Scary elections in eastern Europe
Time to start fretting
Jun 11th 2009
From The Economist print edition
Boring centre-right parties did well—but so did quite a few nasties
INTEPRETERS in the European Parliament trying to translate the remarks of George “Gigi” Becali may struggle. Even in his native Romanian, his puzzling syntax and coarse slang make him a butt of satirists. The interpreters may also blench at what he says, especially about Jews, gays, Roma (Gypsies) and women. But they may be spared this for the time being because a court has banned the newly elected Mr Becali from leaving Romania pending a criminal trial for kidnapping.
Xenophobes and populists have been elected in old European Union members such as the Netherlands too. But their east European counterparts make the westerners seem tame. Mr Becali’s fellow victor on the Greater Romania list is Corneliu Vadim Tudor, a vituperative nationalist who was once court poet to Nicolae Ceausescu, the former Communist dictator.
Yet international co-operation among politicians who hate foreigners is inherently tricky. Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party, which won three seats, may join its Balkan counterparts (including two members of Bulgaria’s explicitly racist Ataka party) in Roma-bashing. But they will have little in common when it comes to minority rights for Hungarians in neighbouring countries such as Slovakia and Romania, where Magyar irredentism is a convenient bogeyman for local chauvinists.
There were shocks at the far-left end of the spectrum too. One winner in Latvia was Alfreds Rubiks, a hardline former Communist who was jailed for backing a Kremlin-inspired coup against Latvian independence in 1991. Most Latvians see him as a pariah. His victory highlights the ominous rise of Soviet nostalgia among the country’s increasingly alienated Russians. In Estonia, by contrast, ethnic Russian parties flopped. The soft-left Centre Party got their votes, and more besides. The most striking Estonian result was the election of Indrek Tarand, a popular ex-diplomat who ran as an independent to protest against rules stopping voters from choosing among candidates on party lists.
As in western Europe, the main stories in the east were thumping wins by centre-right parties. Poland’s ruling Civic Platform did strikingly well, with 25 seats to 15 for the main opposition, the more populist Law and Justice party. In the Czech Republic the centre-right Civic Democrats won nine of the 22 seats, against seven for the Social Democrats and four for the Communists. In Hungary the ruling Socialists (ex-communists) did very badly, with only four seats to 14 for the conservative Fidesz party. That augurs well for the right in next year’s general election.
The exception was Slovakia, where the ruling centre-left Smer (Direction) party led by the prime minister, Robert Fico, did well on a paltry 19.6 % turnout, the lowest in the EU. His party won five out of 13 seats, with the fragmented conservative opposition polling poorly, as did two nationalist fringe parties in the coalition government. Both had featured in a string of recent corruption scandals.
The real significance of the elections may lie less in the composition of the new European Parliament than in pointers to the future course of national politics. Mr Fico, for example, will need to find new allies after next year’s general election if his present coalition partners continue to flop. Poland’s Civic Platform is on track to win the presidency next year.
Scandal-strewn Bulgaria is holding a parliamentary election on July 5th. If the European contest is any guide, the vote should be lively but nasty. Mafia-linked parties did alarmingly well in the European poll, though they did not win any seats. Vote-buying was common, as were other lurches towards rule-bending and ballot-rigging. In what looks like a blatant attempt to penalise minor parties, the authorities tried (but failed) to raise the election threshold to 8%, the highest in Europe. Legal chicanery meant that an opposition coalition had great difficulty even registering. Sadly, EU officials monitoring Bulgaria’s shaky progress towards clean government will have plenty to put in their next report. It is bad enough when dodgy characters win votes, but even worse when they count them.
Friday, June 12, 2009
Scary elections in eastern Europe