With European Parliament elections coming up this May, there is increasing worry about the influence of populist parties, which are now growing in almost every single EU member state. When thinking about countries that have already succumbed to these parties, politics aficionados from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean are likely to think about Poland and Hungary. But as similar as they may appear in people’s minds, the populist governments in the two Central European countries present some significant differences which may reflect the nuances of the illiberal wave.
Fidesz, the right-wing populist party of Hungary, and Law and Justice (PiS), the nationalist-conservative Polish ruling party, are both right-of-centre parties that developed in line with the post-communist trajectory of their countries. But their stories display some very different patterns. Fidesz was founded in 1988 as a liberal anti-communist party, and was initially a member of the Liberal International. Viktor Orban was the party’s first spokesperson, and eventually became its first president.
It gradually moved to the conservative right, eventually becoming closer to the far-right than to its original liberal roots. PiS was founded in 2001, and and its roots can be traced back to the Solidarity Movement, the trade union that defeated Poland’s communist regime. Founded by brothers Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, it adopted from the beginning a conservative and populist discourse focused on anti-corruption rhetoric.
Fidesz’s swift adaptation to new circumstances may point towards a pattern of Machiavellian power politics. Just last year, the party won a two-thirds majority in Parliament for the third time in a row since 2010, having campaigned on a strong anti-immigration platform and conspiracy theories about Hungarian-Jewish billionaire George Soros. The supermajority allowed Fidesz to capture the state by changing the Constitution and weakening the judiciary. PiS, however, is far from enjoying such power. The party barely won a majority for the first time in the 2015 elections, and faces a big challenge from a reinvigorated opposition later this year. PiS has proved the extent to which it is willing to weaken institutions, and has been so obvious in doing so that the backlash is now being felt. Fidesz has been silently working towards this for 8 years, and every time it has become more powerful than before. But the most significant areas where the two parties differ relate to the role they play in European politics and their position with regards to Russia.
Fidesz has long been a member of the European People’s Party, along with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. This was another reason why the EU was so much faster in punishing PiS than Fidesz. Membership in the EPP gave Fidesz and Orban more room for manoeuvre, since the EPP is the most influential party in the EU’s institutions. Manfred Weber, the EPP’s candidate for the Commission President and a member of Germany’s CDU has been a strong supporter of Orban, jumping to his defence on several occasions. Well aware of this electoral vulnerability, Weber has gone out of his way to flip on the issue and support Article 7 against Hungary. Despite his shift, his EPP colleagues are still highly favourable of Fidesz out of fear that it may quit the EPP and join forces with more right-wing parties.
On the other hand, Poland’s PiS is part of the European Conservatives and Reformists, a right-wing coalition founded by the Conservative Party of the UK. Lacking strong allies in Europe led to significantly faster Article 7 proceedings and left the party and its leader exposed to retaliation. With the UK leaving the EU next month, PiS will be left without any major allied parties. Moreover, Kaczynski, unlike Orban, does not serve as Prime Minister and as such is not a member of the European Council and has limited access to other leaders. In fact, Kaczynski’s only office is that of a regular MP – his political influence stems from his personal authority and position as party leader.
When it comes to Russia, the two parties could not be more different. Orban’s links to Russia and his deep appreciation of Putin are well documented by media outlets. Russia also needs Hungary: if they want to succeed in ending the sanction regime, as well as hurt the EU’s stability, an illiberal regime with a veto right in the European Council could not be more welcome. Poland, on the other hand, is extremely skeptical of Russia, to the point that it was the first NATO country to accept US demands to increase military spending. Poland’s government has also organized significant NATO drills on its territory.
To Kaczynski, the relationship also has a personal dimension. His brother, President Lech Kaczynski, was killed in a 2010 plane crash in Russia. Ever since, Kaczynski, along with his party and government, have repeatedly blamed Putin for the crash, framing it as an intentional act meant to decimate the Polish leadership. PiS’s stance also provides a difficult challenge to creating a European alliance of populists, as the one feature other populist parties share is their love of Russia.
These are just some of the differences between Europe’s most famous populist ruling parties, but they all go back to Polish and Hungarian identities – and they essentially dictate both the foreign and domestic policies of the two parties. Inside the EU, they are allies. But they are allies only by circumstance, ensuring the fulfillment of their short-term goals. Their natures differ fundamentally. It can be said that in many ways, PiS is the younger sibling of the Republican Party, while Fidesz’s older sibling is Putin’s United Russia. The way they got to power, the way they hold on to power, as well as they they may lose that power may well reflect such comparison.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.
Featured image via Wikimedia Commons.