2023 has been a good year for European democracy

Giosan, Alexandru

More than six hundred thousand Polish expats queued all over the world to cast a ballot last weekend in the Polish parliamentary election, a 93% increase from the previous parliamentary election. The overall turnout, 74.4% was the highest ever recorded in a national election in Poland. It was driven mostly by young people who saw democracy in their country under threat and mobilised extraordinarily to have a jab at the ruling Law and Justice Party (PIS).


PIS has used its last 9 years in power to establish control over the judiciary and cement its control over government agencies where it installed party loyalists. They took control over the national broadcaster and even tried to revoke the broadcasting license of one of Poland’s biggest independent news channels, although the plan was scrapped after receiving pushback from the European Union (EU) and the United States. This unprecedented mobilisation gave the opposition the majority they required to unseat the incumbent prime minister.


Considering the opposition will coalesce, this signals the end of PIS’s reign and hopefully a rebirth for Polish democracy which has suffered greatly under their rule. According to the Economist’s Intelligence Unit Democracy Index, which calculates a score out of 10 for each country’s state of democracy taking into account factors like the electoral process, pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture and civil liberties, the state of Poland’s democracy has decreased by 0.85 points since PIS first came to power in 2015. The opposition has promised to reverse that trend and bring Poland back in line with European standards.


2023 has been a good year for democracy in Europe. In January, Czechs elected Petr Pavel, a pro-Western former chairman of the NATO military committee, as their president. His rival, Miloš Zeman, was a populist who rejected the scientific consensus on climate change, publicly supported Donald Trump and had close ties with the Kremlin. In the past, he has referred to transgender people as “disgusting” and has labelled pro-Tibet protestors as "mentally impaired individuals.”


In March, Estonia held a parliamentary election in which the incumbent pro-European PM’s party increased their majority while far-right and pro-Russian parties saw their combined vote share fall by almost 10%. Montenegro ousted President Milo Đukanović, who had ruled over the country uninterruptedly since 1998, when Montenegro was still part of Yugoslavia. Bulgaria finally saw a pro-Western government formed after 4 consecutive snap elections, caused by successive government collapses while Spaniards denied far-right Vox the chance to enter government. Coalition talks are still ongoing and a snap election is still on the cards, but most pundits predicted Vox to be the kingmaker in this election, so it came as a surprise when they underperformed expectations.


People will point at Turkey and Slovakia as the counterbalance to the recent successes of pro-European parties. In Turkey, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, backed by an alliance of opposition parties came close to unseating  Recep Tayyip Erdoğan but ultimately failed to do so. Many saw this election as the last real shot of the opposition at beating Erdoğan, who has ruled since 2003 and has overseen increased authoritarianism and an irreversible shift away from European integration. Under Erdoğan, opposition politicians and journalists have been jailed, independent news outlets have been shut down and elections have become increasingly unfair.


 However, since the election, Erdoğan has taken a more moderate approach. Besides appointing an independent central banker, he has also approved Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO accession bid, after being the only holdout in NATO since the two Scandinavian countries applied to join the alliance. While the election was not successful in unseating him, it does appear to have changed his rhetoric and leadership, which will only benefit Turkey’s relationship with the EU.


In Slovakia, Robert Fico’s openly pro-Russian SMER party came back to power on a campaign pledge to end support for Ukraine and remove Russian sanctions. The party was ousted from power in 2020, following massive street protests in the wake of the killing of a journalist investigating government corruption. While Fico’s return does ring alarm bells in Brussels, it’s worth noting that he faces the challenge of governing alongside two ideologically different parties, with only a 3-seat majority in a 150-seat parliament. One of the coalition partners, a more moderate social democratic party, only joined the coalition with the condition of maintaining the current foreign policy direction.


The Polish election is significant is because it leaves Hungary as the only serious trouble-maker in the EU. Hungary is the only EU member not to be classified as a democracy but rather a “transitional or hybrid regime” and only “partly free” by Freedom House, a non-profit organisation that conducts research and advocacy to promote political freedom and human rights worldwide. Its global freedom score, which takes into account people’s access to political rights and civil liberties is a mere 66/100, on par with India’s score and lower than any other EU member.


The EU does not currently have a mechanism to expel member states, however, the closest thing that comes to it is Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union. It allows for a member’s voting rights to be suspended, albeit it requires unanimity among all other member states. So far, the EU has only triggered Article 7 twice: once against Poland in 2017 and once against Hungary in 2018 but on each occasion, the two countries threatened to veto any vote and pledged to have each other’s back.


With a new pro-European government in place in Poland, this might be the only chance the European Union gets to implement Article 7 against Hungary. If successful, it will unblock billions in aid for Ukraine and also allow new sanctions to be imposed on Russia, which Hungary has been vetoing. Hungary has consistently used its veto power on a number of significant policy proposals such as the 15% universal corporate tax rate and the coronavirus recovery plan in order in order to get concessions from the EU.


Whether Slovakia would back Hungary in such a vote remains uncertain. During his previous 2 stints as Slovakia’s prime minister, Fico has avoided clashing with the EU. It was under his leadership that Slovakia became part of the Eurozone and the Schengen area. Notably, in 2008, he openly criticised the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and his "extreme nationalist party" Fidesz, even going so far as to label Hungary as a potential threat. Judging by his 2 previous stints as PM, Fico will probably tone down the anti-EU rhetoric while in office.


However, following Fico's recent election victory, Orbán was the first foreign leader to congratulate him, tweeting "Guess who's back!" and referring to him as a "patriot." Orbán probably sees Fico as his only remaining lifeline, and Fico will undoubtedly exploit his newfound power in the upcoming years.


There is no doubt that the two will cause headaches in Brussels going forward, but the EU will also be relieved not to be dealing with Poland’s PIS anymore. At the end of the day, Slovakia is 7 times smaller than Poland and almost 6 times poorer in terms of GDP. It carries a lot less clout and is economically much more dependent on EU funds, as it is the EU’s fourth poorest member state in terms of GDP per capita. Squaring up to Brussels is by no means in Fico’s best interest.


Despite the tumultuous nature of 2023, European democracy has proven resilient. Ukraine is still getting the aid and support it requires and the EU survived the winter comfortably, despite threats and predictions from Kremlin propaganda that the continent will “freeze” without Russian gas. 2024 will be a relatively calm electoral year with elections scheduled in Croatia, Romania, Lithuania, Austria and Belgium. Aside from Austria where the far-right FPÖ is ahead in the polls for now, there don’t seem to be any red flags that could undermine the EU’s stability. At last, Brussels can breathe a sigh of relief.

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