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January 11, 2021

Europe

VISEGRAD FOUR: Weakened by Covid-19, incumbents brace for difficult 2021

BY Andrius Tursa

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( 5 mins)
  • The approval ratings of the Visegrad Four governments have dropped to multi-year lows amid the continuing pandemic.
  • While no political instability is expected in the near term, each government faces distinct challenges that could bring about changes in the longer-term.
  • The mismanagement of the Covid-19 vaccination programs could accelerate negative trends in 2021.

Czech Republic: ANO in decline ahead of October general vote

After overcoming disagreements with coalition partners over the 2021 budget, the Andrej Babis’ government is now expected to remain in office until the October parliamentary election, which is shaping up to be highly competitive. The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed the public approval ratings of the ruling Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO) to the lowest point since mid-2016, and its coalition partners/supporters balance around the 5% threshold to win seats in parliament.
The country’s epidemiological situation is deteriorating once again, suggesting a prolonged period of restrictions and continued economic decline. The handling of the pandemic – including the vaccination process – will likely be the single most important factor determining Babis’ re-election prospects. Two competing opposition blocs will also challenge ANO – the center-right Together (SPOLU) and the centrist alliance between the Pirates and Mayors and Independents, suggesting a heated pre-election campaign. Finally, it is important to watch President Milos Zeman’s position – a long-time ally of Babis – who has a constitutional right to nominate a prime minister of his own choice regardless of the election outcome.

Hungary: Opposition unites to unseat Orban

While the ruling Fidesz party remains best positioned among the Visegrad Four countries to remain in office, 2021 brings some novel challenges. The slow response to the pandemic and an associated economic downturn have somewhat eroded public support for the ruling party, which now polls at around 47%, the lowest point at least since 2017. A successful vaccination program and a speedy economic recovery will be key for Fidesz to buck this negative trend ahead of the parliamentary election scheduled for spring 2022.

Besides the pandemic-induced challenges, Fidesz will face a united opposition bloc, which proved rather successful in the 2019 local elections and could put up a close fight in the general vote. However, to realize its full potential, a diverse opposition alliance will have to overcome ideological differences, agree on a joint candidate list, come up with a compelling electoral program, and select a promising prime ministerial candidate. This will take place amid the continuing attempts by Fidesz to restrict the opposition’s prospects, as illustrated by recent tweaks to electoral rules and attempts to curb local governments’ financial resources, many of which are now run by opposition parties.

Poland: Biggest threat to the United Right is… itself

After overcoming multiple crises that pushed the United Right (UR) alliance to the brink of collapse in 2020, the ruling camp starts the year more divided and less popular. So far, the lack of viable alternatives if the government were to fall has kept the three parties together. Nonetheless, internal divisions will remain the greatest risk to government stability as there are no elections scheduled until 2023, and the opposition stands disjointed (and leaderless). The rivalry between Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and the ambitious Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro – who also leads the junior coalition party United Poland – is one signpost to watch. Ziobro’s intention to challenge the EU’s rule of law mechanism in the country’s Constitutional Tribunal suggests that internal disagreements on the issue have not been settled. While the Law and Justice (PiS) leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has managed to mediate internal crises to date, his leadership might become increasingly questioned as well. Kaczynski’s authority suffered from his rare miscalculations on pushing for postal-only ballots in last year’s presidential vote or a proposal to ban fur farming, both of which have only widened internal divisions and hurt the PiS in the ratings. Considering the slim majority UR holds in the crucial lower house of parliament, even small divisions could destabilize it.

Slovakia: Few alternatives to a waning OLaNO

A flurry of small-scale crises and, importantly, a chaotic response to the second wave of Covid-19 has substantially weakened the ruling Ordinary People (OLaNO) party and its leader Prime Minister Igor Matovic. Just ten months after taking office following a convincing win in the February general vote, OLaNO’s approval rating has halved to approximately 13%, while around three-quarters of voters do not trust Matovic. There are also problems within the four-party coalition, with Matovic going as far as publicly calling his economy minister and the leader of the junior coalition partner Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) Richard Sulik an “idiot.”

The continuing pandemic will likely keep the governing coalition together for now. Still, a departure of SaS could be expected in the medium term, especially if OLaNO continues sinking in the polls. However, the other two coalition parties (We are Family and For the People) might be more cautious, as the Matovic government’s fall might lead to snap parliamentary elections, and neither of them has good re-election prospects. At the same time, initiatives to organize a referendum in 2021 on shortening the term of the current administration should be watched.

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