After Pro-Democracy Surge In Poland, Is Viktor Orban's Hungary Next?
In its latest parliamentary elections, Poland opted to oust the ruling party, PiS, from power. Now will Viktor Orbán's Hungary, a victim of democratic backsliding, be able to do the same. Political scientist and economist Bálint Madlovics and sociologist and former Hungarian Parliamentarian Bálint Magyar investigate.
WARSAW — For years, Hungary and Poland have fallen victim to the two most dangerous attempts of governments to build an autocratic system from within the European Union. But although both countries stood out in their tendencies towards authoritarianism, the erosion of democracy and the rule of law in these two countries was of a fundamentally different nature, and took place on a different scale.
The victory of the opposition in Poland's elections on Sunday may stop this process, and put the country back on the democratic path. In Hungary, there is practically no chance for this to occur anymore.
The process of building an autocratic order has three phases: initialization, autocratic breakthrough and consolidation. This allows us to understand the difference between both countries.
Poland under the rule of PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński was still in the initial phase of the autocratic system, while in Hungary a breakthrough had already taken place.
The Fidesz party, led by Viktor Orbán, won a two-thirds majority of seats in parliament in 2010, which allowed it to amend the constitution. Unlike Kaczyński's PiS, Fidesz gained a monopoly of political power in Hungary. Orbán not only changed the Constitution, but also appointed his people to managerial positions in the institutions that make up the system of systemic security (checks and balances).
For nearly 15 years, we have been witnessing the consolidation of the autocratic system in Hungary: the media, economic entities and social organizations have been deprived of their autonomy and subordinated to the authorities. This eliminates the possibility of change, because systemic alternatives to authoritarianism no longer have an institutional or social base.
These differences in the level of advancement of an authoritarian system constructed within both countries are most clearly visible when we compare last Sunday's elections in Poland with the Hungarian elections in 2022. The former is described as "free but unfair," while the Hungarian elections are referred to explicitly as “manipulated”.
How Orban has tweaked Hungary's democracy to his advantage
Using a two-thirds majority of votes in parliament, the Fidesz party has repeatedly changed Hungary’s electoral system, introducing 300 modifications to the law, and each time adapting it to its current political interests. The party’s activities were not limited to gerrymandering, where it drew the boundaries of electoral districts to its own advantage; it also made the already disproportionate electoral law even more so.
To win two-thirds of the seats in parliament in 2010, Fidesz needed 53% of voters' votes. Four years later, after subsequent amendments to the ordinance, 44% was enough to achieve the same result.
By contrast, the Polish electoral system is relatively proportional, which reduces the risk that any political force will gain a majority to change the constitution and thus gain a monopoly of power.
Damaged opposition parties
The Polish electoral system, unlike the Hungarian one, does not force the opposition parties to run in one combined bloc. They took part in the elections as autonomous entities, with their own resources and not dependent on or dominated by PiS.
For voters, this meant that they could constitute a real alternative, convincing them of the programs they promised to implement.
In contrast, Hungarian opposition parties trying to operate in an autocratic system were either marginalized by being cut off from material resources and media opportunities, were sanitized by Fidesz agents delegated to them, or were paralyzed by fines imposed onto them.
Moreover, pseudo-opposition fake parties founded by the ruling camp have appeared in Hungary, which allows us to consider the Hungarian electoral model as a soft version of the Russian one.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban
Orban’s media monopoly
In the latest parliamentary elections in Hungary, which took place last year, Fidesz's campaign expenses were approximately ten times larger than those of the opposition coalition. This included not only the expenses of Fidesz as a party, but also the amounts spent by alleged NGOs financed by Fidesz for propaganda discrediting the opposition.
There has not been such a public debate between Orbán and his opponents since 2006.
It is worth paying attention to the broader context here, because in Orban's Hungary the campaign period does not have a clear beginning and end. In fact, the state media and private media supporting the authorities have been operating in “campaign mode” for years, allocating funds to this propaganda that are many times higher than the expenditure on narrowly-focused election agitation.
In Poland, the state media strongly supported the ruling camp, but despite this, opposition representatives could appear there to a limited extent, as was the case, for example, during the pre-election debate. In Hungary, there has not been such a public debate between Orbán and his opponents since 2006.
In the 2022 campaign, the opposition candidate for prime minister received a total of five minutes of airtime on state television. Private media, including both television networks and print media, are still strong in Poland, meaning that the voices of dissent can still be heard through various outlets.
In Hungary's 2022 campaign, pre-election promises were replaced by pre-election handouts on an unprecedented scale (in this area, we can see that Kaczyński apparently followed Orbán's example). In the month and a half period preceding the elections, various social groups in Hungary received an amount amounting to a total of 2.5% of Hungary’s annual GDP.
It included such benefits as a refund of last year's personal income tax for families with children, payments of the recently introduced 13th pensions, immediate salary increases in the public sector and allowances for soldiers, police officers and secret service officers in the amount of six months' salaries.
This last handout alone would probably be enough for the ruling party's electoral victory, even if the country, already in a difficult economic situation, paid for it with the highest inflation in the region.
The differences between the elections in Poland and Hungary did not merely result from differences in the power and capabilities of the two autocratic leaders. The stakes in both games were different as well.
The Polish and Hungarian systems are illegitimate, but in a different way. Both strive for a monopoly of power — which is prohibited in Hungary even by the constitution amended by Fidesz — but the Orbán regime, unlike Kaczyński's, functions as an organized criminal group operating at the state level, whose members can be convicted under the applicable penal code.
For both leaders, the stakes in the elections were different: after defeat, Kaczyński only lost power and moved from the government to the opposition. He is an autocrat, but not a criminal. At most, the option is to hold him politically responsible, but not criminally.
In contrast, Orbán is both an autocrat and a criminal. Therefore, after the possible collapse of the regime, members of its adoptive political family would be at risk not only of losing power, but also of freedom.
A warning for them is the fate of corrupt autocrats who had to flee the country, such as Nikola Gruevski from North Macedonia, Vladimir Plahotniuc from Moldova, Viktor Yanukovych from Ukraine or Nursultan Nazarbayev from Kazakhstan.
Caricature featuring Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Poland's Jaroslaw Kaczynski
Orbán In Putin’s Arms
Since 2010, Orbán has prescribed a foreign policy doctrine of "Opening to the East" in Hungary. Eastern oligarchs provide opportunities for profitable business contracts, and at the same time provide political support from autocrats who, unlike their partners in the West, do not criticize Orbán for the state of Hungarian democracy or human rights violations committed in the country.
However, this criminal alliance comes at a high price: in front of our eyes, Hungary is turning into a mafia state subordinated to Russia. Orbán's adopted political family benefits financially from — and in return provides political services to — Putin, undermining the unity of the European Union.
And that is why the Hungarian autocrat is not interested in Huxit, and why Hungary is a valuable partner for Putin for only as long as it serves his interests from within the EU: trying to soften European sanctions, to block support for Ukraine, to remove oligarchs from the list of people subject to restrictions, or to maintain the dependence of EU countries on Russian energy sources.
A different attitude towards Russian aggression made a Hungary-Poland alliance impossible.
Orbán defined the role played by the Hungarian autocracy in the EU as follows: "We are sand in its wheels, a stick in its spokes, a thorn under its nail." The Hungarian leader claims to defend independence, but in reality, he is trying to ensure impunity for his mafia state.
For years he has been trying to build a blocking minority in the EU, aligning himself with other regimes known to profess authoritarian tendencies. That is why he supports the accession of the semi-authoritarian Western Balkan regimes, and why he also saw Kaczyński as an ally who would help him defend himself against sanctions for violating the values that constitute the foundations of the EU.
However, a different attitude towards Russian aggression towards Ukraine in 2022 made an alliance between Hungary and Poland impossible. The only common denominator remained Euroskepticism, which was the defensive shield of their autocratic tendencies.
Poland and Hungary’s ideological divorce
After the Polish opposition's electoral victory, the paths of Poland and Hungary are diverging. Poland rejects the role of a recalcitrant EU member and, as the fifth largest EU country in terms of population and GDP, has a chance to join the group of leaders deciding on the shape of the larger European Community.
In a multipolar world, the EU should become an effective political player, not just an important economic factor. The need for this is especially visible after the Russian aggression against Ukraine.
As an important medium-sized country, Poland is becoming increasingly indispensable here. Its potential role could be felt for the first time when the Three Seas Initiative was announced, which was to replace the dead Visegrad Group, torn apart by internal conflicts, with a broader Central European community, reaching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.
This became apparent again after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when Poland, together with the Baltic countries and Romania, most decisively opposed Russian imperialism and became one of the countries providing the greatest support to Ukraine, in proportion to its GDP.
Finally, we cannot ignore the Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation, which in geopolitical, historical and strategic terms is as fundamental for Eastern Europe as the German-French reconciliation was for Western Europe after World War II.
From now on, the Polish-Ukrainian axis can become one of the engines of European cooperation, and Poland can take its place among the most influential EU countries, showing that national sovereignty does not have to be a shield behind which an autocratic regime hides, but a tool for creative community building. European. The result of last Sunday's elections gives Poland a mandate to do so. Freedom-loving Europe needs a democratic Poland.
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