While the dominant parties have cemented their power both in Hungary and Poland, the elections of last Sunday signal that the regimes built by Jaroslaw Kaczyński and Viktor Orbán are on the defence.
After nine years of power consolidation by the ruling Fidesz party, the Hungarian opposition parties united behind a single strong candidate that had a chance to defeat the incumbent mayor of the capital.
Despite the fact that Fidesz abused all of its institutional and informal power to hinder the opposition to succeed, Istanbul arrived to Budapest: not only the lord mayor position was overtaken by Gergely Karácsony – the joint candidate – the opposition will be able to secure a majority in the Budapest council as well.
The strategic cooperation between opposition parties obviously was rewarded by the voters, but merged with the “butterfly effect” of the sex, drugs and corruption scandal in Győr that erupted at the very last stage of the electoral campaign.
Even though it is too early to measure the actual impact of this scandal on voting attitudes, it also might have had a galvanising effect to the extent that the usually well-functioning communication of Fidesz practically collapsed just before the elections.
Since smaller towns and villages have remained under the control of the dominant party, the urban-rural divide is even more evident than before.
Different ball game
Meanwhile, in Poland the Law and Justice (PiS) party secured a majority in the Sejm winning 235 mandates out of 460, exactly the same amount as in 2015. However, it is now officially three seats short of a majority in the Senate. Jarosław Kaczyński and many party members seemed disappointed because they were counting on more than 260 seats which would allow internal party reshuffling as well building a potential technical coalition to amend the constitution.
This constitutional change will be a whole different ball game for PiS, because of two main reasons. Firstly, in contrast to the extremely centralised Fidesz party, the Polish government has been embodied by three different blocks: PiS, under the leadership of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, Solidarity Poland, led by incumbent Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro and Alliance, led by Minister of Science Jarosław Gowin.
Given that the coalition partners of PiS won a similar number of votes, it keeps the party on the edge with no definite direction about its future leadership. With bulldog fights under the carpet, any spark such as leaked tapes or another scandal could change the internal dynamism within the government, where two new-generation strongmen, Morawiecki and Ziobro, would gladly dismiss one another.
A second issue for PiS is the majority in the Senate, which will have significant implications for its ability to rush bills through the parliament. It yet may try to lure some senators.
Despite the fact that having a majority in the upper house does not allow for blocking the legislative process in the Sejm, the opposition could slow down the system-transformation efforts of PiS.
Apart from its symbolic importance to end the government’s majority, the Senate can nominate two members of the National Council of the Judiciary; it has also representatives in the Monetary Policy Council or the National Broadcasting Council, but also decides on referendums. Most importantly, the Senate has to approve any constitutional amendments.
What is next in Hungary?
What we have learned so far is that shifting into a less combative mood is not in the nature of these regimes. Even though Viktor Orbán has stressed right after the elections that the government will cooperate with Budapest and the oppositional towns, the tone already had changed by Monday morning.
While the governmental representatives started to blame foreigners living in Budapest and casting a ballot for their defeat, pro-governmental mouthpieces claimed that “patriotism” was defeated in the capital.
Furthermore, the Hungarian government is likely to revisit the constitution for the eighth time, which would mean that the system could shift towards an even more centralised, authoritarian direction.
Within the currently existing power structure, which has been characterized as vertically coordinated and based on a hierarchical command system, by János Kornai, there are hardly any institutions or dominant groups capable of vetoing governmental resolutions without Orbán’s approval anyway.
Further centralisation provides more ground for crony capitalism to flourish as well. Compared to the classic case of oligarchic state capture in the Czech Republic, this is a reverse-engineered “state capture” where a very strong, centralised administration is deliberately cooperating with business circles to establish a complex, systemic corruption scheme, which is increasingly dependent on Orbán and his family.
There especially is a high risk in those sectors where the state can intervene directly through special taxes or indirectly through regulation and procurement such as IT and media, energy, banking or retail sector.
Electoral race continues in Poland
Jarosław Kaczyński, Poland’s de facto leader was even more straightforward on Sunday, claiming that the country must change further, which could result in further systemic restrictions regarding the judiciary and the media.
During the campaign, PiS proposed a law to establish a new self-regulatory body for the media with enough power to restrict independent journalists. They would also suspend parliamentary immunity, stating that Polish MPs should be detained at the request of the prosecutor general, currently Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro.
But more importantly, PiS will complete its “judiciary reform” and reorganise the courts, thereby overcoming what Kaczyński calls “the last barrier”. In April 2020 it will nominate the new President of the Supreme Court and, with a new law already in place, the parliament will elect a new electoral commission. At the EU, this will shift the debate on the rule of law in Poland into a higher gear.
But at the same time PiS will be extremely exposed on both left and right flanks until May 2020, when the next presidential election is scheduled. The Polish constitution provisions a peculiar balance of legislative power between the presidential office and the parliament. The president’s veto on any act passed by the Sejm can be overruled only by 60 per cent of votes of those present.
Unless PiS changes its strategy it will fight for the centrist electorate to secure re-election of the incumbent, Andrzej Duda. But it can also tilt right to take over 1 million votes of Konfederacja, a Polish version of the Tea Party with a strong preference for the Kremlin’s narrative, which gained nearly 7 per cent mostly from young male voters. Then, regardless of the result in May, PiS would fast-track the most controversial laws before it may lose control.
The May 2020 race, in any case, will determine the future of the government. With the opposition candidate winning the presidential office it would be extremely hard to govern by party decrees as PiS used to do. The ambitious legislative plans and a broad legislative leeway would end.
Why do illiberals continue to enjoy public support?
Although the social preconditions are different, there are similarities that provide Fidesz and PiS a smooth journey in undermining democracy in both countries.
Firstly, Hungary and Poland have served their role as harbingers for the West, because a very low level of interpersonal trust, a low level of social capital and a lack of trust within democratic institutions provided a favourable background for antidemocratic backsliding.
The depth of democratic consolidation has been tested especially because the erosion of trust in democratic institutions took place before a series crisis erupted in the European Union. In 2007, a Gallup International poll already emphasised that these countries were most sceptical about the state of democracy, and only about one-third trusted the democratic process.
Another contributing factor was that the leftist parties lost their credibility with the working class, especially in cities where many of these voters felt like they were left behind. It provided two main practical advantages to PiS and Fidesz: the nationalist right-wing could fill the gap and ride the wave of dissatisfaction about the democratic transition. This is how Orbán’s and Kaczynski’s vision to build “a new type of democracy” to “correct the transition” grew on highly fertile ground.
As many populists elsewhere, the centralisation of power goes hand in hand with the centrally administered and generous redistribution of financial support to all key segments of the electorate. Even though the countries of Central Europe have been for several years undergoing an economic boom, sooner or later such a positive conjuncture ends.
Meanwhile, tax cuts or social benefits that were supposed to address a real demographic decline bring zero effect in terms of child-birth. But a paternalistic culture is already high on the rise with the government positioning itself as the benefactor. As a consequence, there is little regard for a much-needed modernisation of public services such as education or healthcare.
Also, we should not underestimate the significance of a severe crisis. Citizens are more likely to tolerate or even support authoritarian measures during the alleged “security crises”, when they fear for their own safety.
Remember the aftermath of 9/11 or Pearl Harbour? For PiS and Fidesz, it was the migration crisis, grounded in a high level of xenophobia even before the number of refugees rapidly increased in 2015. It was enough to televise this crisis to exploit public anxieties in order to justify a power grab.
Both Orbán and Kaczynski have thrived on scaremongering about immigrants and LGBTQ communities, claiming that only they and their parties will be able to defend the nation.
Instead, democratic forces should promote responsiveness and inclusiveness to achieve a reconciliation and to reinforce a more consensual political culture.
Hybrid regime at work
Elections in authoritarian regimes are exciting but for all the wrong sorts of reasons. The political playing field is uneven and the results are painfully predictable, so the focus is shifted onto malign interference and other forms that undermine the chances of the opposition and expand the centralisation of power.
This is in direct contradiction with democracy, which from an electoral perspective is designed as a peaceful means to power.
However, when you see the dirty tricks of the government against a relatively well performing opposition, then you know that you are dealing with a competitive authoritarian regime – one of several hybrid regime types.
In political science the term competitive authoritarian regime is now applied to Hungary, where the dominant and ruling Fidesz party has won all the elections of the last nine years, while OSCE observation missions present bluntly have called the electoral process free but unfair.
There is still speculation whether the term is applicable to Poland, where the Law and Justice party has been consolidating its power since 2015 but the electoral process is fair and free, despite an uneven playing field due to the government-dominated public media – as pointed out by the OSCE electoral mission brief.
But since 13 October, the opposition in Hungary and in Poland may find some good reasons for cautious optimism.
One of the greatest advantages of competitive authoritarian hybrid regimes is that as long as they hold elections, there is a chance to defeat the dominant parties by way of the electoral process.
As Larry Diamond, one of the most renowned researchers of hybrid regimes, has put it: while an oppositional victory is not impossible in such regimes, it requires a level of oppositional mobilisation, unity, skill, and heroism far beyond what would normally be required for a victory in a democratic country.
Democratic forces should not give a free pass to these corrupt and clientelist regimes to further weaken democracy. Voters in Hungary has sent a first strong signal that they want better quality of governance, therefore the opposition will have to live up to the expectations also by disclosing as many abuses as possible.
For the opposition, the recent political developments in Hungary but also in Poland have confirmed that, in the long run, it is worth putting aside ideological differences and financial interests, and to join forces behind strong candidates.