New Report: Democracy in Asia and the Pacific Outlook 2023
UPDATE: The main conclusions of the discussions are captured in a short discussion paper published in February 2023. We hope it will serve to set the agenda for stakeholders’ strategic planning and serve to inspire the prioritization of democracy in reforms related to Asia and the Pacific. READ THE FULL REPORT: DEMOCRACY IN ASIA AND THE PACIFIC OUTLOOK 2023 Key Takeaways: Democracy is under pressure in Asia and the Pacific. Indeed, International IDEA’s GSoD report shows that democracy in the region is receding, with approximately 60 per cent of the 35 countries in the region suffering decreases in at least one component of democracy in the last five years. Challenges vary enormously due to the diversity and size of the region, yet some are common to most countries, including growing authoritarianism, the expanding role of the armed forces in civilian politics, China’s growing influence and power and the challenges of balancing freedom of speech and disinformation. Given these challenges, International IDEA and Perludem recently co-hosted the first Democracy in Asia and Pacific 2023 Outlook Forum, from 5-6 December 2022 in Bali, Indonesia. For two days, a diverse set of organizations and individuals from the region gathered to discuss common challenges and forecast democratic trends, with representatives from leading media outlets, academic institutions, civil society organizations, government and think tanks representing the region. Presentation on 5 December 2022 Breakout session on 5 December 2022 Participants agreed on the following key takeaways: The role of money in politics was cross-cutting across all sessions. Accessing power means accessing resources and the nexus between political power and personal enrichment appears to be a stable trend across both elected and non-elected officials. The power of money also plays an important role for the military – factoring into military interventionism in domestic affairs. Strengthening and enforcing the rule of law remains key to combatting the corruption embedded in institutions and campaign financing laws. The lack of effective regional cooperation mechanisms hinders democratic development in the region. There is space for stronger bodies to provide pressure to strengthen democratic institutions. ASEAN is a prime example of a regional body that has done relatively well in promoting economic growth and interstate peace in the region. It has, however, been plagued by ill-equipped formal structures that make it challenging to effectively respond to illegal regime changes such as in the case of Myanmar. Freedom of Expression and a healthy information environment for political campaigns, especially online, is integral to a functional democracy. The increasing number of laws that restrict freedom of expression and media integrity online is a concern requiring attention and action. In the same vein, the use of influence operations to manipulate public opinion, especially ahead of elections, is a growing phenomenon in the region. Fighting these attempts and protecting online freedoms is a must for democracy in Asia Pacific. Rising ethnonationalism in many countries has created violence and contaminated information environments. We can expect to see an increase in actors leveraging the power of social media to capture political discourse. The role of youth in politics will define the region in coming years, becoming a decisive electoral force and potentially challenging corrupt and rights abusing governments.
Protecting Hungary from Itself: The Limitations of Forcing Compliance
All eyes are on the European Council and Commission as their long-running dispute with Hungary over frozen EU funds nears its ostensible conclusion, with both the credibility of the European Union and the future of Hungarian democracy at stake. The core question is whether the European Union has the legal power and political will to force Hungary to adhere to its rule of law commitments, or whether Viktor Orbán’s government can once more horse trade or game its way out of full compliance. The dispute began in May 2021, when the EU refused to pay Hungary's share out of the Recovery Fund - the European Union's largest-ever stimulus package, which provided financial assistance for member states in the wake of the COVID-19-induced recession. This September the Conditionality Mechanism was used to withhold an additional 7.5 billion euros over concerns about the country's adherence to the rule of law. A final decision about the funds is expected by March 2023. To gain access to the frozen funds, the Hungarian government must adopt a set of new laws to strengthen the rule of law and combat corruption in Hungary. On 30 November 2022, the European Commission found that Hungarian action in addressing the EU’s concerns remained insufficient and funds will be further withheld. Two weeks later, however, in exchange for Orbán dropping his vetoes on the question of the Global Minimum Tax or the EU’s Financial Aid for Ukraine, the Committee of the Permanent Representatives of the Governments of the Member States to the European Union (COREPER II) agreed in principle to approve Hungary’s Recovery and Resilience Plan (RRP) and lower the amount of the suspension of the Cohesion Funds to 6.3 billion euros. Although the payments of the funds are still conditional and are withheld until Hungary has completed all anti-corruption and rule of law reforms, the question is for how long. The Hungarian government is passing laws at an unprecedented speed and several countries urged the Commission to produce a new assessment. Additionally, the lists including the 17 preconditions and 27 ‘super milestones’ could be easily manipulated to appear as if the conditions have been satisfied. Even if Hungary changes its laws every day according to the separate points raised by the EU, it probably will not have a real effect as these laws only target isolated, individual problems but not the issues in their full complexity. With a two-thirds majority in the parliament, there is a risk that Orbán’s government can change such laws once more after receiving the funds. Since the government has already filled the Constitutional Court with its preferred justices years ago, the impact of any minor adjustments Hungary makes in its legal system is questionable. The context: limitations of EU interventions and forcing compliance Previously, EU institutions, such as the European Council and Commission, either could not do enough or member states sought political compromises and simply ignored Orbán’s gradual dismantling of democracy. This was meant to change with the introduction of the Conditionality Mechanism. As the recent decision of COREPER II shows, however, there is a risk that the EU will still prioritize other issues over concerns about the rule of law, thanks to the Council’s voting rules (which require unanimity) and Viktor Orbán’s tactical vetoes. Consequences? As of now, conditionality does not seem to be a solution for Hungary. The Viktor Orbán-led coalition, Fidesz-KDNP, was able to build up a democratic façade and gain control over key institutions with seemingly democratic tools, such as lowering the retirement age for judges, amending the constitution several times, and continuously tailoring the electoral law to favour the incumbent. After creating a legal system that locked in its power, Orbán’s regime then built an additional parallel power structure. This alternative infrastructure enables Orbán to maintain his influence even in the event of a possible electoral defeat. This entrenchment of power means new institutions established to meet EU conditions, such as the Integrity Authority and the Anti-Corruption Task Force, are insufficient to reinstate the rule of law. Any anti-corruption program that is not well-insulated from political influence will be ineffective. If the European Union gives in and pays out both funds to Hungary without it implementing complex legal changes, it will call into question the European commitment to supporting the rule of law, anti-corruption efforts, and the whole notion of the Conditionality Mechanism. Moreover, it would set a precedent for other states, sending the message that politics trumps principles. But even if the Commission understands that rule of law issues in Hungary have much deeper roots, it can be argued that withholding funds is not the best strategy at all. Although the introduction of the Conditionality Mechanism could pressure a clientelist regime like Orbán’s, it may also backfire: with harsher anti-EU rhetoric and the help of a biased media landscape the Hungarian government can easily control the public discourse, weakening any public support for EU interventions. Policymakers in Brussels need to be careful when intervening and keep such repercussions in mind.
Prove Putin wrong, listen to Tchaikovsky
Every year when the holiday season is upon us, we go back to lasting traditions. They give us a sense of belonging and a connection to history. But what happens when a ritual loses its lustre? This was what a group of friends were passionately arguing about over drinks at the table next to me. Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet, a long-celebrated classic had suddenly become a flashpoint. Some insisted that they would purchase tickets for this year’s show in Stockholm, reasoning that culture has nothing to do with politics. Others said they hoped the show would be cancelled altogether, arguing that it was unacceptable to celebrate with Russian culture following Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. The latter accused Russian citizens of supporting the war in Ukraine, while others pointed out that reality is more complex. Half of the table claimed that all ties with Russia should be cut as a form of pressure to stop Putin. But that strategy – from the removal of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture, to the harassment of the Russian community around the world and to the call to the NHL to ban Russian players – has not stopped and Putin still enjoys a degree of support in Russia. This cultural backlash has not only failed to produce any results, but it is counterproductive to the growth and development of democracy worldwide. Instead, our frustration with Putin’s war in Ukraine should be channelled into supporting pro-democracy actors in Russia. Needless to say, we need to be attentive about whom we endorse and how the support is offered. Although a democratic Russia does not necessarily equal a peaceful Russia, it would only raise the probability of a Russian government that benefits Russians, its neighbours and the international order. This prospect is jeopardized if we don’t fight the unfair anti-Russian sentiment, which threatens to alienate or impede the activism of Russian pro-democracy voices and to overlook the courage of those who aren’t supporting this regime. Whilst a democratic opening at present seems remote, pro-democracy dissidents embody hope for political transformation in authoritarian contexts. There is more influence in authentic Russian voices sharing what is really happening in Russia, and they are essential in preparing the ground for a democratic dispensation so that when it does materialise, it can be seized upon and result in sustainable change. Additionally, the unfair backlash against the Russian people could further enhance the distance between Russians and Western democracies. The two main views that pro-war Russians share are that the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine was under threat and needed protection and that the West (particularly NATO and the US) is responsible for the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine. Anti-Russian sentiment could feed into Russian victimization narratives, empowering and strengthening Putin’s propaganda machine. It also endangers Russian speakers in Ukraine who now demonstrate a drastic shift in their loyalties to Russia, despite their cultural ties to the country. The devastation inflicted by Russia has reversed their support, driving them to endorse Ukraine’s move in the direction of EU and NATO membership. Instead of feeding into the anti-Russian sentiment, countries should seize the opportunity to better integrate their ethnic Russian minorities under a shared civic national identity, unlinked from the Russian government. Fundamentally, contributing to an unjust anti-Russian sentiment goes against the basic values and principles of human rights. We can’t pick and choose human rights. To protect democracy’s credibility, we must be consistent in confronting systemic discrimination and racism, even if that requires fighting our own biases. There’s no other way for sustainable democracy to succeed. Allowing the anti-Russian backlash to go unchecked threatens to widen the distance between the West and Russia, alienates potential Russian pro-democracy allies, and clashes with the most basic values that democracies hold. These factors are essential for the prospect of a democratic Russia, which as we’ve witnessed, is key to global security. The fact that the Nutcracker was almost fully booked in Stockholm shows that there is hope, as it seems that the campaign to punish Russian culture has at least not resonated among Swedes. For this end-of-year holiday season, I am listening to Tchaikovsky to prove Putin wrong, and I hope that those who were sitting next to me will all eventually agree to do the same.