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Hungary Is an Outlier in Eastern Europe’s Liberal Future

A wave of election victories has stymied autocratic parties.

By , a current graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he studies energy and trans-Atlantic policy.
Moldovan President Maia Sandu holds her ballot.
Moldovan President Maia Sandu holds her ballot.
Moldovan President Maia Sandu holds her ballot at a polling station during parliamentary elections in Chisinau, Moldova, on July 11, 2021. Sergei Gapon/AFP via Getty Images

From Viktor Orban’s reelection as prime minister in Hungary this month to Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine, it’s easy to conclude the outlook for democracy in Eastern Europe is bleak. But while creeping authoritarianism in Hungary—and similar though less extreme problems in Poland—is real and a cause for deep concern, it has also overshadowed a wave of democratic consolidation playing out across the rest of Eastern Europe.

Over the past three years, a string of liberal electoral victories in the region have gone largely unnoticed. Far from being a passing phase, a wide variety of factors—from an emboldened European Union to generational replacement—suggests this democratic consolidation will only continue. Even with Orban, the future of Eastern Europe is liberal.

This most recent wave of democratic consolidation began in earnest with Slovakia’s 2019 presidential race, when liberal reformer and environmental activist Zuzana Caputova became the country’s first female leader. Caputova swept into power following outrage over the 2018 murder of a prominent Slovak journalist, whose assassination implicated Slovakia’s illiberal, then-ruling Direction-Slovak Social Democracy (known as Smer-SD) party. Caputova capitalized on the outrage to defeat the party’s candidate with 58 percent of the vote, and Slovaks punished the party further during the country’s 2020 parliamentary elections. Smer had the potential to morph into full-blown authoritarianism, but Slovaks blocked it before it could do so.

From Viktor Orban’s reelection as prime minister in Hungary this month to Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine, it’s easy to conclude the outlook for democracy in Eastern Europe is bleak. But while creeping authoritarianism in Hungary—and similar though less extreme problems in Poland—is real and a cause for deep concern, it has also overshadowed a wave of democratic consolidation playing out across the rest of Eastern Europe.

Over the past three years, a string of liberal electoral victories in the region have gone largely unnoticed. Far from being a passing phase, a wide variety of factors—from an emboldened European Union to generational replacement—suggests this democratic consolidation will only continue. Even with Orban, the future of Eastern Europe is liberal.

This most recent wave of democratic consolidation began in earnest with Slovakia’s 2019 presidential race, when liberal reformer and environmental activist Zuzana Caputova became the country’s first female leader. Caputova swept into power following outrage over the 2018 murder of a prominent Slovak journalist, whose assassination implicated Slovakia’s illiberal, then-ruling Direction-Slovak Social Democracy (known as Smer-SD) party. Caputova capitalized on the outrage to defeat the party’s candidate with 58 percent of the vote, and Slovaks punished the party further during the country’s 2020 parliamentary elections. Smer had the potential to morph into full-blown authoritarianism, but Slovaks blocked it before it could do so.

This wave continued with Moldova’s 2020 presidential election, when Maia Sandu—another liberal reformer who, like Caputova, became her country’s first female leader with almost 58 percent of the vote—swept into power. Sandu triumphed over incumbent President Igor Dodon, a Kremlin-backed candidate who visited Moscow no fewer than 20 times in the runup to the election. (Russian President Vladimir Putin even wished Dodon good luck). Moldova continued its realignment with the West during its 2021 legislative elections, when Sandu’s liberal Party of Action and Solidarity won the outright majority in Parliament needed to implement meaningful reform.

This wave of liberalism went into overdrive last year, when voters elected two liberal leaders in Bulgaria and deposed an autocratic one in the Czech Republic. In Bulgaria, it took three general elections within the span of seven months to end the 12-year rule of (now former) Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, whose legendary corruption culminated with leaked pictures of the 62-year-old lying naked in bed surrounded by rolls of euros. Borissov was not pro-Russian, but his corrupt governance and kleptocracy made Bulgaria an outlier in the European Union. In his place are Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov and Deputy Prime Minister Assen Vassilev, two Harvard University-educated reformers who look well positioned to reduce corruption, reinforce democratic norms, and steer Bulgaria in a decidedly liberal direction.

The fall of Andrej Babis, the Czech Republic’s autocratic former prime minister, was even more dramatic. Babis looked poised to take the Czech Republic down the path of Hungary, replicating the Orban playbook by stacking independent institutions with cronies, crowding out independent media, and railing against immigrants. Tellingly, Orban even hit the campaign trail for Babis, framing his campaign as part of a common struggle against the European Union. Babis’s consequent loss, spurred in part by the Pandora Papers and revelations of his own corruption, put pause to the idea that the Czech Republic would follow down the autocratic footsteps of its nearby neighbor.

Hungary and Poland, for good reason, have continued to dominate headlines. But the election of liberal reformers in Slovakia, Moldova, and Bulgaria—coupled with the removal of an emerging autocrat in the Czech Republic—are tangible wins for Eastern European democracy that have gone largely unnoticed.

These liberalizing trends are likely to win out in the next decade, in part because of the gradual replacement of older and more conservative generations with younger and more liberal ones. Aside from a few outliers where young people skew more conservative (namely Hungary), this pattern is evident in just about every Eastern European country. In the Czech Republic, for example, just 13 percent of voters younger than age 35 voted for ANO 2011, the populist and kleptocratic party of Babis. Meanwhile, Moldova’s large and overwhelmingly young diaspora gave Sandu a whopping 93 percent of their vote, which comprised most of her winning margin.

Even in illiberal countries, the trends are clear. Poland’s 2020 presidential election, for example, saw the illiberal Law and Justice-aligned Andrzej Duda scrape by with 51 percent of the vote. But he lost voters ages 18 to 29 by a remarkable 28.8 points, suggesting Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party will struggle as today’s young voters comprise a larger share of the electorate. Perversely, COVID-19 has accelerated this trend by disproportionately killing the older, rural, and vaccine-skeptic voters who comprise the base of illiberal parties like Poland’s Law and Justice and Slovakia’s Smer.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is also likely to accelerate liberalization. Some of the millions of Ukrainians who have fled to neighboring countries may stay, exercising an anti-Kremlin effect on foreign policy in a way not dissimilar to Cuban Americans in the United States. In most countries (though perhaps not Poland, where the illiberal Law and Justice party is already stridently anti-Russia), this could have a liberalizing effect, since voting against Russia necessarily means voting against the numerous far-right parties linked to it. And the invasion has emboldened the cause of democracy and rule of law within the European Union, whose creation of a new, independent, and centralized European Public Prosecutor’s Office last year looks well placed to finally get tough on corruption. Above all, the invasion has created a stark contrast between Russia’s autocracy and Europe’s liberalism, galvanizing reformers who advocate closer ties with the West and punishing reactionaries who wish to mirror the Kremlin.

This isn’t a clear-cut effect: The invasion appears to have strengthened Orban’s hand in Hungary, in large part because Orban leveraged the Fidesz party’s near-total control of the media to falsely claim the opposition would drag Hungary into war against Russia. But Hungary, ranked by Freedom House as the EU’s least free country, is a uniquely bad predictor for how other countries will respond. And in any case, the long-term trajectory of Eastern Europe—and the mere existence of free and fair elections in countries tucked behind the Iron Curtain just 30 years ago—is one that should give liberals hope. After Orban’s reelection, Hungary may yet sink deeper into authoritarianism. But the rest of Eastern Europe will not follow.

Brent Peabody is a current graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he studies energy and trans-Atlantic policy.

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