Browsing articles in "Europe and Russia"
Jun 9, 2014
Erika Hernandez

Popular Europhobics. EU’s Parliamentarian Elections

Successful campaign by the National Front in France.  Source: ANDRIEU / AFP / Getty Images.

Successful campaign by the National Front in France. Source: ANDRIEU / AFP / Getty Images.

Any democratic government needs to have opposition in order to fully represent people’s interests. This fosters political balance, helps keep policy expenditures under control and assists citizens in reaching an ideological compromise. But when the opposition engages in promoting exclusionary political platforms, this challenges democratic advancement while instilling authoritarian features. According to provisional results by the Wall Street Journal, it is estimated that the right won 297 seats out of the 751 total seats in the European parliament. WSJ also calculates that left-wing parties only won 232 seats. Right-wing parties in this region blame European bureaucracy and immigration for the sluggish economy. However, it is precisely international cooperation that can help European nations rise from the chronic economic depression. Despite the fact that the EU increased to 28 members last year, voter turnout remains low –barely a 43.1%. This reveals that left-wing supporters are discouraged to vote and some might have made a switch to the right. So far, left-wing parties have not built up a strong enough nor convincing platform to get the EU out of its depression. More importantly, where have the supporters of the EU model gone?

The electoral results are remarkably discouraging. Conservative parties have had an impressive advance in people’s hearts. These parties have strong supporters in several countries now: the UK, Spain, Germany, Denmark, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Latvia and Ireland. Although some of them like France’s Front National and Belgium’s Vlaams Belang have had to tone down their anti-immigration sentiments, their rhetoric remains discriminatory. In Germany, the right took 34 seats of the EU parliament and is represented by the CDU/CSU alliance. This collation rejects Turkey’s membership to the European Union although Germany is Turkey’s greatest trading partner and has the largest Turkish diaspora. In Denmark, the right took 5 seats of the 13 EU seats that the country can take. It is mainly represented by the Danish Popular Party (DF), which opposes immigration and proposes to re-establish border controls but is not anti-Semitist as France’s National Front is. The DF doubled its number of seats since 2009. In France, the far-right National Front (FN) gained a large amount of votes –26% or 4.1 million votes. With its anti-immigration and anti-EU party discourse, it won 25 out of the 74 seats in the EU parliament that correspond to France. The FN “earthquake” not only has had an effect in its home country but it has also had an effect in its European neighbors. Thus, the trend is spreading.

But the reasoning behind the Europhobia is the economic depression.  The highest economic growth in the EU area during this last decade was 3.4% in 2006. The financial crisis hit hard the zone by having the GDP contract 4.5%. In 2013, the GDP growth rate stood at 0.1%. Unemployment has been strikingly high and only narrowly reduced in 2008. In the EU-28 area, unemployment was at 9.3% in 2004; 7% in 2008; and, jumped to 10.8% in 2013. A sluggish economy in the EU is a clear indicator of uneasiness among European countries that feel having contributed more than received. Such is the discourse of the right-wing in Germany and France. This is precisely one of the complaints that parties like the FN have been able to use as a leverage for their campaign. Certainly, the more economic strain, the more the perceptions exists that money needs to be preserved even at the cost of liberal values. Clearly, the economic downturn inhibited EU lovers from voting as the economic crisis appears not to end.

The emerging right-wing European parties are exclusionary. For the most part, they do not intend to continue embracing the EU project as there exist perceptions of economic abuse by states in Southern Europe. But despite their views favoring segregation, these parties should not be precluded from participating in the democratic project. Rather, they should be included. However, these parties need to realize that the EU compromise cannot be undone. Instead, they need to seek alternative solutions to the economic crisis. They should create more realistic platforms to help nations cope with their deficits. The solution is not diminished cooperation but rather an increased one. One that is fostered through debate, bringing to the table the brightest ideas by inviting the smartest political scientists, economists, respected financial leaders, among others, able to envision and craft a better and brighter EU.

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.

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 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.

Feb 25, 2014
Erika Hernandez

After the storm, then what?!

Vitali Klitschko shakes hands with Yanukovych after having signed the agreement. Source: Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images

The power of the many did prevail despite being ignored by the government. After several denials, President Viktor Yanykovich had agreed to hand in power last Friday and to hold early presidential and parliamentarian elections. This was done in a meeting with opposition representatives and with brokers from the European Union. Former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko has been released after being in jail for nearly 4 years (since 2010.) In viewing that the many became more powerful in numbers and in determination, Yanukovich was ousted on Saturday and fled to the Russian-speaking city of Kharkiv. Although he appeared in television (unknown location) and announced that he would hold meetings with people in the south and east of the country to shore up support, he remains unseen. He also declared that he continues to be Ukraine’s President. Yanukovich is currently sought by authorities for having committed ‘mass murder’ and having killed members of Euro-Maidan. Last week 82 people died in confrontations with police. As many other previously toppled authoritarian leaders, he seems to be blind-folded by believing that shoring support from some provinces will magically create a coalition that will favor him and that will be able to counter-balance his opposition. If one day quixotic ideals of power served dictators, these same mirages have eventually worked against their endurance. If he is more realistic and careful in looking for truthful allies, his survival is possible.

Interestingly, the power of the Euro-Maidan increased when the government decided to increase violence. Martyrdom served to further increase the movement’s support. Opposition leaders seem to have stayed truth to their cause by staying out with the crowds in incredibly cold temperatures. Opposition leaders like Vitali Klitschko has not yet pronounced whether he will run for office. Interestingly, Yulia, who did not stay with the crowd given that she was jailed, seems to have taken advantage of the situation and has already indicated that she will run. However, there are some that say that she will likely be unable to run given that she has convictions and the Constitution does not allow this – unless it is modified. Candidate nominations are expected to begin today and the Central Election Commission is expected to schedule preparations for elections. It is likely that opposition leaders like the former boxer Klitschko will run as well. It is perhaps these kind of leaders that Ukraine needs – an air of freshness. After having discovered Yanukovich’s luxury liberty, it is unlikely that the public will accept being ruled under corruption. Will the people remember Yulia as a victim or as a former Prime Minister who allegedly engaged in corruption during her term? Whatever the citizenry chooses to remember Ukraine needs a smart leadership able to confront Putin’s imperialistic desires.

If we cannot change history, nor can we change geography. As Russia’s neighbor, Ukraine is unlikely to free from Russia’s influence. At this moment, the conflict is too recent for the EU to let go. But once politics become stable –through having hold elections– and EU attention is diminished, Ukraine could slip again silently under Russian control. This could happen through strengthening business ties, creating strong civil society groups that support Russian vision of politics, among others. But such as situation is also possible if the next president is unable to resist influence from Russian authoritarianism. So far, Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev said yesterday that it would be hard to deal with people holding “Kalashnikovs” and “wearing masks” (the opposition). Whatever democratically elected government that is against Russian intervention is not likely to friend Putin’s Russia.

It is often said that after the storm comes the calm. Calm is likely to arrive Ukraine after the elections are hold. But for how long? How elections are designed, will determine the possible electoral outcome. If elections are unfair, restlessness is likely to ensue. One possibility is that Russia could intervene in these elections by funding one of the candidates. Will any of the possible candidates agree? Unfortunately, this is always a possibility as long as the dealings are kept under the table. The issue now is whether Ukraine’s next leader will remain truthful to building stability and erecting democratic institutions that are long-lasting. An equally important task is to build a political culture conscious of electing leaders likely to advance promises. The citizenry should keep its democratic promise to itself and not fall back into authoritarian practices like it happened with voting Yakunovych a second and last time.

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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