Can Europe Make It?

The illiberal tandem vs Europe

It’s not only the language and resetting of the agenda that the ruling parties of Hungary and Poland have in common. However, they do not mirror each other either.

Maria Skóra
11 May 2018
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A float caricaturing 'Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary and the leader of PiS, Jaroslaw Kaczynski' in the Rosenmontag carnival procession Duesseldorf,Germany, February 2018. Photo: Ina Fassbender/Press Association. All rights reserved.Poland and Hungary tend to be paired up when discussing the political crisis of the European Union (EU). The reason is the emergence of so-called “illiberal democracies” in these eastern member states, which do not comply with some of the founding values of the EU. Viktor Orbán seized power in Hungary in 2010, and he’s just won the elections for the third term. In Poland, the Law and Justice party (PiS) has taken over after winning parliamentary elections in late 2015. Shortly after, in the Krynica Forum in October 2016 both party leaders, Jarosław Kaczyński and Viktor Orbán, announced they would stand together for “cultural counter-revolution” and renewal of the post-Brexit EU. So, how long will it last?

Hand in hand

Poland and Hungary are two independent states, with individual historical paths and nuanced political systems. Nevertheless, the ways in which Orbán and Kaczyński plotted their strategies to seize and keep power are alike.

There are striking analogies in political communication applied by Fidesz and PiS. Their rhetoric embarks strongly on “anticommunism”, stressing the need for erasing communist leftovers and calling on the remaining post-communist establishment to finalise the transition. History is often thematised and reframed in current political debates.

This process of awakening national pride goes hand in hand with euro-sceptic slogans, highlighting the cultural distance of the left-liberal West to Eastern Europe. Here, the Brussels-based dictate of European bureaucracy is invoked. The fight for economic independence and Christian values, especially in times of massive immigration to Europe, is its own moral imperative.

In this context, the practical dimension of political mass-communication needs mentioning. Both in Hungary as well as in Poland, country-wide billboard campaigns have been orchestrated, explicitly explaining the rationales behind governmental decisions, e.g. on not accepting refugees (Hungary) or reforming the judiciary (Poland).

National re-branding together

Hungarian inspiration is also visible in the latest “rebranding” of the PiS government. Prime minister Beata Szydło was a literary embodiment of the “conservative counter-revolution”: fiercely attacking previous elites, rushing through far-reaching reforms, openly confronting the EU.

After that phase, the “revolutionary cabinet” was replaced with that of Mateusz Morawiecki, a well-educated, soft-spoken ex-banker, however still of a conservative mindset, stressing national and Christian values, and promoting the “Polish” perspective. Morawiecki simultaneously comes across as open for dialogue with Europe and pro-business, with a focus on regaining Poland’s national economic assets. This is a blatant attempt to follow the Orbán-model in the competition to win the hearts of the middle class.


It’s not only the language and resetting of the agenda that Fidesz and PiS share. Shortly after taking over power, a fundamental reorganisation of the judiciary was one of the first decisions of the Fidesz government: systemic reforms and institutional changes affected the Supreme Court/Kúria and the Constitutional Court. The National Office for the Judiciary was established.

Developments in Hungary culminated in the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights ruling that the country violated the rights of András Baka, the former President of the Hungarian Supreme Court. In Poland, judicial reforms started with fusing the offices of Attorney General and Minister of Justice, then followed with organisational and administrative changes in the functioning of the Constitutional Court, National Council of the Judiciary, and the Supreme Court.

These steps were heavily criticised in 2016 by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission; then the European Parliament passed a resolution declaring concerns about the paralysis of the Constitutional Tribunal in Poland. In December 2017, the European Commission decided to initiate Article 7.1 against Poland, taking action to protect the rule of law in Europe.

Civil society, media and electoral law

Another example: manoeuvres around organised civil society, were embodied not only in the demonising of George Soros. Both in Hungary and in Poland, the credibility of organisations (co-)founded by foreign donations was publicly questioned. In Hungary, according to the proposed new law package on NGOs, the organisations working with migrants will have to undergo national security screening, under the threat of a penalty fine. In Poland, the National Freedom Institute was launched, a central body responsible for coordinating dialogue between the government and the civil society. Some organisations worry that it has not been equipped with high enough standards in grant-making procedures, posing a threat to the sustainability of the independent third sector.

Other analogies are to be seen in the changing media landscape. Both Kaczyński and Orbán understand the significance of mainstreaming their narratives and language into the public discourse through mass media, whether by taking control over public broadcasters (Poland) or local press (Hungary).

Next, some actions around electoral law introduced in Hungary, like redrawing constituency boundaries known as “gerrymandering”, were also discussed in Poland. A common modus operandi is therefore clearly visible in the actions of these freshly elected authorities.

Same, but different

Although there are many similarities to be found between Hungary in Poland, it is not justified to present these countries as mirror cases. It is often forgotten that despite pulling all strings, Jarosław Kaczyński, the PiS party leader, is just an ordinary member of parliament, abstaining from taking any public offices. On the contrary, Viktor Orbán has held the PM position unchanged since 2010. This also tells us a lot about the leadership style of both gentlemen as well as about the structure of their parties: the hierarchical, commanding style of a single authority in PiS differs from the court united around Viktor Orbán.

Here, another distinction: Orbán’s Hungary is more and more often referred to as an “oligarch state” or “state capture”, where close personal links overlap with lucrative investments and public contracts. A certain coterie benefits from it in monetary terms. Meanwhile, Kaczyński operates in a more disciplined way. In the early 1990s, in times of massive privatisation, the predecessors of today’s PiS party were handed over to a previously state-owned publishing house, together with the accompanying estates in Warsaw. Today, these assets are said to be a reliable and unconditional backup for the party, a collective wealth serving the cause, not individual profits.

Fidesz and PiS are conservative in their mindset and therefore stand for traditional values. However, the Hungarian government seems to be more relaxed on minority rights. Unlike in Poland, same-sex partnerships have remained recognized in Hungary since 2009. No amendments around reproductive rights have been put in place either. Ever since PiS has taken over, Polish women regularly face the risk of restricting abortion laws. After all, it is not by accident that at the European level, Fidesz is affiliated with the European People’s Party (EPP), centre-right Christian-democrats, whereas PiS has joined the European Conservatives and Reformists, the Euro-sceptic right-wing of the European Parliament.

Last but not least: Russia. Poland’s approach to its big neighbour has been overshadowed not only by the past but also by the Smoleńsk aircrash in 2010, which cost the lives of 96 top ranking passengers, including the former President, Lech Kaczyński. In 2018 Putin’s Russia is still perceived as a danger, whether in the economic sense (e.g. by exercising embargo on Polish agricultural products) or in the military one, due to the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. By contrast, the pragmatism of Orbán is reflected in Hungary seeking infrastructure partnership and building bridges with Russia. Paks nuclear power plant is the flagship investment for that matter and a tangible example of Orbán’s pragmatism.

Future prospects of the illiberal revolution?

The ideological stimulus of PiS is different from Orbán’s goal-oriented tactics and relative flexibility. He knew when to take a step back when the EU Commission and EPP critically addressed the amendment to Hungary’s higher education law, whereas the collision course chosen by Beata Szydło pushed Poland into the ominous Article 7 procedure.

At the same time, in the confrontation of the European Commission and Poland, Orbán explicitly stated that "Hungary will be there and form an insurmountable roadblock" against sanctioning the Polish government for introducing reforms contradicting the European understanding of the rule of law. His firm position is a kind of self-insurance in case the EU would one day turn against Hungary. After all, as demonstrated above, the means and measures implemented in both countries are similar.

Jarosław Kaczyński, usually not very keen on travelling, lately made his way to Budapest to manifest his support for the Hungarian ally shortly before elections. In his address after the successful vote, Orbán expressed his gratitude to the Polish leaders. And so, the illiberal affair in East-Central Europe continues. Nevertheless, its future depends now on the performance of the Polish partners in the parliamentary election in 2019. There, the results should not be taken for granted.

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