Anti-corruption agendas win over CEE voters, but effective implementation proves elusive
Pundits have already dubbed 2022 a vital moment for the rule of law in Europe, with the potential to redraw the continent’s political map and offering an off-ramp to the dangerous east-west rift that has opened up in the European bloc. First, the European Court of Justice is expected to issue a landmark ruling later this month confirming that the EU has the authority to make funds conditional on member states’ commitments to the bloc’s core values. The decision will ratchet up tensions sharply with wayward members, particularly Poland—whose reported use of Pegasus malware to spy on opposition figures has “crossed the Rubicon” of antidemocratic behaviour— and Hungary.
Budapest could play host to one of the biggest political upheavals of the year, with a motley coalition of six opposition parties coalescing behind Péter Márki-Zay to give the Hungarian opposition the best chance in 16 years to unseat Viktor Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party in elections slated for this spring. Márki-Zay has pinned his hopes on attracting enough Hungarians frustrated by the same corruption which personally led him away from Fidesz: making an anti-graft crusade the core of his campaign, Márki-Zay has pledged to join the new European Public Prosecutor’s Office if elected and committed to establish an anti-corruption institute to investigate a years-long backlog of cases, including some dating from before Orbán’s regime.
It’s an electoral playbook that has worked well before, most recently in Bulgaria, where Kiril Petkov’s anti-graft party We Continue the Change (PP) swept to victory in November elections. Petkov was given the green light in mid-December to form a government, vowing that “zero tolerance for corruption will be the motto of our coalition”.
Cleaning up what Bulgarian President Ramen Radev described as the lawlessness and graft characterising “the vicious power model inherited from 12 years of authoritarian rule” under former PM Boyko Borissov, however, won’t be easy, and Márki-Zay may find the same even if he prevails in Hungary’s spring elections. An anti-graft agenda is easier to lean on in opposition than in government, and is particularly difficult to parlay into glue strong enough to hold together a coalition as disparate as Hungary’s so-called “United Opposition”.
Just take the case of Slovakia’s big tent OLaNO party, which rode a wave of public anger over corruption to a resounding victory in early 2020. Charismatic OLaNO leader Igor Matovič’s meteoric rise was anchored in Navalny-style video exposés in which he apparently uncovered corrupt schemes, but from the outset observers questioned whether he could avoid the common pitfalls which have befallen countless populist leaders elected on anti-graft agendas. Less than two years later, with OLaNO trailing in the polls following its disastrous handling of the coronavirus pandemic and Matovič himself ousted with a dismal approval rating amidst allegations that he plagiarised his university thesis, Slovakia’s once-promising anti-corruption movement seems to have gone astray.
On the surface, OLaNO’s tenure in government has increased anti-graft activity. As the EU noted in its most recent rule of law report for Slovakia, “the number of individuals convicted for corruption offences more than doubled from 2019 (62 convictions) to 2020 (128 convictions).” An aggressive prosecution campaign, however, doesn’t necessarily mean an effective one. Many Slovakian cases rely heavily on the testimony of indicted individuals who have been flipped into cooperating in exchange for leniency—a system which a Slovak judge critically termed “a factory for the production of penitents” yielding questionable confessions—and many cases involve prominent figures in the Smer-SD party which OLaNO defeated in the 2020 elections.
Indeed, many corruption prosecutions in Slovakia seem to fit into a strategy of bagging progressively bigger fish in opposition circles until a “high-level scalp” is secured, either former Smer PM Robert Fico or fellow former PM Peter Pellegrini, who heads up the HLAS party. Both Fico and Pellegrini are enjoying an upswing in popularity at the moment: a recent survey identified Fico as the third-most trusted politician in Slovakia, while Pellegrini’s HLAS party is far outpacing OLaNO in the polls—leaving Bratislava open to uncomfortable accusations that it’s using the anti-corruption campaign as a weapon against popular political opponents.
Investigating opposition figures does not inherently imply wrongdoing, but senior politicians from OLaNO and its coalition partners haven’t helped dispel these allegations through social media posts boasting about corruption arrests, including a bingo-style chart with the faces of officials from the former government, red Xs marking those already facing prosecution.
Avoiding even a hint of ulterior motivations is essential for an effective anti-corruption campaign given the long history of politically-motivated prosecutions in Central & Eastern Europe. Even Europe’s first public prosecutor, Laura-Codruta Kövesi, faced bribery allegations in her native Romania which were widely held to be a politically-motivated attempt to sabotage her career.
The Polish and Hungarian governments, meanwhile, have practically made an art out of hijacking the fight against corruption. Polish judges opposed to the judicial reforms which the ECJ has found incompatible with EU law, such as Beata Morawiec, have seen their immunity revoked, leaving them to face dubious corruption charges. Hungary is embroiled in a large-scale investigation about supposed graft at Budapest city hall under the mayoralty of prominent opposition politician Gergely Karácsony. The case has seen staff at prominent Hungarian news outlets resign over ostensible pressure by Fidesz to publish recordings which Hungary’s former PM Gordon Bajnai has dubbed “illegally-made and manipulated”, and opposition figures have labelled the entire corruption case “a theatrical production intended to influence the parliamentary elections”.
The case, the latest in a long line of tainted anti-graft investigations, should also serve as a warning to the Hungarian opposition if they manage to prevail in the spring elections. Promises of a corruption crackdown have increasingly proven valuable currency at the ballot box in CEE countries, but following through on them by establishing an independent, above-reproach anti-graft campaign which can form the backbone of a stable coalition has proven a far more elusive target.