In March 2017, I met with Henning Meyer, Editor-in-Chief of Social Europe, in Cambridge, MA at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University to discuss the authoritarian turn taking place in two key EU member states in East Central Europe, namely Hungary and Poland. During our conversation, I argued that the EU must not accept the assault on liberal values and democratic institutions and needs to find ways to prevent member states from turning their backs on democracy. Since then, the condition of democracy in Hungary and Poland has deteriorated considerably. Over the past few months, both governments have introduced new legislative acts that restrict political rights and subvert the institutional foundations of democracy. For example, the Hungarian Civic Party (FIDESZ) government launched legal attacks on civil society organizations by restricting the activities of opposition parties and revising laws governing higher education in an effort to destroy the Central European University (CEU), the only institution of higher education that is beyond its control.
After demolishing the Constitutional Tribunal, the PiS government in Poland introduced a series of legislative acts intended to abolish the independence of Polish courts, including the Supreme Court. Three new laws give the ruling party the right to subvert constitutionally prescribed terms of judicial appointments, replace all members of the Supreme Court and heads of all other courts in the country. They are designed to put the national judicial system under the control of the Ministry of Justice. These laws evidently breach the Polish Constitution and were introduced without consultation and debate. The manner in which these laws were enacted violated parliamentary procedures. This legislative coup provoked huge street protests across the country and fears over the erosion of the rule of law across Europe. What happened in Poland in July is a classic autogolpe – a self-coup by the executive power backed by the majority in both chambers of Parliament. Although Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, who had supported the Law and Justice Party (PiS) at every turn since his election, unexpectedly vetoed two out of three laws, the PiS majority vowed to continue their crusade to take over the Polish judicial system and promised to target the Polish media as well.
As a result of these and earlier actions, Hungary and Poland can no longer be considered liberal democracies. In both countries, the authoritarian institutional system, giving largely unrestricted political power to the ruling party, has been established. While they are still not dictatorships, with every new legislation expanding the power of the government the potential for authoritarian rule increases considerably.