Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Democracy on Life Support: The outside observer

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The Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI) pointed to a rollback in democracy in Hungary. Hauke Hartmann of the BTI discusses what he sees.

Do you think policies such as those of Fidesz/Orbán are viable in the twenty-first century? Do you think they are appropriate to prepare Hungary as an EU member state in the next 5-10 years?

Hartmann: The approach the Orbán government takes towards democratic processes and political culture constitutes a regression in comparison to the democratic values of the European Union. Fidesz and their rightist partners argue that they have a clear mandate by the majority of the population to fundamentally change the political texture of the country. Radical reform without consensus-building is therefore not only legitimate, but an obligation to the majority of the voters. Minority positions are not considered to be an important element of the political discourse, providing food for thought as an uncomfortable yet welcome antidote to the self-satisfaction of those in power or an intellectual enrichment of the debate, but a disturbance of the reform drive which ought to be disregarded or curtailed. This ideology, ironically shared by some Islamist parties in the Arab world, is called “majoritarianism” and tends to contribute to a further polarization of the political discourse in Hungary. If there is not an active search for a middle ground or compromise, democratic quality and minority protection as understood by the EU suffer. In that sense, the majoritarianism of Fidesz and Orbán certainly are not appropriate to further Hungary’s integration into the EU (a goal decidedly not strived for by the rightist government, after all). If recent BTI results constitute a trend and not just a snapshot after the global economic and financial crisis, a nationalistic, xenophobic and majoritarian style of populist governance may well remain influential or even gain in importance. This, however, does not make it any more viable. In a globalized framework, isolationist postures and recourses to nationalist ideologies might in the short run feel good, but will in the long run weaken not only the political but also the economic standing of a country.

Do Orbán’s politics contribute to the broader economic and political crisis in Europe? If so, how? If not, why do you see them as isolated?

Hartmann: The Hungarian economy is neither large enough nor damaged enough to be a (main) contributor to the economic crisis in Europe. However, austerity measures not being taken might set the Hungarian budgeting off balance in the years to come. Also, populist and nationalist regressions in Europe have been dealt with before, so that Orbán’s policies in themselves are not a major crisis factor, but rather just contribute to the overall picture of political regression in Europe. What is, however, an unfortunate development is the slow and lukewarm response which the erosion of rule of law in Hungary has been receiving from Brussels and other European capitals. If the EU is perceived to be a paper tiger when it comes to democracy and human rights standards, establishing standards which it is unable or unwilling to keep up at home, a crisis of legitimacy arises which will be hard to overcome.

How entrenched do you think Orbán’s “reforms” already are? Do you think the next government could reset them, if there is a change in political attitudes? Are there any reforms that will be extremely hard to set back to the pre-Orbán state?

Hartmann: In Hungary, there is an unlucky combination of an uncompromising, hard-line government which is entitled with a two-thirds majority in parliament allowing it to change the constitution at will. This has led to a fundamental restructuring of the political and legal system, most noticeable in the curtailment of powers of the Constitutional Court. In a nutshell, Fidesz has seriously weakened the checks and balances originally provided for in the constitution. Any government which wishes to undo these changes will have to secure a two-thirds majority as well, which will require intensive political efforts and a successful coalition-building, as it appears to be highly unlikely that Hungarians will grant any other political party such an overwhelming mandate again as it gave to Fidesz. In a highly polarized society as Hungary is, this will prove to be a very arduous task.

Even if the constitutional changes might be reversed or modified, the political posts of nominally independent state institutions still are filled with loyal Fidesz-supporters. The rightist government thereby firmly anchored its reactionary policies in institutional changes and strategic nominations. Even if voted out of office, the framework it currently sets will be hard to undo.

How is it that Orbán’s party is so popular, despite criticism from outside Hungary? Is it just populism and some sort of economic revanchism, or is it something more? Is it the sense of the ‘big Hungary’ and the post-War order that makes people so prone to the populist rhetoric?

Hartmann: Hungary is a more extreme representative of a development which the BTI 2012 observed throughout Eastern Europe in recent years. There is a pronounced disenchantment with a democracy that does not deliver socio-politically and an EU which is unable to overcome the East/West-divide of living standards anytime soon. Having faced the triple challenge of economic transformation after the fall of the Berlin Wall, of economic integration and the fulfillment of obligations to become an EU-member and of overcoming the effects of the global financial and economic crisis all in just over twenty years, there is a reform fatigue and a general feeling to have contributed a fair share without feeling positive socioeconomic effects. Populist politicians are able to exploit these sentiments by blaming “the establishment” and “Brussels”, benefitting from high voter volatility and the relatively instable and only weakly socially rooted party system. In the easy answers that populist parties provide lies an automatic accelerator: Not being able to find differentiated answers and reform compromises when it comes to concrete politics and daily reform work without being accused themselves of caving in to the establishment, populists must maintain a simplicity and rebellious posture in permanence. This is why Fidesz relies so intensively on – as the BTI-report states – a “Golden Past that Never Was” and is, up to this point, able to maintain popular support by simplification and self-aggrandizement.

Do you believe a local ethnic conflict is still possible in Central Europe (e.g. with Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, or Slovenia)?  Why or why not?

Hartmann: I honestly don’t know.

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