17. Apr 2014  |  Central Europe, Eastern Partnership  |  Ukraine, Russia  |  Opinions

Following the recent elections in Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic, CEPI asked three regional experts for their views on the shape of the new political configuration in the region, how it would affect regional cooperation and foreign policy.

The experts agreed that in all three countries there is a growing dissatisfaction among voters towards the established political parties. However while in the Czech Republic and Slovakia this has led to the emergence of new centrist forces, in Hungary the shift has been toward radical and extremist elements. Despite these changes, all experts agreed that V4 cooperation would continue as before. While some barriers to effective collaboration within the EU may be removed by the new Czech government’s pro-integration stance, fault lines may yet emerge in the wider region, particularly in relation to Russia.

Péter Krekó, Director at Political Capital Institute, Budapest

The elections show that Hungary is becoming the odd-one-out in the region, with an increasingly strong support for a Eurosceptic and "unorthodox" line of policy. A specific feature of the Hungarian populism is that this is a populism "in action": Orbán doesn’t just talk about popular and market-punitive measures, he implements them as well, breaking taboos in the relations with multinational companies, banks, the EU and Western diplomatic partners, etc.

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 (66%). There seems to be some parallel with the Polish system at this point: since 2005 in Poland (and 2010 in Hungary), the left has been unable to become a political force that challenges the right’s domination of politics. There is an important difference, though: while in Poland, a centre-right (Civic Platform) and a populist right (Law and Justice, PiS) 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 their professional campaign based on a more moderate image, and the lack of political challenges from either left or right. If Jobbik remain unchallenged (with the left paralysed by internal conflicts and the right unwilling to go against Jobbik politically), they can use their momentum to perform well in the European Parliamentary elections in May and the municipality elections in autumn, and they even have the chance to become a governmental party by 2018.

While Orbán is committed to nationalist politics, his nationalism targets the European Union and Western political forces and not Hungary’s neighbours, contrary to the previous fears. So we should not expect any major change in the level of Visegrad cooperation or in the relations with neighbours. On the other hand, relations with Russia may become an important line of division between countries of the region-especially in the shadow of the Ukranian crisis. It is rather symbolic that while the Czechs are leaving behind the idea of broadening the Temelin nuclear power plant, the Hungarian government made a long-term agreement with Russia without any tender procedure. Where previously it was Slovakia, Hungary is now becoming the most pro-Russian force in the region.

Jakub Groszkowski, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Eastern Studies, Central European Department, Warsaw

The main common feature is the growing disappointment with traditional parties, both ruling and those in opposition. What is striking, parties which spent recent years in opposition were not able to attract voters dissatisfied with the government and received lower support than in previous elections. On the other hand the protest vote is becoming more popular. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia it helped political newcomers to get into the highest positions in the state, while in Hungary it gave strong 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 very beginning of its existence. While in Slovakia and Hungary the ruling parties, even though they are getting less popular, have kept the dominant position in the state.

Jobbik's success in Hungary and, to a lesser extent, 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 much more voters preferred to cast their vote for candidates who do not represent any specific political ideology and are known mainly for their business achievements.

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

This tendency is less visible in Hungary, nevertheless in comparison with 2010 election, Fidesz lost many of its voters, while Jobbik was able to attract new people.

Despite the elections and shifts in power, cooperation within the V4 is a core and stable element of the foreign policies in these countries. All four governments and presidents are open to common V4 activities in international politics, especially in the EU. They also support development of common infrastructural projects like the North-South gas corridor or trans-border highway connections.
Therefore elections do not have a strong impact on Visegrad cooperation. Nevertheless, the new centre-left cabinet in the Czech Republic and its recent shift in Czech European policy towards a more pro-integration attitude will probably make it less difficult to formulate a consistent Visegrad standpoint in discussions about the future of EU integration.

Martin Ehl, Chief International Editor at Economic Daily, Praha

The recent elections in the Czech Republic, Slovakia (presidential) and Hungary have one strong common denominator - dissatisfaction of significant portion of voters with the development of their political systems after the change of 1989. It is not dissatisfaction with liberal democracy and market economy in principle, but much more with the manner in which it has been executed by different governments and political groups. All that was heavily underlined by the impact of the economic crisis. Especially after 2008, we have seen how fragile the public and state 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 strong majority of Fidesz in parliament with the support of a majority of voters, tired of the mismanagement of previous political parties and economic crisis. Hungarian reform fatigue is simply much stronger then the Czech or Slovak one.

The other strong diverging line is Slovakian Eurozone membership. All three countries are economically very closely tied to Germany, but only Slovakia has a clear policy of heading towards the core euro group around Berlin. This also has strong implication for domestic policies which might be different from Czech or Hungarian ones, mainly in fiscal and monetary areas.

The elections show a rise in the support of or radical or extremist parties, but a more detailed view would show us that the roots of that rise might be significantly different in the three countries. The Slovak centre-right and Hungarian centre-left discredited themselves almost to the point of self-destruction which helped traditional extremist parties gain at local (Slovakia) or national (Hungary) level. In the Czech Republic, a lot of anti-systemic votes are still siphoned off by the non-reformed communist party, but a new and so far very marginal The Dawn of Direct Democracy movement led by half-Japanese Tomio Okamura has potential to become the Czech version of Jobbik. The significant Roma minority in all three countries is a traditional source of strong rhetoric of extremists, but corruption and economic reform fatigue create in each of the countries their own mix of motivations also leading to increased support for extremists.

The Ukrainian crisis proved that V4 cooperation - at least on official or consultation level - is very deeply rooted and countries consider themselves to be connected - even the Czech Republic, which has no external EU border, has the biggest Ukrainian minority among EU member states. The basic advantage of V4 not having institutional cooperation (beside International Visegrad Fund working more or less autonomously) allows a flexible way of regional cooperation in these "diverging" times. V4 is still a very 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. This fact is well-known for all governments involved, therefore I do not see that regional cooperation will change in the years to come for worse - but also not for much better due to the divergences, which are developing in all three countries.