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All eyes on CEE: The 2023 elections that may decide on the EU’s populist and illiberal trajectory in the coming years

After elections in Sweden and Italy last year that brought significant gains to a right-wing populist party in the former and led to a far-right populist government in the latter, the EU faces crucial elections in the Czech Republic, Poland and potentially Slovakia in 2023. 

While these elections may seem to be inconsequential at a first glance, they still have important implications for the EU as they could further strengthen Europe’s populist, illiberal coalitions across Europe and once again bolster the weakened Visegrad group, a quadrilateral cooperation framework between Poland, Slovakia the Czech Republic, and Hungary in the EU. As such, they have broader implications for the EU’s ability to act at home and abroad in the coming years, which is particularly concerning in light of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Moreover, the outcomes of these elections may decide the region’s democratic and populist trajectory in the coming years. 

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First, in January 2023, the Czech Republic will elect a new president who will replace Miloš Zeman after ten years in office. Andrej Babiš, the businessman and former prime minister was recently acquitted of fraud shortly before the first round of the presidential election. With 34.99% of the votes, Babiš came in second, closely behind General Petr Pavel who led with 35.4%. They will face each other once again in a runoff at the end of January. 

Although most Europhiles hope for Pavel as the next Czech president, who is also projected to win the presidency, a surprising victory of Babiš is nonetheless possible. In line with his populist behaviour, he is likely to position himself as an “opposition candidate” given that Pavel is largely endorsed by the current government as well as by the presidential candidates who dropped out of the race previously. Furthermore, given his financial resources and as a leader of the ANO party, he could skew the playing field in his favour by pouring more money into his campaigns than his adversary. 

Certainly, if Babiš’ succeeds in the runoff it could lead to repercussions not just in the Czech Republic but also in the eastern European region. Although the role of the Czech president is largely ceremonial, he or she still holds veto powers over parliamentary bills and could seriously hamper parliamentary work. Moreover, despite recently being acquitted in the Czech Republic, he also faces investigations in France over alleged money laundering, that would affect his presidency. His victory could thus be consequential to Czechia’s democratic functioning and international reputation. In addition, Babiš with his often Eurosceptic stance may also provide much-needed symbolic support for the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán in his battles with the EU. The two have previously been known for their relationship and propped up each other’s policies and actions. 

In autumn, Poles will go to the ballot in an election that may bring unprecedented results. Although it is too early to predict which party will come out as the winner, polls currently see the ruling right-wing populist Law and Justice Party (PiS) at 37% and are predicted to win. Another election victory with a third consecutive term in office would be a first in Poland. 

PiS is notorious for following the populist-illiberal playbook, restricting women’s rights and democratic freedoms, and following in Hungary’s footsteps. Another term will most probably bring a continuation of the same anti-democratic governing.  

Apart from these two planned elections, snap elections in Slovakia are likely in 2023, as the minority right-wing government lost a vote of no-confidence last December after months of political turmoil. The outcome of these would likely lead to a profound shift compared to the 2020 election result as current polls suggest. If Slovakia also holds elections in 2023 and former prime minister Fico returns, as feared, the country is likely to jettison its s pro-Western orientation and instead continue going down the same populist, anti-democratic path as its neighbour, Hungary. Besides, this could reboot the cooperation in the Visegrad group which has previously experienced a fallout because of changing governments in some of the Visegrad states as well as their diverging stances on the war in Ukraine, particularly the Hungarian prime minister’s approach.  

Orbán has been performing a balancing act between the EU and Russia ever since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and found himself largely isolated among other EU members over the course of last year. The government’s ambiguous stance on Russia and lack of support for Ukraine had a particularly negative impact on the Visegrad Alliance and drove a wedge between Hungary and its strongest ally, Poland. Nevertheless, the two are likely to reconcile and the Polish-Hungarian axis in the EU to prevail, despite their differing opinions on Russia, given their common goal of dismantling the rule of law and democratic liberties while receiving EU Funds. 

All in all, the possible election of a populist president in the Czech Republic and of the right-wing populist PiS party in Poland, mixed with a potential return of Fico in Slovakia would further cement the region’s populist, illiberal and anti-democratic direction. Even though populist leadership around the world is declining, according to the report by the Tony Blain Institute for Global Change, the projected developments in 2023 suggest a return or continuation of the populist and illiberal course in the CEE region. 

Considering these candidates’ and parties’ populist and illiberal tendencies, their victory could forge new alliances and resurge old ones with other populist-led EU member states and have potential negative policy implications for the EU. Their coordination and mutual support for each other in negotiations with the EU, as well as the ability to use their veto to shield allies, as has been the case in the past, may further paralyse the block’s unity, decision-making and readiness to act in its domestic and foreign policy – and thus, negatively affect the EU as a global actor.

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