Commentary

Is Hungary a “Stabilitocracy”?

A report by the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group coined the term “stabilitocracy” to describe Balkan states where Western countries ignore local autocrats’ anti-democratic practices as long as they keep the peace. Is Hungary becoming something similar? 

In the Balkans, “keeping the peace” is meant literally. Ethnic and religious divisions are so toxic that everyone’s favourite identity-based politics leads to regular wars, bloody atrocities and even genocide.

But there is also the issue of cronyism that lost all outside control. As The Economist puts it, “usually in Balkan countries, elections lead to coalition negotiations that focus on how to divide the spoils. … Working out who gets which ministry is comparatively easy. The bigger question is who gets which public company, along with its opportunities for patronage and kickbacks.” (The West backs Balkan autocrats to keep the peace, again – The Economist, July 1st, 2017

And this is where Hungary is catching up quickly. There is a completely unfettered distribution of economic spoils – but only within Fidesz, the governing populist party. In terms of cronyism, Hungary is catching up with the Balkans – and once you have an autocrat in power, it is only a matter of time before he finds something as toxic as ethnic divisions are on the Balkans to keep his people divided and himself in power.

Every “new government will reproduce the same cronyism unless it “breaks the pattern of party control of the state”, said Florian Bieber, a political scientist at Graz University to The Economist. That is a tall order in a region where the state, whether under communism or now, has never been independent of parties.”

And that is where Hungary is racing to the bottom. One party holds all positions in the state, in organisationally independent institutions, and increasingly also in the economy. PM Orbán has an explicit goal to take control of the country economically as well as politically in order to cement himself and his party (that has never seen another leader) in power for decades to come. He had said it all, loud and clear. He said it when he bragged to his Polish followers how he took control of media, energy, banking and retail, he expressed this sentiment in his infamous (and often misquoted) “illiberal nation” speech, there are no secrets here.

And is voters sign up for this. If they personally couldn’t get on the right side of the massive redistribution of state handouts – then they resort to try harder. The notion that they shouldn’t be economically impotent without state sponsorship and brown-nosing the party strongmen nearest to them has never occurred to them. Some societies are just so seeped in internalised helplessness they are happy to see their strongmen seizing economic control because that looks to them like the only way. This is how anyone they have ever seen has got ahead: Not by their own, hard work, not by appealing to consumers and earn their voluntary business – but by having the state create a monopoly and hand you the license to serve (poorly) a captive consumer base.

It is getting harder to see the difference between rampant cronyism and outright autocracy. People do vote out of hope to get some personal gain while the entire country is stolen and goes down – or out of the sense of profound helplessness, unable to imagine an alternative. Powerless people crave strongmen and strongmen make people even more powerless.

The report writes about “the rise of a regional “stabilitocracy”, weak democracies with autocratically minded leaders, who govern through informal, patronage networks and claim to provide pro-Western stability in the region. … the status of democracy is weak, and declining. The safeguards, such as independent media and strong institutions, are failing, and clientelism binds many citizens to ruling elites through cooptation and coercion.” (The Crisis of Democracy in the Western Balkans. Authoritarianism and EU Stabilitocracy, Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group, 2017)

“The EU and many of its members have been tolerating this dynamic, some out of persuasion, some out of inertia and some out of laziness,” the report concludes.

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