2023 saw a major shakeup in Central and Eastern Europe. Two elections reshuffled the board in the Viségrad group, where Viktor Orban’s Hungary now remains the only constant for the last ten years. Let’s take a look at what happened and what the prospects are for the coming year.
In Poland Tusk is back
The biggest turnaround comes from the region’s most important country, Poland. Elections on 15 October saw the end of the conservative, nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) government, which was replaced by a center-liberal-progressive coalition led by Donald Tusk. His return to government – he previously served as prime minister from 2007 to 2014 – marks a 360-degree turn in Warsaw’s politics, which is re-aligning with Brussels after eight years of troubled relations.
This was of particular significance for the European Union, which has regained an important ally, and even more important for Poland: the release of the European Economic Recovery Plan and structural funds are now a more tangible prospect. Evidence of this was the advance of five billion euros, or 50 per cent of RePowerEU, the European mechanism to support energy transition. However, in order to access the rest of the funds, it needs to succeed in reforming the judicial system, which was completely disrupted over the years of PiS rule.
This will not be easy. Over this and other reforms hangs the shadow of a possible veto by President Andrzej Duda, who is politically aligned with the previous government and will remain in office until the next presidential election, due in two years’ time. The other obstacle is all the other bodies still aligned with Law and Justice, such as the Constitutional Tribunal and the Supreme Court.
The other major issue on which the government will have to act, and which will test the new majority’s resilience, is abortion. The campaign promise was to intervene as soon as possible, but this will require compromise between the different actors that make up the coalition. PiS can only hope for a misstep by its opponents. 2024 will bring two important elections. In addition to the European elections, there will also be local elections. The result of these elections will be the springboard for the presidential elections.
…and so is Fico in the Slovak politics
A few weeks before the Polish ‘turnaround’, another former prime minister made a comeback. The Slovak parliamentary elections were won by Direction – Social Democracy (Smer – SD), the party of populist leader Robert Fico, former prime minister between 2006 and 2010 and between 2012 and 2018.
Fico’s victory was yet shake up in an already turbulent year, in which the defiant government of Eduard Heger has failed to fulfil the mandate conferred upon it by President Čaputova to lead the country to elections on September 30. Another scandal involving several ministers forced Heger to resign. From May to September, Slovakia was therefore administered by a technical government led by Ľudovít Ódor, who pursued a pro-Atlantic and pro-European agenda, albeit with limited powers. Fico, for his part, was adept at exploiting the climate of political uncertainty. On the one hand, he presented himself as anti-establishment, embracing the most extreme populist elements, and on the other, he promised to restore stability to the country on the basis of his experience as head of government.
His was not a landslide victory, however, and to build an executive he had to forge a coalition with Voice – Democracy (Hlas – SD), the party of his frenemy Peter Pellegrini, a favorite in next year’s presidential elections, and the nationalists of the Slovak National Party (SNS). Fico’s return had raised international concerns due to his positions on the war in Ukraine, but for the time being Slovakia remained aligned with the other countries at the December EU Council.
Instead, Fico has shown that he is more focused on domestic issues. One of his first moves was to cut off communication with four media outlets he disliked – the newspapers Dennik N and SME, the website Aktuality.sk and the TV channel TV Markiza. Then there was the attempt to close down the Office of the Special Prosecutor, an anti-corruption body that had been investigating various figures close to Smer – SD for years. Around 10,000 people took to the streets to demonstrate against this move. In terms of the rule of law, the beginning of this legislature has not had the best track record so far, a trend to watch in 2024.
The Orbán line in Hungary
Viktor Orbán’s thirteenth consecutive year (the seventeenth ever) as head of government is coming to an end, and nothing seems to destabilize. Not the teachers, who have repeatedly demonstrated against low salaries and the conditions of the education system in general. They have been hit by the axe of the so-called “revenge law”, a measure that stripped them of their status as civil servants – with all the benefits to which they were entitled, such as longer compensatory rest periods and higher severance pay. Political opposition is virtually non-existent: the stinging defeat of the 2022 elections is still being felt.
In a country where Orbán holds the entire media sector in his hands, the scenario alternates between depressing and worrying. Certainly, the Law for the Protection of National Sovereignty, passed a few days ago, which provides for the establishment of a body to investigate and control anyone suspected of serving foreign interests by accepting foreign funding, will not help the situation. The main criticism of this measure is that it is very similar to Russian legislation on foreign agents.
Speaking of Russia, 2023 will be remembered as the year Orbán shook hands with Vladimir Putin in Beijing during the Silk Road Forum. He is the first Western politician to do so since the start of the war.
In the European forum, the tug-of-war with Brussels continues. At the last European Council, Orbán managed to get ten billion euros of funds frozen for rule of law issues released. This was the price he paid for being absent from the vote on the opening of EU accession negotiations with Ukraine. His countermove was to veto the four-year €50 billion aid package for Kyiv.
In 2024, Hungary will hold the rotating presidency of the European Union for the second half of the year. However, there is one unknown factor: the threat of activating Article 7 of the treaties, a mechanism that suspends the right to vote in the Council, could be revived against Budapest. In recent years, this sword of Damocles has been neutralized by the Polish veto. But now that the wind has changed in Warsaw, Orbán risks finding himself dangerously alone.
It has been a strange year in the Czech Republic. The outcome of the presidential election in January seemed to have brought balance and stability to the country’s political order, with retired general Petr Pavel winning a clear victory over former prime minister Andrej Babiš. Pavel’s candidacy was formally independent but was an expression of the centrist and pro-European coalition led by Petr Fiala, who governs the country from 2021. This created an alignment that had been missing in the Czech Republic since 2013, when the mercurial Miloš Zeman took over the presidency. Everything was in place for a peaceful, or at least transitional, year. But things turned out differently.
The Czech Republic is currently facing a difficult economic situation linked to a serious public deficit. In November, after months of trial and error, the Czech government pushed through a series of austerity measures aimed at repairing the budget. Painful measures such as VAT reform, which led to higher taxes on alcohol and medicines, and a general tax increase. Particularly controversial is the proposed reform of the pension system, which includes a recalculation of the retirement age based on life expectancy and a significant slowdown in indexation to inflation. The unions complain that the government, whose popularity is now at an all-time low, has shown little commitment. On 27 November, thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the maneuver and to demand more funding for health and education instead. More than 70 per cent of schools remained closed that day.
The protests are clearly backed by Babiš, who is counting on a misstep by his political opponents to return to power. In this sense, 2024 promises to be anything but peaceful.
Cover photo: former Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orban attend the Visegrad Group Heads of State meeting in Katowice, Poland on June 30, 2021. (Photo by Beata Zawrzel / NurPhoto / NurPhoto via AFP.)