A Backslide from Democracy?
I came of age during a time that, as Francis Fukuyama famously asserted, seemed to mark the “end of history.” The Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union collapsed, and much of the Eastern Bloc joined the European Project. It seemed that liberal democracy had triumphed and that Europe was on its way to an era of peace and prosperity built on democratic governments rooted in human rights such as speech, religion, political assembly, and trade. If this wasn’t yet a reality, there was a sense of inevitability.
However, my recent trip to Budapest as a Marshall Memorial Fellow highlighted the complexities of Europe’s future, the fragility of liberal democracy’s foundation in Eastern Europe, and the fight that lies ahead. The Marshall Memorial Fellowship presented an unparalleled opportunity to meet leaders within government, as well as representatives of opposition parties and the non-governmental sector, who highlighted to me the challenges faced by nations in protecting democracy, while moving forward.
In Hungary, most conversations revolved around a clear and undeniable concern over the rise of right-wing political groups, as they gained elected positions throughout that country. Of particular concern were the tactics of the ruling Fidesz party to undermine opposition voices and the promotion of civil society, and the general prominence of the far-right Jobbik party in the Hungarian Parliament. Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who 25 years earlier was a young opposition leader who championed the end of Soviet occupation, now leads a government suppressing opposition voices using tactics associated with the old socialist regimes. Orban was a focal point of most conversations.
Of great concern were Orban’s attempts last year to restrict international funds that were supporting NGOs, which were deemed to be bolstering the opposition and undermining Hungarian values. Within the rhetoric from Orban’s ruling government are disconcerting strands of anti-intellectualism, anti-Roma sentiment, anti-internationalism, and anti-Semitism. This point was brought home last year when Prime Minister Orban declared liberal democracy to be on the decline and praised authoritarian “illiberal democracies” in Turkey, China, Singapore, and Russia.
As one individual put it to me, “We asked our grandparents how they let the fascists come to power; we asked our parents how the communists came to power; and now we are on a course for our children to pose those same questions to us.” I found it amazing that comments like this could be uttered just 25 years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
My time in Hungary offered a crucial reminder that the lifeline of a functioning liberal democracy is the participation of its citizenry. Yet in my brief time I found the key mechanisms for civic participation were poorly positioned to create a healthy democratic atmosphere. Opposition parties (in particular on the left) were fractured and lacked a clear, proactive strategy for challenging through an election campaign. Media voices were undermined by government funding. NGOs were struggling due to government harassment and attacks on their limited funding, which is heavily dependent on international sources. It was explained to me that civic discourse was hard to encourage in Hungary, a legacy of the communist regimes leaving citizens reluctant to question authority. This reluctance was fostered by the structure of early schooling, coupled with a general cultural dependence on the state.
Meetings with non-profit and opposition leaders in Hungary left me with a sense of defeat and depression. In their eyes the tides of history are bending back to a more totalitarian past. While, I can’t disagree with their assessment, I believe more can be done to combat this trend. It is crucial for the United States and Western Europe to continue to invest in NGOs and other civil society institutions in Central and Eastern Europe that promote the soft-skills of liberal democracy, such as public discourse, critical thought, and the general values of civil liberties. While small in many ways, Hungary is representative of the progress of Europe over the past two decades. Hungary is central to Europe’s future—and must not be allowed to slide away from human rights, civil discourse, and freedom toward authoritarianism.
Sean Mann, state government affairs specialist at Michigan Legislative Consultants, is a Spring 2015 American Marshall Memorial Fellow.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.