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Surprise, Surprise

A summer of ruinous floods and tropical heat is also bringing unforeseen political developments to Central Europe.

by Martin Ehl 25 June 2013

It’s not just in the Czech Republic, where President Milos Zeman has – against the spirit of the constitution – been attempting to create a semi-presidential system. Elsewhere in Central Europe too, things are happening that might fundamentally transform the ingrained order.

 

In Poland, local elections confirmed pollsters' guesses that the governing Civic Platform party of Prime Minister Donald Tusk has been losing its dominant position.

 

Thanks to drastic spending cuts and some novel taxes, Budapest has wriggled out of the monitoring procedures the European Commission initiated against Hungary (and 15 other EU countries) for excessive budget deficits.

 

Only Slovakia is acting as though it doesn't understand these novelties. In one throwback, a former military intelligence chief and his girlfriend are suspected of leaking classified information in an apparently trumped-up case. Under the previous, center-right government, Roman Mikulec began looking into alleged illegal acquisition of assets by members of the intelligence services. Now he stands accused of carting off secret documents in his car.

 

The liquidation of opponents by discrediting them is nothing new in post-communism, so let’s get back to some novelties. The first is that the magic of Donald Tusk and his capable spin doctors has worn off. For the first time since the big Civic Platform victory over the Kaczynski brothers in 2007, polls show the conservative opposition Law and Justice (PiS) neck and neck with the ruling party.

 

For a few days the epicenter of Polish politics moved to the northern city of Elblag, where PiS won early elections to the local council over the weekend, and its candidate for mayor advanced to the second round after finishing in first place. "Elblag is particularly important because Warsaw will follow," political scientist Wojciech Jablonski told Gazeta Wyborcza.

 

Indeed, in Warsaw the opposition was able to unite and gather enough signatures to call a fall referendum on the removal from office of Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, who was once Civic Platform's great hope.

 

Poles are increasingly angry at the governing party, from which Tusk has both hounded out potential rivals and, at the same time, turned into a factory for promises. And like those Czechs who forgot after 10 years what Milos Zeman was all about, so the image of Jaroslaw Kaczynski in the role of prime minister is also fading from Poles’ memories.

 

Hungarian voters are constantly assured of the qualities of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Most recently the government boasted of its success in escaping the European Commission budget monitoring it has had to endure since joining the union in 2004. Left-wing commentators, of course, argue that citizens have been paying for that and were hit hard by the government's austerity measures, which are supposed to get even tougher. Skeptics note that last week, when EU finance ministers approved the commission's proposal to lift the monitoring, the move had no impact on the forint's exchange rate, which is the single most important economic indicator for ordinary Hungarians because of their loans in foreign currencies.

 

Less than a year remains to parliamentary elections in Hungary. The government has tried to roll over as many expenses as possible through special taxes on large multinational companies.

 

And it intends to continue. Last week the ruling Fidesz party's parliamentary leader Antal Rogan said the party wants to cut energy prices again on top of an earlier 10-percent reduction. Energy suppliers moaned when the government made the first round of cuts in January.

 

Fidesz still leads in the polls, and the opposition's inability to forge a united approach certainly works in their favor. Orban's victory is certain; the question is just how big it will be. That's why the government will now try to restart economic growth. Domestic demand is still stagnant and investors remain very cautious. If after everything he’s done in the last three years, Viktor Orban manages to kick start the economy, that would be the most important and surprising news out of Central Europe.

Martin Ehl
 is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny, where this column originally appeared. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU. He recently won the prestigious Writing for Central Europe journalism prize, awarded by the APA – Austria Press Agency in cooperation with Bank Austria.
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