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Where the EU went wrong in Eastern Europe

One election, it seems, really can change everything.

Once feted for having bucked both the populist trend and the global recession, in early 2017 Poland was facing international condemnation. Moves by the Law and Justice government have come straight out of the playbook shared by the likes of Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán. It’s moved quickly to neuter the constitutional court; to take control of the state media; to defund unfriendly NGOs or regulate them into irrelevance; to put its own people in charge of public institutions; and has given every sign of being prepared to ride out waves of protests and ignore international criticism.

Recent footage of opposition deputies occupying the podium of the Sejm and chaotic and hastily convened parliamentary voting by government deputies in back rooms was more reminiscent of the crisis-hit democracies of southern and southeastern Europe than the democratic trailblazer once hailed by European Union heavyweights.

To be clear, Poland is not yet Hungary, the EU’s other major backsliding headache. Law and Justice has only a small parliamentary majority, not the supermajority needed for a Hungarian-style constitutional rewrite. Protesters have been more assertive and quicker to take to the streets.

Nor does Poland have a powerful far-right party like Hungary’s Jobbik waiting in the wings to claim the role of “real” opposition if the ruling party falters. Poland’s opposition may yet manage to use social movements as a rough-and-ready substitute for weakened constitutional checks and balances — and may perhaps eventually make a winning return at the polls. But even in this (far-from-certain) best-case scenario, the country’s institutions are likely to emerge from this period badly damaged.

But the speed at which Poland’s and Hungary’s apparently successful democracies have unravelled points toward a problem that has tended to be overlooked amid the latest political developments: Contrary to appearances, liberal democracy was never solidly rooted in Eastern Europe. Read More…

Misdiagnosing threats to democracy in Eastern Europe

Littmann

Photo : diekatrin via Flikr  cc

I really don’t know why John Feffer’s Huffington Post post Hungary: The Cancer in the Middle of Europe? is being so widely shared and translated.

Its starting point that  things are going badly wrong in Hungary and that the country is taking a sharply illiberal turn under the conservative-national administration of Fidesz – and that in Jobbik it has a strong and virulent far-right party – is reasonable enough (although  it has been made many times before).  And there is indeed a climate of nationalism and anti-Roma racism on the Hungarian right, although Fidesz and Jobbik are probably as much rivals as ‘occasional allies’ especially given the stuttering performance of Hungary’s divided liberal-left.

And the transformation of Fidesz from a liberal party to conservative bloc occurred in the mid-late 1990s, not recently as some readers might assume from reading piece. Nor, being one of the major governing parties in Hungary since 1998 can Fidesz have interrupted a ‘rotating kleptocracy’ of liberal parties – the intepretation of why parties like Fidesz come to power offered in the conclusion.

But piece’s main argument that Hungary is Eastern Europe writ large or the shape things to come in the region. ‘What’s eating away at a free society in Hungary’, Feffer writes, ‘has metastasized. This same cancer is present elsewhere on the continent’.

And this is really hyperbole.  Read More…

Czech Republic: How to Bale out the Civic Democrats?

Tim Bale of Queen Mary University of London has a 12 point plan for politicians, who’ve hit rock bottom. Not for those who overindulge in the hospitality and get a bit er… tired and emotional in public –  as Czech President Miloš Zeman seems to have done recently – but for major governing parties who’ve fallen off the wagon of electoral success and are recovering from political defeat.

He outlined it in a presentation to last year’s conference of Fianna Fáil, Ireland’s traditional ruling party brutally felled in an electoral meltdown in 2011, reflecting (at Fianna Fáil’s invitation) on the lessons that the experience of the British Conservatives- about whom he is the author of a prize-winning book – might offer for FF and other similarly afflicted parties.

It was delivered with characteristic mix of wit, clarity and academic expertise seasoned with a dose of drama as he told them what they probably didn’t want to hear. But, I wondered, there any other parties that might around that might usefully be advised to follow the Bale Rules?

Perhaps the Civic Democrats (ODS) in the Czech Republic, the once dominant party of the centre-right founded by Václav Klaus in 1991 which bossed things in Czech politics for much of the 1990s and – along with the Social Democrats – were until the ‘earthquake election’ of 2010 one of two dominant players in a once stable party system.

Running through the twelve points, some catch the party’s dilemmas exactly, while others don’t quite catch a situation in which the voters can turn away from you en masse and you still end up running the country. Read More…

Difficult Hungarian lesson

Hungary's parliament - Photo: Gothika/Wikicommons

The constitutional and institutional changes pushed through by Hungary’s ruling conservative-national Fidesz party following its emphatic election victory in April 2010 have attracted increasing coverage – and almost enirely negative –  from academic and journalistic observers of Central European politic, foreign governments and international bodies such as the European Parliament and Council of Europe.

As well as making multiple amendments to the existing constitution, the Fidesz government has used its huge majority – it has well over the 2/3 of seats in the National Assembly required  – enact a new constitution due to take effect 1 January 2012 and pass new electoral and media laws over the head of other parties, which fundamentally change the rules of the political game, destroying linstitutional checks and balances and embedding its own political influence against future majorities, which puts Hungary on course for at best low quality democracy and at worse some form of semi-authoritarian illiberal democracy.

The new constitution and related chanages, critics say, pares back power of Hungary’s previously

Fidesz European elections poster 2009 Photo: Burrows/Wikicommons

powerful Constitutional Court and made access to it more difficult; engineered a purge of the judiciary  and created a powerful National Judicial Office (headed by its own political appointee) with extensive powers to move and (un)appoint new judges.

New media law – already the target of demonstrations earlier this year (2011) –  have created new media board – staffed by Fidesz supporters and headed by prime ministerial appointee with a nine year term – which can review all media (including perhaps bloggers) for balance and impose heavy fines, resulting in self-censorship for the sake of commerical survival. Other key public appointees have similarly long terms of office and are only replace-able if new post holders are agreed by 2/3 parliamentary majority.

The charges are summarised here by Kim Lane Scheppele, who concludes that

Virtually every independent political institution has taken a hit. The human rights, data protection and minority affairs ombudsmen have been collapsed into one lesser post. The public prosecutor, the state audit office and, most recently, the Central Bank are all slated for more overtly political management in the new legal order  (…)

Fidesz party loyalists …will be able to conduct public investigations, intimidate the media, press criminal charges and continue to pack the courts long after the government’s current term is over..

Hungarian election posters 2010 Photo: Czank Mate/Wikicommons

The new electoral law, ably discussed here by Alan Renwick,  makes a number of changes  to Hungary’s complex ‘mixed’ electoral system, some of which – such as the introduction of a single round of voting in single member constituencies in preference to a French-style run-off – are arguably unpredictable.

But the net effect seems to be to make a strongly majoritarian electoral system more majoritarian and to provide a probable electoral bonus for the right by allowing non-resident Hungarian citizens, which following changes to citizenship law is now likely to include hundred thousand ethnic Hungarians living in Slovakia, Romania and Serbia, to vote in parliamentary elections.

The boundaries of the single member constitutencies used to elect most deputies have also, oddl,  been written into the electoral law – rather than subject to periodic independent review – making the changeable only through further constitutional amendment. Simulations linked to by Alan Renwick and Kim Scheppele suggest these are advantageous to Fidesz. More worryingly, changes to the make-up of the national Election Commission overseeing elections have reportedly seen a politically balanced body transformed into one run by Fidesz supporting appointees.

Party politics in Hungary may be further shaken up if proposed constitutional amendments listing the crimes of ruling party during communist dictatorship pass and the statue of limitations is lifted: any court cases brought against the post-communist Socialists, who are the successor party, may, Kim Scheppele suggests, bankrupt Hungary’s main moderate opposition party, leaving the far-right Jobbik as the principal oppositon to Fidesz.

There is, of course, another side the story. Fidesz supporters note the left-liberal bias to academic commentary on Hungarian politics on Hungary, which has never accepted national-conservative politics of Fidesz as legitimate; that the changes are wrongly described or exaggerated or ill informed due to the language barrier; and that some Western democracies to not meet the implied standards that Hungary is being subject to – US congressional districts boundaries, for example,  are extensively gerrymandered. Fidesz  is just clearing up the corrupt mess left by the Socialists, whose electoral collapse is entirely down to their own corruption. One eloquent such voice can be found in my former SSEES colleague, now a second term MEP George Schöpflin, writing in the FT, and in video below.

Some of the comments on Kim Lane Scheppele also reasonably dispute some points of fact.

I have tried to look things over from this angle, but even taking these points on board – and some of them are I suspect are valid – they fail to address the substance of the criticism:  George Schöpflin’s performance stressing misunderstanding and bad faith is sadly unconvincing. It is hard to not to interpret the changes as, whatever else they are, a very illiberal, ill advised and divisive power grab by the Hungarian right.

Who's next? Socialists and far-right in 2nd place in 2010

It is also one which I suspect will rebound both on Hungarian conservative-national right itself: some of the changes, such as the new electoral system will be rather unpredictable. Even allowing for partisan boundary changes – whose partisan effects can change over time quite quickly as the UK experience illustrates – a majoritarian system favours the right only so long as it is politically cohesive and has majority support.  The bad economic weather suggests even with  a tame media, any incumbent is likely to see its support rapidly erode.

The other concerns the divided nature of Hungary. As The Economist suggests there is a large liberal and left-wing Hungary: the Socialists and their liberal allies had, after all, until the 2010 meltdown, offered pretty stiff competition. Although the far-right seems to be offering stiff competion for the votes of the economically disempowered, there is no reason to think that in the longer term,  over a period of years, that a new centre-left bloc of some kind would not emerge. Indeed, the possible demise of the post-communist successor party might be a boon: in Poland the liberal Civic Platform now fills the space once taken by the post-communist left, while in Slovenia a new reformist centre-left bloc stepped almost effortless into the shoes of the discredited post-communist Social Democrats  (SD) and  Liberal Democrats (LDS).

But if – or perhaps when electoral support for Fidesz goes South – any left-liberal majority, will either have to come up with a 2/3 majority of its own (perhaps not altogether impossible) and carry out its own counter-revolution, or bump up the constitutional entrenchments now being put in place. (As George Schöpflin explains above, there will be no provision to change the constitution by referendum. ) The result perhaps five or ten years down the line would seem to be some very high stakes electoral politics – with all the temptations that will throw up – and/or the severest of constitutional crises, possibly attended by a very intense politics of civic mobilisation: this, after all, is way change happens when institutional channels to change are blocked and people sense that democracy has been rigged.

How could all this happen? Hungary, after all, was supposed to be one Central and Eastern Europe’s  most consolidated new democracies, yet suddenly leaves us dusting off our Fareed Zakharia and contemplating the prospects for a kind of Coloured Revolution on the Danube. Could it –  or something like it –  happen elsewhere in the region? Weren’t people like  me telling you that CEE was a region flawed but basically normal democracies?

There seem to several factors which have enabled democratic derailment:

  • Majoritarian electoral system, which, if there is a big  electoral win for one side and/or a collapse for the other (Fidesz polled 53% in 2010), would result in a constitutional majority in parliament. In CEE conditions, where electorates are volitile and economies (now) vulnerable, this was, in hindsight, perhaps just a matter of time
  • A unicameral parliament, or a least a weak upper chamber. Hungary has no upper house.
  • Well organised, cohesive party organisation. Single member districts and majoritarian electoral systems tend to promote this.
  • A party with a strong sense of ideological mission: if you are going to seize the chance to remake the constitutional order you need to believe in what you doing. Conservative-national parties in states  like Hungary which had a negotiated, compromise transition in 1989,  see politics as a part of  a ‘thick transition’ – a long-term struggle to finish the revolutionary work of 1989, by eliminating the (ex-)communist nomenklatura from public left.

Elsewhere the region, some other states partially fulfill these conditions: Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) had a similar anti-communist conservative-national outlook, but – like all governing parties – due to PR never had the votes or seats to contemplate giving its vision of a new ‘Fourth Republic’  constitutional form and is now politically on the back foot.

Romania Bulgaria and Slovakia appear slightly riskier propositions: the latter are both unicameral democracies, while the Romanian Senate closely mirrors the lower house. All have strong (soon-to-be) ruling parties seen by some as having illiberal inclinations: however, none seem to have the sense of ideological mission needed – two, Romania’s PSD and Slovakia’s SMER, are loosely social democratic, while Bulgaria’s GERB is a loose knit centrist or centre-right party of power.

GERB press conference 2009 Photo: Vladimir Petkov/ Wikicommons

None seem likely to come near 2/3 majority required to amend or replace the constitution (3/4 in Bulgaria should you merely want to amend), although Bulgaria’s GERB whose electoral support sits around 40% and is suspected by critics of sporadic electoral fraud might just manage an absolute parliamentary majority.

If we think the worst of such parties, then a more informal strategy of co-optation, corruption and politicisation of the state apparatus, spiced with the odd draconian media law, is perhaps what we should expect.

The lessons of  Hungary’s complex and unfolding, but probably unique, situation is that the political and power instincts of CEE parties and politicians are, indeed, be as bad as we feared, but that fragmented and loose parties and PR are like to keep democracy – albeit  corrupt and flawed –  in most places safe from frontal assualt by the region’s politicians.

Probably.

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.

Getting the name right?

What do you do if you’re a fading historic right-wing party in a small  northern European country with a strong, broadly  social-democratic political culture?

For the Scottish Conservatives, whose  secular decline despite the electoral bounce- back of 2010 in England and Wales is catalogued by a recent IPPR report, the answer would seem be to dissolve and rebrand as a new more modern, more appealing centre-right formation.

That at least is the idea of leadership contender Murdo Fraser (one floated as early 2007)- and one looked at with quiet sympathy by London Tories around David Cameron who basically buy in to the idea the Conservative identity is too toxic and too undermined by social change and the decline of political identities shaped by religion and Empire to be redeemable. Better a strong, autonomous allied party better than enfeebled rump.

But what – assuming Mr Fraser gets his way – would such a party be called?And what would it imply? Perhaps  in time the drawing in of pro-market elements of the Liberals or the SNP.

We know one thing. The new would include the word ‘Scottish’ and not include the word ‘Conservative’. But where to go from there?

Perhaps take inspiration from the Anglosphere?

The  main party of centre-right in New Zealand is the National Party, but that label is clearly not available. in Scotland

Canada has the Progressive Conservatives, but the ‘C’ word is out and Progressive tag (Scottish Progressives? Progressive Democrats?)  alone might be a linguistic modernisation too far, even in this age of political cross dressing. I guess,  still following Canadian politics, the label Reform might be a possibility.

After all, the Tories European Parliament Group – where this new party’s MEPs (if it won any) would sit – is called the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR). So perhaps Scottish Reform Party? Tory bloggers liked this idea. On the other hand, the label does have vaguely religious echos, which might be a bad idea given Scotland’s sectarian history.

Perhaps the Scandinavian right might offer inspiration.  Sweden has the Moderates (as does Estonia)  but I suspect the Scottish Moderates would not do well and might provoke a few guffaws given the Tories’ history of hot gospelling Thatcherism in Scotland in 1980s.

Iceland, of course, has the Independence Party – a pragmatic  fusion of Liberals and Conservatives , take note – but somehow that might not strike the right note in Scotland… And besides UKIP seems have baggsied the Independence label.

Some Scottish Tories also toyed, it seems, with the idea of becoming the Freedom Party, although this rather in-your-face label has only been successfully used by Geert Wilders anti-Islamic outfit in Holland and the late Joerg Haider’s radical right grouping in Austria and is more associated with European liberal parties.  Beside Scottish Freedom Party, sounds somewhat like a more radical version of the SNP.

Perhaps  Central and East European politics then?  After all, the dissolve-rebrand-and-reinvent formula was tried by a number of discredited former ruling (communist)  parties there.

However,   as even the most rapid Tory-phobe would admit,  we not talking about a bunch of ex- totalitarians, so it’s really the CEE right we should be looking. Here the word ‘Democratic’ seems to be the main label on office (Civic Democratic Party in the Czech Republic, Slovene Democrats, Bulgaria’s Union of Democratic Forces (as was)) – as well as general avoidance of the word ‘Party’.

Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria

So that would leave is with Scottish Democrats or Scottish Democratic Union (handy echoes of the Unionist tag, the Scottish Tories historically used until 1965  and which, oddly, seems a favoured option, despite stressing the English link and having slight undertones of Northern Irish protestant politics)

Unless,  like many a Central European and Scandinavian conservative, they started to think less in party terms and more in terms of alliance-making.  Slovakia had its Blue Coalition, Denmark its Blue Alliance.

Which perhaps begs the question of where the ranks of this new centre-right in this increasingly politically far away country called Scotland would come from.

Klaus and the nationalist right: Catching a tiger by the tail?

Exit stage right? Photo: DerHuti

A few weeks ago, a journalist from the Slovak daily Pravda got in touch with me and various other political scientists interested in Czech politics to ask how we thought President Václav Klaus, who had just turned 70, was regarded abroad.

Being fairly literal minded, I answered his question without taking the obvious opportunity to give my own opinion at great, or indeed any length.

If I had, I would probably have seen Klaus as a potent and fascinating cocktail of negative and postive, leaning  probably towards the negative.  You can read what I and various others said here.

But the issue in Czech politics at the moment is not what Václav Klaus has done in two stints as prime minister and two terms as President, but what he will do as his second and final presidential terms comes to an end (he steps down in 2013).

Rumours abound that he will sponsor or lead or endorse some kind of new nationalist, eurosceptic party, perhaps based around the DOST initiative that has provided a rallying point for far-right nationalists and social conservatives and right-wing eurpsceptics with a more respectable, mainstream background, and whose web banner features Klaus prominently.

Ladislav Batora, Photo: Dezidor

The  controversry around appointment of Ladislav Batora, the chair of DOST, to post of director of personnel in the education ministry, nominally at the behest of the Public Affairs party but with the approval and support of Prague Castle, has been the most recent focus for such speculations.

Mr Bartora’s record of political involvement with  a diverse range far-right  groups seems pretty make him pretty much –  to quote  Finance Minister, Miroslav Kalousek – ‘a right old fascist’ (starý fašoun) and his (seemingly ongoing)  bad-mouthing of government politicians on Facebook suggested nothing more than a fringe politician enjoying his five minutes in the limelight, although, to be fair he did also managed to join a few small mainstream parties in a life of hectic political tourism.

But  President Klaus and his CEPin thinktank have a record of cultivating fringe figures and groups in a twilight zone between the extreme right proper and mainstream eurosceptic right once typified by Klaus himself that goes back several years.  I have picked up a few of them in this blog.

Some of his advisors, most notably the deputy head of the Presidential Chancellory Petr Hajek, have also come out with a range of  provocative and/or eccentric conservative views without being dropped by his boss.: Hajek, for example, has questioned the theory of evolution and dismissed gays as ‘deviants’ , while the CEPin thinktank has given space over to anti-Jihadi conservative fringe groups who see parallels between issues of migration and integration in Western Europe and the Czech experience with the Sudeten Germans.

Why is the Czech President cultivating such a strange collection of sometimes barely credible figures such as Batora or his DOST deputy František Červenka, who once dismissed the EU as plot by freemasons and paedophiles?

Even allowing for the fact that he might find a use for provocateurs and eccentrics without necessarily agreeing with them, the answer one might guess could be partly ideological. The drift of Klaus and sections of the Czech centre-right towards more nationally minded eurosceptic views centred on defence of the Czech state and scepticism towards Germany has been a matter of public record since late 1990s (rush out and buy the paperback of my book to read more).

Klaus’s rarer pronouncement on social issues such as multi-culturalism or civil partnerships (which he unsuccessfully veteo-ed as President) also suggest reveal growing conservative preoccupations, which may – we could surmise – be more fully developed and far-reaching than we suspected.

A second response is the Czech President is looking for an opening through which to influence and intervene in Czech (centre-)right politics from which he has beem increasingly marginalised since stepping down under considerable pressure as leader of the Civic Democrats (ODS) in 2002.

Could it really be the case that the Czech President is planning to lead a new party? Or at least planning to breath life into some kind of new eurosceptic, nationalist bloc perhaps centred on the Sovereignty party, which (predictably) he also has good relations.

Political opponents such as Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg certainly think so, as does Ladislav Batora who claims to have discussed it with Klaus in a meeting a couple of years ago, which lasted (wait for it…) an hour.

But really we have been here before. In 2008-9 as the Civic Democrats (then in government) wheeled round to pragmatic acceptance of the Lisbon Treaty, Klaus quit the party and rumours abounded that he would launch a new eurosceptic party, or back one of the two new anti-EU parties shaping up to contest the 2009 Euro-elections.

Leaflet for the eurosceptic Free Citizens' Party formed in 2009

It never happened. And the reason that Klaus  did not step up to the plate  and, indeed,  eventually signed the Treaty into law are the same: he had too few cards and perhaps  shrewdly realised that, even with his endoresement, it was likely to make limited impact. Certainly not the kind of impact needed for him to reshape the Czech centre-right he did so much to create in 1990s or have any decisive role in Czech politics.

Are the prospects for a new national bloc, perhaps taking the form of a French style Presidential rassemblement, better now? In many ways they are.  The Czech party scene has been de-stabilised by the ‘earthquake election’ of 2010. ODS is politically weaker than it has ever been and the governing coalition it leads is shaky.  The global economic outlook and the Euro is in the kind of crisis which Klaus and other eurosceptics foreaw.

Public opinion research highlights a niche in the electorate, where a socially  illiberal nationalist party might sit, and the are signs that very strong, but politically usually latent public prejudice against Roma are starting to find organised social and political expression among ‘ordinary people’, rather than just the marginal far-right sub-culture.

Demonstrations  organised by the far-right against ‘Gypsy crime’  in Vansdorf drew suprising numbers of local people, while incidents such as the smashing up a bar by Roma in a dispute over teenagers using fruit machimes provoked a succession local protests without  involvement of the extreme right.

So far only small town populists and figures with Mr Batora’s kind of track record have sought explicitly to capitalise politically on such sentiments.

President Klaus, while usually bluntly insensitive to Roma issues,  has perhaps sensing the untrollable potential of public ‘anti-Gypsyism’ (anticikanismus) as researchers term it expressed his disquiet about the rise of anti-Roma protests.

In the end, you wonder whether  illiberal Czech nationalism is  a tiger than the ever cautious, calculating Klaus will want to grab by the tail.

It might easily turn round and savage him.

>Civic Democrats: Teenage kicks or mid-life crisis?

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The principal party of the Czech centre-right, the Civic Democrats (ODS), have been celebrating the 20th anniversaty of their foundation. The party founded, by Václav Klaus in April 1991 from the right-wing anti-communist majority in the disintegrating Civic Forum movement, can probably lay claim to being Central and Eastern Europe’s most enduring  newly formed post-1989 party. Certainly as far as major political players on the centre-right are concerned probably, only Hungary’s Fidesz’s can compete and in Fidesz’s case ideological mutation in the mid-1990s from anti-communist liberal to conservative nationalist probably gives ODS the edge , even if the Czech Republic’s more proportional electoral system has (thankfully) never seen ODS stack up Fidesz style absolute majorities in parliament.
However, the party’s celebration of two decades as a political force, at which it was addressed by  current leader Prime Minister Petr Nečas, it founder and current Czech President Václav Klaus and 2002-10 leader  and ex-PM Miroslav Topolánek, seems to have been a rather more angst-ridden , divided and downbeat affair, than similar celebrations ten years ago. Then, having come through financial scandal under founder-leader Klaus and seasoned its Thatcherite neo-liberalism with dose of Czech nationalism, it was looking forward to election victory in 2002. It lost that election and, despite winning big in vote terms in 2006, has never managed to put together a stable majority government since. 1996 Ideological and strategic divisions – and the unsolved dilemma of how to manage its relationships with powerful informal networks of political ly connected business interests – were all on show at the event, which seems to have been the Czech right-wing version of the Three Tenors, albit with considerably less harmony on show. 
They are also thrown into sharp relief by the current woeful state of Petr Nečas’s coalition, whose large  majority in parliament looks a good deal less solid given splits and relevations from within junior coalition party the populist anti-corruption party, Public Affairs (VV), where the waters have been muddied by accusations that the spilt in the party was not just due  to VV being in the pocket of ABL security firm , but was engineered in factions in ODS (although this seems less well documented that the role of ABL and its founder busienessman Vít Bárta in taking over VV as a vehicle).

For Klaus ODS’s woes lie in its move under Topolánek away from his own patent mix of neo-liberalism and eurosceptic nationalism to embrace the political centre and themes such as civil sociey and environmental protection. Far better to do pragmatic power sharing deals with the left, than allow such ideologcal contagion. Having flirted with flat taxes and fiscal populism (does anyone remember the Blue Chance programme?), through a mixture of trail and error Topolánek adopted precisely this course as a means of broading ODS appeal, which despite touching 35% under his leadership, was not sufficient to deliver a workable majority – and tended to mobilise the left –  leaving him reliant on small parties like the declining Christian Democrats and faction-ridden Greens. 
Photo: Petr Novák, Wikipedia
Both parties exited parliament in the 2010 elections, leaving a new political landscape charcterised by an ODS drastically weakened by the rise of reformist challenger TOP09 and the need to ally with the opaque and unknown VV. This, Topolánek (opposite) argued, was really a step too far and agreed with Klaus that the usual emergency option of pragmatic co-operation with the Social Democrats, who are at least a known quantity, was preferable. The recent and farcical reshuffle of the Czech government and the bizarre hard-to-deal with behaviour of VV deputies and officials – none of whom seem to talk to each other without secretly taping other and offering some may-or-may-not-be-true revelation that crops up on the front pages the next day – makes the point.
But the issue running in parallel with the question of how expansive and centrist the Civic Democrats should or shouldn’t be is that of corruption and clientelism. One interpretation of Czech politics  is simply to see the country’s various parties (with the possible exception of the Communists) as   corrupt vehicles for shadowy, informal politico-business networks: this is, for example, forms the master narrative of daily  The Final Word commentary that accompanies the daily English press resume The Fleet Sheet, which speaks in a seemingly well informed way of the Czech Republic as an ‘electro-state’ dominated by powerful vested interests  (of which power generation company ČEZ is the most powerful) grouped more broadly into ‘Five Families’.I deological divisions between parties and political programmes are, in this view, a mere facade as shadowy figures get their claws into parties and politicians, extracting billions one way or another through various soft, untransparent and uncompetitive deals  involving public property and policies which subvert the public interest.
Election poster attacking new anti-corruption parties 2010
There is plenty of evidence of an anecdotal, journalistic kind that such relationships exist. The press is full of it and poltiicians themselves report them. In the dying days of his premiership Topolánek condemned political ‘godfathers’ within (kmotří ) – powerful regional bosses tied to networks of vested interests, subverting the s(upposed ly) bottom-up democratic national organisations the Civic Democrats have traditional prided themselves on. But the real extent and scope of such relationships and the way they relate to programmatic/ideological issues that voters and politicians themselves spend a lot of time: on academic political science shows that parties offer basically ideologically coherent programmes and that voters register this and vote on them accordingly in ways which reflect wealth, class, education and age. In forming coalitions, parties clearly negotiate on programmatic issues, as well as the who-gets-what-ministry concerns that the simple model of pure corrupt clientelism would suggest. In the end, the Last Word model – even if we assume that it is based on the purest and most reliable of inside information – seems only to offer half the story, all too remincient of the darkly conspiratorial view of the world offered by the Czech far-right in days when it was electoral force. (Communists would probably also find it a good read, although with perhaps too little mention of global capital).
Pete Nečas      Photo: Aktron/Wikimedia Commons
What matters more, however, is the ‘social fact’ that parties – and certain partiers in particular such as the Civic Democrats – are seen as toxically contaminated by corrupt clientelistic networks. It would be interesting to try to quantify and track over time the public’s views on the Civic Democrats and separate it out from the Czech public’s massive and growing distrust of parties and politicians in general – but tack in Prague, the Three Tenors touched on this second, probably now more intractable problem for the party, which seems to overlap for public and politicians alike with Machivellian politics of smears, plots and spin of the type well illustrated by recent events around VV. None had very convincing answers. 
For Klaus – forgetting the financing scandals of 1990s – the problem seems to be one of  ideological slippage and lack of political backbone, belief and mission, creating the space for faction fighting and corrupt interest politics. For Topolánek, it was dealing with Public Affairs, legitimising what everyone knew  – or shrewdly suspected –  from the start to be a pocket party serving business interests with naked ambition of advancing private commerical interests. But VV would, of course, never have become a political force without the apparently burgeoning politics of ‘godfathers’, which he was unwilling or unable to prevent. Nečas’s message was to recognise that voters have been looking for novelty but of Keep Calm and Carry On: the party was down but not out and its organisation, experience and programme would carry it through.
And the Civic Democrats’ contribution to Czech democracy over the last two decades? Stable, conventional  model of party politics; a new liberal pro-market ideology defining the Czech centre-right; being there when the big decisions were made and getting some of them right, they all agreed. Having written on that elsewhere, I won’t disagree. But, while Topolánek saw ODS as immature 20 year old with teenage lack of focus,  the party, in fact, seems dangerously flabby and middle-aged. 
In the end, I do wonder if the Civic Democrats will be around in recognisable form in another twenty years. Or another ten.

>Czech Republic: What the elections mean

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So, what does the Czech ‘earthquake election’ mean for Czech and Central European politics? As with the famous Ho-Chi Minh quote on the French Revolution, it is basically too early to tell – and probably will be for about another 10 or 20 years, but, I think, there four sets of issues/consequences to watch and think through.


1. A sudden and unprecedented (but not irreversible?) decline of (big) established parties

As all commentators have noticed, the election is an earthquake in Czech politics because of the simultaneous fall in the votes of the two big parties, that have been the pillars of the Czech party system for the last 15-20 years : the Civic Democrats (ODS) and Social Democrats (ČSSD). It is the lowest national vote for ODS since the party’s foundation in 1991 and puts the Social Democrats on a level of national support they had in 1995-6, although – as noted – they did experience a more catastrophic electoral meltdown in the 2004 European elections and bounced effortlessly back in the 2006 parliamentary elections.

Previously, however, when one big party declined the other picked up support – with the exception that is of the Opposition Agreement period (1998-2002) when the they co-operated politically as a part of a confidence and supply agreement to enable a minority Social Democrat government. In that period, however, existing parties (the Communists and a Christian-Democrat led centrist alliance) gained from voter discontent – or, at least, vote desire to vote against incumbents. As the lastest analysis at Pozorblog makes clear (see graph) the swing in support for new parties is unprecedented in Czech terms and pretty damn big in regional terms.

The 2010 result is still more striking because the fragmentation – and equalization – of the Czech party politics it has brought about – again Kevin Deegan-Krause has done the numbers over at Pozorblog – follows on an election result in 2006, which saw polarization and an large increas in support for both big parties. Indeed, in 2006 ODS polled a record vote. Such polarization seemed to be part of a CEE-wide trend at the time, but may now have been derailed.

Does this herald a cycle of ever more unstable party politics with new parties rising and falling with increased tempo and scale, as the stable-seeming party systems of CEE such as Hungary, the Czech Republic and (who knows) even dear old Slovenia defaulting to ‘normal’ postcommunist politics under the exogenous shocks of the economic crisis and/or because finally voters have got truly fed up with them and a perfect storm of mismanaged strategy and credible new parties has blown up and blown them away. Kevin Deegan Krause suggests this and it’s seductive and plausible argument.

On the other hand if organization and ‘standard’ predictable identity have tended over the long term to bring success, then in years to come they should tend do so again, especially once the lustre of anti-establishment newness wears off TOP09 and Public Affairs (as it very rapidly will when they enter government) and their lack of organizational (and in VV’s case) programmatic resources is laid bare. So there may be no automatic or quick spiral into cycle of parties rising and falling. ‘Old’ and ‘new’ parties – and here I am really thinking really of parties of the centre-right – ODS, TOP09, VV and Christian Democrats – are likely to be engaged in projects of realignment, likely to produce some Italian style alliance or bloc probably centred on ODS.

Moreover, however fickle the voters – and I think that with the exception of some parts of the ODS electorate and small loyal core electorates of Communists and Christian Democrats, they have always been pretty fickle bunch – there is a limited reservoir of politicians, journalists, businesspeople and aristocrats with the experience, credibility and financial backing to launch a credible new party projects. They are not that easy to do. As that “one of the reasons that new parties do not survive is that they never really get started”.

‘New’ parties tend to work when they are breakaways from old parties – or recycled versions of earlier elites – with an aura of newness. Leaving aide the iconic Schwarzenberg, TOP09 seems run by hardened ex-Christian Democrats with a long political track record. What is TOP09 without the Prince? Public Affairs seems to form something of a fascinating exception here, but even here if you look closely you see that it has recycled part of many of the CR’s small off-the-radar liberal parties. The issue therefore seems to be just as the organizational stability and elite cohesion of existing parties in preventing breakaway projects and the ability of extraparliamentary politicians to bring together, mobilize and unite diffuse elements, than the voters ever changing moods.

One critical point, may be the ability or inability of new parties to take control of the regions – currently all run by Social Democrats with the exception of Prague. The battle for political control of the Czech capital in municipal elections in November will be an intresting test of whether TOP and VV can consolidate- although both are strong in the capital it will be a relatively easy initial test.

2. A victory for the centre-right, but a difficult to manage coalition

Viewed in left-right terms for the first time since 1992 – well, in fact 1998 although in that year the Freedon Union’s leaders never for a moment allying with the ODS, having just broken away from it – this year’s election result break the deadlock between left and right. Coalition talks are have just started to form a ODS-TOP09-Public Affairs (VV) coalition, which, on paper, would enjoy a thumping majority (118 of 200 seats). However, the fly the in ointment is VV, whose origins, leaders and financial backing are uncertain and whose politics are as much anti-establishment and populist as right-wing,liberal and pro-market: the demand to cut the military budget and spend the money on schools seems characteristic. If VV is included ina coalition, the calculation at the back of ODS and TOP politicans is probably that even if VV’s parliamentary group splits – and the track record of loose, charistmatically led new parties which experience a meteoric rise would seem to make that a racing certainty – enough of its 24 strong group of deputies will gravitate to ODS or TOP09 to leave the government with a working majority.

Still, given that the emerging Nečas government will need to make some tough financial decisions – and will be programmatic committed to doing – there are likely acute problems of party and coalition management, especially as TOP09 is itself a hastily put together conglomeration of ex-Christian Democrats, the odd ex-ODS politician and independent local politicians: seasoned with the odd businessman and emininent physian the latter group, especially, may have little experience of – or taste for – party discipline in parliament.

3. Instabilty, infighting and realignment on the centre-right

The upshot of all – even if you subscribe to the somewhat conspiratorial view of Erik Best’s the Final Word – that TOP09 and VV are, in essence, fake parties intended to soak up protest voting and then fold (into ODS) and will not change the status quo where powerful vested interests dominate – is that there will be some major realignment on the right. This, as I suggest above, will be part organizational, but also part ideological: if there is some degree of consolidation a ‘Canadian scenario’ would seem most probably with the insurgent anti-corruption, market populist agenda of TOP09 and VV absorbed into the mainstream, most probably represented some kind of remade ODS.

4. The rise of left-wing populist challenge to the Communists and Social Democrats

The Social Democrats, despite the shock of defeat, are in many ways in somewhat less of a crisis than ODS. True the robust confrontation welfare populism and negative campaigning of Paroubek era may be dumped – although, in fact, negative campaigning of the right against the lack of realism of Paroubek’s Social Democrats may have done the job in persuading many of their voters not to turn out – and a turn back to some quieter more moderate version of Czech social democracy is likely. However, that’s a cycle we’ve seen before with the shift from the bombastic Zeman to the technocratic Špidla to the even more bombastic Paroubek (leaving out the ill-fated, brief premiership of Stanislav Gross in 2004-5). The Social Democrats will also benefit from not being in government – and hence free to oppose unpopular cuts, and regroup and rethink – and are more experienced in bouncing back from bruising electoral setbacks and political meltdowns.

The unexpectedly good performance of two, little fancied minor left-wing parties: Zeman’s SPOZ and the Sovereignty party should give them food for though. Zeman’s party was regarded as something of joke and/or vanity project, having little more than Zeman himself, a bog standard centre-left programme with few new idea (rehashing ideas the Social Democrats have regularly used) and surprisingly large amounts of cash for national billboard advertising. Some wonder whether it was not a Russian style spoiler party deliberatly backed by interests favouring the right. If so, it succeeded brilliantly.

The somewhat less successful Sovereignty is, however, probably the one to watch and seems to be in for the longer term (Zeman has quit his own party): it has a more innovative blend of centre-left economics, anti-establishment rhetoric and a dosh of euroscepticism and in Jan Bobošiková – striking in trademark bright yellow dress – a striking figure with the cache of newness. Interestingly, Sovereignty and SPOZ seem to have picked up votes in quite different regions (see below) suggesting that scope for some more ambitious project – a Public Affairs (VV) of the left, if you will.

It has also not escaped attention that despite its Prague stronghold (its origins lie in local politics in the Czech capital) VV seems to have picked up more than a few left-wing voters – doing surprisingly well in the industrial Moravia-Silesia region in the North-West of the country.

The Mother of All Questions for the Czech left, however, is what will happen the Communist Party (KSČM) and its famously loyal voters? TOP09 was able to fell Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL)- another party with a loyal core electorate, but limited wider appeal. but only, arguably, because TOP was founded by ex-Christian Democrats and because part of the KDU electorate was a more floating and centrist one. Would parties of the populist left be able to do a similar job on KSČM? The Czech Communists are bigger with a bigger core electorate and its seems unlikely that there is a Czech Robert Fico concealed somewhere inside the party reading to launch a Czech Smer? The Czech Social Democrats and their voters would, however, seems to offer more than sufficient scope for a small-medium size new social-national party of the populist left.

>Czech elections: How I got it wrong (again) – and why

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The Czech election have happened and as soon as the exit polls came in, it was clear something pretty unusual had happened. When the results came in the Social Democrats ‘had won’, but both big parties’ score were way down on what had been predicted on unexpected and pretty much historic lows: the Social Democrats on 22.1%, the Civic Democrats on 20.2%. The big winners were the two new reformist centre-right parties TOP09 on 16.7% and Public Affairs (VV) on 10.9 who came close to pushing the Communists (KSČM) into fifth. In the end, however, KSČM – the only sure thing in Czech politics these days – pulled in 11.27%, a bad (-1.5%) but not a disasterous result. It was a bad election for small parliamentary parties: the Greens as widely expected were wiped out and – as also anticipated, but much more momentously- the Christian Democrats also fell below the 5% threshold and are out of parliament for the first time since 1990 and – in wider historical perspective taking into account the communist period (when they were a satellite party) and the pre-communist period – perhaps more than century.
Small left-wing parliamentary parties – the Citizens Rights Party – Zemanites of … can you guess? …. former Social Democratic PM Miloš Zeman and the Sovereignty bloc of former news presenter Jana Bobošiková – neither of which were given much of chance before the election, both polled unexpectedly well: 4.33% and 3.67% – enough for annual state funding – although this wasn’t enough for the mecurial Zeman who promptly resigned as leader of his own personal party. He was shortly joined by Christian Democrat Cyril Svoboda and Jiří Paroubek, who led the Social Democrats for the first time in ages to a worse-than-expected parliamentary election results – although without quite hitting the 8% managed by Vladimír Špidla in the 2004 European elections.

And, if I was head of the Czech Politics Pundits Party, I too would resign, because as you will gather, I was badly wrong in my forecast (again). However, mistakes can be instructive, so let’ go over how I got it wrong. I predicted

Social Democrats 27%

Civic Democrats 23%
Communists 13.5 – 14.0%
TOP09 12%
VV 8%
Christian Democrats 6%

My first main mistake was to assume – perhaps thinking of how British voters behaved earlier this month – was that new parties support would be less than that in the polls and that established parties somewhat greater. My assumption was that new parties new found popularity was fairly flakey and that some of their supporters either wouldn’t turn out to vote or would make a better-the-devil-you-know choice at the polls and opt in the end for an established parties. So Mistake No 1. was to underestimate the frustration of Czech voters and to overestimate the underlying appeal of established parties. A very West European error.

This led to two smaller errors: Mistake No. 2 was to overestimate the core electorate of historic parties such as the Communists – who lost votes in both relative and absolute terms – and the Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL), who did indeed fall below the 5% threshold. Interestingly, the gambler in me got this one right – I staked 10 euros on them crashing our of parliament winning have a princely four – while the more cautious blogging political scientist didn’t. Mistake No. 3 was to discount the prospects of small left-wing parties, despite the fact that polls showed at least one (SPOZ) creeping up in the polls to 3-4 per cent.

Overall, I show (as ever) a lack of political imagination – or an engrained sense of disbelief – about likely changes. Borrowing from the trends picked Kevin Deegan-Krause’s poll analysis, I at least see that both main parties are not going to suffer a dip in support, but what I failed to see is that far from rowing back from these trends being , in the actual results conistent of these trends writ very, very large indeed. A bit of imagination and the Deegan Krause analysis and you could have been there.