22 July 2021
The results of the latest elections in Central Europe suggest polarisation is still on the rise
For the last several years, political analysts and pollsters have attempted to adapt their previous models to the current, and rather unexpected, geo-political situation. Many have had to completely throw out their previous rubrics as they couldn’t account for the sudden and continued rise of populists across the Western World.
In the end, the only reliable data any of us can count on for providing a realistic understanding of the numerous, competing trends are the elections themselves. With this in mind, V/I sat down with a group of experts to see if the current round of voting in Central Europe can offer insight into whether the illiberal, populist tendency (which many contend was honed in this politically divided region) has seen its day or has yet to peak.
Last month, the Czechs went to the polls and rejected PM Andrej Babiš’ ANO party during the election for the Senate. In truth, this will have no tangible effect on the government in Prague as any amendments made by the Senate can be overruled by parliament.
Yet, it was the first test of the government since taking control just a year ago, and Babis’ old argument that he is interested in business not politics, no longer can be argued from his perch in Malá Strana, suggesting the benefits of being a political outsider last only until one takes office.
Poland’s city and regional elections had one of the more bizarre outcomes where no one, not even the ruling party which maintained its dominance in the polls, could be considered a clear winner. The reasons for this are varied.
The governing party, PiS (Law and Justice), did win the largest piece of the pie with 32% of the vote while the opposition alliance of PO (Civic Platform) and Nowoczesna (Modern) received only 25%. Moreover, PiS won outright control of 6 of the 16 Voivodeships with a possible coalition in another one or two.
According to this raw data, everything seems pretty rosy for the illiberal conservatives despite them facing both international and EU condemnation for the diminishing state of the rule of law in Poland.
However, 32% is a sharp decrease from the 37.6% PiS received in 2015 when they were able to garner a majority in Parliament. Even worse, they were unable to secure any mayoral seats in the major cities of Poland, which is rather foreboding as one of PiS’s major objectives during these campaigns was to increase their presence in the metropolises; a task they invested heavily in and sorely lost.
This explains the strange journalistic juxtaposition which occurred after the election. While headlines in most western media conveyed a jubilant conservative party maintaining its dominance over the opposition, the faces of PM Morawiecki and Party Chairman Jarosław Kaczyński told a different story, one reflecting the law of diminishing returns.
In comparison, the opposition parties were able to hold mayoral control in all the cities, but failed to gain ground in the countryside, which had been one of their stated goals. Even worse, losing control of the Voivodeships also entails losing control of a considerable portion of the EU funds coming into the country, and this could have a long-term, deleterious effect on the very longevity of these parties, especially for PSL (The Polish Peasants’ Party) which lost substantially (over half their previous seats) but weren’t quite knocked out either.
Nevertheless, the opposition coalition did fare better with women, and this could be a considerable advantage in the upcoming parliamentary and EU elections.
What was also surprising was the division between how the country voted. Not only was the opposition more successful in the west and PiS in the east, which was to be expected, but there was a considerable number of elections which were decided in the first round, 59%, up from 34% four years ago.
This is rather telling as it shows a partitioning of the country where the electorate in close proximity largely agree with one another, yet, as a whole, Poland remains starkly divided.
The reasons for this could be numerous. First, areas that largely follow public radio and television will most likely lean towards the ruling party as the public broadcasters have become little more than propaganda machines for the government.
Second, PiS has promised to reward those who vote for them with public works projects which will be mainly funded by the EU. As they have won a large portion (if not a majority) of the regional elections, they can now deliver on that promise. If this proves true, they could gain further support in the future.
Third, the issues which have been used to drum up fear by illiberal leaders like Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński, such as “threats” of Muslim immigration, tend to play better in rural than urban areas. The question will be if issues such as these can remain to galvanise their supporters in the wake of recent changes proposed to the next EU budget (MFF) which will in all likelihood see illiberal governments like Poland and Hungary lose out on funding due to the actions of their governments.
So, as a colleague put it, politics in Central Europe has entered into “trench warfare”, where parties are trying to shore up their defences knowing that their survival might depend on the strength of their factions’ stubbornness and not the potential coalitions or mollifying policy shifts which could bring the countries back together.
On November 11th, Slovakia will also hold their municipal elections. While the ruling party SMER hasn’t gone as far as it’s more illiberal neighbours, it still has flirted with authoritarian measures and faced public backlash as a result. Even so, if SMER takes a hit, there could be speculation that the illiberal movement (which was in-itself a xenophobic reaction against traditional liberalism) might be losing sway, and that the Hungarian version is an anomaly in the region and not the sign of things to come.
Before that, however, the much anticipated and hair-wringing midterm elections in the US will tell the world if the illiberal policies, borrowed and adopted by Steven Bannon and Donald Trump, can be successfully implemented in democracies with more established civil societies.
What can be said with more certainty is that the recent and near-future elections will tell politicians how to strategise for the more important votes just around the corner; whether or not they heed this advice or push forward with even more audacity and vitriol, would be another matter altogether.