Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Tyranny of the Majority, Hungarian Style

Proportionate representation may not be a cure-all (although it is associated with less ethnic conflict), very disproportionate representation can be very bad indeed.  When the electoral laws lead to a winning party getting far more seats in parliament than its proportion would indicate, bad things can happen.  Indeed, the temptation of getting such an outcome helped to foster ethnic outbidding in Sri Lanka, where each party competing to represent the majority, the Sinhalese, would promise ever more extreme policies that favored the Sinhalese at the expense of the Tamils.  In part, this was attractive since the winning party might gain so many seats that it could revise the constitution. 

But that is old news.  Hungary is relatively new news.  Fidesz, a center-right party, got 53% of the vote in the election last spring, gaining 68% of the seats.  Which means it could re-write the rules of the political system at will.  Could does not mean would, but in this case, as Kim Lane Scheppele put it:
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.  NYT
Not good at all.  Especially since the Courts are now the target.  I am pretty sure that few people had money on Hungary being the first of East Europe's new democracies to regress quite severely (Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia were "favorites" in this wager).   Despite the umbrage of the international community (the Venice Commission, the European Parliament, the US, etc), Hungary's super-majority government continues to act in an un-super way.   Best example--a national judicial office (one guy) will work with public prosecutors to select which judges hear which cases.  Oh, that will be just swell for defendants across the country.  As Scheppele notes,
The independence of the judiciary is over when a government puts its own judges onto the bench, moves them around at will, and then selects which ones get particular cases to decide.
We tend to take for granted various aspects of democracy when we code democracy for our analyses--things like constitutional independence, civilian control of the military, and so on.  Hungary's current situation reminds us otherwise--that democracy is more than just about elections and votes but the restraints on power--that leaders are subject to the rule of law, that militaries do not make policy but advise policy makers, and so on.

So much for the power of the European Union and NATO.  The membership processes were supposed to persuade and shape the new countries to be good, stable, friendly democracies.  But once you are in, hard to get kicked out.  Fidesz has great timing since the EU is focused on the Euro crisis, but I am not sure that the EU would have an impact on a party that is determined to win at all costs, regardless of the consequences.  Which gets back to the essence of the question at the heart of my second book: do folks govern for those who put them into power or for the entire country?  Doing the former can be quite destructive as the costs can be borne by those who are not in the favored party. 

I really enjoyed my trips to Hungary in the early Aughts for research and for conferences.  A smart, dynamic people in a beautiful country.  Ruled by proto-facists--a term I don't use lightly.  This is just sad and so absolutely unnecessary.  But better to rule in hell than serve in heaven, I suppose.

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