The spring/summer brought a wind of political change to most Central European countries. From Poland to Hungary, voters went to the ballots and chose their new governments and legislatures. The results show a general shift to the right in an atmosphere of economic and fiscal uncertainty - fiscal austerity measures are certainly the main winner of the 2010 election year. I came to Prague just two days after the 2010 legislative elections. The election put an end to the caretaker administration that had been ruling the country since 2009, following a vote of no confidence against the government of Mirek Topolánek. Although the Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) still gained the highest number of votes (22 percent), the election results showed a definite decline in their support base. Second and third came the Civic Conservative Party (ODS) and the newly-formed Top 09, with the Communist Party coming in fourth. The Czech political systems resembles other European parliamentary democracies in the way it relies on coalitions between political parties in the process of government formation. The party that wins the highest number of votes is thus not guaranteeed leadership of the government - if it fails to score an absolute majority, it is dependent on the willingness of other parties to form coalitions. As the Social Democrats had no clear coaliltion partner, the Civic Democrats, TOP 09 and a party called Public Affairs got together to form a centre right-wing Cabinet. In a climate of fear about the recent economic fiasco in Greece, all three parties had campaigned successfully with the promise of responsible budget cuts and tighter government spending regulations. They also rode on a wave of public dissatisfaction about the high level of corruption in the Czech Republic, where politics and bussiness remain closely interlinked. Top 09 in particular, with its eccentric aristocratic leader Karel Schwarzenberg, had made the fight against corruption one of its priorities. Schwarzenberg, who now serves as the new Foreign Minister, is probably one of the most unique figures in current European politics. Not only does he look as if he walked straight off a filmset, with his bushy eyebrows, moustache and pipe, but his full name amounts to the humble Karl Johannes Nepomuk Josef Norbert Friedrich Antonius Wratislaw Mena von Schwarzenberg, and his official title is Serene Highness The Prince of Schwarzenberg, Count of Sulz, Princely Landgrave in Klettgau, and Duke of Krumlov. But despite his overtly privileged background, Schwarzenberg has long been one of the most popular figures in Czech politics, a country in which the esteem for politicians runs extremely low. Not only is he a long time friend of Vaclav Havel, the Czechs' national hero, but he also served as the Chairman of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, and as an Austrian educated politician whose family left Czechoslovakia after the Communist coup in 1948, has little connection to the nation's Communist past. Several people I have asked about him have told me that his incredible personal wealth has in fact accentuated public trust - after all, who needs to engage in corruption if you already own a quarter of the country?
I found it interesting that most people of my age in the Czech Republic harbour a deep dislike for any left-wing party, in particular for the Social Democrats (and I won't even mention the Communist Party). Even students who told me they supported the Democrats in the U.S. and Labour in the UK would never vote for the Social Democrats in their own country, which they perceive as too left-wing and too closely connected to the former Communist regime. It seems like none of the left-wing parties have managed to distance themselves from their disreputable past and create a new, independent, forward-looking centre-left platform - which I think is bad news for the European left. In Poland, after a campaign centred around the global financial crisis and the planecrash disaster in Smolensk, Bronisław Komorowski (Civic Platform) defeated Jarosław Kaczyński and thus (finally) ended the Law and Justice party reign. The Civic Platform is very much on the conservative side, but nevertheless should relativise the previous administration's antagonistic stance towards the EU, Germany and Russia. However, the elections were very much marked by the Smolensk tragedy - two presidential candidates as well as numerous top-level politicians and officials had died in the crash. In Slovakia, we see a similar development as in the Czech Republic - the Social Democrats won the highest number of seats, but centre-right parties managed to form a coalition. In Hungary, the governing Socialist Party suffered a major defeat as the population blamed the incumbents for Hungary's disastrous economic and financial situation, and the conservative opposition Fidesz-KDNP won an easy victory. More controversial were the 16.6% scored by the nationalist party Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik), which has been accused of antisemitism and fascist tendencies. The party likes to describe itself as 'radically patriotic' and protective of Hungarian interests values, whatever that may mean. The rise of these right-wing populist parties, with their common nationalist, xenophobic and anti-elitist rhetoric, and their increasing self-representation as respectable political players for me is one of the most worrisome developments in European politics, which luckily hasn't spread to the other Central European countries yet.