What does the future hold for democracy in the V4? - Conference summary


The main findings of Political Capital’s new research regarding the recent trends of illiberal-governance in the Visegrad States were presented to the public at a conference organized with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. Following the presentation, a moderated discussion was held with four experts of the region, who themselves contributed to the research. The experts were: Vit Dostal, Director of the Association of International Affairs Research Center (Czech Republic), András Bozóki, Professor of Political Science at the Central European University (Hungary), Grigoríj Meseznikov, President of the Institute for Public Affairs (Slovakia), and Wojciech Przybylski, Editor-in-Chief of Visegrad Insight and chairman of Res Publica (Poland).

The aim of the research was to identify and systematically analyze patterns of illiberal governance in V4 countries. It was conceived following three basic ideas: that the V4 is not a homogenous block and each country’s unique attributes must be recognized, that a sufficient analysis of illiberalism requires moving beyond the institutional and legal frameworks, and that illiberalism itself is widely dispersed over the political spectrum, resulting in little analytical coherence. The methodology and chief findings of the research were presented by Edit Zgut from Political Capital.

The countries were studied in various analytical arenas, which were, among others, authoritarian populism, eroding checks and balances, limiting independence of judiciary, attacks on civil society, restricting media, clientelism, systematic corruption, and anti-West rhetoric. Working through these arenas, it can be concluded that democratic backsliding occurred in all four countries, but illiberal shifts resulted in deeper changes to the institutional system only in Hungary and Poland. The Kaczyński and Orbán-regimes are both somewhat authoritarian and exclusionary because they reject pluralism and consider all independent agencies critical of their regimes to be enemies of the state.

However, key differences must be noted between these two regimes. Orbán’s is considerably more advanced than Kaczynski’s and exhibits authoritarian traits more explicitly, as it successfully drained formal institutions from democratic substance while exercising informal political power to dissolve social autonomy. In the Polish case, constitutional arrangements have been changed without changing the constitution itself, and centrally imposed limitations to the judiciary’s independence are significantly more advanced than in Hungary. However, Polish civil society remains considerably intact, the public sphere, albeit restricted, is significantly more diverse than in Hungary, and despite EU criticism, Poland remains in favour of transatlantic ties. Although Robert Fico and Andrej Babis’ governance raise some concerns regarding authoritarian-populist tendencies in Slovakia and Czech Republic, these countries remain adequately stable democracies with sufficient democratic checks and balances capable of curtailing illiberal governance.

During the discussion following the presentation, the experts introduced further observations regarding each country. Mr. Przybylski drew attention to the significance of the decentralised local governance in Poland, and how these “spheres of autonomy” can successfully counter centralization. He also pointed out that the Polish society would not likely tolerate the levels of corruption observed in Hungary. Mr. Bozóki added that the main question we should be asking is whether these countries are still democratic – according to him, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are, as well as Poland, although it is under significant authoritarian challenge, whereas state capture in Hungary has practically been completed, and the country is no longer a democracy, but a hybrid regime.

Mr. Meseznikov pointed out that Slovakia used to be considered the region’s black sheep but has now become a democratic leader where illiberal governance is less concerning than in other V4 member states. He claimed this was the result of a well-preserved and sufficiently developed political system with a strong democratic character, as well as a society-wide democratic willingness originating partly from EU conditionality. Mr. Dostal argued the two main reasons why the Czech Republic remains democratically stable, despite problems with recent governance and the broader political society, were the Czech constitution’s permanence and Babis’s lack of sufficient authority to implement significant, systematic changes.

Other topics relating to the issue were discussed as well. Regarding Polish-Hungarian relations and the “Budapest-Warsaw express”, Mr. Przybylski said that despite limitations to the extent to which Poland can copy Hungary, “there is a lot of Orbán in the Polish playbook”, and Budapest now dominates Warsaw in foreign policy matters. On the matter of Orbán’s conception of Christian democracy, Mr. Bozóki stated that unlike Kaczyński, Orbán is not ideologically motivated and focuses solely on expanding his power, therefore, the notion of Christian democracy will also likely be used as a pragmatic tool to increase centralised control and invade the private sphere of citizens more closely. Mr. Dostal also drew attention to the importance of preventing Andrej Babis from getting closer to Orbán in a personal and political sense, especially since the matter of Czech EU membership is largely in his hands (and he currently has no incentive to make the country leave the Union).

Regarding the migrant issue, the experts agreed that it became a dominant theme of V4 communication due to Hungary’s influence. Orbán using it is as a pragmatic tool of political manoeuvring put the issue at the centre of political and social discussions, even in Slovakia that had no direct exposure to it. The experts also agreed that the recent proposal by the EU Commission to make EU funds conditional to democratic integrity is probably not going to pass in its current form, and that while the proposal itself might have negative consequences, the EU ignoring or tacitly accepting illiberal trends in these countries is equally bad.

The summary was written by Kristóf Horváth, intern at Political Capital.