—András László Pap, Research Chair, Hungarian Academy of Sciences Centre for Social Sciences Institute for Legal Studies; SASPRO-Marie-Curie Fellow, Slovak Academy of Sciences Institute for Sociology; Recurrent Visiting (Adjunct) Professor, Central European University; Professor, National University of Public Service, Budapest, and Anna Śledzińska-Simon, Assistant Professor, University of Wrocław
The Hungarian and Polish experience of constitutional capture by a parliamentary majority that disregards any limitations of power and ruthlessly subordinates all once-independent sectors of public life, including the judiciary, media, academia, and civil society, clearly demonstrates that once in power, populist governments and their leaders are virtually unstoppable. While disestablishing the rule of law, they still claim to have democratic legitimacy of the popular will.
This comment is prompted by a search for a successful strategy to combat the “New Populism” and makes the following arguments. The “New Populism” and illiberal democracies flourish in domestic cold wars that demonize political opponents while populist leaders rely on “disenchantment” and large-scale disillusionment in most political parties by the majority of voters, who do not take part in the elections. In this context we ask whether mandatory voting, a model currently used and enforced in several states, could be a potential silver bullet to dethrone autocratic populists.
Populism and Demonization
“New Populism” and illiberal democracies strive in domestic cold wars that demonize political opponents. A contradictory feature of Hungarian and Polish politics lies in the fact that despite a significant proportion of the population being in a state of political apathy and disinterest in public affairs, the society is nonetheless highly politicized and divided.
In Hungary, polarizing strategies aimed at delegitimizing political opponents were initiated and utilized mostly by the right and foremost by Orbán and his party, setting the tone in political debates for over a decade. The political analyst and first liberal, then Fidesz MP, Péter Tölgyessy argues that Orbán deliberately builds on the dark side of Hungarians’ values and orientation: populism, pessimism, and conspiracy theories, instead of attempting to change the society and culture from within, as Adenauer and Thatcher did.
The domestic war led by Jarosław Kaczyński is against all those who are not his supporters, including opposition leaders from the Solidarity time and the Roundtable talks. Blaming Donald Tusk for the death of his brother in the Smolensk air crash, Kaczyński mobilizes the religiously devoted crowds not only around the theory of a bomb attack, but also around the cult of a new martyr. In order to celebrate, undisturbed by counterdemonstrators, the mensiversaries of this tragic event on every tenth day of a month, the government amended even the assembly law (zealously upheld by the Constitutional Tribunal in March 2017).
Both Orbán and Kaczyński take advantage of the “Zeitgeist” of disenchantment and build their own brand of populism which endorses neoconservative movements as anti-modernist, anti-cosmopolitan/European and fundamentalist answers and a viable alternative to neo-liberal democracy and market economy. Disenchantment-driven illiberalism is very similar to how Hobsbawm saw nationalism in the 21st century – as a substitute, a placebo for disorientation, and a surrogate for integration in a disintegrating society.
Adopting the maxim “divide et impera”, charismatic leaders disintegrate the society to make the nation appear as an ultimate guarantee (and in post-communist societies, also as a device to distinguish between the innocent and the guilty). They are hostile to foreign influence and interests, and call for the rebirth of national sovereignty and national growth. Playing on the criticism and rejection of the current discourses, they do not need a new re-enchanting ideology to gain support. The rejection of a fatigued human rights discourse and social equality suffice for essentialism and religious fundamentalism to prevail over liberal ideologies that seem to have lost ground. This new form of populism is difficult to ascertain within the conceptual framework of traditional, rational democracy.
Populist leaders owe their success to the large-scale disillusionment in most political parties by the majority of the electorate who do not take part in the elections. In the 2010 spring elections, the Fidesz-Christian Democratic Party received the support of 41,5 per cent of all the people entitled to vote and 53,1 per cent of the actual votes cast. Their victory translated to 68 per cent of the mandates in the parliament – a two-thirds majority that allowed the government to amend the Constitution and organic laws. In 2014, following a brutal gerrymandering, including the redesigning of the citizenship law and opening the door for (in practice overwhelmingly Fidesz-supporter) non-resident citizens, only 26.6 per cent of the eligible voters and 53.1 per cent of actual voters choose Fidesz, which then gained 66.8 per cent of parliamentary mandates – just enough for the two-third majority, which it actually lost shortly (due to the resignation of an MP). In March 2017 Fidesz still only has a 26 per cent support.
In Poland the government does not have the constitution-amending majority, but having “packed” the Constitutional Tribunal with its loyalists, it rules unrestrained by the Constitution. In the 2015 Autumn elections, the Law and Justice received 18,6 per cent of all eligible votes and 37,5 per cent of the votes cast, which translated into 51 per cent of mandates in the Lower Chamber. It is expected that before the local government elections, the Law and Justice will amend the electoral law to gain control over the regional councils (and the distribution of EU funds).
In this context we ask whether mandatory voting could be a potential silver bullet to dethrone autocratic populists. Mandatory voting is currently used and enforced in several states (Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Cyprus, Ecuador, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg, Peru, Singapore, Uruguay, and on the sub-national level in India, Switzerland, while formally in force but not enforced in some 15 more states), some of which are “model” Western democracies.
We argue that despite gerrymandering and clientelist electoral commissions, Orbán and Kaczyński would face (and actually accept) electoral defeat if the large number of generally disillusioned but politically fatigued and inactive voters were obliged to enter the polls. Although we are not naïve in terms of the actual endorsement of this (suicidal) measure by the governing illiberal parties, but since these formations actually run on the ticket of “populism”, where democracy is understood in the narrow sense of giving governance to the (majority of the) people, such a campaign would be difficult to reject on the rhetorical level. And an independently initiated referendum could be a successful tool introduce such an institution.
Illiberal democracies are outcomes of the failure of constitutional democracies to reinvigorate themselves, and also of the lack of a novel rejuvenation of the democratic process in the digital era. Hence a conservative remedy is in place. The idea that elections are about choosing the most attractive candidate needs a fairly easily arguable adjustment to the need to select the least disgusting/unattractive one. Mandatory voting would also be a game-changer for the electoral campaign, to a degree that it would even counterbalance asymmetries caused by government controlled public media and distorted campaign finance structures.
Let us not forget, despite financial suffocation and often direct political intrusion on the media, the past few years brought in Hungary an incredible and unprecedented flourishing of independent, partly NGO-driven investigative journalism where political corruption and conflicts of interests have been uncovered and reported. Still, sadly, in most cases these revelations remained without much political consequences, albeit sometimes led to successful strategic litigation. Although massive anti-government protests occasionally take place in both countries (and in case of the black protest Polish women even made the ruling majority withdraw from the most outrageous proposal of a total abortion ban and the Hungarian government reconsidered a tax on the internet), the large segments of Hungarian and Polish society remain passive and disinterested in public affairs. It is thus high time to remind them that democracy is not all about personal liberty, freedom of movement and economic freedoms, but about responsibility for the common life, which requires civic engagement and culminates in the act of voting–and this could even reverse populist U-turns.
Suggested Citation: András László Pap and Anna Śledzińska-Simon, Mandatory Voting as a Tool to Combat the “New Populism”, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Apr. 19, 2017, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2017/04/mandatory-voting-and-the-new-populism