Browsing articles from "August, 2011"
Aug 30, 2011
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Infrastructure Spending & Problems of Governance

One of the more recent foci of US politics and news media is the “failed stimulus package” and a concern over the Obama administration’s intention to double down on infrastructure investment.  Though political opinions on what governments should do to generate prosperity and employment opportunity varies, investing into infrastructure projects is certainly an economically sound approach to doing so.  Thus if one should conclude that the stimulus package was a failure (not a point I agree on) logically one should wonder why, given the volume of spending and the feasibility of infrastructure investment as an economic boost.
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Aug 27, 2011
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

I wrote something about Ghana

USAID, sadly, often does not release reports it commissioned. I think this is a shame because the organization produces some very good work that the public never sees. I am aware of this because I have written some of it. Nevertheless, to give credit where it is due, I am very pleased that the agency decided to make the Democracy and Governance Assessment of Ghana I co-authored public. I fully support the organization’s decision to publicize my work.

Aug 27, 2011
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Chinese Religious Freedom, Spiritual & Earthly Authority

Around the world few subjects are as contentious and difficult to broach in mixed company as the issue of religion.  Here in the States we place great value on the concept that people are free to believe what they wish and to live largely as they choose, yet we argue constantly over the place religion should have in politics and public life.  We’ve a long history of discomfort with the interplay between spiritual and earthly authority and our presently open stance on religion comes only after hundreds of years of development of social and moral norms on the subject.  Still there is the ever-present promotion of religious freedom abroad, particularly in nations we have strained current relations with.
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Aug 26, 2011
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Curses! Diplomacy and the Twit(ter) Age

Hungary reemerged as a hot discussion topic in democratization circles recently – for all the wrong reasons. As discussed by my colleague David in this forum, the Hungarian parliament, comprised of a single-party controlling majority, is blazing ahead with a series of controversial electoral reforms, media restrictions, and legislative limits to the number of legally recognized religions in the country.

Offering a window into the usually staid diplomatic banter between allies, the State Department’s public reaction last month to events in Hungary generated a spirited and R-rated kerfuffle involving a senior diplomat in the Obama Administration and a founder of the majority Fidesz party who also happens to be a Hungarian Member of the European Parliament. On July 24, Thomas O. Melia, Deputy Assistant Secretary at State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor – and erstwhile professor in the Democracy and Governance program here at Georgetown – testified before the House Foreign Affairs Europe and Eurasia subcommittee on the topic: “Eastern Europe: The State of Democracy and Freedom.” He criticized the Lukashenko regime in Belarus, upon which the US has imposed progressively strict economic sanctions, he expressed alarm about the “assaults on freedoms of the press, assembly, and rule of law” in Russia, and he praised the Turkish government’s decision return property to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the seat of the Greek Orthodox Church in Istanbul.

On the topic of Hungary, Melia’s prepared testimony expressed concern about recent actions taken by the ruling Fidesz government, particularly the “unprecedented two-thirds parliamentary majority [attempt] to lock in changes to the Constitution that could solidify its power, limit checks and balances, and unduly hamstring future democratic governments in effectively addressing new political, economic and social challenges.” In response to questions from subcommittee chair Congressman Dan Burton (R-IN) and ranking member Congressman Gregory Meeks (D-NY), Melia straightforwardly echoed the policy enunciated by Secretary Clinton during her late June visit to Budapest: it is incumbent on good friends to raise these issues.

In a particularly unfriendly response, Tamás Deutsch, a founding member of the ruling Fidesz party and Member of the European Parliament, tweeted in Hungarian, “who the f*** is Thomas Melia and why do we have to deal with this kind of s*** every day?” This became the headline of a news story in the Hungarian press the following day, and led to a series of articles and blog postings answering the question. An English-language article answered Deutsch’s first question, referencing Melia’s work with the National Democratic Institute in the late 1980s and early 1990s: he trained political party activists and civil society actors in Hungary, including the Federation of Young Democrats (yes, the Fidesz party), in various democratic campaign and election techniques during Hungary’s democratic transition. Other reports, including an Economist article online, observe that Deutsch acted rather hastily without researching the question he posed: before joining the State Department, Melia had a distinguished career as an activist with over twenty-five years of experience promoting democracy and human rights in influential positions at Freedom House, NDI, and what is now the Solidarity Center.

In this case Deutsch was unable or unwilling to substantively address Melia’s well-founded criticism, so rather than defending indefensible policies, he attacked the messenger. Deutsch deserves credit for heightening the international community’s focus on the critical issues raised in Melia’s testimony, including democratic representation, religious rights, and media freedom. Here are the substantive issues for discussion:

Democratic Representation: The Hungary Spectrum blog described the proposed electoral changes on July 12, challenging one significant effort proposed by Fidesz (there are others, including cutting the number of legislators and eliminating compensatory seats). Currently, parliamentarians are elected to the unicameral national assembly, as explained by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, in a combined single-member district and party list PR system. Single member district elections take place in two stages: a first round, wherein a candidate must win over 15% of the vote to participate in a second round, which takes place two weeks later. The goal of the two-week period and the runoff is to create an incentive for parties and candidates to bargain on the basis of the first round results, to create coalitions and/or to withdraw in favor of a stronger candidate from a friendly party. This has worked very well in Hungary since 1990. In a single round simple plurality system, which is what Fidesz is now proposing, five candidates can split the votes: one candidate wins with only 24% of the votes, with the other four candidates receiving 19% each, totaling 76% of the actual electorate. In the two-round system as it stands, the four candidates would have an opportunity to form coalitions among the top performing candidates and political parties to put forth a candidate to represent more than 24% of the electoral vote in the second round. As David describes, the result of Fidesz’s proposed single round simple plurality system would be to limit the ability of smaller parties to form coalitions.

Right of Religion. On August 9, Freedom House called on the Hungarian government to repeal the “Law on the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on Churches, Religions and Religious Community.” As reported by Freedom House and explored in the Huffington Post, the law reduced the number of recognized religious groups from 358 to 14; reregistering religions must pass a series of tests to demonstrate a history in Hungary, provide a petition with 1000 citizen signatures, and secure approval from two-thirds of the parliament. These restrictions violate the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as outlined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and raise a host of ethical questions about the role of the state.

Media Freedom: In protest of recently announced layoffs of 550 employees of the state-funded radio and television media, hundreds converged outside of the Magyar Rádió station on July 13. Two political parties, the Socialist MSZP and the LMP green-liberals participated in the demonstration and criticized the firings as politically motivated by the Fidesz party. As Melia testified, this comes on the heels of thegovernment replac[ing] members of a media oversight board…with candidates aligned with the ruling party.” As explained by Human Rights Watch, the board is now authorized “to impose fines of up to €700,000 (approximately $900,000) on media outlets for “imbalanced news coverage,” material it considers “insulting” to a particular group or “the majority” or it deems to violate “public morality.”’ The United States is not alone in criticizing the law: as outlined in the Economist in January, when Hungary assumed the EU Presidency (which it handed to Poland on July 3), Germany and France expressed concern about the law as well.

Hungary is taking a series of democratic detours: these are complicated issues that Melia and his team at the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor spend much of their time analyzing. Twitter captures a single moment in diplomatic time, just as an overheard quip might have a generation earlier; let’s hope that Deutch’s tweet is not indicative of the flippancy with which the Fidesz party is approaching all other aspects of governance, or of more general hostility to Hungary’s democratic allies expressing well-grounded concern about the country’s current deviation from its democratic trajectory.

Aug 23, 2011
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

A State(ment) of Nature?

Peter Thiel, called the “Billionaire King of Techtopia” by Details Magazine, recently announced that he will spend $1.5 million on the creation of a libertarian island in international waters. The article notes that the initial idea came from Patri Friedman, who, as reported by Details, “wants to establish new sovereign nations built on oil-rig-type platforms anchored in international waters—free from the regulation, laws, and moral suasion of any landlocked country.”

Especially at a time when the frontier of space is a visible symbol of the economic belt tightening here in Washington, we need big ideas to inspire the innovators and engage the entrepreneurs of my generation. In our haste to climb out of the economic and political chasm we find ourselves in, however, it would be a mistake to forget the responsibility that comes with greatness. As Mr. Thiel implements his island ideals, I hope he will consider serious implications of his sea-bound society, including:

1.      Equality. A society based on the inclusion of only a few individuals who (a) can pay for it and (b) agree with the ideology espoused by the founders can threaten the fundamental democratic notion of equality under the law. While some might argue that a social contract, or legal contract in this case, is sufficient to establish a political system, the creation of a pay-as-you-go nation threatens the notion that all beings are created equal simply by birth. For example, how will the new platform address the provision of basic services such as sewage treatment and potable water? Perhaps the founders are preparing transformational systems but more likely, Barak and I recently discussed, they will rely on guest workers to address challenges as they arise. The guest workers by nature do not have the same rights as the residents in this case. Without regulations, what rights will the workers be entitled to and how will they access those rights? Will the idealized utopia become like the United Arab Emirates, wherein, as Freedom House notes, foreigners are “lured into the country by employment opportunities are often subjected to harsh working conditions, physical abuse, and the withholding of passports?”

2.      Justice. My second issue, stemming from the first, is access to justice. When issues of disagreement occur, how will residents resolve those issues? Will they then turn to established court systems to resolve disputes, in which case violating the whole idea of creating a separate “nation,” or will they set up systems for only the paying residents? Without regulations and laws (leaving out the moral suasion, which I assume in this case is referring to the economic meaning), how would a raped guest worker seek redress of grievances?

3.      Self Interest. Finally, the fundamental premise of creating a new island of cherry-picked residents content to absolve themselves of social responsibility seems like a tragic self-fulfilling prophesy. The island nation may be able to use private money to pay for firefighters and EMTs, but without adding “enlightened” to “self interest,” I would question how long one man’s freedoms could exist without conflicting with another man’s rights.  

I am grateful to Mr. Thiel for providing students of government with a tremendous analytical opportunity, I look forward to following the development of his idea, and I challenge him to demonstrate that my criticisms are misinformed.

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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