Democracy in the Western world may very well be in danger
The election of Donald Trump as president of the US, the Brexit vote and the rise of right-wing populist movements in several European countries has given reason to worry about democracy being in jeopardy even in the developed Western world. Authoritarianism has been gaining a foothold in Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey and Vladimir Putin’s Russia for quite a while. The rise of governing parties with authoritarian tendencies in Hungary and Poland is particularly alarming for Estonia and the European Union (EU). These changes are undoubtedly a sign of a crisis of liberal democracy, but do these developments really herald the advance of a new type of authoritarian regime in Europe? What kind of parallels can be drawn between these regimes? How has the EU responded to democratic crises in these countries?
The author of this article believes that the regimes in Hungary and Poland can no longer be viewed as democratic, but rather as a subtype of “soft” authoritarian regime. They are best described by the so-called “competitive authoritarianism” model popularised by the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way.1 Under such regimes, free and competitive elections exist with significant restrictions on democratic rule of law, opposition activities and civil liberties.
Classic examples of such regimes include Venezuela under Hugo Chavez and Felipe Maduro, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, and Russia in the first half of the 2000s. These regimes have several similarities despite their different national contexts. Democratic institutions exist and are the main way to gain power, but the regime uses its extensive control over state structures to curb the opposition’s electoral success. The concentration of power around the presidency, as in Russia, Venezuela and Turkey, and government-controlled parliaments mean that the separation of powers is almost entirely done away with. This is fuelled by substantial constitutional amendments such as the extension of the electoral term, changes to the election system and the reduced role of the judiciary and parliament in shaping policies.
Restricting the activity of independent media and civil society organisations is especially important for guaranteeing the viability of such regimes. Controlling the media permits the production of ideological propaganda needed by the rulers and significantly limits the opportunities of political competitors. Civil society organisations that are critical of the regime, including foreign non-governmental organisations, which often expose violations of political and civil rights, are constantly targeted. In order to counter free civil society, most competitive authoritarian regimes are quick to create their own civil movements composed of its supporters, which are fully backed by state institutions.
Still, these regimes cannot be regarded as fully-fledged autocracies—at least, not as long as elections continue to be held without any serious problems or fraud and the opposition has a real chance to win.2 Elections that do not generally pose problems help authoritarian parties and leaders to maintain international legitimacy while discarding the separation of powers and illicitly using the state’s resources against the opposition. Furthermore, not all competitive authoritarian regimes move linearly towards firm autocracy. In principle, political opening is entirely possible. For instance, in 2015, the Venezuelan opposition won parliamentary elections for the first time since the 1990s, despite President Felipe Maduro’s almost complete control of the state’s bureaucracy, independent media and judicial power.
However, there is a very fine line between “competitive” and real autocracy. In Russia, the watershed moment came around the mid-2000s when the opposition’s chances of success in elections diminished considerably and all other political channels—activities in parliament, the media and the judiciary—were closed. Turkey is also in the process of transitioning from competitive authoritarianism to fully developed autocracy where the opposition is essentially stripped of any opportunity to achieve a peaceful victory.
In Poland, but especially in Hungary, the rise of competitive authoritarianism is mainly expressed through the slow and steady movement towards the dissolution of the separation of powers. Relying on a slim parliamentary majority, Fidesz under Viktor Orbán and the Polish PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, “Law and Justice”) aim to undermine institutions belonging to various branches of power—especially the judiciary, the media and independent civic associations—one by one through severely limiting the opposition’s and dissidents’ chances of participating in the shaping of policies. This form of government is directly based on the use of state resources against the opposition, creating unequal conditions for political competition. The concentration of power into the hands of one branch of government usually happens covertly without creating much noise.
Similar to other regimes that are transitioning from democracy to competitive authoritarianism, the concentration of power in Hungary and Poland has taken place thanks to a strong mandate achieved in free elections. In the 2010 Hungarian parliamentary elections, the Orbán coalition’s 53% majority resulted in them taking 68% of the seats in the unicameral National Assembly. This two-thirds majority became especially important in relation to the 2012 constitutional amendment, which enabled Orbán to centralise power quickly. Fidesz benefited greatly from the new electoral system and amendments to rules on campaign advertising, which gave the ruling party a significant advantage over the opposition in the 2014 elections. Orbán’s government has also gained control over the electoral commission and national media organisations. Laws target independent media and journalists face fines if the government finds that their activities are not in accordance with its right-wing conservative ideology.
Like Hugo Chavez and Vladimir Putin, Orbán has sought foreign enemies to maintain his popularity, attacking both EU immigration quotas and civic associations that are critical of the government. Fidesz has used government-controlled mass communication means such as taxpayer-funded anti-immigration posters to increase its popularity. At the same time, amendments to the law introduced in June 2017 restricted the opposition’s access to political advertising.
As with Russia, some of the key targets have been international civic organisations, which are treated as threats to “national security” (read: electoral success of the governing party). For instance, a new law places organisations that receive more than 7.2 million forints (24,000 euros) of funding from foreign sources under heightened governmental surveillance. The most notable victims of these governmental attacks include George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, which, among other things, has offered help to refugees arriving in Hungary. Orbán has also launched a decisive attack on the Central European University in Budapest, which is endowed by George Soros’ foundation.
Undemocratic changes have been seen more modestly in Poland, but Orbán-like concentration of power could still lie ahead. The ultra-conservative nationalist-populist PiS won 38% of the votes in the 2015 elections, which gave them an absolute majority in the parliament. Even though the position of prime minister went to the moderate Beata Szydło, the party remained under the control of former prime minister and current PiS chairman Jarsoław Kaczyński.
Kaczyński, the éminence grise of the PiS, has long been an admirer of Orbán’s style of government in Hungary. Just as in Hungary, Kaczyński and president Andrzej Duda (who ran as the PiS candidate) were quick to attack the democratic separation of powers: the courts and public media. In 2015, the PiS-controlled parliament (Sejm) and the president achieved control over the constitutional court by appointing judges loyal to the government. Kaczyński himself has publicly presented the court as a corrupt organisation that stands against the will of the majority.
On 22 July 2017, the PiS-controlled parliament took an important and extremely alarming step towards assuming control over the Polish Supreme Court. A new law grants the minister of justice the freedom to choose which of the 80 incumbent judges should remain in office and which should be dismissed—this gives the PiS complete control over the state’s court system. An independent constitutional court would probably have declared this unconstitutional. Changes to laws led to serious protests in most Polish cities. Fuelled by domestic and international objections, president Duda eventually decided to veto the new law—which has largely been interpreted as indicating a political schism between Duda and party leader Kaczyński, and gives the PiS parliamentary majority two months to rewrite the law.
The PiS has also assumed control over the national media. In the vein of classic competitive authoritarianism, the Sejm passed a law that deprives the national broadcasting service of control over the media and hands the reins to the PiS-controlled ministry of finance. In addition, the PiS quickly replaced the entire management board of the national media with party loyalists, allowing the government to use radio and television for its own political agenda. The party has also assumed control over the formerly meritocratic election system for high state officials.
It cannot be denied that populist leaders and parties who undermine democratic values are supported by the democratic majority and would win—provided that there are no serious economic or corruption crises—even in free political competition. The idea of disappointment with the economic and social liberalism of the governing elite has been gaining ground in the light of the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s victory. There is no doubt that the prerequisites for moving towards so-called “illiberal democracy” and “soft authoritarianism” are often connected to economic and social processes, which have led to large-scale disappointment in the policies of previous governments. The economic crisis of 2008–9 and the European migration crisis have fuelled dissatisfaction with the liberal elite. The electoral success of authoritarian movements clearly owes its success to populist messages promoted by the losing parties in the globalisation process.
But disappointment with economic and social liberalism and the rise of right- and left-wing populist ideas only gives way to the emergence of competitive authoritarianism and does not say anything about the regimes’ institutional growth. The concentration of power was still made possible by specific, carefully planned political strategies. Political leaders themselves must be convinced that the concentration of power and the suppression of democratic principles such as the separation of powers and civil liberties is necessary for them to implement their policies.
Almost all of the illiberal leaders, from Chavez to Kaczyński, have relied on the narrative of a fundamental conflict between the “nation” and the domestic and international elites. The opposition is presented as the “enemy”, and the separation of powers is only an obstacle to the will of the majority. In order to concentrate power around one branch of government, political leaders have skilfully used parliamentary majorities and referendums to introduce necessary constitutional amendments and help incumbent leaders in future elections. In economic political discourse, such regimes have relied on “economic nationalism”, which often involves a combination of autarchy and expansion of the welfare state.
The authoritarian trend in the more successful Eastern European democracies sets an alarming precedent. Other countries could follow Orbán’s lead—not to mention Erdoğan or Putin—and fall into a downward spiral of soft authoritarianism. Natural potential candidates are Greece, Romania and Bulgaria, and almost all of the EU’s eastern neighbours that are not yet fully developed autocracies, like Belarus. Orbán’s “illiberal democracy”—inspired by the examples of China, Russia, Singapore and Turkey—could present a particularly attractive ideological model.
The rise of competitive authoritarianism carries particular significance in the context of relations between the EU and Russia. Orbán’s friendliness towards Russian president Vladimir Putin has given cause for concern. Unlike in Hungary, Polish right-wing authoritarian powers cannot naturally become Russia’s close allies in the near future. Despite ideological or historical differences, the rise of competitive authoritarianism in both Poland and within the EU in general is highly convenient for Putin’s circle of power. It allows them not only to legitimise the restriction of political competition and civil liberties in Russia, but also to create division and conflict within the EU.
From the very beginning, the EU has been viewed as a union of democratic societies that acknowledges the idiosyncrasies of national democratic institutions. The EU’s founding treaties include a clause (Article 2) that aims to ensure adherence to values like democracy, pluralism and the rule of law. There is also a mechanism (Article 7) designed to impose sanctions on countries that deviate from these principles. Countries that wish to join the EU have always been more or less functioning democracies. For instance, Vladimir Meciar’s authoritarian form of government in Slovakia in the 1990s seriously hindered the country’s accession negotiations.
Orbán has violated EU norms repeatedly, for instance by rejecting the European Commission’s refugee relocation plan and violating the rights of asylum seekers. Nevertheless, the EU institutions’ criticism has not been very successful, at least not in the case of Hungary. The European People’s Party group (EPP) of MEPs, which includes Fidesz, has repeatedly blocked the European Parliament’s attempts to criticise Orbán. This is what happened during the implementation of the Rule of Law Framework, which signals that a member state is in danger of being deprived of EU voting rights. Most EPP members have turned a blind eye to Orbán’s violations of democratic norms in order to maintain their majority in Strasbourg. The EPP has also given leading positions in the European Parliament to Fidesz members, which has in turn helped to calm criticism aimed at the government. In March 2014, the president of the EPP, Joseph Daul, spoke at a Fidesz campaign event in support of Orbán. At the same time, EU institutions are not able to help Hungary’s opposition parties, because EU-level parties cannot fund national parties, as this can be interpreted as unlawful interference in a member state’s internal affairs.
EU institutions have intervened more forcefully in Poland. Due to its size, Poland is of greater strategic importance than Hungary. The fact that the PiS is part of the smaller ECR (European Conservatives and Reformists) group of MEPs and not under the protection of the EPP—the largest political group in the European Parliament—is certainly of importance, too. In January 2016, after the PiS attacks on the legal system and media, the European Commission adopted the Rule of Law Framework, although it has not produced any significant results. Several high-ranking politicians connected to EU institutions have noted that reforms limiting the judicial independence of the Supreme Court could result in triggering Article 7, which can in turn bring about economic sanctions against Poland and suspend the state’s EU voting rights.
What are the potential future scenarios for Hungary and Poland? In spite of their strong electoral base and widespread popularity, the electoral threat to both Fidesz and the PiS is very real. Their support could wane due to economic downturn or corruption scandals, or as a result of anti-government protests. The latter have been very significant, at least in the case of Poland. The regimes of Hungary and Poland are highly unlikely to manipulate elections within the EU. Holding referendums on leaving the EU—to strengthen the authoritarian government style even more—would probably be too great a risk for both governments. Nonetheless, the concentration of power could lead to an extensive political polarisation between the regime’s supporters and opponents, fuelling long-term social instability. The long-lasting civil war-like situation and violent protests in Venezuela and the attempted coup in Turkey are perhaps the most dangerous negative results of competitive authoritarianism.
Which Democratic Model Do We Prefer?
Viljar Veebel, analyst at the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute
Problems with the results of democratic elections are not only connected with Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, the Polish government or Brexit—even Estonian voters tend to support anti-refugee sentiment, homophobia, racism and Edgar Savisaar (despite increasingly better PISA3 results).
However, let us assume that change is possible. Would we then choose the model in which all European-minded progressive decisions were always unanimously approved and applauded, both at the national level and in the European Parliament, or the kind that would involve heated debate with populist and radical groups who are also represented in parliaments?
On a wider scale, this is a question of whether democracy works better when voters can directly choose between ideas and ideologies or when “reasonable powers” make a pre-selection to ensure that “irrational” and “socially unacceptable” populist ideas do not get the chance to annoy respectable citizens. Or, more precisely—can we conclude that democracy is successful and functional if it keeps European-minded liberals in power and includes feminists, and fails with the victory of Trump, Savisaar or neo-Nazis?
Would the political elite serve voters on the basis of election results and their mandate in our new preferred model or would they educate, discipline and patronise their voters, keeping them away from complicated challenges and opportunities to make “bad” decisions because citizens are not sufficiently mature and educated?
When discussing these questions, a contemporary open thinker who is well-versed in history often makes a beeline for Adolf Hitler’s democratic election victory and the subsequent reforms that destroyed democracy, asking “Do you honestly think that we should repeat this mistake in Hungary, Poland and many other countries?”. Ideally, a reasonable voter desires that the democratic system be defended from its own products. Still, according to the sociologist Barrington Moore, the only stable democratic societies are those that have had the opportunity to consolidate democracy on their own, while countries with imported or partially consolidated democracy will forever continue to oscillate between democratisation and authoritarianism. According to this theory, the only way to achieve stable democracy is to let local voters repeat their mistakes until they learn from them. External pressure, especially if it is not based on a clear legal basis (“Do EU institutions have the right to reprimand member states?”) or voter mandate (“Who has a clear mandate to decide on matters concerning Hungary: Orbán or Jean-Claude Juncker?”), only creates tension and prolongs the struggle to learn.
How to defend the democratic system against its own products in this case? A social agreement not to politicise certain significant positions would certainly be conducive to the cause. This would create a neutral intellectual counterbalance to the overly active radical political elite trying to introduce as many changes as possible during the election period and, once it is over, to plant its increasingly unpopular politicians in influential public service positions in order to suppress the emergence of new powers and their influence. After all, a pendulum does not reach equilibrium without oscillating between two sides.
Authoritarianism in Europe?
Mart Nutt, IRL member of the Estonian Parliament (Riigikogu)
In truth, there have always been powers that strive for authoritarianism in democratic Europe. Even so, one must agree that the current wave constitutes a new level of threat in post-World War II society and it is worth analysing and worrying about.
Märt Trasberg highlights the authoritarian tendencies beautifully and compares different societies. The most important thing about the described model is perhaps that democracy’s limits originate from within and are not the product of an unlawful seizure of power. However, this serves as a backdrop for several questions: is the development of authoritarianism a general trend, as it was in the late 1920s, or a phenomenon that differs from country to country? And to what extent can we generalise the examples given?
The described countries have many differences. Populist parties in Poland and Hungary, just as in other EU countries, are propelled by the migration crisis and its consequences, while Russia, Venezuela and Turkey are not. One of the reasons for the rise of populist movements in Europe could be the inability of mainstream parties to address the crisis and the lack of alternatives; in Russia and Venezuela, however, the reason likely lies in corruption and kleptocracy. A democratic change of power is still possible in Poland and Hungary, but the same can no longer be said of Russia, Venezuela and Turkey. This is perhaps the most significant fact in assessing the level of democracy in these societies.
However, EU sanctions might have the opposite effect: they would not strengthen democracy in Poland and Hungary but, rather, solidify the EU’s reputation as putting pressure on selected governments. It is difficult to view the attempt, at the beginning of this century, to tell Austria what its government should be like as anything other than a faux pas.
Ahto Lobjakas, analyst
Märt Trasberg put the problems of democracy in Hungary and Poland in a particularly wide context. The topic is bounded by the European Union’s increasingly authoritarian neighbours, Russia and Turkey, on the one side and the crises weakening the EU on the other. The term “illiberal democracy” plays a fundamental role. Today’s authoritarian regimes do not see elections as a problem because autocrats have access to increasingly efficient manipulative methods to influence public opinion. A common denominator on the scale that extends from Russia to Poland these days is “illiberalism”: the replacement of individualist civic autonomy with local imitations. According to Trasberg, its methods include control of the media, subordination of the judiciary and fake civil society organisations created by the authorities. The scale that runs through Russia and Turkey by way of Georgia and Ukraine to Poland and beyond can also be adjusted to fit Estonia—which is on the relatively liberal edge of the scale—due to its post-Soviet problems with the independence of judges and presidents who are fond of the third sector.
Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to include European countries where democracy’s historical roots lie—the United Kingdom, the Nordic countries, France and the Netherlands. Democracy is these societies’ institutional expression and the problems of Poland, Hungary and other countries are not mechanically “contagious” to them. Poland’s and Hungary’s authoritarianism is limited by being under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (and the European Court of Human Rights), making them pure “competitive autocracies” only if they break from it.
The only criticism of Trasberg’s piece is that he overlooks NATO as an axis of integration that embodies transatlantic values, the growing ambivalence of which is exploited by Polish leaders to legitimise their actions.
1 Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way, Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
2 Strongly concentrated autocratic power does not necessarily mean the absence of elections or issue of falsified results. Authoritarian regimes have other uses for election processes besides self-legitimisation in the eyes of the world. For instance, local elections allow them to collect reliable information about the support for autocratic leaders and parties and the efficacy of bureaucracy at the local level.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.