Democratic resilience under assault on multiple fronts
Besides the centralisation efforts of governments, local governance experienced other, less pronounced developments as well, such as the minor trend of delegating certain responsibilities related to the implementation of Covid-19 measures to the local level. In Hungary the responsibility for decisions on mandatory mask wearing in public spaces, or the closing of certain public areas was assigned to the mayors. In the Czech Republic, local police were tasked with enforcing compliance with lockdown rules instead of the national authorities. Likewise in Poland and Romania, local governments were burdened with multiple new duties regarding implementing economic lockdown, introducing remote learning and later, coordinating vaccination programs (the latter being a difference to Hungary, where the government opted to take all the credit for the swift vaccination campaign). Such steps set the stage for a blame game, where the government could point at local governments’ incompetence in case of a potential failure of containment policies or just simply provided the option to direct public dissatisfaction over lockdowns towards local politicians.
This could be observed best in Hungary, where the government took full advantage of the situation and often initiated smear campaigns, the number one target being Gergely Karácsony, mayor of Budapest (and potential opposition candidate for prime minister in 2022 at the time). Government-affiliated media ridiculed early calls from the capital to close schools, the introduction of mandatory mask wearing on public transport, even the type of rapid tests procured for teachers – all measures, which were later adopted by the national government as well. An early epicentre of the virus was a municipality-managed elderly care home in Budapest, which also provided an opportunity for media attacks. The opposition only went on the offensive in the media (with very limited resources) after it became clear that the government has no intention to alleviate the budgetary pressures on municipalities, rather constrain them further.
In Hungary, government messaging is amplified by a well-oiled propaganda machinery, but even in the other countries local governments were both vulnerable to malign messaging and had lower degree of transparency due to the shrinking local information space. In part this was due to the nature of the Covid-19 crisis. Some municipalities (e.g. in Poland) proactively moved council meetings to remote setting, even before a legal basis for it. In the Czech Republic, the restrictions imposed were challenged and overturned, making online council meetings allowed and attaching recommendations, similar to how Romania approached the issue. In all of these cases recording and transmission of the council meetings was supposed to be accessible, but even if the technological obstacle was overcome (often not the case), public participation was practically made impossible. In Hungary, council sittings were altogether suspended, with decision-making powers delegated to the mayors. Some mayors experimented with “consulting” council members and tried to publish decisions proactively, but overall the result of the measure was a dire degradation of local transparency. Combined with the impossibility of live partnership meetings with local stakeholders, nationally extended deadlines for responses to freedom of information requests in Romania and Hungary, (initially) suspended deadlines for administrative and court proceedings in Poland, local channels of accountability have practically all been frozen for the emergency period.
Limited access to independent, local media further exacerbates the accountability problem. Oziveni’s research from the Czech Republic shows how “information deserts” may arise when it’s not profitable for private actors to publish local news and municipal media outlets fail to function as an objective source of information for the local populace, only serving the role of one-way, often propagandistic communication channel of local governments. The government may be able to improve the situation by introducing better legislation (or by impartial funding schemes) if it wanted to. A more nefarious approach is when the national government directly intervenes in order to consolidate local media markets with a direct line of control over acquired products. This was clearly a priority for Fidesz after 2010, but recently fears are increasing in Poland over the state-owned oil firm, Orlen taking over Polska Press (controlling a majority of local and regional press market in Poland). Government control over local media (either through direct ownership control or through financial incentives, such as ad revenues) is bound to crowd out local issues, thus reducing local engagement. The tendency of lacking interest in local politics is only reinforced by citizens consuming news more and more through social media and big news outlets where global and national issues dominate the news cycle.
Another detrimental development for local civil society is when national politics and parties start to dominate local civic life. Local governance losing relevance vis-à-vis the national government can result in a reduction of the activity of local, issue-based organisations. If paired with the limited financial capacity of municipalities to occasionally provide support for local initiatives and projects, the local civic space will be filled by funding from political parties attempting to build local hegemony for national elections. In Hungary, Fidesz invests significant resources to crowd out any plurality of voices on every possible platform – from funding an army of “influencers” on social media, printing local magazines that resemble the district or city official newspaper (but are in fact party-commissioned) to funding local “CSOs”, which appear independent of the local party organisation and thus may provide increased legitimacy in certain issues. Local media and civil society has always been dependent on funding from the authorities themselves, however if the final benefactor and financer becomes the national government for all platforms and actors, it will be necessarily detrimental to the primacy of local issues, reduces the plurality of local civil society and consequently goes against local interests. Civil society is fundamental for building democratic resilience and it has been shown that local governments engaging CSOs in participatory governance enhances the relevance and legitimacy of local policies.
During the pandemic, it could also be observed that opportunistic behaviour is not exclusive to national governments. In Hungary for example, mayors exploited the state of emergency granting them temporarily the full decision-making power of city councils to circumvent opposition and adopted new budgets, new organisational and operational regulations, appointed or recalled deputy mayors or even raised their own wages. In Romania, rules surrounding procurements were relaxed for Covid-19 related materials and equipment, but were occasionally used to circumvent regulation in unjustified cases, like for contracting maintenance work on streets and public buildings. And even if spending could be justified in the context of the pandemic, priorities were informed by the 2020 local elections.
These examples may also serve as a warning for what happens when shrinking financial space, dependency on emergency transfers from the government, decreasing plurality of opinions and limited opportunity for public participation create conditions in which local actors are incentivised to be opportunistic rather than accountable. It may seem to better advance their political goals to be better integrated into networks of political patronage and build their own clientelistic networks than to deliver on electoral promises. In general, the primary focus of this study was the dynamics of municipality-government relations during the crisis, but issues of local state capture and recommendations of how to improve transparent and accountable local governance are covered within this project in separate case studies as well as by an excellent research by the Croatian Gong organisation from 2017.
When external factors, such as a pandemic, create conditions, under which local participation and access to information is hindered, the actions of central governments overriding local autonomy, reducing competences and budgets or increasing responsibilities on a whim further undermine citizens’ trust in local governance. When people don’t feel like their voices are heard, and that their local problems can have local solutions enacted by decision-makers they know personally, the principle of self-governance will be defunct. This effect can already be observed in Hungary during local by-elections, where the opposition lost in constituencies that were considered stable electoral bases for them. It is understood that disappointment over the 2022 legislative elections combined with the reduced stakes of local elections results in both lower turnout and a more pro-government stance of constituents. Citizens are less motivated by the mutual blame game and instead of punishing the government for its authoritarian moves, they vote for pro-government candidates in the hopes of their city gaining better access to state resources (i.e. the “blackmail” strategy is effective).
The effect of these crisis-laden years on local governance may be possible to fully grasp after 2024, which will be a tumultuous year for elections in the region. The European elections will take place in May, but local elections will also be organised in Poland (April), Hungary (May) and Romania (September), with regional and Senate elections held in Czechia in the autumn and possibly legislative elections in Romania at the end of the year. Interestingly, the timing of the local elections have been subject to politically motivated changes both in Poland and in Hungary, according to the respective oppositions. In Poland, they were pushed back from 2023 in order to avoid a potentially negative set-up for the general elections from the perspective of the governing parties, while in Hungary they were brought forward from their traditional autumn date and bundled together with the EU elections in order to make cooperation and coordination among opposition parties more difficult. With local elections in three of these countries and regional elections in the fourth, it will be interesting to look at whether the interest and trust of citizens in local governments have been eroded by these years or to the contrary, if they are more appreciative of local decision-making.