Browsing articles in "Institutions"
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 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.

Mar 3, 2014
Erika Hernandez

Good-bye Chapito

Hundreds of people marching in Culiacan, Sinaloa asking not to extradite El Chapo drug lord. (Source: Reuters)

Hundreds of people marching in Culiacan, Sinaloa asking not to extradite El Chapo drug lord. (Source: Reuters)

Joaquin Guzman-Loera alias “El Chapo” (or ‘Shorty’) was finally caught by a Mexican navy seal while resting at a beach resort in Mazatlan, Cuiliacan on February 22. He had been almost caught before in one of his houses in the state of Culiacan. Rumors say that he managed to escape through a tunnel that he had built in case of contingency such as this. Thirteen years ago, El Chapo managed to escape from a top-security prison in Mexico. He had already spent seven years in prison. As head of the Sinaloa cartel, young people in Sinaloa feel that El Chapito brought them the employment opportunities that the “state was unable to provide.” The story about creating employment in a place where investors are uninterested given organized crime, is one where there exists multiple causation for the lack of employment. Several believe El Chapo brought stability to Culiacan, one that resembles the kind supported by a strong and functioning state. As it appears, parallel governance structures may be preferred as they seems to better serve the least fortunate: on the one hand, there is the state; on the other, the Sinaloa Cartel. Before delving directly into the analysis, I will briefly address how El Chapo became the powerful leader of a non-state actor.

Several drug cartels operate in Mexico. The most important ones are: the Sinaloa cartel, Guadalajara cartel, Tijuana cartel, Juarez cartel and the Gulf cartel. The penetration of the Sinaloa cartel in the American market has mainly taken place in New York City and Chicago. The drug market, both, in the countries of origin and of destiny is very profitable. While one cocaine kilo brought by Sinaloa’s cartel from South America sales at $2,000, it can be later retailed at $100,000 in the U.S. The Sinaloa cartel seems so powerful that out of the $65 billion drug sales purchased by Americans each year, more than $15 billion are estimated to be provided by this cartel (The Guardian 2014). El Chapo’s power is reflected in his personal fortune, which was estimated by Forbes at around $1 billion. For some, El Chapo’s arrest will not mean anything for the future of the cartel. According to some DEA officials, there will only be a power change at the top echelon and this will not imply weakening of the structure. True, informal institutions like this whose main incentive is to increase profit are likely to remain largely operational. However, such activity implies high risks while its structure relies in strong paternal figures. If no strong leader takes El Chapo’s place, then structural weakening could be possible. It is said that Ismael ‘El Mayo’ Zambada could replace him, a long-time friend, associate and ‘compadre’. Despite having offered an interview for Mexico’s renowned magazine “El Proceso,” it is said that his health is in a detrimental stage and he has been considering retirement.

Recently, hundreds of young lower and lower middle class citizens marched in Culiacan asking not to extradite El Chapo to the United States. Currently, he faces several criminal charges in the states of Illinois and New York. El Chapo’s cartel has greatly penetrated the economy of the state of Sinaloa. Apparently, protesters marched in favor of El Chapo because he had offered them employment, a task that they consider that the state had not done for them. It is true that Mexico’s market reforms of the 1990s displaced agricultural jobs to manufacturing. Without being trained with new skills, unemployment increased. Today, with some manufacturing plants closing down in Mexico given the lower costs in China, there is even greater unemployment in some states. For those unfortunate lacking any training and that are subject to a culture that sees the rule of law as hindering their opportunities, it is logical to think that a drug cartel would bring them ‘economic blessings.’ This also signals that subnational institutions in the northern part of Mexico are weak and that, any strong non-state actor can easily access power structures. In a way, cartels have reestablished some form of governance, not under the rule of law but under the market rules of drug.

Whenever there exists a power vacuum, state are vulnerable to being perverted by external actors. In Mexico, formal institutions have often operated along the lines of informal ones, depicting the pervasive power of clientelism. One by-product of democratic transition was the disconnection between the national with the subnational governance. President Fox’s conservative and technocratic party (PAN) had finally given the opportunity to rule in 2000. State governors belonging to the authoritarian party (PRI) seemed to have been handed a blank check to rule their states at their will. The national government had more urgent tasks such as learning how to rule a politically rusty country. Fragile local governments were then vulnerable to criminal networks. Mexico needs to take its power back through implementing strong institutions able to respond to challenges posed by non-state actors. But how to? Better start first with taking off the banners supporting El Chapito.

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.

Feb 19, 2014


A vendor of Libyan flags in Benghazi before a protest against the interim General National Congress' mandate extension (from Reuters).

A vendor of Libyan flags in Benghazi before a protest against the interim General National Congress’ mandate extension (from Reuters).

On February 20, Libya will hold elections for the Constituent Assembly for the Drafting of the Constitution. Members of the General National Congress agreed this Monday on the day for the ballot under pressure from protestors complaining about the extension of this body’s authority until the end of the year. Expectedly, three years after the initial protests against Muammar Gaddafi, the Constitution produced by the Assembly to be elected will produce the framework to rebuild the Libyan state anew.

This week’s election has some characteristics that make it noticeable within the broader context of electoral exercises in societies undergoing a major political transition. First, Libya is not undergoing a “mere” political transition from an authoritarian to a democratic regime, but is rebuilding the state. A state can be understood as a set of legal, economic, administrative, organizational, and human resources to structure power relations in a community. For a state to be properly called so, its operations must be guaranteed beyond the ups and downs of politics. Under Gaddafi this was not the case; as he could dispose at his will of “state” resources, it was instead a patrimonial system. After his fall, a series of laws beginning with the Constitutional Declaration have been published in an attempt to put order in the territory. A Constitution is expected to be permanent, but the Constitutional Declaration and the laws that have been produced under its authority are explicitly temporary, for a transitional period. Hence, Libya is not striving only to build an open and inclusive system, but to establish the foundations under such a system will work.

The second characteristic of Libya’s elections is that despite that lack of basic political framework, relevant political actors seem to be committed to building the state. Without a Constitution there is always the risk that any agreement reached is broken because there are no long-term behavior rules. In the extreme, an actor could make the best of such absence and try to take over power, while other actor deters him by violent means. Without rules nothing prevents the Leviathan from appearing. Yet actors have respected their agreements and seem to be working together for the common goal of building the state.

In third place, this commitment with rules is taking place for a second time. Libya’s first post-Gaddafi elections took place in the summer of 2012, for its General National Congress (GNC), a parliament that holds interim legislative and executive power (the latter exercised by its leader, Mahmoud Jibril, serving as interim Prime Minister). Those elections were deemed as reasonably free and fair. On the eve of a new electoral process a year and a half later, the Carter Center assesses that overall there are positive conditions for the conduction of the election. There are some observations it makes, though. These include a relatively limited time for campaigning and the need to extend the scope of voter information campaigns in order for all the people with the right to vote know there is an election, what its stakes are, or how they can participate in it. Yet, although the country cannot yet be called a democracy (without a constitution there is no full guarantee for the respect of basic liberties, for instance), it is quite notable that it has made its two most important post-Gaddafi political decisions, the election of a transitional authority and the election of a constitutional assembly, under democratic procedures.

And in fourth place, there appears to be some feedback between the GNC and citizens, an additional feature of democratic regimes. The GNC was elected in 2012 for eighteen months with the mandate to conduct the country throughout the transitional process, laying out the basic legal framework for the construction of the state. However, gridlocks between nationalists and Islamists have prevented it from meeting its goal. To repair this, the GNC decided to extend its authority until December this year. One of the objectives it met was writing an electoral law for the Constituent Assembly. Under its regulations, candidate registration began in October last year. Election Day was set for the summer of 2014. But the extension of the GNC’s mandate, coupled with frustration over a slow progress in producing the legal framework for the country, sprouted a series of protests in which one of the main demands was to have anticipated elections. In the face of this “feedback”, the members of the GNC reached a unanimous agreement to anticipate Election Day.

In the end, without a constitutional framework it seems that the Libyan transition from an authoritarian rule is being mainly driven by a true commitment of all relevant political actors to build a democratic system. Of course, not all is a smooth and easy story. As mentioned, the GNC reached a deadlock between its two largest groups, preventing it from functioning. In addition, there have been some violent episodes through all this process, and although no loss of life must be minimized, those events have not hampered the transition. Furthermore, some ethnic groups have announced a boycott to the election under the argument that under the current rules their representation is not guaranteed. It is too soon to make an encouraging prevision of the election and the work of the Constituent Assembly, which has three months to present its draft. In the end, the positive observations above apply to the work of the GNC, and now it is another collegiate body that takes the lead in the Libyan transition. Possibly the greatest incentive for the Constituent Assembly to achieve its goal is in the fact that although democratic institutions are still under construction, the democratic environment seems to be setting in the political processes of Libya.

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.

Email Subscription to D&S and Blog

* indicates required

Posts by Region

Posts by Topic

Switch to our mobile site