I am firmly convinced that the day will come when we will have Budapest in Warsaw. (Jarosław Kaczyński, 2011)
Throughout the European Union (EU), nationalist and far-right parties are in the ascendency. The shift to the right in many Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries is part of this overall trend. In both Hungary and Poland, parties of the conservative right (Fidesz and the Law and Justice Party (PiS)) have tightened their grip on power and are moving their countries in a more authoritarian direction. Furthermore, they have adopted strong nationalist and anti-Communist ideologies whilst, to some extent, co-opting the support of the far-right. This article examines these right- wing governments in Hungary and Poland and analyses the similarities and differences between them.
The right-wing administrations in Hungary and Poland, and their leaders Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński, are regularly criticised as being populist. This unclear and over-generalised term is used to describe how these governments are introducing a series of reforms that undermine the fundamentals of a functioning liberal democracy. It is contended that they contradict liberal democratic practices as well as the values upon which the EU has been constructed. These governments are seen to be reversing many of the gains of the ‘post-Socialist’ transition and are aberrations that need to be corrected in order to ensure their countries’ further development. Furthermore, it is often argued that the right-wing trend in Europe originates in the East and threatens to infect the more stable liberal democracies in Western Europe.
This liberal criticism of the Hungarian and Polish governments is rooted in many of the assumptions that underlay the ‘post-Socialist’ transition in CEE. A new liberal consensus had been created, with large swathes of decision- making removed from the democratic process and the ‘independent’ institutions of the state strengthened. It was assumed that many social and political conflicts would disappear in this new liberal age and that politics would be constructed around such things as life-styles and individual self- actualisation.
This liberal agenda was most forcibly pursued in the ‘post-Socialist’ states in CEE. These countries were subjected to extreme neoliberal reforms, which led to their economic de-industrialisation; the dismantling of welfare provisions; the deactivation of large sections of the workforce and the creation of large social inequalities and areas of poverty. Simultaneously, the new political systems were being constructed in a way to ensure that many matters were kept away from democratic debate. This was particularly prevalent while the CEE countries were being integrated into the EU and NATO, as the CEE governments had to maintain a course of reform that was in line with the demands of entering these organisations.
The CEE states were expected to replicate the West and to become ‘normal’ countries that accepted western values and imitated its political and economic systems. This was seen as an assured path to freedom and prosperity, and any alternative visions were regarded as a diversion from this course. Such thinking placed these countries in a state of dependency and embedded the belief they were inferior to those to their West. The election of right- wing conservative parties in Hungary and Poland was partly a reaction to this state of subordination. These governments cannot be understood simply as authoritarian reactions to liberal democracy; and a straightforward liberal/ conservative dichotomy is not an adequate framework for understanding politics in these countries. Rather these conservative nationalist governments are pursuing semi-autonomous political strategies, through implementing programmes of ‘cultural nationalism’ that signal a partial break from the ‘post-socialist’ era.
The standard liberal argument states that parties of the conservative right have come to dominate politics in Hungary and Poland due to the institutional weakness of the democracies in CEE and the lack of post-materialist values amongst the region’s population. Such thinking replicates the view that the democratic liberal centre is threatened by authoritarianism from the left as well as the right. However, in order to understand how the conservative right came to dominate politics in Poland and Hungary it is necessary to consider the decline not of a ‘liberal centre’ (that has never had a strong independent base in these countries) but rather of the left.
The Hungarian and Polish left have been dominated for most of the past three decades by two parties: the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP) and the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). Both of these parties emerged from the ruling parties of ‘socialism’; and, after struggling during the early years of the transition to capitalism, they both led governing coalitions in the mid-1990s. Their support peaked in the early/mid-2000s, with the MSZMP winning over 40 percent of the vote in the 2002 and 2006 parliamentary elections and the SLD receiving a similar vote in 2001. Both parties had managed to hegemonise the centre-left in their respective countries and offered the only political alternative to the parties of the right. However, after forming governments in the early 2000s they both pursued third way neoliberal programmes and became mired in corruption scandals. At the 2005 parliamentary elections, support for the SLD fell to just 11.3 percent, and in 2015, for the first time in history, the left did not win any parliamentary seats. Meanwhile, the MSZMP vote slumped to 19.3 percent in 2010 and then to 11.91 percent in 2018.
Both Fidesz and PiS were able to fill the political vacuum left by the collapse of the mainstream left-wing parties in Hungary and Poland and help usher in a new era of right-wing dominance in these countries.
Fidesz was initially created as an elitist liberal party in 1988, with an upper age limit of 35. It took part in the round-table talks that negotiated the end of ‘socialism’ and became the largest partner in a coalition government in 1998, after winning over 28 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections. During this period in office the government did not challenge the ruling liberal hegemony and was primarily concerned with maintaining good international relations with the West as the country completed its negotiations to join the EU and NATO. However, by the time the party had returned to power in 2010 it had no longer limited itself to this task. Moreover, for the first time in Hungary’s ‘post-socialist’ history, a party had won a ‘supermajority’ in parliament, meaning that it was able to reform the constitution. The party identified a coalition of liberals and former ‘Communists’ as having corrupted the political and economic system and promised wholesale reforms to correct it.
PiS was created in 2001 and led by the brothers Jarosław and Lech Kaczyński. The core of the party’s leadership and membership had belonged to the Centre Alliance (PC) formed in 1990. This party was a product of the so-called ‘war at the top’, in which radical elements of the former Solidarity movement leadership split from its more liberal conciliatory wing. The Kaczyńskis accused the liberal wing of Solidarity of having betrayed the movement and formed an unholy alliance with former ‘Communists’. They argued that this new elite had usurped political and economic power and distorted the new capitalist system through protecting their own interests. This divide, within the post-Solidarity right, was temporarily suspended when a right-wing coalition (Solidarity Electoral Alliance - AWS) led a government between 1997 and 2001, in which PC participated. However, following its electoral annihilation in 2001, the AWS broke up into a number of competing parties, which included the newly created PiS. After the subsequent collapse of the SLD vote in 2005, Polish politics became dominated by two parties from the right: PiS and Citizens’ Platform (PO). After briefly leading a coalition government from 2005, PiS became the leading opposition party to the PO governments from 2007 to 2015. PiS identified PO as now also belonging to the country’s corrupt elite and promised to cleanse the state after winning power at the 2015 parliamentary and presidential elections.
Despite their anti-liberal and nationalist rhetoric, the Hungarian and Polish governments have generally not diverged from the previous macroeconomic policies pursued in their countries. One of several major contradictions characterising these governments is that although they have at times conflicted with the EU (see below), they remain dependent upon it. Both Hungary and Poland receive some of the highest levels of EU funds and subsidies. This has helped to increase public investment, which has been the driving force of economic growth in both countries, with EU money representing 61 percent of infrastructural spending in Poland and 55 percent in Hungary. Around 9 percent of the EU budget is allocated to Poland, whilst 2.5 percent goes to Hungary (which receives a higher share than Poland in per capita terms.) Moreover, both countries have seen huge waves of outward migration to western Europe since joining the EU. Despite the benefits of EU membership, both countries have been unequally integrated into the European division of labour, via their deindustrialisation after the fall of ‘socialism’. The annual outflow of profits and incomes from property is actually higher than the inflow of EU funds, representing on average, between 2010 and 2017, 6 percent of GDP in Poland and 7.2 percent in Hungary.
The present governments of Hungary and Poland can be considered neoliberal, when this is understood not ideologically but rather in terms of governments that implement policies which primarily serve capital. During its terms in office the Fidesz administration has, for example, introduced a new labour code that curtails labour rights and increases labour flexibility, implemented a flat personal income tax, reduced the corporate interest rate from 14 to 9 percent, maintained strict budget discipline and introduced benefit cuts, and implemented a punitive public works programme which pays an estimated 180,000 workers a monthly salary of little over 150 euro. Meanwhile, although the country remains heavily dependent upon foreign capital, the government has helped to create an internally oligarchical form of capitalism through supporting a state dependent bourgeoisie loyal to Fidesz.
The PiS government has implemented a number of ‘pro-social’ economic policies, since it entered office two and a half years ago. During its first year in office, PiS introduced a generous package of child benefits (500+), raised the minimum wage, and lowered the pension age. The 500+ child benefit had an immediate positive effect. Child poverty decreased, between 2015 and 2017, from 23 percent to 11 percent, with the number of children receiving child benefits rising from 2 million to 3.8 million (although over 3 million children are still excluded). However, the government has failed to reverse the regressive taxation laws in order to redistribute wealth. Moreover, in its attempt to further encourage foreign investment, the PiS government has introduced a new system of special economic zones, available throughout Poland, where investors will receive tax exemptions for a period of 10 or 15 years.
In contrast to their economic policies, the legal and state reforms (in areas such as the courts and media) implemented by Fidesz and PiS significantly break from many previous liberal orthodoxies. These governments have partially abandoned their role as ‘imitators’ of the West intending to turn their countries into ‘normal’ countries endorsing western values. By the second decade of the twenty-first century, liberalism was no longer simply an idealised vision of the future in CEE, but had become associated with two decades of ‘really existing capitalism’ and much of western capitalism’s dysfunctionality. In Hungary and Poland the liberal consensus had been upheld within all the major political parties, within academia and the media, and promoted by external international bodies.
Both Fidesz and PiS have challenged liberal democracy in Poland and Hungary by democratically winning electoral majorities. They have claimed that they are protecting their countries’ sovereignty and democracy against (internal and external) elites dominating the institutions of the state. They have then used these democratic majorities to change some of their countries’ institutions and remove some of the perceived restrictions that limit their power in government. Liberal critics of the Hungarian and Polish governments have described them as ‘illiberal’ or ‘majoritarian’ and working to abolish the democratic checks and balances that preserve a healthy political democracy.
When Fidesz was elected in 2010, it won a two-thirds majority in parliament that allowed it to change the country’s constitution. In 2011 a new constitution was approved, after being rushed through parliament with little political consultation. The number of MPs was reduced from 389 to 199 in order to strengthen the political position of Fidesz, and the constituency of the constitutional court was altered to give Fidesz more power. The party has successively strengthened its control over the media, running a huge media juggernaut that includes large areas of the public as well as private media outlets. The Fidesz government has used state money to fund ‘information campaigns’ (amounting to around US$ 250 million in 2017) on topics such as immigrants, the EU, and George Soros. The Hungarian government has also combined its anti-immigrant policies (see below) with an attack on NGOs in the country. In June 2018 it passed a ‘Stop Soros’ law that criminalises any individual or group that offers to help an illegal immigrant claim asylum, thus restricting the activities of NGOs working in this area. Around the same time the government implemented a new law that requires foreign universities based in Hungary to also have a campus in their home country (a law that in practice only restricts the activities of the Central European University set up by George Soros).
The situation in Poland differs from that in Hungary, because although PiS became the first party in Poland’s modern history to win an overall majority, it does not have the necessary two-thirds majority required to change the constitution. Therefore, although the party has not gone as far as Fidesz in its reforms, it has had to contravene parts of the constitution in order to proceed with them. Within less than three years in office PiS has managed to take almost complete control of the courts, through introducing changes to the National Council of the Judiciary, refusing to publish and abide by Constitutional Tribunal rulings, and appointing its own preferred candidates to the Tribunal. The party has also gained control of the public media and turned it into a political mouthpiece of the government. The funding of NGOs has been centralised, threatening the continued funding of NGOs that are critical of government policies.
Both Fidesz and PiS have strengthened their power within the state and are moving their countries in a more authoritarian direction. This is partly a reaction to the failures of (neo) liberalism in these countries and paradoxically requires that these parties mobilise sections of society to participate in the democratic process. However, the conservative-nationalist governments in Hungary and Poland are not just eroding some of the practices and institutions of liberal democracy but are purposively moving their countries sharply to the right.
The liberal critique of the Hungarian and Polish governments complies with the common misconception that there is no essential difference between left and right ‘extremism’. Such ideas have grown in popularity in recent years, evolving from the theory of the ‘twin totalitarianisms’ of fascism and communism into the liberal notion that politics should primarily be focused on excluding the extremes of left and right. By adopting a ‘symmetric’ position towards communism and fascism, the conservative-nationalist right is able to divert attention away from the dangers of racism and the far-right and towards communism and the left.
Anti-communism plays an important role for the Hungarian and Polish governments. To begin with, it is used as a justification for their reforms of the state, based on the claim that an elite rooted in the ‘socialist’ system continues to dominate the state’s legal and political institutions. During the first decade of the ‘post-socialist’ period, the major political cleavage in both Hungary and Poland was between the centre-left (derived from the former ruling parties during ‘socialism’) and liberal and conservative parties. However, the collapse in support for these centre-left parties opened up a new divide, with Fidesz and PiS identifying the ‘post-communist’ elite as now including liberals who had supposedly colluded with former Communists during the transition period. Almost anyone who disagrees with these governments’ policies can now be accused of being part of or serving this ‘post-Communist’ elite.
Simultaneously, these governments have begun an offensive against the symbols and history of the ‘socialist’ period, in order to delegitimise the whole of the left. In both Hungary and Poland, communist (and fascist) symbols had been illegalised well before the election of Fidesz and PiS. However, these laws have had a limited impact in practise as the symbols are only outlawed when they are considered to be promoting totalitarianism. Both Fidesz and PiS have extended the campaign against ‘communism’ to the wider left. For example, some monuments commemorating those who fought against the Horthy military dictatorship and the Arrow Cross regime in Hungary have been removed. In addition, the entire collection of manuscripts and correspondence held at the György Lukács Archive has been taken away and his statue removed from a Budapest park. This atmosphere of extreme anti-communism has led to absurdities such as the right-wing media protesting against a Frida Kahlo exhibition in Budapest (due to her relations with Trotsky) and Orbán threatening to ban Heineken beer in Hungary because of its red star logo. In Poland, a new aggressive ‘anti-communist’ historical policy has been launched. This has involved removing and changing monument and road names relating not only to the Communist period, but also to the Soviet victory over fascism, announcing that it will remove up to 500 Soviet monuments around the country. This regressive historical campaign has also included attempts to change the road signs commemorating the more than 3,000 Polish volunteers that fought in the Spanish Civil War as well as figures connected to the pre-war socialist movement. The irrationality of ‘symmetry’ was exposed when a group of extreme neo-Nazis were caught on film celebrating Hitler’s birthday and the government immediately declared it a reason to fight against organisations that stand in the traditions of both communism and fascism.
The ideology of extremes, which equates communism and fascism, has been an integral part of the ‘post-socialist’ political landscape in CEE. It was first deployed by liberals in order to strengthen the political centre and oppose ‘extremism’ and ‘authoritarianism’ from the left and the right. However, the conservative and nationalist right are now using it to divert attention away from the growing problem of racism and the far-right and towards the supposed threat posed by communism and the left. The use of anti-communism by the Hungarian and Polish right is part of a broader regressive political turn in these countries and the creation of new perceived enemies of the nation.
Both Fidesz and PiS have directly used racism as a means to help consolidate their political base. They have taken a strong anti-refugee stance, with both governments refusing to participate in the EU’s resettlement programme and take in a quota of refugees. The anti-refugee propaganda of Fidesz and PiS is different from that existing in most Western European countries. First, they both openly use extreme Islamophobic language, which is usually only deployed by parties of the far-right. Viktor Orbán has openly called refugees ‘Islamic invaders’ and declared that Christian and Muslim communities are unable to integrate with each other. Likewise, Kaczyński and President Andrzej Duda have argued against accepting refugees into Poland because they may ‘carry diseases’. Second, the Hungarian and Polish right have used the refugee issue as a means to claim that they are defending their countries’ national sovereignty and cultural identity against outside forces. Whilst the far right in Western Europe tends to focus its attacks on immigrants and refugees living in their countries, the Hungarian and Polish rights claims that they are trying to prevent their countries from becoming multicultural, that they are the last bastion defending what they see as the white, Christian heritage of Europe. Therefore, the right in Hungary and Poland is pursuing an extreme form of cultural nationalism, in which they claim to be not only pursuing an independent course of development from that in Western Europe but actually preserving the core values upon which it had been built. This is extended beyond the question of refugees and multiculturalism to areas such as sexual rights, the family, and religion.
These conservative-nationalist governments have helped to unleash a surge in racism and far-right opinions. However, at the same time, the dominance of Fidesz and PiS has partially marginalised the parties of the far right. The situation of the far right is significantly different in Hungary and Poland, partly due to the divergent histories of these countries. In Hungary the pre- War Horthy Regime cooperated with Nazi Germany and during World War Two the Arrow Cross Party formed a puppet Nazi government. The main Hungarian far-right party (Jobbik) has reached back to the symbols and traditions of the Horthy regime and much of their anti-Semitic and fascist traditions. Three years after the creation of Jobbik, its leader Gábor Vona established the paramilitary Hungarian Guard in 2006 (it was then banned in 2009 after it marched through Roma areas.) The party emerged as the third largest party during the 2010 and 2014 parliamentary elections (winning 16.67 percent and 20.22 percent of the vote respectively.) Although its vote share fell slightly in 2018 (to 19.06 percent) it still became the second largest party in the Hungarian Parliament. Before these elections, Jobbik had undergone a cosmetic change, disguising some of its most extreme views and presenting itself as a ‘modern conservative party’ that wished to reverse some of the undemocratic reforms of Fidesz.
The Polish far-right does not have the history of fascist and Nazi collaborator governments as a reference point. Rather the right has to look to pre-war nationalist politicians (such as Roman Dmowski), distort historical events like the Warsaw Uprising, and rehabilitate entities such as the nationalist battalions that partly collaborated with the Nazis or paramilitary armies that fought against the Communist government after World War Two. No far- right party has been able to establish itself as an independent force within the mainstream of Polish politics. However, in 2015 eight MPs, endorsed by the far-right National Movement, entered parliament as part of the Kukiz’15 electoral list. Far-right organisations (such as the National Movement, the National Radical Camp, and the All-Polish Youth Organisation) have become increasingly active in Poland in recent years. One of their major activities has been to organise and lead the annual national independence march on 11 November. This has attracted tens of thousands of participants, many of whom would not directly associate themselves with the far right. This shows how the far right has managed to galvanise support in Poland far beyond its own political base, encouraged by the general move to the right under the PiS government.
Fidesz and PiS have been unable to redress their countries’ economically subordinate position within the EU; they remain dependent upon EU funds. Rather, they have attempted to pursue an independent form of conservative politics that has led them into conflict with the EU, which mainly revolves around two issues: First, Hungary’s and Poland’s refusal to accept an agreed quota of refugees; this has, as mentioned above, been used by Fidesz and PiS to proclaim they are defending their countries’ national sovereignty and culture against outside interference. Second, the EU has criticised both countries for violating the rule of law, through their reforms of the state.
At the end of 2017, the EU deployed Article 7 against Poland (the first time this had ever been done against a Member State), which theoretically could lead it to lose its voting rights inside the EU. The EU has accused Poland of using its democratic majority to ‘politically interfere in the composition, powers, administration and functioning of the judicial branch’. The EU moved first against Poland, because although its reforms have been less extreme than those in Hungary, it has breached the constitution in order to carry them out, due to its lack of a constitutional majority in parliament. Furthermore, Fidesz is more integrated into the mainstream of European politics as it is a member of the European People’s Party (EPP) faction in the European Parliament (PiS belongs to the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) faction), which had partly shielded it from political attack). However, in September 2018, the EU also launched Article 7 proceedings against Hungary, on the basis that it had flouted EU values on issues such as judicial independence, corruption, freedom of expression, academic freedom, religious freedom, and the rights of minorities and refugees.
These CEE countries are now in open dispute with the EU. They refute the accusations made against them by claiming that they are defending their cultural and national traditions and democratic mandates. It is unlikely that Hungary or Poland will have their voting rights suspended, as both countries have announced that they will veto any attempt to do so. Also, there is a sizeable minority within the European Parliament that has opposed these moves against them, and this minority may well grow after the next European Parliament elections. Fidesz and PiS are part of the wider growth of conservative and far-right parties in Europe, and their relative success is a sign of how the liberal hegemony inside the EU is fragmenting.
The right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland cannot be understood within a simple liberal-versus-conservative framework. Fidesz and PiS have moved their countries in a more authoritarian direction and have undermined many of the structures and institutions of a liberal democratic system. To some degree, this has been a reaction to the unfair and unaccountable economic and political systems created after 1989. The neoliberal transformation eroded the basis for stable democracies and incorporated the ideologies of conservatism and anti-communism. Liberalism has never been a strong independent political force in these countries. The victory of right-wing conservative-nationalist parties in Hungary and Poland was achieved by defeating the left, which had been subsumed into the neoliberal consensus. This process is not unique to Hungary and Poland. Throughout the EU the centre-left parties are losing support and opening the way for the growth of right-wing nationalist and far-right parties.
This context helps explain why it is impossible to effectively oppose these governments only through a defence of democracy against authoritarianism. Large demonstrations have at times been organised against these governments’ reforms, particularly in Poland. However, these have steadily diminished in size, the opposition movements have been marginalised, and the governing parties have maintained strong support in the polls. Some have argued that all parties opposed to these governments should unite into a single bloc. The leading international scholar on populism even proposed that a single electoral alliance should have been formed in the last parliamentary elections to include Jobbik. However, such a strategy reduces the opposition to a small and often privileged section of society and does not address the social frustrations and anger caused by the transition to capitalism. In order to redress this, the left has to rebuild itself as an independent political force that challenges the authoritarian, conservative, and nationalist programmes of the right, whilst also offering a progressive economic alternatives to meet the needs of the majority of society.