Tibor Navracsics is the Deputy Prime Minister of Hungary
Is democracy compromised if a country’s electoral system is designed to deliver a majority for a single party and the demands of proportionality are deemed secondary?
Should we trust national politicians who speak of localism and yet preside over huge cities without elected mayors?
Is a country on the road to dictatorship if the President can bypass legislative procedure and enact laws via popular referenda?
All of the above examples are drawn from exemplary democracies that have set the standard for others in the world. We are familiar with their traditions – and we instinctively recognise which countries they belong to.
With the consent of the Senate, the US President appoints justices to the Supreme Court on political grounds; while in Congress only Democrats and Republicans hold sway.
UK parliamentary elections are decided by first-past-the-post to the benefit of larger parties and the disadvantage of smaller ones. The recent AV referendum confirms that Britons are happy with the system, despite its lack of proportionality. And good luck to them! My intention is not to criticise.
An outside observer might also wonder at the UK’s seemingly patchy commitment to local representation, with only a handful of cities with directly elected mayors.
In France, the President can bypass Parliament by issuing decrees which become law if supported in a referendum. On top of that, in exceptional circumstances the executive can overrule the legislature.
Are these deficiencies that herald an erosion of democratic values in beacon democracies around the world? In which case, shouldn’t we all be more concerned about it?
So far as I know, no commentator in Hungary or anywhere else has gone on record to express his or her fear about the politicisation of the US judicial system. Nor have any politicians tabled motions about the deficiencies of the US or UK electoral systems.
Of course not! It is obvious to everyone that these countries are democracies. Their institutional arrangements are linked to their traditions. Their balances and divisions of power have evolved over time.
We do not fear for other countries because we recognise that there is no such thing as a uniform democracy. Rightly, there is a variety of different approaches. Each democratic country has crafted arrangements in response its own unique circumstances.
But what about Hungary? Recent experience suggests that we are the exception to the rule. In September, the Hungarian Parliament began debating new Cardinal Laws on local government, elections and the justice system as required by our Constitution. Opposition voices on the Left have wasted little time in denouncing the proposals as authoritarian and illiberal. They will no doubt continue to do so throughout the autumn.
They will do this in Hungary and abroad. They will tell acquaintances in America, Britain and France that Hungary’s justice system is being reduced to a handmaiden of government; that our reformed electoral system will bring party politics to an end; and that the act on Local Government will extinguish freedom at the local level.
It is important that, as a democratically elected government, we respond to these accusations. We will do so robustly because they are simply untrue. And yet, despite the facts, our critics’ allegations have been taken up with alacrity by commentators around the world.
Hungary is a democracy among the democracies of Europe. Versions of our own approaches and institutional arrangements can be found in other European countries, while others are uniquely Hungarian. But over and above these differences in approach, our commitment to democracy remains unshakeable.
We fully realise that it is our own responsibility to explain our actions to audiences both in Hungary and abroad – and we will do that. But at the same time we would ask that, during the debates in Parliament this autumn, our international partners should remember that those who over-generalise often conceal a lack of knowledge. While such commentators appear to fear for democracy, in reality they are simply unable or unwilling to contribute anything constructive.