Even as West European countries seemed to have edged to right of political map - all three polities of central Europe lurched to left. Socialists were elected to replace economically successful right wing governments in Poland, Hungary and, recently, in Czech Republic.
This apparent schism is, indeed, merely an apparition. The differences between reformed left and new right in both parts of continent have blurred to point of indistinguishability. French socialists have privatized more than their conservative predecessors. The Tories still complain bitterly that Tony Blair, with his nondescript "Third Way", has stolen their thunder.
Nor are "left" and "right" ideologically monolithic and socially homogeneous continental movements. The central European left is more preoccupied with a social - dare I say socialist - agenda than any of its Western coreligionists. Equally, central European right is less individualistic, libertarian, religious, and conservative than any of its Western parallels - and much more nationalistic and xenophobic. It sometimes echoes far right in Western Europe - rather than center-right, mainstream, middle-class orientated parties in power.
Moreover, right's victories in Western Europe - in Spain, Denmark, Netherlands, Italy - are not without a few important exceptions - notably Britain and, perhaps, come September, Germany. Nor is left's clean sweep of central European electoral slate either complete or irreversible. With exception of outgoing Czech government, not one party in this volatile region has ever remained in power for more than one term. Murmurs of discontent are already audible in Poland and Hungary.
Left and right are imported labels with little explanatory power or relevance to central Europe. To fathom political dynamics of this region, one must realize that core countries of central Europe (the Czech Republic, Hungary and, to a lesser extent, Poland) experienced industrial capitalism in inter-war period. Thus, a political taxonomy based on urbanization and industrialization may prove to be more powerful than classic left-right dichotomy.
THE RURAL versus THE URBAN
The enmity between urban and bucolic has deep historical roots. When teetering Roman Empire fell to Barbarians (410-476 AD), five centuries of existential insecurity and mayhem ensued. Vassals pledged allegiance and subservience to local lords in return for protection against nomads and marauders. Trading was confined to fortified medieval cities.
Even as it petered out in west, feudalism remained entrenched in prolix codices and patents of Habsburg Austro-Hungarian empire which encompassed central Europe and collapsed only in 1918. Well into twentieth century, majority of denizens of these moribund swathes of continent worked land. This feudal legacy of a brobdignagian agricultural sector in, for instance, Poland - now hampers EU accession talks.
Vassals were little freer than slaves. In comparison, burghers, inhabitants of city, were liberated from bondage of feudal labour contract. As a result, they were able to acquire private possessions and city acted as supreme guarantor of their property rights. Urban centers relied on trading and economic might to obtain and secure political autonomy.
John of Paris, arguably one of first capitalist cities (at least according to Braudel), wrote: "(The individual) had a right to property which was not with impunity to be interfered with by superior authority - because it was acquired by (his) own efforts" (in Georges Duby, "The age of Cathedrals: Art and Society, 980-1420, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1981). Max Weber, in his opus, "The City" (New York, MacMillan, 1958) wrote optimistically about urbanization: "The medieval citizen was on way towards becoming an economic man ... ancient citizen was a political man."
But communism halted this process. It froze early feudal frame of mind of disdain and derision towards "non-productive", "city-based" vocations. Agricultural and industrial occupations were romantically extolled by communist parties everywhere. The cities were berated as hubs of moral turpitude, decadence and greed. Ironically, avowed anti-communist right wing populists, like Hungary's former prime minister, Orban, sought to propagate these sentiments, to their electoral detriment.
Communism was an urban phenomenon - but it abnegated its "bourgeoisie" pedigree. Private property was replaced by communal ownership. Servitude to state replaced individualism. Personal mobility was severely curtailed. In communism, feudalism was restored.
Very like Church in Middle Ages, communism sought to monopolize and permeate all discourse, all thinking, and all intellectual pursuits. Communism was characterized by tensions between party, state and economy - exactly as medieval polity was plagued by conflicts between church, king and merchants-bankers.
In communism, political activism was a precondition for advancement and, too often, for personal survival. John of Salisbury might as well have been writing for a communist agitprop department when he penned this in "Policraticus" (1159 AD): "...if (rich people, people with private property) have been stuffed through excessive greed and if they hold in their contents too obstinately, (they) give rise to countless and incurable illnesses and, through their vices, can bring about ruin of body as a whole". The body in text being body politic.
Workers, both industrial and agricultural, were lionized and idolized in communist times. With implosion of communism, these frustrated and angry rejects of a failed ideology spawned many grassroots political movements, lately in Poland, in form of "Self Defence". Their envied and despised enemies are well-educated, intellectuals, self-proclaimed new elite, foreigner, minority, rich, and remote bureaucrat in Brussels.
Like in West, hinterland tends to support right. Orban's Fidesz lost in Budapest in recent elections - but scored big in villages and farms throughout Hungary. Agrarian and peasant parties abound in all three central European countries and often hold balance of power in coalition governments.