Monday, January 16, 2012

Hungary and the Death of Democracy in Europe

In October 2006, I took a trip to Budapest for a vacation.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, October 2006 was an interesting time to be in the Hungarian capital.  In May 2006, Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany's MSZP party had been re-elected under the shadow of a collapsing economy and ballooning budget deficit.  In September, an audio tape was discovered which featured the Gyurcsany bragging to confidantes how he was lying about the size of the deficit.  This sparked outrage in the country and in Budapest in the fall of 2006 large protests filled the area around the Hungarian parliament, including during the time I was in Hungary.  At the time, I remember thinking how amazing it was to see people so engaged in their politics.  I thought about how Hungarians who had fought for so long and so hard to have a voice, would not stand for corrupt politicians.  I am increasingly worried that I was wrong.  In 2010, Gyurcsany's party was defeated handily (he had already resigned) in the wake of not only that scandal but the full force of an economic crisis that his Hungary about as hard as it hit anyone.  The current Prime Minister, Viktor Orban an his Fidesz Party took over.  Fidesz holds a huge majority and has used it to pass laws which border on undemocratic.  Orban learned from the scandal of his predecessor not that he should be honest but that the media, who leaked the scandal, were dangerous and should be control.  The new media laws in Hungary are effectively censorship (newspapers published blank front pages in protest when the law passed).  Now, Orban is updating the Soviet era constitution and using his super-majority to instill his right-wing political values upon the constitution itself.

Orban's less than democratic tendencies have been roundly criticized by his European neighbours.  Their is increasing talk in Europe of Hungary verging on dictatorship.  I don't necessarily disagree, I do it find it somewhat hypocritical considering the massive democratic deficit being exposed by the European financial crisis.  Take Italy.  Please someone take Italy.  Italy has had a democratic deficit for a while.  Any country being run by a man who is both the richest man in the country and the owner of the largest media empire in the country as Italy was under Silvio Berlusconi is not exactly a paragon of democratic virtue.  Now, Italy faces a new democratic deficit.  The Prime Minister Mario Monti is described as a technocrat.  He has appointed a cabinet without including a single parliamentarian contrary to Italian tradition (this isn't the US).  Monti's austerity agenda is being pushed through parliament at the point of a gun.  Any time the Italian parliament questions Monti's plan he threatens economic doom and gloom and the markets back him up by raising Italy's lending costs.  The parliament has been effectively neutered.  The question here is not whether or not Mario Monti is doing the right thing for Italy.  Frankly, there aren't a lot of good options right now and his plans look about as good as anything else.  The question is how exactly can we call this democracy.  Yes, technically Monti is democratically legitimate.  He holds the confidence of the Italian parliament and the parliament was duly elected.  However, when the parliament's confidence seems to be built solely on fear it becomes murkier as to how democratically legitimate that confidence is.

This is how democracy is fading away all over Europe.  It isn't that there aren't free and fair elections; there are.  However, big decisions are increasingly being made either at the less than democratic European level or being pushed through less than enthusiastic parliaments under a cloud of fear.  The EU which has brought peace to Europe, increasingly threatens its democracy.  In Greece, George Papandreou's attempts to bring austerity measures to a referendum were snuffed out by furious fellow EU leaders.  The most recent treaty updating the EU's structure was quickly pushed through parliaments after it failed miserably in referenda.  I'm no fan of direct democracy but if you do go to the people and they say no, you better damn well listen.   European governments are increasingly unable to act in the best of interest of their own people because of restraints imposed by Brussels.  To be clear I'm talking about the only government that seems to function in Brussels.  That would be the European one not the Belgian government which was finally formed last month a mere 589 days after the last election in June of 2010.  As the economic imposes more and more upon European governments, one wonders whether or not when this crisis clears, whether those governments will be able to regain their democratic legitimacy.

This threat to democracy is far more dangerous than an IMF Structural Adjustment Program or similar program like the kind imposed on Argentina after its economic collapse.  The IMF has no real place in a functioning economy.  Once the economy is back on its feet and the loans are being repaid, the country can do as it pleases.  The IMF has no power to stop a government from making decisions it disagrees with in good economic times.  The EU is a far more integrated institution that seems to build itself on mission creep.  The European Union's natural growth seems to stem from moments of crisis when governments decide to let the EU handle a problem.  This wouldn't be an issue if the EU was viewed as even vaguely being a democratic institution.  It is responsive to its member governments to a certain extent, but its connections to the people, mostly through the joke that is the European Parliament, are weak on a good day.  If people believe that decisions are being made by a government over which they have no control, there is no point in protesting like Hungarians did back in 2006.  There's not even much point in voting.  Democracy will die a slow death.

1 comment:

Grzech Galaktyta said...

Radosnej twórczości życzy Tobie Grzegorz z Warszawy.

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