Browsing articles in "Democracy"
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 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 25, 2014
Erika Hernandez

Good-bye G8; Welcome back G7. Implications for democracy

President Obama in the G7 Leaders Meeting to discuss the situation in Ukraine, at the Prime Minister's residence  (Netherlands). Source: Official White House

President Obama in the G7 Leaders Meeting to discuss the situation in Ukraine, at the Prime Minister’s residence (Netherlands). Source: Official White House

This Monday, the Group of 8 (G8) decided to become, once more, the Group of 7 (G7) by leaving Russia out of the meetings. Such exclusion is a result of the dispute of the Crimean peninsula between Russia and Ukraine. In an attempt to support Ukraine, the European Union and Ukraine have already signed a political association agreement on March 21 as a first step towards fuller integration. Enhanced cooperation will depend upon Ukraine holding Presidential elections in May. The United States has fully supported Ukraine as well. But what can these tensions tell us about our current and future world order? What are the implications for conceptualizing democracy in the modern world? Future events will be shaped by the interactions between the old democratic economies and the emerging economies, the BRICS –albeit not necessarily fully democratic. Our conception of democracy will be likely be modified. Thus, in the West, it is likely that we will be more able to accurately distinguish the gray area of hybrid regimes.

The event of last few weeks in Ukraine have not only represented the strengthening of Russia’s authoritarian regime but they have also posed major challenges to the political science community. After Ukraine ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanokuvych, Crimean parliamentarians requested to be re-annexed to Russia. In a referendum, Crimean citizens allegedly voted towards annexation. In a speech, President Putin mentioned that there was a high voter turnout (82%) that favorably voted towards annexation (96%). There were no or few Western international observers to validate such referendum. As the OSCE did not recognize the Crimean government, its request to observe and invitations to observe were denied and rescinded. There were non-Western organizations like the Eurasian Observatory for Democracy and Elections that did attend indicating that elections were according to international standards. However, their objectivity remains questionable given their proximity to Russia. Whether Crimea’s referendum was fair and independent, it is impossible to know. Today, the G7 has already isolated Russia by temporarily cancelling a G8 meeting, supposed to be held in Sochi. Instead, the G7 will meet in Brussels during the same time frame. (G7 members are Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Britain.) Some sanctions that the G7 might take could be related to energy, banking and defense sectors. Additionally, Ukraine and NATO have been cooperating and have warned about the building up of Russian troops along its eastern border, suggesting the possible annexation of Transdniestria –a territory in Moldova.

According to Vladimir Putin’s recent speech, all these boils down to Russia being constantly ignored by the West. In his own words, Russia is “an independent, active participant in international affairs” that has the right to pursue its own national interests that need to be respected. Whatever views of victimhood or lack thereof, the fact is that there was a clear Russian intervention in Ukrainian affairs. What most catches my attention is the sense of entitlement. Indeed, Ukraine is within Russia’s sphere of influence. But this sense of entitlement goes beyond that. It speaks of an emerging powerful economy that is no longer afraid of confronting the rich Western economies; it is unconcerned about their retaliatory power. The main reason: Russia knows that, in a not very distant future, old Western economies will mostly become second to the BRICS emerging economies. (The breakdown of the economies in 2050 is here.) Importantly, it is likely that its most important trade partners will be located within this group. Although Western economies are still strong and influential, the recent economic downturn in these region has questioned their persistence and prowess.

Russia believes that it supported Crimea in its right of self-determination –a principle recognized by the United Nation’s Charter– and it believes that no country should stand against this. The Western world agrees with this principle, but it does so to the extent that procedures are transparent, fair and representative of people’s views. This is why, in the West, we highly value having international observers in elections as a way of ensuring transparency. For those countries encouraging more authoritarian tactics, the principles will be left untouched yet the methods are likely to remain obscure in order to justify an increased search for power. This should not come as a surprise, as BRICS economies are growing more powerful. By 2050, the U.S. will be replaced by China (BRICS economy) as the largest economy (est. GDP at PPP of $53,586 US dollars). If in 2011, most of the top 10 economies were Western, European and Anglosaxon economies. By 2050, the upper top 10 places will be occupied by BRICS and will be accompanied by some other Western economies. Several implications may derive from this. Western policymakers and political scientists are likely to search for better ways to distinguish the definitions of hybrid regimes –regimes having a mix of authoritarian and democratic procedures. The most authoritarian BRICS economies, are likely to continue carrying out a rhetoric favoring a non-transparent electoralist fallacy. Therefore, in the West we will likely see more research on how to better distinguish transparent electoral procedures. Although the scenario of increased justification for authoritarianism is possible, it is exciting to think about the contributions that political science could possibly conceive towards better policy making.

Mar 23, 2014



Joaquín Lavado’s, Quino, character Mafalda complaining: “Soup is to childhood what communism is to democracy” (from @MafaldaQuotes).

On March 15, 2012, some people in the Spanish-speaking world were ready to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Mafalda, the main character of the homonymous comic strip created by Argentinian cartoonist Joaquín Lavado, Quino. However, at that time the author said that such celebration would be inadequate. Mafalda’s fans were taking as a basis for the commemoration the birthday date the girl allegedly mentioned in one of her appearances. On the contrary, Quino said that if any event should take place, it should be moved to late September 2014, fifty years after Mafalda’s stripe was first published. In the middle of such discussion, the fifty-second birthday of the girl, according to her alleged birthday, in preparation for the fiftieth anniversary of her first appearance in public, seems a good pretext to talk about one of the most beloved characters in Latin America and Spain.

In 1963, cartoonist Quino was hired by an Argentinian home appliances company to create a character to use in one of its publicity campaigns. He came up with Mafalda, a six-year old girl from the emerging middle class in Buenos Aires. For some reason, the series of advertisements featuring her never materialized. Yet, in 1964, the editor of the Argentinian magazine Primera Plana approached Quino to publish a comic strip in its pages. The author rescued Mafalda. Initially, he added two more characters: her mother, a dedicated housewife, and her father, an employee at a private company. They all lived in a flat in Buenos Aires. As time passed, the weekly strip moved to other publications and became more populated, mostly by Mafalda’s friends. She was joined by the nervous Felipe; Susanita, pretending to be rich and aspiring to be the wife of a wealthy man; Manolito, the son of a Galician émigré who helps his father in attending the family’s grocery store; the egocentric Miguelito; the short-sized Libertad, daughter of a leftist couple; and her brother, Guille.

When it began its appearances in the press, Mafalda was supposed to depict the life of a middle-class Buenos Aires family. Yet, in time the publication became a regional reference for the criticism against any kind of authoritarianism, be it from the left or from the right. In the light of Argentina’s military dictatorships of the 60’s and 70’s, Quino faced several restrictions about what not to publish. Because the series was so popular, it could not be just shut down; instead, he was forbidden to talk about any political theme. While the author makes few, if any, explicit mentions to Argentina, his characters reflect upon the nation’s and the world’s events. The spirit of the military regime was keen to accept anti-communist statements in the strip. But Quino had to be wiser when criticizing this own government. In spite of the severe risk of repression, he nonetheless included numerous subtle references to coups, abuses against human rights, violations of democratic procedures, and illegitimate foreign interventions in Latin America made by the characters of the series.

Quino decided to stop publishing the series in 1973 because he felt the characters had worn out and he was on the verge of becoming repetitive. However, neither Mafalda nor her friends disappeared. For instance, very probably because Mafalda always said she wanted to work as a translator for the U.N., intentionally mistranslating aggressive statements made by delegates, the kids have been featured in worldwide UNICEF campaigns to promote children’s rights and in posters encouraging people to support the Red Cross. Similarly, they have appeared in advertisements to teach children in poor areas hygiene or nutritional habits and in voter education programs.

Although in the strip Mafalda was always six years old and it was never known if she made it to being a U.N. translator, with these ulterior projects she has become one of the most cherished Latin American democracy promoters. And with this work, his author, Quino, became one of the most heard voices against authoritarianism in one of the darkest times in Latin America.

Mar 7, 2014

Elections in Colombia

Electoral material for the legislative contest in Colombia being shown at a polling station (from El País-Colombia).

Electoral material for the legislative contest in Colombia being shown at a polling station (from El País-Colombia).

This Sunday Colombia celebrates legislative elections. This is the first part of this year’s electoral cycle, which will be completed in May with the presidential and vice presidential contest. From the point of view of governance, two are the most important aspects surrounding the upcoming election: corruption and the peace process between the government and the paramilitary Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC).

A Colombian newspaper has alarmingly noted that only 40% of legislative candidates have provided any information about their campaign finances (how much they are spending and where that money comes from). And for some of those that have complied with that requirement, the reporter doubts the veracity of the amounts made public given the large number of billboards, television ads, rallies, and other activities they have made, compared to the relatively austere budgets they show.

Financing for legislative campaigns and candidates comes mostly from private funds, candidates’ own resources, donations, and contributions from their parties. The state provides money under request. On the contrary, for presidential campaigns private resources can amount up to no more than 20% of a candidate’s funds. In either case, particulars can finance candidates. However, given the large presence of drug trafficking, organized crime, and corruption throughout the state, there is a large possibility that non-state campaign money is dirty. This problem is clearly illustrated with the case known as Proceso 8,000, in which over 50 top-level officers, including the Attorney General and a former Defense Minister, were accused of allowing drug trafficking money into the campaign of Ernest Samper, who became President in 1994 (Samper himself was processed and acquitted as part of the process).

Allegedly, because of the tremendous scandal it implied, this case had the outcome of presidential candidates taking pains to ensure that the private money they use in their campaigns has nothing to do with drugs or other crimes. Yet, in legislative elections, where not all candidates have a high profile and where the relatively large number of contestants complicates keeping a close eye on each of them, there are more spaces of vulnerability. Although there is a special watch on drug money, there are other forms in which illegal money can enter politics, such as directly adjudicated contracts for public works, from which the officer who grants them receives a share of the value. What is more, there are suspicions that in some regions of the country business groups exist only thanks to the resources they receive from this kind of contracts.

Another issue concerning these elections is the question of the peace process with the guerilla. At the head of the Democratic Center (CD) closed list for the Senate is former President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010). One of the characteristics of his government was the military combat of the FARC. There is still no consensus on whether or not this strategy contributed to restoring peace and debilitating organized crime. His successor, current President Juan Manuel Santos, has betted for another strategy, a banner for his administration: sitting down with the insurgents to negotiate a peace agreement which, among other things, opens the door for their formal entrance in politics in the form of a political party. Uribe has made clear his opposition to such road of action. His position in this matter is relevant because it is the Congress which would have to approve (or veto) any agreement reached between the government and the FARC; expectedly, he and his party would not accept it. This acquires further relevance as CD seems to be consolidating its position in the first place of voters’ preferences after being preceded by Santos’ Party of the U during most of February. However, even winning the largest share of seats, Uribe’s party’s presence in the chambers would not be larger than 30%, making it necessary to coalesce with other forces to pass or reject what interests it the most.

Electoral funds are relevant for governance because if illegal money is used for candidates, once they get to office their real constituencies will be not Colombian citizens, but those who fueled their campaigns. The acceptance of an eventual agreement (which, according to some polls, the majority of Colombians are skeptical will be reached) by Congress could mean a new episode of the relations with the guerrilla, in principle ending violence. What Colombians do of these issues will be seen next week, setting up the stage for the presidential contest in May.

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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