WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland’s opposition and the ruling conservatives agree on one thing: there is a kinship between Warsaw’s new government and that of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who critics accuse of stretching the boundaries of democracy.
Orban has locked horns with Hungary’s European partners over economic policies and political freedoms for years, most recently with a hard line on the refugee crisis that led to the construction of a steel fence along the southern border to keep migrants out.
Conservatives in Poland, a country long considered one of the strongest supporters of the European Union among the former Soviet bloc states, appear to be following his lead.
Like Orban, the new administration believes it needs to strengthen its hold over state institutions and the media to ensure the country’s voice is heard abroad and the benefits of economic progress are shared more evenly.
Using nationalist rhetoric, they dismiss criticism from the opposition and the EU, saying they have a broad mandate to redesign Poland’s young democracy to reflect the country’s Catholic values and independence from Brussels.
EU diplomats say the Law and Justice (PiS) party of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, twin brother of late president Lech, may be crossing a line where European values that bind the bloc together are under threat.
The foreign minister of Luxembourg, which holds the rotating EU presidency, said this week that while the choice of Polish voters must be respected, there were limits.
“Poland really should stand for rejecting all undemocratic tendencies ... But the new government is clearly taking Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban as its model,” Jean Asselborn told German magazine Der Spiegel.
“If European fundamental rights are upended, then it’s not interference in the internal affairs of a member state, it’s a concern for all of us.”
For Kaczynski and PiS, his brainchild which swept to power by a wide margin in October after capturing the presidency in May, comparisons with Hungary are welcome.
“I remember how chairman Kaczynski was mocked when he said that we’ll have a Budapest in Poland,” said Piotr Glinski, the most senior government official after Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, referring to remarks Kaczynski made in 2011.
“And now? We do have that Budapest — in the right sense of the word,” he told Reuters.
“We don’t agree with each and every one of Hungary’s policies. There are differences, but that doesn’t mean there are no shared interests. The support of the Hungarian nation for Orban is still very strong. Just like the Poles’ support for Kaczynski’s policies.”
Similarities between PiS and Orban’s right-wing Fidesz party run deep, both in personality and policy.
Kaczynski’s combative style is a match for Orban’s fiery rhetoric and reliance on a close circle of party loyalists.
Since taking power, PiS has sought to stamp its authority on the constitutional court to quell any potential opposition to its plans to overhaul the retirement system and the media.
Within days, it replaced the heads of all intelligence services and scrapped the rotating chairmanship of parliament’s intelligence committee with opposition groups.
Orban has packed his constitutional court with Fidesz-backed candidates since 2010, building a majority in the tribunal. PiS has yet to overcome legal obstacles to installing its own judges in Poland’s constitutional court.
“What happened in Hungary took over a year. Here it took 12 days,” Grzegorz Schetyna, foreign minister in the previous government of the centrist Civic Platform (PO), told public radio.
“What we have here is Budapest cubed, fast-tracked,” said Schetyna, who has called the government’s defiance of the constitutional court a “creeping coup d’etat”.
European Parliament chief Martin Schulz used similar language, telling a German radio station that developments in Poland resembled a coup. Warsaw has demanded an apology.
But the fact remains that the EU’s repeated efforts to rein in Fidesz have yielded limited results, and diplomats say there is also little appetite in EU capitals for an early clash with Poland.
The main European governments hope Polish democracy will be strong enough to self-correct, and are keen to enlist PiS’ help on pressing issues such as the refugee crisis and Britain’s renegotiation of the terms of its EU membership, diplomats say.
Some Western allies that have criticised Hungary may also be more inclined give some leeway to Poland in view of Warsaw’s deep-running distrust of Russia, as opposed to Budapest’s close economic links with Moscow.
One crucial similarity between Orban and Kaczynski is their approach to the media.
Orban’s party established a firm grip on the state media early on, clearing out many senior executives and hundreds of staffers and imposing strict regulations on all media outlets. Restrictions were eased only after EU intervention.
But current and former state media journalists say executives have created a culture that discourages tough questioning and employees who dissent are moved aside.
PiS has also long aimed to overhaul rules on public broadcasters to ensure they defend what it defines as national interests. The party has yet to present a bill on the matter but has already signalled plans to “depoliticise” the state media and lay off journalists deemed to be politically affiliated.
It has also signalled that foreign ownership of private news outlets should be curbed, although senior officials admit that would be hard to achieve without breaking the law. It would also run counter to Poland’s deeply-rooted tradition of an independent press, which played a vital role in the country’s political transition.
Foreign owners include Germany’s Bauer Media, owner of most listened-to Polish radio RMF, and Swiss-German Ringier Axel Springer, owner of Poland’s bestselling tabloid Fakt.
“What we want is to change the proportion (of Polish versus foreign-owned media). The current situation is pathological, skewed,” said Glinski, who is also culture minister responsible for media policy. “But I don’t see how we can do it.”
PiS lawmakers have also drafted a bill limiting the immunity of the civic rights’ ombudsman and the Supreme Audit Chamber head, a move which could make the two positions more vulnerable to political pressure.
“Like Orban, Kaczynski believes that the rule of majority cannot be constrained by the rule of law,” said Jan Kubik, Director of the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London.
PiS officials are encouraged by Orban’s unshakeable popularity in Hungary.
Fidesz won election in 2010 and was re-elected in 2014. Orban’s ratings have risen further on the back of his hardline anti-migrant policies, a stance also shared by PiS.
Glinski said support for PiS is deeply rooted in anger over the liberal establishment’s disconnect from the public.
In Hungary, Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany lost power after admitting in 2006 in leaked tapes that he had lied about the state of the budget to win an election.
The previous centrist government in Poland saw its popularity slide in part because of leaked recordings of senior officials drinking expensive wine in Warsaw restaurants, making profane remarks about colleagues and hatching political plots.
“In both countries the process looked exactly the same. First there were tapes ... and only a few years later Orban took power. In Poland it looked similar,” Glinski told Reuters.
Both parties also share a penchant for symbolism.
In one of its first decisions, the PiS government took its cue from Budapest in removing the EU flag, once cherished as a symbol of Warsaw’s western course, from the government’s media room. The symbolic gesture followed a Fidesz decision to remove the EU flag from the parliament building last year.
“We’ve agreed a rule that remarks after the Polish cabinet session will be made against the backdrop of the most beautiful, white-and-red flags,” Prime Minister Szydlo told reporters.
Additional reporting by Pawel Sobczak in Warsaw, Paul Taylor and Alastair Macdonald in Brussels, Andreas Rinke and Noah Barkin in Berlin, Krisztina Than, Sandor Peto and Gergely Szakacs in Budapest; Writing by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Paul Taylor and Sonya Hepinstall