Citizens’ assemblies give people agency, strengthen quality information ecosystems, and overcome polarization by bridging divides. In doing so, they help strengthen people’s resilience to authoritarianism and populism.
Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe is in a particularly vulnerable moment as it faces a wave of populism, polarization, and growing public disengagement against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine.
In Hungary and Serbia, authoritarian tendencies have grown stronger, while Austria shows alarming levels of support for the populist Freedom Party. Rising polarization and discontent in Slovakia has led to a new governing coalition threatening to end support to Ukraine, which would open yet another crack for Russian influence in the region. In Poland, a much-needed change in government after the recent parliamentary elections promises renewal, but years of erosion of human rights and rule of law have left a mark.
We must address the weakening of democratic infrastructure with genuine democratic innovation. People are looking for greater agency in their lives and for real solutions to their problems. By tapping into the constructive aspects of our shared humanity and creating the conditions for our collective intelligence to emerge, we can take steps to reinvigorate democracy.
A Matter of National Security
Rising populism is the unintended outcome of the current democratic political system. Large parts of society are legitimately withdrawing their consent from a representative system that has failed to represent them and left them feeling behind in the globalized world, not in control of their lives, living under the pressures of changing climate and insecurity, and experiencing war fatigue. The inability of governments to articulate a roadmap for change and a more hopeful future does not help.
Even though similar tendencies are present in much of the Western world, in Central and Eastern Europe citizen resilience against populism and polarization is much more a matter of national security than elsewhere. Russia, with its imperial ambitions and foreign interference, exploits the flaws of the current democratic system and people’s feelings of disillusionment.
There is a vision for change and a more hopeful democratic future. Something remarkable has been happening right under our noses: a new kind of democracy is taking root.
Over the last few decades, governments across the world have been reaping the benefits of citizens’ assemblies: a democratic model, grounded in ancient Athenian practices that has been widely implemented and embedded into public decision-making as new institutions connected to power and underpinned by a legal basis. In citizens’ assemblies, governments convene groups of everyday people selected by lottery and broadly representative of society. They are empowered to learn, deliberate, build consensus, and develop recommendations that consider the values behind multifaceted public issues.
Citizens’ assemblies have been strikingly successful in tackling policy problems. In France, 185 people selected by lottery from across the country were convened to deliberate on whether to amend the legislation on end-of-life issues, and if so, how. After deliberating for 27 days over four months, they reached a 92 percent consensus on around 67 recommendations. In Ireland, citizens’ assemblies have been common practice at the national level for over ten years.
Citizens’ assemblies are democratic spaces for everyday people to grapple with the complexity of policy issues, listen to one another, and find common ground. In doing so, they create the conditions for overcoming polarization as well as for strengthening societal cohesion and democratic resilience.
Citizen Deliberation in Central Eastern Europe
Citizens’ assemblies, initially largely implemented in the West, over the past few years have been used in Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Serbia, and Slovakia. Introduced by governments, civil society organizations, and academia, they demonstrate the potential of democratic innovation in the region.
Where populist and extremist trends are not worrying yet, such as in the Baltic states, citizens’ assemblies are the next step toward a less vulnerable democratic paradigm. By creating spaces for people to deliberate and shape decisions affecting their lives, they provide genuine opportunities for citizens to exercise their agency. Building up people’s democratic resilience can strengthen this essential line of defense against externally induced social discontent.
In countries where polarization is emerging, such as Austria and Slovakia, but civil society and rule of law has not been significantly weakened yet, citizens’ assemblies could be just what is needed to defuse rising tensions. By establishing them on pressing and divisive issues, governments can create an opportunity for citizens to tackle them in a constructive way, to promote considered judgment, and to enable them to work toward a shared consensus. This would reduce the possibility of a thorny issue being weaponized by populist elites to entrench social divides for their political benefit, a classic move in the populist playbook. Research also suggests that when citizens with populist views take part in assemblies they turn out to be equally motivated by the common good as other citizens. Echo chambers that intensify polarization do not operate in deliberative conditions. Assembly members become less extreme as deliberation reduces biases in information processing and reasoning.
Corruption, a legacy of the informal networks inherited from communist times in most of the region, remains a weak spot that enables power capture. Citizen deliberation can enhance transparency and strengthen the integrity of public decision-making, reducing opportunities for individuals with money or power to exercise undue influence. Ramping up this line of defense contributes to more robust democratic governance.
Where democracy is already in serious decline, such as in Hungary and Serbia, citizen deliberation at the local level could present an opening. Strengthening local governance is often the last line of defense against democratic backsliding, with cities in particular being a stronghold against authoritarianism. However, citizens’ assemblies should be implemented with caution in such contexts. Like other parts of the democratic system, they are not immune to influence or misuse by the government to legitimize its decisions. Usually a clear and transparent governance and protocol for citizens’ assemblies, as well as independent evaluation, helps ensure their legitimacy and democratic quality. But where civil society and the rule of law are compromised, these checks and balances might not always be possible, especially at the national level. The presence of international observers or deliberation in frameworks organized by international organizations could address such concerns.
Informed citizen deliberation could to some extent mitigate mis/disinformation, which is routinely employed to cause polarization or as a tool of foreign interference. In citizens’ assemblies, people are presented with diverse stakeholder views and a comprehensive package of information about a specific policy issue. They are invited to think critically and to deliberate extensively over different arguments to develop their own point of view. As the information they receive is made public and communicated widely, this broad base of evidence can also enable informed public debate on the policy issue and reduce the impact of mis/disinformation about the particular issue in society.
Ultimately, if implemented well, citizens’ assemblies are about hope. They are about people coming together across party lines and divisions, and experiencing a new kind of democracy that bridges and empowers. In the process, it is possible to build democratic resilience at the individual, country, and regional levels.
Ieva Cesnulaityte is the founding head of research and learning at DemocracyNext and a Europe’s Futures Fellow at the IWM (2023–2024)