Poland’s new government finds a model in Orban’s Hungary

12 January 2016

From the FINANCIAL TIMES, 6 January 2016 (source)

In a modest guesthouse in the hills along the Polish-Slovak border, Hungary’s premier Viktor Orban on Wednesday visited a longtime admirer: the president of Poland’s ruling party Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

The six-hour meeting, shrouded in secrecy, highlighted links between two leaders who, critics say, pose a joint threat to the EU’s democratic values and form the vanguard of a new illiberal current in eastern Europe.

It also strengthened impressions that Mr Kaczynski — who, although not prime minister, is widely seen as the power behind Warsaw’s ultra-conservative Law and Justice government elected in October — may be co-ordinating tactics with the Hungarian firebrand.

Weeks into the new Polish government, the European Commission is already mulling launching monitoring of Warsaw to determine whether its new policies constitute “systemic threats” to the rule of law. In doing so, Brussels would be relying on new powers granted to it in 2014, largely in response to worrisome developments in Hungary.

European institutions have been rattled by the way Law and Justice has swiftly consolidated power in the EU’s sixth-largest economy. Mr Kaczynski and his allies have done so using methods similar to those Mr Orban’s Fidesz party has employed over the past five years, and which critics complain erode democratic checks and balances.

The two men have important differences: Mr Orban has proved willing to make compromises with Russian president Vladimir Putin that would be anathema to the virulently anti-Moscow Mr Kaczynski.

But their parties share Eurosceptic, patriotic-conservative, pro-Catholic, and anti-immigration stances. They both believe, too, that when communism fell a quarter of a century ago, not all of its structures were uprooted, requiring radical further steps to “fix” their countries.

“Viktor Orban gave us an example of how we can win,” Mr Kaczynski said in 2011, 18 months after Fidesz secured a two-thirds parliamentary majority. “The day will come when we will succeed, and we will have Budapest in Warsaw.”

Law and Justice officials stress Mr Kaczynski was simply stating a belief that he would triumph in 2015. But, both men were bruised when voters removed them, their work still incomplete, after previous stints as premier — Mr Orban from 1998-2002, and Mr Kaczynski from 2005-2007.

Analysts suggest the Hungarian leader spent his opposition years plotting how to make his party more difficult to oust next time, and Mr Kaczynski studied his playbook.

“They both think the reason for their [previous] loss is they didn’t do enough to shape the institutional system in a way that enabled them to cement themselves in power,” said Peter Kreko, director of the Political Capital Institute in Budapest.

Like Fidesz since 2010, Law and Justice has moved to exert broad influence over Poland’s institutions, but more swiftly.

Within four weeks it replaced the heads of the Warsaw stock exchange and several large state companies, plus scores of public officials, with government loyalists.

Within one working day of being sworn into office, the new government appointed a close friend of Mr Kaczynski to head the intelligence service. (The candidate had a criminal conviction — requiring Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, a Law and Justice ally — to issue a pardon the next day).

Law and Justice then tried to remove fetters on its legislative powers, packing Poland’s constitutional tribunal, which rules on the constitutionality of laws, with its supporters and changing the rules to require a two-thirds majority to overturn any law. That makes it almost impossible for the court to veto Law and Justice-backed legislation.

Grzegorz Schetyna, Poland’s incoming opposition leader, has said that while Mr Orban took a year to wrest political control of Hungary’s constitutional court, Mr Kaczynski took 12 days. “What we have here is Budapest . . . fast-tracked,” he said.

The Polish ruling party is now rushing through legislation giving it control over the leadership of public broadcasters. The move echoes the media law that prompted Hungary’s first big clash with the EU authorities exactly five years ago, although the Budapest version went further by including private broadcasters and print and digital media.

For all the similarities, there are differences may yet restrain Poland’s government from going as far as its Hungarian counterpart.

Igor Janke, president of the Warsaw-based Freedom Institute, a political think-tank, says Mr Kaczynski was “keen to copy the way that Orban built a political machine”. But, he adds: “I don’t think that [Law and Justice] think they can simply replicate it here.”

The two-thirds parliamentary majority Fidesz held in Hungary’s parliament enabled it to change the constitution, so that it never violated its own fundamental law. “The EU was totally at a loss in figuring out how to handle a perfectly legal coup,” says Kim Lane Scheppele, a central Europe expert at Princeton University.

Without the ability to rewrite the constitution, Law and Justice risks bumping up against Poland’s fundamental law, which could give European institutions more scope to hold it to account.

Meanwhile, Fidesz swept to power after the implosion of its main rival, the Socialist party. Its only real opposition remains the far-right Jobbik party.

Poland, by contrast, still has a functioning moderate opposition, including the former governing Civic Platform.

“Poland [...] actually has responsible political parties attracting public support that could pull the country out of this mess without external intervention,” says Ms Scheppele.