In the landscape of democratic institutions and especially within the context of democratic backsliding in Hungary and Poland, local governance generally receives less attention than other elements of a democratic society, such as the judiciary or the media. The Covid-19 crisis presented new kinds of challenges for local governments both in terms of crisis management tasks and the quickly changing legal, political and financial framework in which they operate. Our collaborative project attempts to understand the short and mid-term evolution of the way public authority is wielded in four East-Central European countries in the wake of the pandemic emergency situation and how this affects local democracies.
The participants of the project are four civil society organisations (CSOs) active in Czechia, Poland, Romania and Hungary respectively. All four organisations carry out activities related to transparency and anti-corruption as well as promote public participation in decision-making processes. We believe that self-governance at the local level is at the heart of the citizen experience. The rich associative life at the municipal level was for a long time seen as a key component of a particular pattern of citizen attitudes toward political actions, in which well-functioning democratic institutions are embedded. This participant culture is brought about and reinforced by accountability and community engagement in public issues of concern at the local level. This is not to say that all political articulation of the local community is genuinely democratic and inclusive. In terms of political culture, often in congruence with a centralised authoritarian structure, local governance might not challenge but instead contribute to systems where parochial political patronage relations dominate the choices of decision-makers over accountability to their electorate and thus undermine the overall state of transparency and accountability in a society.
We focus on local democracies in this project as we believe that this perspective has been underrepresented in current debates about the state of democracy and the rule of law in East-Central Europe. In December 2022 the European Council decided to deploy the conditionality mechanism to suspend EUR 6.3 billion in Cohesion funding for Hungary in the 2021-2027 period, but the implications of this decision on local governments have mostly been missing from the public discussion. A similar situation arises regarding the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF), from which neither Poland nor Hungary received payments as of January 2023 due to rule of law concerns. This study will show how municipalities have become increasingly vulnerable and dependent on funding decisions of national governments during the pandemic and energy crisis, so the suspension and delay of EU funding runs the risk of further increasing the leverage of central authorities over local actors, which in turn is exploited to serve partisan interests. Then again, additional mechanisms for accountability and adherence to the rule of law are much needed so that EU funds cannot be abused to prop up corrupt regimes.
The question of local democratic resilience is especially relevant in these countries, since political actors from the local level in opposition to their respective governments have tried to position themselves as guardians and promoters of democracy against the illiberal trends of the region and attempted to lobby for more direct EU funding. Mayors of Warsaw, Budapest, Prague and Bratislava (later joined by many more) pledged in 2019 to “combat populism, promote transparency and tackle climate crisis” with the help of grassroot democracy. After the confident victory of the Polish progressive opposition in urban areas both in the 2018 and 2020 elections and the relative opposition success in major Hungarian cities in 2019, high hopes have been attached to a reversal of autocratic trends coming from the local level in mainstream liberal narratives. Historical examples are referenced to show that even in hybrid regimes local victories could provide the foothold for the opposition to achieve national success later through a process of “creeping democratisation”. However, both in Poland and in Hungary the opposition has so far failed to translate local electoral successes into a national victory, rather we see a consolidation of urban-rural fault lines. We wish to explore the changing context in which local governments operate in the region in order to better understand their opportunities and limitations during a time period laden with crises. While it is tempting to limit the analysis to the politically salient conflict of capital cities and national governments, that conflict is much better documented than the general state of local administration in these countries. Therefore we employ a broader perspective that accommodates all levels and types of local governments, while remaining mindful of the caveat that a comprehensive and representative analysis of the developments of local governance in four countries is far beyond the scope of our project.
In order to analyse the quality of democracy and governance at the local level, we employed both a bottom-up and top-down perspective in the current project. The bottom-up perspective covers various channels for democratic interactions between citizens and local governments, while the top-down approach considers the relation between the local and state level of administrations and decision-making. The first approach is covered by the individual research of the partner organisations, which identify governance areas where local democracy might have deteriorated due to (1) restricted public participation and access to municipal decision-making, (2) reduced plurality in the local information space, (3) limited transparency of funding in times of crisis or simply (4) sub-optimal public service delivery due to financial constraints. The following assessment however, based primarily on desk research conducted by the four participating organisations, focuses on the autonomy of municipalities and how it was affected by measures of the central governments during the Covid-19 crisis.
The following analysis will consider the different starting points for municipalities going into the crisis, their first-hand experience with the pandemic and will discuss how central governments used the opportunity to strengthen their position. We aim to highlight the factors that limited or expanded the opportunities of local actors to maintain or increase their autonomy vis-à-vis the national government. Overall, we show how various processes during and since the pandemic have been detrimental to local autonomy and to the quality of our democracies, but we also highlight the importance of financial autonomy, constitutional safeguards and meaningful local engagement for the future of local good governance.