Municipalities are but one of the many actors in the ecosystem of local democracies, even if they are the most influential ones. They may experience multiple pressures from the bottom-up or from the top-down at the same time, which was probably never more so the case than during the past 3 years of cumulative crises. The Covid-19 crisis has been hard both on municipalities as institutions and on local democracies, understood as the fundamental platform for self-governance.
In most cases, the Covid-19 crisis reinforced central governments’ authority, often exacerbated by the opportunistic actions aimed at consolidating more power and resources at the national level, while gaining leverage and asserting dominance over the local level. This was attempted and successfully executed to varying degrees, as we have shown: local actors in countries with a more decentralised administrative system were more resistant to such attempts than those entrenched in more hierarchical and centralised systems. Acts of centralisation from the central government, targeted at local autonomy undermine the partnership and subsidiarity principles of the European Union as local and regional authorities deprived of their autonomy can neither participate independently in European development policy, nor can they deliver meaningful public services to citizens. This is inadvertently exacerbated by the EU, when it withholds funding in exchange for political reforms, as this further constricts municipal revenues. Increasing control over the local level also creates unfavourable conditions for meaningful “self-governance”, as it incentivises local decision-makers to advance within a clientelistic chain of dependencies. Municipalities should serve as platforms for consensus-building for local stakeholders, but they cannot fulfil this role under such a multitude of pressures. Simultaneously having to deal with the fallouts of a global health or energy crisis and countering the centralising tendencies of populist governments without sufficient institutional safeguards and without municipal interest groups and networks is not surprising to be overwhelming. Add to this the generally grim state of media and the shrinking local information spaces, local governance has gloomy outlooks.
In the end, it is local communities, who are capable of keeping local governments in check and keeping the practice of self-governance alive. This is why donors, the EU, national and international CSOs should have the following aims in mind for protecting local governance, a cornerstone of democratic societies:
- local communities should be empowered to engage with local authorities, participate, influence the agenda and should always demand accountability and transparency, so that they can challenge the logic of politically biased resource-allocation;
- reinforce local governments vis-à-vis national governments through encouraging cooperation with civil society, and to build municipal networks and even initiate international co-operations that may provide necessary resilience in times of crisis and especially grant more voice to local and regional authorities in European decision-making and Cohesion Policy;
- support national governments according to the Do No Harm principle in order that development funds cannot be abused to prop up corrupt, hierarchical systems of clientelism or to circumvent legitimate local governments by providing top-down funding to locally rejected projects.
Municipalities are not by default vanguards/rearguards of democracy, even when they are led by a national opposition. They are highly dependent on and vulnerable to the central government and are not exempt from opportunistic behaviour that might limit local transparency and accountability. Hoping to supplant populist governments building on local electoral success may carry its own risks of politicians only regarding local decision-making positions as resources to be collected in the national struggle or launch pads for individual career paths instead of providing service to local citizens. Nonetheless, the principle of subsidiarity still carries value, as municipalities are better positioned in many occasions to respond to crises and influence citizens’ lives positively in a more direct way than national governments. Despite the deterioration in the quality of local democracies during the past three years due to assaults on local channels of transparency and participation, information spaces and civil society reducing plurality and democratic resilience, municipalities remain a more accessible and more accountable democratic platform for civil society to engage with than national governments most of the time.
However, local governments will only be democratic as long as they have meaningful competences and tools to affect the well-being of their citizens and thus can generate impactful engagement from them. This primarily entails financial and administrative autonomy, but other governance aspects like transparency, accountability, civic participation, efficiency, etc. should all be considered for the vitality of local democracy. Local governments are well positioned to respond to crises and protect the vulnerable elements of society – so we should maintain and protect the structures, tools and ideas of ‘self-governance’. International donors should keep in mind the relevance of local governance to the overall democratic resilience of societies under populist, authoritarian regimes. Empowering local communities as well as providing incentives for national governments to treat municipalities as partners in development and policy-making should be a key strategy of organisations wishing to strengthen democracy in East-Central Europe.