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…
In the immediate aftermath of the fall of communism many Western analysts feared that, far from ‘returning to Europe’, Central and Eastern Europe would slip into a spiral of Latin-American style instability and authoritarianism.
Stanford professor Ken Jowitt predicted that ‘demagogues, priests and colonels more than democrats’ would shape the region’s future, while Polish-American political scientist Adam Przeworski famously wrote that the ‘East has become the South’.
Even as astute an observer of the region as Timothy Garton Ash was moved to conclude in mid-1990 that ‘Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia are the countries where the fate of democracy hangs in the balance today’.
But the region quickly confounded the doomsayers. Central Europe emerged as one the most successful newly democratizing regions in the post-Cold War world. Many states including the Czech Republic made smooth and rapid progress to OECD and EU membership and were soon marked down by Western political scientists as consolidated, if flawed democracies. In the Czech case, the flaws were readily apparent. The democracy that emerged was, for example, far from the optimistic vision of a prosperous, settled Central European state sketched out by Václav Havel when he looked into the country’s future in his 1991 Summer Meditations.
As well as failing to sustain the common state with the Slovaks, Czechs saw overblown claims of a post-communist ‘economic miracle’ disintegrate amid corruption scandals that ended the Klaus government in 1997. And, while the Czech Republic did generate a stable system of ‘standard’ parties of left and right recognizable to West European eyes, Havel’s warnings that party politics would become the preserve of a caste of career politicians seemed, in hindsight, prophetic.
The strong locally-rooted civil society and political decentralization Havel envisaged as the bedrock of Czech democracy were present only in fragments. Local democracy was too often expressed in the murky world of municipal politics and a system of belatedly implemented regional government that become a still greater byword for corruption. Non-ideological consensus politics that Havel and others hoped would be a defining feature of Czech democracy have existed only in bastardised form of Grand Coalitions and power-sharing deals that had more to do with dividing the spoils of office than agreeing inclusive, balanced policies.
To most outside observers, however, the Czech Republic remained one of a belt of successful, stable Central European democracies, scoring well on most indices of governance, reform, and democracy, albeit with a clear lag behind West European democracies. Most would have agreed with the assessment of the Hungarian economist and political scientist Béla Greskovits that CEE states, including the Czech Republic, had created poor quality, but essentially ‘crisis-proof’ democracies where market economics co-existed in ‘low equilibrium’ with democratic politics.
However, following the enlargement of European Union in 2004 and, particularly, the onset of the global economic downturn and the Eurozone crisis, many commentators have started to view the future of Central Europe in much darker terms seeing the onset of ‘democratic backsliding’ or a ‘democratic recession’. Hungary has been at the centre of such concerns. The metamorphosis of Viktor Orbán from pro-Western Christian Democrat to authoritarian populist exploiting an electoral landslide to impose an illiberal constitution, rein in the media and emasculate the judiciary, was particularly shocking.
In 2012 Romania’s Prime Minister Victor Ponta tried similarly to exploit a landslide election victory to overturn of established procedures and strip away constitutional checks and balances to unseat his country’s president Trajan Basescu. Elsewhere voters across CEE have turned not to establishment strongmen but to a range of to protest parties ranging from Poland’s ultra-liberal Palikot Movement to neo-fascists of Jobbik in Hungary. Where does the Czech Republic fit into this picture? Read More…
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…
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. Read More…
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.