Contemporary commentary on central and eastern Europe tends to come down with a heavy hand. In his recent snapshot, “Poland’s Constitutional Crisis,” Daniel Kelemen explains the conflict between Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party and the country’s Constitutional Tribunal by way of analogy with Hungary. As Kelemen writes, “the PiS is determined to defeat the Constitutional Tribunal because it is a major impediment to [PiS leader Jaroslawl] Kaczynski’s plan to introduce a populist electoral autocracy in Poland along the lines of [Prime Minister] Viktor Orban’s in Hungary.” This is a common comparison. But it is also mistaken. It conceals essential differences between the countries and leads to faulty conclusions, such as Kelemen’s recommendation that the EU should invoke Article Seven of the Treaty on the European Union, thereby threatening to suspend Poland’s rights as an EU member. Such ill-advised steps, however, could plunge the EU into an even deeper crisis of legitimacy.
The governing party of Hungary, Fidesz, does indeed have certain ideological affinities with the PiS. Both are conservative nationalist parties, whose leaders, Orban and Kaczynski, have met twice since the PiS came to power in late 2015. Economically, Fidesz and the PiS both embrace a version of nationalism that combines support for redistrubitive social policies with skepticism toward international corporations. Both parties are also opposed to immigration, and, especially in Hungary, this has been used to mobilize radical nationalist sentiment, although opposition to the pro-migration policies of Germany and Sweden is not unique to Hungary or Poland. Both parties, moreover, have focused on constitutional change in their respective countries. And there is, as Kelemen rightly points out, an ongoing constitutional crisis in Poland, which raises questions there about a concentration of power not dissimilar to those raised by the developments in Hungary.
Yet Hungary’s conservative turn under Orban has been considerably more populist and authoritarian than the one in Poland under the PiS. For instance, in 2010, when Orban had a large assault on civil liberties, is well within the European mainstream, and many of its new security measures, including the obligation to register prepaid SIM cards, have been practiced by countries such as Germany for years.
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