by Bálint Madlovics and Bálint Magyar
Poland is returning to the path of democracy and could become one of the most influential member states of the European Union. By comparison, Hungary’s prospects look bleak.
The two most dangerous attempts to build autocratic systems within the European Union have been made in Hungary and Poland. However, the erosion of democracy and the rule of law has been of a different nature and scale in the two countries.
The opposition’s victory in last Sunday’s elections may halt the process of autocratisation in Poland and put the country back on the democratic path. In Hungary, there is virtually no chance of this happening anymore.
The process of building an autocratic order has three phases: initialization, autocratic breakthrough, and consolidation.
These phases can help us understand the difference between the two countries: Poland under Jarosław Kaczyński was still in the initialization phase of building an autocratic system, while in Hungary a breakthrough has already taken place.
Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party won two-thirds majority of seats in the Hungarian Parliament in 2010, which empowered it to amend the constitution. Unlike Kaczynski’s PiS, Fidesz gained a monopoly of political power. Orbán not only amended the constitution, but also staffed the leadership of institutions that should have made up the system of checks and balances. For nearly 15 years, we have been witnessing the consolidation of an autocratic system in the country – the media, business entities, and social organizations have been stripped of their autonomy and subordinated to the government. This stifles the possibility of change, since systemic alternatives to authoritarianism no longer have an institutional or social base.
The difference in the degree of building up an autocratic system can be seen most clearly when we compare sunday’s elections in Poland with Hungary’s from last year.
The Western expression “free but not fair” fits the description for the former, whereas the 2022 Hungarian elections went a step further and should be qualified as manipulated.
Using its two-thirds majority in parliament, Fidesz has repeatedly changed the electoral system, making 300 modifications to the law, and each time adapting the law to meet its most current political needs. It has not limited itself to gerrymandering, i.e., drawing district boundaries with its own interests in mind, but has turned an already disproportionate electoral law into an even more disproportionate one.
To gain two-thirds of the seats in parliament in 2010, Fidesz had to receive 53 percent of the votes, whereas four years later, after amendments to the electoral law, it only needed 44 percent. By contrast, the Polish law is reasonably proportional.
This reduces the risk of any political force gaining a majority that would allow it to change the constitution and acquire a monopoly of political power.
Second, Poland’s electoral law, unlike Hungary’s, did not force opposition parties to run as a single bloc.
Those parties competed as autonomous entities with their own resources and were not dependent on or dominated by PiS.
They were able to present a real alternative to voters, convincing them of their programs. By contrast, the Hungarian opposition parties, attempting to operate under an autocratic system, were either crippled by fines or marginalized by being cut off from material resources and from appearing before the media which has been domesticated by Fidesz agents. In addition, phony pseudo-opposition parties, established by the ruling camp, have made it plausible to consider the Hungarian political practices – contrary to the Polish ones – as being soft variant of Russian ones. These measures have rendered the Hungarian opposition and weak and toothless.
Third, Fidesz’s campaign spending exceeded that of the opposition coalition roughly by a factor of ten. This includes not only expenditures by Fidesz as a party, but also the amounts spent by the government and Fidesz-affiliated quasi-NGOs on propaganda aimed discrediting the opposition. It is worth remarking here on the broader context: in Orbán’s Hungary the campaign period is not clearly separated from periods when there is no election campaign. As a matter of fact, the state media and the government-supported private media have been operating in campaign mode for years. Resources have been allocated for the purposes of this propaganda that are substantially higher than those spent on electoral agitation narrowly defined.
In Poland, the state media strongly assisted those in power, but the representatives of the opposition were still able to appear before the media to a limited extent, such as in the pre-election debate. In Hungary, there has been no comparable public debate between Orbán and his opponents since 2006. In the 2022 campaign, the opposition candidate for prime minister got a total of only five minutes (!) of airtime on state television. Private media – both country-wide television stations and newspapers – have also remained robust in Poland, despite the government’s efforts to buy them off.
Fourth, in Hungary’s 2022 campaign, pre-election promises have been replaced by pre-election distribution of money on an unprecedented scale. In this area, Kaczyński apparently aimed to model his policies on Orbán’s. In the month and a half preceding the election, various social groups in Hungary were handed an amount representing a total of 2.5 percent of the country’s annual GDP. This consisted of benefits such as refunds for the previous year’s tax payments for families with children, the payment of the recently introduced 13thpension, immediate salary increases for those in the public sector, and allowances for soldiers, policemen and secret service officers equalling to six monthly salaries. These expenditures alone would probably have assured an electoral victory for the ruling party. As collateral damage, the country, already in economic distress, suffered with the highest inflation rates in the region.
These systemic and structural factors meant that the differences between the Polish and Hungarian elections was not only due to the powers and capabilities of the two autocratic leaders. The political circumstances were far from equal.
The Polish and Hungarian systems are both illegitimate, but in different ways. Both strive towards acquiring a monopoly over political power – something that nominally even the Fidesz-amended Hungarian constitution prohibits. However, Orbán’s regime, unlike Kaczyński’s, functions like a centrally controlled organized crime group whose members could be convicted according to the current criminal code.
(We provided an analysis of this mafia state in our book A Concise Field Guide to Post-Communist Regimes.)
The stakes in the elections were thus different for the two leaders: following his defeat, Kaczyński will only lose power and will simply move from the government to the opposition. He has been an autocrat, but not a criminal. At most, what is at stake now in Poland, is how to hold him accountable politically, though not criminally. By contrast, Orbán is both an autocrat and a criminal. Therefore, after the possible collapse of his regime, members of his adoptive political family would be in danger not only of losing power, but also of losing their freedom. They ought to be cautioned by the fate of corrupt autocrats such as Nikola Gruevski of Macedonia, Vladimir Plahotniuc of Moldova, Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine, and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, who have had to flee their country after losing political power.
Orbán in Putin’s Embrace: How Poland and Hungary Have Diverged
“Opening to the East” has been a key doctrine of Orban’s post-2010 foreign policy. Eastern despots offer opportunities for profitable business. They also offer political support and, unlike partners in the West, would never not criticize Orbán for the state of democracy or human rights violations in Hungary. However, this alliance comes at a high price: Hungary is turning into a mafia state that is subservient to Russia. Orbán’s adoptive political family benefits financially. In exchange, it provides political services to Putin, thereby undermining the unity of the European Union.
This is why,contrary to widespread beliefs,the Hungarian autocrat is not interested in withdrawing his country from the EU: he is a valuable partner for Putin only as long as he can serve his interests within the EU, such as by trying to soften European sanctions, blocking support for Ukraine, removing Russian oligarchs from the list of those subject to restrictions, or maintaining EU countries’ dependence on Russian energy sources.
The role played by Hungary’s autocracy in the European Union was defined by Orbán as follows: “We are the sand in the cogs, the stick in the spokes, the thorn under the nail” (quoted from a speech Orbán delivered on October 23, 2021). The Hungarian leader claims to be defending national independence, but in fact he is trying to ensure impunity for his mafia state. For years, he has been trying to forge a blocking minority in the EU by allying himself with other regimes showing authoritarian tendencies. That is also why he supports the accession of semi-authoritarian Western Balkan regimes. In Kaczyński, too, he saw an ally who would help to defend him against the sanctions that are designed to threaten him and keep him from violating the foundational norms and values of the Union.
However, their divergent attitudes toward Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine in 2022 made an alliance between the two countries unsustainable. Euroscepticism, remained the only common denominator between the two , and has provided a defensive shield at best. The paths of Poland and Hungary will diverge even more clearly now due to the electoral victory of the Polish opposition.
Poland will reject its role as a wayward member of the EU. As the fifth largest country in the Union in terms of population and GDP, it will regain the chance to enter the close circle of leaders deciding the shape of the Community. In a multipolar world, the EU should aim to become an effective political player, and not just remain an important economic actor. The need for this transition is evident after the escalation of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. As an important medium-sized country, Poland is becoming increasingly indispensable in this respect.
Poland’s potential role was first felt when the Three Seas Initiative was announced in 2015. This initiative was meant to replace the Visegrád Group, which is torn by internal conflicts. In its place, a broader Central European community reaching from the Baltic to the Black Sea was imagined. The second time Poland’s indispensability was felt was after the launch of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Now, Poland, along with the Baltic states and Romania, provides the most forceful opposition to Russian imperialism and has become one of the countries supporting Ukraine.
Finally, Polish–Ukrainian reconciliation should certainly not be overlooked. In geopolitical, historical, and strategic terms, it is as fundamental to Eastern Europe as the German–French reconciliation was to Western Europe after World War II.
The Polish–Ukrainian axis may become one of the engines of European cooperation in the future. Poland might thus take its place among the most influential EU countries, showing that national sovereignty need not be a shield behind which an autocratic regime hides, but a tool for the constructive development of the European community.
The result of Sunday’s elections gives a newly democratic Poland a mandate to play just such a role. A freedom-loving Europe needs the country to fulfil this mandate.
Bálint Madlovics is a political scientist and economist, a research fellow at the CEU Democracy Institute and a doctoral candidate at Corvinus University (Budapest). He is co-author (with Bálint Magyar) of A Concise Field Guide to Post-Communist Regimes (2022).
Bálint Magyar is a sociologist and a research fellow at the [RS1] CEU Democracy Institute. During the communist era, he was part of Hungary’s democratic opposition. He later became member of the Hungarian Parliament (1990–2010) and acted as the Minister of Education twice (1996–98, 2002–06). His publications include Post-Communist Mafia State: The Case of Hungary (2016), and, with Bálint Madlovics, A Concise Field Guide to Post-Communist Regimes (2022).
In cooperation with Ferenc Laczó and Rohit Sarma