Monitoring and Safeguarding Democracy with David Koranyi [PODCAST]

European Liberal Forum

Can Hungary be considered a democratic country? What challenges does the potential Donald Trump’s victory in the United States pose to democracy? And what is it that the Action for Democracy aims for? Leszek Jazdzewski (Fundacja Liberte!) talks with David Korányi, President of the Action for Democracy. Tune in for the talk!

Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): What is Action for Democracy? Could you tell us a little bit more about the background of the organization?

David Korányi (DK): The Action for Democracy (A4D) is a relatively new institution – we founded it in January 2022. The original inspiration was rooted in the situation in Hungary. I am a Hungarian and I have been watching the democratic backsliding of my country now for more than a decade. We wanted to establish an institution that would capture support for the democratic forces in a non-partisan, forward-leaning fashion. We wanted to support Hungary from the outside as much as we could – mainly as expat Hungarians – to even the playing field in the Hungarian political context.

We quickly realized that this is an institution that could tap into a broader global sentiment and could tackle a broader global challenge – democratic backsliding in many other countries as well. We also realized that the Action for Democracy has the potential to become a global institution to capture the support of like-minded fellow democrats. We are trying to establish a global solidarity network that democrats could use to help each other in the struggles for their democracies.

LJ: What have you learned since establishing the Action for Democracy? Are there any challenges or threats that you were unaware before you started this organization?

DK: There are a couple, actually. I have been very excited and humbled by this journey. One of the main challenges that we are facing is the overwhelming demand for something like this. There are many so-called ‘battleground states’ – the Polands or Brazils of the world. We have received positive feedback and the demand for coming in and helping to support (in a non-partisan fashion) civil society organizations who are fighting the good fight and for a good cause.

The challenge here is how to do this in a coherent and impactful fashion and being selective in a smart and strategic way, so that you are helping to boost causes in places where you can actually make a real difference. That is number one.

Challenge number two is the difficulty in community building and fostering a sustainable community in this day and age. Everything is, basically, about the new cycle, attention spans are shorter. So, in this context, how do you establish an organization that would have a lasting community built around it? We deliberately wanted to take it slow, and we have had a very positive early successes in fundraising and community building.

We are playing the long game, and we are really trying to build an institution that would be the equivalent of the Doctors without Borders for the democratic space – a global charity organization that you can give to as an individual to help support countries in democratic crises and facing democratic backsliding. It is challenging to build a responsible and sustainable community around an issue, no matter how prevalent and important that issue is, because there are many competing challenges.

Issue number three – and this is going to be a ‘make or break’ year from that perspective – is that we are focusing on American and European audience. This is going to be a huge year for both the United States and Europe from a democracy perspective – Europe having European parliamentary elections and a couple of other key elections (like in Austria) and, of course, the U.S. having the election in November. Because of that, my concern, and the issue we are trying to address head-on is a more isolationist and inward-looking United States. How do we make a case that fighting for democracy – not just here, in the United States, but also globally – is going to be critically important also for U.S. democracy? That is the third piece of the puzzle.

LJ: Why did you become a persona non grata in Hungary, your home country?

DK: I always live by the credo of Winston Churchill, who said that the fact that you have enemies means that you have accomplished something. So, I am very proud to have Viktor Orban put me on the very top of their enemy list. This means that we have touched on a nerve, and we are doing something that could be dangerous for these people. That is a good thing and I consider it as validation. In many ways we have become an impactful and important organization in a short period of time.

Frankly speaking, I find it perverse – especially the personal attacks. However, the main line of attack in Hungary is that this foreign intervention – which could be considered a fourth challenge on our list. I genuinely believe that creating this international solidarity network is nothing out of the ordinary – it is something that international institutions, foundations have been doing for all these years, supporting democratic, non-partisan causes and civil society organizations.

What we have done in Hungary, and what may have created this though in the heads of the government actors, is that we were more unequivocally critical of authoritarian forces and leaders like Viktor Orban in Hungary or Bolsonaro in Brazil. We have been naming names and we have been vocally critical, saying what the real stakes are and how we should fight back.

Another aspect is the sheer size of the support and the fact that we were able to mobilize the Hungarian diaspora, to a large extent, around causes. This has been a largely dormant community from a political perspective. For the most part, they have been quite detached from the Hungarian political realities. What we have been trying to do (and what the Action for Democracy aspires to) is to be an institution that could capture the diasporas’ support and channel it into their home countries. It is not only the Hungarian diaspora, but also the Polish, the Brazilian, the Cambodian, the Venezuelan diasporas.

All of these diasporas are very aware of what is going on in their home countries and are concerned about what they see from an authoritarian political development perspective, but they struggle to find meaningful ways to intervene (in the best sense of the word). And they have every right, because they are citizens of the country and members of the political community, and very often they end up voting, which we very much encourage. However, they did not support causes – which is why what we are trying to offer them is an easy bridge to civil society organizations or campaigns, showing that they should support them, because it will have an impact on the ground.

Coming back to the Hungarian attacks, for the most part, we apparently touched a nerve in regard to the incumbent regime that if over time we are successful in mobilizing the diaspora and in continuously raising meaningful amounts of money, then this could be an issue for the regime.

LJ: Did Hungary move past the point of no return? Can we still call Hungary a democracy?

DK: This is a tough question. There were many monikers and labels lying around – including by the European Parliament and other institutions. I would not necessarily want to open this debate. I still have strong faith in the Hungarian civil society, and there is a chance for change. However, as the time progresses, it is harder and harder to do it at the ballot box, because of all of the measures that the government is taking in the field of dismantling independent institutions, the rule of law, checks and balances, and the independence of the judiciary (although there was a little bit of progress in this area because of the pressures of the European Union).

Long story short, it is going to be extremely difficult. I always say that this type of authoritarian regimes seems to be very stable up until the very moment they collapse. It could be two or ten years from now – hopefully, a little sooner – but as the time progresses, it is becoming harder to actually do that at the ballot box because of the incredibly imbalanced playing field – from a media, institutional, and financial perspectives. So, yes, it is going to be tough.

LJ: What were the key events that determined the current situation in Hungary? And, in general, when dealing with populists, what should other countries watch out for or be aware of?

DK: It is a couple of different things. It is very hard to pinpoint one particular instance in the last fourteen years in Hungary as a moment that could have been stopped. Unfortunately, Viktor Orban is masterful in boiling the water gradually, so that the frog does not jump out and it does not realize that it is being killed.

It all started with changing of the Constitution, the rewriting the election rules at the very last minute before the elections, the attack on the judiciary (starting with the Constitutional Court in Hungary). These were all red flags. The challenge is that these were all parts of a big puzzle, which, independently, seem to be possible to be resolved, but, unfortunately, they all come together and form this authoritarian fortress that would be very hard to dismantle.

The years 2018 and 2022 (the election year) constituted two critical moments. What came out was an election system that PM Orban created in a perverse way – it seems to be democratic on the surface, but because of the political structure in Hungary, if the opposition comes together and unites itself (as it did in 2022), then it will lose due to all the internal divisions still present in the minds of voters. If it does not come together and instead runs on separate tickets (as it did in 2018), it will lose again because of an election system which is such that it is the individual constituencies that matter predominantly. Rewriting the rules of the election system and tailoring them, gerrymandering, and a number of other steps are definitely a red flag that I would bring up at the top of the list.

LJ: When it comes to the European elections, to what extent will they shape the future of European countries? Will the fact that, most likely, populists will gain more seats pose a danger to the European project? Will the Action for Democracy get involved in this matter or are there other battlegrounds that are more important?

DK: We definitely want to be involved. However, we do not support political campaigns or individual candidates. What we are trying to do is to increase democratic participation – that is what we have done in Poland by supporting many campaigns, particularly focusing on women and youth participation, which is going to be absolutely critical for the survival of democracy in these countries. So, we want to the involved in the European Parliament elections as well, trying to increase turnout.

I also mentioned the diaspora ethos and identity of the Action for Democracy. What we are looking at and what we are trying to do in the context of the EP election is to focus on EU citizens living and working in other countries. It is a very large constituency (around 11 million citizens) with voting rights – Poles in the Netherlands, Romanians in Italy, Hungarians in Benelux, etc. It is a largely underaddressed community, very proud of Europe, very pro-Europe and pro-integration, because their livelihoods depend on it in many ways. Therefore, we will try to help mobilize them.

Turning to the bigger question, it is a tough one, because the European Parliament elections operate in a way as local elections, even though there are always European issues on the table. However, by and large, the EP elections are 27 different elections in different countries, so the domestic political issues are featured very heavily in them. There is no way around that, you will have to address those issues.

The big picture question in terms of whether the center will hold and whether this pro-integrationist moderate party alliance consisting of four major parties in Europe will hold is a critical question for the survival of the European project. Every five years we are talking about the resurgence of nationalist populism. I sincerely hope that the center will hold.

At the end of the day, what we need to do is to confront those very hard policy questions that end up feeding the lies of those nationalist populist parties – from the Netherlands to Hungary. Of course, immigration is one of them to which we often do not have good answers as pro-European political forces. Kicking the can down the road is no longer an option, because soon the chickens will come home to roost. This is why addressing those hard political questions and coming up with meaningful policy choices will be absolutely critical to make sure that the center will hold for the longer run.

LJ: Another important election will take place in the United States. What role should the civil society play in this huge effort that are the U.S. elections? Also, should we get used to the idea that Donald Trump will win? And, if he wins, what would that mean for democracy in the rest of the world?

DK: That is a million-dollar question. I do believe that the civil society is already mobilizing in the United States now that the dangers are becoming increasingly obvious. It is a real possibility that Trump will get re-elected and will take steps that would be genuinely concerning for the robustness of the U.S. democracy – unlike during his first four years, when he was probably not that familiar with the power of his office.  So, there is a real danger there. As we get closer to the November elections date, it is going to be much more prevalent.

I have high hopes for the U.S. democratic immune system – civil society included. But the danger is real, and I am extremely concerned about it. This is going to be absolutely critical for Europe as well. A lot of contingency planning is already going on in European capitals in case Donald Trump gets elected. It will be detrimental for the sometimes controversial but always critical role that the United States have played in democracy promotion abroad. If Trump does become the next U.S. president, that goal is going to be severely undermined.

It is going to have enormous consequences for our agenda, as the Action for Democracy. However, we will carry on no matter what. In many ways, if the United States ceases to be the beacon for democracy at least for four years, our job will be probably even more important in terms of the support that we can mobilize and how we can channel it in the battleground states around the world.

This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of.

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