What the best of Central Europe’s emerging top politicians have in common? That evening in mid-March 2019 the Old Market Place Hall in Bratislava was filled with joy and expectation. The campaign team of the presidential candidate Zuzana Čaputová picked this venue to celebrate an election victory that had seemed almost inconceivable a few weeks earlier. At 45, Čaputová blazed across the European political sky like a comet, a harbinger of hope that liberal politics in Central Europe was not a completely lost cause.
“What is unique about Zuzana Čaputová is that she brings a fresh air into politics, because she has a knack for communicating values and principles authentically and to appeal to people in a way that is quite unusual.” These were the words of Michal Šimečka, vice-chairman of Progressive Slovakia, the party that had put Čaputová forward as its candidate in the presidential election. Just a few weeks later, Šimečka himself, at the top of the liberal list, won a seat in the European Parliament. Nevertheless, only a year later his party failed to win a single seat in Slovakia’s parliament, the National Council. It seemed as if every hope of the Slovak liberals, as well as of a large section of younger voters, had been absorbed by the new President who instantly became a darling of Europe’s media – apart from anything else, this was also because following a surge of populism and nationalism, European liberals were looking for new models and a new style of politics. Čaputová seemed to have found a successful recipe for bringing politics back to life.
She is not alone. The new faces that have emerged and continue to emerge up and down Central Europe herald a generational change after thirty years during which politics in many countries was dominated by a generation associated with the restoration and the building of democracy and capitalism in the aftermath of the collapse of the socialist bloc.
Aged between forty and fifty, these people had the benefit of growing up and studying in countries that were no longer separated from the world by the Iron Curtain or the Berlin Wall, and the internet has been an integral part of their life, work and politics.
They see the rest of Europe as a more natural benchmark than their local, often stale, elites. As a matter of course, they ignore borders and find their role models and partners for cooperation in neighbouring countries. The mayors of the four capitals of the Visegrad 4 countries, the generational peers Zdeněk Hřib, Gergely Karácsony, Rafal Trzaskowski and Matúš Vallo, are a good example. Each of them represents, in his own way, a new breed of young politicians in their country, even if their local situations and standing vary considerably.
The cooperation between the four mayors has been, at one level, purely pragmatic. They all needed allies, channels of communication and, first and foremost, money, since they were, or still are, at loggerheads with their national governments. At the same time, they managed to demonstrate that politics – including local politics – could be viewed through optics other than just that of their own, stagnant playground. It is no accident that two of the foursome, Karácsony and Trzaskowski, have come to embody the hopes of the opposition camps in their respective countries, Hungary and Poland, and the prospect of a defeat of the ruling nationalists and populists. In last year’s presidential election, Trzaskowski proved to be a match for the incumbent, Andrzej Duda, who enjoyed his government’s support. Having lost the election, he started to build his own power base, seeing that his mother party, the Civic Platform, proved incapable of getting out of the cul-de-sac of the total opposition where it had been driven. “As someone on the left wing of the [Civic] Platform, Trzaskowski speaks up for sexual minorities, promotes public transport and cycling and champions accessible, cheap rental accommodation,” the think tank Polityka Insight stated in mid-May, describing how the Mayor of Warsaw had grown his own political camp while remaining a member of Civic Platform. In October 2020 he launched a new movement, Joint Poland, an initiative aimed at attracting young people to politics and to the person of Trzaskowski himself.
However, in terms of young and promising politicians, Trzaskowski has a rival in the shape of Szymon Hołownia, who came third in last year’s presidential election. In a poll conducted in spring 2021, the new political party, Poland 2050, founded by this former popular TV reporter and writer, beat all the traditional opposition parties. Hołownia can’t be easily dismissed as yet another potential populist. He has painstakingly built his movement with the help of thousands of activists and many young Poles who, tired of traditional parties, see in him the hope of real change. And Hołownia has proved himself adept at running a modern political campaign on the internet. Building on his TV experience he has kept regular and lively contact with his supporters via Facebook and – especially in the movement’s early days – made considerable use of crowdfunding.
Gergely Karácsony is the most likely candidate of a united Hungarian opposition in the general election scheduled for spring 2022, in which the opposition stands the first real chance in twelve years of unseating Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party. In April he announced his intention to stand in the primaries: “We have to offer something better and more inclusive than what Viktor Orbán and his government have to offer,” Karácsony said last year in an interview with Hospodářské noviny. Like Trzaskowski, he raises issues that might situate him more at the left or green end of the spectrum, if standard political divisions still applied. However, in Western Europe this type of orientation has been increasingly common among centrists who place an emphasis on a sustainable economy, accessible housing and environmentally friendly transport. A political scientist by training, Karácsony entered politics as a part of the green liberal movement Politics Can Be Different, and later helped found a similar new party, Dialogue for Hungary. If he stands against Orbán, his main disadvantage would be the fact that he is seen as representing the Budapest elites, which makes him less attractive to voters in the countryside, who tend to favour Orbán.
In the Czech Republic, people pin similar hopes on a new generation and style of politics, represented by the Czech Pirate Party. Back in 2005, if the social democrat Jiří Paroubek, who was Prime Minister at the time, had not dispatched police in riot gear to break up the techno music festival CzechTek, the present-day coalition of Pirates and another movement, Stan, would now not be a favourite to win this year’s general election, and Ivan Bartoš would not be a serious candidate for the post of prime minister. “I went into politics because Mr Paroubek attacked me with water cannon and tear gas at CzechTech,” said Bartoš, explaining his original motivation for entering politics in a 2019 interview with the portal Aktualne.cz.
This was when he realised that in order to effect any change, he has to have a share of power. He says that he does not wish to practice a politics of the past but rather of the present and, indeed, the future. “I want to pursue the kind of politics that will have impact on the Czech Republic in twenty years’ time,” said Bartoš in the interview.
Incidentally, the Czech Pirates and Szymon Hołownia’s Poland 2050 share a key strategy that enables them to approach politics differently from their colleagues, who are a generation older: making use of the internet, including for fundraising purposes, forms an inseparable part of their campaigns. The entry of both these parties into mainstream politics has been significantly boosted by the support of young voters who are thoroughly at home online, and both parties have harnessed it in campaigning as well as fundraising for their political projects.
Crowdfunding provides them with money and a relatively loyal electorate. Under the watchful eye of their donors the funds raised in this way are spent very effectively.
Even if the sums fall short of the state contributions on which political parties in Central Europe traditionally depend.
The new Estonian PM Kaja Kallas and Lithuania’s new Minister of Foreign Affairs Gabrielius Landsbergis, on the other hand, represent another type of young politician. What they have in common is the successful political career of their parents or, in Landsbergis’s case, grandparents. Kallas has had to fend off critics labelling her the favoured child of Siim Kallas, who in 1994 founded the Reform Party, which appointed Kaja Kallas Estonia’s first woman prime minister earlier this year.
Landsbergis’s grandfather Vytautas Landsbergis, on the other hand, is regarded as the father of Lithuania’s regained independence. Having founded the opposition movement Sajudis in 1988 and serving as Speaker of the country’s parliament from 1990 to 1992 he succeeded in taking his country out of the Soviet Union and restoring its independence.
Both Kallas and Landsbergis must thus make great efforts to carve out an identity separate from their parents, especially in the eyes of the voters and political pundits. Although they continue a family tradition, that turns out to be more of a burden. Yet being compared to their ancestors may also make them more eager to prove their mettle as politicians in their own right.
The Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is also undoubtedly a part of this new generation of politicians. He has shown that he is adept at balancing on the edge of populism, adjusting to the moment and centralising his government’s political communications, which are focused primarily on him personally. However, unlike the politicians discussed earlier, at the tender age of 34 he is already a seasoned warhorse. In 2015, while serving as Minister of Foreign Affairs, he had to deal with the influx of refugees, one of the most serious political crises Europe faced after 1989. In May 2021, Kurz, who burnishes his good image, has clocked up his first scandal, facing accusations of perjury in the Ibiza affair, named after the location of a secretly filmed video that implicated Kurz’s former coalition partner, the Freedom Party chairman Heinz-Christian Strache, in an attempt at bribery.
Like Landbergis, Kurz is also one of the few members of this new generation who favours more conservative ideas and approach to politics, while most other younger politicians are more left-wing and greener, even if the classic categorisation into left and right is becoming increasingly anachronistic.
This will become apparent later this year in Germany, where the Green Party is expected to score a resounding success, if not outright victory. Their candidate for the post of Chancellor, the keen sportswoman Annalena Baerbock, has only recently turned forty.
Nevertheless, if we were to sum up what this generation has in common – apart from their age and the fact that they have lived most of their lives post-1989 – what distinguishes them is a broader outlook and better education than that enjoyed by their predecessors, thanks in the main to globalisation. In the case of the postcommunist countries we are dealing with a generation of politicians who are no longer embroiled in the transformation of property relations and are not lumbered with the legacy of dubious privatisations of recent years. Their political and professional career has taught them how to take on the generation of politicians who entered the political stage following the changes of thirty years ago and who have deluded themselves that they would stay there forever. Their younger challengers are very creative in campaigning and savvy in their use of social media and crowdfunding.
Another thing most of them have in common is that they target a younger electorate – millennials and Generation – which has a very different sense of the threat of climate change and the transformation of the financial world following the crisis of 2008 and 2009. Western trends such as the greening of industry, and thus also of politics, have started to seep into Central Europe, albeit later than many may have hoped. And the socialist legacy makes it more difficult to advocate for a return to a greater role of the state in the economy, which the financial crisis imposed. Younger voters are more concerned about the future than the middle and older generations.
This generational shift in Central Europe may have a fundamental impact on European politics as a whole.
The western half of the European Union still looks down their nose at its eastern, – newer and poorer – members, who do not show the same, or at least a similar, degree of understanding for issues that will be crucial in future, such as the transformation of the energy sector. The advent of a new generation of politicians could change all that.
This new generation of politicians in Central Europe takes it for granted that the EU is their playing field, regarding it as an instrument for the achievement of prosperity rather than a foe that only imposes regulation and restrictions. That does not mean that there is a shortage of young nationalists in Central Europe who define themselves in anti-EU terms One look at Poland or Slovakia will rid one of any such misapprehension.
The financial crisis has sparked off a rethink of capitalism and of the role of state within it. The migration crisis has exposed the strengths and weaknesses of Europe’s multiculturalism. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has revealed the full extent of geopolitical uncertainties. And, last but not least, the pandemic has revealed the weaknesses of the welfare state and the healthcare system. All this adds up to the most fundamental political challenge since 1989, which calls for a radically fresh perspective if liberal politics are to survive in Central Europe. The new generation of political leaders faces unprecedented tasks – but then again, no previous generation has been as well prepared for the challenges of its time as they are.
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