Interview #25 – Hungary & Poland: Post-Communist Autocracies and Illiberal Democracy

What is going on in Poland and Hungary? A deliberate attempt to break with liberal democracy, Ben Stanley argues. In this interview we analyze the legacy of World War II and Communism and the role of Viktor Orban and Jarosław Kaczyński in the transformation of the two countries. Governmental control over the media, attempts to bring the judiciary under political control, and breaches of the constitution: What are the causes beyond these transformtions, and which will be the consequences for the future of the European Union?

Ben Stanley is Assistant Professor in the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities (Warsaw). His primary area of research interest is the politics of populism in Central and Eastern Europe, incorporating analysis of party ideological appeals and voter behaviour. His current research activities include an experimental analysis of the links between conspiracy theory mentality and populism in Poland, measurement of populist attitudes in Central and Eastern Europe, and a monograph on Polish populism.

Enjoy the reading.


Protests at CEU, Budapest, March 2017

POP) Let’s start from the end. What is going on in Poland and Hungary? The elections are not particularly free, the judicial branch is less and less independent, the media are under the government’s control, anti-Semitic rhetoric is no longer taboo, and the list could go on. Normally I am very cautious about the alleged “return of fascism” and similarly terrible but exaggerated prophecies. But something seems to be rotten in Eastern Europe.

BS) In short, what is going on is a deliberate attempt to break with liberal democracy. In the case of Hungary, this is quite explicit; Viktor Orban has said that he wants to implement illiberal democracy (he sometimes uses other adjectives) in Hungary. For reasons that remain obscure to me, Jarosław Kaczyński is less inclined to use the phrase, but the direction of travel is generally the same in both countries.

That said there are some things that need clarifying.

First, while there are reasons to conclude that the recent elections in Hungary were not fair, it would be a stretch to say that they were not free. In Poland, the 2015 elections were entirely free and fair. PiS’s three-party electoral list gained a majority of seats in parliament due to a strategic miscalculation by the left-wing parties. They wrongly assumed they would gain the 8% needed for a coalition to surmount the electoral threshold: however, they fell just short of that (if they had run as a single party – which only needs 5% – they would have deprived PiS of an overall majority). The legitimacy of PiS’s majority is not in doubt; what is disputed is its use of that mandate to justify repeated breaches of the constitution.

Second, there are also differences between the two countries when it comes to the extent to which government controls the media. In Hungary, it is clear that – especially since the recent election – the government has established significant control over the private media sector as well as public media. Yet while PiS has turned Polish public media into an instrument of government propaganda, a pluralistic private media still thrives for now. From time to time PiS makes noises about the need to decrease the level of foreign ownership in private media, but as now, it has been unwilling to do this for fear of angering the US.


Third, in both countries attempts to bring the judiciary under political control are obvious. For populists, the idea of independent, unelected institutions controlling elected bodies that represent the will of the majority is anathema. Hence, it is logical that they should seek to remove judges that acknowledge this ethos and replace them with those who are prepared to subordinate themselves to political influence. It was entirely unsurprising that one of the first things PiS did after taking power in 2015 was go straight for the throat of the Constitutional Tribunal, refusing to swear in three legitimately elected justices or to print rulings with which it disagreed, and then paralysing and ultimately executing a political takeover of the institution. During PiS’s last term in office between 2005 and 2007, the Tribunal was the most significant bulwark to elements of the government’s legislative programme.

POP) In Hungary and Poland the situation looks like an explosive cocktail of Communist authoritarianism and illiberalism, combined with a modern populist and nativist alt-right approach, with a touch of blind faith in market capitalism. Are we witnessing a critical juncture in which liberal democracy becomes something else?

BS) While the authoritarian legacies of communism have doubtless played a role in shaping public attitudes towards liberal democracy and the indifference of some citizens to the abuse of constitutional norms, it is worth remembering that both Hungary and Poland have limited experience with democratic systems: this is something that goes beyond communism. Some have even suggested that the last 25 years was a brief democratic interregnum, and that these countries will now revert to more autocratic modes of governance. While I do not necessarily agree that this ‘reversion’ is inevitable, neither do I have any good reason to assume that it cannot occur.

In any case, I find ‘demand-side’ arguments that adduce the character of public opinion to be less convincing explanatory factors than the ‘supply-side’ presence of Schmittean decisionists like Orban and Kaczyński. The two leaders are willing to push through illiberal reforms against domestic opposition and in the face of international opprobrium (aided, in some cases, by the willingness of international organizations and leaders to extend undeserved and unreciprocated goodwill, or at least to turn a blind eye). In both countries, there was no clear demand for dismantling liberal democracy prior to Fidesz and PiS’s ascent to power. Amid what PiS has done over the last two and a half years, it is often forgotten that their election campaign was based on appealing to more moderate voters without whom they would not have gained sufficient votes for a majority. The populist and anti-constitutionalist revolution came after the election. In this sense, we are seeing not so much the emergence of a critical juncture, a notion that implies above all the confluence of certain structural factors, as the shaping of new ‘political possibles’ in the absence of any significant structural resistance.


POP) Let’s take a step back to discuss the link between the Communist past and the present right-wing populism in Eastern Europe. Do you think that populist entrepreneurs, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, were able to exploit the promise inherent in the idea of popular sovereignty? And how did this lead to the current situation?

BS) What is remarkable about populist entrepreneurs in the earlier stages of post-communist transition is just how unsuccessful they were. Many commentators at the time expected populists to be successful in mobilising popular anger over the economic and social dislocations of transition, particularly in a context where party systems were unconsolidated and the scope of entrepreneurial agency was significantly greater than in the established party systems of Western Europe. And yet in both Poland and Hungary we saw instead what appeared to be the relative stabilisation of coherent party systems around ‘normal’ parties that appealed to the people not on the basis of some broad concept of ‘realising the promise of popular sovereignty’, but on bread-and-butter issues and values. Party politics and electoral politics in these countries seemed to have ‘normalised’ more quickly than anyone expected, which perhaps accounts for why it came as a shock when those new equilibria were so easily disrupted again.

POP) PiS (Law and Justice) and Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Alliance) are not “born” populist, and in the 1990s they were not populist at all. One might say populism is an “acquired taste”. Is it purely a matter of attracting voters by imitating other successful parties? And to what extent the two parties can now be classified as populist?

BS) Whatever both these parties were at one point, and whatever they were born as, they are most certainly populist now. They define a good, virtuous and authentic people against an evil, illegitimate and inauthentic elite and evil, illegitimate and inauthentic outgroups, and act to elevate the interests of the former over those of the latter. This is the quintessence of populism. While their deployment of populism is more deliberate and strategic than the instinctive populism of, say, the left-wing Self-Defence movement – whose populism PiS essentially absorbed and superseded – it is no less populist for all that. It is not a case of determining “how populist” either of these parties are; whatever else Fidesz and PiS are – and there is clearly more ideological complexity than populism alone allows for – they are unambiguously populist.


POP) If you don’t mind, a word on the so-called “Holocaust Law”. Poland’s bill prohibits falsely accusing the Polish state and Polish people of “crimes against peace, crimes against humanity or war crimes” committed during the Second World War. In particular, the aim is to stop the use of the misleading expression “Polish death camps” in reference with the Nazi concentration camps.

Apart from the political and social implications of the law itself, why do you think of its timing? Why such a law is so relevant now that anti-Semitism and nationalism are back thanks to the same government that proposed the bill?


BS) There are two distinct things going on here, and although they are in some senses related it makes sense to deal with them separately. The first issue is the amendments to the bill on the Institute of National Remembrance (the phrase ‘Holocaust Law’ is misleading, as it is neither a separate, dedicated law, nor pertaining solely to the Holocaust). Prior to 2015, NGOs and Polish embassies dealt with the “Polish death camps” issue by putting public pressure on media outlets to correct such uses and amend their style guides. This approach met with some success, but was deemed insufficient by PiS, which viewed such phrases not as innocent ignorance or loose wording, but as part of a deliberate conspiracy to mitigate German responsibility for the crimes of the Third Reich and to implicate Poland as a partner in those crimes.

This interpretation needs to be viewed as part of the ‘historical policy’ of the conservative right in Poland; this is essentially the use of history as a means by which to bolster the prestige of the nation, playing up instances of national heroism and downplaying – or simply denying – less glorious aspects of Polish history. In the estimation of parties like PiS, Poland has spent the last quarter century abasing itself before the court of historical record, pleading guilty to crimes it never committed and failing to ask the court to consider “extenuating circumstances”. The aforementioned bill should be seen in this light. As the absence of significant prosecutions to date illustrates, it is more a matter of being perceived as standing up for Poland’s good name than it is of actually stopping the use of such phrases and references. After all, a narrative of injured pride thrives on a constant supply of insults.

The second issue concerns the rise of tolerance for anti-semitism and nationalism. It is not, as the question suggests, that “anti-semitism and nationalism are back”; rather, taboos against the public expression of these views have been lifted to the extent that those in government are unconcerned about the consequences of associating themselves with movements which would previously have been off-limits. PiS’s brand of populism needs nativism in order to thrive. The virtue of the Polish people as conceived by PiS is that its members share a common ethnicity and religion, and these factors provide the clearest criteria of exclusion. However, despite an ostensible opposition to ‘politically correct multiculturalism’, PiS recognizes that it also needs to retain the support of more moderate conservative voters who share many of its values and aims but reject nativism. It is therefore useful for PiS to have movements of the radical and extreme right voicing the language of ethnic and religious exclusionism, thereby keeping these themes in the new mainstream of public discourse, while at the same time having enough distance from these groups to be able to enjoy a certain ‘plausible deniability’.


POP) In conclusion, the one-million-dollar-question. Is it possible that the Soviet rule produced an anthropological mutation of the citizens’ expectations and evaluations toward democracy? And, on the long term, do you think that the idea of democracy implemented now in Poland and Hungary can be compatible with the European Union’s fundamental values?



BS) As mentioned above, I think that the impact of communism on citizens’ attitudes to democracy is only one element in a broader story, part of which are the longer-term legacies of pre-communist authoritarianism. Another part, is the post-communist legacy (and it has been long enough now that we can talk about a legacy) of failure to explain to people why liberal democratic institutions matter and why their mutual independence is important. On the question of where this leads us now, given that illiberal arguments are gaining increasing currency in many countries of the EU, it seems possible that countries like Poland and Hungary are at the vanguard of a broader shift in attitudes towards democracy, rather than an epiphenomenon of “post-accession hooliganism” (to use Venelin Ganev’s phrase).

The response of the European Commission to the populist challenge is only one part of the story. If we observe the accommodating attitude taken by the European People’s Party to the actions of Fidesz, it seems reasonable to hypothesize that certain fundamental values of the EU will shift in the direction of illiberalism. At the very least, on current evidence it is unreasonable to assume that the EU will unanimously defend those values against the populist insurgency.


Ben Stanley’s recent publications

handbook_popStanley, B. (2018), ‘A New Populist Divide? Correspondences of Supply and Demand in the 2015 Polish Parliamentary Elections, forthcoming in East European Politics and Societies.

Stanley, B. (2017), ‘Populism in Central and Eastern Europe’, in Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Paul A. Taggart, Paulina Ochoa Espejo and Pierre Ostiguy (eds.), Oxford Handbook of Populism, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 140–160.

Stanley, B. (2016), ‘Confrontation by default and confrontation by design: strategic and institutional responses to Poland’s populist coalition government’, Democratization, 23(2): 263-282.

Stanley, B., Cześnik, M. (2016), ‘Poland’s Palikot Movement: Voice of the Disenchanted, Missing Ideological Link, or More of the Same?’, Party Politics, 22(6): 705-718.

5 thoughts on “Interview #25 – Hungary & Poland: Post-Communist Autocracies and Illiberal Democracy

  1. Varsovian says:

    Astonishing the author made no mention of the last, utterly rigged local elections in Poland … errr under the “Liberals”. He could have cited swings to Platforma’s PSL coalition partners of 1000% in some places!!

    But he didn’t!!

    He worries about the rule of law … when Donald Tusk is going to be charged – and likely convicted – of failing to take action against a massive Kremlin-coordinated Mafia operation whereby the Russian Mafia brought liquid fuel openly across the border without tariffs being levied. Utterly against the law. Customs asked the “independent” public prosecutors to do their job, but they said it had been OK’ed at the very highest level. ABW (the security service), which reported direct to Donald Tusk as PM, sent him an urgent report stating it was a Russian Mafia operation coordinated by the Kremlin aimed at damaging the Polish economy. Tusk ignored it, for reasons which must be totally obvious to any same person.

    If you think this can’t be true, then look at the huge rise in fuel distributor Orlen’s profits after 1 year without the “Liberals” –,PKN-Orlen-posts-record-profits-for-2016.

    And then there’s Smolensk.

    The President of Poland was assassinated – bombs were placed on board. All “Liberal” party workers were informed it was pilot error within 20 minutes of the crash. Veteran flight crash investoigator Frank Taylor is in no doubt as to the cause:

    Tusk’s man on the ground in Smolensk, Commie-era spook Tomasz Turowski, obliged all consular officials to delete their photos of the crash site, but a TV crew caught on film Russian rescue workers destroying the crash evidence as the wreck still burnt.

    Turowski, interestingly, did not go through the vetting procedure post-Transition, as a judge (then all former Communist Party members) unlawfully ruled it was not in the national interest!! He was Communist Poland’s chief spy in the Vatican, in Pope John Paul II’s inner circle. – in Polish only. Use Google translate or deepl.

    Finally, Poland has had 6 presidents since independence in 1989.
    Jaruzelski – Communist murderer, family name unknown
    Walesa – proven Communist agent
    Kwasniewski – Communist, son of a non-Polish KGB officer seconded to Poland postwar to impose Stalinism. Name unknown.
    Lech Kaczynski, patriot. Assassinated. His relations fought the Nazis in the Warsaw Uprising.
    Komorowski – Communist agent. He “worked” as a history teacher at Siostr Niepokolanek … where I have connections. He never taught a single lesson, but was paid. Famously semi-literate, he “worked” as the editor of an underground newspaper in the 1980s – a milieu infested by Communist agents, as they actually ran the underground press themselves!!
    Duda, patriot. Unassuming background.

    So, according to the international press, under which of these 6 presidents did democracy “die” – and on multiple occasions? The Four Commies? No way – please try again …

    Mass murder, suppression of free speech, rigging elections – these are the hallmarks of Liberal Democracy.


  2. Varsovian says:

    Ha ha ha ha!!
    Why did I know that you’d chicken out of posting my comment?
    The truth obviously hurts your Totalitarian ideals too much.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s