By Will Kinsman
- Political Challenges in 2022: An Overview
2021 was a turbulent year for governments throughout Central and Eastern Europe. The past year has seen a high degree of political instability in the region with at least three countries, Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovakia, having faced a major political crisis. The largest contributing factor to political instability during 2021 was the global COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting pre-existing weaknesses in terms of political corruption, distrust of government, weak healthcare systems, susceptibility to disinformation, and supply chain vulnerability.
While governments in the region will have to address these issues in 2022, the single largest issue in the coming year will be moving beyond the pandemic. In doing so, the biggest challenges policymakers face will be boosting vaccination rates, addressing rising energy prices caused by the ongoing energy crisis, and inflation. Over the next two years, these issues will be on the ballot in upcoming elections throughout the region. For countries not scheduled to hold elections in the next two years such as Romania and Bulgaria, both of which have recently emerged from extended political crises, these issues will also play a key role in deciding political stability in the near future.
- Serbia: Balancing Investment
2021 was largely a successful year for Serbia’s President Aleksander Vučić and his party, the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). SNS entered 2021 coming out of parliamentary elections in which they won 60% of the vote. The party’s prospects were bolstered by the government’s well-orchestrated vaccine roll-out which was made possible by Chinese and Russian COVID-19 vaccines. This is no longer the case, with some experts now predicting that the upcoming elections represent the largest challenge to Vučić and SNS since coming to power in 2012.
A string of corruption scandals over the past year, alongside recent anti-government protests over the government’s approval of the development of a Lithium mine in western Serbia by an Anglo-Australian company in tandem with the passage of legislation granting the government unconditional authority to expropriate land, have backfired on the government and catalyzed public opposition. Facing energy shortages, rising costs, and unprecedented opposition, the government must achieve economic stability in 2022. Chinese investment, a mainstay of the Serbian government’s economic strategy, is expected to fall in the coming year as China’s economy faces problems of its own. If Vučić and SNS do not address the economic issues facing the country, then they face possible defeat in April’s general elections.
- Slovakia – Staying the Course of Reforms
2021 was a turbulent year for Slovakia’s governing party, the Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OL’aNO) party. Running on an anti-corruption platform, the party found wide support from a Slovak public still outraged over the murder of a journalist and his wife which exposed connections between organized crime and members of the ruling Smer-SD party.
Since coming to power, OL’aNO has worked to advance its anti-corruption agenda, carrying out several high-profile anti-corruption raids which have won the party significant public support. It is not all good news though, as Ola’NO’s image took a hit following revelations of its previous Prime Minister’s attempt to secretly purchase Russian vaccines, which brought the government to the edge of collapse. Ola’NO’s ability to continue its anti-corruption reforms will depend on how well it can balance these efforts alongside attempts to bring COVID-19 under control and implement reforms mandated under the European Union’s Recovery package. Slovakia will hold local elections this coming fall, which are expected to serve as a measure of public support for the party in advance of parliamentary elections in 2024.
- Poland: The Polish Deal
Poland is not set to hold elections in 2023, but the government headed by the Law and Justice party (PiS) has become increasingly unpopular due to public frustration with income inequality and rising prices. In response, PiS announced its “Polish Deal,” which took effect on January 1st. The deal seeks to address inequality through redistributive tax policies but does little to address systemic challenges facing the economy.
PiS hopes that the deal will help it to maintain its majority in 2024. In the meantime, the government must find ways to secure the funding it needs to finance the deal, especially as Poland is challenged by the EU’s refusal to release funds earmarked for the country under the EU recovery plan over a rule of law dispute between Poland and Brussels. With the government unlikely to back down in its dispute with the EU, it is unclear whether Poland will be granted the funds it needs to deliver on the Polish Deal. If the deal fails, the current PiS-led government’s prospects will grow more uncertain.
- Czech Republic: A Test for the Czech Political Establishment
Parliamentary elections in October 2021 saw a coalition of center-right establishment parties narrowly defeat the populist ANO party. The election has been painted by some as a victory in the fight against illiberalism in the region, but the government faces several challenges going forwards. The governing coalition’s members must work together to address low vaccination rates and rapidly rising inflation while at the same time working to ensure the country is prepared to assume the Presidency of the European Union Commission.
Whether or not the government can avoid internal divisions and achieve progress on these issues will play a determining role in whether ANO returns to power in parliamentary elections in 2025. The country is set to hold presidential elections in 2023 in which ANO’s founder and leader Andrej Babiš is expected to run. In 2021, the challenges the government will face include facilitating the reopening of the economy through boosting vaccination rates, getting its coalition members to agree on spending cuts to the budget aimed at countering inflationary pressures, and navigating the presidency of the EU Commission while avoiding a repeat of the spectacle of the Czech Republic’s EU presidency in 2009. How well the governing coalition can address the issues it is facing in 2022 will have a bearing on how well they perform in next year’s presidential election and will set the stage for the parliamentary elections in 2025.
- Romania: PSD and PNL, Odd Bed Fellows
Over the past year, Romanian politics have been beset by political turmoil and uncertainty stemming from a series of political scandals, a lackluster response by the government to the COVID-19 pandemic, and rising prices. Parliamentary elections in 2020 saw the rise of a center-right coalition, but following a crisis the government fell and was replaced by a coalition government formed by Romania’s two largest political rivals: the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the National Liberal Party (PNL).
PSD’s membership in the coalition could prove potentially disastrous for the new government, with PSD having a reputation for being one of the most corrupt political parties in Romania. PSD officials have stated that this time will be different for the party as it is no longer under the leadership of its former head Liviu Dragnea. This may not be enough though to overcome the challenges posed by its reputation, An overwhelming distrust in government has led to Romania having the second-worst vaccination rate in Europe. If the government cannot overcome the public’s distrust and boost vaccination rates, then it will be more difficult to address ongoing economic issues. If they fail to gain the public’s confidence, then it is possible that the government could collapse again.
- Bulgaria: An Opportunity for Change
2021 saw Bulgaria undergo an extended political crisis, with three rounds of parliamentary elections being held in the span of eight months. The crisis began in 2020, following mass anti-government demonstrations over the governing party GERB’s alleged role in corruption. The subsequent sets of elections saw the rise of several new populist anti-corruption parties, with We Continue the Change, a reformist party led by two ministers from the transitional government, forming a new government in December.
Bulgaria faces many of the same issues as Romania. Corruption is endemic in politics, Bulgaria is the least vaccinated country in Europe due to the public’s distrust of government, and energy prices have skyrocketed, contributing to more economic hardship in the country. One key difference is that, unlike in Romania, the new government leadership has a real chance to overcome these challenges. We Continue the Change has a clean record, while both its founders have managed to win the public’s trust in their roles as ministers in the previous interim government. Already the party has announced that its main priorities in 2022 will be to address corruption, bring energy prices under control, and boost vaccinations. The new government’s success will depend on its ability to preserve its reputation and on its ability to achieve progress on rule of law and the economy.
Conclusions: Potential for A Shifting Political Landscape
Governments throughout Central and Eastern Europe are set to face several challenges in 2022 which have been made more apparent by the pandemic. Key amongst these will be the need to boost vaccination rates and combat rising prices to return their countries to normalcy. With various elections scheduled to take place throughout the region in 2022 and 2023, governments’ ability to remain in power will be determined by how they address these issues. These challenges represent a test for all governments regardless of political ideology or creed, and it is possible that the pandemic recovery and the upcoming elections could lead to a significantly different political landscape in the region in the coming years.