Democracy Remains Resilient In V4 Nations Despite Mistrust – Survey 

Region-spanning research breaks down the state of Central Europe's democracies 

9 November 2023

The recent Polish and Slovak elections produced divergent political outcomes from the point of view of adherence to democratic values but reflect broader social trends and attitudes of societies in Central and Eastern Europe, according to the “Democratic Trends in Central Europe” survey conducted by a consortium of Central and Eastern European scholars from research institutions across the region.

Listen to the podcast devoted to the survey below

The survey is the result of a project (Political Culture, Democratic Values and Misinformation: Detecting Democratic Footholds & Weaknesses) that aims to identify different types of political culture among Central European citizens and their adherence to democratic values to identify weaknesses of democratic societies and suggest educational remedies through original research.

Click here to download the PDF of the survey

High turnouts testify to strong democratic resilience

Elections in both countries toppled the ruling majorities in record-high turnouts, reflecting that Poles and Slovaks remain committed to democracy as a means to change the course of governance even if they are critical of democratic governance and the political class as such.

In Poland, three democratic mainstream parties – the Civic Coalition, the Third Way and the Left – won a clear majority in the 15 October elections over the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which has undermined the country’s democratic checks and balances and displayed authoritarian tendencies.

In Slovakia, a nationalist-leftist alliance with an often illiberal approach to democratic governance emerged victorious two weeks earlier, defeating the ruling centre-right parties and the new liberal and pro-Western Progressive Slovakia, which came second after the Smer party led by the firebrand veteran politician Robert Fico.

Turnout in Poland was a record-high 74 percent and 68 percent in Slovakia, defying expectations that the general disillusionment will reduce participation. Democratic resilience in both countries was exemplified by a high turnout of young voters and Poles and Slovaks living abroad, who mostly rallied against the illiberal parties in their home countries.

Election campaign dynamics produced surprising mobilisation, but  according to the survey, democratic resilience was in evidence earlier: – 66 percent of Poles and 67 percent of Slovaks believed that having a “liberal democracy with regular elections and multiparty system” was better for their country than “having a strong and decisive leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament”, even though as many as 71% of Slovaks and 64% of Poles defined politics as an “immoral farce that defies common sense.”

Reflecting such perceptions, the election campaign in both countries has been highly polarised and rife with vicious verbal attacks and often bizarre happenings by leading contenders.

In one incident which went viral, a leading figure from the ruling OL’ANO party in Slovakia, ex-PM Igor Matovic, got into a fistfight with another ex-minister from the opposition Smer party as he was trying to disrupt a news conference given by Fico. In Poland, a campaigning deputy of the opposition Civic Coalition was unceremoniously shoved into a police van despite her parliamentary immunity.

During their respective campaigns, Fico and PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński regularly poured vitriol on opponents, accusing leading opposition figures of serving foreign, western interests.

Contrast with Germany’s striking

According to the survey, dissatisfaction with the quality of the political discourse in Czechia and Hungary is slightly less pronounced than in Poland and Slovakia. Surprisingly, people in Hungary – which the Economist Intelligence Unit has classified as a”flawed democracy” – have higher trust in democracy than people in Poland or Slovakia and is on par with those in Czechia.

Strikingly, all the Visegrad Four countries clearly lag behind Germany. The Germans’ support for the democratic form of government reached 81 percent in the survey, and only a third of them believed politics in their country was a farce.

Consequently, the survey showed Germans were visibly more satisfied with how their political system was working. The lowest scores in this regard came from Slovaks and Hungarians, with Poles and Czechs in the middle.

The discrepancy between attachment to democracy and the perception of how democracy functions was also lowest in Germany, followed by Czechia, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary lagging behind.

“It seems the survey reflects the varied adherence to liberal-democratic principles, governance, and political culture in the five countries”, said Miles R. Maftean, editor-in-chief at PartyParty, a news platform covering developments and trends for political professionals and one of the study’s authors. “Liberal-democratic values are still being cemented in the four ex-Soviet bloc countries, while in Germany, these principles, both codified and tacit, are broadly embraced by society.”

Are Poles more ready to trade freedom for money?

More detailed questions on the attitudes to democracy and freedom in the survey yielded some surprising results. Defying the stereotype of Poles as greatly valuing personal freedom, a majority of those polled said they would be prepared to trade some of their rights and freedoms for financial gain to their households.

Nearly 20 percent of Poles said they would “definitely” do that, with another 34 percent inclined in this direction. In the remaining four countries, the majority of citizens saw it the other way around.

In Slovakia, where the cost-of-living crisis was an important factor in boosting support for Smer, the respective numbers were 15 and 29 percent. In Czechia and Hungary, the balance in favour of freedoms was even clearer – 37 percent of Czechs and 36 percent of Hungarians would definitely or rather sacrifice them for better financial standing. In Germany, the number was down to around a third of society.

Part of the reason why freedoms in CEE sometimes come second to economic concerns is that poverty and inequality remain key issues for many V4 citizens. With inflation running at double digits in the last two years and energy costs soaring, many poorer households in the region saw their real incomes seriously affected.

In the survey, poverty, inequality and inflation were top concerns for 29 percent of Poles, 36 percent of Hungarians and 41 percent of Slovaks. For the relatively more affluent Czechs, it was 28 percent.

Poles and Slovaks were also more prepared to exchange their freedom for greater security. In Poland, where memories of World War Two horrors remain embedded in social discourse, 66 percent of respondents said they would be strongly or mildly inclined to sacrifice some freedom for security. This compared to 58 percent in Slovakia, 54 percent in Czechia, 51 in Hungary and 45 percent in Germany.

The relatively high reading in Poland needs to be seen also in the context of Russia’s aggression on Ukraine. The sense that Poland could be next in the line is widespread in Polish society. Security was a major topic in the election campaign, with PiS often exaggerating threats and presenting itself as the only party caring about Poland’s security.

This narrative was undermined, however, by the resignations of top generals just days before the elections in protest against using the army and sensitive defence information in PiS propaganda.

In Slovakia, the Ukraine war also played a part in the election campaign. Fico’s key campaign pledge was to stop delivering arms to Ukraine, blaming Kyiv for the outbreak of hostilities. He aired pro-Russian and anti-Western views and accused the outgoing government of endangering NATO member Slovakia’s security by blindly following the U.S. lead. His message boiled down to signalling that Slovak identity leans more to the east than the west.

The survey showed Fico’s tactics were well grounded in popular sentiments. Over 50 percent of Slovaks perceive the Western way of life as a threat to their identity – double the number for Poland and Hungary. The perception of Russia as a threat was much lower than in Poland, Czechia and Germany and at par with Hungary.

Slovaks and Hungarians were also less inclined to see China as a threat, in sharp contrast to Poland, Germany and Czechia. Slovaks were also more than other nations intolerant of the LGBTIQ+ community – again, a topic exploited by Fico.

Trust in government is key

One common denominator of the Polish and Slovak elections was a decline of trust in their respective governments, which allowed the opposition to prevail. Both the Slovak and Polish governments rose to power promising good governance, rooting out corruption and enhanced accountability. Their record in power, however, was far from delivering on those commitments.

In Slovakia, the government was plagued by weak leadership and internal divisions, leading to its premature collapse late last year. A snap election was called, and the technocratic caretaker governments that followed struggled to maintain a parliamentary majority for their policies, deepening the popular sense of political chaos and drift. Trust in government in Slovakia was the lowest of all five countries at a meagre 16 percent.

In Poland, the Law and Justice government displayed blatant disregard for the rule of law, sought to subordinate the independent judiciary and allowed patronage and nepotism to flourish on an unprecedented scale. Its trust score was also low 27 percent.

Level of Trust

The incoming government and the three parties set to compose it have made restoring democratic norms and the rule of law the plank of their electoral campaigns. The extraordinary turnout indicates that they won the trust of many new voters and that Poland can change in this respect.

In Slovakia, the return of politicians is often associated with corruption, and authoritarian instincts risk dragging the country back to the malpractices of the past and is likely to dash the hopes of the younger generation that massively backed Progressive Slovakia.

This project is part of a consortium of CEE scholars from the following research institutions: the Institute of Experimental Psychology at the Slovak Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Psychology at the Czech Academy of Sciences, Eötvös Loránd University, Constructor University Bremen gGmbH and Visegrad Insight / Res Publica Foundation.

The survey and the report were funded by the International Visegrad Fund (Grant # 22120123).

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