It is now commonplace to observe that democracy in Central and East Europe (ECE) is not in rude health.
But despite a plethora of commentary on ‘democratic backsliding’ and ‘illiberal democracy’ and an uptick of academic interest in topics such as ‘de-democratisation’, ‘de-consolidation’ ‘democratic regression’, this is little agreement on the nature the problem – and still less on its causes.
An interesting light is cast on the issue is cast by Luca Tomini’s book Democratizing Central and Eastern Europe: Successes and failures of the European Union, which is interestingly poised between the optimism of the post-accession period and the pessimism and fearfulness about the region’s democratic development of today.
Tomini’s argues that
democratic consolidation is best understood as the absence or prevention of authoritarian backsliding rather than the expectation that democracy is here to stay and that the key to the process was so-called horizontal accountability: the extent to which governing elites’ ability to concentrate power or plunder the state is held in check by institutions and norms. Read More…
This commentary on liberalism and the responses to the refugee crisis in East Central Europe was co-authored with James Dawson.
Images from Hungary showing security forces turning tear gas and water cannon on refugees from behind a newly fortified border will come as little surprise to many observers of East Central Europe. The government of Victor Orbán has systematically exploited the refugee crisis to ramp up a long-standing rhetoric of nationalist intolerance and consolidate its grip on power by passing a raft of emergency powers, further eroding Hungary’s once robust legal checks and balances. Such actions have drawn a storm of international opprobrium – including harsh criticism from the governments of Austria, Croatia and Serbia, all of which have taken a more humane and pragmatic approach to managing the influx of refugees.
Few criticisms of Hungary’s actions have come from neighbouring EU states in East Central Europe still widely seen as front runners in liberal political and economic reform. Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic initially opted to close ranks with Orbán to head off the European Commission’s proposals for compulsory quotas. Wrong-footed and exasperated by the sudden re-discovery of liberal compassion on the part on Germany and other West European governments, leaders ranging from Slovakia’s social democratic prime minister Robert Fico to Poland’s newly elected conservative president Andrzej Duda provoked astonishment in Western European capitals by conceding that they might take a handful of those fleeing the war in Syria hand-picked on the basis of their religion. Poland has lately broken ranks by responding to pressure from Berlin, Paris and Brussels to sign up to quotas, yet even the deal’s supporters doubt it will ever be implemented against a backdrop of consistently hostile public attitudes towards refugees in the region. As one social media visualisation graphically showed, widespread use of #refugeeswelcome stopped abruptly at the old Iron Curtain. Such stances have been widely lambasted as hypocritical, ungenerous, lacking in compassion, and contradicting the long-term interests of East Central European states themselves.
Yet just a decade ago these same former Eastern bloc countries acceded smoothly to the EU on the basis that they had fulfilled the Copenhagen Criteria as ‘functioning liberal democracies’. Why has liberalism, once a rallying cry for pro-European leaders from Warsaw to Sofia and a condition built into the EU’s demanding pre-accession acquis, suddenly gone missing when it is needed most? Read More…
For some time analysts and commentators have understood that all is not well with democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. In the immediate aftermath, the region defied a raft of predictions that the dislocating effect of economic reform and resurgence of nationalist traditions would lead to a Latin American style breakdown of democracy. Democratic change and marketization were – certainly compared to other parts of the post-communist world – peaceful, quick and far-reaching, with the EU membership achieved within a relatively short time.
Indeed, much conventional wisdom has it, that the incentive of EU membership ‘leveraged’ politicians and electorates in some CEE states away from illiberal and nationalist politics. In short, while CEE democracy might have been short on civil society and public engagement and high on corruption and inefficiency, it seemed consolidated and safe.
All this seems to have changed since EU accession. Commentators looked for and quickly found ‘backsliding’ in Poland in 2005-7 as short-lived minority government headed by the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, which included two small populist-nationalist parties as coalition partners, took office. And post-transition fears of breakdown seemed belatedly to come true with onset of the Great Recession in 2008-9 and the landslide victory in Hungary in the 2010 parliamentary elections of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz.
Orbán’s subsequent use of his huge majority to rewrite the Hungarian constitution, strip back checks and balances and entrench his party in deep in the state, media civil society are well documented, as are his questioning of liberal democracy and formulation of a deeply illiberal nationalist project for the future of Hungary.
But discussion of the wider malaise seemingly gripping democracy in CEE has often been stronger on sounding the alarm and itemizing symptoms than on analysis. Indeed, the term ‘backsliding’ was so loosely applied that it covered phenomena ranging from the rise of right-extremism to difficulties negotiating coalitions.
Much writing has simply boiled down to the idea that development across the region simply can be understood as Hungary writ small. Hungary’s illiberal political turn was a ‘cancer’ spreading to the rest of the region and Orbán, to quote the Guardian’s Ian Traynor simply the most prominent example of a new breed of ‘democratically elected populist strongmen … deploying the power of the state and a battery of instruments of intimidation to crush dissent’. Some journalists painting a bigger picture (or airing common geo-political concerns) preferred the term ‘Putinization’.
But such broad-brush treatment would never do. Anyone who knows the Czech Republic, for example, would see a democracy disfigured by corruption, disengagement and distrust. But neither its assertive head of state, president Miloš Zeman, nor ambitious billionaire populist newcomer Andrej Babiš quite fit the bill of a Czech Viktor Orbán. A nationalist turn, a new constitution, a dominant ruling party or a spectacular breakthrough by the extreme right. None of this is on the Czech agenda – or indeed quite on the agenda elsewhere in CEE.
Clearly a much better comparative take on how to understand the travails of CEE democracy is called for, capable of embracing the political realities of both Prague and Budapest and all points in between.
25 years on from the fall of communism, the Wall Street Journal recently told its readers, Central and Eastern Europe is still playing catch-up. The reasons are mainly economic and infrastructural. Too little growth by the standards of the Asian tigers. Too few high speed rail links. Not enough motorways. Viktor Orbán bossing it over Hungary in an ever more worrying project of illiberal transformation. A bad subsidy habit fed by an indulgent EU. A Middle Income Development Trap waiting to be sprung. And –when did this ever happen before? – progress that “ has fallen short of what many of its citizens had hoped”.
But we shouldn’t be too harsh. The WSJ is not particularly well known for the quality of its CEE reporting. And this occasion it’s absolutely right: Central and Eastern Europe is playing catch-up. The politics of catch-up, rather than geography or culture or post-communism, are probably what define the region best. If it wasn’t catching up, it wouldn’t be Central and Eastern Europe. Historians of East Central Europe such as Andrew C. Janos or Ivan Berend have long been preoccupied by the region’s long-term efforts to push its levels of socioeconomic– and political – development into line Europe’s core West European states – although they have sometimes bluntly simply spoken of “backwardness”.
The post-1989 project of European integration and enlargement, although more usually referred to in terms of ‘convergence’ or ‘Return to Europe’ is also all about one catch-up – and a very ambitious form of catch-up: overcoming deeply rooted east-west divide, which as Janos and others have noted, predates the Cold War division of Europe. Enlargement and integration – and liberal reform in CEE generally –been sold politically on the basis that the poor, historically peripheral societies of CEE will (and after a painful process of adjustment) reap the full benefits of prosperity, social welfare, democracy and freedom enjoyed by core West European societies that had the good luck to stay out of of the Soviet zone of influence after WWII.
If, in the long term, integration fails to deliver, there may be significant consequences both for the EU and for the fate of democracy and liberal institutions in Central and East European countries themselves. As recent developments in Hungary show, liberal and democratic reforms are not irreversible or consolidated as once thought or hoped. If the European project fails to deliver catch-up – or the Western model CEE was busy catching up on with proves exhausted and unattractive – it will exacerbate both centrifugal pressures in the EU and erosion of democracy in some or all of CEE. There is the uncomfortable possibility that in his nationalistic rejection of liberalism, Viktor Orbán may be a leader rather than a laggard as far as the future direction of the region is concerned – the Central European vanguard of the revolt against a broken Western model that Pankaj Mishra sees rippling out from Asia. Read More…
Original books often share two common virtues. They reach conclusions which make perfect sense in hindsight, but which somehow no one else managed to reach before. And they ask simple, big, often-asked questions, but answer them in new ways. Both of these apply to James Dawson’s new book Cultures of Democracy in Serbia and Bulgaria. How Ideas Shape Publics.
The book’s key finding – based on innovative ethnographical fieldwork – is that Serbia has a more vibrant and, to some extent, more liberal, public sphere than Bulgaria, despite being rated considerably lower on most governance and democracy indices (the book focuses on Freedom House’s Nations in Transit measures).
On a conventional reading this makes little sense: Bulgaria is a low quality democracy, which made slow, but steady progress towards EU membership in 2007, while Serbia slid into semi-authoritarianism following the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the wars of Yugoslav succession as the regime and (large parts of) the opposition embraced a culture of militant illiberal nationalism. Serbia began EU accession negotiations only this year and officials are carefully avoiding speculation about when it might eventually join the Union as its 29th member.
James Dawson’s book, however, tells it differently. Most conventional measures of democracy, he suggests, are too formal and legalistic, and do little to tap into the day-to-day thinking of citizens. ‘Hard’ comparative scientists are too often driven by an essentially procedurally framing of democracy leading them to overlook a multitude of defects and limitations in democratic practices. As a clever dissection of a well-known survey article in East European Politics and Societies makes clear, too many insights and observations appear simply as passing comments or incidental qualifying remarks, but in the end slip out of the final analysis.
The book addresses this gap by investigating the existence of an everyday public sphere conceived in (modified) Habermasian terms. This is investigated by examining the discourses employed by citizens in two provincial cities, Niš in southern Serbia and, Bulgaria’s second city, Plovdiv using an ethnographic method embracing both focus groups and more embedded forms of participant observation: following in the footsteps of Nina Eliasoph in her study of the culture of political avoidance in US civic voluntarism, Avoiding Politics, Dawson immerses himself in local associational life to reach a cross-section of informants in terms of age, education levels and sociological types:
I participated [he writes] in the activities of almost any available recreational and civic associations [in the two cities] which would accept me as a member. These included a mountaineering club, a careers office, an ‘alternative’ NGO, a sports club (Serbia), a private language school, an environmental NGO, a running club and a dance class (Bulgaria)
The result are slices of ethnographic data, which are both vivid and revealing opening up a world of what Dawson terms (adapting the nationalism literature) ‘everyday democracy’: one serving and two retired Serbian army officers walk up a mountain talking over who lost Kosovo; Bulgarian friends pick over the corrupt municipal politics and the still dirtier (in both senses) politics of local rubbish collection, touching on issues of clientelism and nationalism in the process; a young women denies the existence of gender discrimination, but then recounts how a job offer turned out to a thinly disguised attempt at recruitment for the porn industry and weighs up (but does not reject) her initial proposition.
This public sphere and public sphere pluralism Dawson seeks out is not some Habermasian abstraction but a curiously every day, workaday phenomenon, both less and more than formal, institutional civil society.
Bulgaria’s missing public sphere
At least where it exists. For the book’s headline finding is that while Niš does contain ‘vibrant communities of everyday debate’, ‘… the most remarkable thing about the public sphere in Plovdiv was just how rarely it was encountered’. This is especially the case for the minority of citizens in both countries who are, as Dawson puts it, ‘hard liberals’: the 10-15 per cent of the population who may be expected to develop and articulate a consistent discourse of liberal democratic citizenship, anchor democracy in both value and discursive terms, and perhaps act as focus of cultural change.
Why should be the case? This is perhaps an unfair question. Ethnographers are focused on meaning not causation. However, Dawson permits himself a hunch –and social researcher of all kinds should surely be allowed hunches? – that the more open and liberal political culture of socialist Yugoslavia has in some ways been carried through from the 1980s and fed into a distinct liberal public (or ‘counter public’). In Bulgaria, by contrast, despite more peaceful, institutional and economic patterns of development after 1989, legacies of a more authoritarian and closed form of communism have left a citizenry, whose most liberal ‘counter-public’ is still marked by illiberal nationalism and a view of liberal politics as mostly about forcing through (economic) reform.
The interpretation of Bulgarian liberals (in the broadest) sense of term as hamstrung by conservative and illiberal nationalism – influential perhaps precisely because it has been less militantly and radically asserted than in Serbia – is a controversial one. Many liberal Bulgarians are quick to assert that their country’s biggest problem is rampant corruption not rampant nationalism. In terms of action-this-day issues, this seems hard to argue with, but there seems sufficient evidence – as in the current dispute over Turkish language TV news – that the position of the Turkish minority cannot be taken for granted. Lessons from Hungary and elsewhere in the region suggest that all bets about what ‘cannot’ happen in CEE are now off. However, this perhaps misses the argument which is, in the end, more about the subtle influence of culture and discourse, rather than a scorecard of directly traceable political outcomes.
A similar set of question arises over the sustained mass protests in Bulgaria 2012 -13, which took place after the book’s fieldwork was conducted. If Bulgaria’s public sphere and liberal ‘counter-public’ were so weakly developed, how and why were civil society and social movements able suddenly to mobilise to hold corrupt elites to account? This issue is partly addressed in the preface and postscript (which also deals with the rise of the supposedly reformed nationalists of the Serbian Progressive Party [SNS].
Here, Dawson argues that while events in Bulgaria are positive in terms of long-term civil society development there is still greater reason for optimism in Serbia and pessimism in Bulgaria (especially beyond Sofia). ‘[T]here is’ he writes ‘little evidence that Bulgaria’s anti-government protests aspire to any emancipatory vision approaching the philosophically consistent liberalism of the cosmopolitan anti-nationalist, feminist and LGBT movement still audible from the margins in Belgrade’ and had that the protests, in particular, done little to challenge conservative nationalist assumptions underpinning much political discourse.
In this regard – although Dawson himself does not make this link – the reader cannot but be struck by the book’s discussion of the anti-Roma protests in Bulgaria in 2011 – triggered by an incident near Plovdiv – and his informants’ discussion of them. The account that emerges is not simply an outburst of familiar scapegoating ‘anti-Gypsyism’ but of inchoate and confused anger, which (at least in the minds and accounts of some of his informants) contained social, anti-corruption and anti-elite demands distinct from the obviously racist agenda of many rioters.
It is tempting to ask whether the wave of more civic anti-government mass mobilisation that swept the country in 2012-3 – while largely devoid of anti-Roma ethnic scapegoating – drew on a similarly confused mass of frustrations based on a loosely populist, anti-elite framing of politics which had little need of a strong liberal counter-public.
Accountants versus poets?
Cultures of Democracy in Serbia and Bulgaria is framed as a critique of conventional, democratisation theory and a world of ‘hard’ quantitative political science reflecting – as one panellist at the book’s launch event put it – a division between ‘accountants and poets’.
However, in many ways as book’s dissection of literature makes clear, traditional comparativists were aware of the limitations of surveys and quantitative data and keenly aware of the potential mismatch between liberal institutions and a society lacking extensive liberal values or well embedded liberal ways of thinking. Those pondering the fuzzy and much debated concept of ‘democratic consolidation’ have for years wondered whether spread of the liberal or civic culture is necessary condition of such consolidation.
Correspondingly, the book would lose much of its argumentative force in the absence of the (flawed) comparative indices it critiques (although in the bigger picture such indices do show Bulgaria as a consistent ‘laggard’ which is in many ways closer to SE Europe than the Visegrad states – indeed the latest Nations in Transit report shows improvement in the Western Balkans and backsliding in Bulgaria). Accountants read poetry, poets need the accounts to add up.
Moreover, although written in the language of Habermasian public sphere analysis and discourse theory, some aspects of the book run comfortably in parallel with mainstream, political science thinking about liberal democracy: the existence of publics and counter-publics fits well with classic and radical notions of pluralism; the emphasis on contending philosophical notions of citizenship is echoed in the literature on party based democracy and democratic quality which emphasises the need for completing programmatic alternatives,
The sense that meaningful consolidation of liberal democracy will occur only with the embedding of a widespread liberal culture is, as noted, not controversial for many political science. And this is perhaps unsurprising given that like Cultures of Democracy Serbia and Bulgaria most have a basic (if less clearly stated) normative commitment to liberal models of politics and citizenship.
Looking north, facing west
Despite its unusual and inventive Bulgarian-Serbian comparison, the book appears on first reading a work of South-East European studies. Questions will, however, immediately occur to anyone familiar with the supposedly more successful liberalisers of Central Europe. If indices can be wrong – or, at least, misleading and incomplete – on Bulgaria and Serbia can they be wrong elsewhere? If similar methodology was deployed in provincial cities in liberal front-running countries such as the Czech Republic and Poland, liberal discourses might be found to be similarly anaemic and economistic.
The narrowly economic, reform oriented nature of the Bulgarian liberal discourses identified might thus be more Central European than the book allows. Indeed, I wondered what kind of liberal discourses and public might emerge if similar research was carried out in the streets, sports clubs and voluntary associations of Clacton, Colchester, Wigan or Worcester. Anti-political and illiberal sentiments – and a populist desire for an out-of-the-way ‘stealth democracy’ for emergency use only, akin to a fire escape – run deep in Western Europe and North America too.
Mature liberal democracies may also have a shortage of liberal citizens. The desire of a young liberal educated Bulgarian woman for a government of non-political businesspeople to sweep aside discredited and corrupt politicians is a source of mild shock and disappointment. But when asked in 2012, some 38% percent of UK respondents told YouGov that ‘Britain would be governed better if our politicians got out of the way, and instead our ministers were non-political experts who knew how to run large organisations’.
Despite – or perhaps even because – of its immersive sense of place and locality, it is difficult in some ways not to feel that this a book about democracy more than it is a book about Bulgaria or Serbia.
This post is based on notes made for a panel discussion at the launch of Cultures of Democracy in Serbia and Bulgaria. How Ideas Shape Publics which took place at the UCL-SSEES School of Slavonic and East European Studies on 18 November 2014.
The results of the elections to the European Parliament which took place across the EU’s 28 member states last week very much as predicted – at least in the ‘old’ pre-2004 member states: driven by frustration with austerity, economic stagnation, diminished opportunities and a yawning sense of disconnect with established parties and politicians, a variety of outsider parties made sweeping gains and unignorably stamped themselves on the electoral map.
In Northern Europe, where socio-economic malaise and disconnect were often refracted through the politics of anti-immigration, this tended to benefit right wing, Eurosceptic parties. In Southern Europe anti-austerity parties of the radical left such as Greece’s Syriza or Podemos in Spain gained most.
The most spectacular gains were been made by parties of varying political complexions which had a long-time presence on at the political margins: UKIP in the UK, the Front National in France, Sinn Féin in Ireland. Whatever their coloration, scale of their political success underlines the potential fragility of mainstream parties in Western Europe even in states with well-established party systems previously considered immune to populist surges such as Spain or the UK.
Many commentators have lumped in the newer EU member states of Central and Eastern with the unfolding (if exaggerated) story of a populist backlash in the EU’s West European heartlands. Anticipating the strong showing of the radical right in Denmark, Holland and Austria The Observer’s Julian Coman, for example, causally assured readers that ‘across much of eastern Europe, it is a similar story’
But, in fact, it was not. Read More…
The spectacular breakthrough of Pepe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy in February underlined the potential for a new type of anti-establishment politics in Europe – loosely organised, tech savvy and fierce in its demands to change the way politics is carried class, but lacking the anti-capitalism or racism that would make them easily pigeon-holeable as traditional outsider parties of far-left or far-right.
But for observers of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), the dramatic eruption of new parties led by charismatic anti-politicians promising to fight corruption, renew politics and empower citizens is nothing new. Indeed, over the last decade a succession of such parties – led by a colourful array of ‘non-politicians’ ranging from aristocrats to central bankers, journalists and businessmen – have broken into parliaments in the region.
Some have achieved spectacular overnight success in elections on a scale easily comparable to Grillo’s and (unlike Grillo) have often marched straight into government. Some examples include Simeon II National Movement (NDSV) in Bulgaria in 2001, New Era in Latvia in 2002 and Res Publica (Estonia 2003) and, more recently, the Czech Republic’s Public Affairs party (2010), the Palikot Movement (Poland 2011), Positive Slovenia (2011) and Ordinary People (Slovakia 2012),
Many commentators saw the governments of non-party technocrats formed in Greece and Italy in 2011 as an ill omen for development of party-based democracy in Europe. Established parties, it is suggested, are turning to technocratic caretaker administrations as a device to manage economic and political crisis, which allows them both to duck (or least share) responsibility for painful austerity measures. Such non-partisan governments of experts, it is argued, can only widen the yawning the legitimacy gap between governors and governed.
Technocratically-imposed austerity backed by big established parties can further undermine party democracy by provoking anti-elite electoral backlashes: the rise of new populist parties or breakthroughs by previously marginal radical groups. This in turn, makes coalition formation difficult and further rounds of caretaker government or awkward left-right co-operation more likely. The success of the Five Star Movement in Italy and its difficult political aftermath, which has finally resulted in an implausible Grand Coalition, seems to illustrate this scenario perfectly. Sometimes, caretaker technocrats themselves even add to the uncertainty, revolting against their erstwhile masters and founding their own new parties.
How has the drift towards technocratic crisis management impacted Central and Eastern Europe? The region is sometimes grouped with debt- and crisis-afflicted Southern Europe states as an economically weak periphery of flawed and potentially unstable democracies, where technocratic crisis governments are the order of the day. Read More…
The constitutional and institutional changes pushed through by Hungary’s ruling conservative-national Fidesz party following its emphatic election victory in April 2010 have attracted increasing coverage – and almost enirely negative – from academic and journalistic observers of Central European politic, foreign governments and international bodies such as the European Parliament and Council of Europe.
As well as making multiple amendments to the existing constitution, the Fidesz government has used its huge majority – it has well over the 2/3 of seats in the National Assembly required – enact a new constitution due to take effect 1 January 2012 and pass new electoral and media laws over the head of other parties, which fundamentally change the rules of the political game, destroying linstitutional checks and balances and embedding its own political influence against future majorities, which puts Hungary on course for at best low quality democracy and at worse some form of semi-authoritarian illiberal democracy.
The new constitution and related chanages, critics say, pares back power of Hungary’s previously
powerful Constitutional Court and made access to it more difficult; engineered a purge of the judiciary and created a powerful National Judicial Office (headed by its own political appointee) with extensive powers to move and (un)appoint new judges.
New media law – already the target of demonstrations earlier this year (2011) – have created new media board – staffed by Fidesz supporters and headed by prime ministerial appointee with a nine year term – which can review all media (including perhaps bloggers) for balance and impose heavy fines, resulting in self-censorship for the sake of commerical survival. Other key public appointees have similarly long terms of office and are only replace-able if new post holders are agreed by 2/3 parliamentary majority.
The charges are summarised here by Kim Lane Scheppele, who concludes that
Virtually every independent political institution has taken a hit. The human rights, data protection and minority affairs ombudsmen have been collapsed into one lesser post. The public prosecutor, the state audit office and, most recently, the Central Bank are all slated for more overtly political management in the new legal order (…)
Fidesz party loyalists …will be able to conduct public investigations, intimidate the media, press criminal charges and continue to pack the courts long after the government’s current term is over..
The new electoral law, ably discussed here by Alan Renwick, makes a number of changes to Hungary’s complex ‘mixed’ electoral system, some of which – such as the introduction of a single round of voting in single member constituencies in preference to a French-style run-off – are arguably unpredictable.
But the net effect seems to be to make a strongly majoritarian electoral system more majoritarian and to provide a probable electoral bonus for the right by allowing non-resident Hungarian citizens, which following changes to citizenship law is now likely to include hundred thousand ethnic Hungarians living in Slovakia, Romania and Serbia, to vote in parliamentary elections.
The boundaries of the single member constitutencies used to elect most deputies have also, oddl, been written into the electoral law – rather than subject to periodic independent review – making the changeable only through further constitutional amendment. Simulations linked to by Alan Renwick and Kim Scheppele suggest these are advantageous to Fidesz. More worryingly, changes to the make-up of the national Election Commission overseeing elections have reportedly seen a politically balanced body transformed into one run by Fidesz supporting appointees.
Party politics in Hungary may be further shaken up if proposed constitutional amendments listing the crimes of ruling party during communist dictatorship pass and the statue of limitations is lifted: any court cases brought against the post-communist Socialists, who are the successor party, may, Kim Scheppele suggests, bankrupt Hungary’s main moderate opposition party, leaving the far-right Jobbik as the principal oppositon to Fidesz.
There is, of course, another side the story. Fidesz supporters note the left-liberal bias to academic commentary on Hungarian politics on Hungary, which has never accepted national-conservative politics of Fidesz as legitimate; that the changes are wrongly described or exaggerated or ill informed due to the language barrier; and that some Western democracies to not meet the implied standards that Hungary is being subject to – US congressional districts boundaries, for example, are extensively gerrymandered. Fidesz is just clearing up the corrupt mess left by the Socialists, whose electoral collapse is entirely down to their own corruption. One eloquent such voice can be found in my former SSEES colleague, now a second term MEP George Schöpflin, writing in the FT, and in video below.
Some of the comments on Kim Lane Scheppele also reasonably dispute some points of fact.
I have tried to look things over from this angle, but even taking these points on board – and some of them are I suspect are valid – they fail to address the substance of the criticism: George Schöpflin’s performance stressing misunderstanding and bad faith is sadly unconvincing. It is hard to not to interpret the changes as, whatever else they are, a very illiberal, ill advised and divisive power grab by the Hungarian right.
It is also one which I suspect will rebound both on Hungarian conservative-national right itself: some of the changes, such as the new electoral system will be rather unpredictable. Even allowing for partisan boundary changes – whose partisan effects can change over time quite quickly as the UK experience illustrates – a majoritarian system favours the right only so long as it is politically cohesive and has majority support. The bad economic weather suggests even with a tame media, any incumbent is likely to see its support rapidly erode.
The other concerns the divided nature of Hungary. As The Economist suggests there is a large liberal and left-wing Hungary: the Socialists and their liberal allies had, after all, until the 2010 meltdown, offered pretty stiff competition. Although the far-right seems to be offering stiff competion for the votes of the economically disempowered, there is no reason to think that in the longer term, over a period of years, that a new centre-left bloc of some kind would not emerge. Indeed, the possible demise of the post-communist successor party might be a boon: in Poland the liberal Civic Platform now fills the space once taken by the post-communist left, while in Slovenia a new reformist centre-left bloc stepped almost effortless into the shoes of the discredited post-communist Social Democrats (SD) and Liberal Democrats (LDS).
But if – or perhaps when electoral support for Fidesz goes South – any left-liberal majority, will either have to come up with a 2/3 majority of its own (perhaps not altogether impossible) and carry out its own counter-revolution, or bump up the constitutional entrenchments now being put in place. (As George Schöpflin explains above, there will be no provision to change the constitution by referendum. ) The result perhaps five or ten years down the line would seem to be some very high stakes electoral politics – with all the temptations that will throw up – and/or the severest of constitutional crises, possibly attended by a very intense politics of civic mobilisation: this, after all, is way change happens when institutional channels to change are blocked and people sense that democracy has been rigged.
How could all this happen? Hungary, after all, was supposed to be one Central and Eastern Europe’s most consolidated new democracies, yet suddenly leaves us dusting off our Fareed Zakharia and contemplating the prospects for a kind of Coloured Revolution on the Danube. Could it – or something like it – happen elsewhere in the region? Weren’t people like me telling you that CEE was a region flawed but basically normal democracies?
There seem to several factors which have enabled democratic derailment:
- Majoritarian electoral system, which, if there is a big electoral win for one side and/or a collapse for the other (Fidesz polled 53% in 2010), would result in a constitutional majority in parliament. In CEE conditions, where electorates are volitile and economies (now) vulnerable, this was, in hindsight, perhaps just a matter of time
- A unicameral parliament, or a least a weak upper chamber. Hungary has no upper house.
- Well organised, cohesive party organisation. Single member districts and majoritarian electoral systems tend to promote this.
- A party with a strong sense of ideological mission: if you are going to seize the chance to remake the constitutional order you need to believe in what you doing. Conservative-national parties in states like Hungary which had a negotiated, compromise transition in 1989, see politics as a part of a ‘thick transition’ – a long-term struggle to finish the revolutionary work of 1989, by eliminating the (ex-)communist nomenklatura from public left.
Elsewhere the region, some other states partially fulfill these conditions: Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) had a similar anti-communist conservative-national outlook, but – like all governing parties – due to PR never had the votes or seats to contemplate giving its vision of a new ‘Fourth Republic’ constitutional form and is now politically on the back foot.
Romania Bulgaria and Slovakia appear slightly riskier propositions: the latter are both unicameral democracies, while the Romanian Senate closely mirrors the lower house. All have strong (soon-to-be) ruling parties seen by some as having illiberal inclinations: however, none seem to have the sense of ideological mission needed – two, Romania’s PSD and Slovakia’s SMER, are loosely social democratic, while Bulgaria’s GERB is a loose knit centrist or centre-right party of power.
None seem likely to come near 2/3 majority required to amend or replace the constitution (3/4 in Bulgaria should you merely want to amend), although Bulgaria’s GERB whose electoral support sits around 40% and is suspected by critics of sporadic electoral fraud might just manage an absolute parliamentary majority.
If we think the worst of such parties, then a more informal strategy of co-optation, corruption and politicisation of the state apparatus, spiced with the odd draconian media law, is perhaps what we should expect.
The lessons of Hungary’s complex and unfolding, but probably unique, situation is that the political and power instincts of CEE parties and politicians are, indeed, be as bad as we feared, but that fragmented and loose parties and PR are like to keep democracy – albeit corrupt and flawed – in most places safe from frontal assualt by the region’s politicians.