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Central Europe Baking Through its Summer

Politicians are getting the ingredients together for a dramatic fall while ignoring the very real heat outside.

by Martin Ehl 9 July 2019

In the Czech Republic, the biggest street demonstration since the Velvet Revolution of 1989. In Slovakia, the implosion of the strongest governing party. In Poland, record support in the polls for the governing conservatives. In Hungary, government control of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Across Central Europe, record heat and drought conditions. This is the picture of Central Europe at the start of a hot summer.


Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis needs a strategy for survival. He has already weathered a number of protests, including two large ones in Prague, but the autumn is expected to bring renewed pressure on him over his conflicts of interest. A big demonstration is planned for 16 November – the near-anniversary of the protest that kicked off the Velvet Revolution, spelling the end for communist Czechoslovakia.


In neighboring Poland, by contrast, it is the opposition struggling, not the government. Elections for the national parliament will be held in October, and it looks unlikely that the opposition will be able to unite to challenge the supremacy of the Law and Justice (PiS) party, currently enjoying record support of about 47 percent. The governing party, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, feels it can govern for the next four years and change the country even more profoundly than it has done already.


For example, in June, conservative Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Gowin returned to the idea of the “Polonization” of foreign-owned independent media – which are currently the main counterweight to the governing party and its old-fashioned nationalistic ideology. That would be a definite step in a Hungarian direction – toward a more concentrated and less liberal government.


Speaking of Hungary, that country is a dream come true for any politician of an authoritarian or populistic leaning, including Andrej Babis or Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban faces no serious challenges, even though his popularity will be tested by local elections in Budapest in the autumn. Hungary's opposition is trying to unite and finally making some progress (with a common candidate for mayor, for example), but its chances are slim.


Meanwhile, the Hungarian Academy of Science is one of the last public institutions whose finances are not under direct government control, yet officials are now working on a law that would change the status of the institution. The legislation would force scientists to “work in the national interest” – as explained by Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Szijjarto, in a recent interview with the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny.


In this context, Slovakia looks like an island of liberal democracy in Central Europe. Yet it is widely expected that the autumn will bring changes, with new parties presenting a strong alternative not only to the governing leftist and nationalist coalition, but to the current opposition as well. Accordingly, the country's political parties are having their very last vacation before campaigning starts, as parliamentary elections must be held no later than next March.


The main governing party Smer–Social Democracy is struggling with declining popularity and critical voices from within the party. It was Progressive Slovakia, not Smer-SD, that this spring gave the country its new, charismatic, Green-leaning president, Zuzana Caputova.


Meanwhile, former President Andrej Kiska has founded a new party, which he hopes will form a center-right alternative to the established parties. Support is also growing, slowly but steadily, for the fascist party of Marian Kotleba, which entered parliament three years ago, shocking the country.


Yet outside of the political kitchen, and far beyond the timescale of one electoral cycle, a drought developing throughout the region has the potential to change the very ecology of Central Europe, with far-reaching consequences that already include villages and cities without water, changes to people’s working habits, and overheating cities. Slovakia's new president, with her environmental credentials, has already influenced decision-making, albeit indirectly. However, with the exception of Slovakia, the Visegrad Four countries – with the support of Estonia – blocked a European Commission proposal at the last EU summit, to make the EU “climate neutral” by 2050.


Maybe this summer's heat and the serious water shortages, which are starting to recur more and more frequently, will force politicians to change their mind and get involved. Or maybe they will just take advantage of the summer break to have a rest from the political struggle, without reflecting, and without changing anything.

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