>Of parties, populism and partocracy

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Slovak political scientist Miroslav Kusý writes a commentary about ‘partocracy’ in Slovakia in the liberal daily Sme. This theme, once a favourite uniting ex-dissidents, liberals and anti-political populists with a more rough hewn character, has receded from academic and intellectual debate in the past few years in favour of a slightly different take on the problem of (supposedly) defective and sub-standard democracy in CEE: populism a.k.a. ‘the populist backlash’.

Kusý’s definition of ‘partocracy’ is a fairly straightforward one: party government carried out for not the people but for parties- i.e. parties failing in their tasks of representing and aggregating the popular will (or some portion of it). A principal-agent problem, as we call it in the trade. Then, however, we descend into partisanship. The current coalition led by Robert Fico’s populist-cum-social democrat party Smer Kusý says is an example of partocracy because it lacks ideologically common position with its smaller nationalist coalition allies and is united with them by a thirst for office, as (supposedly) proved by various scandals.

Kusy also cites a recent article in the Czech intellectual weekly Literární noviny by Czech political scientist and ex-Havel advisor Jiří Pehe who regrets that parties have given up on ‘their traditional role of forces in society’ (and, yes, the language original Czech really does have that odd echo of the Communist Party’s ‘leading role’) but are instead (shock horror!) reacting to public opinion ‘to appeal to the largest possible number of people’. (Pehe’s piece is a rather dull piece retreading the Czech ‘party versus civil society’ Klaus-Havel debate of the 1990s, arguing that social modernization makes parties less necessary and a political role for NGOs, citizens and intellectuals more necessary).

Kusý himself laments the ‘vulgar vocabulary, party polemics instead of civilized dialogue, and insults instead of substantive argument’. Alas, as argument about democracy or explanation of developments in either contemporary Slovak (or Czech) politics none of this really washes. It’s hard to think of any concept of party competition by big parties that doesn’t involve appealing to large numbers of voters or many established democracies, where party political communication takes place at the level of an academic seminar without a dose of knockabout polemics. Pehe’s assertion that Western political parties have opened themselves up to civil society seems fairly questionable- who can he have in mind? Possibly Greens in a very early stage of development? And political polarization – contrary to what he seems to think – as often or not tends to increase political participation and the increase in turnout at the last Czech elections showed.

The argument in Sme about ‘partocracy’ is also pretty lame. Ad hoc, unprincipled coalitions do not add up to ‘partocracy’. The term was widely applied to clientelistic party systems with an element of cosy consensus between governing parties say as those of post-war Italy or Austria, but has an intellectual heritage going back the early 20th century. In a CEE context one of thinks of critiques of interwar Czechoslovak democracy, both in 1920s and 30s and in more exaggerated form after 1945 (Evard Beneš’s Democracy Today and Tomorrow – Beneš being one of the few political scientists ever to become head of state. He wrote a thesis about political parties in 1913. Woodrow Wilson comes to mind as another President-politolog). Havel’s writings both as dissident and President take up this tradition: his elegantly written fulmination against party government in his 1991 set of essays Summer Meditations, although not unprescient, was striking for the fact that it came when Czech parties had barely formed.

As conventionally used ‘partocracy’ refers not just to a vaguely defined lack of principle in coalition-making but to politicization of the state and/or party penetration of civil society by client-patron networks and a failure of representation. Both (especially the first) are problems in contemporary CEE, but the Sme article entirely bypasses these issues. More to the point, however, love it or hate, Fico’s rationale for forming a coalition with nationalist parties does have a pretty clear programmatic logic: the nationalist HZDS and SNS did after all his more statist (ahem, ‘social-democratic’) economic policies. A pragmatic power seeking logic of the kind the Kusý piece envisages probably would have led to the politically less costly option of a coalition of Smer with some outgoing parties of the right or centre. As for a failure of representation, Smer’s high opinion poll ratings suggests that such principal-agent problems are not bugging the median Slovak voter, whom seems to feel represented rather well.

All in the all, the problem seems to be that Slovak liberal commentators don’t like Smer and their Czech equivalents dislike both major parties of left and right. I think I share these dislikes, But they would probably do well to set out why, rather than dressing things up as a unique crisis of post-communist democracy complete with ill fitting notions of ‘partocracy’.

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One response to “>Of parties, populism and partocracy”

  1. jkslouth says :

    >Thanks, this haas given me a clearer view of partocracy. When do you consider partocracy to kick in? For instance, the british parties and the Spanish now consist of totally professional politicians who seem to follow party ideologies rather than respond to public needs and wishes. Is this partocracy? I know the current situation in the UK is a little different with the coalition.

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