Budapest Forum 2022: Is Deep Polarization in Society a Driver of Autocratization?



  • Andreas Schedler, Senior Research Fellow of the Democracy Institute of Central European University
  • Filip Milačić, Senior Researcher of Friedrich Ebert Stiftung
  • Katalin Cseh, Vice President of Renew Europe and Member of the European Parliament
  • Johanna Lutz, Head of the Vienna Office of FES
  • Branimir S. Jovančićević, Vice President, Democratic Party, Member of Serbian Parliament,
  • Moderated by László Bruszt, Co-director, CEU Democracy Institute.


Main takeaways

  • Democratic elections can be viewed as civilized forms of civil war. They are part of a normal functioning of a democratic society. However, after an election, these conflicts settle for the time being. In this sense, polarization is part of a democratic system.
  • Democratic backsliding, trust of citizens in democratic institutions, elected leaders, legitimacy of elections and overall legitimacy of the democratic system were all subjects of a study recently undertaken by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung researching antidemocratic behaviour itself, and the tolerance of citizens for antidemocratic behaviour.
  • As all panelists agreed, the best single explanatory variable for examining if a democratic system is immobile or successful is measuring polarization of a society.
  • In the US example, one can see the slow emergence of polarization in the past decade and the transformation of the two-party system. The Republican and the Democratic parties grew more and more distant over the years and developed a habit of not being able to agree on barely any issue.
  • When politicians start seeing the other as a destroyer of democracy, as someone not playing by the rules, and themselves as the follower of those democratic rules, political actors become unable to form a united front and protect democracy from antidemocratic agents. Since democracy is a system of reciprocate rule compliance, this attitude upsets the basis of democracy, which harms the entire system.
  • In the discussion about the research of Friedrich Ebert Stiftung on antidemocratic behaviour panelists highlighted that for democracy to function there has to be a belief that democratic backsliding will be punished by the voters. However, according to the results of the FES research, this does not happen.
  • People tend to trust their preferred parties and often tolerate undemocratic behaviour when it occurs in their party of choice. Respondents also tended to trade their policy preferences for party preferences.
  • Economic policies did not play a key role in voting behaviour, on the other hand, identity politics had stronger effects on choices during elections. It was also measured how polarized people were more focused on questions which polarized them, than on policy issues.
  • Results showed respondents to be polarized over different issues in different countries: immigration in Sweden, usage of minority language in Spain, environmental issues in Germany, and rights of same-sex couples in Eastern Europe.
  • Willingness to tolerate antidemocratic behaviour also varied based on the issues over which respondents were polarized. Those showing deep polarization over rights of same-sex couple, for instance, tended to tolerate antidemocratic behaviour and ‘trade’ democracy for preferred opinion on rights of same-sex couples.

Policy recommendations

  • Create dialogues with citizens and build communities. Second, to try and not get into the game of talking about who is destroying democracy and who is protecting it.
  • New European media act could also be a possible way forward, as it could prevent further divisions created by malicious actors.