Misdiagnosing threats to democracy in Eastern Europe


Photo : diekatrin via Flikr  cc

I really don’t know why John Feffer’s Huffington Post post Hungary: The Cancer in the Middle of Europe? is being so widely shared and translated.

Its starting point that  things are going badly wrong in Hungary and that the country is taking a sharply illiberal turn under the conservative-national administration of Fidesz – and that in Jobbik it has a strong and virulent far-right party – is reasonable enough (although  it has been made many times before).  And there is indeed a climate of nationalism and anti-Roma racism on the Hungarian right, although Fidesz and Jobbik are probably as much rivals as ‘occasional allies’ especially given the stuttering performance of Hungary’s divided liberal-left.

And the transformation of Fidesz from a liberal party to conservative bloc occurred in the mid-late 1990s, not recently as some readers might assume from reading piece. Nor, being one of the major governing parties in Hungary since 1998 can Fidesz have interrupted a ‘rotating kleptocracy’ of liberal parties – the intepretation of why parties like Fidesz come to power offered in the conclusion.

But piece’s main argument that Hungary is Eastern Europe writ large or the shape things to come in the region. ‘What’s eating away at a free society in Hungary’, Feffer writes, ‘has metastasized. This same cancer is present elsewhere on the continent’.

And this is really hyperbole.  A closer look suggests similarities between Hungary and the rest of the region are rather limited.  First, the far right is stationary or marginal in most CEE states. Even in crisis elections like those in Bulgaria last month, more often than not the extreme right cannot pull in additional votes usually hovering in the 5-10% range.  Jobbik is the exception, not the rule and things look set to stay that way (Radical nationalists also made gains in the last elections in Latvia and Romania – although neither country gets a mention in the piece – and, of course, has done well in some West European states since 1970s).

Leaving the radical right aside, Feffer also warns us that

“Nor is political authoritarianism unique to Hungary. The Kaczynski brothers brought Poland to the brink of authoritarianism, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski still hopes to return to power and implement the same program as FIDESZ. In Bulgaria, Boyko Borisov has a similar approach to politics though without the parliamentary majority to implement it. Robert Fico in Slovakia, Vaclav Klaus in the Czech Republic, and several leaders in the former Yugoslavia have also shown a tendency toward absolutism.”

The underlying point that some CEE politicians are not model democrats and, given the opportunity, will bypass or subvert institutions (‘a tendency toward absolutism’)  is true enough. But the bad guys he fingers above are politically and personally a varied and motley crew. On paper most are ideologically mainstream – Klaus a eurosceptic conservative and Fico a socal democrat. Borisov’s party sits with the Christian Democrats in the European Parliament. And, while I would not trust any with unfettered power, short of putting them on the couch, it is impossible to know what levels of ‘absolutism’ or ‘authoritarianism’ they inwardly harbour.

Politically, however, most never had the chance to try any serious authoritarianism. And are unlikely to get it.  Václav Klaus like his successor Miloš Zeman enjoyed little power as president. When they led political parties, neither ever had a much of a majority and clientelistic deals and self-interested electoral reform were as close to ‘absolutism’ or ‘authoritarianism’ as they ever got. Robert Fico, Slovakia’s Prime Minister, does have an absolute parliamentary majority, but lacks the supermajority needed to change the constitution and – although it seems to have escaped Feffer – as anticipated by Pavol Demes, has so far been  been behaving himself. Reports suggest his next project is to be become Slovak president, a post high in prestige but lowish on power.

The Kaczyńskis’ and Law and Justice did not take ‘Poland to the brink of authoritarianism’ but led a weak minority government (2005-7), which collapsed after two years. They was  in the doldrums for years since and have only picked up support recently by tacking (not always successfully) to the centre. They were nowhere near an absolute majority, let alone the type of supermajority Fidesz used to bring in constitution. Boyko Borisov, of course, was felled by wave of social protests in February-March this year and had his parliamentary representation reined in by the recent election. He failed to form a government, shunned by all other parties including the far-right.

Feffer is nearer the mark in seeing Hungary as having suffered ‘perfect storm of illiberalism’. The party had an unusual high vote in 2010, which was amplified in parliament by Hungary’s distinct semi-majoritarian electoral system – almost unique in CEE (only Lithuania comes close). Fidesz had a powerful sense of ideological mission grounded in conservative nationalism and a rejection of  the compromise roundtable transition to democracy negotiated with the communists in 1989. Law and Justice, as Feffer rightly says, felt similarly, dreaming of a new throughly decommunised ‘Fourth Republic’ in Poland.

 But few big parties in CEE, even on the right, have an ideological project like Fidesz or Law and Justice. Most are directionless and corrupt brokerage parties, which lack the will go on a ‘march through institutions’ of the kind we see in Hungary, even if they find themselves beneficiaries of freak political weather.

 Corruption, untrustworthy power-hungry politicians, often cynical, apathetic voters and rampant populist anti-politics may indeed be a cancer in the bodies politic in the region states. But so most have had sufficient democratic good health to keep it in remission.

 My diagnosis: sloppy journalism.

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