Interview #42 — From authoritarian regimes to democracies, and back?

Using the pandemic to introduce authoritarian measures, Poland and Hungary are drifting away from liberal democratic principles. In this interview with Anna Grzymala-Busse we link the current state of affairs to the communist legacies present in the two countries.

What happens to authoritarian parties once the country starts a process of democratization? And what consequences does this have on the newly formed democratic system and on party competition?

After the democratic transition, populist actors can succeed by exploiting the weakness of mainstream parties as well as their lack of accountability and responsiveness to the voters. As a result, populists can weaken the formal institutions of democracy, going after the courts, the media, and undermine democratic values, dividing society between loyal supporters and traitorous opponents.


POP) In your last work you analyse the impact of the successors to authoritarian ruling parties on the quality of the new democratic system. Can you tell us when and how do authoritarian successor parties bolster democratic party competition, and when do they impede it?

Anna Grzymala-Busse) If they exit power and reinvent themselves as “good democrats,” they bolster democratic competition in two main ways. By exiting power, they lose much of their access to state resources, which would otherwise give them a huge advantage in electoral competition (they may still retain informal networks and connections, of course, but at least they can’t simply siphon off state resources.) By reinventing themselves, they ensure that a pro-democratic consensus exists among the electoral competitors: that parties are committed to free elections, abiding by electoral outcomes, supporting liberal democratic freedoms, etc. Otherwise, they function as an authoritarian albatross—a reminder that not all political actors are committed to democracy.

POP) You include in your study 80 different countries, mostly from Africa and post-communist Europe and Eurasia, and you focus on how authoritarian ruling parties respond to the collapse of their rule. What are the most common party reactions to regime collapse? What happens when an authoritarian ruling party regime collapses? Is there any pattern?

AGB) As I note in the article, roughly 40% simply disappear, either dissolving themselves or being forced to dissolve. They are simply so tied to the regime that once the regime implodes, so do they. About 20% of the former authoritarians remain in power, even though the regime has collapsed. Around 14% remain intransigent, orthodox authoritarian parties—but about 20% reinvent themselves into committed democrats.

POP) In Hungary and Poland, communist parties immediately reinvented themselves after the collapse of communist rule. They even won elections in the 1990s only to wither away in the 2000s. Do you think that the democratic transition in these two countries, and the transformations of the former ruling authoritarian parties, played a role in today’s populist and authoritarian tendencies?

AGB) These reinventions mattered because they made the successor parties into formidable electoral competitors—and an easy target for those who argued that communist legacies continued to drive democratic politics. In the end, however, it was the deception of the MSzP (Hungarian Socialist Party) about the state of the economy in Hungary, and the eight years of increasing complacence of the PO (Civic Platform) in Poland that allowed the populists to do so well. It was the broader failure of mainstream parties that led to the rise of the authoritarian populists.

POP) Looking again at Hungary and Poland, it seems like the EU is not supposed to intervene to defend democracy, but at the same time it can impose harsh austerity measures. How can the EU tolerate member states without independent, impartial courts operating in accordance with fair trial rule? How can there be any future for the EU if it allows autocratic regimes to threaten the freedom of the media, the independence of the judiciary power, and the rule of law?

AGB) As Dan Kelemen has argued, the real issue here is partisan politics: the European People’s Party, the party of Jean Claude Juncker and now Ursula von der Leyden, has protected its biggest member, the Hungarian Fidesz, for fear of losing its dominant position. As a result, there has been precious little sanction of Poland or Hungary. The EPP is gaining short-term benefits, but the EU is losing longer-term credibility.

POP) After taking office in 2015, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice assumed direct control of the National Council of the Judiciary. In the meantime, the state broadcast media was forced to become a government propaganda machine. Is there any chance that elections in Poland, that were supposed to take place on May 10th but were then postponed, will be fully democratic, transparent and fair?

AGB) The real obstacle to fully free presidential elections is the pandemic—on the one hand, it led to the farce of Schroedinger’s elections, where they were simultaneously held but not held on May 10th. On the other, it meant an initial advantage to the incumbent, Andrzej Duda, who had the publicity and the press coverage as the main face of the government response to the pandemic. That said, there are still free media in Poland, and the real issue for the voters is which opposition candidate stands the best chance.

POP) Populists undermine formal institutions such as the courts, legislatures, and regulatory agencies as creations of the ‘corrupt elite.’ Moreover, they erode the informal norms of democracy. Larry Diamond proposes an “autocrats’ twelve-step program” from liberal democracy to authoritarianism. Where do you place Hungary and Poland? Do you think that the emergency linked to the current pandemic of Covid-19 will make the process from democracy to authoritarianism faster or easier for PiS and Fidesz?

AGB) Hungary is definitely further along than Poland: for one thing, it has a new constitution since 2011, which effectively cements Fidesz’s hold on power, as Kim Lane Scheppele has documented. Both the Hungarian and the Polish governing parties are committed to ensuring their hold on power: they share the same autocratic commitments. The difference is that Fidesz has a parliamentary supermajority, and a cadre of lawyers that expertly prepare the legal framework for the transition to autocracy. PiS is more fractious, has a smaller majority, and above all, has repeatedly shown itself to be incompetent in its attempts to consolidate authoritarianism. That shows in the response to the pandemic: in Hungary, immediate passage of emergency decrees, while in Poland, a bungled postponement of the elections.


Anna Grzymala-Busse is the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Professor in the Department of Political Science, and Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute at Stanford. She is the author of three books: Redeeming the Communist Past: The Regeneration of Communist Successor Parties; Rebuilding Leviathan: Party Competition and State Development in Post-Communist Europe; and Nations Under God: How Churches Use Moral Authority to Influence Politics

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