The similarities between the current political cultures of Poland and Hungary have been enumerated on multiple occasions. Often in the same breath, commentators mention the names of Orbán and Kaczyński; leaders who not only have sympathy for one another but also inspire each other to introduce illiberal reforms in their respective democracies.

Yet, despite these many similarities, it is their different approaches which are of key importance. The divergence in their methods explains, for instance, why Article 7 was launched against Poland while Hungary, which has been criticized for a much longer period of time, successfully avoided this procedure. Even more interesting is why there is hope for Poland to restore its lost democratic principles while the Hungarians may not achieve this for decades. It is also rarely examined how the substance of illiberalism often comes down to every day informal practices, which may be harder to grab analytically, but are equally crucial to understand.

A fork in the road

Breaking democratic rules when introducing changes in the judiciary is certainly one of the critical elements of the illiberal change in Poland. In none of the remaining Central European states has the usurpation of power gone so far.

Even in Hungary, changes in the law regarding the judiciary have not been carried out in violation of democratic rules. Yes, Viktor Orbán publicly refers (often disparagingly) to judges, but his moves against the court do not resemble the same scale as those PiS is attempting to implement in Poland. Frankly, the Fidesz party has a democratic mandate to make changes since it did gain a constitutional majority for its third term in the row, and it is open about what it is going to do next though new ideas spring up constantly.

In the case of Poland, the widespread criticism that the government is currently facing primarily concerns the laws which are being passed outside of normal legislative rules and without transparency. PiS’s position is that they have a mandate stemming from the general will of the people. However, the content and manner of these changes have been rejected by a large segment of the population – hence the general protests in the streets against these reforms despite the fact that in opinion polls the voices for reform are still prevailing.

Weak excuses

When reforms become unpopular, governments try to explain that they are enacting similar changes which were successfully realised elsewhere. It can often be useful to borrow solutions to similar problems from other countries; in these cases, however, few of these comparisons have any relation to the Polish reality.

Contrary to the current Polish model, Viktor Orbán does not only intend to remove but also add judges to the system. He is about to complete his competitive authoritarian regime by restricting the remaining independence of the judiciary and create regional “special administrative courts” where the most politically sensitive cases, such as corruption scandals, could be adjudicated separately. The intention is the same as Jarosław Kaczyński’s, and yet it is easier for Poland to be charged with assassination attempts on their democratic institutions.

In the latest report by the Hungarian think tank Political Capital, Illiberalism in the V4: Pressure Points and Bright Spots, Poland “overtook” Hungary with their attacks on the judiciary. Although in many other indicators, the Hungarian democracy under Viktor Orbán has deteriorated more significantly than in Poland, the courts are the area in which the dictator, as Jean-Claude Junker half-jokingly referred to Orbán, does not break democratic rules.

But he definitely sets an example for his Polish counterpart by tricking the EU and appearing to retreat on a couple of issues. For instance, Orbán respected the judgment of the Court of Justice of the European Union regarding the early retirement of judges since the damage had already been done before the verdict was given. Meanwhile, Orbán’s goal was fulfilled, he could get rid of most of the head judges of courts and replace them with loyalists.

But from a constitutional aspect, Poland remains more stable than Hungary due to factors such as the proportional electoral system that helps block the formation of supermajority, and the multi-level structure of local self-governments that provide at least some balance to the central administration.

Contrary to the Polish governmental framework, the essence of the Hungarian system, due to the supermajority, is dissolving social autonomy through the establishment of feudal relationships of dependence. Even though the Hungarian opposition bears considerable responsibility for its own defeat as it failed to agree on effective cooperation in past years or build up any candidates with a real chance of winning, the political environment built by Fidesz after 2010 did not provide the opposition with equal opportunities. While the OSCE pointed out, the state and the governing party was inseparable in the election, the State Audit Office punished only opposition parties during the campaign.

Likewise, the media environment, especially in small settlements, created an informational ghetto where only the government’s campaign based on generating fears about migration could succeed. Last but not least, corruption cases with ties to the government have not been investigated by the authorities, especially by the Office of the Prosecutor-General, properly.

These informal exercises of power play a central role in illiberal system in Hungary. In case of the Orbán regime, the EU has had limited leverage so far given that most of the legal and political practices of the community were designed for formal institutional issues. Moreover, these procedures (infringement, EP-hearings) even play into the hands of Fidesz domestically: the government is able to refer to these when it depicts itself as the protector of national sovereignty against Brussels.

Leading the pack

Nevertheless, Hungary does set the illiberal trends for the other Visegrad countries in many other areas. The language of authoritarian populism has spread from Budapest to Warsaw but also to Bratislava and Prague, where, instead of minority rights, the state defends the privileges of the majority.

The attacks on the media have reached a level where even conservative outlets that disagree with the government must disappear from the market, as such was the case last week when another important weekly – Heti Válasz – closed operations, and this was a publication that was not tepid about their criticism of liberal cosmopolitanism. In Hungary, it goes beyond the successful party colonization of the media; most of the print papers are being bled by the state which has invested 87% of state advertisement in 3 governmental mouthpieces that were the least-read on the market.

This influence has affected Hungary’s closest neighbours as well. The takeover of the media market by the prime minister is already taking place in the Czech Republic, and the Slovak public media, which had enjoyed so much independence before, now is starting a purge reminiscent of changes in TVP when PiS came to power.

The battle for what language will be used to discuss public matters is not just a matter of internal politics. The aforementioned report shows that in pursuit of illiberal democracy, politicians reach for repositories of mottos and phrases, many of which Vladimir Putin uses on a daily basis. Language and culture have become a new hybrid weapon, which politicians from Central Europe are equally keen on using but are not particularly innovative when it comes to adapting these phrases to their domestic market; they just copy, often verbatim, slogans that work in Moscow.

The Hungarian government-controlled media is depicting Russia as the “moral compass” in contrast to the decaying, liberal West.  As a result of this identity politics, the majority of the Fidesz’s electorate could be turned against the West and towards the Kremlin in a few years’ time despite the fact that the Hungarian population has traditionally been pro-West, pro-EU and anti-Russian for historical reasons.

A strategy that works

You do not have to wait long to see the effect. Public opinion polls published in May by the Slovak Institute of Globsec clearly show that young people – especially in Poland – are turning away from the pro-Western direction and have begun expressing a strange nostalgia for solutions which challenge our presence in NATO and the EU. This is what distinguishes Poland from the rest of the V4 because, in other countries of the region, the younger generations have a more or less pro-Western orientation.

When it comes to Orbán’s anti-EU, anti-immigration rhetoric, betting on the doomsday scenario of the mainstream elite, it heavily undermines trust in the Western institutional system. Special attention should be also paid to the systemic risks posed by destructive, anti-EU campaigns especially before the 2019 EP-elections. Although pro-EU attitudes are extraordinarily high in Hungary and Poland, Brexit should also remind us about the long-term risks of prolonged anti-EU campaigns.

Moreover, both the Hungarian and the Polish governments are abandoning the achievements of the democratic transition, and they are both referring to the failure of this period when they are altering the political system. Since 2015, references to the threats posed by migration is an even more essential characteristic of the Orbán regime’s authoritarian political system-building efforts.  When it comes to Western criticism regarding the rule of law, Orbán depicts them as the main reason because of his markedly different stance on migration quotas. This rhetoric was underpinned by a mass of fake news and conspiracy theories in mainstream pro-government media which is unprecedented in the EU.

On the plus side, what distinguishes Poland from the other V4 countries is the level of corruption. The scale of corruption being witnessed today in Hungary would be unthinkable in Poland. It’s not without reason that Hungary is 30 places behind Poland in the transparency ranking.

However, with PiS’s moves to centralise power and resources, the temptation to appropriate public funds will grow. Especially when, after years of prosperity, hard times will certainly be coming, and everyone will think about how to preserve their existing privileges. In fact, even in times of prosperity, the pockets of politicians will deepen if there are no effective control tools, and it is in this direction that we are heading.

Moreover, the length of the illiberal trend will depend on how weakened our democratic institutions become. So far, we have neither seen a democratic rebound in the CE general elections nor turning away from the illiberal trend. Therefore, it is right to doubt whether it can actually be done. Especially that after Brexit, non-liberal democrats are celebrating triumphs in Italy today, and soon more democracies may surrender to this wave. Most importantly, these phenomena were in line with global trends especially after Donald Trump was elected in the US, setting an example for the entire region, and undermining the democratic institutions of the US, which have traditionally been actors in restricting and monitoring these governments.

In Hungary, the stability of the fourth Orbán government is not threatened by anything in the short-term. Without an unexpected recovery of the Hungarian opposition or a highly undesirable external economic shock, there will not be any moderation in Hungary. Also, Orbán, primarily by taking over the topics of the far right, is showcasing himself as a successful model and a reformer of conservative (what he himself defines as “Christian democratic”) politics, as a bastion against the advance of the far right. But this should not be taken as a valid argument given that Fidesz practically took pages from Jobbik’s programme in 2010 and implemented its promises since then, and the Hungarian government’s shift towards the far right accelerated in 2017 because of its strong xenophobic rhetoric.

Before the complete collapse of Polish democracy – because illiberalism is nothing but undemocratic – Poles are trying to protect the diversity of institutions that have not yet succumbed to the temptations of power.

On a positive note, President Andrzej Duda should be credited with the fact that his first veto in 2017 was the Act on Regional Accounting Chambers. If it had become a law, then the government would have easily eliminated the autonomy of local governments. Various and independent media, NGOs and the scale of employment in the private sector, which by the way generates the majority of inflows into the state coffers, are real treasures of democratic Poland – no less important than an efficient and independent judiciary.

The article is published as part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight. It was originally published in Polish in Dziennik Gazeta Prawna and can be found here.

Wojciech Przybylski is the editor-in-chief of Visegrad/Insight. Edit Zgut is foreign policy analyst at Political Capital.

*This article was modified from the original Polish to further explain the Hungarian context.
Wojciech Przybylski, Edit Zgut

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

Download the report in PDF