The ruling parties were taken aback by the outcome of the recent elections. The better than anticipated show by the opposition gives them some cause for concern in the short run and may force a rethink of electoral strategy in the long run.

Earlier today a select group of diplomats and experts joined us for a V/I breakfast meeting about the recent elections of Sunday 13 October. The discussion was led by Edit Zgut and Wojciech Przybylski, who together published an insightful analysis of the municipal elections in Hungary and the parliamentary elections in Poland. The summary below reflects the discussion we had this morning but also touches upon future political directions which may follow from the results.

United across the spectrum

Before the municipal elections in Hungary, there was a general assumption that the system would be difficult to beat because of the extent to which the media and state apparatus are captured by Fidesz. The importance of the opposition taking over the capital city cannot be underestimated. Since Hungary does not have a directly elected president, the mayor of Budapest is one of the most important mandates which are elected by the public.

What is the perspective on altering the system in place in Hungary? Since the last nine years of Fidesz in power, it is the first time the opposition has cooperated across a wide political spectrum – from left to far right – and voters have rewarded it. This is a setback for Viktor Orbán. Unlike previous elections, the government’s scaremongering did not work. Other issues took control of the agenda, among others corruption scandals which were not addressed in the public media.

The Hungarian electoral map shows, however, there is still a major divide between the capital and the more rural parts of the city. In essence, the government retains control in smaller cities and towns, where it is easier to control the political agenda.

Nevertheless, for now it appears that Istanbul has arrived in Budapest. The strong show by the opposition gives cause for optimism, although it does not make the beginning of the end for Fidesz. Unlike in Poland, the Hungarian opposition faces a tough road ahead to build a viable alternative that can replace the current government.

A difficult hand

In Poland the electoral cards were dealt in a surprising way. While Law and Justice (PiS) won the election and overall increased its number of voters, this has not translated into a higher number of seats in the Sejm. In fact, PiS will have the exact same majority in the lower house while a coordinated action between opposition parties has resulted in the government’s loss of its Senate majority.

The fact that the Senate will be in hands of the opposition holds a number of advantages. Bills can no longer be rushed through parliament, foreign policy and the human rights agenda will require cross-party agreement, while the Senate will also scrutinise key appointments as well as possible constitutional changes.

Hence, it appears the biggest ambitions of PiS may be curtailed for the nearby future. There is no scenario in which a two-thirds majority for constitutional reform can be achieved. As a consequence, the ruling party enters a difficult strategic time, because it is flanked by the opposition from both sides.

The upcoming presidential election in 2020 will force PiS to move to the centre in order to capture enough moderate votes to re-elect Andrzej Duda. However, the far-right Konfederacja will push the governing party on several issues – which appeal to young, male voters. It is unlikely that PiS would closely align to the far right, given political divergences related to Russia.

The newly elected Sejm will see a more diverse representation. PSL did better than expected and returns to the house; a same observation applies to SLD, which ran under the “Lewica” banner with other leftist groupings. Parties with a clear ideological profile generally performed well, while the anti-PiS narrative of the Civic Coalition (KO) did not materialise in substantial gains.

In general, the prevailing question is whether PiS will push for major changes to the political system in the next months, thereby risking a positive outcome to the presidential election.

Despite the opposition-held Senate, there could still be a window of opportunity. Much will also depend on the continued boom of the Polish economy. Until now, confidence about job opportunities is high and matched with low unemployment, which plays a stabilising role in the political scene.

Instability may be generated from within the governing coalition, which is made up of PiS and several smaller parties, among others led by Jarosław Gowin and Zbigniew Ziobro. Overall, these allied parties have performed well in the elections last Sunday, and they may wish to expand their influence in government. It is no secret that factual infighting could put Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki under strain, and force leader Jarosław Kaczyński back into a role of power-broker.

Kaczyński may consider it important to keep Morawiecki on board, at least in light of the upcoming negotiations for the next EU budget. No radical overturns should be expected, apart from the fact there exists speculation about Jacek Czaputowicz and his continued stay at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Shared experiences

The municipal elections in Hungary and the parliamentary elections in Poland share similarities but are also marked by differences. It may be difficult to compare the political system of each country – since the Polish example of multi-level governance allows for more internal opposition and political contestation than Hungary’s vertical power hierarchy. However, the two countries overlap with regard to the type of policies that have been pushed by their governments in recent years.

In terms of civil society, Hungary has managed an incredible feat in these municipal elections but lacks the vibrancy and diversity that are characteristic of the Polish public sphere. A restrictive legal framework limits the mobilisation of Hungarian civil society. In the areas of media and academia, many more institutions are affected by government attempts to stifle criticism and freedom of expression.

Poland and Hungary have a shared experience in the sense that much of their future political direction is the hands of a single individual.

What happens after Victor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński leave the stage? Here we see the seeds of self-destruction. Their political circles keep getting smaller, their ideas and strategies increasingly are detached from wider society. The entire political machinery is built around them and depends on these strongmen to exert authority, keep rivals at bay and hold the system in place.

Dr Quincy R. Cloet is Managing Editor of Visegrad Insight


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.

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