>Plug in, think on

>I spent past day fighting off a temperature while trying to draft a short readable review of my research activities over the past year or so for the Sussex European Institute’s house magazine Euroscope as I am an SEI Visiting Research Fellow (and indeed, as regular readers may know, I do visit SEI fairly often). It was quite hard to do but in the end proved quite a useful exercise in focusing my thoughts on what I wanted to say on my (finally completed) book on the Czech Right and how I saw emerging research academic agendas on CEE politics. We start with an extended book plug…

“(…) Although the Czech lands had perhaps the strongest social democratic traditions in Central and Eastern Europe, in Václav Klaus’s Civic Democratic Party (ODS), they gave rise to the region’s strongest and most stable free market party. As many observers quickly noted ‘Thatcherism Czech-style’ was more Thatcherite in rhetoric than reality. Under Klaus the Czech state retained an enduring (if weakly exercised) control of both markets and economic assets and privatized in a way which was both bureaucratic (and hence vulnerable to corruption) but also overly reliant on the voucher method of privatization, which empowered fund- and enterprise managers at the expense of small shareholders. As the already rich literature on Czech economic transformation has shown, the unintended consequences of mass voucher privatization combined with the Czech right’s aversion to regulation and penchant for doomed and dubious buyouts by would-be Czech captains of industry led to economic underperformance and corruption.

The early political dominance of the Czech right also rapidly unravelled as the Czech centre-left gradually reasserted itself. Only deep splits between the Czech Social Democrats and the hardline, unreconstructed Communists prevented Scandinavian style marginalization of the liberal right. Instead in the decade since 1996 the Czech Republic experienced ever more refined forms of political stalemate: minority coalitions, caretaker governments, precarious parliamentary majorities and numerous types of ad hoc left-right co-operation.

Many expected the June 2006 elections, which took place as I was finishing book the manuscript, to break this pattern. Faced with disunited and scandal-hit Social Democrat-led coalition, the right seem set to sweep back into office with the Civic Democrats promising a radical programme of tax and welfare reforms. However, their apparent triumph at the polls in June – which saw the party receive its highest ever share of the vote – was a distinctly Pyrrhic victory. Even in unlikely new alliance with the Greens, the parliamentary arithmetic left the party unable yet again form a majority centre-right administration. Ignoring President Klaus’s injunction to form a Grand Coalition with the outgoing Social Democrats, the Civic Democrats squeaked into office this January this year in a minority coalition government with Christian Democrats and Greens, helped out at the crucial moment by the abstention of two dissident Social Democrat MPs in a parliamentary vote of confidence.

Much academic writing on the Czech right has been characterized by a fascination with the personality of Václav Klaus and a concern to engage critically with neo-liberalism. Some discussions centred almost to exclusion of all else on the personality and career of Klaus, stressing the former Prime Minister and current President’s charisma and ‘political skill’ as key factor in steering Czech transformation. Others conjured up hyperbolic condemnations of Klaus as a ‘Lenin for the bourgeoisie’ leading a ‘vanguardist party’ or showed more subtle biases in, for example, a sometimes uncritical reliance on Klaus’s former political opponents as sources of authoritative information and interpretation. However, depictions of Czech politics as ‘Havel vs. Klaus’ Clash of the Titans often unconsciously echo the right’s propagandistic depiction of Klaus as a political superman who single-handedly shaped Czech transformation. Similarly, critical debunkings of the pseudo-Hayekian policies and ideology of the Czech right tend to overlook its ambiguity, complexity and inherent interest as a phenomenon in comparative politics.

Without offering an apologia for the failings of the Czech right, my new book, The New Right in the New Europe: Right-Wing Politics and Czech Transformation, 1989-2006 (RoutledgeCurzon July 2007) seeks to offer a mild corrective to both trends. It places the post-1989 Czech right in historical and social context by tracing it origins to the reactions of dissidents and technocrats to the collapse of reform communism after the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia and their responses to imperatives of market reform and decommunization both before and after 1989. Subsequent chapters consider the emergence of ­right-­wing forces in the disintegrating Civic Forum movement in 1990-1, the foundation of the Civic Democratic Party and the right’s period in office under Klaus in 1992–97. It then explores the subsequent divisions and decline of the 1997-2006 period when elite-grassroots tensions and uncertainties as to whether the right should be a vehicle for middle class development, further market reform or Hungarian style national populism put party unity under increasing strain even after the departure of Klaus as leader in 2002. The book concludes with assessment of ideology of the Czech Right and its growing (but evolving) euroscepticism. Ultimately, it concludes the Czech right created by Klaus and his co-thinkers can plausibly lay claim to be a new force in Czech politics, breaking with many previous patterns, but like its distant ancestors a century earlier is perhaps as national-liberal rather than neo-liberal.

The New Right in the New Europe also seeks to use the Czech case to reflect more broadly on the nature of centre right forces across Central and Eastern Europe. The importance of ­the centre-­right in the region has often been overshadowed in both media coverage and academic research by preoccupations with extreme nationalism, sinister populism and the afterlife of former ruling parties. This April, Aleks Szczerbiak, Tim Haughton and Brigid Fowler (both University of Birmingham) published an SEI working paper which took the Cinderella topic of of the CEE centre-right a step further by for the first time systematically comparing the fortunes of right-wing formations in Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.

In many ways, however, our research has raised as many questions as it has answered. The role of informal elite networks in sustaining parties which we highlight runs against the grain of earlier analysis of party systems in East Central Europe, which has seen them as essentially ideologically based and at bottom understandable in terms of formal models of party organization. The consequences of patterns of right-wing party development in post-communist Europe also need to be unpacked. The electoral growth but political failure of parties with flat tax platform such as the Czech Civic Democrats or Poland’s Civic Platform, for example, suggests that fluid, fragmented party politics along Slovak or Estonia lines offers the best prospect (or, depending on your point of view, greatest threat of) of further a wave of radical market reform in the region.

As this suggests, the post-accession era politics of the region are no longer straightforwardly reducible to dismantling communism or adaptation to the EU acquis or more subtle pressure of Europeanization. In many ways, the politics of the new EU states in CEE will increasingly centre on issues which echo (but do not quite replicate) political issues exercising politicians and voters in the old EU, such as tax and welfare reform; the management of ageing societies; or the nebulous questions of citizen participation and ‘democratic quality’. Although thorny questions concerning the ‘Europeanization’ of parties in Central and Eastern Europe or the role of CEE domestic politics and party systems in shaping the stances of New Member States (NMS) in an enlarged EU continue to interest me my future research is likely to be angled towards the comparative politics of such ‘convergence issues’, rather than the EU-domestic politics dynamic. Perhaps feeling my age, my most immediate plans are to write a short study on pensioners’ parties in the region.”

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