27th Oct 2016


How to build an illiberal democracy in the EU

As Poland’s new government introduces measures which curb democratic checks and balances, just as Hungary’s Viktor Orban did in the past six years, it is time to examine the steps it takes to dismantle a weak liberal democracy and turn it into an illiberal one.

The original templates are there from Vladimir Putin’s Russia to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey. Now there’s an EU one - Orban’s Hungary. While each country differs in its history, democratic traditions and reasons to do away with liberal democracy, the methods they use are not that different at all.

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  • The original templates are there from Vladimir Putin’s Russia to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey. Now there’s an EU one - Orban’s Hungary. (Photo: European commission)

So, for anyone trying to build an illiberal democracy in 2016, here is a basic guide.

This list also hopes to serve as a crutch for the institutions, such as those of the European Union, and capitals, such as Washington, which have so far failed to stop their allies from turning against themselves.

It is worth noting the EU has moved much quicker on Poland than on Hungary, but the results of the political pressure remain to be seen.

1. Win an election by promising nothing concrete, but old glory

No matter how illiberal you are, first you need to get into power, play by the old rules and win an election. You have a good shot at this, if the voters grew to hate the old political elite, and want back the old glory days (which were probably not glorious, but voters have short memory). This can happen after a decade of economic and political upheaval, as was the case in Russia, or after the previous government has lost all credibility, as it did in Hungary.

Of course, it helps if the entire political system has not yet developed a strong immune system, be it because democratic institutions and traditions are new, as in Russia and Eastern Europe, or because of repeated military coups, as in Turkey.

You could ask what has happened in Poland, where the government of the Civic Platform party lost elections despite producing an eye-watering GDP growth of 3.5 percent, one of the highest in the EU, and providing political stability. The reasons are manifold, but one should never underestimate the irrational elements in a voter’s decision, such as anxiety about Russia, or the massive wave of migrants. In any case, you need a story, a good narrative to engage people’s feelings, and, it seems, Civic Platform failed to provide that.

Use your electoral victory as a general mandate for everything you want to do. If someone tries to criticise you, just say you are only fulfilling the wishes of the electorate.

Expected EU response: Congratulations.

2. Dismantle constitutional checks and weaken other institutions set up to keep an eye on you

The euphemism you should be using is “constitutional reform”. Orban wrote a new constitution and then had his absolute majority in parliament rubber-stamp it.

It curtailed the power of the constitutional court, the last check on the government, and reduced the number of ombudsmen protecting specific human rights. Orban’s government later also kicked out senior judges and prosecutors. In consequent years, as its decisions met some resistance from bureaucrats, it also made sure it filled up ministries with young loyalists instead of experienced experts.

Poland’s government has learned that lesson fast. It filled the constitutional tribunal with its own people, reversing its predecessor’s - also questionable - decision, and raised the benchmark for decisions to a two-thirds majority instead of a simple one to block legislation.

Expected EU response: Concern, plus a debate in the EP. There is even the possibility of an infringement procedure that could end up in the EU court. But no need to worry, that takes years. The new rule of law mechanism is being tested next week by the European Commission for the first time on Poland, but it entails no legally binding decision.

3. Take control of the state media and squeeze private media hard

Taking control of state media and trying to buy influence in private media is not exclusive to people attempting to build an illiberal state. Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy is a good example. But the bluntness with which illiberal politicians dismantle the “fourth pillar” of democracy is remarkable.

True, no journalist has been jailed or arrested in Hungary, for example. But self-censorship works just fine when the media outlet’s survival depends on state advertisement contracts. Intimidation by courts and prosecutors is also an easy way to scare reporters away from doing their job, as in a recent case when a Hungarian journalist was reprimanded by the prosecutor’s office for posing as a refugee during the summer to report on how authorities treated migrants.

Turning the state media into a propaganda machine is a must. As Ryszard Terlecki, head of the ruling PiS parliamentary caucus in Poland said recently: ”If the media imagine that for the next few weeks they will be absorbing Poles’ attention with criticism of our changes or policies, then that has to be stopped.”

Journalistic traditions are less entrenched in eastern Europe and people have less faith in the media, since under Communism it served the party-state without criticism. Although Poland’s media scene seems more resilient than Hungary’s.

It is also important to note that some Western investors in the media in Eastern Europe in the early 90's were more concerned with harvesting a high margin of profit, rather than spreading the Western values of journalism and its role in keeping checks on the government.

Expected EU response: A concerned letter from the European Commission and an EP resolution.

4. Take control of finances, reign in oligarchs, investors and banks

OK, but how do we finance all this? First, you need to adhere to EU deficit rules to get the EU Commission off your back. But it’s not difficult to do if you nationalise, for example, private pension funds, as Hungary did.

You can also create special taxes to squeeze foreign investors hard, which were repeatedly criticised by the EU in the case of Hungary. Say you are creating market space and jobs for national companies, but make sure it’s only your pals who reap the benefits - there is no need for unpredictable competition.

Take control of the central bank and make sure its director is in sync with you. Orban, for instance, installed his “right-hand man”, former finance minister Gyorgy Matolcsy as governor.

Further away from Europe’s shores, Erdogan also has a tendency of putting pressure on the central bank, even going as far as calling its governor a traitor.

Take on foreign banks - everybody hates banks and bankers anyway. Make them absorb losses for previous bad policy decisions. What are they going to do? Leave? Unlikely, but do create your own bank too.

Orban forcibly converted Swiss-franc based loans into forint ones, as a soaring franc and a weakening forint had caused considerable social tension and Hungarians had lost their homes. He has found followers in Poland and Croatia this year.

You can spook investors into not criticising your government by demonising them in the media, while at the same time giving them juicy government contracts. Never forget, investors are looking for profit, not a political fight, even if they dislike the legal uncertainty you are creating.

Reign in oligarchs. That could actually score some good points with your Western critics, until they realise you are just making space for your own friends, who will not challenge you on the political scene. Make sure to channel the ample EU funds through them. Stick to the old code - divide and rule.

Expected EU response: Excessive deficit procedure, if you are not fast enough, infringement procedures and Olaf investigations. In fact, the economy is where the EU has the most control over you, so tread carefully. Expect companies to run to the commission complaining about you. Exploit that, portray them as spoiled brats running to the teacher who is inclined to take their side.

5. Discredit the opposition and Western critics

That’s actually fun to do, because of the many hypocrisies you can exploit. First of all, your predecessors weren’t saints either, they probably bent the rules their way, even if they did not rewrite them, like you did. Highlight those missteps.

That is what the PiS government did when reversing appointments to the Constitutional Tribunal, arguing that two of the appointments by the previous government were equally unconstitutional. Orban only needed to refer to his Socialist predecessor who was caught on tape saying his government lied about the country’s finances to get re-elected.

Squeeze the resources of the opposition by, making sure, for example, that advertising billboards are in the hands of your friends, and other creative techniques.

Try to create a link between your internal opposition and your Western critics. That way you can create the impression that foreign forces are meddling in your country’s affairs and that the opposition are actually traitors. Make sure you create a sense that the country is under attack, even from within.

Expected EU response: Confusion, EP debate, threats to suspend EU funds and of an Article 7 procedure, a monitoring mechanism that could end in the suspension of a member state's voting rights, behind the doors questioning of the tone of your rhetoric, your euroscepticism. Argue that you are actually the last bastion of Europe in your country, there are only extreme far-right forces after you.

6. Create an enemy or enemies

One issue with discrediting your opposition totally, is that you are left without an enemy. But it shouldn’t be a problem, simply create one.

They could be activists from non-governmental human rights organisations supported by foreign funds, faceless eurocrats or migrants, all trying to force their way of thinking on your people. Orban’s government took on NGOs funded by Norway before they made a deal with Oslo, equated the Soviet-diktats from Moscow to Brussels’s interference and, last year demonised migrants.

Expected EU response: Increased concern, more behind the doors questioning and pressure. You say you just want to play by the rules, and make sure no foreign fund channels money into your shrinking opposition. Which democratic leader would want that, right?

7. Rewrite election rules

Every government is bound to lose popularity, that is the nature of politics. Make sure that by the time you get there, the election rules are rewritten in a way that benefits you. With all the media support, weak opposition and tamed Western critics, you are sure to win, even if you don’t represent the majority any more.

Expected EU response: Concern, possible EP resolution.


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