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Mordechai Kremnitzer and Yuval Shany (with assistance by Oded Ron) Families of Backsliding Democracies: Unhappy in their own way?

The paper, which is part of a broader project studying the mechanics and root causes of democratic backsliding, will explore similarities and differences between specific measures taken in three clusters of states, which could conceivably be presented on a spectrum of backsliding from liberal democracy – (1) Russia and Venezuela – states that preserve some democratic institutions but practice open repression against the political opposition and/or do not allow competitive elections; (2) Poland and Hungary – states that retain democratic institutions, but changed significantly the balance of power between branches of government and demonstrate decreasing tolerance to speech that challenges certain conservative values (such countries are sometime regarded as illiberal or anti-liberal democracies); (3)  Israel – a state which retains democratic institutions, but where the government is attempting to change the balance of power and reduce the space for unpopular speech.

In the paper, we focus on comparing specific measures taken in some or all of the five countries in following fields:

A – Judiciary: (1) restricting the legal powers of courts; (2) changing the method of judicial appointments; (3) dismissing judges; (4) delegitimizing judicial review;

B- Civil Society: (4) accusing CSOs of serving foreign interests; (5) regulating funding of CSOs; (6) adopting “us and them” rhetoric towards minority groups and foreign nationals;

C – Media and Academia: (7) increasing regulatory control over media and academia; (8) designating certain forms of expression in media and academia as illegitimate; and (9) labeling journalists as politically-motivated/unpatriotic.

Our hypothesis is that some degree of similarity can be found among measures taken in the reviewed countries despite the many differences between their contexts and political systems, and their different location on the backsliding spectrum. This begs the definitional question of whether certain measures are intrinsically anti-democratic (or intrinsically backsliding measures) – since they target dissent and individual and group rights and stem from a deep anti-democratic philosophy or political logic (and if so, what are the key elements of such an alternative philosophy or logic), or whether we define democratic welfare on the basis of the existence or absence of certain practices in the political and legal life of a state. Another question raised is whether the pathologies of democratic backsliding share common features that enable predicting their progression, and perhaps intervening in time to slow backsliding or reverse course. Finally, the paper tries to explore, using the literature on ‘legal transplants’ and ‘transnationalism’, the degree in which the measures in one country actually influence the adoption of measures in another country, and the degree in which the measures adopted in any given country are inter-dependent on one another. The findings may help liberal forces at the national and international level develop strategies to counter global and country specific democratic backsliding trends.

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