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European Elections Spice Things Up

European Parliament elections have revealed a growing change in taste.

by Martin Ehl 30 May 2019

Last week’s European Parliament elections demonstrated an underestimated appetite for something fresh, despite the continuing appeal of familiar fare.

 

It is true that both Poland and Hungary’s governing parties confirmed their power and position in the elections. Although Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) and Hungary’s Fidesz are not so much “euroskeptic” but rather hyper-pragmatic about relations with the EU, both are certainly headed in an illiberal direction.

 

However, these parties, with their now-familiar ingredients of populism and nationalism, are not the new story. Something else is cooking in the region too, pro-European dishes, featuring dynamic flavors and new, emerging political tastes.

 

Although the Greens seem to be more to the taste of voters like those who made news in Germany and Ireland, it is worth remembering that different parts of the EU have had very different histories that formed the palate of their people. To mention just one, 1968 has a wildly different significance for West and East.

 

What Central Europe is developing are fresh parties whose very existence is a response to a lack of decency, trust, and justice. The pro-European agenda of these parties could represent a real break from the bleak diet and politics of Central Europe.

 

Witness the results in Slovakia and Romania, where liberal, anti-corruption parties experienced a surge. In Slovakia, a coalition of new parties, Progressive Slovakia and TOGETHER - Civic Democracy came in first. Meanwhile, in Romania, the country’s opposition liberals – PNL – triumphed, pushing the governing Social Democrats into second place. Meanwhile, a new movement – founded by former Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos – ended up in third place by a small margin.

 

“My general impression of these elections is that there is a rising demand for change. But demand for change does not just mean voting for the radical left or radical right,” explained Ivan Krastev, a political scientist at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, and head of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia.

 

Speaking in an interview with the Czech business daily Hospodarske noviny, he stressed, “When your government is in the extreme, the alternative is to be found in the center.”

 

But what about successes on the right wing? What about third place for Marian Kotleba’s fascist party, LSNS, which won 12 percent of Slovakia’s vote, or the unexpectedly high 45 percent for Poland’s governing PiS party, thanks to a big turnout from voters who are normally indifferent about Europe?

 

The split in votes in the eastern EU was the same as in the western EU, where Greens and liberal parties were the surprise winners and agents for change, explained Krastev.

 

“The elections were very diverse, but while it is clear that in the West the young generation is much more concerned about cleaning up the environment – and therefore voted for the Greens and other alternatives – in Central and Eastern Europe, the main goal was to clean up corrupt political elites, and this explains the success of anti-corruption parties,” he said.

 

Here lies a problem. Europeans are divided not only on the national level, but also split between old and new members of the EU. This was clear from a study carried out before the elections by the European Council on Foreign Relations, which showed that corruption was the top concern for voters from the post-communist member states.

 

On the one hand, it is a success that newcomers are rising in the political fight; but on the other hand, it is troubling that corruption should still be the main concern of the still immature democracies of Central Europe, 30 years after the collapse of communism.

 

Krastev believes that Central Europe has the potential to change the narrative that feeds nationalism and illiberalism.

 

“Contrary to the widely held image, that Central Europe is moving in an illiberal direction, we can say that it is moving in all directions at once. Romania and Slovakia provided some of the best news for pro-Europeans,” he said, though he added: “The impressive victory of Law and Justice in Poland did come as a less than pleasant surprise.”

 

New tastes and new spices can be subtle, especially when they come in familiar dishes. Let us hope that our partners in the western EU will start to recognize and savor our new flavors, rather than dismissing what they perceive as the same old nationalist cuisine of illiberalism, being served up in Warsaw and Budapest.

 

European Parliament results may be found here.

Martin Ehl
 is chief analyst at Hospodarske noviny (HN), a Czech business daily.
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