Tilting the Playing Field in Hungary and Poland through Informal Power

April 28, 2021
Edit Zgut
4 min read
Photo credit: Krisztina Papp / Shutterstock.com


Hungary and Poland have become the most prom­inent cases of democratic backsliding and rule-of-law deterioration among the member states of the European Union. Both countries have undergone a systemic change since the Fidesz and Law and Justice (PiS) parties came to power and started their illiberal remodeling in 2010 and 2015 respectively. The EU has not been able to force either government to comply with its core values, despite introducing various instru­ments to that end. Furthermore, the EU’s procedures for monitoring the institutional and legal systems in member states do not address the informal exercise of power that Fidesz and PiS have used to undermine Hungarian and Polish democracy.

This paper provides a nuanced picture of demo­cratic backsliding in Hungary and Poland by analyzing the uncodified, informally enforced interactions of the Fidesz and PiS governments that create an uneven playing field to their benefit. This can take various forms of clientelist exchange that create a twofold system of dependence—between the electorate and the government, and within circles closely allied with the regime.

Decisions being made outside of the formal structures of the state amid a troubling lack of accountability and transparency suggests a highly corruptogenic setting in the two countries, although to differing extents. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s regime has successfully captured the most important sectors of the economy and his family members are among the primary beneficiaries of this system. In Poland, the PiS regime has built a clien­telistic network through which the party’s leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, has consolidated his control over the United Right governing alliance. While political state capture is almost entirely absent in Poland, the coercive element of clientelism has become more present in recent years.

The Fidesz and PiS regimes also wield power infor­mally through media capture and by using powerful individuals and companies to silence or turn over media outlets independent of the government. In recent months, once again Hungary’s government was able to silence a dissident voice (Klubrádió) due to the EU’s inaction, and developments concerning the press in Poland show that PiS is following in the footsteps of Fidesz. Both regimes have also learned to develop new ways to make elections unfair in an informal way that is more difficult for international observers to identify than outright fraud.

It is crucial for the EU to pay greater attention to these problems of informal power in member states like Hungary and Poland because its existing proce­dures for dealing with democratic and rule-of-law backsliding mainly monitor the institutional and legal systems and are ill-suited to address informal mechanisms used by governments. So far, the Orbán and the Kaczynski regimes have benefited from the deeply legalized EU approach in which drawn-out procedures are based on transparency and account­ability, while cautiously avoiding sanctioning member states.

For external actors like the EU to address these issues more efficiently, they need to take the informal exercise of power seriously. It is important to increase the pres­sure on member states that are systematically under­mining democracy by using various tools within the EU Council. The European Commission should bring more infringement actions against the governments of Hungary and Poland related to the Article 7 procedure, including over the undermining of press freedom and media pluralism that are among the major concerns listed under its scope. This must be done with applications for interim measures to avoid further democratic deterioration in member states. Should the EU’s new rule-of-law conditionality mechanism prove difficult to enforce, its structural funds rulebook should be suit­able to foster a stronger linkage between the rule of law and the financial integrity of the EU.

The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights should reconsider its approach when it comes to election monitoring. Longer-term missions are needed along with using focus-group method­ology to better identify the problems posed by elec­toral clientelism, especially in rural areas.

More engagement is needed from the United States, which should under the Biden administra­tion resume an active role in promoting tougher approaches to push back against autocratization in Central and Eastern Europe, including with more support for civil society and non-government media, and educational programs to support freedom and political pluralism.

Photo credit: Krisztina Papp / Shutterstock.com