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Dissatisfied “Critical Citizens” and Protest in Central-Eastern Europe in the Last Two Decades

Ondřej Císař
Charles University
Ondřej Císař
Charles University
Katerina Vrablikova
University of Bath

On the background of widespread expectations about flourishing democracy and active citizenship inspired by the 1989 "revolutions", authors criticize low levels of civic and political participation, low interest and apathy towards politics, and weak civil societies in the new post-communist democracies. In addition to the “post-communist” legacy explanation, authors blame growing political disaffection and decreasing political trust for this political disengagement. Such results are mostly based on qualitative studies or survey data available only for a limited number of time periods and/or focused solely on voting. Contrary to this literature the paper argues that political disaffection does not lead to a deactivation and disengagement of post-communist publics. On the contrary, drawing on work by Dalton, Inglehart, Welzel, and Norris, it argues that low political disaffection is a sign of a developing “critical citizens” culture. Critical citizens are no longer deferential to political elites, are more demanding and expect more from politics. The disaffection of these “critical citizens” then should not lead to passivity and disengagement but in contrast to an increase in the non-institutionalized elite-challenging forms of political participation that are more autonomous, issue-oriented, and creative. To empirically test this theory, we use a unique comparative time-series data on protest events in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary from 1990 to 2010. The data are supplemented with quarterly data on trust in government and other controls, such as economic development and unemployment. The results show that the increase in political disaffection produces higher protest activism in the studied countries. More specifically, political disaffection is positively related to the increase in non-violent protest events and events organized by non-radical/extremist actors. This means that disaffection leads to democratic participation and does not produce non-democratic radical protest that would threaten the democratic process.
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