Is Europe heading in the ‘right’ direction?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

"Hungary's turn to the right signals a broader challenge across Europe, and not the unfortunate malfunction of one of its youngest democracies," writes Joerg Forbrig, senior programme officer for Central and Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, in a May paper.

The following paper was written by Joerg Forbrig of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. 

"Hungarians made a resounding statement in April's parliamentary elections. The governing Socialists took a severe beating, the conservative Fidesz of Viktor Orbán won an absolute majority, and the right-wing extremists, Jobbik, emerged as the third major player in parliament.

Many observers pointed to discontent with runaway corruption and the global economic crisis, which hit Hungary earlier and harder than others in Europe, as the main reason for this sharp swing to the right.

That analysis prompts two further questions: Will the massive protest vote spread across post-communist Europe and undermine its new democracies? Or does the Hungarian result signal some broader trend spanning 'New' and 'Old' Europe alike?

When the global economic crisis came crashing down on Europe, the continent's East, until recently a boom region with comparatively new democratic institutions, seemed particularly vulnerable.

Gloomy predictions of violent mass protests, collapsing governments and extremist takeovers abounded. None of these doomsday scenarios has materialised to date. But, perhaps the day of reckoning is approaching, given that elections are scheduled across New Europe this year?

At this point, however, data does not support predictions of a political landslide for the right. In the Czech and Slovak Republics, where elections are scheduled for May and June, Social Democrats are solidly ahead in the polls, and their centre-right opponents have neither achieved the unity nor the public support of Hungary's Fidesz.

Poland, with presidential elections in June, can expect a heated campaign, in which conservative Jaroslaw Kaczynski will try to catch up moderate Bronislaw Komorowski's commanding lead. But whoever becomes head of state, the balanced politics of the centrist government is not in danger.

Nor do the polls indicate that voters across the region are flocking en masse to extremists of the left or right. Czech communists and Slovak nationalists have long been in their countries' parliaments, the former as an isolated fringe, the latter as a junior partner in the current government.

Neither, however, is growing in political influence. On the whole, therefore, New Europe shows no inclination of following in Hungary's footsteps. Instead, the region's politics and democratic institutions are holding surprisingly stable.

Europe-wide, by contrast, the Hungarian vote is a sign of fundamental changes in the political landscape. It marks a further chapter in the demise of traditional social democracy, following worst-ever returns for the German SPD in last September's national election and likely preceding yet another rout for Britain's Labour Party in early May.

This weakening of the moderate left, once a bulwark of European democracies, will have massive repercussions for political processes, institutions and culture on the continent. Among others, it heralds fragmentation in European party systems, complicating and drawing out coalition building and making continuity of governance more difficult. Unmediated ideological positions and appeals to the fringes will become more popular in electioneering.

Even more worrying is the rise of radical parties across Europe. As Jobbik collected nearly a fifth of all votes in Hungary, a right-wing presidential candidate garnered 16% in neighboring Austria. Similar levels of electoral support were recently registered for the Front National in France, and can be expected for the far-right Freedom Party in the Dutch elections in June, according to the polls.

Populists and extremists on the right (and to a lesser degree on the left, as with Germany's Die Linke) are gaining traction throughout Europe. This shows just how much better the radicals are than the established political parties at responding to the growing anxiety of ordinary people in Europe over the economic crisis, globalisation and social justice on one hand, and about cultural diversity, migration, and minorities on the other. Fanning these fears, however cynical it may be, has been a successful electoral strategy for parties on both fringes of the political spectrum.

Still, there are occasional rays of hope. Some Europeans have translated their disappointment with current politics into support for progressive alternatives – taking a constructive approach to protest. In the Hungarian elections, the unexpected success of 'Politics Can Be Different' went almost unnoticed; this new liberal formation scored 7.5% nationwide.

Similar initiatives, proposing a positive alternative to the ossified (and often corrupt) powers-that-be, can be found elsewhere, from Latvia to Slovakia to the Czech Republic. In Britain, the Liberal Democrats are polling strongly, and their gains at the expense of both Labour and the Conservatives may yet balance parliament. But it remains unclear whether these constructive alternatives, new and inexperienced as they are, will be able to project credibility to compete with the establishment and to win over those that have fallen for the destructive message of the populists and extremists.

Whether European democracy remains open, liberal, and stable, or cedes further to populists and extremists as in sadder periods of the continent's past, is a choice increasingly facing political leaders and average citizens. To get it right, they should start by acknowledging that Hungary's turn to the right signals a broader challenge across Europe, and not the unfortunate malfunction of one of its youngest democracies."

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