Apr 13, 2014

Elections in Hungary: Fidesz Round Two

Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary and leader of the Fidesz

Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary and leader of the Fidesz (from The Guardian).

Hungary held general elections on Sunday 6. As expected, the ruling party, Fidesz (Hungarian Civil Alliance), jointly with the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), won 44 percent of the vote, which translated into 133 seats in the 199-member parliament thanks to the rewarding electoral laws. This represents a reduction in the vote share for this party in the 2010 election, when it got 53 percent. Still, Fidesz maintains the control of 67 percent of the parliament (versus 68 percent of the outgoing legislature). With this position, Fidesz and its leader, Viktor Orbán, will continue unmatched their series of reforms that many domestic and international observers have classified as increasingly authoritarian.

Fidesz first came to power in 2010. The vote for this extreme-right party was a punishment to the Socialist Party (MSZP). In 2006, Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány gave a supposedly confidential speech, which was recorded and made public by the media, in which the recognized he had lied about the state of the government, that he had nothing to be proud of during his tenure, and that the economy was in a really bad shape. Fidesz, the second party in parliament at the time, made the best of this leaking and managed to win its second government (the first one being from 1998 to 2002) in the 2010 general election.

Back in office, Fidesz promised to bring the strength back to Hungary. Orbán renationalized industries, supported by an aggressive discourse saying that foreign capital was stealing the wealth of the country away from Hungarians, succeeded in reducing unemployment, increased wages, and cut energy bills. However, Hungary is still greatly reliant on loans from the European Union (EU) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Although Hungary has not seen the severe austerity measures in countries as Spain or Greece, which have also received help from these organisms, the government has had to implement some reforms to ensure the fiscal viability of its social security system, including eliminating early retirements and forcing welfare recipients to get back to work.

The apparent success of Fidesz in the economic arena, mostly in comparison to the antecedent Socialist government and the turmoil in other assisted European countries, has prompted citizens to vote again for it. Yet, Fidesz has also managed political institutions to secure its position. Since his 2010 inauguration, the Orbán government made more than fifty changes to the constitution, finally adopting a new one in 2012. Most of these changes are aimed at reducing counterweights to the government. For instance, the power of the courts, especially in reviewing legislation and questioning the constitutionality of the administration’s actions, has been curtailed. Also, the party has put at the heads of expectedly autonomous agencies (such as the state audit office, the public prosecutor’s office, or the budget council, which can veto the budget) party members or figures close to Orbán. Further, a new media law prompts broadcasters to limit government criticism under fears of sanctions from the politicized regulating agencies. Under this scenario, official electoral publicity and pro-Fidesz coverage flooded this campaign, leaving little space for the opposition. In spite of this, there were no acknowledged vote fraud or coercion. With the ruling party working to entrench itself in state institutions and leaving little margin of action for its opponents, some foreign observers have called this Saturday’s election “unfair but free”.

This label and many of the political developments in Hungary are fit the description of the so-called hybrid regimes or electoral authoritarianisms. While democratic practices, such as elections, continue to happen, the government is imposing a series of controls to limit the plurality that is expected to exist for multiparty contests to take place. By attacking the autonomy of agencies and changing the laws to its favor, the Orbán government is limiting the possibilities for contestation. There is no way to know if this is a first step in becoming more exclusionary. For some, the fact that the power of churches to carry out social work has been diminished, or that Roma are being left out of some of the government’s policies, indicate attempts to secure the party’s and ethnic Hungarian’s position at the expense of other social actors.

Yet, this leads to other question. Are these changes to be explained only by the authoritarian desires of the incumbents? Orbán has repeatedly used the electoral fallacy that as people freely voted for him, it must be understood that everything he does is what Hungarians want. Thanks to his economic performance, Orbán could be authentically popular, to some extent. Even more, his project is accepted by Hungarians as opposed to what? Socialists, as commented above, are punished by voters. Yet they are the second force in parliament, with 38 seats, almost a hundred less than Fidesz. The third party is another extremist, Jobbik, the Union for a Better Hungary. It proposes privatization, rejects the EU, and constantly attacks Jews, Roma, socialists and homosexuals. In this election it got 23 seats, increasing by 5 percent its vote share. Thus, the opposition represents no clear, or acceptable, alternative to Fidesz for Hungarian voters. Theorists of democracy tend to emphasize the coercive capacities and coercive state building of incumbents in trying to explain the rise of authoritarianism. But as the Hungarian case points out, for voters the choice might not necessarily be between democracy and no democracy, but between bad or worse. And, as has been the case in other countries, parties failing to appeal electors coinciding with other parties able to capitalize such discontent is a formula that easily steps away from democracy.

Apr 10, 2014
Erika Hernandez

Divide and conquer – Maduro’s strategy

Source: Reuters

Source: Reuters

Venezuela’s President, Nicolas Maduro, has been implementing a divide and conquer strategy – resembling those used by the Cuban regime. Earlier today, Caracas announced that it would hold dialogue with members of opposition. However, it said that they would only constitute the recognition of the opposition. Furthermore, members participating in the talks are likely to favor the Venezuelan government against that the opposition. This is incredibly discouraging yet one must first see it as a strategy that Maduro’s government seeks to continue holding to power. This strategy is likely to buy Maduro some time. Today, Venezuela’s government is smartly using principles of realpolitik. But could talks lead to negotiations?

Since mid-February, protests against Venezuela’s government began over the issue of having a beauty pageant, Monica Spear, and her husband being killed in front of her five-year-old daughter, after being robbed. The worsening of the economic situation has led to increased crime that the government is unable to control. Additionally political and civil rights have been largely affected by authoritarianism, there is a scarcity of basic goods (products like toilette paper are often not available in stores) and inflation is rampant. The government has been calling protestors –many of them, university students– fascists and plotters against the regime. Repression has ensued, particularly through the new paramilitary forces committing abuses against the opposition. The government continues not to recognize its connection with this group. The moderate opposition groups has decided to request dialogue with the government. The government had kept a non-yielding position until it began to receive international pressure. In this respect, Brazil’s former President, Inacio Lula Da Silva, publicly recommended Maduro to generate a coalition government in Venezuela to reduce tensions and to focus instead in “governing.” Some hours after this message from Sao Paulo, Maduro had decided to hold a dialogue. But Maduro’s mindset about the talks is to “recognize the opposition” but not to grant concessions. In a confrontational language he further said that this was an opportunity to “tell [the opposition] some of their truths.”

The acceptance of holding discussions is a veil covering the regime’s truthful desires: it is unwilling to share power with the opposition, while it is doing its best to divide it. For starters, one must look first at the dialogue’s participants. First, members of UNASUR, who are countries that are mostly friendly to Venezuela will be serving as an intermediary and third party. However, UNASUR is a multilateral organization that is not as representative as the Organization of American States (OAS), which is larger and includes countries like Mexico, Panama, the United States, Canada and Central American countries. Thus, we may say that these members are likely to favor the government during the dialogue. Second, Venezuela’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Elias Jaua, requested the presence of the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, who was once Nuncio in Caracas. However, the government did not invite Venezuela’s Episcopal Conference because it regards them as “plotters” and probably because it knows about its organizational and articulating strengths that could challenge the government. Through the Third Wave of Democratization, the Vatican intervened in countries like Chile but only after it was clear that the mass murders had been directly caused by the Chilean government’s intelligence service, the DINA. Today, it is still not clear whether the Catholic Church will push towards democratization. In addition to the unequal representation of parties likely to side with Maduro, it is unclear what faction is the moderate one within chavismo.

The talks that Venezuela’s government will hold with opposition representatives are likely to lead to frustration. The issue here is to think about the possible strategies that Maduro’s government will seek to divide the opposition. Assuming that negotiations do in fact begin, if it offers mild concessions the radical opposition branch could increase protests and even recur to violence. If, as a product, the dialogue offers a more comprehensive scheme, then this would allow the government to remain longer in power. What we know so far is that the “divide and conquer” strategy parallels that implemented by Fidel Castro in Cuba. (The chavistas refused to send back several Cubans who had been sent by Cuba to help implement the Bolivarian Revolution.) The most important question now is whether this dialogue could possibly lead to negotiations? Time will soon tell.

Apr 5, 2014
Erika Hernandez

Surviving and Thriving. France’s Front National


Marine Le Pen celebrating FN's electoral success at a press conference. Source: AFP/ Huffington Post

Marine Le Pen celebrating FN’s electoral success at a press conference. Source: AFP/ Huffington Post

The most recent municipal elections in France suggest that the right has gained ample ground in elections, mostly favoring the National Front (FN) and the Union for Popular Movement (UMP) parties. Despite Marine Le Pen’s considerable work in having the FN embrace a more conciliatory discourse, the FN is still considered as an extreme-right party around the world. The UMP, a center-right party, also performed fairly well as it was reported to have been taken “some hundred cities” from the left. President Francois Hollande’s party, the Socialist Party (PS), had major losses (150 towns were lost) that appear to be related to very poor economic performance and lack of political expertise.

The rise of the right in France came as early as the Third Republic and it has risen in moments of crisis. Several scandals triggered the emergence of the extreme right, such as the well-known “Capitan Dreyfus” affair, when this Jewish captain was forced to lifetime jail for having allegedly sold state secrets to the enemy. Antisemitist feelings became obvious for the first time in France. Eight years later, the sentence was reversed as it was discovered that document was forged to deliberately blame him. France’s right has slowly penetrated political circles. Today, the rise of the French right is strongly related to poor economic performance. Such a situation also comes along a very low voter turnout –61.5% of voters showed up. It is assumed that right-wing voters were more motivated to vote than their left-wing counterparts. French citizens are also disappointed with President Hollande in that his party has been unable to deliver political and economic promises. Doubtlessly, such as situation has taken a toll. The strength of the right is such that it has penetrated cities that have been predominantly left since 1912 –Toulouse, Roubaix, Amiens, Tours and Reims. During the second round, the combined left vote was 40% while for the mainstream right was 46%. Furthermore, a study showed that in 15 cities where the unemployment rates had been the lowest, the FN is present in only 11 cities. In the 15 cities with the highest unemployment in France, the FN systematically presented a candidate list and scores as high as 20% of votes –almost double.

FN’s good performance is also related to negative perceptions about immigration. During the period of 1975-1999, immigration in France was stable at an average rate of 7.4%. However, starting 2000, the French national statistics institute (INSI) reports higher immigration rates at an average of 8.6% per year. In periods of economic downturns like the one France is undergoing, immigrants tend to be regarded as job-stealers by nationals. Thus, citizens with these perceptions vote right as a way of rejecting immigration and embracing national identity. In addition to immigration, France’s unemployment rate is very telling in evaluating the reason why the extreme right won greater ground. When Francois Hollande came to power, unemployment was at 9.5. Today, France’s unemployment rate is about 11%. Yet, could it be possible that inequality has influenced the emergence of the right despite its welfare state? France is one of the major countries that prides itself for having a broad welfare system, through which it seeks to mitigate inequalities. Yet, data from the European Commission shows that there exists a rising trend of inequality – in 2002, its Gini was 27 and in 2012 was 30.5.

Will France’s future fall into right-wing hands? Current gains by the right can tell us about France’s future panorama. As a solution to the crisis, one austerity measure could be to cut state welfare provisions. Nevertheless, French people highly value their welfare system and many of them rely on it, particularly for medical emergencies. By mid-April, France needs to submit its spending plan to the European Commission, along with a plan for public-spending savings of 2015-2017. But how will public-spending will be reduced? The coming weeks will tell. If the economic cycle in the following years does not improve, it is likely that we will see some major cuts to France’s welfare state. Such policy-making would be supported by the continual rise of the right (FN) that advocates for a small state. Only if the leading left-wing party in the future, the PS, is elected once more and matches a period of good economic performance, then France’s welfare system could remain strong.

Mar 29, 2014

Elections in Turkey, Round One

Women cheering Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan while giving a speech in early March (from RT.com).

Women cheering Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan while giving a speech in early March (from RT.com).

On Sunday, Turkey is holding local elections: mayors and local counselors will be voted for throughout the country. This contest is the first iteration of the electoral calendar that will continue in the late summer with the first-time ever direct Presidential election in August this year and will conclude with the Parliament election in 2015. Although there is the broad question of how Sunday’s results could affect party strategies for the rest of the election cycle, what most citizens wonder is the position in which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and in particular Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, will emerge after this electoral round.

Turkey is a centralized state. As more or less has been a worldwide tendency, it has undertaken a series of reforms giving more powers to local administrations. However, the national government still has a lot of saying in local affairs. In spite of this, there are two big issues that make municipal management politically and socially relevant. First, they are in charge of a social welfare system providing food, education, or health to the poor; the provision of these services is what “government” or “state” means for many people. Second, local administration has a saying in planning and implementing public investment. In large cities, particularly Istanbul, those investment decisions have the potential of becoming the motor of the country’s economic development.

There are three large parties that will compete in the Sunday elections, and that are expected to meet again in the rest of this electoral cycle. First, the nationally incumbent Justice and Devleopment Party (AKP), led by Prime Minister Recep Erdogan. The AKP and Erdogan are widely noticed has being responsible for the successful stabilization of the country’s relation with its neighbors and the promotion of the image of a modern Turkey since they came to power more than ten years ago. At the same time, Erdogan and the AKP have been the target of several scandals suggesting an increase in their authoritarian attitudes and behavior: corruption accusations involving stealing public money for his family, the use of sexual material to blackmail political opponents, bans on Twitter and YouTube (the former of which was overturned by the Court), the desire to extend the President’s power on the eve of Erdogan’s expected decision to run for the Presidency after he cannot run for a fourth term as PM, violent dissolution of protests against Erdogan, or the increasing Islamization of his political discourse, contrasting with the secularism of his early years.

Two alternatives to the AKP are the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP). The CHP is the oldest of the largest parties in Turkey. It is also well organized; for instance, it will deploy half a million people to monitor polling stations throughout the country. Further, it governs one of the most affluent districts in Istanbul, whose head will be competing for the city’s mayoralty. But these strengths could be diminished by the fact that many see the CHP as close to the army (the ultimate arbiter of stability in Turkey, intervening by means of coups, thus generation suspicions about its commitment to democracy) and with an old-fashioned statism. The MHP is the extreme right, with a radical nationalist discourse despising peace talks with the Kurds and rejecting attempts to join the European Union. It comes in third place. According to a poll, in Sunday’s municipal elections the AKP will get 42 percent of the vote, CHP would receive 29 percent, and MHP could have 19 percent.

An initial question is whether the AKP will get out of this contest strengthened or weakened. Most analyses suggests that as long as it does not get around 40 percent of the vote, the AKP will be on firm land. A second issue, possibly more relevant, is how the AKP will react to whatever result it gets. As mentioned above, Erdogan’s reported intention is to expand the powers of the President and run himself for that office. If the AKP does not get the expected votes, how would it try to strengthen its position? Would it tighten the authoritarian screws of the system? Or would the party try to adopt more liberal policies to garner the support of electors? If the AKP does as expected, would its reading be that Islamization and contention of the opposition work for it objectives? Or would it try to increase its margin of victory by improving its behavior to attract more voters? The results of Sunday’s election will clearly set the stage for this summer’s presidential election.

Mar 27, 2014
Erika Hernandez

Populist India? The Future of Indian Politics

Source: The Economist

Graph source: The Economist

For decades, India has been the perfect example of a stable democracy, which has often prevented criticisms regarding the perseverance of its consociational model. Lijphart’s theoretical contribution was that such model was grounded in a parliamentarian model that was more representative of minorities, a fundamental tool for solving conflicts across ethnic groupings. Yet, despite India’s so-called success, the latest events question the perseverance of such model. Could it be possible that Western values on fairness and income inequality be disintegrating the fabric of the caste system? What we know so far is that its GDP growth inconsistently reflects economic expectations of the lower echelons. Hence, although evidence already shows a resurgence of left-politics, there will likely be a stronger and greater resurgence of populism in India in the near future.

In India, discontent with corruption and inequality is on the rise as VIP motorcades travel across the streets of Punjab. Despite the new laws narrowing motorcades use to only top Indian government officials, this has done little to scale down the VIP cult. Not only has it contributed to increase government debt, but it also has offered employment to those with no or very few labor skills –like to people providing for security services. Such situation is also telling about the economy. First, although India’s GDP growth during the last two decades has had its greatest peak at 10.5%, recent statistics show that its GDP growth average of 2012 was of 3.2%. Second, despite its so-much appraised jump towards a more service-centered economy (services represent 56.9% of its GDP pie; industry, 25.8%; and agriculture, 17.4%), the kind of services sectors that it are not the kind that aggregates value in the long term. 85% of India’s jobs are found within the informal sectors; 11% of them are within formal companies. Today, most of value added jobs are not labor-intensive and, hence, are automatized, for the large part (such as the new Volkswagen plant.) Some of the non-value added jobs are those sitting on stools ‘guarding’ property, like guarding ATMs. In contrast, India has not been attracting as much foreign direct investment as Vietnam and Indonesia have been.

Given the large amounts of poverty, the government has been constantly forced to provide other solutions to unemployment and inequality. The poor have been integrated into the economy through the government’s NREGA program. This is a welfare program that guarantees 100 days of wage employment to those without manual skills in rural towns. In 2000, the government also designed special economic zones (SEZs) in order to establish areas with low tax rates and well-developed infrastructure but have had a limited success, with only the IT firms thriving. But the tolerance towards inequality has decreased. After having provided a bullet-proof escort from the Central Reserve Police Force to the business leader Mukesh Ambani –India’s wealthiest man, anger and outrage flooded the media. Additionally, riots in Maruti –caused by workers’ poor living conditions– have been regarded as a symptom of uneasiness with inequality in Indian society. The United Nations / DESA Working Paper No. 45 shows that inequality in the rural areas has decreased and increased in the urban areas, in average. What this probably means is that there has been an important migration from the rural to the urban areas, that foreign direct investment has had mildly mattered (possibly due to low levels) and that government programs have likely helped in this respect. Nevertheless, the arrival to politics of anti-corruption parties like Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is also telling in that it is filling in for a need that Indians have not been provided for.

Today, India seems to recognize the importance of distributive politics more than ever. Regardless of dogma or caste system, the latest events do represent a barometer of increased social restlessness. If there has dominant left-politics in India, the arrival of AAP and its strong left-wing rhetoric suggests that, if it were to gain more power, it could lead the country towards populist politics. Although it propounds increasing accountability, it remains a question whether it will engage in austerity policies if encountered with large deficits. So far, it has made major electoral gains. Last fall, the party came in second place in local elections and pushed the incumbent Congress Party to a third place. The first place was taken by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party but it did not achieve a majority. There are other implications to this. Does this mean that acceptance for the caste system is diminishing and more Western values are being adopted? Does it mean that the strength of a consociational democracy depends upon a strong and equal system that replicates itself in politics and economics, in the end? Political science should carry out more research on this issue, as it would help to incorporate knowledge regarding the durability of consociational democracies.

Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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