Democrats United?

The media have since moved on to other things, but it’s worth lingering briefly on a story that got a bit of coverage last week: the appointment of former Australian prime minister Scott Morrison to the advisory board of the International Democrat Union (IDU). He had previously attracted some attention for skipping the opening week of parliament to speak at an IDU event in Japan.

Political names can often be misleading, “democracy” and its cognates among them. The totalitarian state of North Korea describes itself as a Democratic People’s Republic; Russia’s fascist party is called the Liberal Democratic Party; and the Democratic Party in Thailand has helped instigate at least two military coups. The IDU is not in that league, but its commitment to democracy is not all that it might be.

The IDU is a world-wide association of centre-right political parties; you can read its own account of its history here and of its founding principles here. They are thoroughly admirable sentiments. As I’ve said here a number of times, the existence of strong centre-right parties, committed to democratic and liberal values, is an essential bulwark for the survival of democracy.

But a number of the IDU’s members would appear to be on the wrong side of those values. In addition to such mainstream outfits as Germany’s Christian Democrats it embraces several parties that lean strongly to the authoritarian side – Hungary’s FIDESz, India’s Bharatiya Janata Party, Israel’s Likud, Chile’s Independent Democratic Union, the Slovenian Democratic Party – as well as formerly mainstream parties that have recently tended the same way, such as the US Republican Party and Morrison’s own Liberal Party.

As we often see, the ideologically-challenged and the ethically-challenged can overlap. Appointed alongside Morrison were former Austrian prime minister Sebastian Kurz, who left office last year under the cloud of a corruption inquiry, and former Slovenian prime minister Janez Janša, who spent time in jail for bribery (although the conviction was later overturned). The IDU neglects to mention these aspects of their resumés, just as it is silent on Morrison’s secret ministries.

Readers may remember that last year the European People’s Party, one of the IDU’s affiliates, finally evicted FIDESz from its parliamentary group after some years of dithering. Even that level of decisiveness seems beyond the IDU, but it’s possible that its more moderate members may eventually wake up to what is happening and decide that their reputation is being harmed by the company they are keeping.

There’s a clear parallel for this on the other side of the spectrum. Socialist International, the much older association of centre-left parties (founded in 1951, but with origins that go back to the Second International of 1889), used to have a similar complexion to the IDU, mixing impeccably democratic parties with others of a more authoritarian bent – Mozambique’s Frelimo and Palestine’s Fatah are good examples.

But a decade ago, the large mainstream parties started leaving. In 2013 they founded an alternative, the Progressive Alliance, more explicitly committed to social democracy. The Labo(u)r parties of Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Malta, the Netherlands and Norway, and the Social Democrats of Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland, among others, have now all decamped to the more moderate organisation, leaving Socialist International a pale echo of its former self.

If the IDU is unwilling to confront the extremists in its midst, it may one day find itself in a similar position. For now, however, its members seem willing to avert their eyes.

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