The rise of populism in Poland and Hungary is startling in suggesting that electorates are ready to back leaders that promise to reverse some of the most remarkable recent transitions from dictatorship to democracy, US government funded NGO Freedom House writes in its latest Freedom in the World report, released on January 31.
Populist and nationalist forces made significant gains in democratic states in 2016, while authoritarian powers engaged in brazen acts of aggression, according to the think tank’s latest annual report on political rights and civil liberties: Populists and Autocrats: The Dual Threat to Global Democracy.
It’s little surprise that in Central & Eastern Europe it’s Poland and Hungary that provoke the most concern regarding democracy. Recent developments in the two countries “have raised the possibility that some of the most remarkable transitions from dictatorship to democracy in the 1980s and ’90s will be substantially reversed by elected populist leaders”, the report reads.
Putting the power enjoyed by the conservative nationalist PiS in Poland into perspective, Freedom House worries that the rise of such anti-establishment parties – also seen in countries such France or Germany – “is changing Europe’s political landscape and shifting the debate in ways that undermine the fundamental values of democracy”.
However, Freedom House appears a little confused when it comes to the rest of Visegrad. The think tank warns that the “October 2017 elections in the Czech Republic will see the rise or defeat of the populist and nationalist Ano party, which has been compared to the ruling, highly nationalistic parties in Hungary and Poland”.
Whilst Ano, and billionaire leader Andrej Babis, run on an anti-establishment platform, and promise easy answers to the problems of corruption and running the economy, similarities with Hungary’s Fidesz or Poland’s PiS are few and far between. Unlike President Milos Zeman, who bases his popularity on outrageous statements regarding refugees, Babis and his party generally steer clear of nationalist emotion.
Indeed, although Ano has been in a coalition government for the past four years or so, the Czech Republic still scores 94 points out of a possible 100. All the Visegrad states are rated as “free,” but Hungary lags badly. While Slovakia and Poland remain deadlocked at 89 points, Hungary’s score has dropped to just 76 in this year’s report.
Poland’s score was weighed down by a drop in its civil liberties rating due to sustained attempts by PiS, through hastily drafted legislation and other measures, to increase government influence over the country’s media, judiciary, civil service, and education system.
However, Hungary saw both political rights and civil liberties – the two main sub-indices used by Freedom House - in reverse. The political rights rating declined “due to government practices that curtailed the ability of the opposition to freely and meaningfully participate in the formal political system, as well as continuing impunity for high-level corruption”, the report concludes.
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