Lack of confidence in politics and politicians

The recent campaign for parliamentary elections in Slovakia and parallel ‘Gorilla’ protests illustrate problems present in all Central European countries: growing disappointment of citizens with politics and politicians. Tired of the struggles with the economic crisis and corruption in politics, the Visegrad citizens increasingly perceive the politicians as an alienated group representing themselves, not the people. They are ready for a change, but no one knows what it could be.

Foto: Creative Commons/ informatique

Lack of confidence in politicians is not a new phenomenon. According to Eurobarometer, citizens of Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia simply tend not to trust political parties. Since the 2004 more than 80 % of them do not have trust in politics (with the exception of Hungarians – recently, i.e., in 2010 only 60 % of them tended not to trust parties). What is new, however, is the visible yearning for a change, which leads to success of new parties.

The most striking examples are Věci veřejné – VV (Things public) in the Czech government, and Obyčajní ľudia (Common People) in the Slovak parliament. Also, according to pre-election polls it seemed that newly created party ‘99%’  had a big chance to introduce its people to parliament in Slovakia. Parties such as 99% and VV are considered the examples of parties created and promoted as a new product, according to all the rules of marketing. Well, maybe instead of influencing politicians by bribes and lobbying as it was in the past it becomes easier to create new ones from a scratch.

Quest for alternatives

According to Slovak professor Michal Vašečka: “It is not that people lost interest in politics, they simply seek an alternative. It is not only a Central European trend, it is a crisis of liberal democracy, present in all Europe. The problem is that in our region it comes only 23 years after an enormous change, which was the fall of Communism. We haven’t had liberal democracy earlier, and now we again want to find something new.” Vašečka believes that sometimes the search for alternative can be dangerous – “when it leads to the success of xenophobic or authoritarian groups. Relatively the calmest situation is in Poland.”

Polish political scientist Jarosław Flis does not see Poland as exceptional in this sense: “It is not that in Poland new parties were not making flashing career, just to disappear after few years. We had once for example Samoobrona [a populist peasant party]. Now we have Ruch Palikota.: In Poland’s elections last year, Ruch Palikota (Palikot’s Movement) caused a revolt on the political scene, but contrary to VV and the new Slovak parties, it has a structure that so far seems to work and quite a detailed political program.

Maybe it is because the party’s leader, Janusz Palikot is first of all an extravagant businessman, in addition to being a philosopher and writer. He is not new to politics – in 2005 he became a member of parliament from the list of Platforma Obywatelska – PO (Civic platform). For a year he was even PO’s vice president. When he was leaving PO in 2010 and planning to found his own party, he already had an idea about what he wanted to change in politics.

Ruch Palikota concentrates on a number of social issues, which so far were rather avoided by other parties, e.g., the place of the Church in society, homosexual marriages, discrimination of minorities etc., and thus spoke to the generation of young liberal professionals. Flis argues, that the major problem for Palikot might be the fact that his MPs are not experienced enough and they are unknown to most people:  “So, the real challenge will be the elections to European Parliament. It will show if this party lasts. I think that Janusz Palikot himself is not sure yet what place he wants for his party on political scene – if he wants to be a small partner in big coalition, or maybe he would like to create and lead a united left movement.”

Referendum on withdrawal from EU?

In Hungary it is different – support for extreme right nationalist party Jobbik, already present on Hungarian political scene, is growing. According to recent polls conducted by Median agency, it can count on 14% of voters, which for the first time makes it a second power in the country (the Socialists have only 13%). One of the latest ideas of Jobbik is a referendum on the withdrawing the country from the European Union.What Hungary has in common with other Visegrad countries is radically falling support for the ruling politicians. During two years, Fidesz lost almost half of the support it had during the last elections in 2010. Also, the popularity of the Prime Minister Viktor Orban dropped by half.

The gloomy moods of Hungarians can be explained by the difficult economic circumstances in Hungary, sharp polarization of society and a dispute with European Commission. Yet, what about Poland? It faces similar disappointment with politics, yet, it is a country praised in the EU, enjoying a growing economy, with continuity of the same government for the second term in power.  As Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung stated, the country is well, but paradoxically the Prime Minister Donald Tusk – is not quite so well. His popularity is still relatively high (around 40%), but actually it is his lowest ever. “There is no other explanation that mistakes were made by this ruling party. For example, its stand on ACTA or plans of pension reform are against the opinion of the society,” says Jarosław Flis. “Yet, Polish voters either vote their favourite party or not vote at all. Usually they don’t support another party right away.”

Bribes and attitudes

It is probably not a coincidence that so many new parties emerged from this wave of social discontent, putting forward promises of fighting corruption. In all four countries, some of the symptoms and signs of the crisis on the political scene were corruption and lack of transparency. Giving and getting bribes. Bribery is a problem as old as the world. In the Czech Republic, for example, 60% of entrepreneurs believe that a bribe is a necessary element of running a business, according to Transparency International. But something else seems to be particularly disturbing for people.

It is the attitude of politicians and their conviction that they deserve special treatment and special salaries, but have no obligation to talk about it. This is something that makes the Visegrad voters more and more irritated. In January 2012, for example, the Czech prime minister was irritated when the media disclosed that head of his office has been receiving bonuses worth hundreds of thousands of Czech korunas (1 EUR = 24 CZK), but ordinary Czechs who make less than 1000 EUR on average were irritated even more.

In Poland ,after a long series of mistakes made during the construction of the National Stadium in Warsaw, the head of the National Sport Centre was still due to receive a reward of more than 500,000 zlotys (1 EUR =  4 zloty). Public opinion was outraged and the contract was taken to court, yet it is not certain if it can be stated as invalid. In all four central European countries there have been many such cases, which suggest a lack of moral responsibility among people in power, who don’t feel that even if something is not forbidden by law, it is not accepted by voters.

As famous Polish journalist Adam Michnik wrote at the end of the 90s, democracy is grey and that is why it is beautiful … It gives hope that problems with corruption and political standards, new extravagant and odd parties, and all those recent events are just a phase in the development of democracy in Central Europe. And in no time at all, everything will be wonderfully grey and boring.

This is and edited version of article published in the Visegrad Insight 1/2012.

Patrycja Bukalska

Patrycja Bukalska

is editor of the V4Revue and editor of Polish weekly Tygodnik Powszechny; writes for „Green Town” („Zielone Miasto”) magazine.