Europe's democratic backsliding has proven political theorists wrong

by Paul Thomas / 26 August, 2018
Austrian far-right Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl dances with guest of honour Vladimir Putin at her wedding. Photo/Getty Images

Austrian far-right Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl dances with guest of honour Vladimir Putin at her wedding. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Europe democratic backsliding

Unholy alliances are forming as governments in numerous European and Latin American states indulge in democratic backsliding.

In mid-1989, The National Interest magazine published an essay by American political scientist Francis Fukuyama entitled The End of History?

Fukuyama wrote that the decline of communism and advent of globalism heralded an end to ideological contention and conflict in politics and international affairs; accordingly, the future belonged to Western liberal democracy.

In January that year, Erich Honecker, the long-time East German leader and prime organiser of the construction of the Berlin Wall, had predicted that stark expression of Europe’s division and Soviet bloc totalitarianism would stand for another 50 or 100 years. In November, the wall began to come down.

The collapse of communism and one-party rule in the Soviet satellite states, the end of Soviet hegemony in Central and Eastern Europe and the normalisation of East-West relations swiftly followed. In 1990, during negotiations over the reunification of Germany, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev suggested the USSR could join Nato, the organisation whose raison d’être was defending Western Europe against Soviet intimidation and aggression. By Christmas the following year, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had ceased to exist.

Francis Fukuyama. Photo/Getty Images

Curb your enthusiasm

While events in Europe seemed a spectacular vindication of Fukuyama’s thesis and had the gratifying consequence of sharply reducing international tension and the threat of nuclear war, they could be seen as the culmination of a historical shift that began almost two decades earlier. American political scientist Samuel Huntington coined the term “third wave of democratisation” to describe the transition to democracy or something approaching it that took place in some 60 countries around the world.

Greece, Portugal and Spain – countries we now regard as pillars of Western democracy – entered the 1970s under authoritarian rule, with distinctly fascist overtones in two cases. Greece was ruled by a military dictatorship – the Junta – from 1968 to 1974, and the Iberian Peninsula hadn’t experienced democracy since before World War II. António de Oliveira Salazar, to whom Life magazine in 1940 paid the backhanded compliment of “world’s best dictator”, was Prime Minister of Portugal from 1932 to 1968. Although the military then tried to impose Salazarism without Salazar, his blend of nationalism, Catholicism and authoritarianism known as “Estado Novo” (New Way) was swept away in the Carnation Revolution of 1974.

The military dictatorship that emerged from Spain’s bloody civil war of the late 1930s, and was characterised by harsh repression, concentration camps and summary executions, passed away along with Generalissimo Francisco Franco the following year.

For much of the post-war period, Moscow-aligned, essentially Stalinist communist parties enjoyed significant public support in France and Italy. Such was their doctrinal purity, slavish devotion to Moscow and social conservatism that they endorsed Soviet armed intervention to crush popular uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 and disparaged homosexuality and feminism as “the rubbish of capitalism”.

Czech Republic President Miloš Zeman. Photo/Getty Images

Czech Republic President Miloš Zeman. Photo/Getty Images

In 11 National Assembly elections between 1945 and 1978, the French Communists only once failed to secure less than 20% of the vote. Support for the Italian Communists, the country’s second largest political party in the post-war period, peaked at 34.4% in 1976.

Fukuyama developed his essay into a book, The End of History and the Last Man. In the three years separating the essay and the book, the question had become a statement.

But events since those heady days have caused Fukuyama to modify his views and curb his enthusiasm. He broke with the neo-conservative movement over its role in the George W Bush Administration’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In a 2017 interview with the Washington Post, he ruefully admitted, “Twenty-five years ago, I didn’t have a sense or a theory about how democracies can go backwards. And I think they clearly can.”

Slip sliding away

Political scientists apply the term “democratic backsliding” to the process whereby governments renege on democratic principles: elections are curtailed, tampered with or degraded; limits are imposed on freedom of speech and assembly; the press is bullied and circumscribed; the rule of law and judicial independence come under pressure; and an atmosphere of crisis in which dissent is deemed unpatriotic is manufactured.

Fukuyama comes at it from the opposite direction. In his analysis, the three characteristics of what he calls “political modernisation” – essentially, becoming a stable, advanced democracy – are the state being an effective, impersonal institution that can enforce rules across a complex society; rule of law that constrains the state itself; and accountability of the powers that be.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Photo/Getty Images

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Photo/Getty Images

Democratic backsliding is now under way, if not going full steam ahead, in numerous states in Latin America and Europe. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s populist agenda – Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant, nationalist, socially conservative, repressive, Putinist – has crossed borders. Four Nato member countries liberated by the collapse of communism – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Romania – are being nudged back into the Russian sphere of influence by their elected leaders. Czech Republic President Miloš Zeman can joke with Russian President Vladimir Putin about liquidating journalists, although given the elimination of journalists is no laughing matter in Putin’s Russia, perhaps he wasn’t joking.

Fukuyama identified supranational entities like the European Union as bulwarks of democracy. Following Brexit and with a significant Eurosceptic bloc now ensconced in the EU, he believes the great European project is “definitely unravelling”.

In February last year, Fukuyama detected a glimmer of hope in the narrow defeat of the far-right Freedom Party candidate in the Austrian presidential election a few months earlier: “It was as if people in Europe said, ‘Well, we don’t want to be like those crude Americans and elect an idiot like Donald Trump.’”

The Freedom Party, which in 2016 entered a co-operative pact with Putin’s United Russia Party, is now the junior partner in Austria’s government. (A similar arrangement emerged from Italy’s election in March.) Its leader is Vice Chancellor and its 2016 presidential candidate is Minister of Transport, Innovation and Technology.

Last weekend, Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl, who was nominated by the Freedom Party and is noted for her anti-immigration, anti-EU views, got married. After the ceremony, she danced with the guest of honour: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

This article was first published in the September 1, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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