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Democracy bites

Tom Burgis
30 October 2006

On Monday 23 October 2006, hours before a mixture of protest and remembrance marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Hungarian uprising against Soviet rule, a sophisticated assault on openDemocracy's server brought the site to its knees.

Incensed by the nomination of Ferenc Gyurcsány as a candidate for our monthly Bad Democracy award, some enterprising soul using a Hungarian internet address effected what is known as a "denial of service" attack. This, as its name suggests, is ruinous, and deprived our voracious readers of intellectual stimulation for far longer than is healthy.

But the hacker was not alone in his vexation at the sight of the Hungarian prime minister taking his place in our ignominious poll alongside despots, rabble-rousers and tough guys.

Within hours of Gyurcsány's nomination as one of the six leaders who had done the most damage to democracy in September, a torrent of online votes, comments and ire had begun to flow.

Don't miss the background to our prestigious Bad Democracy awards:

Introduction

Nominations

Winner of the first award: Silvio Berlusconi

Winner of the second award: John Howard

Winner of the third award: George W Bush

Winner of the fourth award: Meles Zenawi

Winner of the fifth award: Abu Laban

Winner of the sixth award: Alexander Lukashenko

Winner of the seventh award: Lee Hsien Loong

Winner of the eighth award: Kim Jong Il

Winner of the ninth award: the Israeli Defence Forces

Winner of the tenth award: The G8

Winner of the eleventh award: Rupert Murdoch

The oD Today blog groaned with fierce debate about whether the prime minister should be forced from office after being recorded admitting to a party meeting that he had lied to the electorate. "Ferenc Gyurcsány dirty pig kommunistic dictator!" screeched one poster; "Gyurcsány ... is our last chance, the guarantee for better life," retorted another; "please be so generous to help me a little financially to pay my gas bill," pleaded a third.

As demonstrations demanding Gyurscány's resignation - attended by a melange of affronted citizens, conservatives and hooligans - turned violent, the Bad Democracy award was being roundly traduced in sections of the Hungarian press, obliging our ranks of telegenic spokespeople to appear on Hungarian news bulletins to fight our corner.

One Budapest correspondent observed: "Hungarians take it very seriously when a foreign organisation with a very serious-sounding title makes a pronouncement about Hungary or a prominent Hungarian.

"Politics here is a zero-sum game - even more so than in most western democracies - and these things get seized upon."

Over four weeks, well over 3 million votes were cast, split roughly equally between the embattled premier and the Thai general (Sonthi Boonyaratkalin) who led the bloodless coup on 19 September. The vast majority were of Hungarian origin.

Our technicians detected an overwhelming stench of foul play - a handful of addresses had bombarded the poll.

Who, then, should be named as the twelfth and final candidate to go forward to our Bad Democrat of the Year award?

Faced with similar electoral impasses in recent years, authorities across the globe have resorted to some pretty ingenious political manoeuvres - hanging chads in Florida, unholy coalitions in Poland, cannibalism in Congo.

While the latter option was briefly mooted, there can only be one outcome. As the machinations of our unknown saboteurs forced voting to be suspended, we have no choice but to declare the result void.

Gyurcsány was undoubtedly a worthy candidate and was marginally ahead before the polling system came crashing down. The vitriol his nomination unleashed forms a small part of the debate that is tearing at the fabric of Hungary, where the growing pains of a young democracy are exacerbated by old wounds inflicted under Soviet rule.

That leaves a hole in the list of rogues, chosen by our readers over the past year, from which you will in December be able to select the year's most heinous autocrat. The gap will be filled by a wild-card, by which we mean the candidate whose nomination is accompanied by the most compelling argument (or the largest donation to openDemocracy's Swiss bank account).

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