Observations of an ex pat: Managed democracy

They call it “managed Democracy”.  Another term is an “illiberal state.”

It is a political/philosophical term that has emerged from central and Eastern Europe to describe political systems whose leaders claim democratic credentials while suppressing  dissent.

Degrees of managed democracy have become the order of the day in Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Slovakia. It is also finding adherents elsewhere in the democratic world where politicians and their supporters are frustrated by the slow-turning wheels of traditional representative government.

At the heart of this new system are free and fair elections—and they are scrupulously so. Election observers are invited to scrutinise every poll. Ballot papers are carefully printed, distributed and counted.  The result is announced and –the winner takes all.

From the moment that a new government is elected the “managed “ element takes over with a vengeance. Government appointed  judges pack the courts along with the top positions in the military and police. Senior positions in the universities change hands. Opposition media is either barred from press conferences, terrorized, de-licensed, denied advertising revenue or its senior figures are thrown into prison on trumped up charges.

The political opposition is marginalised and when elections come around again the government is a guaranteed pole position because of its stranglehold on the levers of power.  Over a few elections the word democracy is dropped from the political vocabulary and voters are left with a state which is “managed” for a shrinking group of corrupt special interests.

All the above is nowadays used to describe an “illiberal democracy”,  which is why men such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan proudly refer to their regimes as “illiberal”.l

In contrast, the traditional democratic state has elections plus an independent judiciary, free press, active elected opposition, and an apolitical military and police force; all underwritten by a rule of law based on precedent and a respect for every citizen’s’ rights whether they come from the majority or minority political pool.

The EU is meant to be a brake on “illiberal” leanings by its members.  It is a democratic club with rules spelled out at a 1993 Copenhagen Summit which declared: “Membership requires that a candidate country has achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, (and) respect for and protection of minorities…

The obvious disconnect between the current Turkish governmentand the Copenhagen Agreement has shifted Turkish EU membership to the indefinite backburner. It has also prompted Members of the European Parliament to call for the suspension of voting rights and EU funds for Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. This is allowed under Article 7 of the EU Treaty of Accession which says member states must abide with the Copenhagen rules before and after accession.

The problem is that everyone knows that  Article 7 is a “nuclear option” which no one wants to launch for fear that it could spark a destabilising British style exit by East Europeans.

When the East European countries were pulled into the EU orbit there was no long history of representative government. On the contrary, they had been Soviet satellites for nearly half a century. Before that they were under the Nazi heel or part of the autocratic Russian, Ottoman or Austro-Hungarian empires.  Democratic governments were few and short-lived.

The main purpose in pulling East Europeans under the EU umbrella was to nurture the green shots of post-Cold War democracy and push back Russian influence. Now it is the East Europeans who are trampling on the green shoots and threatening to march their “illiberalism” westward.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopaedia of the Cold War” and “America Made in Britain". To subscribe to his email alerts on world affairs click here.

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  • Peter Martin 27th Oct '17 - 10:25am

    ” the traditional democratic state has elections plus an independent judiciary, free press, active elected opposition, and an apolitical military and police force….”

    In theory perhaps, but, the Hillsborough campaigners quickly discovered that the police forces of the UK aren’t quite as apolitical as popularly supposed. The police tend to back off when a member of the establishment is a suspected criminal. The supposedly independent judiciary made an appalling series of mistakes, largely as a result of political pressure to secure convictions, in the latter part of the 20th century. Even now the system is far from perfect. It’s all too easy for the police and CPS to secure the conviction of an innocent person.

    But these imperfections don’t mean that the UK is an undemocratic state. They do mean it needs to be improved. It does still work, even if we don’t agree with the outcome. If we vote Tory we get a Tory government. If we vote for a party advocating economic austerity that is what we get. If we’d voted Remain then David Cameron would probably still be PM.

    That’s not what happens in the EU though. The Greek people can vote against economic austerity all they like. It makes no difference. They’ll get it whether they like it or not.

    And yes I know we can point the finger at a poor Greek tax collection system but a more sensible approach by the EU would have been to concede on the question of a the need for reflationary policies to restart the Greek economy, in exchange for the implementation of whatever reforms were considered necessary. The EU would have been pushing on an open door.

    It would have been a win-win situation. There is really little or no prospect of Greece being able to repay any loans unless its economy is in a more buoyant and healthy state. The EU hasn’t just managed democracy in Greece, it has suppressed it.

  • Humphrey Hawksley 28th Oct '17 - 9:23am

    Tom is right. The democracy-autocracy cycle has now swung away from the enthusiasm of the early 1990s, mostly because of the hubris of the democracies themselves, that turned mechanisms of good government into an ideology beginning with the invasion of Iraq followed by support of the failed Arab Spring. October 2017 may well mark a historical turning point in the debate between the ‘peoples’ will’, the nation state and the regional bloc. In Kurdistan and Calatonia voters overwhelmingly chose independence, but their will has been crushed by the central governments and the regional blocs in the form of Spain, Iraq, the EU, the US and its allies. A new natural balance is emerging showing up the limited role that the ballot box can play in the running of any society. Too little, and we have dictatorship. Too much leads to chaos and weakness. Each society needs a different level. In the US it is high, in the direct election of judges and so on. In the UK less with our unelected House of Lords, appointed judges and very little checks and balances within cabinet, (except during the coalition years.) In the case of the Liberal Democrats, high levels of ‘democracy’ renders the party near incapable of winning power because a political machine needs centralised messaging and management to be effective. We may have the moral high ground of implementing the ‘people’s will’, but what good is that if the party does not do what it says on the tin. Apart from a council or two, we continue to lose to less democratically managed parties.

  • A really well written article Tom, Thank you. I think we need to keep a close eye on our own democracy at the moment. Headlines like ‘Enemies of the People’. Our Universities being asked to account for their teaching, Large sums of money from opaque sources going into campaigns. Distorted news reporting and disinformation on social media. I wonder if our Electoral Commission is asleep at the wheel.

  • Simon Banks 29th Dec '17 - 5:43pm

    As Tom’s analysis suggests, the false democracies (they are not “managed democracies” because they aren’t democracies) inevitably become increasingly corrupt and reliant on clients and underlings to sustain them. In this they resemble dictatorships, some of which begin with considerable popular support as with several newly-independent African one-party states, Duvalier in Haiti or the Colonels in Greece. A point is likely to be reached when they collapse like a house of cards (Tunisia, or Marcos in the Philippines) or they have to suppress opposition so brutally that all pretence of legality or democracy vanishes. Change then depends on the military or on the death of the Great Leader.

    This is at least a situation where the Liberal role is clear: to sustain dissident voices and reveal misuse of power.

    However, before accepting that we’re in an anti-democratic phase, consider that all the examples have come from Europe or the Near East. In Latin America, democracy is more firmly established in more countries than ever before. In West Africa it’s still on the rise. The retreat from democracy is mainly a European (and North American?) phenomenon.

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