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Vít, you have been working on political transformations in Central Europe. In Differential Illiberalism: Classifying Illiberal Trends in Central European Party Politics, you explain that each Central European country has its own combination of illiberal features. Can you summarize them for us?

In the book chapter, we examined the rhetorics and practices of illiberalism in four Central European countries: Czechia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. We found that, given the several cases of stable and long-lasting illiberal prime ministers, no country is immune from the destabilizing effects of illiberalism: Andrej Babiš, Viktor Orbán, Jarosław Kaczyński (who is not the prime minister, yet the most influential Polish politician), and Robert Fico, respectively. Yet, both the rhetoric and effects differ a lot. In Czechia, and to some extent in Slovakia, illiberalism is not backed by any consistent ideology. It depends more on the populist campaigns of the leaders. It has strong technocratic features in the rhetorics of Andrej Babiš, who claimed he wants to rule the country in the same manner as he runs his business holding. Fico is an example of a “classical” populist, mixing elements of social populism and Slovak nationalism with pragmatic policies in many areas. Both used to face relatively strong opposition and criticism from independent media. Another factor preventing them from reshaping political institutions in an illiberal way was their inability to seize the majority in the parliament on their own. They wanted to make illiberal reforms, but they have failed to enact them, at least so far.

Poland and especially Hungary represent a different story. We can label Hungary as a full-fledged illiberal democracy without any doubt. Orbán has been the prime minister since 2010, which is a time long enough to undermine liberal checks and balances and concentrate economic power in the hands of his allies. As we saw in April 2022, the Hungarian opposition remains weak, and Orbán still uses fabricated threats masterfully to convince Hungarian society that he is the only safeguard of stability.

The Polish case is perhaps the most interesting one. Poland has definitely been on its way to illiberal democracy ever since the 2015 electoral victory of the Law and Justice party. Its vision of illiberalism is firmly based on shared values and views on culture, society, or nationalism. Many liberal institutions have already been subverted, such as those of the judiciary or public broadcasting. The European Commission launched an infringement procedure against Poland in April 2020 because it evaluated the Polish justice reforms as breaching the rule-of-law principle. On the other hand, the media in Poland is far from being as concentrated around the ruling party as it is in Hungary. Civil society is more robust in Poland, and the conservative agenda implemented by the government provokes massive protests. Poland seems to be a battlefield between the liberal and illiberal versions of democracy, where the outcome is not clear.

Poland seems to be a battlefield between the liberal and illiberal versions of democracy, where the outcome is not clear.

The case of the ANO party in Czechia is particularly interesting. You explain it is an entrepreneurial party, and indeed its willingness to govern with Social Democrats and work with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe proves this. What does it say about Czech populism that the most powerful populist is so pragmatic in dealing with other political institutions and indeed policy itself?

Andrej Babiš, the “founding father” and leader of ANO, is a somewhat special case. Among Central Eastern European politicians, he is, in fact, the closest to the model of a business-friendly-party akin to Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. He entered politics in 2011 for a variety of reasons. The main one was to maintain his close contacts with state institutions, an essential source of financial benefits for his agrochemical holding. He had close relations with some politicians of both of the traditionally strongest parties: the Social Democrats and the Civic Democrats. Facing the decline of both parties mentioned above, he decided that the time was ripe to connect the worlds of his business and Czech politics directly.

I am, however, convinced that at least before the 2013 parliamentary elections, there was another motive important for his decision to launch a new party operated on purely managerial and technocratic principles. The governmental crisis of 2011–2013 undermined people’s trust in traditional politics, and Babiš was convinced he could improve the quality and efficiency of government by implementing as many managerial principles as possible to fight corruption and modernize the country.

As we saw in Czechia with Babiš as minister of finance from 2013 to 2017 and prime minister from 2017 to 2021, having a managerial type in charge is not always better than having a traditional politician; on the contrary, it may sometimes be worse. Babiš’ reform plans were quickly replaced with the populist implementation of inconsistent economic measures, with only one common denominator: to “buy off” the voter constituencies supporting his party, such as retirees or low-skilled workers. Babiš’ manifesto from the 2013 elections was the moderate right-wing plan to modernize Czech society. The analogous 2017 document looked like an old-fashioned social-democratic program flavored with a pretty hefty dose of social populism. In sum, Babiš isn’t driven by ideology, just by his economic interests and anything that might help him get the position connected with immunity since he has been facing several accusations of misuse of state and EU funding. As a member of the Czech Parliament, no one can be prosecuted without consent of the respective house of parliament. As president, Babiš coukld even shield himself from any possibility of being prosecuted for any crime he commited before he assumed office.

Babiš’ populist appeals and the preferences of the voters he represents mean that he would change many things illiberally if he had the ability to do so.

For the institutions of Czech liberal democracy, this constitutes both a piece of bad and good news all at once. Babiš doesn’t want to change these institutions for the sake of any particular ideology, but he still doesn’t respect them at all and treats them as barriers to his economic and political power. Babiš’ populist appeals and the preferences of the voters he represents mean that he would change many things illiberally if he had the ability to do so. His is an example of the hyper-pragmatic use of populism as a mere strategy for reaching his voters. On the other hand, other Czech populists combine populist strategy and rhetoric with far-right (Tomio Okamura) and far-left (Communist) ideologies. At the end of the day, we see that the Czech case is not unique.

How does the managerial aesthetic and practice of Babiš contribute to the effectiveness of ANO’s leadership within the Czech Republic and its ability to align itself with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group in the EU Parliament, despite the fact that you write that, “by its very nature, technocratism [sic] is in latent conflict with liberal democracy?”

Let me start with the marriage of convenience between ANO and ALDE, a liberal pro-integration group in the European Parliament. ANO joined the ALDE group in the European Parliament after the 2014 elections and has remained in Renew Europe, a group created by the merger between ALDE and members of European Parliament elected for Emmanuel Macron´s La République en marche party, for purely pragmatic reasons. The “match” was based on the decision of Babiš to trust to his brand-new MEP (and former member of the European Commission for the Czech Republic) Pavel Telička. Telička’s strategy was simple but efficient: ANO had to be in one of the three mainstream pro-European factions. Since the European People’s Party and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (commonly referred to simply as Socialists and Democrats) already had some Czech members, Telička made a deal with ALDE. Its leader, Guy Verhofstadt, was also pragmatic, recognizing that four seats for ANO and a new country represented in the club was fair enough compensation for the lack of real ideological proximity. This marriage of convenience proved durable because Babiš was not interested in the proceedings of the European Parliament, and the particular MEPs for ANO were genuinely participating in the EU political mainstream, regardless of the soft Euroskeptic campaign of their party back home in Czechia.

As far as the leadership was concerned, Babiš, in fact, discarded the perspective of a manager being more efficient than a regular professional politician. His leadership was erratic and inefficient, as the Covid pandemic proved. Babiš was hyperactive in his micromanagement, but he failed to present any coherent vision or concept of how to proceed. This observation doesn’t apply to his anti-Covid measures, which oscillated between excessive repressions and claims that Czechia was “best in Covid.” He was always ready to deliver cheap managerial pep talks, but the reality was much bleaker than the picture he painted.

You contributed a chapter to the book Presidents above Parties? You describe the process of how presidential authority was established in the democratization that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. Can you explain how presidents in these systems have been able to concentrate more power in their office and away from the cabinets that originally defined those governments?

The phenomenon of presidents acquiring more power is not present in all the post-Communist states, nor does it have the same causes. The vast majority of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe set up their political systems to be parliamentary democracies. Yet the instability of political institutions and an inchoate political culture of civic engagement have allowed those heads of state striving for greeater political power to push the limits of their constitutional prerogatives.

The Czech case is illustrative. All three post-1992 Czech presidents have been key political personalities of democratic transition, politically skilled and famous, at least among substantial parts of Czech society. Having big political ambitions and facing a somewhat fragmented party system, they resisted the temptation to impact politics more than as prescribed by the constitution. Often, presidents are directly elected in Central and Eastern Europe. Many of them claim they have stronger legitimacy than, for example, a government based on the approval of a parliamentary majority. Sometimes, the presidential powers are described vaguely in constitutions, which creates a “gray zone” in which skillful leaders expand their personal influence.

Typically, a mixture of different factors described above has played a role in increasing the president’s authority. On the other hand, we know this is not an irreversible process. As the Slovak or Slovenian examples of Zuzana Čaputová and Borut Pahor, respectively, show, the election of a president who conforms to the letter and spirit of the constitution can effectively and quickly restore the proper balance of power.

Presidents above Parties? was published in 2013, and since then we have seen democratic backsliding across Central and Eastern Europe, especially in the case of Hungary. Do you think that power can be wrested away from leaders like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán? If so, by whom? And what will it take to reverse the personalization of Central and Eastern European presidencies that has contributed to this democratic backsliding?

Orbán’s regime is, in many ways, an extreme case—an example of a country where the illiberal politicians succeeded in making illiberal reforms to the judiciary and media and infringed on the rights of civil society. The 2012 Constitution cemented these institutional changes. The concentration of economic power made reversing this even harder. In the case of financial problems in Hungary or unrest in Hungarian society, I can imagine there might be a decline in tolerance for Orbán’s regime.

The problem is, however, one of weak opposition. Paradoxically, without a credible and robust leader of its own, the Hungarian opposition can hardly override the current predominance of Orbán’s Fidesz party. This means you can hardly escape the personalization of politics. Although I am very critical of the current overemphasis on strong political personalities in Central and Eastern European politics, I do not see an easy way out of this.

The communication of politics, its focus on online media, TV campaigns, and elements of “infotainment,”—all this is too powerful for people to be able to turn their attention to other, non-populist aspects of politics. Therefore, we have to be more careful about the role of media, which have long had plenty of other things to do besides just acting as watchdogs of democracy for quite some time. And we have to inculcate in the population a robust education on how recent changes in the means of communication affect politics. Self-awareness on the part of journalists is as necessary as is the activity of NGOs, experts, and, of course, politicians.

The communication of politics, its focus on online media, TV campaigns, and elements of “infotainment,”—all this is too powerful for people to be able to turn their attention to other, non-populist aspects of politics.

On the other hand, the Czech 2021 and Slovenian 2022 elections showed that the voters could replace illiberal politicians. All is not lost for liberal democracy in Poland either. Still, there remains a pluralistic media environment (even though public media was turned into a bullhorn of the illiberal executive), NGOs are active, and the Polish opposition is not that weak. And there is the EU factor. The EU can contribute a lot by taking the issue seriously and by, for example, conditioning financial subsidies on respect for liberal democratic values and institutions. There is no one actor who can singlehandedly “fix it” all, but a synergy can still work.

Our program is called the Illiberalism Studies Program. Where do you see the usefulness of the term illiberalism compared to the more oft-used populism? Where do they overlap, and where do they offer different angles from which to view the subject?

As a matter of fact, I never treated the concepts of illiberalism and populism as competing alternatives. Populism denotes a specific strategy for attracting voters or, according to some scholars, a “thin” ideology treating society as divided between an inherently corrupt and incompetent elite and the pure masses betrayed by that elite. Suddenly, a populist politician emerges and, like a Robin Hood figure, “defends” the public.

Illiberalism is a question of institutional settings, a rejection of the liberal component of democratic rule, a dereliction of the rule of law and the checks and balances intended to place limits on politicians. Populism covers the style and procedures of politics, illiberalism the institutional “engineering.”

A populist politician might apply illiberal measures, of course, and illiberal politicians might benefit significantly from populist appeals, as Orbán’s example clearly shows. Illiberalism and populism are natural bedfellows. However, they pose dangers to a democratic polity from different angles.

Populism covers the style and procedures of politics, illiberalism the institutional “engineering.”

I especially like the descriptive value of the concept of illiberalism, and I prefer this term instead of a broader notion of democratic decline because of its clearer analytical content. Liberal democracy has two components, liberalism and democracy, and illiberalism addresses issues that are not the products of democratization. Historically, in European countries, the implementation of liberal institutions has preceded full democratization. These institutions act as a sort of check against the tyranny of the majority and populist rule at the same time.

Vít Hloušek is professor of European politics at the Department of International Relations and European Studies at FSS MU. Since 2012, he has been a Director of International Institute of Political Science at the same faculty. He focuses on issues of contemporary history and comparative political science. He deals mainly with research of changing relations between domestic policy and political system of the European Union and examination of development of tools and forms of multilevel governance in the European Union. His most recent publications include The Rise of Entrepreneurial Parties in European Politics (with Lubomír Kopeček and Petra Vodová, Palgrave Macmillan 2020), The European Parliamentary Election of 2019 in East-Central Europe: Second-Order Euroscepticism (with Petr Kaniok, Palgrave Macmillan 2020), or Europeanised Defiance: Czech Euroscepticism since 2004 (with Vlastimil Havlík and Petr Kaniok, Barbara Budrich Verlag 2017).

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.