The Survival of Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe
Following parliamentary elections in Poland and local elections in Hungary, populist autocrats in both countries remain in power, where they will continue to undermine democratic institutions. Even so, relative victories for opposition forces in both countries show that the region's "illiberal democrats" are not unbeatable.
Is populism in Central and Eastern Europe finally losing its momentum? In Poland, opposition parties won the Senate, and the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party’s share of the vote slipped to 43.7%, from 45.5% in European Parliament elections this past May. And in Hungary’s local elections, the opposition retook power in Budapest and won mayoral races in ten other cities.
The question now is whether these results augur a broader political shift in the region. The PiS’s retention of power in the Sejm – the lower and more powerful chamber of Poland’s parliament – is undeniably a significant success. But the party’s strongman leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, was clearly expecting a better result. The PiS’s loss of the Senate means that it can no longer ram through controversial legislation without any real debate (though its 235 votes in the Sejm will still allow it to override Senate vetoes).
The Polish opposition now has a chance to prove itself. Overall, opposition parties received 900,000 more votes than PiS’s combined total. That means a narrow majority of the electorate is on the opposition’s side, and could deliver a victory for a common opposition candidate in the presidential election next spring. There is no obvious choice for that role, however. Donald Tusk, the outgoing European Parliament president who formerly served as Poland’s prime minister, has been all but forgotten, judging by his weak showing in opinion polls. Nonetheless, the opposition still has time to get organized.
The largest opposition party, Civic Platform (PO), maintained its previous level of support, running as part of the Civic Coalition, which won 27.2% of the vote. But PO’s leader, Grzegorz Schetyna, fared poorly in Wrocław, and remains one of the country’s least popular and most criticized politicians. Many want him to resign, and yet he has no obvious successor within PO, which comprises politicians Schetyna himself has elevated.
The PO’s stagnation presents an opportunity for Lewica (The Left), a new left-wing coalition that received 12.5% of the vote. Although Lewica comprises three parties, it maintained a united front during the campaign, and has offered new, talented, and educated politicians an alternative platform to PO.
Still, the most immediate threat to PiS lies with the two parties whose supporters are culturally similar to its own. Konfederacja, which took 6.8% of the vote, will doubtless stoke political tension, whether by trafficking in anti-Semitism or demanding a total ban on abortion. And the conservative Polish People’s Party (PSL) could siphon off PiS votes should the ruling party get into trouble.
For its part, PiS seems to have reached its electoral limit. While in power, it has maintained its popularity by increasing social benefits and announcing a near-doubling of the minimum wage by 2023. Three months before the election, it introduced a 500-złoty ($128) child benefit. But despite favorable economic conditions, the party’s support fell. Polish voters, it seems, have begun to fear absolute domination by any one party.
Looking ahead, PiS cannot count on another four years of strong economic growth. But it may think that it can use social spending to buy time to cement its hold on the judiciary, the independent media, and local governments, thereby limiting the opposition’s ability to win over voters even in case of a recession. Those moves are probably being planned for after the presidential election. Because the PiS incumbent, Andrzej Duda, needs over 50% of the vote to win re-election, the party must avoid doing anything too radical before then.
After that, PiS will have no real alternatives to autocracy, given that the next parliamentary election will be even more challenging for the party. There is a reason why it has been co-opting state institutions and the courts, and formulating legislation to “re-Polonize” the country’s largely German- and American-owned media. These measures amount to Chekhov’s gun: you don’t hang a pistol on the wall in the first act unless it is going to be fired by the last. For the septuagenarian Kaczyński, the next four years are the last chance to consolidate power and forge a lasting legacy.
But beyond domestic politics, Kaczyński will also have to be wary of international factors. For example, US President Donald Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds in Syria shows that he cannot be trusted as an ally. Would he really condone a crackdown on Poland’s two largest commercial TV channels – TVN and TVN24 – or would he side with their American corporate owner, Discovery Inc.?
One might think that PiS could still civilize itself by moving to the center and appealing to some elements within the fragmented opposition. But this is highly unlikely. PO and Lewica voters are staunchly anti-PiS; indeed, that is one of the main issues that unites them. The 500-złoty child subsidy hardly matters to the country’s wealthier families, and the announced minimum-wage increase has rattled business owners, who will have to bear the costs or lay off workers. PiS’s only option, then, is to complete its autocratic revolution before another recession arrives. Kaczyński will have to go all in.
As for Hungary, the latest elections will have less of an immediate practical impact, because they were limited to local governments and large cities, where the opposition always has greater support. Maps of electoral support for PiS or for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s ruling Fidesz usually make it look like large cities are being besieged.
Symbolically, though, Hungary’s elections were more significant even than the election in Poland, because they show that opposition parties can still win in what is now a fully “illiberal democracy.” Where opposition candidates prevailed, they did so without a free or sympathetic press, without an economic crisis to exploit, and without any significant errors on Orbán’s part.
Project Syndicate, 16.10.2019