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Poland and Hungary Ahead of the EU Elections

Poland and Hungary Ahead of the EU Elections
 Stefano Bottoni
Visiting Fellow - Europe

The campaign for the European elections is underway in "illiberal" Poland and Hungary, but the public’s attention in both countries is elsewhere.

A recent opinion poll for the liberal daily Gazeta Wyborcza showed that Poland’s newly-formed European Coalition (KE) led by Grzegorz Juliusz Schetyna, a former leader of Civic Platform and head of the Polish parliamentary opposition since January 2016, might narrowly defeat by 35% to 33% the ruling conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) in the elections for the European parliament in May. Another poll conducted for the conservative daily Rzeczpospolita had slightly different results, with PiS winning 40% of the votes, followed by KE with 38%. A new left-wing pro-European party called Spring and led by the mayor of the city of Slupsk, Robert Biedron, is expected to gather around 10% of the votes, while Kukiz’s right-wing party is also likely to reach the required threshold. In 2014, PiS won 19 of the 51 opposition seats in the European Parliament. This time, the ruling party might score even better (up to 20 to 22 seats), given the Polish society’s increasing polarization, dividing the liberals, the conservatives and the right-wing nationalists.

Whoever wins in late May, opinion polls seem to agree that a unified liberal pro-European opposition has chances to challenge the hegemony of PiS. The opposition’s capacity to mobilize their mostly young, educated, and urban middle-class constituency, and to boost the usually extremely low turnout at the EU elections in Poland (less than 24% in 2014) remains to be seen.

Opinion polls seem to agree that a unified liberal pro-European opposition has chances to challenge the hegemony of PiS.

Moreover, for Polish politics, the European Parliament elections represent a warm-up before the parliamentary elections scheduled in Fall 2019. While ongoing conflicts and stand-offs with the EU over a series of legal issues might distance the youth in May, PiS might have much better arguments to convince Polish voters: that of social benefits. The government is set to introduce the 13th retirement payment a year to the pensioners, who should expect an extra payment of zł1,100, or €250 already in May 2019, ahead of the European elections.

Moreover, the PiS government has been extending the social program entitled "500+", which was first introduced in 2016 and offers every family an extra zł500 (approximately €116) a month, starting from every second child. The new extension of the program is expected to come into force in July and includes payments for the first child. Family programs are clearly not designed for the EU elections, but they will play a substantial role ahead of the parliamentary vote.

Viktor Orbán’s Hungary enters the EU electoral campaign with a totally different scenario. Ruling party Fidesz is performing steadily, reaching up to 50%, if not more, in the opinion polls. Unlike in Poland, the opposition forces are not only individually weak, but are also divided and internally conflicted. The right-wing party Jobbik is still the second largest party, with 12 to 15% of the votes according to the polls, compared to 19% in the 2018 parliamentary elections. The left-wing parties, the socialists and former Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Democratic Coalition are running separately, but could jointly gather around 20% of popular support. However, smaller liberal and green opposition parties might fail to meet the threshold, thus amplifying the magnitude of Orbán’s victory.

Why are electoral results in Poland and in Hungary expected to be so different? To explain what is likely to happen, one has to start by noting the systemic differences between what we might call the Polish "socially compassionate clerical illiberalism" and Orbán’s "neoliberal identitarian authoritarianism."

In Poland, PiS was never given the constitutional power to change the rules of the game and to build up a totally new political system, as Orbán has started to do in Hungary since 2010. Firstly, the proportional electoral system does not allow any party to win two-thirds of mandates in a free and fair democratic context. Secondly, the semi-presidential system in Poland inspired from the French model inevitably creates power dynamics and struggles, even when the Prime Minister and the country’s President belong to the same party. Thirdly and no less importantly, local politics aiming for the self-government of big cities and regional administrations weighs heavily in national politics.

All these checks and balances are missing in Orbán’s Hungary. Orbán celebrated in 2018 his third consecutive supermajority, and the ruling party managed to centralize the country once more after putting an end to local self-government. The power agencies supporting mayors depend on their political reliability and on their informal ties to local party oligarchs and strongmen. Unlike in Hungary, in Poland, a large educated professional middle-class has emerged over the last decades, and this group can mobilize around social issues like freedom of speech or gender equality.

Building on its own historical traditions, post-communist Poland has been able to preserve a more active and assertive civil society than Hungary.

Building on its own historical traditions, post-communist Poland has been able to preserve a more active and assertive civil society than Hungary. Political confrontation turns violent from time to time, and verbal assaults are not exactly music to Western ears, but Poland remains a full-fledged democracy, not despite of, but precisely thanks to these social conflicts that are so essential to a participatory democracy.

The most striking difference between Kaczynski’s conflictual Poland and "business as usual" in Orbán’s Hungary issues a warning sign for the future of democracy in Hungary, where open conflict has long given way to the selective cooptation of opponents. Political analysts agree that the country has by now completed its reverse transition from a consolidated democracy to a hybrid regime, and can be best described as a competitive, mostly non-violent, authoritarian system. The last developments in Hungarian domestic policy, with the increasingly open harassments of political, social, or cultural adversaries, seem to suggest the consolidation of a hegemonic system, where opposition movements will only be tolerated if they comply with the rules established by the system itself.

This might explain why Fidesz has neither felt prompted to publish a proper electoral program ahead of the European elections, nor to make any populist promise or social concession. On the contrary, the labor force shortage encourages private companies and the public administration to enforce the controversial measures that increased hours of overtime and cut paid holidays to civil servants. However, the ubiquitous billboards of the ruling party adamantly claim "Let’s support Viktor Orbán’s program against migration!". Symbolic issues seems to remain the core of Fidesz’ campaign, while the resigned Hungarian opposition parties have been left without the network, the financial resources, and the media support needed to challenge Orbán’s dominance.


Copyright : FERENC ISZA / AFP

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