When the Arab Spring broke out two years ago, and there were plenty of commentaries about the Arab 1989. And, perhaps against their better judgement, many specialists on Eastern Europe – including me – piled in to muse about the lessons post communist transitions might hold for unfolding democratisation in the Middle East and North Africa.
A few of these, such as the lecture Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Foundation gave at UCL well thought through and insightful. But in hindsight many of these pieces did not go further than juxtaposition seasoned with a dose of speculation.
Having witnessed the academic spats of the 1990s when East European area studies got bogged down in polemics with comparative political scientists, in part driven by anguish and reproach over the failure of area specialists to anticipate the collapse of Communism, perhaps we should have known better.
The military intervention in Egypt and the brutal and tenacious resistance of the Assad regime in Syria – and the apparent internationalization of the Syrian civil war – have caught many commentators flat-footed. There doesn’t seem to be so much writing about the Arab 1989 (or even 1848) now.
One of the biggest problems of such current affairs driven, instant cross-regional analysis is that we hardly know the beginning of the story, still less its end. To put it in the jargon of political science, we do not have a consolidated outcome.
But perhaps, in any case, the question is the wrong way round. Rather than East Europeanists pondering what post-communist transition tell us what the unfinished story of the Arab Spring, we should asking what events in the Middle East tell us about post-communist region we actually (supposedly) know something about. Maybe we should view events in Eastern Europe in a new light.
The tenacity of regime resistance and ongoing instability driven by poverty and conflicts between political religion and the more secular groups in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) certainly makes what Ralf Dahrendorf anticipated would be Central and Eastern Europe’s ‘vale of tears’ look relatively quick, speedy and benign. The rapid reassertion of entrenched regime forces in the failed or failed transition in the former Soviet Union also begins to look more the norm than it once did. Read More…
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…
Like a good wine or an old cheese, comparative research on democratisation is often described as a ‘mature’ academic literature and, as such, one that can lay claim to have accumulated some real knowledge about one of the central trends in global politics over last two centuries or so. Leonardo Morlino’s new book Changes for Democracy: Actors, Structures, Processes, however, warns that even such cautious satisfaction is not in order.
There has, he suggests, been high-level theorising of institutional change and empirical research with quantitative research preoccupied with operationalization tends to produce simplistic variable-driven theories. Regionally oriented approaches to democratisation –beginning with the ‘transition’ approaches developed by O’Donnell and other Latin Americanists in 1970s – however, get the lowest marks for offering ‘questions but not theoretical results’ heralding a ‘…retreat from theory or a fear of developing a theory… ’ .
Morlino’s wide-ranging book which – sometimes rather awkwardly – mixes literature review, empirical analysis and discusses concepts tries to correct this with an ambitious three-part reflection seeking to identify underlying mechanisms of democratisation. It takes in definitions of democracy (and illiberal democracy); phases of democratisation and democratic ‘anchors’ and the question of deepening democracy once established.
The book is in some ways a rather untidy and frustrating read. Parts of the discussion, seemed laboured and the book shifts frustratingly between recapitulation and revision of conventional approaches such Dahl’s minimal definition of procedural democracy to much more novel insights. In the end in its own terms, however, its does deliver picking out three key shared mechanisms of democratisation: learning as the main motor transition; ‘anchoring’ mechanisms as key to consolidation; and the fact that the good qualities of good democracies tend to converge, rather than being brutally traded-off.
Set against the sheer complexity and diversity of global democratisation, however, such conclusions to me seemed a little sparse. Much more interesting were the arresting and sometimes rather brilliant linkages Morlino make between phases of democratisation which tend to be theorised and studied in isolation. Reflections on ‘anchoring’ democracy, for example, lead to an innovative idea about the nature of political crises in modern democracies as rooted to initial patterns of democratic consolidation. His suggestion that the well-worn ‘transition’ perspective might be used to analyse shifts within democracies from one model of democracy to another is a similarly arresting insight.
All in all while not quite a vintage work, certainly a book with some subtle and interesting flavours worth savouring for a while.
(A longer version of this review is forthcoming in Czech Sociological Review)
The decision of the European Consortium for Political Research to stage its biennial (soon to annual) General Conference in Reykjavík has resulted in one of the biggest such events ever, with some 2000 political scientists temporarily boosting the Icelandic capital’s population by around 2%.
And decending through the clouds to Keflavík airport with fields of basalt below, mountainous coastline to the right and the Atlantic ocean to the left, it was not hard to guess why. Iceland also intrigues as a small state with economy nearly wrecked by the financial meltdown, a highly distinct language – the closest thing you are likely to hear to what the Vikings spoke – and cultural scene ranging from crime fiction to sculture and dance music.
The influx of ECPR delegates is, seemingly, almost too much for airport shuttle bus and the capital’s hotels, full to capacity and sometimes overbooked. Arriving at mine, alongside strip of unprepossessing low-rise office blocks and light industrial units that stretch along the sea front, we are asked to move to a hotel in a small town just South of Reykjavik with a jacuzzi and hot tub.
I get a free bus pass and a cup of coffee for compliantly agreeing, but then while waiting for a while for a taxi that never came and a certain
amount of confusion, I’m told I can stay after all. I check in, getting to keep the bus pass, and go out to admire the view of mountains and sea across the bay.
There is a garage with a shop, actually more of a kind general store, and diner serving sandwiches and burgers. I rapidly come to understand the role of the garage as local social centre that had puzzled me so much wartching Night Shift and the importance of the hot dog in Icelandic life. And there are free coffee refills. Too good to be true.
Iceland University is a 20 minutes bus ride away on the other side of town, but our panel, where we are analyising new anti-establishment parties in Central and Eastern Europe using Qualitiative Comparative Analysis is only in the afternoon and before that we have a date at the City Hall.
Iceland’s financial and political shocks have seen the country’s voters turn to some new anti-establishment parties of their own, including the Best Party of actor and comedian – and star of the Night Shift, Jón Gnarr. Starting as a satirical protest , the party’s runaway momentum saw it win last year’s muncipal election and Mr Gnarr (or Jón , as I should say, as he’s that kind of guy, and besides first names are the proper form of address in this country, I think) is now mayor of Rejkjavik, although the realities of office has seen his popularity fall back from 34% to 19%.
We get to speak to the Best Party’s competent and thoughful campaign manager and learn a lot, seeing a lot of unexpected parallels between Best and anti-establishment protest parties we are more familiar with in CEE.
Although mainly reported as a joke party – and having detractors in other parties and the media, who see them as incompetent showmen – we come away the impression of serious political outfit, which has its tactics quite well thought through.
On the plane back we learn more, watching the story of the 2010 election campaign on the in-flight documentaries , Gnarr – The Movie, and learn some more. The party is clearly built around Jon Gnarr, whose deadpan outrageous humour totally floors Iceland’s decent but worthy party politicians.
It is also hilarous. The guy in the next seat on the plane, who is quietly reading an a collection of John Stuart Mill’s writings, seems initially disconcerted as we degenerate into helpless laughter beside him.
Despite time issues – not the least with our presentation – and our panel and paper (on paths to anti-establishment parties’ breakthroughs in Central and Eastern Europe) went well. The other three papers had an interesting mix of approaches and strengths and weaknesses and, I later realised, we probably had the basis for a great workshop, rather than a 90 minute panel. Chair and discussant Carsten Schneider, however, provided a tour de force critique of all four papers in 10-15 minutes.
Some of the other panels were a bit more frustrating, as paper overload killed off any real prospect of audience questions or discussion. Even with the most efficient time-keeping, five papers and two formal slots in a 90 minutes for discussants reduces a room full of well informed specialists from all parts of the world to a cast of dumb onlookers.
I wondered why in one of the biggest political science conference in Europe and one of most wired countries in Europe, no one had thought of a smarter way of doing things than the traditional panel format, which seems to date from another era. If there are time pressures and many speakers , could we not a least tweet questions and comments?
In the evening we are bussed to Reykjavik’s newly opened Harpa concert hall to be formally welcomed by the President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, a former professor of political science now in his fourth term as head of state. The President’s plenary lecture stressed that markets and economics should not take precedence over politics and that Iceland was a laboratory both for the dangers of market forces and the way politics and political consensus could avert them.
Iceland’s process of constitutional reform was a model, part of new wave of citizen-driven democratic change driven by the internet and social media, being played out against a background of shifting techtotic plates in global society. India and China were on the rise, while Iceland would become part of the New North.
Here there was plenty of tweeting and Facebook comment from those listening and – as it was intended to – the speech seems to havedown well with the mass ranks of political scientists.
But hang on.
Surely politicians, including long-serving ones such as the President himself (a man of the social democratic left, presiding until 2009 – over centre-right governments), were responsible for the lax regulation, which alloed the insane hubris unleashed by financial sector? Indeed, Ragnar Grímsson is on record pre-crisis as praising the dynamism of the country’s unconventional (and as it turned out dangerous and pointless) financial sector.
Hard not to feel that, while perfectly OK as democratic counterveiling mechanism, his hugely popular stand against the Icesave Laws - rejected twice by voters in presidentially initiated referenda – is not altogether a principled stand against The Markets, but also one against small savers and local authorities in the UK unlucky enough to have their money in duff Icelandic financial institutions and taxpayers like me.
A small country like Iceland clearly cannot pay for massive losses of the crisis in toto – take a Reykjavik bus (and with my free bus pass I took plenty) and you always see a few people, poorly dressed and look worn out and beaten up by life.
On the other hand unemployment, having peaked at 10 per cent, is 7.5% , similar to that in the UK, although low by East or Southern
European standards and the Icesave sums payable after assets sales are, it is reported, relatively small, suggesting that the whole Icesave has just served as convenient safety value for popular anger.
You wonder, however, whether the four-term President might have done his country a favour by perhaps his own political responsibiliy- and the malfunctioning (as elsewhere) of domestic democratic institution – stepping down to allow deeper political renewal, rather than stoking the fires of national grievance.
And is the rise of the internet really akin to the transition from feudalism? And the rise of the Scottish National Party part of the same New North ? I leave the Ragnar Grímsson’s address sceptical and disappointed.
Let’s hope Jón Gnarr runs for President. At least the jokes will be funnier.
On my last day I walk through Reykjavik again. It is the calmest and most peaceful capital city I have ever been in. I decide to hire a bike and cycle along Seabraut taking in a view of mountains and sea.Then I get lost and end in an industrial estate beside a toilet factory.
Cycling around the Icelandic capital is safe and easy. Laws allowing cycling on empty pavements are eminently sensible and cycle paths run beside main roads . The view is mixed but interesting: large villas, blocks of flats small shops, mountains, small residential streets with whimical statues, a broad vista West with mountains and motorways, then mutlicoloured traditional houses.
With quite realising it, I circumnavigated the city and done a Leif Ericson, discovering interesting places I didn’t mean to go to and had never heard of, although admittedly he had a longship while I only have a well used bike in low gear. Appropriately enough, I finish up by the Leif Ericson statute and go for a cup of coffee.
Today’s daily Final Word commentary from Prague-based Fleet Sheet English news briefing service for the Czech Republic offers a vision of the political future, which is either darkly paranoid or very tongue-in-cheek:
” For at least 40years, the West has been on a path to self-destruction, and politicians and business leaders have proven that they are unwilling or unable to take reasonable steps to reverse the trend. … in time of crisis.. [p]eople will take to the streets in increasing numbers, but the result will not be less theft by the criminal elite or better use of tax money. The political and business elite will instead respond with bludgeons, guns and, if necessary, tanks. The West is headed toward some form of dictatorship…”
In the coming days we are promised, it’ll explore several possibilities for who the next Czech dictator will be. Even with a rash of urban riots up and down the UK, I don’t share that apocalyptic V for Vendetta vision, nor do I think even that the Czech Republic is a dictatorship in the making, whatever the dubious inclination of some of its political and business elites.
Still, it’ll be way to fill the ‘cucumber season’, the notorious summer hiatus in Czech political and journalistic life when nothing much goes on and overproduction of cucumbers or mushroom picking conditions force their way on to the front pages faute de mieux.
But hang on, if we’ll be hearing about the next dictator, who were the earlier ones? The Czech lands have been ruled from foreign capitals by Franz Josef II, Hitler and Stalin at various times, but do any of them qualify as Czech? The country had an communist one party regime and various communist party bosses, but power was rarely concentrated in the hands of individual ruler, more Party and nomenklatura institutions and elites.
Klement Gottwald, Czechoslovakia’s ‘First Worker President’ is probably the best candidate, but even he had to manoeuvre between party and secret police factions and Moscow and might well have got the chop during de-Stalinisation if he had not opportunely died (of natural causes aggravated by heavy drinking) in 1953.
So what does this totalitarian history have to do with supposed authoritarian tendencies in today’s CR? The answer seem to be very little. I will, as ever, read the Last Word with interest to see who is in the frame for the El Presidente role .
I suspect Václav Klaus and a rogue’s gallery of other, admittedly fairly dislikable figures, will be lined up for our delectation: you can’t really go wrong bashing Czech political and business elites, even in the most hyperbolic terms.
But whatever his moral and political limitations, Klaus ain’t no Gottwald and anchored in middle of Europe and in the EU with all the democratic basic chugging along the country is not going to slide into dictatorship, but remain marooned in grimy and dysfunctional democratic politics.
The ‘next dictator’ is thus Mr or Ms Nobody.
But, of course, all democratic systems do have authoritarian currents running through them. And, in the CR I think the most powerful of these currents is not populism, extremism or dodgy politicians with whacky right-wing figures in their entourage like President Klaus or certain government ministers.
Transplant today’s Czech Republic to the middle of Latin America or some more unstable geo-political or historical climate and you would find that the ‘next dictator’ would be some mild mannered civil servant catapulted to power, running a technocratic caretaker government that runs and runs.
Such an úřednická vláda (‘government of officials’) ran the country to great acclaim under the Head of the Czech Statistical Office for , Jan Fischer (now Vice Presidnet of the EBRD) over a year in 2009-10. Admittedly he did so at the behest of the country’s political paries. Would many people have cared if he had slipped the leash and gone on? Or gone into politics with a new party?
As the Peruvian experience with mildy mannered agricultural expert and academic Alberto Fujimori, it’s the quiet, grey technocratic ones you need to watch, not the big mouthed party-political bruisers who normally win elections.
Certainly, perhaps in the Czech Republic
“Vy jste ale odborník”, people often say. ” Well, you’re the expert”.
The real translation is “Say or do what the hell you like. I’ll accept it.”
|Rally backing Indonsia’s anticorruption committee – Photo Ivan Atmanagara||.|
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I should know better. I should only, only read books that generate immediate research outputs, the life blood of contemporary academia and never, not ever succumb to the temptation to read things that are simply interesting, But somehow this is one New Year’s resolution I never keep. So as well as reading Scandinavian crime novels and a book about the fall of the Roman Empire – actually rather instructive on issues of statehood for your average contemporary political scientist, I thought – I’ve also a soft spot for what Giovanni Capoccia recently termed the ‘historical turn in democratization studies’ , so it wasn’t the greatest of holiday chores to have to read Andrew Glencross’s What Makes the EU Viable?: European Integration in the Light of the Antebellum US Experience.
The book adds to a small but growing literature comparing the emerging EU political system with the experience of US federalism. However, Glencross says, the best period for such anachronistic historical comparison is not the early constitution-making of the Founding Fathers or the functioning of modern US federalism, but the antebellum period – ie. the decades between the foundation of the American Republic and outbreak of the Civil War – when the relationship between member states of the union and political centre was most ambiguous and contested.
Late at night I’ve been sitting up reading: reading Democracy and Authoritarianism in the Postcommunist World (Cambridge University Press) edited high-powered US specialists on communism and post-communism. McFaul is now a senior advisor to the Obama presidency at the National Security Council. This new collection – available in paper and hardback and Kindle – basically tries to regime change in the former communist world into a new perspective by linking the collapse of one-party rule in 1989-1991 with more recent experiences of democratisation in Eastern Europe and the former USSR. As the editors argue in the opening chapterswe should think of postcommunist democratisation as three overlapping phases: 1) the breakdown of Communist Party rule in the late 1980s; 2) democratisation processes in 1990s driven by the prospect of EU membership, which stopped some new democratic states in Central and Eastern Europe sliding into semi-authoritarianism; and 3) more recent ‘coloured revolutions’ in the former USSR, which were triggered by electoral fraud in states without any clear prospect of joining the European Union.
Notions of ‘democratic quality’ have become increasingly widespread over the past decade in the study of both new and established democracies. However, Andrew Roberts notes in his excellent new book The Quality of Democracy in Eastern Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2009) the concept remains fuzzy and ill-defined Scholars, who have used the notion, he rightly notes have basically tended to define it in three ways: 1) superabundance of the basic components that make up the procedural minimum of liberal democracy; 2) a set of favourable social and cultural prerequisites standing outside the political system; or 3) a set of desirable or efficiently arrived at policy outcomes promoting the public good, loosely overlapping with the concept of ‘good governance’ championed by many international organizations and NGOs.
However, he convincingly argues, all are unsatisfactory either because they conflate the attributes of high quality democracy with those of democracy in general, or because they confuse democratic quality with things such as social structures or policy outputs that, strictly speaking, fall outside the nature of the relationship between citizens and their elected representatives. Democratic quality, he suggests, must instead be understood in terms citizens’ abilities to influence their rulers through three forms of linkage: 1) electoral accountability (voters’ ability to dismiss politicians, who have broken promises or performed unsatisfactorily); 2) mandate accountability (voters’ ability to make meaningful choices from a range of distinct programmatic party positions) – and politicians’ willingness and ability to deliver on campaign promises; and 3) policy responsiveness (politicians’ willingness when in office to fit policy to public opinion – and voters’ ability to monitor and pressurize them to ensure that they do).
The book then seeks to operationalise and measure democracy quality (thus defined) across the new EU member states of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), widely considered to be stable and functioning liberal democracies, but also to have consolidated democracy in a flawed and low quality form burdened by legacies of the communist past, a detached and alienated citizenry, and a corrupt and self-serving politicians – you know the standard journalistic-cum-academic shtick you have probably come across a million times in The Economist and The Journal of Democracy or wherever. But is that really the case?
In successive uses a mixture of quantitative analysis and re-analysis of existing literature assesses electoral accountability, mandate accountability and policy responsiveness in CEE as well as comparison of the region with Western Europe and Latin American and finds that it ain’t necessarily so simple.
Based on data on economic performance, Roberts finds that CEE democracies show high level of electoral responsiveness. Despite significant general anti-incumbent voting, voters in the region do hold governments to account for poor economic performance. However, although CEE party systems are programmatic, mandate accountability in the region is much weaker – and, he finds, has remained consistency weak since the fall of communism. Party positions in the region are less clear and – usually as result of a politics of populist outbidding – the range of party positions on offer to voters tends to be less varied than in either Western Europe or Southern Europe. Examining politicians’ follow-through on campaign promises, Roberts finds that the relationship between winning parties’ campaign promises on (economic) reform and the subsequent direction of policy weak, although they are few volte faces on reform commitments of the kind common in Latin America. In CEE we are talking shades of economic liberalism from full-on to half-hearted.
However, contrary to the image of ‘lonely reformers’ by-passing popular preference through blame avoidance strategies, Roberts finds that, when making policy, CEE politicians are relatively responsive to public opinion. Although there is little active public input into policy making, qualitative case studies of pension and housing reform in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, highlights how favourable public opinion has been a key prerequisite for reforms to go ahead.
Overall, Roberts argues, CEE enjoys a reasonable quality of democracy, albeit democracy characterised by distinct patterns of accountability. Weak civil societies, constraints imposed on left and right imposed by international and European conditionalities and CEE voters’ tendency to punish all incumbents at the polls, reducing politicians’ incentives to fulfil campaign promises, sharply depresses mandate accountability, Roberts suggests. The region’s surprisingly good democratic quality, juxtaposition with Western Europe and Latin America suggests, can be traced to a single factor: its relatively high levels of socio-economic development and, in consequence, its well educated, capable and rational citizenries.
Overall, the book offers an elegant, and generally convincing set of arguments about how we should view democracy in CEE, cutting through much current conceptual fog and going rounding in circles and – what’s more opens to way to genuine pan- comparison of democratic systems in the old and new EU. What are debates in the ‘advanced democracies’ if not about ‘democratic quality’?
True, the empirical basis of book’s findings is, in some respects, rather limited and broadbrush (not really much sharp cross-national comparison) and its formulations leave some questions unaddressed. The stress on citizen-state linkages as at the heart of its conception democratic quality might, for example, be taken as implying that forms of direct democracy offer better quality democracy. Not a conclusion I personally would shy away from or loose any sleep over, but an issue that goes unmentioned in the book, which is quite party-centred.
Such limitations, however, arguably reflect a concern with mapping out new territory broad agenda-setting, rather than making slam dunk cast iron, empirical judgements over narrow range of cases or issues, which frankly makes for dull and pointless political science. I personally like the rather unusual research-in-progress fee to the book. For all the above reason, it may, I suspect come to be a seminal work for research on comparative quality of democratic governance. Will CUP kindly grace us a paperback copy or an affordable e-version?