Is the EU not an assurance of democracy?

Is the EU not an assurance of democracy?

Hungary, a member of the European Union since 2004, has become an “electoral authoritarian regime” by means of its new constitution, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2012. 

As a starter, I would recommend readers review the opinion piece “Hungary’s Constitutional Revolution” by Kim Lane Scheppele from Princeton University, originally printed in The New York Times on Dec. 19, 2011, in Paul Krugman’s column. 

To refresh our memories, the center-right Fidesz party in Hungary won the parliamentary elections in 2010 with 53 percent of the votes, which, thanks to the election system, enabled it to occupy 68 percent of the seats in the Parliament. This empowered the right-wing government led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban to change the constitution. They have changed the constitution 10 times without consulting the opposition. And finally, in April 2011, they unilaterally wrote a new constitution, a conservative, religious, nationalist and anti-liberal one, without organizing any referendum. 
The constitution begins with the words, “God bless the Hungarians!’ The following chapter commemorates the role of Christianity in Hungarian history. 

The first strategic target of authoritarianism is to dismantle control and balance mechanisms. The new Hungarian constitution does that. The control and balance organ, the Constitutional Court, has been made dysfunctional by filling the new positions with Fidesz loyalists after the government expanded the number of judges. The government has also restricted the jurisdiction of the court. 
The independence of the judiciary has been effectively ended with several legal arrangements that allow the executive body to dominate the selection and appointments of top judges. They have appointed their own political allies to top legal positions for very long terms. The “Election Board” that monitors elections has been filled with pro-Fidesz members. Constituencies have been arranged so that no other party can win any election. Starting from the state auditing board to the ombudsman institution, almost all independent public bodies have seen their share of these activities. 

The second strategic target of authoritarianism is restricting press freedom. The Orban government has done this through a “Media Board” that was formed at the beginning of last year and staffed by Fidesz loyalists. 

The new constitution states that a two-thirds qualified majority in the Parliament is needed in order to change these partisan and authoritarian amendments. In other words, if Fidesz accidentally loses elections, it is almost impossible for a new government to actually attain real power unless they reach a majority of two-thirds. 

The process of transformation into an authoritarian regime in Hungary resembles, if not totally, but to a great extent, the formation of the electoral authoritarian regime in Turkey – a formation that is about to be completed. But there is an important contrast in between: Hungary is passing through its authoritarianism process as a member of the EU whereas Turkey is outside the EU. 

In an opinion piece dated Dec. 29, 2011, daily Cumhuriyet columnist Ali Sirmen asked, “Let’s see if the EU will be able to prevent Hungary from transforming into a civilian [dictatorship],” and said, with good reason, “Those in Turkey who regard the EU as the assurance of democracy should monitor this closely.” 

It is true. I am among those who regard the EU as an assurance of democracy, so I will monitor the issue. Let this piece be a preamble. 

We will see whether the EU will issue harsh warnings to Hungary, demanding that it redirect itself toward a pluralist and liberal democracy, and if these are not adequate, whether hardcore sanctions will follow. 

What is certain for the moment is that the EU cannot prevent authoritarianism in an EU member country. This inconsistent situation has already scythed down the soft power of the EU that encourages democratic transformation. 

For example, now, when the EU warns Turkey on regressions on the rule of law and press freedom, those governing Turkey will be able to tell them, “You’d better take a look at Hungary first.” 

Kadri Gürsel is a columnist for daily Milliyet in which this piece appeared on Jan 9. It was translated into English by the Daily News staff.