When the socialist party Smer (“Direction”) won Slovakia’s parliamentary elections last June, party leader Robert Fico cemented his controversial reputation by forming a coalition government with the Movement for Democratic Slovakia, led by the disgraced former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, and the Slovak Nationalists, led by the racist xenophobe Jan Slota. Meciar stands accused of ordering the murder of a journalist and the kidnapping of a former president’s son; he cannot be prosecuted because of an amnesty he himself gave to the criminals who allegedly carried out his orders. Slota has raged against “mongoloid” Hungarians and “hideous” Gypsies, and has called on the Slovak army to “flatten Budapest.” Small wonder that in an act of unprecedented decisiveness, the Socialist members of the European Parliament expelled Smer from their ranks a mere 24 hours after the new governing coalition was announced.
Of the Central European countries—Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic—all but the Czech Republic are seeing the rise of politicians who combine “right-wing” attitudes toward public and private morality with “left-wing” ideas about economics. Demands for tax hikes, price controls, tighter labor regulations, and renationalization of privatized property mix freely with calls for a return to faith, traditional family values, and restrictions on sexual autonomy.
The media and other observers have had trouble classifying this combination of socialist and conservative impulses. The European press, for example, refers to the Slovak Nationalists as a “far right” party, even though their economic program resembles that of the Slovak Communists. A more helpful way to analyze the region’s political scene is by contrasting liberal and illiberal political forces. I mean “liberal” not in the modern American sense but in the European sense of generally favoring an extension of individual autonomy in the economic and social spheres. Illiberal movements, meanwhile, resist both economic and social liberties.
Adding to the confusion, many politicians have publicly espoused the principles of market liberalism—free trade, low taxes, property rights, rule of law—but privately used the state to enrich themselves and their cronies. So while the Financial Times summed up the conventional wisdom by describing the Slovak election as a backlash against the nation’s “sweeping free market reforms,” opinion polls do not show significant opposition to the market. Rather, the people have turned against corrupt politicians.
It’s telling that there hasn’t been a big backlash against liberal reformers in Estonia, the country that has gone furthest in the transition from communism to free markets. In their Baltic outpost miles to the east of Central Europe, the Estonians have greatly reduced the size and scope of government and, as a result, limited corruption as well. If Central Europeans learn that lesson, genuine liberalism can make a comeback and with it reforms aimed at increasing economic and social freedom.
Throughout Central Europe, illiberalism is on the march:
* In Hungary last April, the Socialists were re-elected with 43 percent of the vote, while the liberal Alliance of Free Democrats received only 6.5 percent. The main opposition party—Fidesz, which received 42 percent—started off as a libertarian youth organization in the late 1980s, pushing for smaller government and more individual freedom. After losing the 1994 elections, however, the party split, with some leaving to form the Alliance of Free Democrats while the rest turned to social conservatism and economic interventionism. Fidesz’s deputy leader recently has toyed with the idea of state-sponsored “light” corporal punishment for unruly children. During the 2006 election campaign, party boss Viktor Orban promised new trade barriers, free health care, price caps for energy, and renationalization of some privatized state property.
In September 2006, it became clear that Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany had regularly lied about the state of the government’s finances. Before the election, he claimed Hungary’s fiscal footing was sound and even promised moderate tax cuts. After the election, he admitted that the budget deficit was approaching 10 percent of GDP and promised tax increases. His admissions led to violent street protests in Budapest.
* In late 2005 the economically interventionist and socially conservative Law and Justice Party won the Polish parliamentary elections and the presidency. President Lech Kaczynski named his identical twin, Jaroslaw, as prime minister, making Poland the world’s only country where the top two spots in the government are occupied by genetically identical individuals. Less amusingly, his party has formed a coalition government with the Self-Defense Party and the League of Polish Families.
The Self-Defense Party’s economic program is based on financial support for Polish farmers and opposition to the European Union (E.U.). The League of Polish Families emphasizes the Catholic doctrine of social justice and, consequently, greater redistribution of wealth. All three parties adhere to some degree of xenophobia and homophobia. Self-Defense Party leader Andrzej Lepper has praised Hitler’s employment policies and accused gays of spreading disease. In a 2004 interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, Lepper dismissed critics of his numerous anti-Semitic pronouncements by saying, “I’m already suspected of being a Jew myself. After all, anyone who has a head for numbers like me and a memory like mine can only be a Jew.”
* While the situation in Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland is serious, conditions in the Czech Republic are almost comic. In June the Czechs voted to split the powerful Lower House of Parliament right down the middle. The pro-market Civic Democratic Party came out ahead in the elections, but even with the support of its coalition partners, the Christian Democrats and the Greens, it has only 100 out of 200 seats. The Socialists and the Communists have the other 100 seats. At press time, the Czechs are still without a new government.
Partly as a result of the economic reforms the Czech Republic underwent in the 1990s, the Socialists have presided over solid economic growth. But toward the end of their last term in office, from 2002 to 2006, they relied increasingly on the support of the Communist Party. That led to a partial renationalization of the health sector and a tightening of the labor code, which will make it harder to reduce the Czech unemployment rate, currently 8 percent. The strength of the Socialists and their Communist allies in the new Parliament probably will stifle economic reforms, including the flat tax proposal that formed the core of the Civic Democrats’ election platform. On the upside, no major political party in the Czech Republic promotes the harsh social conservatism seen elsewhere in the region.
Conservatism and Corruption
One reason for this rise of illiberalism is the dramatic social change the region is undergoing. Despite their official commitment to “social progressivism,” the Communists, who dominated Central Europe for four decades, were ultraconservative when it came to lifestyle issues. Pornography and homosexuality were either prohibited or discouraged; gender equality did not exist. The groundswell of personal freedoms that followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 took stultified socialist societies by surprise. Permissive attitudes that took decades to evolve in the West—especially tolerance of sexual autonomy—were suddenly expected in the East as well, as socially liberal legislation became a prerequisite for joining the E.U.
As long as E.U. membership was being negotiated, the ruling elites made an effort to keep intolerant politicians out of the news media. The extremists, in turn, moderated their rhetoric, understanding that the electorate would punish politicians who jeopardized entry into the E.U. Now that the Central European countries are inside the tent, the foes of liberalism have reclaimed their natural political space. That partly explains the electoral success of socially conservative forces in Slovakia and Poland, as well as the strength of Fidesz in Hungary. So far only the Czechs, who have the region’s oldest and most deeply rooted liberal tradition, have evaded the lure of illiberalism.
According to the conventional wisdom, the other important reason for the region’s anti-liberal backlash is the alleged excesses of the free market. Consider the situation in Poland, where former Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz—now the head of the country’s national bank—is a focal point of populist fury. Balcerowicz presided over the initial wave of economic liberalization in the early 1990s, when the economy was deregulated, prices were freed, many state enterprises were privatized, and the country battled inflation with a tight monetary policy. Those reforms made Poland a magnet for foreign investment. They also earned Balcerowicz many enemies. Asked why he named his party Self-Defense, Andrzej Lepper responded that Poland needed defending from people like Balcerowicz. “He represents all the evil,” Lepper told Ha’aretz in 2004. “It is not true that Poland has no money. There is money in the banks, and the reserves are deposited in banks in the West.…It is untenable that Poland’s central bank be a state within a state.…Both right and the left kept him on, because they’re really one band.”