30 YEARS OF TRANSITION: A profound crisis of trust in democracy

30 YEARS OF TRANSITION: A profound crisis of trust in democracy
By Denitsa Koseva in Sofia November 7, 2019

30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, former communist states suffer from a profound crisis of trust in democracy with liberal values that have ousted communism now under threat from rising populism, while distrust of major institutions is growing, a report from the Open Society Foundations noted.

Based on polls carried out by YouGov in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia, the report “States of Change: Attitudes in Central and Eastern Europe 30 Years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall” aims to provide a snapshot of current opinion on democracy, freedom of speech, the market economy, and the media in the former Eastern Bloc and Germany.

“Firstly, we see an alarming level of distrust among the citizens of Central and Eastern Europe toward government, fed by widespread insecurities regarding the condition of democratic systems, and a prevailing sense of relative deprivation since 1989,” the report says.

Citizens of all countries have expressed concerns that some of the freedoms won in the 1989 revolutions are now under pressure. Trust in the mainstream political system and in the mainstream media is evaporating, and the lure of nationalist-minded parties and authoritarian leaders is growing.

“A majority of respondents reported that they think democracy is under threat in their country, a threat most felt in Slovakia (61%), followed by voters in Hungary (58%), Romania (58%) and Bulgaria (56%),” the report reads.

Within the oldest generation, the share of those pessimistic about the future of democracy seems higher with 81% of older respondents in Bulgaria and 63% in Poland and Romania holding the view that democracy is under threat.

The poll also showed that in every country, more than 60% of respondents polled noted that the rule of law is under threat. The figures were highest in Bulgaria (74%), followed by Slovakia (70%), Romania (68%) and Poland (64%). In Hungary, the number is slightly lower (59%) despite the government being the target of legal action by the European Commission over breaches of the rule of law guarantees of the EU founding treaty.

At the same time, in Hungary, almost two-thirds of respondents reported that they feared negative consequences if they criticised the government in public.

“The responses may reflect the influence of the ruling Fidesz party’s extensive patronage networks that extend across the government, the private sector, academia, and the cultural sphere,” the report noted.

Nearly half of the people surveyed in Romania (50%), Bulgaria (47%), and Poland (48%) also say that their freedom to protest is under threat.

Civic society on the rise

The report notes that, as populism is rising and the political climate is worsening, these countries show a “robust spirit of dissent, and a readiness to challenge those in power”. In Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Romania, tens of thousands have protested against top-level corruption, while in Bulgaria there were several protests over the highly controversial appointment of a new prosecutor general. In Poland, the last four years of government by the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party have been marked by almost daily demonstrations in Warsaw. In Hungary, the ruling Fidesz party lost control of Budapest in local elections in October, despite its control on the media and the levers of power. In Berlin, an estimated 270,000 protestors joined Global Climate Strike marches in September.

The countries have also developed high actual civic engagement scores. This trend seems to be most pronounced in the East, identified as “a new wave of dissidents in the East that can turn back Europe’s populist tide”.

“Our results demonstrate that where the establishment has failed citizens, civil society is perceived as a trustworthy counterpart. Indeed, in all of the countries we polled, charities, community organisations, and to some degree NGOs are seen as a force for good,” the report reads.

Academic institutions have also gained more trust as a “force for good”, which suggests that citizens may be starting to turn away from the established media in favour of the voices of experts, intellectuals and scientists.

The report pays special attention to the youngest generation, dubbed Generation Z.

“This generation, which has come of age in a post-recession era, exhibits a remarkable capacity to mobilise effectively, navigate the information landscape, and harness social media. They are confident, feel they can influence change on a large scale, and exhibit a broad embrace of social justice that is significantly more inclusive than their elders’ toward ethnic minorities, LGBT groups, refugees, and immigrants,” the report notes.

The study also found out that within this generation women are a driver of positive change, being significantly more tolerant and compassionate toward minorities. However, this is also a generation that the CEE countries can lose to a brain drain if steps are not taken to encourage young people to stay in their home countries.

This article is part of bne IntelliNews’ series marking the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Find more articles from the series here: 

Corruption, racism and intolerance in Bulgaria

“I was 30” commercial stirs controversy in Romania

The Czech Republic divided by freedom since 1989

Poland at a crossroads

Central European automakers prepare for an electric future

Gabor Szeles, a self-made Hungarian success story