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The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic in Central and Eastern Europe

The Rise of Autocracy and Democratic Resilience

Petra Guasti

Abstract

The COVID-19 pandemic represents a new and unparalleled stress-test for the already disrupted liberal-representative, democracies. The challenges cluster around three democratic disfigurations: technocracy, populism, and plebiscitarianism—each have the potential to contribute to democratic decay. Still, they can also trigger pushback against illiberalism mobilizing citizens in defense of democracy, toward democratic resilience. This article looks at how the COVID-19 pandemic affects democratic decay and democratic resilience in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). It finds varied responses to the COVID-19 crisis by the CEE populist leaders and identifies two patterns: the rise of autocracy and democratic resilience. First, in Hungary and Poland, the populist leaders instrumentalized the state of emergency to increase executive aggrandizement. Second, in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, democracy proved resilient. The COVID-19 pandemic alone is not fostering the rise of authoritarianism. However, it does accentuate existing democratic disfigurations.