Little Luck for the Left in Central and Eastern Europe

Little Luck for the Left in Central and Eastern Europe

Right-wing parties, nationalists, populists, and Euroskeptics gained seats in last month’s European elections, especially in Hungary and Poland. The left, in contrast, suffered numerous defeats.

Viktor Orbán speaks at a European People's Party event. (European People's Party/Flickr)

Right-wing parties, nationalists, populists, and Euroskeptics in CEE performed strongly in last month’s European elections, especially in Hungary and Poland, where they won more than half of their countries’ respective seats. The results suggest the continent is heading toward more fragmentation and instability. But for all the potential ramifications, the more robust presence of the far-right—about 25 percent of the seats—in the European Parliament means that the social conflicts already existent at the national level are now reflected in Europe-wide institutions. “This is what representation is all about,” Polish philosopher Andrzej Leder noted after the results came in. “Otherwise, these institutions would be dead.”

The high turnout in CEE—for example, over 40 percent in both Hungary and Poland—indicates that the EU is no longer perceived as a distant, cold-hearted bureaucracy obsessed with regulatory minutiae, like trying to ban straight bananas (a popular anti-Europe myth). It now appears that the voters in CEE identify with the EU and want to engage in both supportive and critical debate over European institutions and policies.

That is the good news. Meanwhile, it has become clear to many that Europe must change. The bad news is the left throughout the entire region has found itself an insignificant player in this debate.

The following are snapshots of election results in Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia.

 

Poland                                                                                                                                                            

“We are witnessing the end of the traditional divide between a social-democratic working class and a conservative middle class that votes for Christian democracy,” wrote journalist Kaja Puto for Krytyka Polityczna.

For decades, the political consensus in the European Parliament has been ruled by one of two political groups, the European People’s Party (EPP) or the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D). But in this year’s elections, neither group came out with a clear majority.

For philosopher Andrzej Leder, the collapse of the centrist consensus means that the political situation in Europe has become more dangerous. But, he says, it has also become more authentic: “Real social conflicts have surfaced and demanded political representation.”

The Euroskeptics did well in Poland, where the ruling, right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) received 46 percent of the vote. Headed by Jarosław Kaczyński, PiS was especially successful in smaller towns and villages, where its right-wing populist message fell on receptive ears. The demographic make-up of PiS’s voters is bad news for the left; the party won strong support not only among rural populations, but also among the unemployed and those with low levels of education. In contrast, European Coalition, the biggest liberal and pro-European rival of PiS, performed best among business owners, professionals, and those with higher education, finishing with 37.9 percent.

The left, however, was demolished. Even with an economic redistributivist and pro-Europe program, it once again failed to cross the electoral threshold. “We disappointed 16 million working people in Poland,” says Piotr Ikonowicz, a social worker and candidate of the Razem (Left Together) coalition, which garnered just 1.3 percent of the vote. “For thirty years, I have been repeating that a poor person is not free. And no one listened to me. Then Kaczyński came, said the same thing, and won.”

Kaczyński has taken advantage of Poland’s relative economic success to introduce a number of social policies designed to help the poorest people. He lowered the retirement age, and launched the most significant social transfer program since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989—a benefit of 500 złoty ($150) a month for every child.

Behind PiS and the European coalition came new political party Wiosna (Spring), led by former Słupsk mayor and outspoken gay activist Robert Biedroń. Biedroń founded his social-democratic and pro-European party in February in a bid to revive the Polish left and take on the country’s conservative political establishment and the influence of the Catholic church. “I want Poles to finally have a choice” he said in interview with Krytyka Polityczna. “I want them to finally be able to vote for someone—and not against someone. I want the Spring party to advocate for the progressive European standards: clean air, separation of state and church, equality and higher wages.”

But Wiosna won just 6.1 percent of the vote (only PiS, European Coalition, and Spring crossed the electoral threshold). Spring’s disappointing performance reflects the persistent bifurcation of Polish politics; high voter turnout also disadvantaged parties that attempted to transcend the pro- or anti-PiS divide.

Fortunately, the Polish neo-fascists performed poorly as well. Initial exit polls showed the extreme-right Confederation—a radical formation that challenged PiS from the right with an ultra-religious, nationalistic, anti-Semitic, and anti-abortion agenda—with well above 6 percent. Ultimately, though, they did not cross the electoral threshold, finishing with 4.55 percent of the vote.

 

Hungary

Fidesz, the ruling right-wing party in Hungary, received 52.1 of the vote, crushing the atomized opposition. Fidesz beat the runner-up left-leaning Democratic Coalition by 36 percentage points, while the liberal Momentum Movement finished third with nearly 10 percent. For the first time ever, Momentum will send representatives to the European Parliament.

The formerly anti-Semitic, ultra-nationalistic, and xenophobic Jobbik party collapsed, winning just one seat and roughly 6 percent of the vote. Jobbik’s recent attempt to conceal its far-right past and re-emerge as a centrist group failed to win voters’ confidence. Apart from some minor satellite parties, there is currently no force to the right of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz in Hungarian politics.

“In Orbán’s political imagination, the Fidesz party is the political incarnation of the Hungarian nation, representing the all of society and fulfilling a historic mission in its name,” said Szilárd-István Pap, an editor at Hungary’s Mérce online daily.

Viktor Orbán’s party again ran a campaign dominated by anti-migrant rhetoric. “Victory in the elections mean that Hungarians have entrusted us to stem immigration in all of Europe,” Orbán told his supporters at a victory rally in Budapest. During the campaign, he again used the slogan “Let’s stop immigration!” and promised to protect “Christian culture” in Europe.

“Orbán’s party invested the whole state machinery in inducing fear of Muslim immigration in the people and mobilising them to vote for Fidesz,” says Pap. Bolstering the illusion of a homogenous Hungarian nation supporting Fidesz brings a lot of political benefits, Pap concludes. “You can eliminate smaller political opponents, singlehandedly change the constitution, and in Brussels, you can veto every resolution claiming that’s what the nation wants.”

 

The Czech Republic

What does a country not traditionally interested in European affairs want? The status quo, it seems. The Czech European elections were once again won by the center-right ANO 2011 party, headed by billionaire prime minister Andrej Babiš, with 21.2 percent of the vote.

The dynamics of Czech politics have not changed significantly since the last national elections in 2017. The conservative Civic Democratic Party (ODS), which came in second place with 14.5 percent, will join the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) grouping in the European Parliament. The Polish PiS is one of the most important members of ECR, which Czech filmmaker and journalist Apolena Rychlíková calls the “light far right.”

“I’m afraid that ODS is right when it comes to one thing,” Rychlíková told me. “Conservatives and nationalists have more to offer today than the left, which got burnt in so many countries that the European Socialists and Democrats have scored their historically worst result.”

The results in the Czech Republic were grim indeed for the left. The biggest loser was the Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), which won just under 4 percent of the vote, failing to cross the electoral threshold. Many voters have turned away from the social democrats since they joined the ruling coalition government with the controversial Babiš, who is mired in a corruption scandal. And while the social democrats lend legitimacy to Babiš, the oligarch prime minister has been able to claim the success of the ČSSD’s social policies as his own.   

The pro-European, anti-establishment Pirate Party, which expected a better result, also had a disappointing third place showing, with roughly 14 percent. Still, says Rychlíková, the only good thing about these elections is that Pirate managed to mobilize young voters and put environmental issues on the agenda. They are the only progressive party that can compete with Prime Minister Babiš’s party.

 

Slovakia

Finally, a positive surprise in neighboring Slovakia. Here, the elections were won by a coalition of political newcomers—the liberal, pro-European movements Progressive Slovakia (PS) and SPOLU (TOGETHER), which ran on a joint list and received 20.1 percent of the vote. They beat the nominally social democratic ruling party SMER, which is mired in a nexus of allegations of business crimes and political corruption.

Support for SMER rapidly decreased after the 2018 double murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and Kuciak’s fiancée. The two were both twenty-seven years old. Kuciak had exposed government corruption and alleged government links to the Italian mafia. After news of the murders broke, hundreds of thousands of Slovaks took to the streets. Robert Fico, the leader of SMER who was then serving as prime minister, resigned. In March 2019, Zuzana Čaputová, an anti-corruption lawyer and activist (and deputy chair of Progressive Slovakia), was elected prime minister, buoyed by the anti-corruption protests.

The murders of Kuciak and his fiancée hit a nerve in Slovak society, says Marta Šimečková, a journalist and member of the Central European Forum whose son, Michal Šimečka is a newly elected MEP and Vice-Chairman of Progressive Slovakia. The two young people became symbols of innocence and service to their country. The long-lasting mass protests in Slovakia united people across different political ideologies, led to the fall of the government, and made space for new political forces.

Like in Poland, the Slovak elections were dominated by pro- and anti-EU dichotomy. Nevertheless, Šimečková told me, these results have changed the political map in Slovakia.


Sławek Blich is an editor and journalist at KrytykaPolityczna.pl.


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