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Sizing Up the New Neighbors

How will recent elections in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia affect relations in Central Europe? From CEPI.

29 April 2014

Following the recent elections in Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, the Central European Policy Institute asked three regional experts how the new political configuration would affect regional cooperation and foreign policy.


They agreed that in all three countries voters are increasingly dissatisfied with the established political parties. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia new centrist forces have emerged, while in Hungary the shift has been toward radical and extremist elements. Despite these changes, all experts agreed that cooperation among the Visegrad four – a loose coalition of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic – would continue as before. While collaboration within the EU could be easier as the new Czech government takes a pro-integration stance, fault lines may yet emerge in the wider region, particularly in relation to Russia.


Peter Kreko, director of the Political Capital Institute in Budapest


The elections show that Hungary is becoming the odd man out in the region, with increasingly strong support for a euroskeptic and “unorthodox” line of policy. A specific feature of Hungarian populism is that it translates into action: Prime Minister Viktor Orban doesn’t just talk about popular and market-punitive measures, he implements, breaking taboos in relations with multinational companies, banks, the EU, and Western diplomatic partners.


Viktor Orban
The 2014 elections reinforced the huge imbalance between the left and the right, with the two right-wing parties, Fidesz and Jobbik, together receiving two-thirds of the votes on the party list. Here there is a parallel with Poland, where since 2005 the left has been unable to break the right’s political dominance. But while in Poland, the center-right Civic Platform and populist-right Law and Justice Party are competing with each other, in Hungary it is the right-wing populist Fidesz and the far-right Jobbik doing so.


Jobbik received more votes than in 2010, partially as a result of its professional campaign based on a more moderate image and the lack of political challenges from either left or right. If Jobbik remains unchallenged (with the left paralyzed by internal conflicts and the right unwilling to go against Jobbik politically), it can use that momentum to perform well in the European Parliamentary elections in May and the local elections in the fall. It could even become a governmental party by 2018.


While Orban is committed to nationalist politics, his nationalism targets the European Union and Western political forces and not Hungary’s neighbors, which have sizeable Hungarian minorities. So we should not expect any major change in the level of Visegrad cooperation or in relations with neighbors. On the other hand, relations with Russia may become an important line of division among countries of the region, especially in the shadow of the Ukrainian crisis. It is rather symbolic that while the Czechs are leaving behind the idea of expanding the Temelin nuclear power plant, the Hungarian government made a long-term, no-bid agreement with Russia to expand a nuclear power plant. Hungary is supplanting Slovakia as the most pro-Russian force in the region.


Martin Ehl, foreign editor at Hospodarske noviny in Prague


The recent elections in the Czech Republic, Slovakia (presidential), and Hungary have one strong common thread: the dissatisfaction of many voters with the development of their political systems after the changes of 1989. It is not dissatisfaction with liberal democracy and a market economy per se but with the manner in which they have been shaped by different governments and political groups, a sentiment reinforced by the impact of the economic crisis. Especially since 2008, we have seen how fragile the public institutions in all three states are. But while in the Czech Republic and Slovakia there was no serious threat to liberal democracy, Hungary has gone on a different path. The public space has been reshaped by the conservative Fidesz party’s strong majority in parliament with many voters tired of the mismanagement of previous political parties and the economic crisis. Reform fatigue is simply much stronger in Hungary than in Slovakia or the Czech Republic.


The other notable point of departure is Slovakia’s euro zone membership. All three countries are tied closely to Germany’s economy, but only Slovakia has a clear policy of heading toward the core euro group around Berlin. This could mean that Slovakia’s fiscal and monetary policies could diverge from Hungary’s or the Czech Republic’s.


The elections show a rise in support for radical or extremist parties, but a finer-grained look suggests the roots of that trend are significantly different in the three countries. The Slovak center-right and Hungarian center-left discredited themselves almost to the point of self-destruction, which helped traditional extremist parties gain at the local (Slovakia) or national (Hungary) level. In the Czech Republic, a lot of anti-establishment votes are still siphoned off by the unreformed Communist Party, but a new and so far marginal Dawn of Direct Democracy movement led by half-Japanese Tomio Okamura could become that country’s Jobbik. The significant Roma minority in all three countries provides a steady inspiration for extremist rhetoric, but corruption and economic reform fatigue do their part as well.


The Ukrainian crisis proved that Visegrad cooperation is deeply rooted and the countries consider themselves connected – even the Czech Republic, which has no external EU border and has the biggest Ukrainian minority among EU members. The V4’s lack of formal, institutional cooperation allows a flexible way of regional cooperation in these “diverging” times. V4 is still a useful trust-building tool for newcomers like the recent Czech government and a consultation platform within the EU, which is particularly needed in times like the Ukrainian crisis. The four governments know this, and there’s no reason to think regional cooperation will deteriorate in the near future. But nor will it improve, thanks to the differences that are developing in all three countries. 


Jakub Groszkowski, senior fellow in the Central European Department of the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw


The main common feature is the growing disappointment with traditional parties, both ruling and those in opposition. It is striking that parties that spent recent years in opposition could not attract voters dissatisfied with the government and received less support than in previous elections. Meanwhile, the protest vote grows. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia it helped political newcomers take the highest positions in the state, while in Hungary it lent legitimacy to the extremist Jobbik party. The main difference is the party model. In the Czech Republic Social Democrats had to form a three-party coalition, which has been perceived as unstable since the beginning, while in Slovakia and Hungary the ruling parties, even though losing support, have kept the dominant position.


Jobbik's success in Hungary and, to a lesser extent, nationalist-populist regional governor Marian Kotleba's popularity in Slovakia or Okamura's in the Czech Republic show that support for simple and radical political solutions is growing. On the other hand, in the Czech Republic and Slovakia many more voters opted for candidates who represent no specific political ideology and are known mainly for their business achievements.


The Czech ANO 2011 party and Slovak President-elect Andrej Kiska occupy the center of the political scene and could grow even stronger, partly thanks to declining support for traditional right-wing and left-wing parties.


That move to the center is not in evidence in Hungary, where Fidesz lost voters compared with the 2010 elections, while Jobbik attracted new people.


Despite the elections and shifts in power, cooperation among the Visegrad four is a core element of the foreign policies in these countries. All four governments and presidents are open to common activities in international politics, especially in the EU. They also support common infrastructure projects like the North-South Corridor – an EU project that will eventually link liquefied natural gas terminals off the coasts of Croatia and Poland, running through Eastern and Central Europe – or regional highway connections.

Therefore elections do not have a strong impact on Visegrad cooperation. Nevertheless, the new center-left cabinet in the Czech Republic and its recent shift in Czech European policy toward a more pro-integration attitude will probably make it less difficult to formulate a consistent Visegrad stance in discussions about the future of EU integration.

A version of this article originally appeared on the website of the Central European Policy Institute.

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