For some time analysts and commentators have understood that all is not well with democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. In the immediate aftermath, the region defied a raft of predictions that the dislocating effect of economic reform and resurgence of nationalist traditions would lead to a Latin American style breakdown of democracy. Democratic change and marketization were – certainly compared to other parts of the post-communist world – peaceful, quick and far-reaching, with the EU membership achieved within a relatively short time.
Indeed, much conventional wisdom has it, that the incentive of EU membership ‘leveraged’ politicians and electorates in some CEE states away from illiberal and nationalist politics. In short, while CEE democracy might have been short on civil society and public engagement and high on corruption and inefficiency, it seemed consolidated and safe.
All this seems to have changed since EU accession. Commentators looked for and quickly found ‘backsliding’ in Poland in 2005-7 as short-lived minority government headed by the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, which included two small populist-nationalist parties as coalition partners, took office. And post-transition fears of breakdown seemed belatedly to come true with onset of the Great Recession in 2008-9 and the landslide victory in Hungary in the 2010 parliamentary elections of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz.
Orbán’s subsequent use of his huge majority to rewrite the Hungarian constitution, strip back checks and balances and entrench his party in deep in the state, media civil society are well documented, as are his questioning of liberal democracy and formulation of a deeply illiberal nationalist project for the future of Hungary.
But discussion of the wider malaise seemingly gripping democracy in CEE has often been stronger on sounding the alarm and itemizing symptoms than on analysis. Indeed, the term ‘backsliding’ was so loosely applied that it covered phenomena ranging from the rise of right-extremism to difficulties negotiating coalitions.
Much writing has simply boiled down to the idea that development across the region simply can be understood as Hungary writ small. Hungary’s illiberal political turn was a ‘cancer’ spreading to the rest of the region and Orbán, to quote the Guardian’s Ian Traynor simply the most prominent example of a new breed of ‘democratically elected populist strongmen … deploying the power of the state and a battery of instruments of intimidation to crush dissent’. Some journalists painting a bigger picture (or airing common geo-political concerns) preferred the term ‘Putinization’.
But such broad-brush treatment would never do. Anyone who knows the Czech Republic, for example, would see a democracy disfigured by corruption, disengagement and distrust. But neither its assertive head of state, president Miloš Zeman, nor ambitious billionaire populist newcomer Andrej Babiš quite fit the bill of a Czech Viktor Orbán. A nationalist turn, a new constitution, a dominant ruling party or a spectacular breakthrough by the extreme right. None of this is on the Czech agenda – or indeed quite on the agenda elsewhere in CEE.
Clearly a much better comparative take on how to understand the travails of CEE democracy is called for, capable of embracing the political realities of both Prague and Budapest and all points in between.
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…
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
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..
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
David Art’s new book Inside the Radical Right: The Development of Anti-Immigrant Parties in Western Europe (Cambridge University Press) is one of the boldest and most interesting pieces of writing on comparative European party politics I have seen for a long time. Its deceptively simple thesis is that the success of radical right parties in Western Europe is not, as conventionally argued, the combined product of differing opportunity structures (types of electoral system, party system format and so on) and differing social structures (varying levels of ethnic diversity, structural unemployment etc), but of the capacity of the far right to build and sustain political organisations and professional and credible core of activists suited to the demand of electoral politics. Nothing, Art argues – pointing out the contradictory morass of comparative findings is consistent with the reality that social demand for anti-immigrant ethnocentric policies is roughly the same across Western Europe and that countries with similar institutional and social structures often present quite different outcomes for radical right parties: one of several pertinent examples that the example Art offers is that of Belgium where the success of Vlaams Blok (VB) in Flanders contrasts with the erratic and marginal performance of the National Front (FNb) in Wallonia.
Success or failure in organisation building – which Art argues often precedes electoral success – is dependent partly on the presence of sufficient large nationalist and/or radical right subculture, offering a source of recruits and a short-cut to long-term and disciplined party building, and the extent to which the radical right is socially and politically isolated through cordons sanitaire and social ostracisiation. While intellectuals, professionals and local notables pay little price for joining the Danish People’s Party, membership of (say) the British National Party would be a route to social isolation and career suicide. Anti-fascist mobilisation, even of a fairly violent and intimidatory kind, is also found by Art to an effective sanction on far-right recruitment among the well educated and political experienced, if it comes at the right time.
Where there is a broad, established far-right sub-culture reaching into the middle or upper classes and tolerant or pragmatic acceptance of the radical right, the road is open (eventually) for it to succeed in party politics. An alternative route explaining the success of Denmark’s DF and the Freedom Party in the Netherlands is the success politicians, who rise to power at the head of ‘flash’ parties, but realise that serious and early organisation building – and a shift to fill the gap on the anti-immigrant right – is needed if they are to stick around. Transforming an established minor party into a radical right, anti-immigrant actor is a further alternative and shorter route, which swops the advantage of having an existing organisational structure in place with the disadvantage of having wage ideological battles to kick out rival factions. This Art suggests occurred in the case of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) (originally an agrarian formation) and to a lesser extent Austria’s FPO (notionally a liberal party, but always something of a subcultural vehicle for former Nazis).
Art’s arguments boldly put party organisation – normally something of a Cinderella subject -centre stage in explaining the entry and survival of new political parties, although as the book makes clear large amount of private or state cash can, when carefully husbanded, be effective for voting winning, at least in the short term. Gerhard Frey’s German People’s Union (DVU) uses its millionaire founder’s cash for mass mailshot campaigns, while Geert Wilders Freedom Party (PVV) has only one formal member (Wilders himself) backed by a handpicked cadre of loyal followers.
As Herbert Kitschelt’s blurb comments suggest with characteristic Exocet-like accuracy, while the book makes its argument for the importance of organisation and its precursors as an anchor for small, emergent, defeated and marginal parties, it is less clear whether it overturns or merely complements existing explanations based on variations in socio-economic and political opportunity structures. Indeed, in some ways the book offers a very similar, but organisation-focused, structure and agency mix: historical legacies and nationalist sub-cultures take the structure role with established parties’ cordon sanitaire strategies (or lack of them) and anti-fascist mobilisation supplying variations in agency. (Social disapproval of far-right activism may perhaps be a structural factor, so the structure/agency split is not cut and dried).
The book could also perhaps point up more that, while organisation may matter generally (or, at least often,) there may – as my diagrammatic summary hints – seem to be multiple paths to far-right success, rather than one over-arching formula, with Scandinavian cases , particularly, seeming to stand in terms of their origins and conditions of success – a very clear finding of Veugelers and Magnan’s 2005 article using configurational comparison to test out Kitschelt’s theories on the conditions of far-right success.
An interesting question is how well Art’s model(s) travels beyond the eleven West Europe states covered in the book: the Spanish case (and perhaps that of Portugal?), for example, would seem to echo the German pattern of strong historical far-right subculture in a new democracy where the emerging centre-right keeps radicals at arms length politically, while co-opting its more able or more moderate elements.
For me, naturally, the still more interesting question is how well Art’s model might travel to Central and Eastern Europe. Surprisingly, on first examination it seems to cross over quite well: Slovakia, Croatia, Hungary, Romania and, to a lesser extent, Latvia seem to have success radical right parties and nationalist intellectual and social milieux, looking favourably or ambiguously, on interwar fascist movements and/or episodes of wartime collaboration with Nazi Germany. Slovenia, where historical controversy has raged over the role of the role of the wartime Domoobranci (Home Guard) , also seems to fit the model, although the origins and ideology of the Slovene national Party (SNS) seem more eclectic than the kind of party political projection of certain sub-cultures as, for example, with the identically acronymed Slovak National Party (SNS). Poland represents, as so often, interesting case with strong tradition of integral nationalism, but where collaborationist and neo-Nazi traditions are, for obvious historical reasons, marginal or absent.
The Czech Republic, by contrast, approximates to the Dutch/Danish/British pattern of having a weak and marginalised far-right sub-culture, utterly cut off from the political mainstream: the experience of the Republican Party (SPR-RSČ) – represented in the Czech parliament in 1992-8 – also offers a nice illustration of how not to consolidate party organisation – the party leadership did not entirely neglect building an activist base, but was too egocentric and authoritarian to hold the party together. It seems tempting to put Bulgaria’s Ataka in the same category, although as a colleague recently pointed out to me recently, there are radical nationalist traditions and an anti-semitic Orthodox-oriented extremist sub-culture.
The question of cordons sanitaires in CEE is, however, perhaps more difficult : there is little in the way of strong anti-fascist mobilisation in a region where social movements – and especially social movements of the radical left – are weak. To the best of my knowledge there are no formal cordons with radical right parties actually represented in government in Slovakia and Poland, although mainstream parties’ treatment of the Republicans in 1990s perhaps comes closest. Interestingly, however the SNS in Slovakia was a coalition partner for the centre-left, rather than Christian Democratic and liberal centre-right for whom such co-operation seems much less conceivable. In the end, what may matter more than an assessment of party strategy in CEE is whether radical and mainstream are on an ideological continuum, or whether (as in the Czech Republic and Slovakia) they have different political and ideological points of departure.
When all is said and done, however, Art has written a fine academic book which offers some elegant and orignal big picture comparison in an exceptionally clear and readable way interweaving important comparative argument about politics and part development with informative and sometimes close-up accounts of the highways and by-ways far-right activism.
But 1.14 per cent is hardly the stuff of headlines and pales into insignificance with the hundreds of thousands of votes the late, unloved Republicans, whom I blogged about in an earlier post managed in the 1990s (peaking at 8 per cent) when they seem to a fixture on the parliamentary scene. However, the DS’s obvious extremism, which has put in very much under the beady eye of the Czech police and security services, and apparent preference for street politics would seem to rule out put something of an obstacle in the way of electoral growth. In comparative European perspective, as the CR is an oddity because of the weakness of the far right/radical right.
The Czech radical right sub-culture and its organizations are comparatively unremarkable and very consistent in their views: collectivist, anti-capitalist, socially authoritarian xenophobic, racist with an especial animus towards Roma and ethno-nationalist. Some 8% of the Czech population are found to broadly share such attitudes with (interestingly) around 3/4of those willing (in theory) to actively support far-right organizations (the rest would potentially just vote for them). This, the report concludes, suggest a potential electorate for a putative successful far-right party of 8% – the peak level of electoral support actually attained by the Republicans (in 1996). However, I would tend to see this a far bigger potential electorate than the 8% reported in the Czech media, since we seem to be talking about those ideologically very much in tune with the far-right.
|Political Capital: Index of Welfare Chauvinism|
|Sládek as Bean|
After a long period of exam season induced hibernation – if that’s the right word in the summer – I’ve completed a conference paper for a workshop on populism The Czech Republicans 1990-1998: Rise and Fall of Populist Radical Right Outsider Party. Not the most entertaining or easy bunch in Czech political history to write about and, as I argue in the paper, very much a part of the short 2-3 year interregnum that followed the immediate aftermath of the Velvet Revolution when all kinds of weird and wonderful parties – Moravian regionalists as a major force, who remembers that? – took the stage in a colourful, but misleading overture to Czech politics proper.
Thankfully, I now no longer need to sit in an overheated office reading the collected works of Miroslav Sládek, the Czech Republic own short-lived would-be Jean Marie Le Pen (and Mr Bean look-a-like: does Rowan Atkinson appreciate his contribution to anti-rascism in the Czech Republic, I wonder?) and occasionally watching strutting his stuff videos of grainy far-right rants in Old Town Square on You Tube. Should you feel, you’ve been missing out you can watch a bit of Czech political history below: a rather small crowd for a national rally by an up and coming radical right movement (as it was then).
Many thanks to Kevin Deegan-Krause for digging out the above photomontage from his personal archive
The answer, of course, is that they were and he couldn’t. All in all, it was reassuringly unimpressive performance by the BNP leaders, lacking not only any credible answers but also professionalism, poise or personal charm. I remember once watching Jean Marie Le Pen comprehensively outmanoeuvre a left-wing opponent on TV discussion with a mixture of sure footing cunning and avuncular bluster on French TV in the 1980s. Happily, the BNP leader clearly wasn’t in this league.
I was just about to turn back to Prague municipal politics, however, when suddenly I caught flash of the kind of leader the British radical populist far-right probably does need and the kind of politician we probably should fear: it was Chris Huhne, Liberal Democrats’ spokesperson for home affairs – up to that point a grey and totally forgettable presence on the panel, – launching into an eloquent tirade about how Britain should have closed its borders to citizens of new (that is predominantly, East European) EU member states for as long as possible and wasn’t it awful that the government that the government didn’t do this and lots of them came over here… Open borders in an opern liberal Europe. What a disaster.
For a fleeting moment, I though Mr Huhne, an unsuccessful contender for his party’s leadership in 2007, was making a pitch for the BNP leadership, which to judge from his poor performance Nick Griffin might soon be vacating. Then I realised, of course, that, having slipped out of anti-fascist mode, he was simply illustrating the well established truth that immigrant-bashing and playing up to the public xenophobia is OK provided you are a respectable person from a resepctable mainstream party. And, Mr Huhne, – public school, Oxford, the City, economist and financial journalist, long-serving MEP, policy expert – is certainly that.
And then it struck me that, here – not necessarily in the person of Mr Huhne – but some of some ambitious, well educated, well spoken, reasonably well known figure public figure gone maverick that the real threat of more articulate, credible and dangerous far-right lies. No of burden of neo-fascist pedigree or a penchant for anti-semitism tor seeing the positive side of Hitler that, fortunately for us, encumbers Nick Griffin (and later held back Le Pen and Joerg Haider). Political or media skills already honed. Stock of political respectability already laid in.
Such figures seem to be media personalities with a certain political-cum-academic commentators (Pym Fortyn, Robert Kilroy-Silk) or frustrated members of existing parties, who turn maverick or decide to air views on race, minorities or immigration they have previously kept to themselves. Interestingly, Liberal parties, typically often under electtoral pressure from bigger competitors of left and right, whose identity is often a rather unstable mix of anti-establishment, pro-market, pro-market and pro-little person/geographical periphery appeals, seem especially vulnerable to such occasionally odd mutations: Haider’s Austrian Freedom Party was originally a liberal grouping, controversial anti-Islamic politician Geert Wilders was once an MP for Holland’s Liberals the VVD; Germany’s FDP was hit by accusations of anti-semitism in 2002-3 because of statements of one its then rising stars, the late Jurgen Molleman; in the mid-1990s factions in the FDP associated with the nationalist Neue Rechte intellectual (unsuccessfully) sought a Haider-style transformation of the party.
I don’t, of course, expect to see Mr Huhne leading the BNP or indeed some populist confection (although I’m sure he’d do an excellent job if he did), but as the comedian Alan Davies pointedly pnoted on the This Week programme that followed Question Time‘s BNP-fest, Griffin’s party are not a hugely successful or professional outfit and don’t deserve high profile controverst treatment and still less the back-handed compliment of being banned from Question Time.
The real threats lie elsewhere. We clearly had a lucky escape when ex-Labour MP and chat show host Robert Kilroy-Silk proved too maladroit and egomaniacal to take over the UK Independence Party in 2004. Celebrity populists and mavericks peeling away from already opportunistic mainstream seem a potentially far more potent force than the wafer thin veneer of respectability and normality of a welfare chauvinist niche party that can’t escape its neo-fascist roots like the BNP.