Tag Archive | populism

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…

A billionaire populist derails the Czech Social Democrats

On 26 October after two terms in opposition the Social Democrats (ČSSD) emerged as the largest party in early elections in the Czech Republic with the near certainty of the forming the next government. Their political opponents on centre-right whose tottering three-year coalition government finally collapsed amid personal and political scandal in June were routed.

The once dominant Civic Democrats (ODS) founded in 1991 by Václav Klaus to bring British-style Thatcherite conservative to post-communist transformation, was cut down to minor party status with mere 7 per cent of the vote. Its one time partner in government, TOP09, which had championed fiscal austerity slipped to 11 per cent.  The Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL) – staged a modest recovery edging back into parliament with 6 per cent support, but remained – as they had always been in the Czech lands – a niche party.  ‘Heads Up!’, the newly formed conservative eurosceptic bloc endorsed by former president Václav Klaus, scraped a humiliating 0.42 per cent

 But far from prompting celebration on the centre-left, the result provoked only despondency and dissension. Within days the party was consumed by infighting between supporters of party leader Bohuslav Sobotka and internal opponents allied with the Czech president Miloš Zeman.

The gloom and factionalism are easily explicable. Despite ‘winning’ the election, the Social Democrats’ 20.45 per cent was its lowest in the history of the independent Czech Republic, falling disastrously short of its 25 per cent target vote – let alone the 30 per cent that seemed had attainable at the start of the campaign.  Ominously, for the party, this was the second successive election fought in opposition in which the Social Democrat vote has declined. The Social Democrats’ ‘victory’ was very largely an optical illusion caused by the still heavier punishment meted out by voters to its traditional opponents on the centre-right.

 The result has left the Social Democrats having to come to terms – and quite possibly to govern – with new and unusual political force:  the ANO anti-corruption movement led by agro-food billionaire Andrej Babiš, which in the course of the election campaign moved from extra-parliamentary obscurity to centre-stage, taking 18.65 per cent of the vote to become overnight the Czech Republic’s second biggest party.

 The Social Democrats’ poor showing and the success of Babiš’s movement – as well as the more modest breakthrough of the populist Dawn of Direct Democracy (UPD) group – were not only embarrassing for a party, which had hoped to emulate the sweeping victories won centre-parties in Slovakia and Romania last year. They also drastically curtailed its governmental options.

Having finally decided after years of agonising that a pact (but not a coalition) with the Czech Republic’s hardline Communist Party (KSČM) was a price worth paying for a government of the left with a strong parliamentary majority, the Social Democrats now find that this prospect has disappeared. Together the two parties command a mere 83 seats in the 200 member lower house. Although the Christian Democrats are a biddable potential partner, unlike in previous elections the Social Democrats have few coalition-making options in the political centre.  Except to turn to Andrej Babiš. 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.

Is there a Czech Berlusconi in the wings?

Political afterlife in Prague? Photo: Frederico Saggini / Wikicommons

A recent report I read suggested that the travails of Public Affairs (VV) party had put voters in the Czech Republic off new political parties: VV, which burst from nowhere onto the political scene in the 2010 elections as an establishment, anti-corruption party, has  rapidly, but not totally, unwound in the two years since as a junior partner – and weakest link – in the current centre-right coalition in Prague.

Lax party discipline, lack of organisation; some very dodgy and incompetent ministers; and rapid confirmation of what many had lon suspected – that the party was a pet project  ABL security company and its owner Vít Bárta, originally conceived to forward their commercial interests in Prague.

But the new party habit, once acquired, can be hard to kick. Numerous small left-wing parties seem, relatively speaking, to be prospering at the political margins and, more remarkably, there still seems to an appetite for  new businessmen anti-politicians peddling an anti-corruption and anti-establishment message. The modern voter’s political crack cocaine…

In recent weeks and months two candidates have stepped forward to offere a new improved version of Public Affairs formula:

Anti-political protest voring: Addictive with short term high? Photo: Pyschonaught/Wikicommons

The first is Andrej Babiš, the super-wealthy owner of the Agrofert food and chemicals conglomerate. Originally hailing from Slovakia, but moving to Prague as a student, Mr Babiš made his fortune in the murky business and political environment of 1990s with all the attendant political connections that you would expect.

His entry into politics – which from what can be gathered was planned quite carefully beforehand – came with an interview in September last year with the Czech equivalent of the FT, Hospodářské noviny, in which he spoke out against levels of corruption in the Czech Republic and called for the creation new civic mobilisation akin in some way to the Civic Forum movement of 1989.

He was, of course, a rather unlikely dissident – the son of a Communist foreign trade official, who had lived abroad for periods in Switzerland and North Africa for periods as boy and later embarked on a the same career. And not only was he himself (naturally) a Party member, but he was also listed as a secret police informer.

But, as he explained in a clever folksy, what-you-see-is-what-you-get appearence on Czech TV’s Jan Kraus Talkshow, this was all already well known (no relevations in store then) and his dealings with StB, ever present in an areas dealing with non-communist world,  were do with mismanaged phosphate imports and commerical contacts, not hunting down dissidents.

The result: Akce nespokojených občanů 2011 (ANO2011), the Discontented Citizens’ Initiative, a citizens’ grouping founded  by Babiš, which combined the internet based organising tactics of VV with current vogue for  new political organisation to have catchy numbers-and-letters acronyms (‘Ano’ = ‘Yes’).

ANO2011’s organisation, running straight out of Agrofert headquarters, however seemed to be pure Forza Italia, as does his argument that the Czech Republic could be managed by practical businesspeople in the manner of a firm, although the is also a nod towards liberal reformist rhetoric that has washed around the ex-dissident centre of Czech politics almost as long as anyone can remember: ANO2011 is, for example, to be  ‘a civic movement composed of trustworthy independent personalities’ opposing vested political interests (all other parties, major and minor, including VV and President Klaus)

All this is rather contrast with the time and care Vít Bárta put in creating VV as a party with semblance of autononous existence and a quite serious and detailed political programme, not without some good idea.

The ANO2011 Appeal is a vague document promising in very non-specific terms to fight corruption, make the rule of law work properly and bring about Swedish or Swiss levels of prosperity. Making a virtue of this – like many new parties – it gets round this by presenting it in terms of transparency and openess, promising consultation with the public, appealing to citizens for their ideas about what should be done.

Inevitably, of course, despite predictable early denials, the movement has plans to becoming a party: it will contest the regional elections later this year with an eye to breaking through to national power in 2012.

A programme of roundtables and events has already kicked off and the movement/party is already recruiting political managers in the regions and hoovering up minor parties and regional groupings for a spot of astro-turfing. Given the scale of Babiš’s resources – his personal wealth and the size of Agrofert’s dwarf that of Bárta – and the postive feedback he received in initial polling (around a third of respondents saying they might vote for him), such programme- and party building may yield quicker than experced dividends, making him may be a force to be reckoned with.

Tomio Okamura Photo: Podzemnik/Wikicommons

A second perhaps more intriguing potential newconer, mooted as a possible presidential candidate by the latest issues of the newsmagazine Respekt, is the Japanese-Czech businessman Tomio Okamura. The product of a fractured and difficult bi-cultural background, Mr Okamura – who has lived most of his life in the Czech Republic and is a native speaker of the language, is a self-made businessman best known to the public as spokesman for the Czech tourism industry and to TV viewers as part of the line-up of investors on Den-D, the local version of Dragon’s Den.

Although more modestly resourced than either Babiš or Bárta,  Mr Okamura has been similarly building up his public profile, writing a bestselling book about his life and business and a more recent one with the Macheviallian sounding title The Art of Governing.

This, according to Respekt is a mishmash of reformist go-getting sentiment with a nod towards morality and traditional values, interwar Czechoslovakia and (more worryingly) some of the Czech radical right’s nostrums for resettling Roma –  Mr Okamura’s take on inter-ethnic relations in the Czech Republic seems to be that racism is not an obstacles to success and that  minorities should fit in and get with things (as he has).

Inevitably, there is also the same Berlusconi-eque anti-political rhetoric of bringing common sense business solution to political problems found with Babiš, whose entry into politics Okamura welcomes. As he tells readers of his blog with characteristic up-frontness

… the idea of running the state like a firm (firemního vedení státu)… [is] a proposition that fascinates me… The state is one big firm and there is no better solution than it being run by pros.

Experienced people with a sense of material and criminal responsibility. People who have come through in an open selection process, not through the backstage negotiation of party leaderships or regional party cliques.

Bar some exceptional political events and an injection serious financial and political backing, Okamura is unlikely to be a serious contender for the presidency come the Czech Republic’s first direct elections in 2013. He himself seems to be talking (more realistically) of a running at a Senate seat as an independent.

Okamura on Babiš seen through Wordle.net

But despite some hubris and naivity, Mr Okamura has played skillfully on his unusual status as very recognisably Czech  figure who is also at the same an unusual and somewhat unplaceable outsider. The same kind of play helped make Barack Obama – not for nothing is Mr Okamura’s first book called The Czech Dream –  or, more omenously, Peru’s outsider technocrat, turned authoritarian populist President of 1990s, Alberto Fujimori.

Czechs-  like European voters generally these days I guess –  have weakness for anti-political pitches.  The technocratic ex-caretaker Prime Minister Jan Fischer (a statistician not a businessman by background), for example, is likely to prove a popular presidential candidate

Followers of Czech politics of long memories may even remember that in their earliest days the Civic Democrats  – now  often reviled as corrupt, political hacks – based their appeal on an ethos business-like organisation and professionalism (as Magdaléna Hadjiisky ably explains in a recent issue of Sociologický časopis).

All in all, if you are in the Czech political futures market and looking at the stock of businessman-antipolitician start-ups, I can only say ‘Buy!’.

Poland’s elections: Eyes down

Photo: Piotrus

As in 2007 Poland’s parliamentary elections in two weeks are being followed mainly as a battle between the (now incumbent) liberal Civic Platform (PO) and the conservative-national Law and Justice (PiS), which despite modest electoral revival has been on the back foot for most of the last parliamentary term. Indications are therefore that despite a narrowing in the polls PO’s leader Prime Minister Donald Tusk will become the first Polish post-communist premier to lead his party back into office.

But let’s look further down the likely results list to the smaller fry.

In what was once to be a kaladoscopeic politial system, smaller parties in Polish seem to have been reduced to a political footnote.  Indeed, they were nigh on wiped out by the polarisation between the two  liberal and conservatiive big parties in 2007. The main two stories here are whether the post-communist liberal-left – once the dominant counterweight to the post-Solidarity Catholic conservative – right can advance beyond minor party status and whether the Polish Peasant Party (PSL) can hang on as a niche interest party (indications are that it can, comfortably so in this election).

Elsewhere, observers of populism and extremism breathe easy, although the League of Polish Families is still politically in business, there

Palikot's Movement

seem likely to be no revival of  radical/ultra-conservative nationalist right or of the agarian radicalism once represented by Andrzej Lepper’s Self-Defence. Lepper was founded hanged this August, having apparently committed suicide, leaving his much diminished party in disarray.

But, if opinion polls are to be believe, there is a new party poised to make a (modest) electoral breakthrough – the the movement created by maverick ex-Civic Platform Deputy Janusz Palikot .

Palikot, a businessman first elected for PO in 2005 , cuts a colourful, not to say downright eccentric figure, having appeared at a press conference wearing a T-shirt saying “I am from the SLD” [the main party of the post-communist] on the front and “I am gay” on the back, claiming he wanted to highlight the need to defend of minorities (For factual claridication, he is hetereosexual and not a member of the SLD). Still more oddly he later he produced a gun and a dildo at a press conference called to discuss the case of police officers accused of rape – symbols of state of justice and law enforcement in Poland apparently. No friend of the conservative right, he is also on record as calling the late PresidentKaczybski a yokel (cham) and (after his death) suggesting he bore responsibility for the crash of the presidential flight at Smolensk and  had ‘blood on his hands’.  He left the Platform following this remark to found his own movement in 2010.

Janusz Palikot Photo: Peterson

Although dismissed as  likely to get nowhere by at least Polish politics analyst I spoke to one at the time of its foundation, some polls have Mr Palikot (Palikot’s Movement (Ruch Palikota), formerly the Movement in Support)  on up to 7%.

Critics dismiss Palikot as an oddball  showman and buffoon, complaining of the palikotyzacja of Polish politics in a culture of spin and stunts and general vulgarity. But Palikot, a former vice president of the Polish Business Council and chairman of a parliamentary anti-bureaucracy commission, is at least a semi-serious political figure and his party fills a clear political gap.

It  has a stright-down-the-line socially and economically and radical secular – not say anti-clerical –   programme proising a Modern State, which goes straight for the taboo issues glossed over or ignored by the more conservative and/or pragmatic PO. The Palikot Movement  wants to  scrap religious education in state schools, scrap state subsidies of churches and  introduce free contraception, legal abortion on demand and civil partnerships for same sex couples. It also a mixed electoral system combining first-past-the-post and PR and the abolition of the Polish Senate (oddly self-defeating for a small party but a popular nostrum across the CEE region) as well as a war on bureauracy

Polish voters, more perhaps than anywhere else in the CEE region, are wont to spring surprises. It is entirely possible that come the weekend the Palikot Movement will just be another pre-election flash in the pan.

But the party’s surge in the polls seems well timed and Palikot an archtypical media savvy, semi-celebrity outsider politician of the kind with a mainstream, but anti-establishment message  increasingly successful in contemporary European democracies.

He is certainly more likely to be leading a new party into the Sejm than any on radical right or social populist fringe.

Populism in Central and Eastern Europe Spectres of moderation?

Fright on the right?

Radicalism and extremism, especially of the far-right variety, hold an enduring hypnotic fascination for political scientists and journalists.

Extremist populism and illiberal movements more generally, we are told, relentlessly on the rise in both Western and Eastern Europe.

In countries such Austria or Flanders radical right parties have  stacked up sufficient votes to become as major political players and contenders for government office. Elsewhere  in countries such as France, Norway, Denmark they have sufficient electoral clout to influence the parliamentary arithmetic and help  make the political weather.

And just look the electoral breakthroughs in the past couple of years of the True Finns, the Sweden Democrats or Hungary’s Jobbik.

Or the illiberal leanings of mainstream parties of the right in Poland, Hungary and Latvia.  Remember the brouhaha about the British Conservatives’ East European allies?

Jobbik - the far right Movement for a Better Hungary

Indeed, instability, populism and extremism Central and Eastern Europe is surely where it’s at – or where it will be at. Authoritarian nationalism traditions,  high unemployment, vulnerable open economies, rampant corruption, the end of EU conditionality and minority nationalities and Roma  minorities  acting as functional substitutes for the multiculturalism  Western Europe.

But, of course, it isn’t

Social conditions and ethnic make-up in CEE region as a variable as they are in Western Europe, if not more so.  And, if far right and illiberal populists have recently broken through big time in Hungary and (slightly smaller time) in Bulgaria with the rise of the Ataka bloc in Bulgaria, they are so far going nowhere electorally most other countries in the region.

National Parties in Slovakia and Slovenia  have a maintained marginal parliamentary presence, based on a vote share of around 5% the Greater Romania Party is out of parliament despite a bounce in the 2009 Euro-elections and the Polish populist-nationalist right (or left, I’m never sure) collapsed.

A low-lying Will O the Wisp - look carefully. Photo: Deborah Tilley

As Cas Mudde shrewdly observed in 2002  extremist movements in Central and Eastern Europe have tended – and this trend has, interestingly, so far endured even in the difficult political and economic times we now  live in – to bite the dust as often as they have risen from the deck to sock it  to established parties.

But there is a spectre of populism haunting Central and Eastern Europe, which should give us pause,

But this one isn’t a scary monster, but a political  will-o’-the-wisp that often gets missed:  a new breed of anti-establishment party  lambasting the political class  in time honoured style but which combines mainstream, moderate, modernising priorities with a potent and uneven cocktail of appeals embracing anti-corruption, political reform, e-politics, ethical government, novelty or sheer entertainment value.

Academics, bankers, aristocrats and journos

Led by a diverse array of anti-politicians – aristocrats,  academics, artists, technocrats, bankers,  businessmen, bloggers, journalists, entertainers – such parties have scored a series of  sometime spectacular electoral victories, which can put even the best performing far-right ethno-populists distinctly in the shade, and lead directly to government office: New Era in Latvia in 1998, the Simeon II National Movement in Bulgaria in 2001, Res Publica in Estonia in 2003 and last year TOP09 and Public Affairs (VV) in the Czech Republic.

While often fissiparous and short-lived such ‘centrist populist’ protest parties, to borrow Peter Účen’s phrase,  seem to spreading and growing phenomenon: Lithuania has no fewer than three such coming up through the political mainstream in successive elections: the New Union (2000), the (mis-named) Labour Party (2004) and in the 2008 elections the National Resurrection Party founded by former TV presenter and producer Arūnas Valinskas, who seems to have been a mix between Chris Tarrant and Simon Cowell.

As Kevin Deegan-Krause observed the new breed of anti-political mainstream protest party is a slippery and multifaceted  thing.

…. not exactly a new party family (though in their cultural liberalism and anti-corruption emphases they share significant elements) and not exactly a new party type … but with strong and intersecting elements of both. Nor is it unique to Central Europe alone but elements of it have emerged also in the West

My UCL colleague Allan Sikk and I nevertheless decided to have a go at pinning down this new phenomenon more precisely, focusing in the first instance on Central and Eastern Europe,  presenting some of our findings in a paper  (downloadable here) at last month’s ECPR General Conference in Reykjavik.

Analysing elections in the region since 1998 using Charles Ragin’s Qualitative Comparative Analysis technique  we found no single story.

Different paths. Photo: Bob Embleton

 But we did find that these Anti-Establishment Reform Parties, as we called them, broke through electorally in three distinct  sets of circumstances:

  • When relatively narrow core of established mainstream parties, flanked by strong radical outsiders, faces  a deteriorating social situation characterised by rising corruption and/or rising unemployment.
  • When established governing parties of the mainstream pro-market right  fail to engage new or re-mobilised voters.
  • When the left or market sceptic conservative-nationalist are in office and opposition mainstream pro-market right – and the party system generally – is weakly consolidated and/or fragmented

Sometimes  these circumstance overlap, sometimes they run in sequence, but – while radical outsiders have walk on part – what matters, unsurprisingly, is the abilily of mainstream, big tent governing parties to hold together and retain a grip on corruption and the economy to stem electoral insurgencies, which are likely to be angry, anti-political, often offbear  but  decided – destabilisingly –  mainstream.

And like the patchy rise of the far-right, such trends –  as Kevin Deegan-Krause notes above and shrewder journalists have also  already  spotted are not be confined to the rarified political climate of Central and Eastern Europe. When Silvio Berlusconi and Forza Italia  burst onto the Italian political scene in 1994, people could have been forgiven for thinking it was just a strange denouement to Italy’s unique corrupt post-war politics.

Yes, Prime Minister? Photo: wiki.editor Jonny

Now you could be forgiven for wondering if varieties of personality-centred, broadly  liberal sometimes) neo-liberal anti-establishment poilitics might gradually be infiltrating in way into  more established democracies andbecoming a more Europe-wide phenomenon.

The Pirate Party has just entered the Berlin legislature with 8.5% of the vote and when we met them in a break in the ECPR conference, Iceland’s anarchic Best Party (see trailer for forthcoming documentary) founded by comedian Jón Gnarr which emerged as the city’s largest party last year (33%), turned out to be among the more focused and serious political outfits we had come across professionally.

When UEA’s Sanna Inthorn and John Street rhetorically titled a paper on young citizens and  celebrity politics  ‘Simon Cowell For Prime Minister?‘  they may perhaps not have been so far behind the curve.

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