When Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice party (PiS) won the Polish elections last October, commentators immediately drew similarities with Viktor Orbán, the populist- nationalist illiberal leader of Hungary and the Fidesz Party (Young Democrats). Many still remembered 2011, when after losing the elections, Kaczyński said that one day Warsaw will become Budapest and follow Orbán. Since then, he has not had much reason to lose his admiration for the Hungarian leader: for the second time, Fidesz won a two-third majority in 2014 and still faces no real challenge. In the aftermath of the refugee crisis, Orbán became widely known and strongly admired by nationalist-xenophobic forces throughout Europe. But the new PiS government will not copy and paste Fidesz’s programme; there are lessons to be learnt from each other, and we have lessons to learn if we want functioning democracies in Hungary and Poland.
Checks and balances are things alien to the nationalist-conservative logic in Central Europe.
Fidesz gained a two-third majority in the elections of 2010 and 2014, allowing them to write a new constitution, destroy all independent state institutions and change laws whenever they needed. As a consequence of by-elections in early 2015, Fidesz lost its supermajority. But as a result of the weakness of the two-sided opposition, the extreme loyalty of Fidesz supporters, and the country’s political apathy, Orbán’s government is still the most popular force in the country. Poland’s PiS also achieved a historical victory, as this is the first non-coalition government since the transition to democracy. At present, former PM Kaczyński controls the country from the backstage, as he is not a member of government. But PiS cannot change the constitution alone, and their opposition, both partisan and civic, reacts more quickly and strongly than its equivalent in Hungary. These governing parties are conservative on social issues, but in the economic field they believe in a strong state, as well as state control in many spheres.
Controversial issues and reactions
The first scandal of the new PiS government concerned the Constitutional Court. All Hungarians reading this piece of news experienced a strong déjà-vu. In Hungary, this was also an early issue for the Fidesz government. Checks and balances are things alien to the nationalist-conservative logic in Central Europe. Many politicians claimed that the majority has the right to do what they need to do; anyone challenging them is challenging democracy and the county’s sovereignty. And do not have any doubts: when they say control of institutions, their control works perfectly well through loyal servants.
Media regulations and controlling state media seems to be something all illiberal leaders need to do as quickly as possible. The state media in Hungary have worked effectively as blatant government propaganda for a few years now. The freedom of the press was, however, the first issue which brought mass protests to the street and made ground for developing grassroots movements in Budapest; the biggest of them being Milla (One Million for the Hungarian Freedom of Press). What occurred almost overnight in Poland after the inauguration of the new government took almost a year in Hungary. The KOD (Committee for the Defence of Democracy) in Poland developed new means of protesting more quickly, which went beyond single-issue protests, and offered criticism of the whole system. The wave of protests in Poland has not stopped since, and all big Polish cities organise monthly demonstrations, probably also thanks to stronger traditions of contentious politics in Poland. Both Milla and KOD were grassroots social movements, not organised by political parties, which coalesced mostly online and in a very short period of time. Milla failed to transform itself into a successful opposition party. Since then, many other formations of various activists organised protests, and in fact some of them managed to mobilise the masses, but none of them could get institutionalised mass support.
The best way to avoid real debate is to declare that any critique of current policies, ideologies, or methods is a remnant of the Communist past, not worthy of debate.
From the government’s perspective, the critique of independent culture needs time to become institutionalised in Poland, but the lessons of Hungarian artists and scholars suggest that whoever does not convey the official way of understanding the world will be discredited and repeatedly attacked. NGOs and civil society are deeply affected by this way of thinking. But civic movements will have a strong role in the future, and in the case of Hungary we saw that popular movements forced Fidesz to step back from plans for an internet tax, and in the field of higher education the government was forced to make some compromises.
A story to sell
One of the strongest tools for both Fidesz and PiS is their narrative. They present a fixed (but often blurry) framework for understanding the world. The glorious Polish and Hungarian nations have suffered a lot in the past, but all this suffering was the result of external factors. We are mere victims, resulting in an image of glorious victimhood.The abolition of responsibility was made visible in many symbols and actions already during the first PiS (2006-2007) and Fidesz (1998-2002) governments. Both Fidesz and PiS build heavily on the anger and anxiety of the electorate. Their programmes (at least on the rhetorical level) are for the people, and against the giant forces attacking their nations, whether Germans, refugees, or foreign capital. This battle narrative is an appealing slogan for societies which did not get what they wanted from the democratic transition. The best way to avoid real debate is to declare that any critique of current policies, ideologies, or methods is a remnant of the Communist past, not worthy of debate.
The idea of a “proper Polish/Hungarian way of life” is quite prevalent and sadly resonates with millions of citizens’ ideas. This probably originates from the fact that both societies are very homogenous. Historically both societies were ethnically diverse, but as a result of the tragedies of the twentieth century, many people in both countries have not experienced any kind of difference or otherness. And doubts about the unknown are easily transformed into fear and hatred, as we could see in 2015. For Kaczyński’s party, the migrants were the perfect new topic in their campaign, a threat which had not even reached the country, but nevertheless required handling by PiS to “save” the Polish nation.
Migration also presented an unexpected stroke of luck for the Hungarian governing party. Orbán was losing his momentum at the end of 2014; the government was forced to step back from their internet tax initiative as a result of popular protests on the streets, the media was full of corruption scandals, Fidesz lost their two-third majority in by-elections, until the sudden arrival of thousands of asylum-seekers was a perfect way of building a hatred-based campaign. The European discussion on quotas fit well with the narrative of defending the traditional values of Europe. In both countries, the image of “Christian Europe” prevails, and of course, who else could preserve Christianity than the governing parties.
Judging Fidesz as an anti-EU party would be misleading; they need the EU as a tool.
The Church has a strong political and social role in Poland and PiS is willing to use Christian values for their legitimisation. Hungarian politicians also use Christian-conservative values as their ideological reference, but it is certainly a weaker factor than in Poland. The Fidesz government is officially a coalition government of Fidesz and the Christian Democrats (KDNP). KDNP in reality does not have much power, and even fewer party members or supporters. In fact many of their initiatives, such as the closure of shops on Sunday for the “protection of families” were very unpopular, even among conservatives. Poland has been experiencing “anti-gender” hysteria from conservative groups for some time now: the “propagators of gender” are presented as people against families and the nation. This dispute has not yet arrived in such hysterical form to Budapest on a full scale, but if needed, feminists or LGBTQ+ groups can become “the new refugees” at any time.
The battlefield of Europe
When criticism came from the West, Orbán stepped into the role of freedom fighter, the first in the row to defend the “Hungarian nation”. He even drew parallels between Moscow and Brussels; NGOs closely linked with Fidesz organised rallies against the “colonisation of Hungary” by the West. In the past few years, PiS supporters have always been present in such pro-government demonstrations. The slogans about colonisation and freedom-fighting were stolen from the far right, but judging Fidesz as an anti-EU party would be misleading; they need the EU as a tool. But without the shared values and a political union, of course.
Fidesz members in the European Parliament are in the European Peoples’ Party (EPP), thus working with the biggest group in the European Parliament with the traditional right-wing parties of Western Europe. Orbán himself stated many times that Hungary needs the EU (but mostly its money), and that the fence on the Serbian-Hungarian border was built as a defence of the Schengen zone. More importantly, in Hungary today, the biggest opposition party in Parliament is the far-right Jobbik, which opposes Hungary’s EU membership, and seeks friends (and financial support) in the Kremlin. The Jobbik party has connections to Moscow, and probably even to the Russian secret services. In the international media, Fidesz is often judged as an anti-European, far-right party, but in Hungary there is a clear opposition right of Fidesz, which makes them appear as moderate forces. This is precisely what makes Fidesz even more dangerous, and it is something Poland can still avoid. The fact that there are even worse and harsher voices does not make Fidesz moderate. Fidesz does not want to abolish the EU, and they would not put Jews or gays into prison, but they do not respect democracy.
On a European level, PiS seems to be well-prepared to avoid overly harsh reactions. Their members of the EP sit together with the British conservatives in the group of European Conservatives and Reformers, which is an openly Euro-sceptic group, but it seems that Prime Minister Beata Szydło’s smart move to avoid confrontation paid off, and they can “get away” with the new changes without consequences. It proved useful that the more controversial Kaczyński is not even a member of government, and a new face could present the Polish government’s arguments in a less antagonizing way. In fact, the EU has more urgent problems now than boring legal discussions on the rule of law; that is what both Fidesz and PiS want to sell, but it is an important responsibility for people wishing to understand the reality of Central Europe to make it clear that non-working democracies within the EU are endangering the entire European project.
As a part of the full picture we have to note that Orbán already cleared the path for Poland, and both countries can refer to each other as successful examples. In issues concerning asylum seekers and migration, our Slovak and Czech neighbours are also leaning towards the creation of a coalition of hatred. For a decade many wished for strong Visegrad co-operation to strengthen the position of Central Europe within the EU, but it is devastating how these states can become strong allies in weakening unity and solidarity. They hope that together they cannot be left out from European politics. Just a day before David Cameron arrived to Budapest, Orbán met with Kaczyński, probably to coordinate their tactics in compromises with Britain.
But Polish and Hungarian foreign policy will not be the same in the near future. Polish politics has a clear consensus on Atlantic affiliations. The Fidesz government still supports NATO membership, but with less enthusiasm compared to their Polish colleagues. In 2012, Hungary started a new foreign policy project, the “Eastern Opening” in order to strengthen relations with Russia, Turkey, China and other non-European (and non-democratic) actors. It focuses primarily on economic projects, but projects such as planning new blocks for the nuclear power station financed by Russia have far-reaching impacts. In the Ukrainian crisis, both the previous and present Polish government had clearly condemned Russia’s invasion. Hungary tried to avoid “choosing a side” as long as possible, Orbán did not veto EU sanctions, but admitted that he does not support them. When last February Budapest was the first capital which Putin visited after the annexation of Crimea, it seemed that the Kaczyński-Fidesz friendship would fail. The way Orbán was trying to manoeuvre between East and West is something Polish leaders will not even consider for many social and historical reasons.
Moderates of the extremes
For both Kaczyński and Orbán, it is vital to prove themselves as moderate and democratic forces. Orbán’s idea of a “central field of force” has been in practice for years now. There is an opposition from the Right, which is too radical to ever get a majority (according to him), and a weak and fractured “Left”. The so-called democratic opposition includes various liberal or leftist parties and groups. After their defeat in 2010, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) became the biggest opposition party. As other new groups arose, grassroots movements tried to form their own initiatives and civil society had the chance to shape parliamentary apathy.
That was the long painful period of the birth of a “democratic opposition”, that is, everyone opposing Fidesz, except the far-right Jobbik. Fidesz changed the electoral system in a way so that many opposition parties were forced to stand together for the elections. So MSZP, the unpopular governing force of pre-2010, stood together with many old and new opposition members, forming an unwieldy coalition of liberals, market-oriented social democrats, greens, labour union activists, organisers of anti-Fidesz protests, and practically everyone else who had good enough negotiation skills to fit the bill. Only one Green Party decided to stay out. They presented themselves as the only democratic opposition to Fidesz, but these opposition groups were harshly defeated in the 2014 parliamentary elections. Since that time, many of these people seem to judge and scold other “democratic” forces and politicians rather than actually building alternatives. Non-partisan politics has its limits, but at least civic activism and sectorial issues can mobilise some fragments of society.
Even if we see a rapid mobilisation in Poland, it is hard to see long-term directions just a few months after the elections. A big question for the near future will be whether or not the anti-establishment Kukiz movement (founded by a former singer) can stabilise itself, and whether or not it can bring more radical voices into mainstream Polish politics. But it can also end up the way many anti-establishment politicians have: as one of many conformist parties. And in fact, it is hard to be a rebel if you are close to power.
PiS will do everything to present all of its opponents as a single group, a tiny albeit loud part of the Polish nation. And even if these opponents agree that what is going on in Poland is wrong, their points of view are ultimately very different from each other. The leftist Razem and the liberal Nowoczesna are both new parties; and we cannot forget that Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform, the previous governing party), together with other groups, is of course still around. It seems that Nowoczesna can bring many pro-European forces together according to the newest polls, but one needs to know what to say, besides trying to get rid of PiS. Various groups need to build their own alternatives, and in the long run “everyone against Kaczyński” will be too hollow, and the differences in ideology and plans for a better country should not be forgotten. A great anti-Kaczyński and pro-Europe coalition cannot be sustained in the long run, but it might be needed in crucial times.
In the future no one following the news from Hungary and Poland should be surprised if checks and balances will be destroyed by governments in the name of sovereignty and the majority. Even with generously presented support for families, we can be sure that marginal groups and the lower classes of society will be neglected in both countries. The extreme level of corruption in Hungary will not fade away. Radical rhetoric will be used to maintain the feeling of “battle”. Both Orbán and Kaczyński wish to appear moderate and there is a sad chance that their ideas will become mainstream in Europe. But we have to be aware that both of them are moderate only if we compare them to an even bigger evil. If we compare them to democratic principles and values, they are unacceptable.