By Dr. Josef A. Mestenhauser
Elections have been already held in Austria, Hungary and Ukraine, and will be shortly taking place in Poland, the Czech Republic (May 28), and Slovakia (June). In Austria people re-elected the Social Democratic President Fischer for another term, but less than 45 percent of people voted. Although the President was re-elected by an overwhelming majority, some parties actually were advising the electorate not to vote, or if they voted, to cast an empty ballot – because they had no alternative candidate. In Hungary people threw out the Social Democratic government and elected the leader of the Conservative party, which received a large majority and is likely to govern with the help of a smaller but vocal Nationalistic party. The forthcoming elections in Poland are cast into a dramatic atmosphere following the tragic death of the Polish political elite in the plane crash near Smolensk. The brother of the late President is standing for election to replace him, but polls indicate that he may have a difficult campaign.
The political scene in the Czech Republic is heating up with serious criticism of the past regime that is accused of living out of the past and not responding to the current and future trends. The elections in the Czech Republic on May 28 featured three new political parties. The first, the Party of Law (Strana Prav), a splinter group from the Social Democratic Party, is chaired by the former Socialist Premier, Milos Zeman. The second is called the TOP9 Party of the former adviser to President Havel, and later Minister of Foreign Affairs, Karel Schwartzenberg. It is a conservative, slightly right of center party. The third new party is called Public Affairs (Veci Verejne), whose leader is journalist and commentator Radek John. John incidentally has Minnesota connections, having been here at Macalester College on a World Journalist Program. His party is performing strongly in public opinion polls.
Most people in the United States are not aware of the political atmosphere in these countries and do not realize that the results may influence not only the Czech and Slovak Americans, but the United States as a whole. Let’s look at the potential impact. In Ukraine the new government is sitting on large numbers of nuclear weapons, and although the newly elected President hurried to visit Brussels to assure the European Union of his interest in good relations with them, the new government made concessions to Russia for a continuing rental of the naval facilities in Sevastopol for an undisclosed discount on Russian gas. The government claims that it is committed to what it calls metaphorically being a “bridge between the European Union and Russia” – the same metaphor used by former President of Czechoslovakia Eduard Benes. That metaphor did not work in practice then and is not likely to promote stability of Central Europe in the future, because the Ukraine is deeply divided in loyalties toward the West and the East.
In Hungary, the new government is expected to vote shortly on giving Hungarian citizenship to all Hungarians living abroad, including Hungarians living in Slovakia. This proposal increased tensions that already existed when Slovakia passed the “Patriotism Bill” which required the use of Slovak as the official language. The importance of the election outcome in the Czech Republic is heightened by the possibility that the Social Democrats will win a substantial plurality and be asked to form a government – something it would have a hard time doing without the Communists, who are expected to win as many as 20 percent of the votes. This would in effect return the Communists to power and influence.
I have two major concerns. One, we have more at stake in Central Europe than most people recognize, but we seem to know very little about the dynamics of political, social, and cultural developments there, especially during the twenty years following the Velvet Revolution. Second, we seem to have been looking for a simple solution in expecting people of the countries that have suffered a double occupation and totalitarianism to develop a healthy democracy simply by having political parties and elections. These countries do have them now, but what most of the Western consultants neglected is the difficulty of developing a civil society and an educational culture that would develop sound critical thinking.
There may be more implications after the elections have been completed and after the new governments that have just been elected make their political directions known. Stay tuned – and think about our own political culture and the status of our own civil society.