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Renata Uitz on Hungary and Brazil

Anti-tyranny mechanisms only work with politicians who accept the rules, our Co-director Renata Uitz said in an interview with Folha de S. Paulo.

Even though constitutions are made to withstand authoritarian onslaughts, there is no mechanism that contains a leader willing to break its rules, she argued. "If you ask me, I will say that democracy died when it became impossible for the opposition to win an election,” she answered to the question whether she thinks democracy died in Hungary. “If you ask Prime Minister Orban, he will say that democracy is fine. There are regular elections and there is one party, his, that predictably always gets a majority in parliament,” she continued, adding that “the answer to your question depends on your belief in constitutional democracy - and not just in a majority system.”

On the same topic, when asked what was the point of no return in the recent years, she replied it was before the 2014 elections, when an electoral reform made it significantly more difficult for the opposition to contest elections. “It was a strategy to consolidate power and secure future electoral victories for Orban and his party,” she argued.

When asked about similarities between the Hungarian and the Brazilian situation, she asserted that even though the two countries have different political systems, there are similarities in the leadership style of their leaders. “Brazil is presidential with a Congress that could function as a counterweight to the president - although with the recent elections the composition of the legislature has changed dramatically. Hungary is a parliamentary system. If there is a two-thirds majority in Parliament, what Orban again achieved, he rules,” she said.

“Orban's election was preceded by two terms of the socialist government. The second was especially chaotic. There was an economic mess, and a comfortable life seemed more and more distant to the population,” she continued. Later, she made a comparison with the situation in Brazil when Bolsonaro came to power: “It was certainly not as theatrical as Operation Lava Jato, nor as dramatic as an impeachment and a former president going to jail. But there was a sense of chaos and a loss of confidence in the political elite.” And added: “The left did not understand that it needed to reinvent the language and think of promises that would mobilize the electorate. It is crucial to emphasize that in 2010 Fidesz won a free and fair election. The question is everything that happened after that.”

Afterwards, when asked how the idea of authoritarian leaders using the constitution to perpetuate themselves in power work in practice, she argued “both Poland and Hungary are famous for illiberal practices through the formulation of carefully crafted legal rules. The big difference is that the Hungarian government formally approved a new constitution, while in Poland the government doesn't have the majority to amend the constitution. “They messed with the Constitutional Court to get the judges to approve any legal reform, even when the Polish Constitution said exactly the opposite. In this scenario, the more time passes, the less civil society relies on traditional means to defend the rights of minorities that have been demonized by these regimes,” she explained.

In this context, when asked whether the constitution shouldn’t have mechanisms to contain these attacks, she argued that “constitutions have such mechanisms, but the Orban government is full of good lawyers. They have made constitutional revisions and made sure that these mechanisms are removed from the text or lose their effect,” adding that “it doesn't matter what kind of constitutional instrument you have against tyranny. Ultimately, the judgment of the courts will have to be enforced by the executive branch. Constitutional self-defense only works if the political elite is willing to adhere to the rules of the game."

Subsequently, when asked what is oppression like in regimes like Orban's, she said: “If you come to Budapest today, it will be very pleasant. The center is well kept, there are good cafes, you don't see tanks or armed police. The opposition and dissidents are not persecuted or prosecuted.” But then added: “The protesters' messages are simply not heard. It's a cry to the abyss.”

Read the full interview (in Portuguese, subscription may be required) here.

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