Is democracy under threat in central Europe?

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The year 2006 will go down as a year marked by political instability in central Europe's post-Communist states. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia have all held general elections and the results have left many political scientists shaking their heads in disbelief.

In Hungary, Ferenc Gyurcsany's Socialists won a second term in April but, after an admission to having lied to voters, faced the biggest protests in the country since 1956. Poland is led by the Kaczynski brothers, two conservatives dubbed by some liberals as the 'terrible twins'. Slovakia's leftist Robert Fico is in a coalition government with a nationalist party and former authoritarian prime minister Vladimir Meciar. And in the Czech Republic government negotiations are still underway almost six months after elections were held.

Against the backdrop of this instability, the issue of whether democracy is under threat in the region was debated in Prague on Monday. Among those taking part were French political scientist Jacques Rupnik and former editor-in-chief of Slovakia's leading newspaper SME Martin Simecka. I asked both why they think such debate is necessary...

MS: "Well, because the elections this year provoke the question whether this is a crisis of democratic institutions. That's because of the populists who are in government, especially in Poland and Slovakia, but also the conflict in Hungary and the quite amazing situation in the Czech Republic where no way has been found in five months to create a government. So, these are legitimate questions about what is happening in central Europe because it is an unusual situation."

You mentioned the Czech Republic not having a government five months after the elections. But is that really a sign that the country is undemocratic?

MS: "No, it's not. Without all the circumstances in central Europe, no-one would talk about a crisis of democracy in the Czech Republic. But within this central European context we are all trying to find the common symptoms of what is going on and it seems that although the Czech Republic is not quite in the situation that Poland, Slovakia, or Hungary are in, the situation here is also kind of symptomatic of the region. There is the lack of an ability to find a pragmatic or rational political solution and that questions the state of Czech politics and the inability to establish a government in five months. This is not a usual situation."

Critics would also say that the country is under threat because the Communists are the third most popular party in the country and they have been so for quite a while... and they are gaining younger supporters too...

MS: "My impression is that the Czech Communists are not the biggest problem in Czech politics. I have the feeling that Czech politicians sometimes try to use the Communists as an excuse for their inability to create a government. I don't understand why this is considered such a big problem in the Czech Republic. We all have parties that are unacceptable in Central Europe."

Where will central Europe be in about a decade or two when those who still reminisce about the Communist past won't really be in control of the countries anymore?

JR: "Well, I think that the best hope for democracy in central Europe is the younger generation. First of all because they consider democracy and Europe as the only game in town and they don't imagine their future as anything else. So, any of these nationalist delusions are not of great interest to them. They haven't lived under Communism and therefore this whole debate about fighting against Communism and the need to purge all the Communists, this obsession is meaningless to them. I think they are the biggest hope for democratic change in the future."

MS: "I completely agree with that. The younger generations travel and study around Europe and whether they return home or not, though I think most of them will come home, they already think differently. If we survive these ten years of crisis then I think the new generation can become the most important power of these countries. They just have to adopt that role."

So what would you say is the biggest threat to democracy in central Europe right now?

JR: "I think it's the complacency. You may settle in a situation where politicians, the media, and so on start to use and abuse democracy. Yes, it is formidable change that has occurred since 1989 but at the end of the day both democracy and the European project will only survive if people don't take it for granted and feel that they have a responsibility for it. So that is the test now.

"We are in a situation where democracy is experiencing some turbulences and difficulties but I also see that people are concerned and interested. The fact that you have a hall filled with people who want to discuss this is a good sign. When I go to universities I see real concern among students. So that is the real test - the feeling of responsibility. The big difficulty of course is, even though you may have it in society, how do you share it among the political parties and the political elites? There, you have an uphill struggle."

Earlier today we heard political commentator Jiri Pehe say that the EU is responsible for the countries having democracy but the countries lack the democrats for it...

MS: "The political elite are in bad shape...that is true. Even among young people there is a lack of will to work in political parties and to become politicians. The best people don't go into politics and it is now common knowledge that politicians are only an elite because they have power. They are not people who we can admire and most of them are suspected of being corrupt. The politicians we have today are not the elite who are an example of ideals and of values."