EU urged to monitor Hungary as Orban promotes ‘illiberal democracy’

hungary orbanA Hungarian opposition party is urging the EU to step up its monitoring of democracy in the country after prime minister Viktor Orban said he wanted to ditch “liberal” democracy in favour of building an “illiberal state,” the FT’s Kester Eddy reports from Budapest:

The move comes after Mr Orban said in a speech at the weekend that the financial crisis had shown liberal democracies could not remain “globally competitive” and praised models such as Russia, Turkey and China. Together-PM, a small, centrist opposition alliance, is writing to the European Commission in response, asking it to take a stronger stance on issues such as media freedom, civil society and government reforms of the constitution in Hungary.

Addressing an annual gathering of ethnic Hungarians in Romania, Mr Orban denounced a decadent and “money-based” west and outlined a future Hungarian state which would shun western European values to “create a successful nation”.

“The hottest intellectual topic of today is understanding systems which are non-western, non-liberal, which are not liberal democracies, perhaps which are not even democracies, and they still make some nations successful,” Mr Orban said. He added that Singapore, China, India, Russia and Turkey were “stars” in this respect.

“The prime minister has launched an attack against democracy as we understand it in Europe,” Viktor Szigetvari, the Together-PM co-chairman, told the Financial Times. “We want the incoming European Commission to consider that if we were not already a member of the European Union, then Hungary as presented by the prime minister would not be ready to become a member.”

‘Our time will come’

Orban, whose Fidesz party has a two-thirds majority in parliament, said the global financial crisis had shown that liberal democracies were no longer competitive. “Today, the world tries to understand systems which are not Western, not liberal, maybe not even democracies yet they are successful,” he said, according to EUobserver.

 The prime minister, who has been the target of frequent criticism by nongovernmental groups, implied that civil society was an obstacle to establishing an illiberal state.

Orban said his “illiberal democracy” won’t deny the “fundamental values” of liberalism, such as “freedom.” hungaryfideszorban

“The point of the future is that anything can happen,” Orban said. “That means it could easily be that our time will come.”

NGO Crackdown

The Hungarian prime minister is distancing himself from values shared by most EU nations even as his government relies on funds from the bloc for almost all infrastructure-development financing, Bloomberg’s Zoltan Simon reports:

Orban said civil society organizations receiving funding from abroad need to be monitored as he considers those to be agents of foreign powers.

“We’re not dealing with civil society members but paid political activists who are trying to help foreign interests here,” Orban said. “It’s good that a parliamentary committee has been set up to monitor the influence of foreign monitors.”

“We are making ourselves independent of and free from western European dogma and ideology,” Orban said. “We are trying to create...a new Hungarian state, globally competitive...We want to create a work-based society which is admittedly of a non-liberal nature.” he said.

Orban began his political life as a self-declared liberal, anti-communist student dissident in the 1980s, the FT adds:

But he warned on Saturday that non-governmental organisations in Hungary were employing subversive political activists paid for by foreigners – a reference to an ongoing dispute over civic groups financed primarily by Norwegian state funds…Although the prime minister declared that the new model state would not deny liberal values such as freedom, the address provoked a general outcry from Hungarian opposition parties.

“Hungary is tending towards becoming a country ruled by a despot seeking to go back to before the peaceful regime change [from communism in 1989],” said Jozsef Tobias, chairman of the opposition socialists. “By abandoning liberal democracy Orban is breaking with the basic values of all democratic groupings – socialists, liberals and conservatives as well.”

Mr Orban has also caused alarm among ethnic Hungarians in neighbouring countries.

“[Mr Orban’s] vision is in sharp contradiction to everything that we have been trying to accomplish for the past 25 years in Romania...a strong, centralised state, which is not in the interests of any single minority group, Bela Marko, an ethnic Hungarian leader in Romania, told a Budapest radio station on Tuesday.

Yet apart from the planned EU appeal, Hungary’s weak and divided opposition parties have mustered little concrete action, and Mr Orban’s speech has so far prompted little outcry from the public.

Orban said he wants to abandon liberal democracy in favor of an “illiberal state,” citing Russia and Turkey as examples. The global financial crisis in 2008 showed that “liberal democratic states can’t remain globally competitive,” he said.

“I don’t think that our European Union membership precludes us from building an illiberal new state based on national foundations,” Orban said, according to the video of his speech on the government’s website. He listed Russia, Turkey and China as examples of “successful” nations, “none of which is liberal and some of which aren’t even democracies.”

“Orban’s comments are very controversial and closer to what we’re used to hearing from President Putin of Russia than from a leader of a European democracy,” said Paul Ivan, an analyst at the Brussels-based European Policy Centre. “It’s also an extremely bad moment to cite Russia and Turkey as examples, with Russia becoming much more imperialistic and nationalistic and with serious attacks on the freedom of speech in Turkey.”

“I must admit Fidesz is still popular,” said Mr Szigetvari. “[But] long term, this policy cannot be successful. What Orban said against civil organisations and democracy, it’s unacceptable. People did not vote for that: even Fidesz voters want to live in a western-style country.”

Civil society draft law would ‘throttle’ Egypt’s NGOs


NGOs on trial

NGOs on trial

A new civil society draft law will “throttle” Egyptian Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and “rob them of their independence”, said Human Rights Watch.

In a Monday statement, the international watchdog condemned the draft law and called for it to be discarded and replaced. The group’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director warned that the draft law would “extinguish a crucial element of democracy in Egypt”.

The Ministry of Social Solidarity presented the draft legislation to Egyptian groups on 26 June. It has garnered criticism since then for restricting the activities of the already struggling civil society organizations in Egypt.

The draft gives the government veto power over all activities of civil society organizations, Human Rights Watch said. Under the new legislation, the government has the power to dissolve organizations without a court order; it can also refuse to license new organizations under the pretext that their activities could “threaten national unity”….

The draft law furthermore restricts the activities of international organizations within Egypt and their cooperation with domestic organizations, as well as imposing “crippling restrictions” on civil society organizations seeking foreign funding….The current law under which civil society organizations operate obliges them to seek government permission before domestically raising funds, which pushes organizations to seek foreign funding.

Twenty-nine NGOs rejected the draft in a joint statement on Wednesday.

From democratic transitions to Brazil’s World Cup

In the latest round-up from Democracy Lab’s Transitions blog:

MarcplattnerThe National Endowment for Democracy’s Marc Plattner (left) wonders whether the current wave of democratic transitions may be petering out.

Antônio Sampaio analyzes the political fallout from Brazil’s epic World Cup failure.

Vera Mironova and Valerie Hopkins explain why Ukrainian civil society organizations are lending a hand to the beleaguered military.

Terra Lawson-Remer argues that redistributing revenues from Libya’s oil wealth is just what’s needed to consolidate the transition to democracy.

Mohamed Eljarh reports on the latest battle among militias for control of Libya’s main airport.

And now for this week’s recommended reads:

Ben Bland of Financial Times looks at the election dispute in Indonesia and assesses its likely impact on the country’s continuing transition.

Democracy Digest examines the obstacles still facing Burma on its path to liberal democracy. The New York Times’ Thomas Fuller covers the predicament of Burma’s Chinese Muslim minority as ethnic tensions deepen.

The Daily Beast‘s Josh Rogin reports on, a new site attempting to crowdsource human rights.

Brookings’ Ted Piccone offers advice to the new U.N. human rights commissioner on how to maximize his effectiveness on the job.




Africa leaders’ summit ‘excluding civil society’


President Obama will host the first ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit next month in Washington, DC (August 4–6), notes Jeffrey Smith, Senior Advocacy Officer for Africa at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.  

Despite the president’s rhetorical commitments to the important role of civil society, these critical voices will likely be sidelined and not included in the official proceedings. In order to challenge this, the Robert F. Kennedy Center — and our coalition partners — convened human rights defenders from across Africa to advocate for official inclusion at the Leaders Summit. Forum participants drafted specific policy recommendations to the U.S. government, African heads of state, and civil society as part of a vision to address our core concerns related to the declining respect for human rights and good governance across the continent. 

Following last month’s Civil Society Forum, we launched the We Are Africa website, using the Twitter hash-tag  #WeAreAfrica. Please explore the site for additional information about our efforts around the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit and please sign and share our petition, which asks that President Obama include African civil society in the official Summit proceedings.

Critics say the three-day summit  may represent a missed opportunity to narrow the growing gap between America’s economic ties with African countries and those of China, which has spent years building new commercial relationships across the continent, according to Gordon Lubold and Nathaniel Sobel:

J. Peter Pham, the director of the Africa Center for the Atlantic Council in Washington, who says the White House still sees Africa through a decades-old framework in which it is viewed as an impoverished continent with country leaders traveling to Washington hat in hand rather than as nations with robust and growing economies: “The bigger picture of course is that Africa has seven of the 10 fastest-growing economies of the world, and numerous other countries are engaging with them on a bilateral basis,” Pham said. “China has surpassed us as Africa’s biggest trading partner.”

CSIS’ Jennifer Cooke on keeping up with the Joneses and the lack of a plan to hold bilateral meetings with African leaders: “When the Chinese do this, it’s red carpet, big money, investments and loans, and many bilateral conversations…They sort of pull out all the stops, and they invite everybody, and there’s no talk about human rights and democracy.”

The Chinese do speed-dating: “At a summit China hosted for African leaders in 2012, for instance, the Chinese premier essentially “speed-dated” with dozens of African leaders in back-to-back, 15-minute one-on-one sessions with translators. The Obama administration’s summit, in contrast, won’t have any such meetings.”


A ‘responsibility to assist’? When and why civil resistance works

civilresistancePolicymakers should prioritize a “responsibility to assist” nonviolent activists and civic groups, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan contend. Strengthening civil society is a precondition for sustained democratic development and outside actors have an important role to play in assuring that civil resistance has a fighting chance.

“Nonviolent civil resistance movements have varied widely in terms of their duration, their success, their ability to remain nonviolent, and their cost in terms of human life,” they write for Foreign Affairs. “The basic trajectory of these recent movements — each successive one seemingly more violent and more geopolitically charged — has encouraged skepticism about the prospects for civil resistance in the twenty-first century. Such doubts are understandable but misplaced,” they argue, drawing on an extensive data set.

Between 1900 and 2006, campaigns of nonviolent resistance against authoritarian regimes were twice as likely to succeed as violent movements, they note:

Nonviolent resistance also increased the chances that the overthrow of a dictatorship would lead to peace and democratic rule. This was true even in highly authoritarian and repressive countries, where one might expect nonviolent resistance to fail. Contrary to conventional wisdom, no social, economic, or political structures have systematically prevented nonviolent campaigns from emerging or succeeding.

Liberal interventionists cited a “responsibility to protect” civilians to justify NATO’s intervention in Libya and have also invoked that argument in advocating for similar action in Syria. But the promise of civil resistance suggests an alternative: a “responsibility to assist” nonviolent activists and civic groups well before confrontations between civilians and authoritarian regimes devolve into violent conflicts.


“Civil resistance does not succeed because it melts the hearts of dictators and secret police. It succeeds because it is more likely than armed struggle to attract a larger and more diverse base of participants and impose unsustainable costs on a regime, Chenoweth and Stephan suggest:

Broad-based support for a resistance movement can also weaken the loyalty of economic elites, religious authorities, and members of the state media who support the regime. When such figures defect to the opposition, they can sometimes force the regime to surrender to the opposition’s demands, which is what happened with the Philippines’ People Power movement of 1983–86. Broad movements also enjoy a tactical advantage: diverse, nonviolent campaigns that include women, professionals, religious figures, and civil servants – as opposed to violent ones comprised of mostly young, able-bodied men trained to become militants – reduce the risk of violent crackdowns, since security forces are often reluctant to use violence against crowds that might include their neighbors or relatives. And even when governments have chosen to violently repress resistance movements, in all the cases under review, nonviolent campaigns still succeeded in achieving their goals almost half the time, whereas only 20 percent of violent movements achieved their goals, because the vast majority were unable to produce the mass support or defections necessary to win. In cases in which the security forces remain loyal to the regime, defections among economic elites can play a critical role.

“Even campaigns that possess the holy trinity of features — mass participation, regime defections, and flexible tactics — don’t always succeed,” they note:

Much depends on whether state authorities can outmaneuver the protesters and sow division in their ranks, perhaps even provoking nonviolent resisters to abandon their protests and strikes, lose their discipline and unity, and take up arms in response to repression. But even when nonviolent campaigns fail, all is not lost: from 1900 to 2006, countries that experienced failed nonviolent movements were still about four times as likely to ultimately transition to democracy as countries where resistance movements resorted to violence at the outset. Nonviolent civic mobilization relies on flexibility and coalition building — the very things that are needed for democratization.

But revolutionary campaigns can still maximize their chances of achieving more representative government — of bringing the successes of the street into the halls of power — if they develop so-called parallel institutions during the course of their struggles. Poland offers one of the best examples. In 1980, after some 16,000 workers launched a strike at the Gdansk shipyard, Polish labor groups, which had already been fomenting resistance to the Soviet-backed communist regime in Poland for a decade, formed Solidarity, a trade union that morphed into a civil resistance movement and gradually eroded the communist authority’s grip on the country. Solidarity published underground dissident newspapers, organized demonstrations and radical theater performances in churches, and resisted years of repression, including the imposition of martial law in 1981. Eventually, ten million Poles joined the group, which operated as a kind of shadow government, facilitating its ability to step into a leadership role as communism crumbled.

“During last year’s UN General Assembly meeting, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke to a roundtable about the essential role that civil society has played in nearly every major social and political transformation of the last half century,” Chenoweth and Stephan recall, noting that he “called on governments to embrace civil society groups as partners and, in a slightly edgier appeal, pressed governments and nongovernmental organizations to come up with more innovative and effective ways to support groups and activists fighting against injustice and oppression.”


“But that raises the question of which forms of external assistance to nonviolent civic groups work and which ones don’t,” they write:

The idea of “do no harm” remains an anchoring principle for how outside governments and institutions should promote democracy and aid civil society groups in other countries. International support to such movements can take many forms, such as monitoring trials of political prisoners, engaging in solidarity movements to support the right of peaceful assembly, providing alternative channels of news and information, targeting warnings to security officials who might be tempted to use lethal force against nonviolent protesters, and supporting general capacity building for civic groups and independent media. But local actors are in the best position to determine which type of support is appropriate and if it is worth the associated risks.

Strengthening civil society is not only a precondition for sustained democratic development. It can also protect civilians from the worst excesses of violent repression. Although regimes may not refrain from using violence against peaceful protesters, history suggests that helping civic groups maintain nonviolent discipline — a practice that often requires coordination, preparation, and training — can ultimately minimize civilian casualties. In addition to staving off armed rebellion, sticking to civil resistance can insulate protesters from the most extreme forms of state violence by raising the costs of repression (although as Tunisia and Egypt proved, hundreds of protesters could still pay with their lives). Nonviolent movements are not as reliant on outside support as armed ones are, but the international community can help ensure that civil society groups maintain the space they need to exercise their basic rights of free speech and assembly while avoiding the temptation to turn to arms to pursue their goals.

“Policymakers should prioritize a ‘responsibility to assist’ nonviolent activists and civic groups, rather than only seeking to protect civilians through military force, as in NATO’s Libya intervention,” they contend.

“Syria highlights the moral and strategic imperative of developing more flexible, nimble ways to support nonviolent resistance movements. The local champions of people power will continue to chart their own future. But outside actors have an important role to play in assuring that civil resistance has a fighting chance.”