Does the Polish election signal a conservative or illiberal shift in central Europe? Czech observers weigh in

Andrzej Duda, photo: ČTK/AP/Czarek Sokolowski

President Andrzej Duda of Poland, a social conservative allied with the ruling nationalist party, was elected to a second term at the weekend by a slim margin. Throughout the election campaign, Duda attacked the LGBT+ community, raising further concern among some Czech political observers of a turn towards “illiberal democracy” in central Europe, fanned by those seeking to ignite or exploit a culture war.

President Duda, whose promise to protect “traditional families” resonated especially with Polish voters over the age of 50, churchgoers and those in rural areas, brushed off concerns of an illiberal slide akin to that in Hungary under prime minister Viktor Orbán as foreign propaganda.

Meanwhile, in Slovakia, the new coalition government under former businessman Igor Matovič, head of the opposition Ordinary People and Independent Personalities party (OĽaNO), which includes a conservative Catholic party and a libertarian one, is mulling laws limiting abortion. OĽaNO lawmakers themselves span the spectrum.

The EU has warned the governments of Poland and Hungary against disrespecting the rule of law. But is illiberalism really gaining permanent ground in central Europe? Czech Radio asked political scientists and journalists covering the region to weigh in on the significance of the Polish result and spring elections in Slovakia.

Zora Hesová,  photo: archive of Association for International Affairs

Political scientist Zora Hesová, an expert on religious movements and integration in Europe, says the focus on social and cultural issues inevitably draws more people into heated debate. They often feel compelled to defend their values against a “common enemy” – and empowered.

“The image of the ‘enemy’ leads people to feel their involvement in politics makes a difference. Defending conservative values and cultural themes allows many people to feel more a part of the process.

“In Poland, these issues have been part of politics since the 1990s, when the Catholic Church made an agreement with Solidarity and gained enormous influence in politics, banning abortion and returning religious instruction to schools and so on.”

“In Slovakia, the stress on such themes a more modern phenomenon. Surprisingly, it happened while [ex-prime minister Robert] Fico, nominally a social democrat, was still in power as he felt he could score some points with conservatives.”

It was Fico who enabled the constitutional change to define “marriage” as strictly between a man and a woman – a flashpoint in culture wars across the globe. What to make of a new push to restrict access to abortion there?

Not too much, cautions Czech Radio foreign correspondent Pavlína Nečásková. She says that while four related proposals are before the Slovak Parliament, access to abortion is a perennial issue, and one that the ruling coalition did not seek to form a unified position on.

“During my time covering Slovakia, it came up every year. It’s nothing new. The author of the draft anti-abortion law [with the greatest chance of passing] is Anna Záborská, a member of OĽaNO, who has been working on this for 12 years. Coalition leaders agreed before even forming a government that every MP should vote according to their conscience and by no means must it take a unified position.”

Hesová says such issues are often pushed by individual politicians – whether Polish, Slovak, Hungarian or Czech – who are generally part of global Catholic networks, which have become more active in recent years and often employ similar strategies to attract voters.

It is likely a stretch to speak of a seismic shift towards conservatism in central Europe beyond today’s Poland and Hungary, observers say. Culture wars often flare up as part of an effort to conceal “real”, often socio-economic, problems. Much will depend on the political reaction to an economic downturn, driven by the global coronavirus pandemic.