Populists in Poland and Hungary suffer setbacks

Populists in Poland and Hungary suffer setbacks

Sunday’s general election in Poland saw the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) lose control of the upper house and Hungary’s ruling Fidesz lost significant mayoral races, suggesting central Europe’s populist parties might not be invincible.

PiS lost control of the senate after opposition parties in many districts united to back joint candidates, limiting its control of the legislature for the first time in four years and making it harder for the populist party to rush through legislation.

The party might also need support from the new far-right Confederation bloc in the lower house on more contentious policies.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán suffered his first significant political setback in a decade when a pro-EU, centre-left opponent defeated the long-serving, Fidesz-backed mayor of Budapest by 51 per cent to 44 per cent.

A range of opposition parties backed Gergely Karácsony, 44, against Istvan Tarlos in the mayoral race. Similar opposition pacts saw non-Orban candidates triumph in 10 of Hungary’s 23 other biggest cities.

Before the weekend Fidesz, which has an overall majority in parliament, had convincingly won seven consecutive national, municipal and European elections since 2010.

The populist party has altered Hungary’s institutions and taken control of the national media.

In Poland, PiS has turned state television and radio into propaganda tools.

The party has said as journalism depended on public trust, it should be regulated in a similar way to the medical and legal sectors, with a watchdog to oversee ethical and professional standards.

But the proposals were “unclear and vague”, said Chris Bobinski of the Polish Society of Journalists.

“I expect that it would try to discipline journalists to have them report in the right way, presumably defined by the ruling party.”

PiS deputy culture minister Pawel Lewandowski said the media was a “type of state power”.

“We must have 100-per-cent certainty that everything that happens in Poland is overseen by the Polish authorities,” said Lewandowski.

Cas Mudde, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, told the Guardian: “In both Hungary and Poland the opposition seemed to understand the fundamental challenge to liberal democracy they were facing. The strategic collaboration is crucial, particularly when the government party is gaming the system by, for example, controlling the media.”

Orban has repeatedly clashed with the European Commission on migration and rule-of-law issues.

Opposition pacts to stand joint candidates could potentially challenge Orban at the next general election in 2022, although it could prove more challenging at the national level and parties have divided the anti-Orban vote in previous votes.

“It proves that the new strategy of opposition cooperation works, this was the opposition’s best result in years,” said observer András Bíró-Nagy. “It is the first crack in the Orban system and the strategy seems guaranteed to continue.”

But the diverging policies of the far-right Jobbik and Liberal Momentum are difficult to reconcile in a general election.

Strongman leaders Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungary’s Viktor Orban. Picture credit: Kremlin

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