In March I attended a Party of European Socialists conference in Budapest. Although the event dealt with Europe-wide issues Hungary was specifically chosen to show solidarity with the MSzP, the country’s socialist party.
There are fears that democracy is under attack in Hungary from the centre right Fidesz government of Viktor Orbán: this is an issue which has preoccupied the EU for some time.
On my way to a MSzP rally I found myself by accident walking with jackbooted supporters of the far-right Arpad. Four alleged members of this organisation were recently convicted of murdering six Roma gypsies between 2008 and 2009. I detailed the experience in my London Progressive Journal at the time. Fidesz and Arpad are both affronts to our understanding of democracy.
The President of PES is the Bulgarian BSP leader Sergei Stanishev. A general election had just been called in his country in March and he shocked PES delegates in Budapest by asking them to come Bulgaria to act as monitors on polling day. He said that when talking to other EU leaders they were in disbelief when he told them that free and fair elections could not be guaranteed in a member State, his country. My later investigations showed this had been the case in Bulgaria for many years. Even Stanishev concedes he did not do enough to tackle corruption when he was prime minister.
Before I went to Bulgaria as one of those election monitors in May I wrote again in the LPJ begging the question how was this country allowed to join the EU before it could demonstrate it was fully democratic. I have since revisited Bulgaria in June, again documented in a LPJ article and have to report that democracy is in a very fragile state indeed.
As soon as I knew I would be going to Bulgaria for the elections I made contact with Transparency International, which has been working in that country for a number of years. TI set out a plan for free and fair elections before the May poll which were signed up to by some, largely ignored by others even those who signed on the dotted line.
The new Bulgarian Government has undertaken to make changes to the Electoral Legislation and TI has submitted a lengthy report on what practices it wants to see implemented. At the start of this document it states: “The monitoring of the election process conducted by Transparency International - Bulgaria in 2013 identified some recurrent deficits– a dominant share of irregularities in the organisation, unlawful practices of controlling the will of voters and vote-buying, violations of the rules for campaigning that go unpunished.” It then goes on to list five main groupings of actions that it deems to be necessary to bring about democracy:
I. Changes in the electoral legislation to ensure a new approach to compiling the electoral rolls; lowering the strict criteria for candidate registration; ensuring wide and free of charge access of registered candidates to the media; and introducing guarantees for efficient functioning of the electoral administration bodies.
II. Changes in the practices of institutions vested with powers in relation to the election process to bring about a more efficient collaboration among them.
III. Building the capacity of the elections administration at the lowest level where the main deficits in the election process have been identified – namely the election committees at the level of polling stations.
IV. Changes in the media environment to ensure the principle of political pluralism, wide access of registered candidates to media coverage, adequate provision of information and guarantees against monopolistic positioning in the media market.
V. Ensuring consensus among the political parties regarding the actual implementation of measures against unlawful practices in the election process. This consensus should be part of a larger-scale transformation in the way political parties function, thus ensuring that the Bulgarian political parties truly represent the interests of their voters, and genuinely abide by the established democratic standards thus contributing to these standards being followed in the overall political life of the country.
So it is quite clear that Bulgarian standards of democracy do not meet EU norms. There are real fears that Hungary will fail too when it comes to its own general election next year. They are not alone: there are other New Europe countries in the same plight.
In Spain there is a widespread collapse in the trust in democracy, largely brought about by political corruption. You can add Greece and Portugal to that list who both scored ahead of Spain in a TI corruption survey. Other EU States from Old Europe can probably identify similar voter concerns even if the voting will be free and fair.
Nor is this just a matter of internal concern for each of the member States of the EU. Next May Europeans will go to the polls to elect a European Parliament. Bulgaria, Hungary and other nations where there are serious concerns over the electoral process will participate. Hence some MEPs taking their seats in the European Chamber may be there, not because the people elected them freely and fairly but because the vote was rigged. Indeed that will almost certainly be the case. The European Parliament will be devalued if it cannot be the true voice of the people of Europe – and in those circumstances it can’t. So the EU cannot turn a blind eye and pretend this isn’t happening or doesn’t matter.
Let me quote from the EU itself. It grandly states: “The European Union believes that democracy and human rights are universal values that should be vigorously promoted around the world. They are integral to effective work on poverty alleviation and conflict prevention and resolution, in addition to being valuable bulwarks against terrorism. Having come into force on 1 January 2007, the Europeam Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights is the concrete expression of the EU's intention to integrate the promotion of democracy and human rights into all of its external policies.”
A fine ideal. However might I suggest that the EU starts off by integrating “the promotion of democracy and human rights” in its own member States before it worries about taking the message to the world. As things stand elections in many parts of the EU are not free and fair: so it does not have the moral right to lecture anyone.
(The above article appeared in the London Progressive Journal on August 10 2013).