The Hungarian and Polish governments – furthest into autocracy in the EU – are manoeuvring well in the coronavirus storm to secure power in the long run.

Only four days before the officially announced date of the presidential election Jarosław Kaczyński and Jarosław Gowin struck a deal yesterday to solve a political crisis over the controversial postal vote.

The leader of the ruling Law and Justice party agreed with his rebel coalition partner that nothing will happen this Sunday 10 May after all. They expect the Supreme Court to annul the election, shortly after no voting takes place on the day, and then to call a new election, most likely for July this year.

The backroom deal ensured that the real centre of power is elsewhere than it is defined by the Polish Constitution. The informal leader of the country continues to manoeuvre through the COVID-19 crisis to secure power in the long run.

Rally around the flag

According to the Centre for Civil and Political Rights, 84 countries have declared a state of emergency since the pandemic began. But the extent of power grab under the guise of COVID-19 was arguably the largest in those countries where the regimes have been the most effective in the last decade in terms of authoritarian system-building.

On 6 May, Poland became the second EU member state to lose its consolidated democracy designation, after Hungary, since the country’s losses in judicial independence over the past five years have been the largest ever recorded for that indicator – says the Nations in Transit Report.

While Fidesz and Law and Justice government have rewritten the rules again in order to create an uneven political playing field for their benefit, they are claiming that, in contrast to the West, Hungary and Poland were successful at slowing coronavirus infections with harsh measures, including the rapid closure of borders.

Despite the fact that the popularity of these governments has been boosted during the pandemic crisis as a result of the “rally around the flag effect”,  it might be hard to be sustained as economic conditions deteriorate, and most of the Poles and Hungarians have no recent collective memory of recession and significant job losses at such magnitude.

Therefore, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Poland’s real decision-maker Jarosław Kaczyński are trying to incorporate safeguards against losing power – something that must not remain under the radar of the EU institutions.

Playing election hardball during a (natural) disaster

While generalisation about regime durability is always hazardous, robust research shows that there are four factors that could essentially increase the prospect of authoritarian systemic breakdown: a natural disaster, elections, an internal elite division and an economic crisis.

Although international agencies and a majority of the EU countries are considering COVID-19 a health crisis first and foremost, it is fair to say that it corresponds to the notion of disaster.

While Hungary has introduced a new special legal order, providing Viktor Orbán with unlimited power, Poland did not even declare a state of emergency, let alone natural disaster.

Both strategies reflect upon a broader aim of the governing parties to secure the long-term sustainability of their regime.

Although Viktor Orbán has called the society to “move beyond its comfort zone” during the pandemic crisis, the Hungarian government shifted exactly into the opposite direction. It further weakening local municipalities and oppositional parties.

While the Hungarian government claims that the National Assembly has been continuously in session despite the Authorisation Act, therefore, democracy has not been suspended in Hungary, it should be taken into account that decisions such as depriving oppositional local municipality Göd of its tax receipts, were pushed through by decree and circumvented the parliament.

Due to the new regulations, around 200 local municipalities will find themselves on the verge of bankruptcy this year.

In order to maintain power, Orbán has been depending on his ability to ensure the playing field remains sufficiently tilted towards Fidesz, to make sure that the opposition is unable to present a cohesive challenge to the regime.

In this competitive authoritarian hybrid regime, competition has been therefore open, but grossly unfair in Hungary in the last decade. This competitive element has been partly suspended by the Authorization Act, as no by-elections are allowed during the pandemic crisis. As a practical advantage, it is securing the constitutional majority of the Hungarian government.

It also remains to be seen if the Hungarian government will surrender these extraordinary power tools when the pandemic is over. The Orbán regime has a track record on hanging onto these powers.

Despite the fact that the number of asylum seekers arriving in Hungary has dropped, the anti-immigrant government has continuously renewed a “state of emergency for mass immigration,” announced after the 2015 refugee crisis.

Justice Minister Judit Varga has already indicated that certain measures may remain in force beyond the pandemic crisis.

Overwriting the rules

The coronavirus hit Poland in the middle of a presidential campaign that is the fourth election in a row since local elections were held in October 2018. Driven by fear that the pandemic crisis combined with an upcoming recession could significantly erode the popularity of incumbent president Andrzej Duda, Law and Justice (PiS) was playing constitutional hardball in order to hold the election despite the pandemic crisis.

Thus, the government did not declare a state of natural disaster (which includes an epidemic,) that would allow suspending preparations for the election. Instead, it has overwritten the rules by forcing a postal vote that could breach the constitutional principle of universality of elections.

As a result, the EU, the OSCE and even Poland’s own electoral commission raised concerns that by using a postal ballot, the presidential election is unlikely to be free or fair. The campaign being conducted was far from providing equal opportunities for the candidates.

While Andrzej Duda was taking advantage of state resources with his trips as president, the opposition candidates’ moves were significantly limited by the lockdown.

Although natural disasters could potentially facilitate anti-regime collective action and expose regime incompetence, the curtailing of civil rights with strong restrictions on leaving the house made it impossible to organise demonstrations.

Furthermore, voters currently living at a different address or residing abroad were still waiting to receive their ballot papers by post just a couple of days before the announced election for Sunday 10 May. Polish local authorities were raising concerns about potential privacy violations after the government sought to obtain sensitive data as part of efforts to organise the postal voting.

According to recent IBRIS polls, only one in four Poles (25.4 per cent) thought that the presidential election should go ahead in May. Public opinion, however, was not what drove yesterday’s unexpected announcement.

In the end, the vote was announced as postponed for the foreseeable future, after Kaczyński and Gowin struck a deal – just one hour after a presidential debate took place on the public television channel.

Elite division

Internal power struggle, however, is a serious risk factor that Law and Justice had to face amid the campaign battle.  As Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter have rightly argued, “there is no transition whose beginning is not the consequence – direct or indirect – of important divisions within the authoritarian regime itself”.

It has been mirrored recently when the governing coalition was temporarily shaken by the resignation of Jarosław Gowin, the leader of the junior partner of Law and Justice.

The former Minister of Education and Science disagreed to hold a presidential election in May due to public health concerns. He was the first leading politician from the governing camp who is openly challenging Kaczynski’s authority.

Kaczyński, therefore, sought to maintain unity and cohesion of the coalition’s elite by ensuring the perceived benefits supporting the regime outweighed the cost of defection.

In order to prevent a systemic break-down, he engaged in negotiations with Gowin to provide him with potential power positions to delay the election and save the parliamentary majority.

Finally, Kaczyński could negotiate a viable solution with Gowin, as a  victory for Duda in the immediate future, depicted as democratically credible, could further eliminate the risk of a possible coalition breakup in the long run.

Coordinating such horse-trading is nothing new to Kaczyński, who has been trying to prevent further fragmentation within the government – fractured between centrist and more right-wing circles for years.

Coherent and disciplined elite

Contrary to that, the bread and butter of authoritarian regime durability is a coherent internal elite in Hungary, where the ruling party is one of the most centralised and most disciplined organisations in the region. Since Fidesz came to power in 2010, the Hungarian government has been establishing a pro-Orbán elite at the expense of taxpayers.

The governing party’s main goal has been to create, at any price, its own middle class. In fact, this was expressed directly in a 2015 newspaper interview with András Lánczi, who was then the head of the Századvég Foundation, the most important pro-government think tank. Lánczi claimed:

“What [the critics of the Orbán regime] call corruption in practical terms is the most important policy goal of Fidesz. What do I mean? The government puts forth such goals as the creation of a domestic entrepreneurial class, or the building of the pillars of a strong Hungary in agriculture and industry.”

The new string of pro-government oligarchs is contributing to the construction and the long-term survival of the Hungarian authoritarian regime. Since the main formal institutions initially designed to constrain the government have become an instrumental tool for Fidesz, it provided a comfortable space to establish systemic corruption that helps to maintain power in the long run.

Moreover, the personalist structures of decision-making are instrumental in terms of structuring intra-elite competition: it allows Viktor Orbán to pit individual members of the political elite against one another, thus securing his position as the sole arbiter of the new elite.

The economic factor

Arbitration is especially important at times of economic uncertainty. Both the Hungarian and the Polish economy were in quite a good shape, having a great deal of positive international recognition in the last years.

Now, the region is facing an economic crisis not seen since the collapse of communism that could completely rewrite the strategies of these governments.

While an economic crisis on its own rarely topples any autocratic system, poor economic performance coupled with other factors can easily become a destabilising factor.

As a crony clientelist ecosystem shall be constantly “supplied” with new business opportunities, the Hungarian government is obviously getting ready to increase its economic clout by way of economic crisis management. It has imposed a special tax on the banking sector and the retail sector, where pro-governmental businesses have been looking forward to taking over as much as possible.

Experts argue that instead of providing targeted support mainly for those who lost their income, the government is lacking empathy towards the most vulnerable of society. Despite that tens of thousands became unemployment, the job-seeking allowance has not been extended in Hungary – it is only available for three months that that is one of the shortest within the EU.

Furthermore, it has accelerated transfers towards its clientelist circles and drafted legislation to classify all data included in contracts for the tax-payer funded rail Belgrade-Budapest railway megaproject for ten years. It will be built by a Consortium which includes holding company Opus Global, controlled by Lőrinc Mészáros, a key associate of Viktor Orbán.

While centrally legalised systemic corruption is in a much more advanced stage in Hungary, similar changes did take place in Poland, too. After the amendment of the Civil Service Act of 2016 (removing barriers to fill top positions in ministries with the party members), a large-scale personnel exchange took place in the public administration, state-owned enterprises and banks.

Similarly to Fidesz, Law and Justice referred to the necessity of purging the state of communists and liberals. And yet the most important systemic difference stems from the above-mentioned power structures.

While Orbán’s new crony clientelist system is fixed around the uncontested prime minister, Kaczyński has to deal with several competing networks which might limit his effectiveness in the long run.

Therefore, Law and Justice will be seeking popular support of society by maintaining the 500+ programme – creating mass clientelism by turning welfare support into political support.

Underpinned by massive propaganda, provided by state media, the ruling party will try to depict itself as a ‘can-do’ party of the ordinary people that fulfils its promises.

The EU should not undermine its own authority

One of the lessons learned from the pandemic crisis is that the European Commission is still not capable of grasping the systemic nature of authoritarian backsliding in Hungary.

EU Commissioner Vera Jourova’s latest interview mirrored this when she framed her argument that Hungary’s COVID19 measures are in line with EU law.

In response, Viktor Orbán sent a letter to the presidents of the European People’s Party, claiming that there has been an “unprecedented attack and disinformation campaign against Hungary”. This is nothing new in the Hungarian Prime Minister’s rhetoric who sought to depict critical voices as “Soros agents” that are “disseminating fake news” about Hungary.

But this time the Commission was not only providing ammunition for Fidesz propaganda but also seriously undermined its own authority to monitor the implementation of the Authorisation Act (which lets the government rule by decree) in the future.

This is especially dangerous now that the EU is undergoing the most profound crisis of its history: it concerns a complex economic, humanitarian and rule of law challenge that is a global stress-test for all types of governments.

Hungary and Poland have been serving the role of an early warning system for democracy and rule of law backsliding for years now. Thus, the EU has to prevent further deterioration and irreversible systemic damages during the pandemic when autocratically minded leaders are using the crisis as a pretext.

The Commission should keep monitoring whether postal voting in the future in Poland will comply with the GDPR regulation. It also remains to be seen whether the newly announced election date will be in line with the Polish Constitution, since PiS is eager to organise it as soon as possible not to lose momentum.

When it comes to Hungary, the Commission needs to be less cautious in cases where decisions are formally taken in accordance with national legislation – and yet undermining democracy in substance, as we have witnessed during the last ten years.



This article is part of the #DemocraCE project.

#DemocraCE Fellow. Political scientist and visiting lecturer at the Center for Europe at the University of Warsaw. PhD student at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Polish Academy of Science. Focusing on illiberalism in Hungary and Poland and the constraining role of the European Union

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