international analysis and commentary

Managing resentment in the Visegrad Four: a challenge for liberal leaders


Poland and Hungary offer outstanding examples of the new populist style of politics and the strength of anti-liberal nationalism observable across much of the continent. The two countries were prime initiators of the “negotiated revolutions” of 1989 and readily participated in the liberal democratic turn of Central and Eastern Europe. It is probably more than a mere coincidence, then, that it is precisely their political environments which have come to be shaped by right-wing authoritarian tendencies in the mid-term.

What are the key reasons behind the right-wing turn of Poland and Hungary? How does their much discussed recent transformation compare to political changes in Slovakia and the Czech Republic? The repeated victories of Fidesz, the right-wing nationalist Hungarian party led by Viktor Orbán, in a country severely hit by the economic crisis, on the one hand; and the surprising return of PiS – a right wing nationalist party – to power in a country with impressive growth rates on the other, means that recent economic performance offers a poor explanation for their political tendencies.

The uncomfortable truth is indeed the convergence of the “Visegrad four” – from the little town in Hungary where they first met; a place that famously hosted a meeting of those countries’ kings in the 14th century – beyond their superficial divergences: all four countries may be hyper-integrated into the European and, in particular, Central European economies as semi-peripheral players, but – as the refugee issue has revealed with special clarity – they have drifted in ever more exclusivist directions.

After 1989, both the Polish and the Hungarian party systems were at first characterized by a relatively volatile situation on the right and by the clear dominance of the post-communists on the left. The resurgence of the right and widespread fears of radical nationalism meant that the left was hardly ever considered by observers and the public as a source of potentially severe imbalances. After all, the left had just reinvented itself, and so most expected it to be capable of more minor feats of renovation. Ironically, however, it would be precisely the collapse of the post-communist left in the early 21st century that led to the current peculiarities of the Polish and Hungarian political systems.

Because of unsuccessful governing periods during the last decade, the post-communists not only lost large segments of their supporters, but also much of their credibility. Various attempts to reinvent the intellectual left and several waves of left-leaning protests since have not yielded sustainable movements, let alone major political parties. Combined with the decline of liberal parties and the weakening of liberal convictions across the political spectrum, this led to a constellation in both countries where the position of center-rightists is primarily challenged by forces to their right.

Whereas economic performance cannot explain the general direction of their political development, it did have a major role. In Hungary the profundity of the crisis was a chief cause of the political landslide of 2010 which destroyed a consolidated and largely immobile political system, and which led to Fidesz emerging as the only major survivor and as the new hegemon. The results of the Hungarian elections of 2010, however, were not to prove an outlier, but rather the beginning of a new phase: the elections of 2014 largely repeated the same pattern.

In Poland, the reasons for the turn were rather different, but the outcomes were quite similar. The hype around the economic successes of the country, combined with wide segments of the population feeling little positive change, led to unexpected levels of support for the opposition. Members of younger generations seemed particularly disgruntled with what was depicted by many analysts as the best of possible Polands. The new Poland which is emerging under PiS (“Right and Justice”) rule may not fully resemble Hungary under the Orbán regime yet, but certainly there are troubling trends; after all, PiS leaders repeatedly stated that the Hungarian government is one of their models.

Strikingly, in both countries, the new radical conservative agenda was introduced by “89ers” – the people and the forces who took part in the overthrowing of the Socialist regimes – turned anti-liberal. If there was one party left in the region whose founding fathers deserved the label of 89ers, it is the once truly young libertarians of Fidesz – the name originally standing indeed for “Alliance of Young Democrats”. A quarter of a century later, their supporters constitute the bulk of the middle generations in Hungary –  the irony of course being that in the meantime their party has adopted a highly critical understanding of the transition from Socialism.

Slovak political developments of recent years have received substantially less attention internationally. The country is much less influential than Poland, while its economy has performed significantly better than Hungary’s, so there indeed appear to be fewer reasons for concern. However, next to the gradual political shift to the right observable in Poland and Hungary, which are now headed by 89ers who aim to continue their anti-communist crusade, Slovakia has undergone an impressive political transformation too. The decisive majority of parties in the current Slovak Parliament emerged after the Mečiar era – Vladimir Mečiar’s authoritarian rule jeopardized in the ‘90s the Europeanization of the country – and the leaders of the anti-Mečiar forces which led Slovakia between 1998 and 2006 have been largely replaced by new faces.

On the right, practically the entire party structure has been reinvented since 2008-09, and the process seems far from over. Intriguingly, parties and leading politicians of the right may have been replaced, but the overall structure – a leftist bloc party consistently leading in the polls in spite of its shrinking support versus a plurality of rightist parties with the chance to defeat the leftist hegemon only in coalition – has survived. Robert Fico’s SMER-SD (“Direction: social democracy”) thus continues to be the leading party, now followed by Richard Sulík’s Freedom and Solidarity which – despite its name – is a free-market oriented and Eurosceptic party.

SMER’s populism and nationalism make it eminently comparable to the leading parties of Poland and Hungary, even if the former lacks the latter’s anti-communism. However, the impression of similar underlying trends is reinforced by the most recent Slovak elections: the unexpected success of the far-right Kotleba – People’s Party Our Slovakia – is reminiscent of the sudden rise of Gàbor Vona’s Jobbik in Hungary in 2009-10. What is more, even as the style of leading Slovak politicians seems significantly less confrontational than that of Fidesz or PiS, Euroscepticism has been integrated into the discourse of the country’s major political parties. National sovereignty, especially regarding the immigration quotas, is currently being prioritized over continued EU integration in the only Visegrad country to have introduced the Euro.

Last but not least, the image of an exceptionally civilized Czech nation which shuns nationalist mobilization has been accompanied by the Czech’s consistent lack of enthusiasm for the European project. In the country long perceived as the politically most tranquil of the Visegrad Four, trust in the EU has in fact sunk to unprecedented lows since the beginning of the economic crisis. It is fair to say, however, that the Czech political system has undergone less wide-ranging changes than those of the other three Visegrad countries.

As opposed to the massive shifts to the right of Hungary and, more recently, of Poland and the unpredictable political situation of Slovakia, perhaps the most noteworthy political development in the Czech Republic is the rise of entrepreneurial populism in a technocratically inclined nation. The centrist ANO 2011, led by Andrei Babiš, is operated much like a company and has already been incorporated into governing coalitions without its potential for growth being exhausted. As is perhaps fitting for the self-image of the Czechs as particularly mild-mannered, this amounts to less of a dramatic shift than the populist nationalist turn of Hungary or Poland, but it also falls far short of a renewal of democratic contestation.