Illiberalism in the V4: Pressure points and bright spots


Executive summary

  • Democratic backsliding has definitely become a trend in the Visegrád countries with Hungary and Poland leading the charge. Meanwhile, shifts in Slovakia and the Czech Republic did not result in deeper changes to the institutional system.
  • The main difference between the Hungarian and the Polish model is that while the power political methods and the institutional makeup of the Orbán-regime showcases authoritarian traits, the Kaczyński regime, still in the infancy of illiberal state building, can still be described as a watered-down democracy where some institutional checks and balances are still functioning.
  • When it comes to constitutional arrangements, Poland remains more stable than Hungary due to factors such as the more extensive role and direct mandate of the president, a proportional electoral system that helps blocking the formation of constitutional supermajorities, and the multi-level structure of local self-governments. The latter provide at least some balance to the central administration.
  • The increasingly undemocratic political culture – rapidly shifting institutional standards and illegal procedures – is the main culprit of undermining Polish liberal democracy. The 2015 election result does not legitimise the extent of systemic changes introduced by Jarosław Kaczyński, whose party usurped the right to change constitutional arrangements without changing the law itself. Moreover, the overhaul of the judiciary system is in an advanced stage, while in Hungary the judiciary is independent of the government – at least for the moment.
  • There are two main characteristics of the Orbán regime. It does not want to dissolve democratic institutions completely but strives to empty them of content. Consequently, they have become unable to restrict the government. Additionally, the informal exercise of power plays a central role in illiberal system-building in Hungary. The essence of the system is dissolving social autonomy through the establishment of feudal relationships of dependence. The Hungarian government is “untouchable” for Brussels partly because – for instance – the EU procedures aimed at monitoring the institutional and legal system cannot deal with informal power politics.
  • Both Orbán and Kaczyński are abandoning the achievements of the democratic transition, and they are both referring to the failure of this period when they are altering the political system. This is ironic given that they were around the roundtables deciding on their respective countries’ futures themselves. However, since 2015, references to the threats posed by migration is an even more essential characteristic of the Orbán regime’s authoritarian political system-building efforts.
  • The key traits of the Orbán and the Kaczyński regimes are that they are authoritarian, exclusionary in a sense that they reject pluralism and depict critical actors independent of these governments (civil society, opposition, etc.) as the enemy of the state. In Poland, Kaczyński delegitimized the entire opposition by labelling them “Poles of the worst sort”, “murderers” “with treason in their genes”.
  • Authoritarian populist tendencies are also present in Slovakia and the Czech Republic but to a lesser extent. Robert Fico has often depicted journalists as prostitutes, while the sustainability of populism in the Czech Republic is being ensured the by pro-Russian, Eurosceptic Milos Zeman and Prime Minister Andrej Babis. In Slovakia, there is a possibility for moving towards a less democratic system of governance based on the “tyranny of the majority”, but the relatively non-ideological nature of the government and the strong institutional checks and balances on the executive branch can rein in such political efforts. The Czech Republic is an even more stable democracy given the steady post-transition constitutional framework.
  • While the Fidesz government’s full-scale attack on independent civil society is about to shift into high gear, civil society in Poland has more manoeuvring space. However, ever since PiS came into power some concerns have been raised that the centralisation of funding leaves many NGOs in lack of financial resources.
  • The Slovak and Czech civil society continues to be a cornerstone of democratic change and consolidation against any illiberal changes.
  • Both the Hungarian and Polish governments restricted the public sphere significantly. The party colonization of the media has largely been successful in Hungary where the public space has undergone unprecedented centralisation efforts. The public broadcaster has been under the direct political control of the Polish ruling party since 2015, but compared to the Hungarian case the polish media market is still diverse.
  • In Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the role of independent media could be constrained by politically motivated economic groups, oligarchs acquiring a larger share in the media market or by popular disinformation sites.
  • While Orbán and Kaczyński are using similar power political methods, Jarosław Kaczyński is rather an ideologue aligned with the Polish Catholic Church. In contrast, Viktor Orbán, with state corruption as the main feature of the institutional design of the regime, is a pragmatic non-ideologue aligned with oligarchs. Even though oligarchs have not blossomed in Poland so far, a significant degree of clientelism is part of the local political culture.
  • Political/economic corruption is also a systematic feature of the Slovak and Czech political establishment. In the former, the phenomenon was strengthened by Smer-SD after 2006, and there is a potential for the further consolidation of kleptocracy and clientelism by employing “selective justice”. The Czech political system’s weak point is rooted in clientelism around the prime minister’s vast economic empire.
  • Orbán’s anti-EU, anti-immigration and pro-Russian, anti-Western rhetoric underpinned by an unprecedented mass of fake news and conspiracy theories in mainstream pro-government media undermines trust in the Western institutional system. Meanwhile, PiS remained traditionally in favour of transatlantic ties, although its anti-Russian views do not prevent the party from using Russian-style rhetoric about the decadent West.
  • Their anti-EU stance fits into a wider discourse on sovereignty on the basis that there is a potential cultural conflict between the Hungarian and Polish nation and the decadent West that is unable and unwilling to protect its values from migration. Consequently, they claim that strengthening national sovereignty is indispensable for the survival of the nation and of Europe.
  • Speaking of geopolitical attitudes, in Hungary, Slovakia or the Czech Republic more than 40% of the respondents from the respective states would place their country between the East and the West. Polish society’s vulnerability stems from the fact that young Poles, surprisingly, have least pro-Western attitudes in the V4.
  • New/social media and the bias of media outlets are definitely weaknesses both in Hungary and Slovakia where societies are more prone to conspiracies, while Czechs and Poles are the most impervious to such theories. As a consequence, a significant portion of the Hungarian and Slovak population is susceptible to populist/extremist political actors and their xenophobic, anti-immigration or anti-West (anti-EU, anti-NATO, anti-American) narratives.
  • The constraining role of the EU is rather small due to its limited leverage with regards to Article 7, but the new proposal about making the mechanisms for monitoring the spending of EU funds more rigorous by being more forceful about the independence of judicial bodies could exert some influence on Hungary and Poland in the long-run.

 The complete study is available here (pdf, 1 MB).

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