Auteur: Dalibor Rohac
The widely expected victory of Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) in the upcoming parliamentary elections in Poland Sunday (25 October) will mark the end of an era in the history of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia - or "New Europe", to use a term coined by former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
After the fall of communism, political elites in the four countries were long united in their commitment to European integration and the strengthening of transatlantic ties.
That time is over now. Some of the most significant pro-Western personalities have passed away, including Václav Havel and more recently, Árpád Göncz.
Others, including Slovakia’s reformist ex-prime minister, Mikuláš Dzurinda, or the former foreign minister of Poland, Radosław Sikorski, have left politics. And the remaining ones, including the Czech Republic’s former presidential candidate Karel Schwarzenberg, are on their way out.
So who is replacing them? In Hungary, power is firmly in the hands of Viktor Orbán, a pariah of European politics. And, in the 2018 election, Orbán’s challengers will be coming from the far right - namely from the neo-Nazi Jobbik party.
Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico, nominally a Social Democrat, has learned quite a few tricks from Mr Orbán’s book. Like his Hungarian counterpart, Mr Fico never misses an opportunity to appeal to radical cultural conservatism, xenophobia, or anti-American sentiments in order to boost his popularity at home, even if it alienates Slovakia from its western partners.
In the Czech Republic, the political parties formed along traditional ideological divisions are being replaced by amorphous populist groupings, sometimes created by local oligarchs, such as the agro-tycoon-turned-finance-minister Andrej Babiš, with the sole purpose of bringing their founders to power.
And in Poland, this weekend’s election will, in all likelihood, result in the PiS’ nominee Beata Szydło taking over as prime minister from the ailing Civic Platform.
But nobody epitomises the new version of Central European politics better than PiS’ leader, Mr Kaczyński.
Just last week, in one of several controversial pronouncements on the refugee crisis, Kaczyński warned against migrants bringing tropical diseases to Europe, citing cholera, dysentery, and protozoan infections as examples.
It would be easy to dismiss these as the ramblings of an old man, if they did not reflect deep-rooted prejudices shared widely across the societies of Central Europe.
The platform of populist political groups in the region, including PiS, can be best described as a revolt against the modern world, which is becoming increasingly globalised, integrated and mobile.
Their rejection of immigration resonates with extremely homogenous, insular societies. In the economic realm, a complete lack of responsibility is the trademark of the new Central European politics.
Mr Kaczyński’s party promises more welfare spending and lower taxes, all of it financed by levies targeted on the financial industry and large, foreign-owned, corporations - not dissimilar to those used by Mr Orbán’s government in Hungary.
Needless to say, populism tends to go hand in hand with high-level corruption, siphoning away resources from public budgets and EU funds into the pockets of oligarchs loyal to the party.
Corruption not new to New Europe
Corruption and populism are not new to Central Europe. What makes the problem so acute is the international situation and the fact that Central European countries are increasingly expected to be responsible stakeholders within the geopolitical structures that they joined over a decade ago.
The EU in particular is under unprecedented stress. To keep the Eurozone going, European leaders need to complete its fiscal and political integration. If the freedom of movement is to survive the current refugee crisis, the EU will have to agree on a common immigration, asylum, and border protection policy.
And the West, including the EU, will have to think carefully about how to deal with the Russian threat, extending from the Baltic to the eastern Mediterranean.
One of the characteristics distinguishing the brand of politics embodied by Messrs Orbán, Kaczyński, and Fico, is its ruthless and narrow-minded pursuit of what they perceive as 'national interest.'
They see neither the euro, nor the refugee crisis, nor Russia’s war against Ukraine, as their problems nor as European problems. The EU is there to supply financial assistance to infrastructure spending and to guarantee our access to European markets. NATO is there to protect us. But heaven forbid either asks for anything in return!
There is hope. The region has stronger institutions of civil society, better journalists, and more pro-Western intellectuals than ever before.
Countless organizations and individuals lambast the region’s corruption, government waste, and bad policy.
And there still remain a handful of political leaders - such as Slovak President Andrej Kiska - who are using their positions to do the right thing.
Unfortunately, as the looming PiS victory in Poland suggests, things will probably have to get worse before they get better.
Dalibor Rohac is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Twitter: @daliborrohac