The anatomy of democratic backsliding: could it happen here?

The term ‘backsliding’ has been coined to describe the phenomenon by which leaders who come to office within a democratic framework, only to attack some of democracy’s core features when in office. Stephan Haggard and Robert R Kaufman outline some of the key features of ‘backsliding’, discuss how and why it can take hold, and whether there are warning signs that such a process could happen in the UK. 

During the presidency of Donald Trump, American democracy suffered the most serious challenge it has faced since the country’s Civil War. Trump and his administration inflamed divisions that jeopardise the rights of women and minorities; attacked the press; defied oversight; sought to stack the judiciary and law enforcement agencies with partisan loyalists; challenged the integrity of the electoral system, and ultimately stoked a violent challenge to the democratic transfer of power. These threats were different from conventional forms of democratic reversion, such as the coup d’etat. Instead, they reflected a more insidious process that has come to be known as ‘backsliding,’ in which illiberal leaders rise to power within a democratic framework and attack core features of democracy from within.

Because the United States occupies a unique position at the heart of the international system, backsliding there commanded worldwide attention. But the United States was hardly alone. In a new study, we identified at least 15 other countries in which duly-elected democratic governments recently moved along similar paths. Not all of these paths lead all the way to autocracy; in the United States, democracy survived the Trump era badly damaged but intact. But depending on the metric used, more than half of these cases slid into ‘competitive authoritarian rule’: systems in which elections persisted but were manifestly rigged. Notably, although many of the failed democracies we examined were weakly institutionalised at the outset (for example, Bolivia, Ukraine, and Zambia), others such as Hungary, Poland, and Venezuela were once considered relatively robust democratic regimes.

These cases raise the question of whether similar adverse developments could occur in other seemingly stable democracies. Could they perhaps even happen in the UK? 

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So this is how liberty dies? Hungary’s EU migrant quota referendum


On 2 October a referendum was held in Hungary on the EU’s plans for refugee and migrant resettlement. 98 per cent of those who turned out supported the government in voting ‘No’ but the result was invalid as the 50 per cent turnout threshold was not met. Zoltán Gábor Szűcs discusses the background to the referendum and the campaign itself. He suggests that the referendum and campaign, the most expensive in modern Hungarian history, fell short of what we would expect in a democratic country. 

The 2 October referendum on the EU’s migrant quota did not make it much easier for foreign observers of Hungarian politics to understand what is going on. The right-wing government gathered huge support for its politics (3.3 million votes, over 98 per cent of those who voted), but failed to secure the 50 per cent turnout required for a valid referendum. The latter is somewhat ironic because it was the present government that raised the threshold to 50 per cent. And it is all the more surprising too since the money they spent on this campaign is unprecedented in post-communist Hungarian history, the opposition was divided and the government made extensive use of state-controlled media and public administration resources in controversial (even illegal) ways to persuade the public to vote ‘No’. The immediate response of the government was telling in the sense that they said nothing about the invalidity of the referendum in legal terms, but declared a big political victory. The new catchword for this so-called historic victory was ‘New Unity’ (somewhat disconcerting if we are sensitive to its not very democratic connotations) and the government immediately drafted a more or less meaningless amendment to the constitution, banning the settlement of migrants without parliamentary approval. These reactions suggest that the government was not completely satisfied with the results.

To put these events into context, we have to look back to the past ten years or so in Hungarian politics. The quasi two-party system of the late 1990s and early 2000s started to erode after 2004. The chronic moral and leadership crisis of the left led to a series of defeats, and even though in 2006 socialists and liberals won a parliamentary election their last years in power become a nightmare for them full with corruption scandals, embarrassing leaks in the media, ever changing policies and the undoing of a decade-long co-operation of the socialist and the liberal parties. The free fall of the left and the emergence of the far-right Jobbik party radically restructured the political space and provided the opportunity for Fidesz to gain a constitutional majority in the parliament in 2010. The new government could change constitutional institutions without the consent of the opposition, and they were not reluctant to use their power to such purposes. They drafted a new Constitution, a very controversial media regulation, restrained the power of the Constitutional Court, extended citizenship to ethnic Hungarians living in the neighboring countries and, among other things, put political appointees into the Constitutional Court, the national election office, the police, the new media authorities and a lot of other positions. The government also used its extensive political power to reorder the Hungarian economy.

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