Sunday

17th Jan 2021

Analysis

Is UK joining Hungary and Poland's illiberal club?

  • Boris Johnson entering Downing Street - the start of an 'executive takeover'? (Photo: 10 Downing Street)

British prime minister Boris Johnson's parliament suspension has chilling similarities to how illiberal leaders in central Europe dismantled democratic checks.

Johnson announced the upcoming shutdown on Wednesday (28 August) to stop MPs from blocking a no-deal Brexit on 31 October and to force the opposition to make its move.

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The suspension is perfectly legal and almost routine in other cases.

The British parliament can be "prorogued" to restart the political calendar.

But in this case, Johnson's timing will prevent MPs from debating a historic decision that will shape the UK and Europe's future for decades.

It is true to the letter of the law, but not the spirit - a well-known technique to Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban and Polish ruling party chief Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

Johnson's team, led by his chief of staff and Leave campaign guru Dominic Cummings, has also explored other proposals to stop British lawmakers from having a say on Brexit, according to the Buzzfeed news website.

They discussed disrupting a parliamentary debate on Northern Ireland on 9 September, creating new public holidays to block parliament meetings, and whether Johnson could refuse to resign even if he lost a no-confidence vote.

This indicates that the prorogation is not an isolated event, but part of a wider strategy to bypass parliamentary power.

The British suspension has been called "profoundly undemocratic" and a "constitutional outrage" by senior MPs and by the speaker of the parliament, John Bercow.

And recent events in Hungary and Poland show that Britain could be heading down a dangerous road.

The road is gradual, there are no clear signs, and the journey involves deep social polarisation, Milan W. Svolik, a professor of politics at Yale University, said in a recent article.

"The resulting changes - especially when considered in isolation - rarely amount to an outright violation of core democratic principles," he said.

"Yet when taken together and observed over time, such measures unambiguously subvert the democratic process, tilting the playing field in the incumbent's favour," he added.

Executive takeovers used to be called "democratic breakdown, authoritarian reversal, or self-coups", he noted.

But the gradual, legalistic nature of these shifts makes them called "democratic backsliding, erosion, and degradation," he said.

Orban's government, for instance, has used its constitutional majority in parliament to undermine checks and balances, the EU and leading NGOs said.

It has weakened the independence of crucial institutions, such as the judiciary, the media, the public prosecutor's office, the election commission, and the constitutional court.

Kaczynski's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland has also weakened the independence of the judiciary and constitutional court over the past four years, the EU has said.

'Come what may'

Johnson's move is a baby-step compared to all that.

But the political and social conditions in the UK are favourable for a broader "executive takeover".

In times of deep division, "incumbents ask their supporters to trade-off democratic principles for partisan interests", Yale University's Svolik said.

Those in power know that "most of their supporters would rather tolerate their authoritarian tendencies than back politicians whose platform these supporters abhor," he added.

In other words, Brexit supporters will back Brexit over parliamentary democracy.

"Do or die. Come what may," Johnson pledged in June.

Johnson, who has yet to win an election, and Orban, who had won three consecutive votes, have both referred to the "will of the people" to justify their moves against national institutions.

The new phenomenon has also been called "autocratic legalism" by Kim Lane Scheppele, a sociologist at Princeton University.

"How does one recognise an autocratic legalist in action?," she asked in a recent essay.

"One should first suspect a democratically elected leader of autocratic legalism when he launches a concerted and sustained attack on institutions whose job it is to check his actions or on rules that hold him to account, even when he does so in the name of his democratic mandate," she said.

"Loosening the bonds of constitutional constraint on executive power through legal reform is the first sign of the autocratic legalist," she added.

Proroguing the British parliament means loosening a constitutional constraint on the ruling party.

In Hungary, where Scheppele herself was the target of a government smear campaign, liberal and left-wing MPs are too divided to halt Orbanism.

When parliament briefly meets next week, British opposition MPs must agree on an alternative prime minister and government if a no-confidence vote is to make sense.

Polarisation works against them.

And rebels in Johnson's own Tory party should be aware that a leader can exploit internal division to his own advantage, as Orban has done in Hungary, by pushing all moderate conservatives in his Fidesz party to the sidelines.

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