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AUTOCRATIC CHALLENGES AND ELECTORAL RESILIENCE IN THE EU AND US

By: Danylo Malchevskyi

Editor: 

SP_Jan1: News

January 2024

In the shadow of the 21st century’s geopolitical arena, electoral systems worldwide are tested by autocratic tendencies of certain political leaders (Ziegler 2017: 557).  The European Union (EU) and the United States of America (USA) emerge as intriguing case studies in this regard. They represent two opposites: one, a system of interconnected networks inside a supranational organization, and the other, a unified federation of states under a centralized authority. These differences provide a backdrop for exploring an intriguing question: Which system, the EU’s or the USA’s, is better equipped to combat autocratization within its electoral cycles? 


Within the EU’s framework, Hungary emerges as a notable case. The 2020 elections were particularly revealing, showcasing the full extent of the country’s shift towards autocratization. Observations by the OSCE casted doubt on the legitimacy of Orban’s landslide victory, commenting on the “undue advantage” enjoyed by his political party, Fidesz, and the lack of freedom for the opposition during the campaign (Bozoki 2020). The European Parliament, European Council, and several EU member states have also openly criticized this abuse during the 2020 electoral cycle (ibid.). Under its current leadership, Hungary has been moving towards a semi-autocratic system, characterized by constraints of media freedom, weakened checks and balances and centralized power (Haglund 2022). The situation is exacerbated by Orban-affiliated investors acquiring leading media companies,  which undermines media diversity and results in the opposition facing inadequate representation (ibid.). 


These developments spotlight a critical weakness within the EU – the lack of effective mechanisms to prevent autocratization within its member states. A primary challenge is that the majority of EU rules and regulations are structured in the form of soft law, which significantly limits the ability to put pressure on Hungary and other member states to comply with EU law (Stefan 2019:10-13). Despite the European Commission efforts, including taking Hungary to court and initiating Article 7 due to non-compliance, these measures have proven to be ineffective: Orban simply disregards court decisions (CER 2021). Additionally, the EU’s electoral and legal framework has fundamental limitations: it does not hold authority over national elections. While the EU can set standards for democratic processes and can observe and report on electoral fairness, the actual administration of elections is a matter of national sovereignty. Orban uses this lack of enforcement power to his advantage by taking control of the media,  judiciary, and the electoral process itself.


In contrast, the United States demonstrates a more robust system with stronger safeguards against undemocratic practices. The American system is grounded on well established checks and balances, and supported by a federal judiciary, providing a framework that is far more resilient towards autocratic manipulation  (Robert 2022).  The period leading up to the 2020 elections stands as a testament to such resilience, a time marked by significant challenges to the electoral process. Claims of electoral fraud were made by former president Donald Trump, advancing conspiracy theories that suggested a widespread undermining of democratic integrity  (Eggres 2021). 


Despite these considerable challenges, the US demonstrated its institutional resilience. Independent federal courts played a critical role in challenging numerous lawsuits that sought to challenge the election outcomes. Judges across the political spectrum, including those appointed by President Trump, consistently ruled based on the law and available evidence. For example, in Michigan, the district court dismissed claims of election manipulation, emphasizing that variations in policies among counties did not violate the Equal Protection Clause (CLC 2024). In Nevada, the district court dismissed an election contest, finding no evidence of malfunctioning voting devices sufficient to cast doubt on the election results (ibid.).


These contrasting cases of the EU and the US demonstrate the importance of having strong electoral and institutional mechanisms to battle autocratic tendencies, especially in electoral cycles. While the EU’s model offers the benefits of shared governance and cooperation, it struggles with enforcing uniform democratic standards across diverse member states. The case of Hungary under Viktor Orban's leadership exemplifies this challenge, where national maneuvers towards autocratization have proceeded with minimal effective resistance from the EU. The Union's reliance on soft law significantly decreases its ability to ensure democratic integrity in national elections. Conversely, the United States, with its more centralized federal system demonstrates a strong ability to safeguard its electoral processes against autocratic tendencies.


To protect itself against the destruction of democratic values in the current European system, the European Commission should reassess and reform its governance structures. One effective strategy could involve broadening the European Court of Justice's mandate, granting it greater authority to address violations of democratic norms by member states more swiftly and decisively (Bressanelli 2023: 251). Furthermore, strengthening rule of law through the enforcement of binding regulations is a much-needed step (Bogdandy 2002: 229-232). It is only through dedication to strengthening democratic standards that the EU can effectively confront the spread of autocratic tendencies within its jurisdictions.



Reference List

Bogdandy, A. (2002). “The European Union’s Vertical Order of Competences: The Current Law and Proposals for its Reform”, Common Market Law Review, 39(2): 227 - 268.

Bozoki, A. (2020). “Free and Unfair: The Hungarian Elections”, TRANSIT ONLINE: 1-3, https://www.iwm.at/transit-online/free-and-unfair-the-hungarian-elections.

Bressanelli, E. and Natali, D. (2023). “Tested by the Polycrisis: Reforming or Transforming the EU?”, Politics and Governance, 11(4): 246–251.

CER (Centre for European Reform) (2021). “How to solve a problem like Poland”: 1-6, https://www.cer.eu/insights/how-solve-problem-poland. Consulted on November 3 2021.

CLC (Campaign Legal Center). (2024). “Results of Lawsuits Regarding the 2020 Elections”, https://campaignlegal.org/results-lawsuits-regarding-2020-elections. Consulted on January 25 2024.

Eggers, A.C., Garro, H. and Grimmer, J. (2021). “No evidence for systematic voter fraud: A guide to statistical claims about the 2020 election”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(45): 1-10.

Haglund, D. G., Schulze, J. L., & Vangelov, O. (2022). “Hungary’s slide toward autocracy: Domestic and external impediments to locking in democratic reforms”, OUP Academic, https://doi.org/10.1002/polq.13416.

Robert, E. (2022). “Introduction to US government’s system of checks and balance”, ACE: 1, https://ace-usa.org/blog/research/research-democratic-governance/introduction-to-us-governments-system-of-checks-and-balance/

Stefan, O.A., Avbelj, M., Eliantonio, M., Hartlapp, M., Korkea‐aho, E. and Rubio, N. (2019). “EU Soft Law in the EU Legal Order: A Literature Review”, SSRN Electronic Journal: 1–46, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3346629.

Ziegler, C.E. (2017). “International dimensions of electoral processes: Russia, the USA, and the 2016 elections”, International Politics, 55(5): 557–574.

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