“Democratic Backsliding” in Poland and Hungary (8/4)     Print

By Claire Swinko, Washington

Poland, an EU member country with a rich post-Soviet era history of upholding democratic values, has come under fire in recent months for its “democratic backsliding”— the so-called reversion toward authoritarianism based on non-democratic values and lack of respect for the rule of law and basic fundamental freedoms. 

Poland’s ally, Prime Minister Victor Orban of Hungary, has taken similar measures to centralize his power and that of his party in recent years, thereby sparking an ongoing feud with the European Union. The rise of populist, far-right parties and their ideals favoring authoritarian policies has spread throughout the rest of Europe, heightening the potential for democratic backsliding elsewhere in the EU.

Comparisons have been drawn between Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party and Orban’s, Fidesz. Both are populist, nationalist parties run on platforms favoring conservative, Eurosceptic, and anti-immigration policies. PiS and Fidesz have large majorities in their respective parliaments that enable them to act unilaterally.

PiS and Fidesz’s absolute control has ushered in rule characterized by illiberal values and centralization of power.  Both countries are now at odds with the EU. 

Poland’s main violation of EU standards was its recent changes to the Constitutional Court.  The issue dates back to December 2015 when the PiS party refused to swear-in nominated judges from the previous government.  See to EurActiv.  The PiS party unilaterally swore in its own judges to pack the court. PiS also utilized its majority in parliament to amend the constitution, changing the rules and procedures of the Constitutional Court to increase its control over the body.   

European Commission VP Timmermans stated, quoted by the Guardian,  that the lack of judicial independence was the primary concern for the EU. The use of court packing politicizes the judiciary.  PiS can now pass legislation without resistance from the very body that should, in practice, provide a check on its power.

Orenstein and Kelemen of Foreign Affairs, highlighted that similar actions were taken in Hungary after Fidesz rose to power in 2010. A new law allowed Fidesz to make appointments without the approval of the opposition party and increased the number of judges on the Constitutional Court from 11 to 15 so that Orban could pack the court with Fidesz supporters. 

In Poland PiS also interfered with press freedom. BBC reported that the media laws signed by President Duda in early 2016 allowing the government to appoint heads of public TV and radio were controversial and a prime cause of tensions with the EU. Most recently the party has censured its most popular state-run news stations called TVP. According to Politico EU, top news journalists have been fired, and broadcasts have grown increasingly pro-government.  In July just before the NATO summit when President Obama spoke critically of the anti-democratic actions, government controlled news outlets refused to broadcast them. 

Hungary enacted similar crackdowns on the press, including the establishment of a media authority, a politically appointed position that can censure journalists for what the Financial Times called “unbalanced” or “offensive” language. Similar to Poland, Hungary has experienced a rise in politically motivated firings of top news journalists.  

In January the EU conducted a review of Poland’s interference with the Constitutional Court and found violations of EU standards regarding the rule of law. In early June the EU published an official opinion on the politicization of the Constitutional Court. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Poles resisted action for as long as they could leading up to the Warsaw Summit. But when western leaders urged Poland to take action on its rule of law violations, Poland hastily passed new legislation to correct some of the issues with the constitutional amendment.  The legislation was meant to address the EU’s concerns. According to the New York Times, the EU was not impressed and through a spokeswoman stated that the “fixes” were incomplete.  On July 27 the Commission gave Poland three months to make substantial changes to the legislation or face sanctions. 

Claire Swinko is Editorial Assistant at European Affairs.