A new report from the British think-tank Demos (for the group of the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament) on the quality of democracy in European countries makes some interesting claims. It states that Hungary and Greece are ‘the most significant democratic backsliders, with Hungary in the bottom quartile for all measures of democracy’.
But while democratic values may be at risk in both countries, it seems to me that this is happening in different ways. In particular, the way government control is exercised in the presence of parties of the far right is quite different. In Hungary, the government has consolidated political control by moving further toward the positions adopted by the far right. In Greece, the state faces a crisis of authority that is worsened by the activities of the far right.
In Hungary, following the election of 2010, the government was formed by the conservative Fidesz party and its Christian Democrat allies, which together won 52% of the votes and 69% of the seats in parliament. The mainstream political opposition had already collapsed, since the Socialist Party (the former Communist party) had lost credibility over allegations of corruption and mismanagement of the economy. This allowed two smaller parties to gain seats, the far-right Movement for a Better Hungary, known as Jobbik, and the liberal-green Politics Can Be Different (LMP). The new government’s super-majority allowed it to introduce a new constitution in 2012, and to make further changes to it since then, without seeking or obtaining cross-party agreement. A series of amendments has changed the way important institutions work, such as the Constitutional Court, constituency boundary review processes, and press freedom. The government has gained wide discretionary powers on issues such as homelessness, family policy, and nationality regulations. Fidesz has increasingly been using these powers to move government policy further toward the right. This can make the government appear ambivalent in response to the rhetoric of intolerance and the rise of populist nationalism coming from the far right. Indeed, Human Rights Watch has termed Hungary’s new constitution ‘discriminatory’, saying that it has enabled ‘a raft of laws… (that) undermine the judiciary, media, and other checks and balances on the government’.
The European Commission has been slow to take a stand on these developments, partly because Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has offered assurances to the Commission and the European Parliament that he is serious about curtailing the extreme right. But in an interesting new article in the journal Governance, Kim Lane Scheppele, who is a law professor in Princeton, offers another interpretation of the significance of constitutional change in Hungary. She points out that each individual salami-slice of change that Fidesz undertakes has been defended as relatively unexceptional, taken on its own, compared with other countries’ practices. But cumulatively, she argues, they all push in the same direction and have mutually reinforcing effects. The EU focuses on the checklist, item by item. But the aggregation of changes to the constitution has created what she calls ‘a monster… a Frankenstate’ of consolidated powers that pull away from liberal and democratic values.
In Greece, the government formed after the June 2012 election is dominated by the conservative New Democracy party, and its majority in parliament, for which it depends on the Socialist Party (PASOK) and DIMAR, a smaller social democratic party, is fragile. PASOK, once a major party, has fragmented in recent years. Much of its previous support has gone to the more radical SYRIZA, which won more than twice the vote-share of PASOK and is now the second-largest party. The ND-PASOK government is committed to implementing the terms of the loan agreement that Greece entered in May 2010 and most recently renegotiated in February 2012. This has proven extremely difficult, particularly when GDP is now 23.4% below its pre-crisis peak. Many of the underlying problems of Greek society, such as the widespread uses of patronage and corruption to link politicians to their support base, and to keep inefficient institutions moving, have proven very difficult to alter. The social tensions caused by high unemployment and poor welfare provisions are intensified by Greece’s exposure to high levels of illegal immigration. These conditions are credited with boosting support for the far-right Golden Dawn party, which won 18 seats, or 6% of the total, in June last year. Golden Dawn has a highly visible street presence, and close connections with some sections of the police, some of which are said to have provided training for the party’s paramilitary groupings. Its activists have been accused of ‘beating up and killing passers-by (mainly immigrants)’ - a man from Pakistan was stabbed and killed while on his way to work in January this year, and reports of attacks that appear to be racially motivated attacks are on the increase.
This month, the killing of prominent left-wing musician Pavlos Fyssas, for which a Golden Dawn activist has been arrested, caused a wave of public criticism. In a poll reported by Eurointelligence on 24 September, over three-quarters of respondents called the party either a ’fascist organization’ or a ‘criminal organization under the guise of a political party’. But until recently, the uncertainty of the government’s grip on power has meant that they have been unwilling to alienate an organization that, in spite of all that has happened, some 17% of people still hold to be a legitimate nationalist populist movement. Besides, banning political parties is problematic in a country with a history of political repression. But some have also suggested that the main government parties have been unwilling to challenge Golden Dawn on the extreme right because it made it easier for them to characterize it as equivalent to the challenge posed from the left by SYRIZA. This ‘theory of two poles’ results in ‘trivializing the extreme-right Golden Dawn and criminalizing left-wing SYRIZA’ (h/t Eurointelligence).
There are a number of implications for the role of the EU in supporting the stability and durability of democracy in Europe. One is that piecemeal constitutional change can corrode democratic freedoms, and that dangers of a pull toward the far right should be more clearly recognized. Another is that the presence of non-state quasi-militias on the streets should be a cause for serious concern. And a final implication must surely be that the political and social as well as the economic costs of financial adjustment strategies need to be taken a good deal more seriously than they have to date.