If proof were needed about the veracity of my assertion that there is a lot more to Westminster-style liberal democracy than the mere holding of elections on a regular basis, recent events in Hungary seem to be conspiring to establish my argument for me.
In a free and fair election last spring in Hungary, the center-right political party, Fidesz, got 53% of the vote. This translated into 68% of the seats in the parliament under Hungary’s current disproportionate election law. With this supermajority, Fidesz won the power to change the constitution. They have used this power in the most extreme way at every turn, amending the constitution ten times in their first year in office and then enacting a wholly new constitution that will take effect on January 1, 2012.
This constitutional activity has transformed the legal landscape to remove checks on the power of the government and put virtually all power into the hands of the current governing party for the foreseeable future.
Under the new constitutional order, the judiciary has taken the largest hit. The Constitutional Court, which once had the responsibility to review nearly all laws for constitutionality, has been killed off in three ways. First, the government expanded the number of judges on the bench and filled the new positions with their own political allies (think: Roosevelt’s court-packing plan). Then, the government restricted the jurisdiction of the court so that it can no longer review any law that has an impact on the budget, like laws pertaining to taxes and austerity programs, unless the law infringes particular listed rights. Finally, the government changed the rules of access to the court so that it will no longer be easily able to review laws in the abstract for their compliance with the constitution. Moreover, individuals can no longer challenge the constitutionality of laws without first going through a lengthy process in the ordinary courts
The law on the judiciary also creates a new National Judicial Office with a single person at the helm who has the power to replace the retiring judges and to name future judges. This person also has the power to move any sitting judge to a different court. A new constitutional amendment – to the new constitution! – will permit both the public prosecutor and the head of this new National Judicial Office to choose which judge will hear each case.
In the new constitutional system, the legal supervision of elections has also been changed. Before the last election, the norm was for the five-member Election Commission to be politically diverse and for the government of the day to consult the opposition before nominating candidates. But the rules were changed last year so that each new national election is now accompanied by a new choice of election commissioners. As a result, the existing commissioners were removed from their offices without allowing them to finish their terms and now the Election Commission consists of five members of the governing party.
The new election law specifies the precise boundaries of the new electoral districts that will send representatives to the parliament. But the new districts are drawn in such a way that no other party on the political horizon besides Fidesz is likely to win elections. A respected Hungarian think tank ran the numbers from the last three elections using the new district boundaries. Fidesz would have won all three elections, including the two they actually lost.
Virtually every independent political institution has taken a hit. The human rights, data protection and minority affairs ombudsmen have been collapsed into one lesser post. The public prosecutor, the state audit office and, most recently, the Central Bank are all slated for more overtly political management in the new legal order.And all of this has happened while the press operates under day-to-day intimidation. A draconian set of media laws created a new media board – staffed only by Fidesz party loyalists with a chair who is appointed by the Prime Minister to a nine-year term. This board can review all public and private media for their compliance with a nebulous standard of political “balance” and has the power to bankrupt any news organization with large fines.
Court packing, gerrymandering, media censorship - and it gets worse, much worse, once you go into the details; yet the funny thing is, all of these changes have been passed via perfectly legal and "democratic" procedures*, in a country at the center of supposedly civilized Europe. To make things worse, while one would like to think that the Hungarian people would be up in arms about all of the changes being rapidly shoved through by Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party, the ugly truth is that to the degree that his popular support has eroded, it's been because Hungarians think he hasn't done enough! The primary beneficiary of this anger? None other than the openly racist and anti-semitic Jobbik party, whose membership clearly long for the good ol' days of Admiral Horthy and the Arrow Cross ...
Elections are all well and good, but they don't hold much meaning if the voters lack a culture abiding by the rules of political give and take, or an appreciation of government that isn't conducted in a zero-sum manner. This holds true whether we're talking about Egyptian illiterates who yearn for morality police and the amputation of thieves, or "civilized" [sic] central Europeans who look for foreign and religious scapegoats to blame for all that ails them. As for myself, I would rather live in a place like Hong Kong under Chris Patten, or even Gladstone's Britain, however undemocratic either dispensation might have been, than I would in modern "democracies" like Hungary or Egypt (or Venezuela), where illiberal majorities get to see their worst prejudices enforced with the backing of the state ...
*And much the same could be said of the infamous "Enabling Act" ...)