I read a fascinating article on Paraméter, a Hungarian-language site from Slovakia, by János Széky, an editor of Élet és Irodalom. Its title is “Warsaw will not become Budapest, and Budapest will not become Warsaw.” It addresses the widespread belief that the right-wing populism of Viktor Orbán has now reached Poland. Jarosław Kaczyński, chairman of the Law and Justice Party (PiS), discovered the magic formula of Orbanism, which with time will conquer the whole world. According to Széky, however, those who are familiar with the situations in Hungary and Poland reject this simplistic, misleading comparison.
What do Orbán and Kaczyński have in common? Both speak the language of “radical nationalism.” Both are representatives of a kind of political Catholicism that is no longer in fashion and that most closely resembles the value system of authoritarian Christian, mostly Catholic, parties between the two world wars. Both are euroskeptic and antiliberal. The rhetoric of both Fidesz and PiS is sharply anti-communist. Both men are inclined toward paranoia based on conspiracy theories.
But there is a fundamental difference between them: Kaczyński “believes in the conservative Christian-radical nationalist values.” He is that kind of politician. Orbán, on the other hand, follows this path not from conviction but because he realized that in today’s Hungary it is this kind of politics that is popular. The difference can be seen in Kaczyński’s decision to join the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists, a party of right-wingers and euroskeptics, while Orbán kept Fidesz in the European People’s Party made up of moderate Christian Democrats, the largest party in the European Union that on several occasions saved his skin. The small and therefore ineffectual ECR will be of no help to Kaczyński when the European Parliament turns against his illiberal ways.
The real difference, however, between the Polish and the Hungarian situations is the Polish voters’ reactions to the anti-democratic legislative decisions of the Polish parliament and government. In Poland the challenge to the rule of law began by an attack on the Constitutional Court, but unlike in Hungary where the opposition politicians and liberal intellectuals passively watched events unfold, the Poles immediately established a Committee for the Defense of Democracy (Komitet Obrony Demokracji or KOD), which follows in the tradition of the earlier anti-communist Solidarity movement. In Hungary, ordinary citizens simply cannot be fired up by a call to restore the pre-2010 regime, which they find as distasteful as they do the Orbán regime. The large majority of Poles, on the other hand, “know what they have lost.” If elections were held today, a month after the government of Beata Szydło took office, “the liberal opposition would beat PiS to a pulp.” A liberal party called .Nowoczesna (Modern), established only in May 2015, would beat both PiS and the conservative Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska): 39% of active voters would vote for .Nowoczesna and only 27% for PiS and 15% for Civic Platform.
In Széky’s opinion, a similar situation would never have been possible in Hungary, for several reasons. First, because the majority of Polish voters are supporters of the market economy while the overwhelming majority of Hungarians are leery of capitalism and believe in an largely state-driven economy. Second, the Hungarian electoral system is such that a party can gain strength only if it recruits activists in all small electoral districts although its message resonates only in particular parts of the country. Third, the Hungarian media is not in a position to make a new party known to the majority of the electorate. It is under the thumb of either the government or of oligarchs. In Poland the media can stand on its own and is therefore a great deal more independent than the Hungarian media.
You may have noticed that although only a month has gone by since the Szydło government took office, the reaction in Brussels against the new Polish regime is already very strong. Much stronger than in the case of Hungary in 2010. The reason for this difference is that although both Kaczyński and Orbán provoke western public opinion as well as western politicians, the current Polish government made a series of mistakes that Orbán with his refined political sense would never have committed. For example, a couple of weeks ago senior aides of the Polish minister of defense accompanied by military police raided the NATO Counter Intelligence Center of Excellence. The night staff of the center called the director, but he was prevented from entering. This was the first but not the last act of the Polish government that caused astonishment abroad. For instance, the Szydło government accused former prime minister, Donald Tusk, of being involved in the so-called Smolensk affair. If you recall, former president Lech Kaczyński died in a plane crash near Smolensk in 2010. The accident was most likely caused by the president himself, who insisted on landing in inclement weather. But many in PiS are certain that it was Russian sabotage that killed him, his wife, and 96 others. According to a 2014 survey, 30% of Poles believe this story. PiS seems to want to drag the former prime minister into a show trial. A big mistake. After all, Tusk today is the president of the European Council.
It doesn’t bode well for the Szydło government that the European People’s Party already wanted to have a debate in the European Parliament on the state of Polish democracy and the rule of law. It was only the patriotic members of the Polish Civic Platform who sit in the EPP delegation who managed to dissuade other members of EPP from carrying out their plan. If the Polish government doesn’t change course, however, I am sure that EPP will not hesitate to turn against the Szydło government. And if that happens, the Szydło government will be in real trouble.