Soon, the “two good friends” may only join forces on a tactical level to get EU funds. From Telex.
This is a brief summary of the event hosted by the NGO Eotvos in Budapest on 21 September, where Poland specialist Zsombor Zeold and political scientist Edit Zgut-Przybylska discussed the politics of the two illiberal states and the relationship between them.
Both researchers live in Warsaw, so they have experienced first-hand how the Poles’ attitude towards Hungarians has changed. They also showed how illiberalism in Poland differs from illiberalism in Hungary, and where the Warsaw and Budapest governments will continue to fight hand in hand despite their differences over Ukraine.
War Could Make Warsaw a ‘Middle Power’
Zeold began his presentation by outlining the Polish political situation: compared to Hungary, the position of president is stronger, but there is also an opposition of a mixed ideological spectrum against the right-wing populist governing party. On fundamental foreign and security policy issues, however, both political sides agree: the United States is an ally, Ukraine must be supported, and Russia is a threat.
Of course, the governing Law and Justice party (PiS) controls the political agenda just as Fidesz does, but it too is facing rising inflation and soaring energy prices.
Ukraine is just as important a factor in Polish politics as the economic crisis: “For Poles, the war started in 2014, and this year’s escalation is just a continuation of that. Nowhere in Poland, at any level, is there any question of taking a bite out of Ukraine. Taking territories and redrawing the Polish-Ukrainian border are all part of Russian disinformation – and this is also being spread by Russian propaganda tools here, in Hungary,” Zeold said.
In his view, Warsaw sees the war as an opportunity to become a European “middle power” with external help – the support of the United States. “This country is too big for Central Europe, as it is much bigger in terms of territory and population than the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary combined.”
Poland has also developed self-propelled guns in cooperation with the U.S. military, for which Ukraine could be a potential market. The Polish defense industry is now receiving exceptional funding, according to Zeold, which will help to increase defense spending to 4.2 percent of GDP this year, well above the NATO target of 2 percent.
But standing up for the Ukrainians could also lead to social tensions in the unfolding economic crisis, he believes. “We are talking about 1.5–2 million Ukrainian refugees who need to be provided with jobs – and although society is supporting the Ukrainians, the initial solidarity is fading,” he said. “At the local level, there may also be problems with the integration of Ukrainians. And this could create a trap for PiS, which is why they are trying to move actively in the domestic and foreign policy space as well.”
Corruption, Vote Buying, Media Capture
Both countries have serious problems with the EU over the rule of law, Edit Zgut-Przybylska stated in her presentation. Although there are similar instruments of informal power in both Hungary and Poland, the institutional differences between the two countries are huge, she said.
“While in Poland it was mainly the courts that were attacked – where independent judges were replaced in the framework of ‘decommunization’ – in Hungary all democratic institutions were molded in the image of the regime. The Hungarian government has also curbed the power of NGOs and independent media through various NGO laws and the state propaganda machine, but the Polish government has failed to do so because of its less centralized system,” Zgut-Przybylska said.
In addition, she said, while the Hungarian government has been a steamroller in unleveling the political playing field by rewriting the rules, the Polish government is constrained by more checks and balances. One of them is President Andrzej Duda, who has vetoed an increasing number of government laws since his second term in office started in 2020, including most recently the media law targeting U.S.-owned TVN.
According to Zgut-Przybylska, informal elements of power in Hungary and Poland often take the form of phenomena such as patronage and corruption. The legacy of the Soviet communist regimes, for example, and the process of accession to the European Union have just made matters worse. “Although both countries have met all the formal criteria of the Maastricht criteria, the EU has not examined the practical implementation of the criteria,” she said.
Zgut-Przybylska used three examples to show how the Hungarian and Polish illiberal powers are making the political terrain unequal:
- Corruption: In Hungary, a small, identifiable group around Prime Minister Orban wins a large share of public tenders, making competition between resources unequal. In Poland, on the other hand, the ruling party tends to include state-owned companies or use state funds for political purposes through special foundations.
- Clientelism: In Hungary, the phenomenon of vote-buying is spectacular, she said, citing the 8th district of Budapest as a laboratory for this, where vulnerable communities are intimidated into voting for the ruling party. In Poland, votes are bought by handouts rather than coercion, but the church also plays an important role in supporting the ruling party.
- Media: In both countries, the capture of the media is an important tool to consolidate power. While in Hungary the Central European Press and Media Foundation is the most prominent example of this, in Poland an increasing number of rural media are being bought up through state-owned companies.
Summarizing the main differences between Hungarian and Polish illiberalism, Zgut-Przybylska said that while in Hungary the system is organized around one person (Orban), in Poland party loyalty (to Law and Justice) dominates, and the economy is much more autonomous. Although she says the European Union is trying to fight illiberal regimes, “creative legislative compliance will not be able to overcome authoritarian regime change in practice.”
Hungarian Wines Off the Shelves
Answering questions from the audience, Zeold argued that the war in Ukraine has put Hungarian-Polish relations in serious difficulties, not only politically but also socially. “This is more than just outrage. It’s outrage across the whole society: some Hungarian-related events are harder to organize now than they used to be, and even Hungarian wines have been taken off the shelves of some chain stores,” the Warsaw-based expert said.
Polish society’s image of democracy is also healthier, he continued, because while in Poland freedom goes hand in hand with responsibility, “this is not necessarily the case in Hungary, where the Kadar system is still alive in people’s minds.”
And this responsibility also translates into activism, according to Zgut-Przybylska: “The local autonomous communities that have unfortunately disappeared bit by bit in Hungary are present in Poland,”she said. “NGOs are strong and there are many local initiatives that seek to undermine the toxic political approaches of the governing party.”
According to Zgut-Przybylska, the Polish and Hungarian governments remain in a defensive alliance against the European Union when it comes to EU funds. Although the European Commission has only launched a rule of law mechanism against Hungary, Poland’s EU funds are also being blocked, for the time being, prompting Warsaw to renew its campaign against Brussels.
However, the issue of Ukraine makes cooperation between Budapest and Warsaw in other spheres hardly conceivable in the future, she believes.
Gaining support from the electorate is especially pressing for Law and Justice as next year’s elections draw near. “The opposition has announced that they will run together, excluding the far right, but they cannot respond to the problems of society in a meaningful way, they have no viable alternative to the solutions of the ruling party,” Zgut-Przybylska said. “And although PiS fears that it will have to reach out to the far-right voter base, it will push polarization to its peak during the campaign,” she concluded.
Koromi Csongor is a journalist at Telex.hu, where this article originally appeared. Translated by Istvan Dezsenyi. Transitions has slightly edited the text for style. Reprinted with permission.
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