Browsing articles in "Elections"
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 29, 2014

Elections in Turkey, Round One

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

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

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 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.

Mar 4, 2014

Elections in North Korea

Kim Jong Un, North Korea's Supreme Leader, with his closest military collaborators (from Al Jazeera).

Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s Supreme Leader, with his closest military collaborators (from Al Jazeera).

On January 8, the North Korean news agency (KCNA) informed in a brief communiqué that on March 9, elections for the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) would take place. At the beginning of February, KCNA published a series of extensive notes on the nomination of Kim Jong Un, who became First Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) after his father’s death in December 2011, as candidate to the SPA for the 111th constituency. Following previous elections, a turnout close to 100% is expected, accompanied with a margin of victory also close to unanimity for all candidates. If results are so clearly pre-determined, how and why do elections take place in this country?

Elections are celebrated every five years in North Korea. The country is divided into 687 electoral districts under a residential criterion, each of which elects a deputy to the SPA. There is only one candidate in each district; they are divided 606 the WPK, 50 for the Korean Social Democratic Party, 22 for the Chongdoist Chongu Party, and 3 independents. It is widely believed that all of them are hand-picked by the directing board of the WPK or, ultimately, by Kim. The two latter parties are not autonomous but belong to the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland, controlled by the WPK. Independent candidates must be members of the Front. The ballot of each district presents a picture and the name of the single candidate, offering two options for the citizens, yes or no. Although the act of marking the ballot is nominally secret, ballots where “no” has been crossed out must be deposited in a separate box, evidently compromising the secrecy of the vote. Allegedly, citizens who vote “no” are taken to labor camps. The Assembly usually meets twice a year, although it must be conveyed by its Presidium, which decides the topics to discuss and the direction of the vote of the SPA members.

The literature on non-democratic regimes widely acknowledges that, although elections are very unlikely to produce a government turnover (even more in countries as North Korea were no opposition parties even exist), electoral exercises serve a number of functions in authoritarian environments. For instance, huge margins of victory transmit an overwhelming sense of strength on the citizenry and the eventual opposition, preventing challenges to arise. Also, they create incentives for people to try to make it to the ballot due to the benefits involved in being an elected government officer, including material spoils or judicial immunity.

Those theories were developed having in mind systems in which there was some, albeit small, space for competition. In North Korea there is none. Yet, elections are not a mere staging of democratic practices. This is even truer in the first exercise conducted under Kim Jong Un. Analysts have identified two major objectives in this specific contest.

First, a circulation of elites. Elite circulation is relevant in non-democratic contexts because it allows to reward those who have been loyal to the leader, prevents individuals from acquiring too much power, and punishes emerging opponents. This means that, after the series of shifts in the heads of ministries, the leadership of the Army, and widely publicized executions such as that of his uncle months ago, Kim could use these elections to finish defining the group of people that will rule with him and to further alienate from power those who he might consider his opponents. There is very little reason to believe that a new group in power will bring about any substantive change to North Korean policies. Yet, with collaborators hand-picked by him, Kim would have eliminated his father’s devotees and would be able to exercise in full his authority with his closest and more reliable collaborators.

The second main objective for the elections is to force North Koreans to keep a check on the country’s population. Over the last years, with a chronic food crisis due to floods, droughts, and an inefficient agricultural administration, many people have left the country for China. Yet, before Election Day citizens are required to inscribe their names in the voters’ registry. If they fail to do so (evidenced by comparing the current with the previous version of the lists) or do not show up to the polling center on Election Day, they and their families are harassed by the government, many times reaching imprisonment. Any differences between the 2014 and 2009 voters’ lists could be interpreted as defections under Kim Jong Un’s rule, which could be attended in one way or another (very possibly more repression, as opposed to improving agricultural or other kinds of policies).

Therefore, elections in North Korea are not a simple enactment of democratic procedures. Yet their objective is entirely different. While in democratic environments elections serve for people to have a voice in public matters, in North Korea they will be good for Kim to strengthen his position in power and to ensure that the regime is not suffering from major defections from the population.

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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