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What will the Euro elections tell us about Eastern Europe?

Plakat do Parlamentu Europejskiego 2014 Platforma Obywatelska

Photo: Lukasz2 via Wikicommons

The elections to the European Parliament which take place across the EU’s 28 member states between 22 and 25 May are widely seen a series of national contests, which voters use to vent their frustration and give incumbent and established parties a good kicking. Newspaper leader writers and think-tankers got this story and have been working overtime to tell us about a rising tide of populism driven by a range of non-standard protest parties.

The conventional wisdom is that the ‘populist threat’ is all eurosceptic (and usually of a right-wing persuasion) although in some cases the ‘eurosceptic surge’ is clearly a matter of whipping together (and familiar) narrative than careful analysis: how the European Council for Foreign Relations came to think that the pro-business pragmatists of ANO currently topping the polls in the Czech Republic belong in the same eurosceptic bracket as the Austrian Freedom Party, Front national, Hungary’s Jobbik – or even the moderate Catholic conservatives of Law and Justice (PiS) – is very hard to fathom.

But, as a simultaneous EU-wide poll using similar (PR-based) electoral systems, the EP elections also provide a rough and ready yardstick of Europe-wide political trends, ably tracked by the LSE-based Pollwatch 2014 and others.

And, for those interested in comparison and convergence of the two halves of a once divided continent, they a window into the political differences and similarities between the ‘old’ pre-2004 of Western and Southern Europe and the newer members from Central and Eastern Europe (now including Croatia which joined in 2013). Read More…

Will the West become the East?

“I included a dummy for Eastern Europe” the presenter said, explaining the statistical methodology in her paper.

You have, you see, to control for the unknowable, complex bundle of historical peculiarities that mark out one half of the continent’s democracies from the other and might skew your results.

“But not just a dummy for Western Europe?” my colleague and I mischievously wondered.

Silly question. of course. And we didn’t ask it.  Most comparative political science research –West European democracies in the old (pre-2004) EU as their point of departure.  Most political science theories and paradigms have been framed on the experience of established (or as they are sometimes termed ‘advanced’) democracies of Western Europe and the United States. Many political models, – of democracy, interest group politics or party organisation – are abstractions and distillations of the experience Western Europe.

The task of those studying Eastern and Central Europe typically been an exercise in model fitting, of noticing and measuring up the gaps – like a tailor trying to fix up a suit made for someone else with quick alterations.  Eastern Europe – despite geographical and cultural proximity success of democratisation and liberal institution building – is not Western Europe.

The normative question lurking in the background is, of course, that of catch-up and convergence: when will Central and Eastern Europe become more like Western Europe? When would it consolidate ‘Western-style democracy’? Read More…

Europe as antipolitics machine

Entropa Total

Photo: Daniel Antal via Flikr

The customers in this Westminster café seem a strange mix of  suited civil servants and builders in boots and hi-vis. But it’s worth the early start and the cup of industrial strength tea to beat a path back to the European Council for Foreign Affairs, who this week are  putting on two-handed discussion on Legitimacy: Democracy versus Technocracy.

Despite the abstraction of the title, the event focuses on the experience of the two countries which have borne the brunt of the current crisis and catalysed the political weaknesses in the Eurozone Greece and Ireland.  Looking at experiences and perspectives of small countries is (I think quite rightly) a particular concern of the ECFR, although Greece is admittedly not exactly under the radar right now.

Both speakers, Brigid Laffan of UCD  and Loukas Tsoukalis of the ELIAMEP thinktank sensibly  avoided addressing the populism vs. technocracy dichotomy of the title – one of ECFR’s favourite motifs, but too simple and stylised –   and instead  stressed the way in which the new politics of low-growth and hard times locked in by the Eurocrisis (especially grim in Greece despite success in budget-cutting and squeezing living standards to effect ‘internal devaluation’) are reshuffling the party political deck. Populist ‘challenger parties’ such as the True Finns and (possibly – notes teas-stained and illegible here) Syriza in Greece were picking up support and making electoral breakthroughs in both creditor and debtor states.

The net result was a new ‘politics of constrained choice’ reflected the oft-noted (and often prosaic seeming) fact that EU is a system of multilevel governance: now see national governments trying (and failing) to be accountable to both their own domestic electorates and EU partner governments. This meant not the abolition of any scope for national policy responses – there was some political wiggle room and EU members had quite different capacities for adaptability and reform – but its constriction.

However, elections so far (as in Ireland) had seen frustrated voters turn to main opposition parties and, to a lesser extent, to previously marginalised but coalitionable  substitutes for them (Syriza) the next cycles of elections would put this to the test. The unanswered question was much social pain and dislocation, economic contraction and what level of unemployment – especially youth unemployment – would it take to trigger an explosive political crisis.

Cyclists demonstrating

Photo: Gesimpopos via Wikicommons

For Ireland the answer would seem to be quite a lot. Irish society, said aid Prof Laffan, was a characterised by pragmatism, ideological moderation and a certain fatalistic passivity – there had been little in the way of Southern Europe contentious politics and anti-austerity protest – partly reflecting its historical experience, partly its more global and transatlantic, outlook. With the exception of the last point, it sounded oddly, but familiarly, East European. In Greece, where there was more anger, protest and populism, there was very little nationalistic, euroscepticm (or Euro-scepticism) – notwithstanding the media attention lavished on Golden Dawn – with few people advocating Grexit. However, the main political surprises, both speakers agreed, were still to come.

But what of Populism versus Technocracy? ‘Challenger parties’ was another term for populism – understood here to mean a loose amalgam of demgagogic, impossibilist demands, rather than in the more precise academic sense – although the speakers tended, I think rightly, to see such parties as an unknown threat yet to come, rather than recycling the  hackneyed and predictable line that the rise of the far-right is already upon is. But where was the technocracy?

European Commission flags

Photo: Sebastien Betrand via Wikicommons

The answer was partly in the presence of technocrats and technocratic governments in Greece and Italy, but more in the technocratic nature of the unelected European institutions now moving to centre-stage: the European Central Bank  (‘a pivotal’ institution) and the European Commission, which noted the new fiscal pacts and oversight arrangements were empowering as never before (although I seem to remember reading other commentaries arguing that the crisis had, in fact, disempowered the Commission and robbed it of the political initiative it once possessed).

I wasn’t sure whether such how fully European level institutions really are or whether the problem with them is the fact that they are technocratic or the fact that they are European. Leaving this aside, however, the option of a top-down technocratic solution to the crisis centring around such institutions, it was argued, risked further de-legitimation of the EU – there was a need to re-build EU institutions into new frameworks of accountability perhaps by enhancing roles of national parliaments with European Parliament also having a potential role despite its failure to become a fully-fledged (and legitimate) European-wide legislature.

Rather interestingly – although ominously – the concept of democracy evoked was as accountability without representation similar to the one Mark Leonard of the ECFR claimed to detect emerging in China.  But unfortunately, at national level there are democratic structures with the reverse profile: representation without (clear lines of) accountability

It’s hard to see this staving off the rise of see off populist challengers.  In the absence of growth the [Euro] system lacks the political and economic resources to see them off as it once did to Communist Parties after 1945.  The whole, complex multi-level economic and political system of the EU, it seems is set up as a giant anti-politics machine, a production line for populist  challengers parties of all shades and models that is ready to roll.

Sligo yeats

Photo: Rowan Gillespie via Wikicommons

And in a sense this is the one bright spot to the pessimism-laden analysis that isthe stock in trade of thinktanks these days: the uncertainty around the exact form that such new forms will take. While the ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’ line from Yeats’s The Second Coming  - surely one of the all time favourite lines for of the  literate political scientist to quote – may indeed fit our current sense of fear and foreboding we do not yet know the identity of the rough beast  politicall slouching towards Bethlehem – or should that be Brussels? -  to be born

A spectre of … something is haunting Europe

Occupy London - occupy sign
Photo: Tom Morris, via Wikicommons

 At 8.30am I am sitting in a thinktank seminar on ‘subterranean politics’ in Europe.  At 8pm I am sitting in launch event for a book about populism in Europe and the America. It is a long day framed with big questions and incomplete answers.

At one of the regular European Council for Foreign Affairs regular Black Coffee Mornings Mary Kaldor of the LSE launches her project team’s new report on Subterranean Politics  in conversation with Mike Richmond of the Occupied Times.  ‘Subterranean politics’ is an appealing term, but a vague (and undefined) one intended to capture a plethora of alternative and protest phenomena: new anti-capitalist social movements (like the much feted Occupy), successful far-right parties like Hungary’s Jobbik or the True Finns; sundry less easily categorisable new parties like the German Pirates or Italy’s Five Star movement and broader, more subtle – perhaps truly subterranean – changes wrought on citizens and politics by the internet and below-the-radar reactions to the crisis.

The more interesting argument is that what has changed is such fringe, anti-establishment phenomena are bleeding into the political mainstream and what they all have in common is demands for new forms of politics, rather than simply demands for economic redress – economic crisis triggering political crisis. It isn’t entirely clear how these impacts are supposed to happen (or indeed if there was a common impact). The clearest answer offered –referencing some rather well established academic ideas about social movements- was that we were in a new cycle of protest and that the generational change would bring this about change in the mainstream, perhaps in the similar way that the demands and leaders of 1968 were gradually incorporated into academic, political and cultural establishments of 1980s and 1990s.

 (The more conventional party-political far left, oddly, didn’t get a mention, although Greece’s Syriza perhaps illustrates margins-to-mainstream transition of the most direct and immediate kind under conditions of acute crisis).

 Europe, needless to say, was absent from the idea of various practitioners ‘subterranean politics’ as it is from much conventional political discourse, regarded as distant, technocratic and neo-liberal and generally part of the problem. Perhaps the focus on the national level, someone suggested, would in time gradually further stoke xenophobia.

Demonstrators on Army Truck in Tahrir Square, Cairo

Tahir Square. Photo: Ramy Raoof via Wikicommons

 Overall, the impression is of discussion feeling its way uncertainly along, sensing political and social change – of ‘something kicking off’ to borrow Paul Mason’s phrase, but unable adequately to name more than a few of its parts or move beyond a rather flakey zeitgeistish rhetoric of a ‘global revolutions’ linking Tahir Square to Westminster and Wall Street . Instead it seems to collapse in on itself, recycling familiar debates about national and European democratic deficits, the rise of the far right and citizen distrust of politicians. Ideas floated to remedy the malaise – localism, new institutions to meet a (supposed) public yearning for participation, the use of social movements as a space for deliberation and reconfiguring, Tobin taxes – seemed well worn and oddly moderate.

 Pretty much the stuff that establishment politicians and journalists are already taking about surely? Have the margins already shaped the mainstream? Or are the new politics of crisis and uncertainly less a product of the woes of capitalism and the Eurozone than a continuation of much longer term democratic deficits?

By evening I have  moved to home ground – and moved on to drinking black sugary tea –  for the launch at UCL of a new book on Populism in Europe and the Americas.  Although co-sponsored by the Counterpoint thinktank the discussion at this Populism in Europe and the Americassecond event was resolutely more academic: the book is a new collection which – as co-editor Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser and co-discussant Paul Taggart made clear - ambitiously tries to combine inter-regional comparison (European populism mainly radical right, Latin American radical left(ish) – reflections on whether populism was a boon or bane for democracy (an overview of the argument can be found here )

 I had mixed feelings about this. Despite having written a case study chapter in the book  (on the Czech radical right)– and liking the sweep of the comparision  I sensed that events were rushing ahead: as the  Subterranean Politics briefing flagged up, European populist phenomena, are far from confined to the far-right. Indeed, oppositional, anti-establishment, anti-elite mobilisation appears so diverse and fragmentary that much debtated, well honed concepts of populism and populist parties  almost appears something of straitjacket. Perhaps it always was.

Organisation and the far right: the Art of the possible

Cover of Inside the Radical Right by David Art  David Art’s new book Inside the Radical Right: The Development of Anti-Immigrant Parties in Western Europe (Cambridge University Press) is one of the boldest and most interesting pieces of writing on comparative European party politics I have seen for a long time. Its deceptively simple thesis is that the success of radical right parties in Western Europe is not, as conventionally argued, the combined product of  differing opportunity structures  (types of  electoral system, party system format and so on)  and differing social structures (varying levels of ethnic diversity, structural unemployment etc), but of the capacity of the far right to build and sustain political organisations and professional and credible core of activists suited to the demand of electoral politics. Nothing, Art argues – pointing out the contradictory morass of comparative findings  is consistent with the reality that social demand for anti-immigrant ethnocentric policies is roughly the same across Western Europe and that countries with similar institutional and social structures often present quite different outcomes for radical right parties: one of several pertinent examples that the example Art offers is that of Belgium where the success of Vlaams Blok (VB) in Flanders contrasts with the erratic and marginal performance of the National Front (FNb) in Wallonia.

 Success or failure in organisation building – which Art argues often precedes electoral success -  is Logo of Danish People's Partydependent partly  on the presence of sufficient large nationalist and/or radical right subculture, offering a source of recruits and a short-cut to long-term and disciplined party building, and the extent to which the radical right is socially and politically isolated through cordons sanitaire and social ostracisiation. While intellectuals, professionals and local notables pay little price for joining the Danish People’s Party, membership of (say) the British National Party would be a route to social isolation and career suicide.  Anti-fascist mobilisation, even of a fairly violent and intimidatory kind, is also found by Art to an effective sanction on far-right recruitment among the well educated and political experienced, if it comes at the right time.

Where there is a broad, established far-right sub-culture reaching into the middle  or upper classes and tolerant or pragmatic acceptance of the radical right, the road is open (eventually) for it to succeed in party politics.  An alternative route explaining the success of Denmark’s DF and the Freedom Party in the Netherlands is the success politicians, who rise to power at the head of ‘flash’ parties, but realise that serious and early organisation building – and a shift to fill the gap on the anti-immigrant  right -  is needed if they are to stick around.  Transforming an established minor party into a radical right, anti-immigrant actor is a further alternative and shorter route, which swops the advantage of having an existing organisational structure in place with the disadvantage of having wage ideological battles to kick out rival factions. This Art suggests occurred in the case of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP)  (originally an agrarian formation) and to a lesser extent Austria’s FPO (notionally a liberal party, but always something of a subcultural vehicle for former Nazis).

Art's argument in summary

Summary of Art' s comparative analysis

Art’s arguments boldly put party organisation – normally something of a Cinderella subject -centre stage in explaining the entry and survival of new political parties, although as the book makes clear large amount of private or state cash can, when carefully husbanded, be effective for voting winning, at least in the short term. Gerhard Frey’s German People’s Union (DVU) uses its millionaire founder’s cash for mass mailshot campaigns, while Geert Wilders Freedom Party (PVV) has only one formal member (Wilders himself) backed by a handpicked cadre of loyal followers.

Logo of Dutch Freedom Party (PVV)As Herbert Kitschelt’s blurb comments suggest with characteristic Exocet-like accuracy,  while the book makes its argument for the importance of organisation and its precursors as an anchor for small, emergent, defeated and marginal parties, it is less clear whether  it overturns or merely complements existing explanations based on variations in socio-economic and political opportunity structures. Indeed, in some ways the book offers a  very similar, but organisation-focused, structure and agency mix:  historical legacies and nationalist sub-cultures take the structure role with established parties’ cordon sanitaire strategies (or lack of them) and anti-fascist mobilisation supplying variations in agency.  (Social disapproval of far-right activism may perhaps be a structural factor, so the structure/agency split is not cut and dried).

The book could also perhaps point up more that, while organisation may matter generally (or, at least often,) there may – as my  diagrammatic summary hints – seem to be multiple paths to far-right success, rather than one over-arching formula, with Scandinavian cases , particularly, seeming to stand in terms of their origins and conditions of success – a very clear finding of Veugelers and Magnan’s 2005 article using configurational comparison to test out  Kitschelt’s theories on the conditions of far-right success.

An interesting question is how well Art’s model(s) travels beyond the eleven West Europe states covered in the book: the Spanish case (and perhaps that of Portugal?), for example, would seem to echo the German pattern of strong historical far-right subculture in a new democracy where the  emerging centre-right keeps radicals at arms length politically, while co-opting its more able or more moderate elements.

Logo of Slovak National Party

Logo Slovak National Party

For me, naturally, the still more interesting question is how well Art’s model might travel to Central and Eastern Europe.  Surprisingly, on first examination it seems to cross over quite well: Slovakia, Croatia, Hungary, Romania and, to a lesser extent,  Latvia seem to have success radical right parties and  nationalist intellectual and social milieux, looking favourably or ambiguously, on  interwar fascist movements and/or episodes of wartime collaboration with Nazi Germany. Slovenia, where historical controversy has raged over the role of the role of the wartime Domoobranci (Home Guard) , also seems to fit the model, although the origins and ideology of the Slovene national Party (SNS) seem more eclectic than the kind of party political projection of certain sub-cultures as, for example, with the identically acronymed Slovak National Party (SNS).  Poland represents, as so often,  interesting case with strong tradition of integral nationalism, but where collaborationist and neo-Nazi traditions are, for obvious historical reasons, marginal or absent.

Logo of Czech Republicans

SPR-RSČ logo

The Czech Republic, by contrast, approximates to the Dutch/Danish/British pattern of having a weak and marginalised far-right sub-culture, utterly cut off from the political mainstream: the experience of the Republican Party (SPR-RSČ) – represented in the Czech parliament in 1992-8 – also offers a nice illustration of how not to consolidate party organisation – the party leadership did not entirely neglect building an activist base, but was too egocentric and authoritarian to hold the party together. It seems tempting to put Bulgaria’s Ataka in the same category, although as a colleague recently pointed out to me recently, there are radical nationalist traditions and an anti-semitic Orthodox-oriented extremist sub-culture.

The question of cordons sanitaires  in CEE is, however, perhaps more difficult : there is little in the way of strong anti-fascist mobilisation in a region where social movements – and especially social movements of the radical left – are weak. To the best of my knowledge there are no formal cordons with radical right parties actually  represented in government in Slovakia and Poland,  although mainstream parties’ treatment of the Republicans in 1990s  perhaps comes closest.  Interestingly, however the SNS in Slovakia was a coalition partner for the centre-left, rather than Christian Democratic and liberal centre-right for whom such co-operation seems much less conceivable.  In the  end, what may matter more than an assessment of party strategy in CEE  is whether radical and mainstream are on an ideological continuum, or whether (as in the Czech Republic and Slovakia) they have different political and ideological points of departure.

When all is said and done, however, Art has written a fine academic book which offers some  elegant and orignal big picture comparison in an exceptionally clear and readable way interweaving  important comparative argument about politics and part development with informative and sometimes  close-up accounts of the highways and by-ways far-right activism.

CEE parties: Gardeners’ World or Jurassic park?

A slow train wends it way through the tower blocks of South London to get me to plusher territory near Runnymede, where  Birmingham University’s Centre for Russian and East European Studies (CREES) is holding its annual research conference. As  ever this takes place in the Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park.

Cumberland Lodge was built by a Roundhead during the English Civil War, but smack bang in the middle of the royal estate it has had strongly  monarchist associations ever since. The interior also features in the The King’s Speech as George VI’s bedroom.   I always half expect to see Hercule Poirot coming round the corner or to hear that Colonel Mustard has been done in With the Candlestick, In the Library, but bar a brief mention of Ian Rankin, most of the conversation during my day stays off the subject of royalty and crime fiction and stay strictly political science – gardening.

The early morning panel I’m on features and interesting three-way discussion of the breakthroughs made by market populist parties in Central and Eastern Europe (my jointly authored contribution);   Tim Haughton’s presentation on the reasons some(mainly larger) parties in the same region have doggedly hung on and prospered as ‘hardy perennials’ ; and the changing role of parties in the (now) decidedly different context Russia (more ‘electoral authoritarianism’  than ‘competitive authoritarianism’).  Tim’s presentation is interesting – beyond the nice horticultural graphics and the underlying issues of party stability  – for its self-conscious use of metaphor.

The academic literature on parties is replete with metaphors mostly (as Tim and co-author Kevin Deegan Krause) note, of geological or meteorological inspirations: the ‘freezing’ of party systems,  ‘earthquake elections’ and so on. Other sub-genres of the literature, mostly those dealing with individual party organisations, rather than party systems, use a biological type of metaphor:  references to party ‘birth’ and ‘death’, the ‘life cycle’ of a party or its ‘genetic’ character are not hard to come by.

I used to think that such reliance on metaphor was a weakness of the literature and an inveterate bad habit: organisations are not organisms still less geological formations and, if you’re going to write about processes and structures write about processes and structures without lazily reaching for analogies. Our presentation had (we hoped) nothing more florid than pink and green Tosmana visualization, that might distantly have looked like some kind of exotic orchid to people sitting at the back,

But tracking down an old conference paper by Jernej Pinklo on ‘Metaphors of Nature in Political Science’, I realised I was my  first take  far too dogmatic. Shaking loose from metaphor was in reality damn near impossible, so what mattered was their conscious and creative use and application.

Chewing this over quick walk among the royal Rhododendrons, I realised, however, Central and Eastern Europe’s toughest and most aggressive enduring parties were perhaps not Chelsea Flower Show material, but instead exactly what their anti-establishment challengers accused them of being: political dinosaurs. Understood, of course, that dinosaurs were the most  longlasting and dominant life forms the ever: usually  big, capable of continual adaption  in changing environments, sometime aggressive and usually pretty much top of the food chain.

Do party specialists need to put down the garderning gloves and reach for their copy of Charles Darwin or Stephen Jay Gould?  Ideas of population ecology seems already to become established in the literature on interest groups  and, as  Ian Lustick’s recent paper suggests, political scientists generally might gain a lot from doing so.

>Imperialism and anti-imperialism in the small hours

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It’s early morning but I’m wide awake and I can’t sleep, so I go downstairs to read. I finish off a couple of books I was reading, and almost got through, over the holiday. I always to try and read couple of non-academic books wholly unrelated to Eastern Europe, usually an impulse buy when I’m Christmas shopping or an impulse borrow from the local library. This year’s selections are a biography, Tim Jeal’s Stanley: the Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer, and Stefan Aust’s recently reissued book about The Baader-Meinhof Complex about the far left terrorism of the Red Army F(r)action in 1970s West Germany.
Henry Morton Stanley turned out to be neither the pillar of the British upper classes nor the go-getting America newspaperman I had variously imagined (although he played both roles) but someone born poor and illegitimate in provincial Wales. Abandoned in a workhouse for most his childhood, he made his way, emotionally withdrawn but very determined – through the

the expanding late Victorian world and ended up in the USA, where he reinvents himself as Henry M. Stanley (assumed names, but later backed by a concocted story of adoption by a wealthy cotton planter); had a series picaresque not to say bizarre series of adventures as trader, gold prospector, deserterfrom both sides in the US Civil War before finally making it at the age of 30 as journalist and heading off to Africa for he journalistic scoop of the century: ‘discovering’ missionary and explorer David Livingstone, whom his best selling book subsequently mythologizes as a saintly figure.

He then turned explorer himself making two epic journeys (in opposite directions) between Zanzibar and the mouth of the Congo, sorting out the true source of the Nile and opening up central Africa for European colonialism. His candour and exaggeration of his ruthlessness in his books, says Jeal, left him with a reputation for brutality, argues, was basically undeserved. Despite laying the some of the foundations of King Leopold’s Congo Free State, he can’t, says Jeal reckons, be held directly responsible for the atrocities of Belgian colonialism in Congo, which later transpired, but was guilty of some political misjudgements.

This thoroughly documented shades-of-grey interpretation and mildly revisionist agenda came across as basically plausibe, although left the question of how (and if) we should judge Stanley, – as well as much of the psychology that drove him – hanging in the air. Most interesting (if underplayed in the book) was the political and social context of the time that emerges: public and political attitudes to Africa is far from the gung-ho imperialist racism overlaid by a patina of religiosity that we perhaps imagined. Indeed, what is striking is how strong altruistic, humanitarian and liberal impulses seem to have be, albeit it mixed with Realpolitik and economic self-interest. Uncomfortably, recasting some of the politically incorrect language of the time, Stanley (in Jeal’s account, at least) and others emerge as a worrying modern figures concerned to deliver failed and/or underdeveloped states on the global periphery from local warlords, bringing them the benefits of development (‘civilization’), open and global markets and combating mass people trafficking (abolition of East African slave trade).

Anti-imperialism in West Europe, this time in the form of protest against and outrage about the Vietnam War and depredation of the Third World were also a driving force the story of the Baader-Meinhof group and the radical left in 1970s West Germany, as told in Aust’s reworked The Baader-Meinhof Complex, now, of course, a glossy and violent new film. Unlike Jeal’s biography which loses a bit of readability by dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s, Aust’s book has fragmented episodic structure, making for a fast and compelling read . It’s easy to see why it was filmed as blockbusting political thriller-cum crime story-cum reconstruction of the 1970s.

Aust clearly knows his stuff, however, having been personally acquainted with some the leading dramais personnae and obsessively followed up the RAF story through the three decades worth of research and interviews with cops and terrorists alike. Without being too didactic, the book debunks much of the (self-)mythologization of and violent chic of the RAF as misguided but pure martyrs, showing them as a strong on verbiage, low on ideology and strategy, high on brutality (emotional and physical) and at key moments sustained by East European secret services and factions of the PLO.

There are gaps in Aust’s vividly but briefly sketched account of the West German radical and ultra-radical left of the 1960s and 1970s . However with forty years’ hindsight the sociological and ideological sources of the RAF seem clear enough: orthodox Leninist vanguardism, Maoist voluntarism; anarchist ‘propaganda of the deed’ and New Left notions of radical political engagement as a form of personal therapy; the moral ambiguity of incompletely de-Nazified West Germany and the German Social Democrats’ coming to terms with it (many RAF members were briefly members of the SPD youth); and the New Left project of students, lumpenproletariat and Third World as a substitute for the Western working class’s definitive failure to show up (again) for its appointed historical role of revolutionary vanguard.

The psychology and background key RAF personalities, however, remain as much of a cipher that of the compulsively driven Stanley and his fellow explorers/adventurers, although both seem to share a self-destructive urge and strangely toxic mix of overblown moral certainty and callous brutality. However, I couldn’t help the rather odd feeling that world of the Baader-Meinhof Complex was utlimately more distant and unfamiliar – perhaps the word I am looking for is irrelevant – than of that Stanley and late Victorian imperialism/globalization in the making.

>UK far-right allies with tiny pensioners party

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The anti-fascist website Norfolk Unity reports that the far-right British National Party concluded a electoral alliance in Stoke on Trent with one of the UK’s tiny Pensioners Party (not to be confused with the equally obscure Senior Citizens Party which field candidates in the 2005 general election). There is fuller clarification on the the Labourhome blog, which makes it clear that the PP’s leadership quickly backed away from the association with the BNP and the link to its recommendations for the local elections in Stoke is now defunct. As the town is one of the BNP’s local strongholds as most recently reported in The Guardian, it is perhaps a little surprising that the BNP should have bothered. On the other hand, it does fit with thr far-right group’s successful strategy of normalising itself at local level through visibility and self-presentation as ‘community champions’. In addition to this well chosen strategy. Stoke has the classic profile of the BNPs other local strongholds such as Burnley (see excellent conference paper by James Rhodes) or Barking (covered last year in a report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation): fairly homogenous areas of white working class populations, industrial decline, electoral and organizational collapse of once dominant Labour party, weakness and unpopularity of more bourgeois alternatives (Conservatives, Liberals).

Perhaps worth remarking in passing the Flemish pensioners’ group Ageing with Dignity (WOW) was absorbed by the Antwerp branch of the sizeable radical right populist Flemish Bloc (now Flemish Interest). Indeed, many other pensioners parties in West Europe lean more to right than left.

The rest of Norfolk Unity the post is a long well informed discussion of the internal politics of the BNP (surely Britain’s most well researched, extensively reported and well blogged minor party), which – presumably in an attempt to add to it factional discord – is targeted at criticising its current leadership. All good work, but, as with many exposes of the far-right I have read over the years, I could help feeling that there was a slightly odd symbiosis between fascists and anti-fascists, almost as if the writers were themselves part of the BNP’s own little universe.

>Westernizing the CEE far-right?

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An intriguing question pops up in my email inbox. Can I think of two or three examples of parties in CEE that might plausibly resemble the ‘radical right wing populists’ (as opposed to old-style neo-fascist or integral-national extreme right) that have had a star billing in West European comparative politics for the last two or three decades? In truth I can’t. Plenty of successors to blood and soil national traditions, now somewhat tamed by post-1989 realities of liberal democracy and European integration – and yes, bucketsloads of economic populism some styling itself right (Hungary’s Fidesz), some left (Slovakia’s Smer) and some just down-the-line militantly anti-establishment (Poland’s Self-Defence) but even allowing for the rather flexible nature of the ‘radical right populist’ label and similar categories in Western European political science, the honest answer is that there really aren’t (m)any.

The political trajectories/opportunity structures of the two regions are just too different- national and historic minorities rather than multi-ethnic/multi-cultural societies resulting from migration are the key target and preoccupation in CEE. And, to take up the analytical framework of Herbert Kitschelt, any putative Western style radical-populist right in CEE lacks a libertarian-left against which to react (important post-1989 tendencies towards social liberalization, notwithstanding. True n some countries (Hungary, Poland) there a sort of revived historic conservative/national/Christian vs. liberal divide).

The best approximation I can think of is the Czech Republicans – in parliament 1992-8, now defunct – who had no close ties to the historic far right and were a recognizably welfare chauvinist party with an albeit with a dose of paranoid anti-communism thrown in. The party had electorate of young working class ‘transition losers’ in declining industrial regions They loosely identified with the Western radical right (logo borrowed from the German Republicans, contacts with French FN), but on the other hand were anti-German and anti-Romany in the best old style nationalist traditions. Led by the erratic Dr Sládek, who lacked the polish and political nous to build on his 1992 breakthrough and ran the party has a personal fiefdom of cronies, relatives and hangers, the party was blown away by the resurgent Czech Social Democrats, who do a more respectable (non-racist) form of economic populism, in 1998. There is a useful little article on the Republicans in Czech Sociological Review online here.

Since the late 1990s, the fragmented and marginalized Czech far right has been trying to come up with a more sophisticated form of the same formula. The most media savvy of the various groupuscules seems to be the National Party (Národní strana), which rather unusually for CEE is led by a woman, Petra Edelmannová. However, in the run up to the 2006 elections, the Czech far-right’s ambitions were limited to crossing the 2% barrier needed for state funding and the proposed National Forces coalition collapsed before it had even got off the ground.

In the longer term, I guess as CEE societies move closer to the West European ‘model’, – and relatively successful transformers like the Czech Republic should do so quickest – one might see the emergence of Western-style radical right parties if and when parties drawing on historic extreme nationalism flounder, that is. My guess though is that where exist they will not and will merely adapt fusing old Hungarian Justice and Life Party style sub-cultural anti-Semitic nationalism with something in the vein of Gianfranco Fini, Pim Forteyn or the Scandinavian Progress Parties.

>What’s making me go grey… ? Belgian Euro-election results, naturally

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Yesterday, I spent a frustrating couple of hours online trying to track down details of the Belgian pensioners party of the early 1990s Waardig Ouder Worden (Growing Old With Dignity). Although a typical peripheral minor party WOW did apparently inially poll well enough to win one MEP in 1994 and had one deputy on Antwerp council, where it it was founded, and seems to have been divided over its relationship with Vlaams Blok in the city. I had assumed that WOW was connected with the break-up of the mainstream Flemish nationalist Volksunie movement, but in fact – perhaps more in keeping with the fringe nature of grey parties – it was a split from the Rossem protest/get-rich-quick party founded in 1991 by the picaresque Flemish businessman and writer, Jean-Pierre van Rossen. Rossem, it seems, stood for Radicale Omvormers and Sociale Strijders voor een Eerlijker Maatschappij which apparently translates as ‘Radical Reformists and Social Fighters for a Fairer society’.
As van Rossen – who like many fringe populist politicians once worked as a university lecturer – was associated with the dubious Moneytron investment system, the Rossem part seems to have been intended as a vehicle for him to gain parliamentary immunity and avoid prosecution. The party contested the November elections for the Belgian national (federal) parliament and gained a surprising 3.2% of the vote winning three seats in the lower house and one in the senate. Despite being arrested for fraud a few days before the elections, Rossem was eventually sworn in on 7 January 1992 but his antics shouting – for example shouting ‘Vive la république’ as King Albert II was being sworn in as monarch – contributed to the party collapsing in predictable infighting. WOW seems to have been one of the earliest and biggest splits from the party.
So far so interesting, but what really drove me made was the impossibility of finding on-line Belgian European election results for 1994. The Belgian Interior Ministry and parliaments website only have the two most recent results. Wikipedia (boo hiss) to which more serious sites like ElectionWorld have sadly migrated does not have them, nor do they seem to have been written up in Electoral Studies.
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