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Czech Republic: Why all parties will lose early elections

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Photo: Ntr23 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

If as British prime-minister Harold Wilson famously commented, a week is a long time in politics, then a month can be an eternity.

This is certainly the case in the Czech Republic, where both anti-corruption probe that spectacularly brought down the government of prime minister Nečas in May and technocratic caretaker government that President Zeman imposed on a less than enthusiatic parliament have largely collaped.

 The Czech Supreme Court’s expansive interpretation of parliamentary immunity of 26 July saw most of the key dramatis personnae from the political world released from jail and charges withdrawn. It remains to be seen whether lines investigation focusing on the affairs of politically-connected business ‘godfathers’ or the misuse of military intelligence to monitor the then prime minister’s wife lead anywhere, but so little has been heard.

 Meanwhile on 7 August as expected, Miloš Zeman’s handpicked ‘government of experts’ under former finance minister Jiří Rusnok failed to win a vote of confidence in parliament. The real story, however, was the disunity of centre-right parties, whose claims they still had a parliamentary majority – and hence a claim to go on governing– were shot to pieces by the failure of three right-wing deputies to vote against Rusnok, the culprits being two Civic Democrat deputies with previous form and the mercurial Karolina Peake, leader of the tiny LIDEM party.

 As political reality dawned on the right, discussion moved at breakneck speed to early elections as centre-right parties agreed to vote with the Social Democrats to dissolve parliament to bring about the early elections left-wing parties claimed they really had always wanted all along.

 Parliament votes tomorrow (20 August) and – despite some speculation from the Zeman camp and some journalists that dissolution of the Chamber of Deputies may not, after all, be a done deal – it seems likely that the Czech Republic will be heading for early elections in October.

 There seems little doubt about who will win (the left) and lose (the right), but the prospect nevertheless raises some crucial questions about the future shape of Czech politics. Read More…

Misdiagnosing threats to democracy in Eastern Europe

Littmann

Photo : diekatrin via Flikr  cc

I really don’t know why John Feffer’s Huffington Post post Hungary: The Cancer in the Middle of Europe? is being so widely shared and translated.

Its starting point that  things are going badly wrong in Hungary and that the country is taking a sharply illiberal turn under the conservative-national administration of Fidesz – and that in Jobbik it has a strong and virulent far-right party – is reasonable enough (although  it has been made many times before).  And there is indeed a climate of nationalism and anti-Roma racism on the Hungarian right, although Fidesz and Jobbik are probably as much rivals as ‘occasional allies’ especially given the stuttering performance of Hungary’s divided liberal-left.

And the transformation of Fidesz from a liberal party to conservative bloc occurred in the mid-late 1990s, not recently as some readers might assume from reading piece. Nor, being one of the major governing parties in Hungary since 1998 can Fidesz have interrupted a ‘rotating kleptocracy’ of liberal parties – the intepretation of why parties like Fidesz come to power offered in the conclusion.

But piece’s main argument that Hungary is Eastern Europe writ large or the shape things to come in the region. ‘What’s eating away at a free society in Hungary’, Feffer writes, ‘has metastasized. This same cancer is present elsewhere on the continent’.

And this is really hyperbole.  Read More…

What will Klaus do next?

Photo: DerHuti via WikiMedia Commons

What will Václav Klaus do next? This has been a pertinent question in Czech politics pretty much any time over the last twenty years and, of course, no more so than now: VK steps down from his second and final term as President of the Czech Republic on 7 March with nowhere very obvious to go  politically. Klaus himself has been typically sphinx-like about his future plans, telling the Prague news magazine Euro shortly before Christmas that following the end of his presidential term he could

see no reason to signal any immediate political ambitions, but I don’t think it’s the end of the road (nemyslím, že je všem dnům konec) so we’ll se what happens. But I don’t think I’ll be announcing a return to Czech politics tomorrow. I don’t think that’s realistic. But I wouldn’t rule out some kind of attempt to go into European politics (pokus o politiku evropskou).

As the interview was ending he also lobbed in the (not very plausible sounding) revelation that in 2002 – in the wake of a bad defeat in national parliamentary elections which had seen his Civic Democrat party (ODS) finally stir into life and contemplate throwing him out – he had considered running for the European Parliament. They would, he explained, happily have given him the top spot on the party list to get him out of the way. And – if you believe the rest of this rather unlikely sounding story –  no doubt they would. Read More…

Getting the name right?

What do you do if you’re a fading historic right-wing party in a small  northern European country with a strong, broadly  social-democratic political culture?

For the Scottish Conservatives, whose  secular decline despite the electoral bounce- back of 2010 in England and Wales is catalogued by a recent IPPR report, the answer would seem be to dissolve and rebrand as a new more modern, more appealing centre-right formation.

That at least is the idea of leadership contender Murdo Fraser (one floated as early 2007)- and one looked at with quiet sympathy by London Tories around David Cameron who basically buy in to the idea the Conservative identity is too toxic and too undermined by social change and the decline of political identities shaped by religion and Empire to be redeemable. Better a strong, autonomous allied party better than enfeebled rump.

But what – assuming Mr Fraser gets his way – would such a party be called?And what would it imply? Perhaps  in time the drawing in of pro-market elements of the Liberals or the SNP.

We know one thing. The new would include the word ‘Scottish’ and not include the word ‘Conservative’. But where to go from there?

Perhaps take inspiration from the Anglosphere?

The  main party of centre-right in New Zealand is the National Party, but that label is clearly not available. in Scotland

Canada has the Progressive Conservatives, but the ‘C’ word is out and Progressive tag (Scottish Progressives? Progressive Democrats?)  alone might be a linguistic modernisation too far, even in this age of political cross dressing. I guess,  still following Canadian politics, the label Reform might be a possibility.

After all, the Tories European Parliament Group – where this new party’s MEPs (if it won any) would sit – is called the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR). So perhaps Scottish Reform Party? Tory bloggers liked this idea. On the other hand, the label does have vaguely religious echos, which might be a bad idea given Scotland’s sectarian history.

Perhaps the Scandinavian right might offer inspiration.  Sweden has the Moderates (as does Estonia)  but I suspect the Scottish Moderates would not do well and might provoke a few guffaws given the Tories’ history of hot gospelling Thatcherism in Scotland in 1980s.

Iceland, of course, has the Independence Party – a pragmatic  fusion of Liberals and Conservatives , take note – but somehow that might not strike the right note in Scotland… And besides UKIP seems have baggsied the Independence label.

Some Scottish Tories also toyed, it seems, with the idea of becoming the Freedom Party, although this rather in-your-face label has only been successfully used by Geert Wilders anti-Islamic outfit in Holland and the late Joerg Haider’s radical right grouping in Austria and is more associated with European liberal parties.  Beside Scottish Freedom Party, sounds somewhat like a more radical version of the SNP.

Perhaps  Central and East European politics then?  After all, the dissolve-rebrand-and-reinvent formula was tried by a number of discredited former ruling (communist)  parties there.

However,   as even the most rapid Tory-phobe would admit,  we not talking about a bunch of ex- totalitarians, so it’s really the CEE right we should be looking. Here the word ‘Democratic’ seems to be the main label on office (Civic Democratic Party in the Czech Republic, Slovene Democrats, Bulgaria’s Union of Democratic Forces (as was)) – as well as general avoidance of the word ‘Party’.

Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria

So that would leave is with Scottish Democrats or Scottish Democratic Union (handy echoes of the Unionist tag, the Scottish Tories historically used until 1965  and which, oddly, seems a favoured option, despite stressing the English link and having slight undertones of Northern Irish protestant politics)

Unless,  like many a Central European and Scandinavian conservative, they started to think less in party terms and more in terms of alliance-making.  Slovakia had its Blue Coalition, Denmark its Blue Alliance.

Which perhaps begs the question of where the ranks of this new centre-right in this increasingly politically far away country called Scotland would come from.

>Chronicle of a (party) death foretold

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I am not always the most astute of pundits, but as the dust settled a year ago even I could see that the Veci veřejné (‘Public Affairs’), the anti-establishment, anti-corruption party that was the surprise package last May’s Czech elections would – to borrow Kevin Deegan Krause’s phrase – live fast and die young. And, as I write, VV seems to be on its political deathbed, rapidly expiring from an outbreak of splits and scandals, extreme even by local standards, that seems to be the political equivalent of ebola fever  – and may yet carry away the Czech government centre-right coalition  government of Petr Nečas in which VV is a junior partner. Expulsions and splits have seen four of VV’s 24 deputies leave the party; its chief sponsor and de facto leader Vít Bárta resign as transport minister; and its two bigger partners demand that Mr Bártaand cronies from the ABL security firm leave the government.
Vít Bárta/ Fotobanka ČTK
The problem? Revelations in the media over recent days, have bluntly confirmed  – with documentary and audio evidence – what most people suspected all along:

1) that, nothingwithstanding claims to a postmodern party of electronic direct democracy run through snazzy electronic referendums of members and sympathisers, Mr Bárta controlled and orchestrated the whole organisation;

2) that he used extremely an extremely basic method of party management to keep leading deputies on board,  of the kind that any City of London banker would recognise: he paid them huge sums of cash;

3) that he   backed VV as a project to foward his Napoleonic business ambition for his security company ABL, rightly recognising that public sector contracts were a lucrative source of cash and required political contacts;

4) that VV was conceived as an essentially local project,aimed at securing influence, indeed control, local councils in two Prague boroughs and was conceived as a kind of insurance policy or plan B, to run in parallel with efforts to gain influence in local organisations of the Civic Democrats;

5) that Mr Bárta is a ruthless operator keen on industrial espionage and subterfuge, including the creation of  ‘pseduo-competitors’ to maintain an illusion of transparency and competiton in tenders, and that he transfered some of these techniques to political activities using his company to track the activities of local politicians in Prague.

Given that Veci veřejné‘s appeal and origins were one of anti-corruption, transparency and taking on political dinosaurs – its name better translated as Public Interest or Res Publica and it was originally a local community politics initiative in Prague formed in respons to murky ways local municipal housing was being privatised deal – there would seem to be no way back, especially as Mr Bárta, who is clearly a strategic thinker of some skill, was foolish enough to put his strategy down in writing.
 Now the only question would seem to be which way the collapsing structure will fall and how many of its deputies will be recoverable, reliable and usable for the two main parties in centre-right coalition, the Civic Democrats (ODS) and TOP09. This is a totally a forlorn hope. There are some impressively able young er people and political marketers in the VV fold, as well oddballs, ABL cronies and second rank figures well out of their depth (like the party’s notional leader and hapless Interior Minister, the former investigative journal Radek John) and for a working majority the other two parties would need about 10-12 ex-Večkaři.
From a more nerdish political science point of view it seems a shame that this most unusual and interesting political phenomenon – closer to the ‘pocket parties’ created by businesspeople in the Baltic state or (it now seems) the phoney virtual parties of the former Soviet Union – is soon to be no more, although its death may be drawn out, mucky and unedifying. Perhaps most telling is that far from being corrupted and eaten into by holding power, the whole project was tainted and corrupt from the start, subverting the political appeal of anti-corruption and anti-establishment  politics to perpetuate and develop the very phenomena it was fighting against. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too worried, however, as other will no doubt be trying out and improving upon Mr Bárta’s business model in the choppy electoral markets of Czech politics.

>British Tories’ Luxembourg allies slip in unnoticed

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As an occasional follower of developments in the British Tory-led European Reformers (ECR) group in the European Parliament, I was intrested to discover that  the latest addition to the ECR fold was Luxembourg’s Alternative Democratic Reform party (ADR) Actually, the ADR joined back in June, but as it has no MEPs and Luxembourg politics is not something that even I- with my penchant for small parties and small countries – don’t follow that closely, it passed me by. 

The ADR is, however, an interesting right-wing populist outfit, which has it origins in 1987 as grouping demanding the same level of pension rights for private sector employees and the self-employed  as for well looked after state employees. It later broadened out its politics into anti-establishment, anti-bureaucracy positions and is, of course, eurosceptic for these kind of reasons. Some Luxembourgois political scientists have seen it as a functional equivalent of a radical right party, which is unlikely ever to emerge in the Grand Duchy due to a rather distinct, cosmopolitan national identity; a great deal of wealth; and norm of having very large numbers of non-nationals (mostly West European EU-ers) as a fact of life. Still, the ADR has managed to raise concerns about immigrants it sees as less desirable, which seems mainly be have been a debate centring on asylum seekers and illegal migration - and some academic studies rather casually lump it in with the anti-immigrant far right on the basis of expert surveys.

The ADR has never been in government – considered something of dodgy outsider by the country’s political establishment – but has been a solid part of the Luxemboourg political landscape for more than two decades with around 10% of the vote. This leaves the ADR potentially well placed to to add an MEP to the ECR  (it missed out very narrowly in 2004 and by a slightly bigger margin in 2009) a grouping already not short of one-member national delegations.
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