Central Europe’s future is in its cities

ZAGREB — A land of receding democracy, reactionary populism and popular strongman rule — recent national election results have done little to counter this perception of Central Europe.

Just this week, for example, Hungary clashed with Brussels and 17 other EU members over a law widely condemned in Western Europe as targeting the LGBTQ+ community. Its Central European neighbors, however, disagree. They either remained silent or supportive.

But then there are the region’s capital cities, where voters have been putting in place a different type of politician, offering a very different image of the region.

In Poland last year, President Andrzej Duda, from the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), was narrowly reelected, solidifying the nationalist conservative party’s control over national institutions. His victory, however, was narrow. He finished just ahead of the liberal and avowedly pro-European mayor of Warsaw, Rafał Trzaskowski.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s right-wing government has enjoyed a supermajority for years. Its support does not extend to Budapest, however, which is currently run by a Green-affiliated mayor, Gergely Karácsony.

The Czech Republic’s Russophile president, Miloš Zeman, and its populist billionaire prime minister, Andrej Babiš, are no models of liberalism either. But the mayor of Prague, Zdeněk Hřib, is a member of the Pirate party — a modern, left-of-center political force promoting environmentalism, e-democracy and government transparency.

The most recent addition to the ranks of these progressive Central European local leaders is Tomislav Tomašević, who was elected mayor of Zagreb just last month, providing a left-liberal foil to Croatia’s conservative national government. He enjoyed a landslide victory, with his ecosocialist Možemo! party clinching half the seats in the city assembly.

Victories like Tomašević’s should challenge the clichés commonly associated with Central Europe. This divide between liberal cities and the conservative countryside is familiar to residents of countries like the United States, the United Kingdom or France — but nobody singles those countries out as uniquely benighted.

Recent Central European history does, however, add an extra dimension to the phenomenon — one that makes the rise of these local politicians even more significant. While the ruling conservatives present the transition from communism as incomplete, necessitating a strong central government to push through needed reforms, liberals in urban centers see a different promise as unfulfilled by the region’s trajectory since 1989: that of a return to the West, which seems to drift further away with each passing year.

This makes the recent victories of these liberal opposition parties in the region’s capitals even more significant. Demographically, economically and politically, most Central European countries are extremely centralized. Control of the capital can provide a strong base of power to grow from — especially in a region with few multigenerational political parties. In Hungary, for example, nearly a third of the country lives in the capital. In Croatia, it’s over a quarter.

And increasingly, control over the capital city is setting the foundation for a larger challenge to national governments. In 2019, for example, the mayors of the capital cities of the Visegrád Group — Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia — formed the “Pact of Free Cities” alliance, aimed at bypassing their populist national governments. Committing to the “common values of freedom, human dignity, democracy, equality, rule of law, social justice, tolerance and cultural diversity,” they reached out to Brussels to seek EU funding on their own.

More and more, these liberal figures are taking their politics national. Trzaskowski may not have won the presidency, but he came close. Gergely Karácsony’s mayorhsip in Budapest in 2019 was seen as a trial run for a pan-opposition effort to oust Orbán next year — possibly with the mayor of the capital city as the alliance’s standard-bearer. In the Czech Republic, the Pirates, in coalition with another liberal party, are currently leading the polls for October’s legislative election.

Last month’s election in Zagreb suggests Croatia is on a similar path, even if Možemo!’s national appeal is not yet widespread. Just as disillusionment with liberal revolution pushed many into the arms of parties like Fidesz and PiS, disillusionment with the conservative revolution is now clearly pushing the urban bourgeoisie into the arms of new, progressive parties offering to take the country in a new direction.

It’s too early to know whether they’ll succeed, but in the meantime, they at least show that another vision for the region is possible.

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