The road back to democracy in central Europe

The selection of a lead opposition candidate in Hungary is a promising sign for the strength of democracy in Europe. Democrats throughout the EU should lend their support to restoring the rule of law.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki arrives at the EU Council meeting held on 21 and 22 October 2021 in Brussels
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Could the tide finally be starting to turn for populists in central and eastern Europe? Developments in Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland provide some cause for hope. The way ahead remains long, however, and democrats throughout Europe should offer support and solidarity to their counterparts in these countries.

Earlier this month, Hungary saw what must count as one of the most stunning exercises in democratic participation in the region since the end of communism. Over the last decade, the prime minister, Viktor Orban, and his Fidesz party have dismantled Hungarian democracy from within, capturing state institutions, taking over the media, and setting the country on a collision course with the European Union. Yet more than 800,000 Hungarians took part in a primary to select a lead candidate to be prime minister at next year’s general election. Opposition parties ranging from the far-right Jobbik to the left have declared their intention to line up behind conservative local politician Peter Marki-Zay.

Shoots of hope appeared as early as 2018 when Marki-Zay showed it was possible to succeed as a joint opposition candidate, when he won the mayoralty of the small city of Hodmezovasarhely against the seemingly entrenched Fidesz. For many years, the ruling party’s electoral success has been aided by the weakness of the fragmented opposition, which faced an onslaught of state-backed propaganda and was further hampered by new rules giving a two-thirds supermajority of parliamentary seats to the winning side. But this might now change. Marki-Zay may well be able to mobilise Fidesz sympathisers outside the big cities – a key precondition for electoral victory on the national stage.

While Hungary’s opposition has taken only the first step towards a change of power, the Czech Republic is fortunately somewhat further along. This month, two party alliances successfully contested the election against the incumbent ANO party of controversial prime minister Andrej Babis. One of the alliances, the conservative Spolu, now aims to form the new government together with the liberal alliance led by the Pirate Party. In recent years, the populist Babis has repeatedly been accused of fraud involving EU subsidies, which he has always denied. Most recently, he appeared in the Pandora Papers investigation, which may have cost him crucial votes in the election. While it remains unclear when a new government will be able to take office, for Europe’s populists, the election outcome is clearly bad news.

And what about Poland, whose rule since 2015 by Law and Justice has seen the party move rapidly to emulate Fidesz’s takeover? Another crunch came this month in the drawn-out conflict between Warsaw and Brussels, when the Polish constitutional court ruled that some parts of EU law were incompatible with the Polish constitution. In response, tens of thousands of people took to the streets across the country, conveying a powerful pro-European message in a country whose leadership is moving ever further from the principles that govern EU membership.

Only truly free and fair elections can bring political change, but the EU must also up the ante.

At this point there are no clear signs that a united opposition against the ruling Law and Justice party will emerge from this movement, but a mobilisation on the Hungary model may well prove necessary. The heralded return to domestic politics of former Polish prime minister and European Council president Donald Tusk as leader of the opposition Civic Platform party has not met with immediate success. He has attempted to become the principal opposition leader, but this has drawn criticism from would-be allies. And during the recent protests he missed a vital opportunity to appear alongside other opposition figures. But voters’ fears of a Polish exit from the EU have already mobilised a diverse electorate. There is no general election until 2023, so the opposition has time to unite.

To succeed in this, democratic political activists will need external support. Only truly free and fair elections can bring political change, but the EU must also up the ante. Brussels has already frozen money for Poland from the coronavirus recovery fund. This was a step in the right direction, and applying the ‘rule of law mechanism’, allowing the EU to cut funds to member states, would be the correct next step (if the European Court of Justice decides that the mechanism is lawful). Such a move would be a clear response to Poland’s undermining of EU principles. It would provide a welcome boost to the resurgent opposition in central Europe and further weaken right-wing populists and Eurosceptics elsewhere in Europe.

Back in Hungary, Marki-Zay’s victory may cause euphoria among the newly formed opposition. And the polling suggests that the ruling party and the opposition are tied, which is a promising sign. However, the biggest challenges still lie ahead for the alliance. It must resist the campaign that Orban will now wage with the help of the pro-government media. The coalition’s members must also learn how to stick together on the long and exhausting road to the election. To help them get there, other pro-democracy Europeans should lend them their support.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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