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Rigor mortis

Sunday, June 27th, 2010


How can demagogues be prevented from hijacking democracy? This is a riddle as old as democracy itself. The ancient Athenians grappled with the question, and history is replete with examples of tyrants who exploited populism and stoked ultra-nationalism during economic crisis to get in power, often with disastrous results and wars that caused immense suffering to the people they led.

These thoughts rushed through my mind as we crossed from Austria over the swollen Danube to Bratislava recently. It was a trip back in time, having come here as a teenager in 1974 to the still united Czechoslovakia. The country was locked in the darkness of Stalinism following the tantalisingly brief Prague Spring that was crushed by Soviet tanks. It was a drab and depressing time, people weighed down by lies and the crushed hope of freedom.

What a contrast 35 years later to see a Skoda Octavia taxi with Slovak number plates picking me up at Vienna airport and to not even notice the former iron curtain as we whizzed along the autobahn past the checkpoint in Berg. Crossing this border in 1975 used to take two hours as the entire bus and its occupants were searched and questioned. And the strangest sight of all: election posters in Bratislava. Slovakians were nervously looking forward to elections and their young country’s first-ever participation in the World Cup (they beat Italy 3-2 on Thursday).

When communism collapsed in 1990, Czechoslovakia split up into two republics. But it wasn’t a brutal breakup as in the Balkans, where the distintegration of Yugoslavia plunged Europe into its first genocidal war since 1945. The Czechs and Slovaks prided themselves on their anti-communist Velvet Revolution and their peaceful breakup which showed them to be more civilised than their southern Slav cousins.

Yet the recent elections in Slovakia and Hungary show how easily Europe can still regress into the intolerance, racism and even fascism of its recent past. The economic crisis in Hungary (where the finance minister set off panic in the stock markets by just uttering the ‘G’ word for Greece) has caused a right shift in the political spectrum and raked up latent nostalgia for a Greater Hungary. The Slovak economy is doing better (it now produces one-third of all the cars in Europe) but the recession has hit the job market as well, and this in turn has pushed the ultra-nationalist parties to go for an extreme anti-Roma and anti-Hungarian election platform.

In both countries chauvinistic parties used the joblessness created by the recession to openly use racist slogans to garner votes. It worked in Hungary in April, as the ultra-nationalistic Fidesz party won. But it didn’t work in Slovakia this month, where the anti-Hungarian SNS (Slovak National Party) party barely managed the minimum of 5% votes to retain its position in parliament.

With elections just weeks away, journalists at the Sme newspaper in Bratislava were worried about where the country was headed. The editor has been sued multiple times by successive Slovak governments, and had just done an expose on an anti-Roma billboard portraying gypsies as lazy parasites. The SNS was a part of the pre-election coalition with the ruling Smer party and had pushed through legislation making it illegal to speak Hungarian in offices.

The problem now is that while the Slovaks are trying to forge a new coalition without a racist party in it, the Hungarians have Fidesz in a centre-right coalition that wants to offer dual citizenship to Slovakia’s Hungarian minority and a government that openly espouses unity of the pre-World War One Hungarian lands. With Hungarians comprising 10% of its 5.5 million population, Slovakia sees this as tantamount to a declaration of war.

The fur is already flying between Budapest and Bratislava with Slovak officials describing Hungary as the “exporter of the brown plague”: a reference to the fascist youth of World War Two. The Hungarians have retaliated by saying “we don’t care what the EU thinks”. Fidesz MPs openly goose-step about Budapest in paramilitary uniforms and give Heil salutes, and now want to wear those uniforms inside parliament. The rise of the ultra-nationalist racist right has been greeted with dismay in Brussels where Hungary is set to take over the EU presidency on January 1.

Democracy is messy, but it’s the best we can do. It should by definition be inclusive, but often is not. Democracy is a work in progress and needs to be protected by its maximum application. But civil society and media have to guard against despots who have found a way to manipulate the electoral process to grab and retain power. In Nepal, the party that won the most votes in the 2008 elections started one by one to undermine the very institutions of an open society that got it elected in the first place. And we are paying for it now. The country is stuck between a ruling coalition led by a prime minister who lost in two constituencies and an opposition that can’t get enough votes in the assembly to oust the government and is therefore trying underhand ways to do so. The Nepali people are trapped in between, as rigor mortis sets in.

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12 Responses to “Rigor mortis”

  1. Geolog Munich on Says:

    The lesson from Hitler’s Germany is that if you leave it only to elections, it is easy for demagogues to vote themselves to power by exploiting nationalism, utopianism and turning the whole project into totalitarian rule of the majority. The check and balances have to kick in: the judiciary must be independent and not coopted, the media must not just be free but a defender of liberalism and freedom, and most of all there must be economic growth and jobs so citizens can’t be fooled and waylaid. What you are seeing in Hungary today with the Fidesz is the rise of leaders (like Haider in Austria) who have forgotten very easily what happened in the 1930s in Germany. It is also another lesson for us in Europe after the Balkan war that fascism is only a small step away.

  2. Arthur on Says:

    In ancient Greece the rich oligarchs overthrow democracy using populist demagogue tyrants waging war against other Greeks.

    In Eastern Europe too threats to democracy come from the ultra-nationalist racist right – just like Hinduvata fascists in south Asia.

    But in Nepal Kunda Dixit sees a threat to democracy from the left. Specifically from the party that won the most votes but was not allowed to govern!

    The threat is that it sought to undermine the institutions of an open society. The semi-feudal Nepal Army remaining unaccountable to civilian oversight is what Kunda Dixit means by “the institutions of an open society”.

    This usage of the terms “democracy” and “institutions of an open society” is unique to Nepal.

  3. DanielGajaraj on Says:

    Apres nous le deluge. Emou thanontos gaia michtheto pyri.

    This exactly is the tactics adopted by the A-CPN(Maoist party ) . The Austro-Hungarian Empire broke down in the beginning of the 20th century. The Soviet Empire collapsed at the last part of the same century. Some elders of ours have the good fortune of watching both the events.;including the rise and fall of Hitlar and Stalin,their demagoguery.
    “The malice of the wicked is reinforced by the weakness of the virtuous.”-Winston Churchill.
    Our socalled intelectuals and civil right front-liners have sold their soul to the devil.Let them regain their youthfulness by this pact with the devil!
    The malaise of this nation is the cowardice i.e.silence of the general population , who are so much influenced by the autocratic royal influence plus leftist fashion of the last century. What a terrible mix?.
    Bol ki lab azad hai tere; bol juba ab tak teri hai.-Faiz.Tomorrow you may not be allowed to speak.
    Democracy may not be a perfect system but it is the best among the existing ones. It is evolutionary, not violent, revolutionary. Otherwise we will be like Alice asking about the flame how it looked like after it is blown out. Young men speak up, now is the time.

  4. DG on Says:

    Why not get this writing translated into Nepali and the other regional and tribal languages and also published in the vernacular publications?

  5. Gole on Says:

    Do one has to go to Aryaghat to watch a RIGOR MORTIS/ No , you can be in any part of this country, if you have a THIRD EYE. This eye of flesh and blood cannot visualize the future,as it is covered by our selfish interests.
    To watch the stiffening of the body of your mother or father after their death is a cruel reality beyond description.
    Kavis ,poets are called Kranta-drasta i. e. who are able to look into the future. Where have all our Kavis gone?

  6. DanielGajaraj on Says:

    This article deserves a Nepali translation in local papers also.

    It is a very painful exsercise to watch ones mother’s or father’s body (land) lying in in state in Aryaghat Pashupatinath.The stiffening of the body after death is unimaginable.
    Mother and motherland are the same. Hijacking is worse than death. Normal eyes of flesh and blood can see sights not its implication or the spirit behind it..
    It needs a Third Eye as in Mahabharata. Normal eyes fail because of selfish interests for power or protection.

  7. DanielGajaraj on Says:

    Kab nazarpe aayegi bedag sabjeki bahar?

    Khunake dhabbe dhulenge kitane barsadauke bad! -Faiz Ahamad “Faiz”.

    (Will there be spring when the green is all un-blighted?
    And how many rains must fall before the spots of bloods are washed clean!)

    Faiz wrote this after his return from Dhaka.-The New Republic of Bangaladesh,just after her emmergence.
    The mistrust between the Ultra -Left and the democrats is difficult to resolve with their attitude. The trauma of the affected lots still remains un resolved. This is the result of the indoctrination going unchecked even after the Delhi accord and the election to the CA. How can one goEAST facing WEST? Ulto ghoda chadera?

  8. Kamal Kishor on Says:

    Fortunately, we are not Europeans and despite introduction, spread and perpetuation of violence by the Maoists, Nepal is still peaceful; compared to others who passed through the same process, Cambodia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe. Nepal has been able to preserve its capacity of tolerance, forgiveness, and mutual respect, despite every effort of the Maoists on the contrary. So far, Nepal has proved to be land of Buddha against all odds and Nepali have not lost hope and abandoned their hate against hate. Religious harmony is one of the indicators. Despite the influx of people into Kathmandu, it is still safe to walk at 10 PM.

    How to preserve the democratic tradition and continue fight against violence? How to expose demagogy of politicians? How to bring the country to the path of reconciliation? How to make politics serve the country and people?

    First of all we the so called intellectuals should not follow the politicians blindly. We need to keep a safe distance. We should not jump into conclusion rather should coolly analyse. We should join hands with other professional forces.

    Secondly, the NGOs and other arms of civil society should stop following politics and their leaders. As we have demonstrated many times, the civil society in Nepal has the strength to fight the negative tendencies if we truly become non-political between political parties but assert positively when democratic political process is in danger. NGOs and Civil Societies should not be a part of the political process but tools to reconciliation between political parties and processes.

    Thirdly, military and judiciary should be strongly discouraged to play politics. Unfortunately, this is happening lately and that is one of the strongest indicators of decaying democracy. That should be completely rebuffed.

  9. jange on Says:

    The political problems facing Nepal at the moment have its roots in the unwillingness of the political players, including Kunda and NT, that democracy and violence can never go together. The political “achievements” have been acquired by violence and the only way to move ahead is by using further violence or by going back to democratic processes.

    It is time for Kunda and NT to recognise that violence has no place in a democracy and also that any so called political gains acquired on the basis of violence has no legitimacy.

    Only then will Kunda be able to stop writing facile pieces such as this.

  10. hange on Says:

    It’s easy to over-simplify and say that the threat comes “from the left” or “from the right”. What is unique in Nepal is that both are true: the Maoists who were willing to vandalise, steal, intimidate, and kill (far-left) and the change-phobic ultra-orthodox Hindus/royalists (far-right). While democracy is messy, it affords us the opportunity to choose a middle path.

    The general public was afraid of what the far left (Maoists) would do if they lost the elections and, thus, voted them into power. The Maoists proved themselves better at rhetorical statements as opposed to actually governing and left office at the first sign of disagreement (it didn’t keep with their core philosophy of, “follow my orders or I’ll put a bullet in your head”).

    The army clings to its feudal past as an over-reaction to accepting highly-politicised Maoist cadres into it. Installing uneducated and highly brain-washed soldiers en masse is simply not acceptable. It was because of this understandable fear that the Maoists ran into problems with the army. If the Maoists compromise on this point, the army can easily be made more civilian-controlled. If not, we can spend another year giving speeches about the importance of completing the constitution, debating whether BRB or PKD should lead a unified government, enforcing bandhs after signing commitments to not do so, and making vague statements about “taking the peace process to a logical conclusion.”

  11. Devendra Pant on Says:

    Charter 77 produced leaders of caliber of Vaclav Havel, a playwright turned into a statesman. Andrei Sakharov’s moral conscience and internal exile in Gorky lead to the birth of “glasnost” and “perestroika” that subsequently laid ground for the fall of the Berlin Wall. Father Popyuosko’s assassination led to the freeing up of the Polish Nation from the clutch of the bear. On the other hand, Slobodan Milosevich’s madness led to the disintegration of former Yugoslavia. The turmoil in the Balkans gave birth to a new Nation, called Kosovo. The character of our leaders does matter, their actions and in-actions equally do matter. It also matters what sort of leaders the Nations give birth to at that particular junction in history. After all, character is the destiny of a Nation. However, no Nation should be judged “bad” solely because it produced a “bad” leader. There is a saying in Sanskrit “Kuputro jayate, kwochidapi kumaata na bhavyet!” (Trans. No mother should be blamed for the bad deeds of her son!) The danger is in sticking to the absolute single truth or to “my version” of truth alone. “Aspect-blind” is the disease of our intellectuals, leaders, or even Nations. If one accepts pluralism as the essence of democracy, then, one should also accept the existence of democratic pluralism. To accept the former, and, at the same time, deny the later is absurd. The world is exciting because the humankind is in search of alternative reality!

  12. Jana on Says:

    Slovakia has an important lesson for Europ because it shows that citizens groups and the media have to be vigilant about leaders who want to be dictators by using racial prejudice and nationalizm. It was Slovak media that prevented Slota from getting a bigger majority in the election, but in Hungary because citizens were apathetic Fidesz could score such a success. Jana

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