Election season in central Europe
Apr 8th 2010 | BUDAPEST AND WARSAW
From The Economist print edition
This year sees elections in many countries in central Europe. The results may not change all that much
IN A scruffy Budapest district, a postgraduate student from Cambridge is getting a bruising reception. Gabor Scheiring knocks on voters’ doors to say he is fed up with Hungarian politics and wants change. His party, a greenish outfit called Lehet Más a Politika (Politics Can be Better), is campaigning for cleaner, less partisan politics. His donnish manner and shabby car mark him out from the slippery, bombastic figures who dominate Hungarian politics. But Mr Scheiring is more likely to resume his studies in Britain than to win a parliamentary seat. “They say they hate all politicians,” he says glumly.
The two rounds of Hungary’s general election are likely to deliver a big victory for the centre-right, with a strong showing also for the far-right (see article). But a deeper trend across all central European countries facing elections this year is that voters may back politicians they know even if they dislike them, rather than risk new faces from outside. Crossness about misgovernment, economic hardship, corruption and poor public services is palpable. But the politicians who have run the region for most of the past 20 years remain firmly in charge.
In the Czech Republic the likely winner in the general election on May 28th is a former Social Democratic prime minister, Jiri Paroubek. He may end up in coalition with the country’s unrepentant Communist Party. In Slovakia the centre-left prime minister, Robert Fico, is likely to be re-elected. In Poland the presidential election in October will probably be won by the candidate from Civic Platform, the party that heads the centre-right government.
At the height of the financial crisis 18 months ago, the political fallout looked ominous. Higher unemployment, tax rises and lower living standards suggested that a social and political crisis might follow the economic one. Outsiders noted the shallow roots of democracy in much of central Europe and fretted about violent public protests, nakedly populist politicians and spreading political chaos.
Reality has proved reassuringly boring. One reason for this is the success of Poland. It is by far the biggest country in the region and also has the most stable politics, the strongest economy and the most active diplomacy. The prime minister and leader of Civic Platform, Donald Tusk, can boast of economic growth in 2009 of 1.7% and a government with strong approval ratings. He has just calmed a long row with Russia about the Soviet wartime massacre of 20,000 Polish officers at Katyn by persuading his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, to attend a joint ceremony.
Mr Tusk’s approach contrasts sharply with the more abrasive style of Civic Platform’s big political rival, Law and Justice. The incumbent Law and Justice president, Lech Kaczynski, faces re-election in October. But he and his twin brother Jaroslaw (who leads the party) have been outmanoeuvred by Mr Tusk. Civic Platform’s candidate, Bronislaw Komorowski, seems set to win the presidential election. An aristocratic figure with a distinguished record in the communist-era underground, Mr Komorowski easily defeated the foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, in a primary election among Civic Platform members.
The main effect of the crisis has been on unemployment. In the European Union’s ten central European members it has risen from 6.5% at the height of the boom in 2008 to 9.5% this year. But by the standards of some southern European countries—Spain, for example (see article)—that is hardly apocalyptic. The central European economies shrank by an average of 3.6% in 2009, and the World Bank expects them to grow by a measly 1.6% this year. That is unpleasant but it is not disastrous—and the recovery in 2011 is likely to be stronger than in western Europe.
Economic policy is unlikely to change much anywhere after the election season is over, though Poland may find it easier to speed reforms if the president and prime minister can work in tandem. Scarred by memories of communism and distrust of government, central European voters (unlike some west Europeans) show little appetite for more statist policies. Middle-class voters are the most disillusioned by the failure of their elites to bring Western-style stability, prosperity and good government, says Ivan Krastev, a political scientist. But that discontent has yet to find an outlet. “Nowhere do you find a really interesting policy debate,” he says.
The biggest shifts are likely to be felt in more peripheral matters. A fraying sense of social solidarity may harden attitudes to minorities such as Roma (gypsies), notes Mr Krastev. The treatment of Roma is central Europe’s worst social problem, and it could easily turn a lot nastier. Foreign policy too offers some scope for change, potentially of a harmful kind. Many worry that Hungary’s Viktor Orban will squabble with such neighbours as Slovakia, where a large Hungarian ethnic minority feels increasingly alienated by Mr Fico’s own ethnocentric approach.
A growing rapprochement with Russia is also under way in most places. For all his firebrand rhetoric, Mr Orban seems to get on well with Mr Putin. Mr Fico is particularly chummy with Russia, as is the would-be Czech leader, Mr Paroubek. Mr Tusk has made a remarkable breakthrough over Katyn. In short: in diplomacy as well as politics, central Europe is looking increasingly like western Europe. If only living standards and the quality of life would catch up as well.