• Source: "Orban's design"  

    From the article: "After eight years in power, and in his third stint as prime minister (he also governed from 1998 to 2002), Mr Orban seems a long way from his youthful dissident past. Critics accuse him of presiding over a centralisation of political and economic power unparalleled since the collapse of communism. Civic groups and NGOs say they are under siege, harassed by the authorities, subjected to mysterious dirty tricks and attacked by government politicians and loyalist media. State television is little more than a propaganda arm of Fidesz. Party allies have been placed in charge of independent institutions.

    The funds Hungary gets from the European Union, say opposition politicians, are often channelled to Mr Orban’s cronies, including his son-in-law and the mayor of his home village, nurturing a new class of oligarchs. (They deny it.) The health-care and education systems are in decline, especially outside the capital. Hungary has the fifth-lowest life expectancy in the EU, at 76.2 years—lower than Albania’s 78.5. Education has been centralised with an old-fashioned syllabus that emphasises rote-learning over analytical skills. International test results show declines in science, mathematics and reading.

    A stream of news stories, all furiously contested, allege high-level corruption in government circles. Mr Soros, now Mr Orban’s bitterest enemy, has accused his former beneficiary of running a “mafia state”. Mr Orban is “on an illiberal train and he cannot stop it”, says Viktor Szigetvari, of the progressive Together party. Another Fidesz victory, he says, will mean more attacks on civil liberties, the judiciary, the opposition and civic organisations.

    Yet for many voters, none of this seems to matter. Mr Orban and Fidesz have focused on a single message: the need to stop migration and defend Hungary from outsiders such as Mr Soros, the UN, NGOs and the European Commission. The government accuses Mr Soros and his allies of planning to flood Hungary with Muslim migrants. (In 2015 he called for the EU to accept 1m asylum seekers a year; he later lowered the figure to 300,000.) For Mr Orban, this has been a political godsend. Speaking on March 15th, a holiday that commemorates the 1848 revolution, Mr Orban told an adoring crowd that Christian Europe and Hungary were waging a “civilisational struggle” against a wave of mass migration, organised by a network of activists, troublemakers and “NGOs paid by international speculators”.

    Even if such a network existed, it would be hard-pressed to flood Hungary with migrants. The fortified fence on Hungary’s southern border has proved effective, and asylum claims have been reduced to a slow trickle. Yet Mr Orban’s bombast resonates with collective memory. The revolution of 1848 and the 1956 anti-communist uprising (crushed, respectively, by the Habsburgs and the Soviets) are central to Hungarians’ view of their own history, leaving them suspicious of foreign interference. The focus on migration is really about national security and independence, and who decides the fate of Hungary, says Agoston Samuel Mraz, of the Nezopont Institute, a think-tank close to the government. “This motivates not only Fidesz voters but also between a third and a half of opposition voters.”

    This is the Trump blueprint - fire up the tradition-bound, authoritarian base with the boogeyman of immigration, then once in control of the government, loot it for the benefit of you and your cronies.

  • Source - Economist, November 10, 2018: "Latin Americans are dejected about democracy"     

    The 2018 Latinobarometro poll shows faith in democracy declining across Latin America, driven by the perception that almost all politician are corrupt. Lack of faith in their political institutions makes Latin American countries vulnerable to populist, illiberal candidates. 

    Old Age Dependency

    The Latinobarometro results: in 2009, 51% of those surveyed reported feeling dissatisfied with democracy in their country. By 2018, that number has increased to 71%. Note that more than half still rate democracy as superior to any other form of government.

    What is driving this negativity? First, Latin American economies have slowed down, with GDP per person declining overall since 2009. Crime is a big worry (even amongst countries like Chile where crime is not really a problem). And there is the widespread belief that income is unjustly distributed (even though the Gini coefficient for Latin America has been decreasing). The biggest influence on the growing distrust in democracy is probably the widespread belief that most politicians and judges are corrupt. Lack of faith in democratic institutions translated to a distrust of democracy itself. 

      The danger is that widespread lack of faith in democracy can lead to the election of extremist leaders outside the mainstream - populists who may fall prey to illiberal tendencies. In Latin America, two recent examples would be AMLO in Mexico and Bolsonaro in Brazil. 

  • Sources: "What to do with Hungary" "Magyars en marche!"  

    Overview of Orban's Hungary - he has put oligarch cronies in charge of major media outlets. He has rewritten the Hungarian Constitution and eliminated many checks ad balances. He has rigged the system (gerrymandering?) in favor of his Fidesz so that it controls two-thirds of the legislature while commanding less than half the vote. From the article: "Today Mr Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, is one of Vladimir Putin’s closest friends in Europe. His country is increasingly dominated by one party, his own. Elections may be free, but they are not fair. Mr Orban has rewritten the constitution, dismantled checks and balances (“a US invention” unsuited to Europe, he says), muzzled the press and empowered oligarchs. Refugees, who supposedly threaten Hungary’s Christian identity, are beaten by police and mauled by police dogs. Debates over values, Mr Orban thinks, “unnecessarily generate social problems”. He wants to fashion an “illiberal state” modelled on China, Russia and Turkey."

    The EU has tools - economic ones - to help restrain the worst of Orban's illiberal excesses. Hungary gets $6.7 billion a year in EU aid and 95% of all publicly finance infrastructure) projects are co-financed by the EU. Further, 75% of all Hungarians want to stay in the EU. Note that Russia just loaned Orban $11.2 billion to expand a nuclear power plant

    And a new opposition party, Momentum, is modeling itself after France's En Marche and rejecting left-right labels and rejecting establishment politicians as out-of-date ad corrupt. The leader of Momentum is Andras Fekete-Gyor.  Momentum rejects the idea of allying with Hungary's major opposition party, the Socialists. 

  • Source: "Poland sacks a third of its Supreme Court"  

    From the article: "Judges are a pampered caste of crooks, according to Poland’s governing Law and Justice party (PiS). On July 3rd its new law on the Supreme Court took effect, the culmination of a series of judicial changes pushed through by the party. The European Union has urged the government to back down, warning that it is undermining the rule of law. Poland represents a vital battle for Brussels. If the EU cannot defend its fundamental values, including the rule of law, within its own borders, other illiberal leaders will surely take note. The latest judicial reform lowers the retirement age from 70 to 65 for judges on the Supreme Court, which, among other responsibilities, rules on the validity of elections. As the law took effect on July 3rd, more than a third of its 72 judges were forced to step down.

    The EU has failed to stop the Court purge. In December, citing “a clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law” in Poland, the European Commission triggered action under Article 7 of the EU treaty, which could eventually result in the country’s voting rights being suspended. The chance of that happening is remote, however, because such a decision would require a unanimous vote by the other EU governments, and Hungary, for one, has vowed to stop it. Without the required support of four-fifths of the EU’s countries even to get to an earlier stage of condemnation, the procedure has reached an impasse. In a last-minute effort, the commission on July 2nd launched a separate infringement procedure against Poland for violating EU law with its changes to the Supreme Court. The Polish government now has a month to respond. After that, Poland could face a case before the EU Court of Justice, which can impose large fines but which cannot strip Poland of its voting rights."

    Poland is an example of how illiberal groups consolidate their power in a democratic state, by weakening institutions that check and balance political power. And Poland is also an example of the core weaknesses built into the European Union, which is powerless to stop PiS from gutting the Court.


  • Source NYT 1/27/18: "How Wobbly is our Democracy?"  

    Written by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. Democracy is reinforced by two main principles. First, mutual toleration - we assume that the other side also sincerely cares for the country and will do a decent job of governing. Examples of this from history: first, Chile in the 1960's became increasingly polarized over Cold War issues of capitalism versus socialism. Each side adopted "win at all costs" mentality which eventually resulted in their 1973 military coup. In the US in the 1850's, Democrats and Republicans felt the other was an abomination. Joanne Freeman of Yale has shown there were 100 instances of violent acts on the floor of Congress between 1830 and 1860 (the caning of Republican Charles Sumner being the most infamous).

    Second: forbearance - those in power don't use it to win at all costs. Instead, they show restraint or forbearance in the use of power. For example, a President without forbearance could change the size of the courts and then pack the new seats with his cronies. Or a President without forbearance could use their pardon power to excuse all types of transgressions. A Congress without forbearance could shut off funding and stop the government. Or refuse to consent to executive appointees. Examples from history: Juan Peron in Argentina had three of five Supreme Court justices impeached and removed. In 2004, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela added 12 seats to a 20-person Supreme Court and packed the new seats with his supporters. 

    Our current polarization is more about race and religion than politics. From the article: "This is not a traditional liberal-conservative divide. People don’t fear and loathe one another over taxes or health care. As political scientists have shown, the roots of today’s polarization are racial and cultural. Whereas 50 years ago both parties were overwhelmingly white and equally religious, advances in civil rights, decades of immigration and the migration of religious conservatives to the Republican Party have given rise to two fundamentally different parties: one that is ethnically diverse and increasingly secular and one that is overwhelmingly white and predominantly Christian. And white Christians are not just any group: They are a once-dominant majority in decline. When a dominant group’s social status is threatened, racial and cultural differences can be perceived as existential and irreconcilable. The resulting polarization preceded (indeed, made possible) the Trump presidency, and it is likely to persist after it."

  • Article: "Empty benches in Istanbul"  

    Turkey’s President purges the judicial system. Recep Erdogan, the President of Turkey, survived a coup attempt from theGulenists in July of 2016. Erdogan has removed one-fourth of Turkeys judiciary and prosecutors (over 4,000 people) for suspected Gulenist ties. Thanks to the new Turkish Constitution, narrowly ratified in April of ‘17, the executive branch selects the judges, instead of the prior system in which they were selected by a committee of fellow judges. The Constitution makes judicial selection a partisan process.

  • Source: "Transatlantic rift"  

     The alliance between the US and Europe helped created NATO and the European Union. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, this alliance promoted the creation and secured the existence of democracy in eastern Europe. The current tensions: Trump accuses the EU of engaging in unfair trade practices and threatens tariffs. Trump wants all European nations to live up to their NATO defense spending pledges (2% of GDP - Germany now at 1.22% and Italy at 1.13%). Europe supports the Iran deal (they helped create it) - Trump does not. Europe supports the Paris climate accords - Trump does not. The rise of authoritarian illiberalism in Hungary, Poland and Turkey is troubling to Europe - Trump encourages and embraces these autocrats. And now Italy has a new populist coalition in charge of its government that is pro-Putin.

    Solutions - NATO needs to sharpen its response to cyberwarfare and misinformation so beloved as tactics by Putin’s Russia. Yes, European military spending must increase and should focus on R&D and yes, NATO and the EU can take on a new role to help combat the spread of illiberal authoritarianism.

    In the "What If?" section of the July 7, 2018 issue, there is an article that looks at what will happen if Europe's divides, driven by the rise of illiberalism and anti-migration nationalism, continue. Here, the assumption is that the recent purging of Poland's courts by the ruling PiS party, results in the EU Courts of Justice declaring Polish court decisions illegitimate. The EU needs unanimity to remove voting rights from a member state. Its easier to discipline a state through the EU budget. Illiberal countries like Hungary are net recipients of EU funds (Hungary gets the equivalent of 6% of its GDP from the EU). Shutting off the funds however, makes exit from the EU on the part of these nations more likely. In the case of a country like Italy, the prediction is that to remain in power, the populists will boost government spending and cut taxes so that Italy exceeds the 3% of GDP budget deficit limit imposed by the EU.   

    And again, from the "What If" section of the July 7, 2018 issue, another article - this one hypothesizes growing Chinese power in the years ahead as a direct result of the Trump-led weakening of the West. As the Trump-led trade disputes weaken the World Trade Organization, then a vacuum is created and perhaps China could start their own trade court. From the article: "An obscure Chinese arbitration panel, originally created to hear disputes linked to the Belt and Road Initiative, was rebranded in 2022 as the Global Infrastructure Tribunal. With its first cases this embryonic trade court has offered glimpses of how a Chinese-led commercial order might work. Unlike the WTO, it draws no distinction between nations with state-directed and market economies. Its judges take a benign view of subsidies that claim to support national development. And though they talk a good game about intellectual-property protection, they have consistently taken the view that sovereign governments, rather than individual businesses, should have final say in patent disputes." China could also create an alternative system for international payments in Chinese yuan, euros and Russian roubles, aimed at the Eurasian countries that form the backbone of the Belt and Road Initiative. Suh a system would be immune to dollar-based economic sanctions from the United States.