As part of the 20th anniversary commemorations in postcommunist Europe, America.gov (one of the U.S. State Department’s outreach websites) has been soliciting academics and journalists to write on “Challenges of Democracy” in the region (in 400 words or less!). They were kind enough to publish my own thoughts (with no editorial intrusions) along with other comments about other countries from eminent commentators including Vladimir Tismaneanu, Janos Bugajski, Charles Ingrao and fellow Slovak Studies Association member Mark Stolarik. My own take on the question (utterly predictable to those who read this blog on occasion) is below, but read it here instead so as to let the managers of America.gov demonstrate to their superiors that the idea was worthwhile.
Slovakia today faces several slow and subtle threats to meaningful democratic representation. These hardly seem dangerous when compared to the near-collapse of the Slovakia’s democracy in the mid-1990’s, but they are serious in their own right, especially because their subtlety makes them hard to see and even harder to correct.
Some current threats echo the problems of the 1990’s, particularly the growing politicization of the judiciary and other state functions and the sharpening of ethnic rhetoric. Questions of ethnicity in Slovakia are genuinely difficult, and it is no surprise that they remain at the center of political debate, but the shrillness of today’s exchanges risks long-term damage to relations between groups which have no choice but to live together. Although these problems are worrisome, Slovakia’s own recent history suggests that the cycle of alternating government and opposition tends to redress imbalances. Slovakia’s democracy survived worse periods of politicization and polarization, because Slovakia’s voters rejected extremes and opted for parties that offered more moderate alternatives.
But Slovakia’s political party system faces its own threats. Slovakia’s party system has become dominated by political parties which are less like classic European parties than like Internet startups: well-branded, CEO-driven organizations with a big-money investors, lots of consultants and short-term goals. They remain intact only as long as they continue to serve their function; otherwise they split or merge. Ordinary people become consumers, persuaded by flashy advertising campaigns to spend their vote on one product or another. These parties do not violate the formal rules of democracy, but the resulting interactions are thin and unsatisfying. In the worst case scenario, parties become vehicles for gaining office rather than for governing, and since they themselves do not expect to be around for more than one or two election cycles, they have little reason to pursue long-term and difficult policy changes. Faced with a parade of volatile new parties fighting for attention with famous faces and promises of renewal, voters become cynical about the political process and stop expecting that politics offers any solutions to public problems.
This problem is more akin to a chronic illness than a fatal disease. A sloppy, unresponsive, celebrity-driven democracy is still a democracy and can probably limp along indefinitely, but not without a huge cost in unsatisfied needs and wasted resources. Slovakia will not be alone in this—the same trends are emerging throughout the east and with only a slight lag in the west—but misfortune shared is still misfortune.