JOEL ROSENTHAL: Greetings, and welcome to our virtual conversation, "Illiberal Democracy on the Rise: Examining Brazil, Hungary, and India." I'm Joel Rosenthal, President of Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.
Carnegie Council is an independent nonprofit institution. Our mission is to identify and to address the ethical issues of today and tomorrow. For over a hundred years we have been working to empower ethics as a way to discover common values and interests that can lead to a better future, and I want to thank all of you for taking this time to spend with us this afternoon.
It is no secret that the idea of an open, pluralistic democracy is under stress. It is being challenged by a new form of democracy that has certain closed, nationalistic, and autocratic features, what we are calling in this session "illiberal democracy." In a recent article I referred to this trend as a "narrowing of hearts and minds," and I identified a few essential characteristics of illiberalism—a retreat from globalism, an embrace of nationalism, the stoking of ethnic claims, and attacks on democratic norms and institutions.
What I am excited about today is the opportunity to explore this trend with our expert panelists. Each brings deep knowledge of a particular example of a rising illiberalism, and each example is rich with local, specific, historical, cultural, and political contexts. I hope over the course of our discussion we can understand the richness and distinct character of each while also discovering patterns and common features that will lead to a deeper understanding of this current moment.
Our speaker biographies are available in the invitation to this program as well as on the Carnegie Council website, so in the interests of time I am just going to introduce each panelist by name and institution: Oscar Vilhena Vieira is professor of the Vargas School of Law in São Paulo. He is an expert in constitutional law and politics in Brazil. Gábor Halmai is professor of law at European University Institute in Italy, and he is an expert on international human rights and the Hungarian political system. And Prerna Singh is professor of political science and international studies at Brown University in the United States. She is an expert on the politics of South and East Asia, including nationalism and identity politics in India.
Before we begin, just a word about our format. After some initial remarks and conversation among the panelists, we will entertain questions from the audience, so all of you who are watching and listening, I encourage you to use the chat function and engage as we go. The reason we do these programs live is to engage with you, the audience, so please let us hear from you.
We have 90 minutes, and we will likely use it all, so we will pace ourselves accordingly. I have told the panelists that we would like to keep this conversation as conversational as possible, and we will try to move through a series of questions and then engage with the audience.
Just to start things out, I am going to start with Oscar, and I wanted to ask you to maybe elaborate a little bit on this term "illiberal" or "illiberalism." It tends to be off-putting, but I think in this case it is a term we want to dig into a little bit. So maybe you could give us your interpretation in how it applies to Brazil, the country you are studying.
OSCAR VILHENA VIEIRA: Thank you very much for the invitation. It is a pleasure to be here with all of you, and I am certain that we will gain a lot of understanding better what happens in other countries that were attacked by waves of autocratic populism.
Brazil has a misunderstanding with liberalism. Even economic liberals in Brazil never embraced fully political liberalism, and the left were always suspect of liberal ideas. So in some sense Brazil is an easy target for populism. That is the reason why we had waves of populism in the past, and in this wave Brazil did not resist populism enough.
What is happening in Brazil at this moment is in some sense the confluence of three major illiberal pillars: (1) the very conservative evangelical creeds; (2) the nationalist militaries, which were always very discontented with liberalism; and (3) I would say economic sectors that are based on attacks on the environment, very strategic economic sectors. Bolsonaro was fortunate enough to put together these three pillars of illiberal traditions in Brazil and mobilize them to reinforce his power. So, yes, Brazil is under illiberal attack from at least three sides, and for reasons we will be discussing here further, fortunately the institutions that were placed by the transition to democracy 30 years ago are until this moment resisting this illiberal attack, but time really counts in favor of autocratic populism at this moment.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you. Gábor.
GÁBOR HALMAI: Yes. Hello, everyone, and thank you for having me here. It is my pleasure.
Talking about illiberal democracy, which was announced by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in a speech in 2014, proudly saying that Hungary after four years of the Orbán government got rid of liberal democracy altogether and enacted a new "illiberal constitution" as he called it, so we still have this illiberal democracy.
But let me first challenge the term "illiberal democracy." If we define liberal democracy as a kind of limit on the executive, on the government, to enhance freedom, then I would say that the opposite of liberal democracy, namely illiberal democracy, aims at an almost unlimited executive and not enhancing freedom. In that respect this illiberalism cannot be democratic, and I do not consider the current Hungarian system as a democratic system either. It is in between a full-fledged autocratic system and a liberal democratic system, a kind of hybrid regime.
One more word about populism, which is also one of the phenomena of the current Hungarian political situation. It was very much used as a kind of rhetoric by the Hungarian government during the immigration crisis after 2015 but also during the pandemic. But I have to emphasize that this is not really a populist regime. Again, this is more or less the rhetoric of the regime, which masquerades the autocratic character of the regime, the illiberal character of the regime.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you. Prerna.
PRERNA SINGH: Thank you so much for having me on this panel. It is a pleasure to be here.
I think a lot of what I say really relates to what Oscar and Gábor are saying, so I guess I want to begin by putting this into a historical perspective, to say that India in 1947, at the end of centuries of British colonial rule, really took a gamble on liberal democracy. India was poor. It was illiterate. It had low levels of industrialization and very high levels of ethnic diversity. So the institution of democratic institutions in India at the time of its foundation and the enactment of a highly secular and inclusive constitution in some ways flies in the face of most dominant political science theories that would have predicted a less democratic outcome for India. Historically, with the brief exception of a couple of years in the 1970s, India has maintained democratic institutions. So this present moment in some ways marks a reversal of decades of quite healthy, always flawed, democratic institutions in India.
I think this relates to Gábor's description of Hungary in that, at the present moment, India is somewhere in this kind of space of hybrid regimes. Just a few weeks ago Freedom House demoted India from being a democracy to being a "partly free" democracy, and this gets to the question of: What does it mean to be a partly free democracy? The Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute in Sweden went one step further and termed it an "electoral autocracy." So we are in this gray zone.
I think the key thing is that this is—and I think as Oscar mentioned, and this is why I think we are all on the panel together—a playbook in some ways. There is an undermining of the constitution. In particular at the beginning I want to point out two domains in which this illiberalism, this backsliding of democracy, has manifested, and the first is the crackdown on civil liberties, a crackdown on dissent of any sort that is epitomized by attacks on free speech, media, and social media, and the second is this discrimination and hostility towards religious minorities, particularly Muslims, that aligns with this idea of Hindu nationalism. I think that in some ways we are in this very dark, gray, hybrid regime space, and it marks a reversal of India's founding ideals and its constitution.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Excellent. Thank you very much.
I want to pick up right where you left off, Prerna, and go one step deeper into this dark or gray hybrid regime. I think you used the phrase "elected autocracy." I would like for each of you to say just a little bit more about what's going on. Again, we still have elections, and we have all seen the interviews of the people who are voting for autocracy proudly. This is the puzzle I am trying to figure out, and, as Gábor said, I am trying to figure out whether we can use the term "illiberal democracy," if this is helpful, or if it is obscuring something. If you could comment on those comments. Maybe we will go in reverse, from Prerna and then back around.
PRERNA SINGH: Thank you, Joel. Yes, electoral autocracy is the official classification for India according to the V-Dem Institute, which is one of these democracy watchdogs of the sort that Freedom House is.
You are right. In some ways it is a paradox because there are elections—we can debate about how free and fair—but on the other hand we are electing these leaders that we might variously call as "right leaning," as "populist," and as "exclusionary nationalists," so I think this kind of opens up this puzzle.
The one thing I would say for the India context, again to put it into historical perspective, is that in some ways the rise of this present regime also reflects an almost near collapse of the political opposition. I would be curious to hear what Gábor and Oscar have to say, but in India the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the first time in many years has complete control over both houses of parliament, and this has given it a kind of muscle that has allowed it to do and enact certain things through elected institutions in a way that a much more robust political opposition had prevented in the past, and so in some ways I think that as we try to understand the rise of these illiberal, right-leaning, populist, exclusionary nationalist regimes, we also have to pay attention to what is the flip side of that, which is: Where is the alternative? What is the opposition? And the rise of these regimes to some extent also reflects a complete crisis of the opposition parties.
This is not at all to say that there isn't opposition to them, but for me the source of that opposition in the Indian context is much richer from civil society and not so much in a way from alternate political parties. I am happy to talk more about that, but I thought I would just leave it at that.
Before the pandemic broke out, India's streets were full of people, ordinary citizens, organizations, protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act, but those protests were really rooted in and led by civil society. The political opposition that is missing I think is in some ways important to keep in mind as we try to understand the rise of these electoral autocracies or whatever we decide to term them.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Gábor.
GÁBOR HALMAI: Yes. Hungary preceded India in the category of electoral autocracy put by Freedom House a year earlier. Actually the free and fair election happened only in the very first election in 2010. Even though it was a free and fair election it was a very disproportionate election [audio difficulty]. The governing party Fidesz got 53 percent of the vote, and with that a two-thirds constitution-making majority with a majority of the votes. Fidesz used this to enact a new [constitution without the] consent of opposition parties, civil society organizations, or the broader public. There was no referendum on the new Fidesz constitution.
The next elections in 2014 and 2018 were not even fair elections. In between Fidesz with its two-thirds majority changed the electoral system substantively, making it even more disproportionate, meaning that in 2014 they got the same two-thirds majority with a minority of the votes.
I should mention to characterize this kind of electoral type of autocracy that elections are certainly not fair in the sense that there is no free media in Hungary. One of the first issues that the Orbán government went into was to change the media law, making all the public media include government or government-friendly oligarchs. Without a free media, how can we assess even the 45 percent of the votes given to Fidesz?
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you, Gábor. Over to Oscar.
However, we are profoundly concerned of how things are moving in Brazil, if we will go in the same direction as Hungary, Turkey, or India, or if we will have the same destiny as the United States or Italy, where democracy and the institutions saved the country from populist attacks. This is the major question here.
But I would also move back a little bit as Prerna did when she talked about India. My professors, like Pilar Modono [phonetic], invested a lot of time to try to understand when the alternative regime ended and when democracy started in Brazil 35 years ago, and now our generation is trying to understand when democracy ends and authoritarianism starts.
My perception is that we had a long history of incomplete democracy, so profound and persistent inequality. It is different than India, but we do have this persistence that makes it very difficult for people to benefit from democracy and rights. Brazil always had this authoritarian social enrooted feeling, and people were treated very distinctly by the state.
Brazil moved to democracy but very incompletely, and now we are regressing to authoritarianism in a faster way. This is a little bit how I do think that even though we do not fall to illiberal or undemocratic system yet, the weight of authoritarianism and illiberalism has become very heavy in Brazilian life at this moment.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Great. Thank you. This is very helpful, but we also see in this conversation a certain attraction to this elected authoritarian hybrid model. I take Gábor's point, which is we have to have some skepticism of the freedom or fairness of these elections based on the information that is being provided to the electorate in a deliberate undermining or corrosion of the free press and the right of free speech and so on.
With that noted—and we can come back to this sort of erosion of free press and free speech—I wanted to go a little bit deeper into what might be the "attractive"—if I may use that word—quality that some people are moving in this direction and raise the issue of the ethnonationalist agenda here. This is again thinking about what is in common with this rise of illiberalism. Let's face it. These are ethnic claims. There is something there.
Maybe if you could each elaborate a little bit of how it looks from where you are, whether it is Hindu nationalism and so on, Hungarian nationalism, and Brazil, I am curious how this plays out. Maybe Oscar, I will start with you, and we will go back around this ethnonationalist component and how important you see that as a driver of what we are seeing right now.
OSCAR VILHENA VIEIRA: The nationalist old guard that helped populist leaders to establish common enemies is something that we understand. Yes, Bolsonaro comes from the military, which are those who breed nationalism in Brazil. He is former military. He played the card of nationalism against mostly what he calls a "globalism," which is a mix of strange ideas but basically claims that Brazil lost its sovereignty to those of who have liberal ideas in terms of human rights, so he has a strong discourse against human rights and the idea that Brazil is always under threat from the environmental movement that wants to retract from Brazil sovereignty over the forests.
The nationalist key here is not against immigration because we don't have any particular wave of immigrants arriving in Brazil, but the nationalist card is played against the environmentalist concerns of the globe regarding the Amazon, and that is how he mobilized Brazilian society against international perception and criticism on environmentalism. This is how it has grown.
Also, there is an anticommunism which is a very awkward discourse made by the military that Bolsonaro incorporated. Who are the communists? Communists are everyone who is not anti-communist. An economist just made a nice report in terms of quality of the report about Brazil, is blamed as a communist journal. This is the perception of how we play the nationalist role here.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Great. Thank you. Gábor.
GÁBOR HALMAI: Let me go back a little bit before I go to your immediate question about nationalism. Go back into the recent history of Hungary, namely, what moved people into the hands of an autocratic populist like Viktor Orbán? You have to understand the very recent history of the democratic transition from 1989 and 1990, when one of the main issues of the transition was to live better than in the communist times. Certainly this was the main motivation of the people, to change the system beyond the pursuit of democracy and freedom.
What was a disappointment after 20 to 25 years of democratic transition was that this living-better approach still did not work. Income inequality was still very high, and people just wanted to get rid of this kind of neoliberal economic policy of the previous socialist liberal governments.
This made the call of the populist Orbán government for more new economic policy very attractive. But I have to say that in the last years economic inequality has been raised even more than before. Somehow to hide this fact of inequality the Orbán government very much uses a nationalist idea and a nationalist approach. You have to know that the Hungarian population is a very homogeneous population without migrants or foreigners in the country, so that is why this kind of nationalist, anti-migration agenda was very attractive, and ever since has been very attractive, even though we do not have any migrants in the country whatsoever.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Amazing. Prerna, to the nationalist question.
PRERNA SINGH: This is directly related to Gábor. It is interesting. Hungary is this relatively white, Christian, and homogeneous country. India is, of course, exactly the opposite. On almost all indicators it is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world, and so I think it is interesting that you see the rise of the same beast, which is an exclusionary nationalism in which the nation begins to stand in for the dominant ethnic group, whether that is white Christians in Hungary or Hindus in India, and you see that this is happening under very, very different demographic conditions.
The one thing that I wanted to relate is that it is very interesting for me to hear Oscar describing the nature of the nationalism and the ethnonationalism in Brazil. To me the climate politics of the Amazon and anti-communism are really interesting because in some ways, while I would say that all three regimes are characterized by this right-leaning exclusionary nationalism and populism, the one difference is that I would say that those two domains are not the relevant ones in India.
In India it is very much this idea that the ethnonationalism that we talk about is really religious nationalism. It is Hindu nationalism. So, the kind of country we are not explicitly talking about but which is obviously framing our discussion is, to me, most analogous to white supremacy in the United States. Just as white supremacy and Trump need to be put into historic perspective, the one thing that I would say is that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in a way represents the high tide of a strand of exclusionary Hindu nationalism that has existed since the very time of the foundation of India.
I began my comments by saying that India was established as what we call "the puzzle of Indian democracy" under these very hostile conditions that are not seen as fertile for the institutions of democracy, and yet at its very founding it also faced this really important ethnonationalist strand. Remember India was partitioned by the departing British on religious lines. Pakistan was created explicitly as a state for Muslims. So India had to resist that default categorization, which it did by enacting this highly inclusive constitution of being a country for the Hindus. So Nehru and Gandhi and a lot of the founding fathers went to great extents to talk about how India was not just a country of Hindus and that it had this constitutional and ideological commitment to the diversity that exists today.
To me, Oscar's point about how Bolsonaro comes from the military, the India-Pakistan contrast is also very interesting because of similar histories, and yet Pakistan in some ways follows the trajectory of Brazil a little bit more in terms of its oscillation from military coups and the importance of the military, but in Indian democracy India has managed to keep the military in its barracks. It has not yet had a military coup of the same kind, but the nature of the ethnonationalism really has its roots in what killed Gandhi.
Gandhi was assassinated shortly after India's independence. He was assassinated by someone called Nathuram Godse, who was a member of the same organization that really underpins the power and success of the BJP, the party of which Modi is the leader and is the representative. So, in some ways this is one particular kind of ethnonationalism, which is a religiously exclusionary nationalism that basically places Muslims either beyond or at least in a second-class place relative to Hindus, but in a way the BJP's rise is unprecedented in terms of this high tide of nationalism, but the ideology and organization is not.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: That was great. I am actually going to go a little bit quicker to an area that I was going to wait to the end, but your setup is just perfect, and it is of real concern, which is, this ethnic nationalism at a certain pitch which could suggest violence and could suggest some involvement of military. One of the pillars of a liberal democratic society is a professional military that is under some kind of supervision and guidance from the elected government with some degree of accountability.
I would like to go around the panel and take the temperature of where do you think we are? I will speak as the one American on this panel. We saw something quite frightening on January 6, and I think many Americans are trying to figure out what that means. Will we see more political violence? Was it the beginning of something, or was it a fever maybe breaking?
I am into opinions now, but I am very interested in the opinions of all of you in terms of the country you study, and also if you want to make a comment generally on other countries, I would be interested as well.
Oscar, please jump in.
OSCAR VILHENA VIEIRA: Something that Prerna said I think is very interesting, which is the idea that since Brazil does not have a real foreign threat besides this abstract notion of environmentalists and human rights people who would dissolve Brazilian sovereignty. Really the nationalist ideology in Brazil was viewed around internal enemies. So the question is: Who are the internal enemies?
The internal enemies, the first ones obviously are the communists, but since the communists are also a very abstract notion these days in Brazil, all of those who are linked with any notion of culture, science, openness, and open society ideologies are viewed as communists. That is the paradox, that those who really protect the ideas of liberal democracy are targeted as if they were the enemies of the nation and that they are communists. This is a little bit the paradox, just to react to what Prerna was saying in the case of India.
Moving on to your question about the military, Brazil has had a strong military since 1891. They were the founders of the republic. They did the coup against the emperor at the end of the 19th century, and they felt themselves always as the moderating powers of the Brazilian republic. They had around nine interventions from 1891 to 1964, when they seized power, so they are a strong force, as in Turkey perhaps, as in India perhaps, in Brazilian politics.
In the last 30 years they were removed from the political center. They were professionalized. Probably the air force and the marines were more professionalized than the army itself, and they became very vocal with the political crisis that started in 2013 in Brazil with the corruption scandals that involved the left in Brazil. They started to become employed in several internal security activities. Bolsonaro's election coincides with the return of the military to power.
Just to close this session, the danger here is that Bolsonaro has an ideological and political link with the low ranks of the military, which could bring destabilization to the system. Generals and colonels are much more skeptical about Bolsonaro. He also has political connections with the polices. Brazil has 27 states and 27 different polices that are militarized, and Bolsonaro and his sons come from this environment. So, yes, I think the largest risk to Brazilian political democracy at this moment is the involvement and the support of the military, especially the military polices for Bolsonaro. This is where the destabilization of the regime could come.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you. Let me go over to Gábor. How do you feel about this issue of public security and potential for violence and use of force?
GÁBOR HALMAI: Again, before going to this question, let me react to both previous issues, namely the role of religion in Hungary and the enemies.
I did not mention religious diversity because Hungary is a religiously homogeneous society as well, and by the way a very unreligious society. True believers and churchgoers are very low in percentage in Hungary, so that is why this kind of rhetoric of Viktor Orbán after announcing the illiberal democracy and changing it to Christian democracy, which was probably more well received in Western Europe, is rather a kind of rhetoric. Besides some anti-Semitic overtones of this illiberal rhetoric against George Soros being present, it is not a real religious issue in Hungary.
Enemies are there, of course. In that sense populism works. The enemies are less the communists, who more or less disappeared in the last three decades, but the main enemies are liberals, who are very often made equal to former communists.
The military has not played any crucial role since the democratic transition really, and this is also due to the fact that Hungary very early joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and very early joined the European Union, so it is very hard to imagine any kind of involvement of the military in NATO and EU Member States.
On the other hand, there are certain issues regarding migration and hatred towards migrants, which is very much used by the Orbán government to make security an issue, not in a sense of the military but being alerted and using the secret police against those possible migrants, who are again not present nowadays in Hungary. This kind of issue with security is present, but I do not expect any kind of violence, even if it comes to the question of whether Viktor Orbán can keep power.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Gábor, while you have the floor, I just want to follow up a little bit on the issue of religion. I see there is a comment in the chat from our Senior Fellow Janos Pasztor asking about the minority populations, particularly Roma, in Hungary. You mentioned very briefly the issue of anti-Semitism. Maybe you could say a word or two more about threats to the minorities in Hungary from a security perspective, physical security and the prospects of life in this sort of hybrid regime.
GÁBOR HALMAI: Even though, as I mentioned, religion is not the main issue in the agenda of the Orbán government, still one of the first laws they enacted back in 2011 when the new constitution was enacted was a new church law actually de-registering more than 300 very small churches. They were not big in numbers in terms of members, but the message was to make the Christian and especially the Catholic Church the main player in the Hungarian religious sight.
Interestingly enough, the Jewish community is very well protected in the rhetoric of the Hungarian government. On the other hand, as I mentioned, the kind of hidden anti-Semitism against liberals, against George Soros, and other "enemies," mostly intellectuals, of the current government is very much present.
The Roma issue is a different issue. Unfortunately the Orbán government is not the first which cannot solve the issue of about one-tenth of the population, the Roma population. It was always a very, very unpopular issue, and unfortunately the liberal socialist governments did not dare to solve this unpopular issue with the Roma population.
The Orbán government is openly anti-Roma. They provide certain kinds of work-based solutions for the Roma, a kind of neo-Darwinist approach to providing very low employment for very low paid jobs for Roma, which makes them maybe supporters of the government, even though the situation of the Roma in Hungary is really a dire situation. But again, they are the bottom percentage of the population that the current government does not care about whatsoever.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you. Prerna, there is a lot there on the table.
PRERNA SINGH: I will respond to a few things.
I think the one thing that I wanted to mention that in my understanding is perhaps common to Brazil, Hungary, and India is that opposition to the regime, to its ideology, and to its agenda becomes a betrayal of the nation. When you criticize the regime, its actions, and its policies you basically become a traitor in India to the Indian nation, such that there becomes this really troubling equation of opposition to a political party and its agenda and basically sedition.
In India, for instance, as part of this crackdown on free speech, social media, and the press, there are hundreds of journalists—India was termed one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist because of the killings of journalists, including in broad daylight the gunning down of a really prominent vernacular journalist, Gauri Lankesh. But you see that the nature of the charges that are often slapped against intellectuals and civil society organizations are sedition charges. Of course, this speaks to how seriously the regime opposes any dissent, but this equation of dissenting with a party and being a traitor to your country is I think what is the really to me deeply troubling aspect of the kind of nationalism that we see ascendant in India and across these countries.
The irony in all this is that Indian nationalism was forged in the fierceness of nonviolent protest against the British, so it is a nationalism that was premised on secularism, on inclusiveness, and on an equal place for religious minorities. It was also a nationalism that was based in resistance. Yet the nationalism that is ascendant today kind of abrogates both of these. It is against dissent, and it really comes down against minorities.
I thought that Oscar's point about these insider enemies was a really interesting point. We can call them insider outsiders, and at some point in time they do become insider enemies. Again, this goes to the point that in Hindu nationalism there is an external enemy, and that is Pakistan, which really represents in some ways—and there is an equation again of Muslims who are Indian, born and brought up in India, but there becomes an equation of the insider minority and the outsider enemy.
I would say that in some ways India has some similarities. I don't think there is quite the concern of the military intervening in the way that it has in neighboring Pakistan to overthrow democracy, but what we see is a little bit more nuanced. It is the use of a military threat.
It is well-known that the regime used this entire instance—Pakistan is the bogeyman—of the threat from a neighboring Islamic country and the equation of that to then a fifth column within the nation itself represented by the Muslims. It is a nationalism that preys on this kind of military threat while still the military is in its barracks. I think that is an interesting nuance, not quite the kind of violence that we have seen, for instance, in the United States, but on the other hand the scapegoating of Muslims has taken on highly violent, hostile dimensions. The idea of lynchings—again bringing it to the United States—we have seen the lynchings of Muslim men.
This is not just Muslims. India has a long history of discrimination and hostility to lower castes, and I think a very India-specific question, Joel, getting to your opening remarks about the fact that we want to have this comparative but really get into the textured history of particular cases, what is the role of dalits, the former untouchables, in Hindu nationalism and women, the highly gendered nation? There it is interesting. There was an opinion piece recently by someone I respect who spoke about how Modi tries to come across as a lot softer, and the explicit comparison was to Bolsonaro and Orbán.
In some ways there is a similarity across them, but it is also a highly gendered idea of the nation. It is a highly high-caste idea of a Hindu nation. So within religious nationalism, there are all of these other gender and ethnic identities that play into it.
The final thing that I will say again is—just before, because I saw some remarks in the chat—we are in the midst of a pandemic, so to me it has been interesting to reflect in a way of what the preexisting rise of these kinds of exclusionary, nationalist, illiberal regimes has played into COVID-19, to responses to COVID-19 and how COVID-19 itself might have been a kind of justification for the increasing power of these regimes but also just to say that COVID-19 was very convenient for the Indian regime because it was facing one of its strongest oppositions from civil society and ordinary citizens who had common beliefs [audio difficulty].
So the crackdown after COVID-19 was very, very convenient for the BJP regime to institute a crackdown. In Delhi, which is the city that I am from, witnessed this really rich protest by these Muslim grandmothers and women. These women were completely, the entire protest, which had been inspiring for many people who contested this idea of illiberal nationalism, so COVID-19 in some sense has allowed the regime in a way to come down on these protests. To me we are always looking at these dark and gray sides, but there is a lot of opposition, even if it does not manifest always in electoral results, and I think that is kind of an open question as well: What would opposition to these regimes look like in these different domains?
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you, Prerna. So much in there. Let me get back to you, maybe three different points to continue the conversation, and then I want to get to some issues that are in the chat.
One of the commonalities—and thank you for raising this issue of, I will use the word "language" of the leaders, Bolsonaro, certainly Trump, Orbán in his own way, I don't know as much about Modi, but the way in which they talk about, as you say, the "other," the way they talk about their enemies, the way they talk about migrants, really taking it to a very low place and not in passing or by mistake but certainly with intention.
I would like for each of you to talk a little bit about that, the discourse that we find ourselves in now, and I am speaking as an American who was quite alarmed by some of the language that President Trump would use and not only use but use to some applause. I think that is a commonality that we see in the so-called "playbook."
There is one other thing I will throw out there if anyone wants to talk about it, but again you can't help but see it as a pattern, which is blatant corruption, almost proudly rewarding one's friends and punishing one's enemies using the power of government in ways that are quite shocking. I don't know if any of you want to say a word about that.
Lastly—I know I am touching a lot of bases here—I would like for each of you to say maybe a little bit too about the COVID-19 response. One of the puzzles in the United States for me was the path that President Trump decided to take. He could have used it in a way to consolidate, to centralize, power in quite dramatic ways, and yet he went the other way. He took the anti-science, anti-elite, libertarian populist road. There was a certain logic to that, I suppose, but there could have been another path where he could have grabbed power and tried to centralize it in some way and federalize it in an autocratic way. I am curious how that works out in the countries that you are studying.
I will start with Oscar. You can pick and choose whatever I just teed up there for you.
OSCAR VILHENA VIEIRA: It is a long list, but I love the way Prerna put it on the distinction between—and I think we should focus on this—inclusive and exclusionary populism, which is very important. Latin America has a long tradition of inclusive populism. Think Vargas, think Perón, think others in the continent that are seen as the fathers of their countries. They created labor law. They included people.
So there is a difference between the traditional populists and this new wave of populists that are exclusive. They create their identity by excluding others, and Bolsonaro has been a lower member of the parliament for 30 years with the strongest excluding discourse we ever had, but nobody paid attention to him. He was against the gays. He was inferiorizing women. He was against African descendants. He was against everything. So basically this discourse of exclusion has been present for the last 30 years in his mouth.
The interesting aspect is how this exclusionary discourse attracts people. My perception is that basically it is close to what happened in the United States in the sense of the resentment of the middle class. When I say "middle class" in Brazil, I am talking about poor people who do their living, but the perception that the fulfillment of the promises of constitutional democracy do not involve them. They understood that the excluded were receiving benefits from the left, and they were left out. That is why Bolsonaro's discourse was so attractive for so many people. This is one point.
Just to touch on the religion that was not on your list but was in the previous discussion, the interesting aspect is that the evangelicals match Bolsonaro's ambition to have a national religion, and Catholicism has always been seen as a globalized religion and a globalized religion that has power to constrain authoritarianism in this country. So the Brazilian church was always on the left. It is very alike for those who don't know to Pope Francisco's discourse. In this aspect the church has been also demonized by the Brazilian nationalists because they want to have a national church that is more in alliance with the government.
Last thing, on COVID-19. It is interesting because Bolsonaro plays anti-science, anti-rationality, anti-everything in terms of COVID-19. However, the state governors assumed the responsibility to implement more rational standards in complying with the challenges of COVID-19. And the Supreme Court played an extremely important role in protecting the autonomy of the states to implement their own policies.
So in Brazil, federalism became a powerful tool to contain Bolsonaro during the pandemic, and now the Supreme Court also granted the minority in the senate the opening of an investigation on Bolsonaro's conduct during the pandemic. So, the senate and the states are checking on Bolsonaro's absolutely irresponsible behavior during the pandemic. It is interesting how institutions are, and that is why I said that perhaps Brazil is in a previous situation regarding the other countries of the panelists here.
PRERNA SINGH: Can I jump in for a second? I think this is super-interesting, just to respond very directly to Oscar's point. I think the distinction between inclusionary and exclusionary populism is an absolutely critical one, and Latin America definitely has a tradition of this. I guess what I would add to that is also inclusionary and exclusionary nationalism.
Again, returning to this point about what can be done and where do we go from here, how do we build something to counter this move towards illiberalism, to me I think one of the frustrations as a liberal that I feel is that the idea of liberal nationalism has been entirely eclipsed by this exclusionary idea of nationalism such that nationalism itself has kind of become a bad word. To me historically it has powered anti-colonial movements, it powered movements against communism across Eastern Europe, it led to the establishment of welfare states, and it is the lifeblood of citizenship. Nationalism is what leads people to fight and sacrifice for their country, it encourages people to pay their taxes and to come out and vote.
So to me I think the real challenge is the fact that we have these different kinds of populisms and different kinds of nationalisms challenges how exactly do we construct that. I think the post-pandemic world is going to offer challenges but also opportunities, so what would the construction of this more inclusive idea of nationalism, because my concern is that by giving up on nationalism it is almost like giving up on a container that can be filled with anything. A political theorist calls it a "battery." It is a battery that can be used for destructive and constructive purposes. To me I think the idea of recovery of liberal nationalism that can power liberal democracy is both obviously highly challenging but also a deeply appealing idea. That is something I just wanted to mention.
The one thing that I will say as regards COVID-19 is that there is a comment in the chat that I want to acknowledge, that even after COVID-19 broke out in India, protests—particularly farmer protests—have continued. The initial protests were against the Citizenship Amendment Act, which basically restricted Muslim refugees' ability to apply for citizenship.
To get to your point, Joel, about language, it is the rhetoric. To me it is interesting that Orbán, Modi, and Trump all refer to immigrants as rapists, criminals, and vermin. This is the kind of terminology, but it is not terminology. It is acts. It is concrete walls. In India it is the changing of the constitution to make it more difficult for Muslim refugees to get citizenship, so it is language plus real laws.
I am happy to talk a little bit more about COVID-19, but to some extent the BJP regime's response to COVID-19 in India has been nothing short of criminal in so many different ways, so me to the idea that the world has become so much sicker from COVID-19 because of the ascendency of these regimes, and to me coming out of the Indian case and the continuing to rage second wave has been tragic, and if not avoidable, it just need not have been the scale of suffering and humanitarian tragedy that a public health emergency was allowed to metastasize into.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Great. Gábor, do you want to jump in?
GÁBOR HALMAI: With pleasure. There are a lot of very interesting questions in the chat as well.
Let me refer to the COVID-19 issue and then turn to one of the interesting questions regarding the role of the European Union because this is a Hungarian issue in the panel because Hungary is the only EU country.
I guess the treatment of COVID-19 by the Orbán government very much characterizes the entire system and the working of the system. Very few people know, especially not in Hungary, that the Orbán government in the second and third waves performed very badly on the front of COVID-19. Hungary still has the highest mortality rate per 1 million persons. Almost 3,000 people died out of 1 million, which is very high. But with the lack of free media, no one is really talking about that. Everyone in the Orbán media is talking about the high rate of vaccinations and not about the deaths, which are a consequence of the previous bad treatment of the pandemic, not to speak about buying mostly Chinese and Russian vaccines, so 5 million people out of almost 10 million who are vaccinated, in high numbers they are vaccinated with an ineffective or not proven effective Chinese vaccine or the Russian vaccine, which has not been approved by the European agency. In other words, the popularity of the Orbán government did not go down despite the fact that the government performed so badly on the front of the pandemic.
Another issue is that Orbán was the first to use the pandemic to introduce an emergency power, even increasing the unbound executive power, even violating its own constitution. In other words, I would say that here again my thesis is that this is not so much populism. The rhetoric is populist, but the very pursuit of this government is to keep its autocratic power.
A couple of words about the European Union. More than ten years ago this Orbán government introduced an illiberal democracy within the liberal democratic European Union, and actually almost nothing happened. A procedure was introduced, but actually due to procedural boundaries no sanctions have been imposed whatsoever. This is partly because of political unwillingness, the political kind of protection provided by the European People's Party Fidesz belonged to for very long. They were just kicked out very recently. They protected very much the government and especially the German government. This is not the German government itself only. This is the German car industry, which is very much present in Hungary and does not want to harm the Hungarian government's very beneficial treatment of the car industry in any way.
In other words, the European Union, even though it has legal toolkits to go after Hungary and even recently empowered EU institutions to go for curtailing EU funds, but nothing has happened, and I have to assume that this is because of the lack of political willingness by the EU institutions and the most powerful EU Member States.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: That is great. There is so much here. Let me take two more broad beams, and then you can sort out what you want to speak to, one of them building on where Gábor just left off.
President Biden is going to Europe soon, and he published in The Washington Post a column, "My trip to Europe is about America rallying the world's democracies." That was the title of his piece. I am sure all of you know there has been discussion in the Biden administration about putting together some kind of summit of democracies and the question of whether that is going to happen.
I am just curious about this general proposition of rallying the global community of democracies in some way and how you would see the countries that you are studying vis-à-vis that proposition. Is this a good idea? Is this a bad idea? Would Brazil, Hungary, and India qualify? Should they qualify? Who should be invited to such a thing? I am just curious as to your views on that.
The other issue that I had coming into this panel, and I want to make sure we get to some degree of this before we conclude, and that is: I am interested in the connections, both specific and general, between these examples. In other words, I am curious whether Bolsonaro, Orbán, Modi, and Trump—is it your sense that they watch each other, see each other, and feed off of each other? To what extent is this organic, and to what extent do you think there is an ideological project here and, if not linked specifically, is marching in step?
Also, the sequence of events too is interesting to me. This didn't happen all at once. I was wondering if any of you have any comments about what we are seeing.
I will stop here. One last thing, maybe before we conclude, what is your sense of where things are going? Are we at a crisis moment? Elections are coming up. I do not ask you to predict, but what is your feel as to trend and direction, positive and negative?
I apologize in advance. I put a lot out there, but feel free to pick and choose what you want to say in response. Maybe I will start with Prerna, and we will go around.
PRERNA SINGH: Thank you, Joel. The one thing I would say about this point, we know from some research that secessionist movements, self-determination movements, are contagious, so the fact that Scotland—bringing it to the European Union—is going to vote on the referenda, it makes a difference. This learning happens, this modeling happens for the Catalan movement.
Given our research on how learning and contagion happen for other political mobilizations, it would seem ridiculous to not think that there is this kind of nature of learning and emboldening and empowering that happens. You asked: Does India qualify for this summit of democracies? Biden's predecessor, Trump, of course, was on extremely friendly terms with Modi, and again, going back to what is the constituent nature of nationalism, it was interesting for me to hear Oscar laying out of what constitutes Bolsonaro's nationalism. For Modi it is this Hindu nationalism plus this Hindu assertion, which is really in the economic sphere. In that way, the fact that he was recognized by Trump, that India was taking its rightful ignored space on a global economic stage. It is not coincidental that Modi used the stage of the World Economic Forum to tragically announce the end of COVID-19 just before this deadly second wave hit. I think there is for sure this kind of contagion or learning, and I think we need to pay more attention to exactly what are the mechanisms through which this is happening.
The other thing I will say, partly in response to some of the comments in the chat, is that it is always provocative—and I do so deliberately—to try to make a case for an inclusive liberal idea of nationalism. What does this look like? How do we prevent it? The one thing that I will say is that to me it is important to clarify that as a scholar of identities I don't think of identities as being exclusive but as layering onto each other, so the fact that you are a proud Hungarian national does not preclude your being a proud European or having a proud subnational identity.
Linda Colley, who has this book on Britain, says identities are not like hats. We wear more than one at once. To me this idea of cosmopolitanism and globalism are obviously inherently attractive ideas, but I think we ignore the appeal of national solidarities to our peril.
To me the idea is—I think Oscar mentioned a great point. I have written a book about regionalism and subnationalism and federalism in India, and I think again when we think of where from here, how forward, I think absolutely federalism and subnationalism become important. But to me subnational identities in India, which are primarily linguistic because India is a linguistic federation, are very important rivals for social welfare outcomes. We see some states that have done much better with COVID-19 being the ones with existing health infrastructure, and to me the institution of this health infrastructure goes back to these subnational identities.
So, to me it is not cosmopolitanism or subnationalism or regionalism versus nationalism. It is how we layer it. For scholars who identify within the liberal left tradition, it is this unit of analysis, the nation, that becomes the most tricky. We are usually all onboard with community, city, and subnational identities, and cosmopolitanism and globalism is this desiderata, but if anything, this COVID-19 crisis has brought home to us is that we live in a world of nation-states. This has been national responses, even though it has called for an international response.
To me really the way out, the project forward, is to first begin to think and then to learn from each other, returning to this idea of contagion, of what an inclusive idea of nationalism looks like. Maybe it is not possible. Maybe we have come just too far down into this darkness, but I have hope.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you. Oscar, do you want to go next?
OSCAR VILHENA VIEIRA: First, yes, I agree with the theory just mentioned that there is a contagious populism. It is obvious that they take into consideration other examples that function. In the case of Brazil, Trump was extremely important in forging the coalition around Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro is a true full-breed exclusionary populist, but he is not an intellectual, and he did not organize his campaign. His campaign was organized by other people, including his three sons who are in politics and are more articulate than he is. With the election of Biden he lost a lot of his support from the United States, but also this opens the door for him to try to play the leader of the extreme right in the hemisphere.
Yes, Biden's election was of phenomenal importance to Brazil. However, the ambitions of the Bolsonaro clan to fill the space left by Trump is there.
Just to go back to your last point, which is where things are moving. Obviously I don't know where things are moving. I hope they are moving in the right direction, but I think there are two structural questions in the case of Brazil.
One is inequality. Obviously it will be very difficult to have people trusting institutions and understanding democracy if they feel they were left out of the benefits of this 30 years of liberal democracy in Brazil. This is a major point that jeopardizes the rule of law and jeopardizes democracy in Brazil, and whoever mounts a campaign against Bolsonaro will have to address this in a very consistent way. This is one point.
The second point that I envision is the problem of for how long institutions will survive the constant attacks of Bolsonaro. As I said perhaps naively, until this moment the reason we have not fallen to the condition of "autocratic electoral system" is because institutions are very vital and fighting very vibrantly at this moment. Brazil has, in Lijphart's concept, a very consensual democracy. There are a large number of political parties, and the president who wins has to create a coalition, and Bolsonaro was unable to establish a strong coalition.
This means that he has not been able to do what Orbán did in Hungary by altering the constitution. Brazil has not made any reforms to the constitution or passed any major law that threatens democracy until this moment. However, Bolsonaro is using his prerogatives as president very like Trump to in some sense neutralize federal agencies that are responsible for the implementation of progressive policies and of social rights. He is coopting the police.
So in some sense he is using infra-legal and infra-constitutional prerogatives to erode the base of the rule of law and democracy in Brazil. So it is a different model than what we saw in other countries like India and Hungary, where the populists do have control over parliament. This is the reason for my very limited optimism in relation to what will happen in 2022.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Absolutely fascinating. Thank you for that, Oscar.
I want to turn to Gábor.
GÁBOR HALMAI: Before I talk about the possible future, let me turn to your very first question about democracy promotion by President Biden or others and the possible impact on Hungary. I am very pessimistic about that.
As you know, the European Union has been a valued community of democracy, rule of law, and fundamental rights, and had no impact whatsoever on one of the Member States. So what can we expect from the United States and President Biden, who is very much a kind of enemy of the Orbán government? Orbán from the very beginning of the electoral campaign openly supported Trump, and I don't think that any kind of democracy promotion would help in that respect.
Maybe economic pressure would do the thing. It is still important for the Hungarian government, although—and this is unfortunately the case with the European Union connection as well—Orbán built up very strong connections both to China and Russia. This is a kind of political connection, strong support, and an economic alternative in case the European Union would somehow end supporting an illiberal regime within the community. So unfortunately Orbán has alternatives to that, and this would be probably the case with the United States economic relationship.
About the future, as Oscar mentioned, unfortunately this kind of illiberal system is very much entrenched in the Hungarian constitution and not only entrenched in the sense of laws and public legal instruments, but it is entrenched economically as well. So not only are all the high-ranking public officials from the president of the republic to the members of the packed constitutional court, president of the Supreme Court, and so on are elected exclusively by Fidesz votes, and they are in office for at least nine more years.
The regime is also entrenched economically, so the government started to privatize actually a huge chunk of the Hungarian state economy, including the state-run universities. Most of the state universities are in the hands of so-called "private" foundations, in the hands of cronies of the Orbán government, and even if a new opposition party would win the next election in 2022, they cannot reverse this kind of privatization or the public law setting of the system. They need a two-thirds majority to change the constitution. They would need a two-thirds majority to elect a new president of the republic, new constitutional court justices, and so on, and they certainly won't get the two-thirds majority even if they happen to win.
There is a small hope that the opposition parties realize that there is only one possibility to win the election against the Orbán government, and that is being united, because as I mentioned the Orbán government did not have the absolute majority in the last election. That means that if they unite they may get a majority, but still they cannot get a two-thirds majority. This is a kind of optimistic pessimism in my view.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you, Gábor. You are a man after my own heart, optimistic if not pessimism, skepticism, realism perhaps. That may be a good place to end.
I want to thank you all. This has been an incredibly rich, nuanced discussion with a lot of information. We are going to post this so people can watch it or have access to the video, audio, and transcript. You can go to our website at carnegiecouncil.org, where you will find other resources as well on this issue.
To conclude on a substantive point, we may need to reconvene to talk about right where we left off. As Prerna was saying, this idea of what constitutes the opposition, if you will, but something a little more positive to that: What is the positive agenda around a liberal national idea? What is the counternarrative to put forward to respond to this moment?
One of the interests beyond the obvious at this moment right now of concern that people have is that there does seem to be a void in terms of: "Well, what's the alternative? What does that look like?" It does not seem to have formed up yet, so maybe that is an area we can pick up.
I want to give you my personal thanks for all of this. It is interesting. We have been organizing for a while now via virtual, but this has been an unusual group. I feel like I know you. We had an instant connection. I hope that we will be able to do this in person sometime soon back in New York.
One of the things I dislike most about virtual gatherings is that the ending is always very abrupt. The screen just goes blank. You have my apologies for that. But I look forward to being in touch with you, the panelists, and with many of you in the audience. Thank you so much for the gift of your time this afternoon. I really appreciate it. We will be adjourned. Thank you all.