Elections 2010: Mitteleuropa goes to the polls
31 March 2010
Polling stations in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and Poland will be particularly busy in the coming months with general elections in Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Austria, and a presidential vote in Poland this autumn. Five intellectuals look forward to the ballots in their respective countries.
Left runs out of steam in Hungary (general elections on the 11 and 25 of April)
In Hungary, elections are a "national sport" and an adrenaline kick: people get out the beer and gather round their TVs to comment on the results in the various župa [provinces] with a passion normally reserved for the final stages in European football tournaments. In this year's contest, the defeat of the ruling Socialist Party, which has been in power for the last eight years, now appears inevitable – and suspense will mainly focus on the relative scores of the extreme right and the main opposition party, Fidesz. In response to this situation, the increasingly desperate left has resorted to literally begging for votes. With empty words and empty pockets, candidates who have no hope of making an impact are warning of the threat of fascism and fulminating against public indifference to the pro-European stance adopted by socialists and liberals. Regardless of the outcome the election, the colossal public debt will severely limit the future government's room for manoeuvre. But never mind who wins! The citizens of Hungary are already stocking their fridges for the two nights of election entertainment: whatever the count and whatever the result, it is always better with a cold beer in hand. (Attila Pató is editor and professeur of philosophy at the University of Pardubice and the University of New York in Prague).
Future president may have little to do (Polish presidential election in September or October)
Next year, Prime Minister Donald Tusk may acceded to a level of power that no Polish politician has exercised since the end of communist rule in 1989. Does anyone know the name of the German president? No, given that he has a largely ceremonial role, not many people do. And this is precisely the type of presidency that Tusk, who leads the ruling Civic Platform, wants to see adopted in Poland. The incessant quarrels that have marked his relationship with Polish President Lech Kaczyński, who under the current constitution has the option of blocking policy measures, have convinced Tusk that he has to make a choice: either he has to run for president himself, or he will have to limit the powers granted to the head of state. He appears to have opted for the second of these solutions. And, according the polls, he will have sufficient support in parliament to change the constitution to attain this objective. It matters little whether Lech Kaczyński (who still has a chance) or the Civic Platform candidate Bronisław Komorowski wins the presidential election because both contenders have markedly similar opinions on a wide range of issues: Poland's role in the EU and in NATO (should be strengthened), the euro (should be adopted but not in a hurry), relations with Russia (next), lustration (former members of the communist regime should be investigated), "decommunisation" (let's do it!), the Catholic Church (should be protected), abortion (should probably be outlawed), gays (what gays?). Journalist and Czech language and culture specialist Aleksander Kaczorowski is the deputy editor of the Polish edition of Newsweek.
German mother figure mounts challenge in Austria (presidential election on 25 April)
Young blue-eyed Heinz-Christian Strache, who took over the populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) after the death of its former leader Jörg Haider, is planning to trump the opposition by presenting his own candidate in the race for the largely ceremonial role of president in elections slated for 25 April. Barbara Rosenkranz has all the qualities to exasperate left-leaning Austrians: she is from a nationalist background, and when asked to state her profession, she answers "housewife." After all, she is the mother of ten children – all of whom bear solid German names. In the up-coming election battle, her anti-European position will likely attract support from Kronen Zeitung, Austria's most widely circulated newspaper. Will the German mother figure mount a successful challenge against President Heinz Fischer who is standing for a second term? Nothing is certain in the increasingly troubled world of Austrian politics. (Writer and journalist Barbara Tóth works for the Austrian magazine Falter).
"Vancouver scenario" in preparation in Slovakia (general elections on 12 June)
June general elections have renewed hopes for a more balanced government in Slovakia. Outgoing Prime Minister and probable winner, populist Robert Fico, will have to find a coalition partner other than Vladimír Mečiar's nationalist HZDS party, whose popularity appears to be on the wane to the point where it is unlikely to win any seats in parliament. Not so the newly founded and ambitious Freedom and Solidarity Party (SaS), which is likely to take at least five percent of the vote. Two Hungarian minority parties are also expected to obtain similar scores. Slovak commentators have compared the current juncture to the final stages of the ice hockey competition in the Vancouver Winter Olympics, where Slovakia finished fourth behind the United States, Canada, and Finland. Voters fear the worst, and do not expect to see their team win. At the end of the day, the results may prompt some official rejoicing, but most people will be disappointed. (Juraj Kušnierik is a deputy editor of the Slovak weekly Týžden).
An end to political pride in the Czech Republic (general elections on 28-29 May)
For years, the charisma of the two best known figures in contemporary Czech politics, Václav Havel and Václav Klaus, has served to mask the real state of Czech society. With the rise of the socialist and populist leader Jiří Paroubek, who will likely take the lion's share of the vote in May general elections, ideals will no longer take precedence over public opinion. In the wake of the elections, the national elite will finally have to face the fact the majority of people in the Czech Republic do not want such a high level of cooperation with the West as a whole. They do not want American radar systems, nor do they want to send soldiers to Afghanistan. They would prefer to spend money earmarked for the purchase of tanks and fighter planes on better canteen meals. The majority of people do not want to save for their retirement, nor do they want to pay with their own money for doctors or medical prescriptions. They are convinced that they are victims, and that the elite should take care of them. Of course, voters will probably choose to ignore the image of a "kindly tsar who looks after old ladies and hands out medals" that populists are trying to sell them. But I am afraid that after 20 years of denial, we have now reached a point where we will have to admit that the Czech Republic has a lot in common with Fico's Slovakia. (Petr Kamberský is a journalist and columnist for Lidové noviny).