Democratic backsliding in European Union (EU) member states is not only a policy challenge for the EU, but also a potential existential crisis. If the EU does too little to deal with member state regimes that go back on their commitments to democracy and the rule of law, this risks undermining the EU from within. On the other hand, if the EU takes drastic action, this might split the EU. This article explores the nature and dynamics of democratic backsliding in EU member states, and analyses the EU’s capacity, policy tools and political will to address the challenge. Empirically it draws on the cases that have promoted serious criticism from the Commission and the European Parliament: Hungary, Poland, and to a lesser extent, Romania. After reviewing the literature and defining backsliding as a gradual, deliberate, but open-ended process of de-democratization, the article analyzes the dynamics of backsliding and the EU’s difficulties in dealing with this challenge to liberal democracy and the rule of law. The Hungarian and Polish populist right’s “illiberal” projects involve centralization of power in the hands of the executive and the party, and limiting the independence of the judiciary, the media and civil society. This has brought both governments into direct confrontation with the European Commission. However, the EU’s track record in managing backsliding crises is at best mixed. This comes down to a combination of limited tools and lack of political will. Ordinary infringement procedures offer a limited toolbox, and the Commission has proven reluctant to use even these tools fully. At the same time, party groups in the European Parliament and many member state governments have been reluctant to criticize one of their own, let alone go down the path of suspending aspect of a states’ EU membership. Hence the EU’s dilemma: it is caught between undermining its own values and cohesion through inaction on one hand, and relegating one or more member states it to a second tier—or even pushing them out altogether—on the other.
Democratic Backsliding in the European Union
Nick Sitter and Elisabeth Bakke
Land-Related Conflict and Electoral Politics in Africa
Land-related disputes and land conflicts are sometimes politicized in elections in African countries, but this is usually not the case. Usually, land-related conflict is highly localized, managed at the micro-political level by neo-customary authorities, and not connected to electoral competition. Why do land conflicts sometimes become entangled in electoral politics, and sometimes “scale up” to become divisive issues in regional and national elections? A key determinant of why and how land disputes become politicized is the nature of the underlying land tenure regime, which varies across space (often by subnational district) within African countries. Under the neo-customary land tenure regimes that prevail in most regions of smallholder agriculture in most African countries, land disputes tend to be “bottled up” in neo-customary land-management processes at the local level. Under the statist land tenure regimes that exist in some districts of many African countries, government agents and officials are directly involved in land allocation and directly implicated in dispute resolution. Under “statist” land tenure institutions, the politicization of land conflict, especially around elections, becomes more likely. Land tenure institutions in African countries define landholders’ relations to each other, the state, and markets. Understanding these institutions, including how they come under pressure and change, goes far in explaining how and where land rights become politicized.
Prosecutors: A Cross-National Political Perspective
Over the past decades, prosecutors have become more and more powerful within criminal justice systems. Yet, there is still relatively little empirical research on prosecutors. Most of the literature focuses on the analysis of the prosecutorial system of a single country. Cross-country analyses are close to nonexistent. From a comparative perspective, the various possible means to establish the independence of prosecutors from government and at the same time securing their accountability to the law are of paramount interest. Regarding the former, appointment procedures, possible career paths, and the degree to which prosecutors are subject to orders both from within the prosecution agency as well as from without (e.g., the ministry of justice) are of special concern. With regard to prosecutorial accountability, it is the legality principle (also known as mandatory prosecution), the issue whether prosecutors enjoy a monopoly in the prosecution of criminals, whether decisions not to prosecute a suspect are subject to judicial review, and the transparency of the behavior of prosecutors that are key. Regarding the organizational design choices of prosecution agencies that have been implemented across countries, four different clusters can be identified. The four clusters perform markedly different in terms of the rule of law levels associated with them. The consequences of institutional design choices are surprisingly small. The de facto organization of prosecutors turns out to be far more relevant for outcomes than what is prescribed de jure. Countries in which prosecutors enjoy a high degree of de facto independence suffer significantly less from corruption than countries in which this is not the case. Given that the institutional design choices of prosecutors are of limited relevance for their de facto situation, the question is: What factors determine the de facto independence and accountability of prosecutors? It turns out that some rather stable and immutable factors are decisive: Common law legal systems do better than those belonging to the civil law legal families. Generalized trust also plays an important role. If most people believe that others can be trusted, very specific rules for the behavior of prosecutors may seem unnecessary. A number of trends regarding the organization of prosecutors can be observed in many countries, among them the increased reliance on trial waiver systems, bonus payments to incentivize prosecutors, the founding of prosecutorial councils, and prosecutorial activism. It is questionable whether the first three of these trends will increase the efficiency of prosecution agencies; rather, they are likely to lead to a deterioration in the overall rule of law score of those countries relying on them.
Russian Legal System and Use of Law
The Russian legal system has a spotty reputation, both domestically and internationally. The distrust stems from well-publicized cases involving enemies of political or economic elites in which the outcome in favor of the elites is obviously predetermined. Coexisting with such cases are millions of mundane cases in which judges adhere scrupulously to the statutory law. This sort of legal dualism is not uncommon under authoritarianism. Russia’s constitution reflects this dualism. Its relevance to daily life and its capacity to constrain arbitrary state actions is questionable. Adopted in 1993, it proclaims Russia to be a state governed by the rule of law and includes a chapter with a comprehensive list of rights guaranteed to citizens which cannot be changed without convening a constitutional assembly. The constitutional court, which is a post-Soviet institutional innovation, is charged with ensuring compliance with the constitution. Amending the constitution requires consent from both the national legislature and two-thirds of the regional legislatures. The electoral dominance of the political party associated with Vladimir Putin has made this seemingly high threshold for amendments easily achievable. He has bent the constitution to his political will with multiple amendments, culminating in a set of over 100 amendments approved in 2020. The use of courts by Russian citizens and businesses has increased steadily during the post-Soviet period. As a rule, disputes are handled quickly and inexpensively. Even so, litigating is not the preferred option; Russians typically end up in court only when informal negotiations fail. As a rule, they go to court to solve practical problems rather than to advance issues of principle. The courts’ dockets are dominated by civil claims, such as family law disputes and various forms of debt collection. The straightforward nature of the procedural rules allows many litigants to represent themselves. In criminal cases, which are fewer, defendants are required to be represented by a licensed attorney (advokat). The state covers the cost of legal representation for the poor. Litigants who are dissatisfied with the outcomes of their cases can pursue appeals, culminating in the Russian Supreme Court. Citizens who believe that officials have violated their rights can pursue their claims in the stand-alone constitutional court, whose decisions serve as binding precedent. The post-Soviet era has witnessed wide ranging reforms to the legal system. Some were aimed at depoliticizing the courts. Judges are selected by a professional council dominated by judges that assesses candidates’ knowledge of law and appropriateness for the bench. They enjoy life tenure, subject to removal for cause—a process that is occasionally hijacked to remove judges who fail to toe the line in political cases. The reforms also sought to ease the heavy workload of judges by introducing a form of plea bargaining in criminal cases and opening the door to a type of summary judgment in civil cases in which defendants have conceded their culpability.