Democratic Principles Under Attack in Eastern Europe

Posted on: 16 June 2016

“You cannot expect people to learn political culture overnight,” commented Dr Jacqueline Hayden, at a recent public lecture on ‘Undermining Democracy’. Speaking about Poland and other transitioning democracies which are now experiencing an attack on democratic principles and rule of law, Dr Hayden, Department of Political Science, said we must look deeper into these countries’ psychological legacies of the transition itself.

The Lack of intervention from the EU and other international bodies to aid transition and aggressive neo-liberal policies is partly to blame for the challenges those countries now face in embracing democratic values.

What is more alarming, the audience heard, is the rise of the far-right in established democracies such as Germany which espoused one of the “most destructive variants of fascism in the 20th century”.

The event, organised by Trinity Long Room Hub, Trinity’s Arts and Humanities Research Institute as part of its ‘Behind the Headlines’ discussion series, explored the current challenges to democracy in countries such as Poland, Hungary and Germany.

Dr Aneta Stepien, Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies, emphasised how the concept of democracy in Poland was still relatively new. Her talk on The ‘Good Change’ in that country referenced the rhetoric of ‘threat’ and ‘strength’ which has been adopted since the current ruling party came into power in November 2015.

“Poland was a colony and coloniser. The ruling party Law and Justice redefines the notion of democracy by referring to these two historic legacies – the narrative of threat that represents Poland’s oppression and the need to defend the country and the narrative of strength in which Poland features as a meaningful European democracy. Manoeuvring between these two narratives proves extremely effective in winning the support of the electorate.”

Since coming into power, Dr Stepien pointed out, the conservative Law and Justice party immediately passed new bills to undermine the constitutional foundations of the Polish state as well as taking over public institutions and replacing people of influence with party representatives.

Looking at the example of Hungary, Dr Oran Doyle, Head of the School of Law at Trinity, discussed what can be done to prevent such changes to the constitution which can significantly undermine the democratic process.

Since his party’s election in 2010 with 53% of the vote, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán has implemented a series of constitutional changes that have eroded the country’s democratic institutions. Looking further afield to India and Honduras, Dr Doyle showed how constitutional changes have also been used to further the interests of reigning politicians.

Dr Doyle drew paradigms, “constitutionally speaking”, between Ireland in the 1930s and Hungary now, with the presence of a dominant party that had the power to amend the constitution and overturn unfavourable Supreme Court decision.

In terms of what is currently going on in Poland and other Eastern European countries, Dr Jacqueline Hayden said “democracy is vulnerable to forces that manage to demonise democracy’s agents – its political actors, its institutions – even when those institutions are ostensibly robust.”

The language of Orbán, Kaczynski and Trump has many commonalities – most noticeably the notion of ‘them’ and ‘us’. ‘Them’ can be the foreigner, Jew, LGBT, or members of the political opposition – whatever is convenient to their political objectives.

Professor of German and Head of the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultural Studies, Juergen Barkhoff cited the failure of the EU to take decisive action on burden sharing in the two most recent crises in Europe – the migrant crisis and the financial crisis – as partly to blame for a rise in right-wing support.

Looking at the rise of xenophobic far-right movements in the three German-speaking territories of Germany, Austria and Switzerland, Professor Barkhoff told the audience how Germany seemed to have been safeguarded from the type of shift to right-wing discourse which had been observed in its neighbouring countries. However, this has changed in the last year.

“Until a year ago, Germany was the one country in Western and Central Europe that did not have a strong right-wing neo-nationalist populist and xenophobic party. Within a year the Alternative for Germany (AFG) rose from obscurity to now holding 11 and 15% in the national polls.

“We need to remind people how much we owe to Europe for the open pluralist society we have today,” Professor Barkhoff continued. “We thought after the fall of the Iron Curtain that the triumph of liberal democracy was irreversible – we might have been wrong.”

About ‘Behind the Headlines’

The Trinity Long Room Hub is Trinity College Dublin’s Arts and Humanities Research Institute and their ‘Behind the Headlines’ discussion series offers background analyses to current issues by experts drawing on the long-term perspectives of arts and humanities research. It aims to provide a forum that deepens understanding and thus creates space for informed and respectful public discourse.

Previous topics addressed under the ‘Behind the Headlines’ series have included a public discussion on same-sex relationships with special guest Colm Toibin, a discussion on religion and freedom in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, terrorism, and the refugee crisis.

‘Behind the Headlines’ on Newstalk

Juergen Barkhoff appeared as the final speaker on The Right Hook on Newstalk with George Hook on Tuesday June 14. To listen to this interview click here.


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