Photo credit: Visegrad Insight. - Photo: 2020

Turbulent Start to a New Decade for Central Europe

Viewpoint by Wojciech Przybylski

In 2020, Central Europe will observe plenty of electoral races and will be exposed to a few important economic and security impulses, writes Wojciech Przybylski, Chairman of the Res Publica Foundation and Editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight where this article was first publisehd.

WARSAW (IDN-INPS) – In February parliamentary elections will be held in Slovakia which will result in fragmentation and instability. The ruling socialist SMER-SD party and its current coalition partners will not be able to form a governing coalition again.

Polls suggest a 10 per cent drop for the party of Robert Fico who plans to remain party leader at least until the elections while Peter Pellegrini acts as the prime minister.

An expected 20 per cent of the votes will make SMER-SD the winner with about 30 seats in a 150 seat parliament but new coalition partners will be necessary.

The parliament will be very fragmented with all other parties gaining between 8 and 20 seats, however, two distinct blocks will emerge.

There will be five different right-wing parties, ranging from the current coalition government members and the nationalist party SNS to former presidential contender Marian Kotleba’s People’s Party Our Slovakia. Although they may get together nearly half of the seats, their internal divisions are likely to be detrimental to cooperation.

Meanwhile, the three centre leaning parties are set to win about 30 seats and would be potential allies of SMER-SD, coupled with the Hungarian minority party, against the radical right. However, their recent rise was in large part due to discontent with the current leadership after the murder of Ján Kuciak. By entering such a coalition they might just well compromise their agenda and become only a seasonal phenomenon.

In terms of the EU agenda, Slovakia will remain the most integrated country but many of its recent ambitions to lead the V4 – the Visegrád Group, a cultural and political alliance of four Central European states, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – may turn out to be futile should the nationalists grow in strength. Support for the nationalists is coupled with a strong pro-Russian narrative in Slovak society which undercuts the country’s information sovereignty and limits any, even symbolic, leadership potential.

In May Poland will elect their new president. Incumbent Andrzej Duda is more likely to win than his contenders although in the second round his electoral advantage will not be significant. The 2019 parliamentary elections have revealed the country as polarised: the overall number of votes cast in general elections give the PiS’ presidential candidate a prospect of just about 8 million votes while the three centrist opposition parties may count together on nearly 9 million votes. However, the fourth opposition party (with a mixed right-wing libertarian agenda) received over 1.2 million votes and their distribution will be paramount to the final result.

The three main contenders for the office are the former speaker of the parliament Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska from the Civic Coalition, the independent candidate Szymon Hołownia, a Catholic liberal media celebrity who has announced his run only in December 2019 and Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz, leader of PSL and Polish Coalition. The Left, a newly reestablished force in the parliament, has had trouble in declaring a candidate until now. It is unlikely to play a significant role in the race.

Due to the semi-presidential system of the country, the stakes are high for the government, which does not have a sufficient majority to overrule potential presidential vetoes.

So far, the PiS strategy goes against most expectations. In late December, the party threw itself in a new battle over the judiciary system that is likely to result in another spat with the EU Commission instead of securing the centre and increasing chances of Duda’s reelection.

It may hope to consolidate and mobilise the party electorate by providing short term victories before the European Court of Justice invalidates them again.

The party calculus may be that the new Commission’s message may not be as swift and damaging for the government and in the meantime, it will be demobilising for the opposition voters. In the previous months, PiS was boxed in by several new cases exposing internal conflicts and a lack of moral qualifications of their top people. Instead of going on the defensive, the party prefers to attack and re-establish its credibility as the force of decisionism – an ideological doctrine that believes in the validity of political direction because of the will to take action rather than the (disputed) contents of the action.

However, this strategy risks giving some initiative to the Senate where new laws can be rejected because of the thin majority that the opposition now holds. In turn, the lower chamber of parliament can overrule these.

In the meantime, new Senate speaker Tomasz Grodzki will take every opportunity to deliver addresses through government media and disrupt the decisionist narrative. The upper chamber also holds an important role in shaping Poland’s foreign policy and is likely to remain the cornerstone for a balanced Polish voice in the EU.

The Senate’s role as a bastion for the opposition proves itself equally in Czechia where elections for this chamber as well as regional elections will be held later in 2020.

The Czech Senate holds a number of political initiatives that helped to avoid any triumphant majoritarianism of Prime Minister Andrej Babiš. Should it remain a stronghold of the opposition, the upper house will act as a beacon directing policy messages and supporting a critical review by the prosecutor’s office of corrupt practices of ANO’s leader.

In Hungary, the government proclaimed 2020 to be a year of national unity commemorating the centennial of the Trianon treaty that dismembered much the country after the First World War. Today, Trianon is a living source of historical revisionism for the domestic nationalist ideology. Victor Orbán’s communication is likely to be just as inflammatory as last year, by portraying his political opponents as traitors collaborating with the European elites and both responsible for the historical misery that feeds into today’s irredentist narrative. But it is unlikely to prevent a twilight of illiberalism and the ultimate decline of the regime.

The new forces of the opposition that made it to the European Parliament and the liberal mayors that took back major cities in the 2019 municipal elections may expect a hate-driven campaign against them. Any dissenting voices will be immediately ascribed to an anti-Hungarian position and thereby freezing also all possibility of constructive EU policy-making.

Despite the introvert political mindset, all V4 countries will find themselves much more involved in the EU game. In 2020, the next long term EU budget will be negotiated. All expect that subsidy levels will drop, partly due to Britain’s departure but also due to past successful growth of Central Europe that will change proportions of redistribution in the EU.

While catching up with the EU’s average is on the horizon, the V4 members will advocate jointly and individually to uphold cohesion policy that helps overcome legacy problems and for the rest of EU produces added value in terms of investment with good return rates.

The economic narrative may be persuasive to Germany, holding the EU presidency in the second part of the year and the most likely power broker during the negotiations. However, for most EU members the questions related to the rule of law and the anti-EU narrative will be strong arguments in favour of redirecting investment to southern parts of Europe still muddling through after the 2008 financial crisis.

More is to be seen after Brexit takes a final shape and, more importantly, Boris Johnson declares his intentions about a future trade deal with the EU. The departure of the United Kingdom, already lamented by several regional leaders, may also bring opportunities for leveraging their commercial and security interests with Britain’s advances for a new relationship with the whole block.

The V4 may be expected to spearhead the EU’s debate on the Eastern Partnership and the Western Balkans.

Hungary clung to the neighbourhood and enlargement portfolios in the new EU Commission partly because of these two strategic areas while the rest, especially Poland and Czechia, are intensifying their diplomatic efforts in these parts of Europe as well. With increased trade and legal approximation, the Eastern Partnership countries are rapidly becoming important for the overall security environment. Central Europe in 2020 will be the first to raise these points.

On a global scale, not just for the V4, perhaps the most important prognosis of the year relates to the conduct and outcome of the US presidential race. As the impeachment is likely to weaken Donald Trump’s chances for re-election the electoral campaign will be bloody, dirty and leaving much space for foul play and foreign malign influence.

Beyond the outcome of the race, the V4 countries are likely to see both from the US and the EU debates a greater emphasis on information sovereignty, a democratic right and power of the people to freely access and critically review a plentitude of journalistic work.

With Russian and Chinese serving as primary examples for how sensitive our democracies are to messages formed by foreign authoritarian regimes, the V4 is likely to follow Western developments that will increase attention to sustainable economic models for journalism.

In brief, 2020 will see a further decline of advertisement-driven free content and increase of paywall models, in part induced by political sensitivities but no less by a corporate demand for limiting digital ad fraud and protecting the value of global brands.

Other factors, such as China’s military rise in the digital sphere and Russia’s slow decline fenced off by Putin’s convulsive lies, have become a new norm that should be kept on the radar for security reasons. Yet, these are not expected to bring new dynamics and forces to Central Europe in 2020.

A more likely dynamic will come from the intensification of street protests in the V4. In contrast to revolting mobs and protesters around the world, these street demonstrations are likely to be a typical extension of Central Europe’s peaceful call for dignity and self-restraint, currently lacking in the political leadership. [IDN-InDepthNews – 02 January 2020]

Photo credit: Visegrad Insight.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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