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Central Europe´s fractious right

Is Eastern Europe's political pendulum about to run down? Across Central Europe since 1989, elections have oscillated between right and left. Is Hungary's slick young prime minister, Viktor Orban, poised to end all that?

A ruthless program to absorb his political rivals on the right has helped Orban's FIDESZ party become nearly equal in size to his Socialist rivals on the left. Moreover, infighting among the Socialists has dented one of their biggest political advantages: the hard-headed discipline and political professionalism inherited from their Communist days.

Premier Orban's semi-successful efforts to unify the right under the banner of FIDESZ are unique among Eastern Europe's fractured and fractious rightist parties. Since Communism's fall, center right parties in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia have suffered from disunity and a lack of vision. Despite the fact the region is still recovering from decades of communist mismanagement, the political right's fragmentation helped the political left, in some cases represented by former Communists, to win democratic elections regularly.

Some problems faced by Central Europe's right are similar to those the political right faces elsewhere in Europe, where social democratic parties expropriated many formerly liberal ideas to seize a monopoly of the political center. In Central Europe this effect has been amplified by the fact that, regardless of ideological leanings, rulings parties have had to privatize the economy and, under pressure from the European Union, introduce reform measures that would, in a classical Western system, usually be undertaken by the political right.

Leftist parties in various Central European countries, indeed, have often turned out to be more successful in reforming because they, paradoxically, have greater legitimacy in this respect. Many people believe that the Socialists would not privatize the economy or slash welfare systems if such measures were not absolutely necessary.

The most serious problem of Central Europe's political right is a lack of identity. Although right-of-center politicians in Central European countries formally embrace traditional ideologies, for example, liberalism or conservatism, their electorates, unfamiliar with Western political philosophies, do not always understand the real meaning of those terms.

In various surveys, significant segments of Central European electorates describe themselves as "rightist," but years of communist paternalism pushed the region's political center of gravity firmly to the left. A person may describe him or herself as, for example, a liberal, yet at same time demand that the government continue subsidizing energy, education, or housing.

Under the communist regimes, ideologies became totally instrumental. As during those years, many people now formally accept ideological labels but identify with them only as long as such an allegiance to a specific political current has tangible short-term benefits for them. One consequence of this cynical treatment of political ideologies is the wild swings in voters' preferences seen in various Central European countries.

The problem of identity is made even worse by the fact that most Central European nations, where nation-building was retarded by Communism, easily succumb to nationalist sentiments that in turn are misused by some politicians. Although such politicians often describe themselves as "rightist," their real policies, such as, for, example, those of former Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, are in fact demagogic populist or authoritarian.

The situation of the political right in each Central European country is also influenced by experiences that are rooted in history and tradition. Political developments in Czechoslovakia during the last 20 years of communism set the Czech Republic and Slovakia apart from both Poland and Hungary. While both the Polish and Hungarian communist parties experienced internal liberalization that allowed relatively large semi-official zones of activity outside communist control, Czechoslovakia after the Soviet-led invasion of 1968 became a rigid neo-Stalinist regime.

When the communist regimes collapsed in 1989, the communist parties of Poland and Hungary transformed themselves into credible democratic-left parties that became formidable opponents of the newly emerging political right. No strong social democratic party in Czechoslovakia could emerge from the rigid Czechoslovak Communist Party. In the absence of a credible democratic left party, Czech center-right politicians had the upper hand, and were relatively united, until 1997. However, lack of a strong opposition corrupted the political right, which splintered into various groupings that cannot find a common language.

In Slovakia, where nationalist sentiments were an important political factor after 1989, the political spectrum has not yet coalesced along standard right-left political axis. The main political battles occur between nationalist/populist forces, whose outlook have in essence been undemocratic, and forces that struggle for standard democracy. The threat of return to power by Meciar forced all democrats, leftist or rightist, into one camp. Even in this situation the political right has been quarrelsome, creating space for Meciar's possible return to power.

Hungary's political right has suffered mainly from differences between conservative and populist forces on the one hand, and traditional, mainly urban, liberals on the other. Various rightist parties failed to decide whether the modus operandi on the political right should be traditional Western ideologies or a Hungarian brand of nationalist conservatism and populism. Although the current governing coalition, consisting of conservatives and populists, has been successful, the real reckoning for Hungary's right may still be yet to come.

Poland's right poses the most difficult case. Its problems originate in the communist era, when a trade union movement, which under normal circumstances should stand to the political left, became the main anti-communist opposition. As a result, various political groups associated with the Solidarity trade union movement have, since Communism's fall, aspired to represent the political right, confusing the terms of political discourse.

Christian-democratic parties, associated with the Catholic Church, and the liberals have been to some extent marginalized. The confusion has been made complete by the existence of relatively strong nationalist and populist parties that use the numerous Polish farmers as their electoral base. As in other postcommunist countries, the main beneficiary of such a lack of unity has been the democratic left.

Project Syndicate - January 2002