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2022 could be the year when the map of the European Union will be redrawn.
For years, right-wing populists have been gaining ground in new bloc countries, inspiring far-right groups across the continent and stoking fears about the union’s democratic future.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor OrbÃ¡n consolidated his power over the media and the judiciary. In Poland, the conservative Law and Justice party introduced far-reaching changes to the country’s judicial system, deeply alarming judges, courts and EU institutions. And in Slovenia, Prime Minister Janez JanÅ¡a lobbied the country’s state-run news agency and undermined the process for appointing prosecutors for the new European public prosecutor’s office.
Today, however, the future of troublemaking European governments is more uncertain than it has been in years.
Hungary will hold parliamentary elections this spring, and for the first time, OrbÃ¡n’s opposition has united in an effort to challenge his power. As the alliance grapples with internal divisions and a level playing field, opponents of the prime minister hope to use concerns about high-level corruption and economic challenges to reach undecided voters.
A victory for the opposition would change not only the rhetoric and policies in Budapest, but also the dynamics in the Council of the European Union, where Hungary has often played the role of rebel. It would also have geopolitical implications for the region: OrbÃ¡n has forged ties with Beijing and Moscow, and a new government would likely do an about-face and align more closely with the EU, US and NATO. A victory for OrbÃ¡n, on the other hand, would cement the power of the veteran leader and allow him to continue building an alliance of far-right and Eurosceptic forces across the continent.
In Poland, 2022 could lead to increased competition between Law and Justice and its rivals, notably former Prime Minister Donald Tusk. As tensions between Warsaw and Brussels worsen, rival camps are likely to clash both over the rule of law in the country and over policy towards the EU. Law and Justice – which, unlike its Hungarian counterpart, depends on sometimes unpredictable coalition partners to rule – will face internal and external pressures ahead of the elections scheduled for 2023, if the ruling alliance does not collapse sooner .
And in Slovenia, JanÅ¡a will be tested in an election expected in the first half of 2022. His Slovenian Democratic Party is already relying on coalition partners to keep him in power. At the same time, the government’s handling of the pandemic – combined with recurring scandals – has raised questions about the prime minister’s political future.
For all EU members wringing their hands over the deterioration of democracy and the rule of law in Central and Eastern Europe, this problem has never been resolved in Brussels. The next few months will reveal whether a solution will be found in the region.
With its large economy and great geopolitical importance, Warsaw’s political battles have implications far beyond Poland’s own borders.
The 72-year-old Law and Justice leader is Poland’s most powerful person, despite his lack of a fancy job title. Behind the scenes, the seasoned politician is expected to continue to play a major role in decision-making in Warsaw, including on how to address Brussels’ concerns about the independence of the judiciary.
The former Prime Minister and former President of the European Council has returned to lead the opposition Civic Platform party. And while the Polish opposition is divided, its efforts pose a challenge to the ruling party. Tusk is campaigning to convince Poles – who overwhelmingly support EU membership – that the government is putting their dreams at risk.
Hungary’s 2022 elections will be closely watched across the bloc. The stakes are high for both the ruling Fidesz party and its opponents, and the campaign is set to turn ugly.
For his fans, Viktor OrbÃ¡n is a patriot determined to defend the national interests of Hungary. To his detractors, he is a budding autocrat. The upcoming elections could be a defining moment for his career, but they also raise existential questions for the Prime Minister and the businessmen who have risen on his heels.
The conservative mayor of the southern city of HÃ³dmezÅvÃ¡sÃ¡rhely is OrbÃ¡n’s unlikely challenger in the 2022 election. But the mayor, who is running on an anti-corruption platform, faces an uphill battle as the ruling party mobilizes the might of his resources – from poster campaigns to state media – against him and the opposition alliance.
While the rule of law concerns in Europe often revolve around Hungary and Poland, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez JanÅ¡a’s rhetoric and Twitter habits have also raised eyebrows in European capitals.
The longtime politician is a close ally of OrbÃ¡n who has gained a reputation for spouting unsavory tweets. But JanÅ¡a’s position at home is far from anchored. Critics say that although there are concerns about the measures taken by the Slovenian government, especially its attacks on the media, the country’s democratic institutions remain intact.
A former journalist and EU correspondent, Fajon heads the Slovenian opposition to the Social Democrats. She is currently a member of the European Parliament, where she has worked on issues such as relations with the Western Balkans.