapping out new territory broad agenda-setting, rather than making slam dunk cast iron, empirical judgements over narrow range of cases or issues, which frankly makes for dull and pointless political science. I personally like the rather unusual research-in-progress fee to the book. For all the above reason, it may, I suspect come to be a seminal work for research on comparative quality of democratic governance. Will CUP kindly grace us a paperback copy or an affordable e-version?

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