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Czech populist goes from Dawn to dusk: but do members matter?

Observers of Czech politics have recently been tickled (if not exactly surprised) by the implosion of the small populist party Dawn of Direct Democracy founded by motor-mouthed Czecho-Japanese businessman Tomio Okamura. Most of Mr Okamura’s 14 parliamentary grouping decided to jump ship because, they say, their leader has been neglecting grassroots recruitment.

And you can see what they mean: 15 months on from pulling in 342 339 votes (6.88%) in the October 2013 elections the party has grand total of nine members. Modest by even the low membership figures for Central and Eastern Europe – most of Dawn’s own MPs are not even members of the party they sit, although admittedly some are actually members of another small protest party recycled for the purposes of getting Dawn’s electoral challengeon the road.

It’s not, of course, an oversight but was a deliberate ploy by Okamura to keep tabs on the party he founded and – thanks to the generosity of the Czech taxpayer – its now not immodest resources. Indeed, his hefty consultancy fees charged to the party were a bit much even for the loyalists on the party executive (which officially consists of five people, although only three – including Okamura himself – are identifiable from the party’s website).

There is supposedly a political element to the split beyond just a fallout over power and money: the splitters have finally concluded that Mr Okamura’s over the top anti-Islamic rhetoric (bizarre in a country where there are a grand total of 3352 Muslims according to the 2011 census) including appeal to supporters to boycott kebabs and walk pigs in the vicinity of mosques was too much. Okamura is also known for his virulent rhetoric stigmatising the country’s rather larger Roma minority, but these seem to have passed the dissident MPs by. Perhaps unsurprisingly. The new, more respectable party they apparently planned work would, they hoped, be working with, none other Marine Le Pen (courtesy of the supposed contacts of one of the minor parties in the alliance). Mme Le Pen is no doubt scanning headlines Czech press in anticipation.

In truth both Okamura and his erstwhile supporters seem headed for the political scrapheap, already piled high with debris of umpteen new, would-be and never-were parties, as well as a few more sizeable. But as Dawn turns to dusk, it’s hard not see the Mr Okamura as in some way an impressively modern, if loathsome, political operator: a marginal figure who seems effortlessly to have reinvented as lifestyle guru and purveyor and packager of Japanese culture for the Czech consumer; self-made business tycoon, pontificating on start-ups on the local franchise of Dragon’s Den; a would-be Czech Berlusconi promising to run the state like a business; and finally – when that pitch was taken by a real tycoon in the person of Czecho-Slovak billionaire Andrej Babiš (interestingly another outsider in terms of ethnic identity), as mouthy and aggressive populist laying into minorities and elites with alacrityin a manner reminiscent  of the Czech Republic’s only truly successful far-right politician, Miroslav Sládek and his Republican Party of 1990s.

Mr Okamura is also in the vanguard of party organisation – or, rather non-organisation. The super-low membership ‘personal party’ something of an emerging trend in Europe. Holland’s Geert Wilders is the one and only member of the anti-immigration, anti-Islamic Freedom Party, making Dawn a mass organisation in comparison. Both have worked out that cash, showmanship, a few hired hands and whole lot of publicity can go a long way to substituting for grassroots members and ‘real’ party organisation – at least as far as getting into parliament is concerned. The days of Mr Sládek when a hard-working populist demagogue actually had to go on the stump, endlessly touring small town Czechia to build up a grassroots following are long gone.

And it’s here the real issue lies.

Read More…

Comrade Baggins? When Middle Earth met Middle Europe

It’s not difficult to Christmas shop for my nephew.  Any of an array of Hobbit-branded products drawing on the latest New Zealand -filmed Peter Jackson blockbuster franchise would do. I settled on a DVD, a map of Middle Earth and a poster-sized calendar.

But – to borrow Timothy Garton Ash’s quip about Central Europe–tell me your Middle Earth and I’ll tell you who you are.

An interesting meme has been doing the rounds of the Czech internet in the past year: a review (or so we are told) of The Lord of the Rings published in 1977 in the (then) central organ of the Czechoslovak Communist Party Rudé právo denounced Tolkien’s fantasy masterpiece as a work of thinly disguised bourgeois and imperialist propaganda:

The Kingdom of Evil belching smoke and ash is transparently located in the East.  The working class, uniting to build heavy industry by the sweat of its brow, is depicted as revolting and evil orcs. (…) Those living the West – overflowing lands of milk and honey – the elves (that is the aristocracy), men (bourgeoisie) and hobbits (farmers) on the other hand live a prosperous life (although it is not explained how they get it) and their only problem is the ‘threat’ from the East.

The ‘forces of good’ are represented by a set of representatives of these reactionary circles… Their leader is Gandalf, a spreader of reactionary ideologies, which keep the population in ignorance and fear of progress. (…)

Small wonder then that Saruman, the defender of the oppressed and friend of progress, is branded a traitor and his stronghold is destroyed by a band of fanatical reactionaries. When he spread socialism to the Shire he is caught and subject to punishment without trial by the hobbits supported and paid by the capitalist powers of Gondor… But socialism cannot be destroyed by throwing its relics, not even its most sacred relics, into the fire. Hold out against encirclement by your reactionary neighbours Mordor!

It was not entirely clear if the review is real. As it turned out it was a clever pastiche. No date, scant referencing and no trace of in the archives. And, of courses, rather too much of hint of tongue-in-cheek for the notoriously humourless Rudé právo.

But that’s beside the point. It is exactly what Rudé právo could, or should have written about Lord of The Rings in mid-1970s. Moreover, the pastiche does seem to have drawn heavily on real Communist-era article published in Poland in 1971.

Because Communist regimes did have a problem with Tolkien and particularly with Lord of the Rings. Read More…

Eastern Europe 25 years on: catching up or catching cold?

25 years on from the fall of communism, the Wall Street Journal recently told its readers, Central and Eastern Europe is still playing catch-up. The reasons are mainly economic and infrastructural. Too little growth by the standards of the Asian tigers. Too few high speed rail links. Not enough motorways. Viktor Orbán bossing it over Hungary in an ever more worrying project of illiberal transformation. A bad subsidy habit fed by an indulgent EU. A Middle Income Development Trap waiting to be sprung. And –when did this ever happen before? –  progress that “ has fallen short of what many of its citizens had hoped”.

 But we shouldn’t be too harsh. The WSJ is not particularly well known for the quality of its CEE  reporting. And this occasion it’s absolutely right: Central and Eastern Europe is playing catch-up. The politics of catch-up, rather than geography or culture or post-communism, are probably what define the region best. If it wasn’t catching up, it wouldn’t be Central and Eastern Europe.  Historians of East Central Europe such as Andrew C. Janos or  Ivan Berend have long been preoccupied by the region’s long-term efforts to push its levels of socioeconomic– and political – development into line Europe’s core West European states –  although they have sometimes bluntly simply spoken of “backwardness”.

 The post-1989 project of European integration and enlargement, although more usually referred to in terms of ‘convergence’ or ‘Return to Europe’ is also all about one catch-up – and a very ambitious form of catch-up: overcoming deeply rooted east-west divide, which as Janos and others have noted, predates the Cold War division of Europe.  Enlargement and integration – and liberal reform in CEE generally –been sold politically on the basis that the poor, historically peripheral societies of CEE will (and after a painful process of adjustment) reap the full benefits of prosperity, social welfare, democracy and freedom enjoyed by core West European societies that had the good luck to stay out of of the Soviet zone of influence after WWII.

 If, in the long term, integration fails to deliver, there may be significant consequences both for the EU and for the fate of democracy and liberal institutions in Central and East European countries themselves.  As recent developments in Hungary show, liberal and democratic reforms are not irreversible or consolidated as once thought or hoped. If the European project fails to deliver catch-up – or the Western model CEE was busy catching up on with proves exhausted and unattractive – it will exacerbate both centrifugal pressures in the EU and erosion of democracy in some or all of CEE. There is the uncomfortable possibility that in his nationalistic rejection of liberalism, Viktor Orbán may be a leader rather than a laggard as far as the future direction of the region is concerned –  the Central European vanguard of the revolt against a broken Western model that Pankaj Mishra sees rippling out  from Asia. Read More…

Czech Republic: scepticism without euro-scepticism?

Malé Kyšice, obecní úřad, evropské volby
Photo: Akron/ Wikimedia Commons
CC BY-SA 3.0

As elsewhere in Europe, elections to the European Parliament on 23-24 May in the Czech Republic will be more of a trial of domestic strength, than a contest over EU issues.

 The EP elections come at a time when Czech politics is still in flux following the ‘political earthquake’ unleashed by national parliamentary elections in October 2013. These saw the eclipse of established right-wing parties; sharp electoral setbacks for the Social Democrats (ČSSD), the main party of the Czech left; and a dramatic breakthrough by the new ANO movement of billionaire Andrej Babiš.

The question in the minds of many observers is whether the Euro-elections – the first national poll in a year that will also see crucial Senate and local elections – will confirm this changed political landscape

 Early indications are that they will.

 Projections by Pollwatch 2014 (based largely on general polling data) suggest that ANO and ČSSD, who have governed together in an uneasy centrist coalition since January, will top the polls with around 22 per cent of the vote enabling each to elect 6 MEPs. Polling by SANEP which asked specifically about the European elections broadly echoes this, but gives ANO a clear lead.

European elections SANEP1 This is good news for Babiš’s movement whose strategy of presenting itself a non-ideological reform movement and hand-picking high profile technocrats and businesspeople as candidates seems, for the moment, still to be paying off. The movement’s EP list is headed by the ultra-credible Pavel Telička, a vastly experienced former diplomat who headed the Czech Republic’s EU accession negotiating team in 1998-2002 and briefly served as a European Commissioner.  Read More…

Czech Republic: Miloš Zeman’s year of living dangerously

Miloš Zeman Rozhlas 2013

Photo: David Sedlecký CC-BY-SA-3.0

The election campaign that propelled Miloš Zeman to the Czech presidency a year ago was a mixture of boundless self-belief, disregard for political convention and ruthless targeting of opponents.

Zeman’s first year in office has seen him bring these self-same qualities to bear in a concerted drive to remake the Czech political system, revealing a hitherto unsuspected taste for political risk-taking.

The net effect, however, has been far from Zeman intended. His initiatives have wreaked a trail of political destruction, felling both friend and foe alike and leaving the president himself politically damaged and deeply unpopular.

As an exercise in short-term tactics the imposition of a handpicked caretaker government under ex-finance minister Jiří Rusnok was a master-stroke, blindsiding the country’s parties and finally killing off the centre-right coalition.

But Zeman’s hubris and taste for the political coup de main quickly rebounded.

The Czech Republic is not Ukraine and its constitution was not so easily buckled into a semi-presidential system. A caretaker ‘government of officials’ (úřednická vláda) without a parliamentary majority can do only so much and survive in office for only so long.

Zeman’s grandiose visions of reuniting the Czech left and willingness to bend constitutional norms to pressurise opponents also concealed the lack of a well calibrated strategy. And more often than not the president’s blunderbuss tactics proved most deadly to his own supporters. Read More…

Czech Republic: Why all parties will lose early elections

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Photo: Ntr23 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

If as British prime-minister Harold Wilson famously commented, a week is a long time in politics, then a month can be an eternity.

This is certainly the case in the Czech Republic, where both anti-corruption probe that spectacularly brought down the government of prime minister Nečas in May and technocratic caretaker government that President Zeman imposed on a less than enthusiatic parliament have largely collaped.

 The Czech Supreme Court’s expansive interpretation of parliamentary immunity of 26 July saw most of the key dramatis personnae from the political world released from jail and charges withdrawn. It remains to be seen whether lines investigation focusing on the affairs of politically-connected business ‘godfathers’ or the misuse of military intelligence to monitor the then prime minister’s wife lead anywhere, but so little has been heard.

 Meanwhile on 7 August as expected, Miloš Zeman’s handpicked ‘government of experts’ under former finance minister Jiří Rusnok failed to win a vote of confidence in parliament. The real story, however, was the disunity of centre-right parties, whose claims they still had a parliamentary majority – and hence a claim to go on governing– were shot to pieces by the failure of three right-wing deputies to vote against Rusnok, the culprits being two Civic Democrat deputies with previous form and the mercurial Karolina Peake, leader of the tiny LIDEM party.

 As political reality dawned on the right, discussion moved at breakneck speed to early elections as centre-right parties agreed to vote with the Social Democrats to dissolve parliament to bring about the early elections left-wing parties claimed they really had always wanted all along.

 Parliament votes tomorrow (20 August) and – despite some speculation from the Zeman camp and some journalists that dissolution of the Chamber of Deputies may not, after all, be a done deal – it seems likely that the Czech Republic will be heading for early elections in October.

 There seems little doubt about who will win (the left) and lose (the right), but the prospect nevertheless raises some crucial questions about the future shape of Czech politics. 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…

Eastern Europe: Parties and the mirage of technocracy

Many commentators saw the governments of non-party technocrats formed in Greece and Italy in 2011 as an ill omen for development of party-based democracy in Europe. Established parties, it is suggested, are turning to technocratic caretaker administrations as a device to manage economic and political crisis, which allows them both to duck (or least share) responsibility for painful austerity measures. Such non-partisan governments of experts, it is argued, can only widen the yawning the legitimacy gap between governors and governed.

 Technocratically-imposed austerity backed by big established parties can further undermine party democracy by provoking anti-elite electoral backlashes:  the rise of new populist parties or breakthroughs by previously marginal radical groups. This in turn, makes coalition formation difficult and further rounds of caretaker government or awkward left-right co-operation more likely. The success of the Five Star Movement in Italy and its difficult political aftermath, which has finally resulted in an implausible Grand Coalition, seems to illustrate this scenario perfectly. Sometimes, caretaker technocrats themselves even add to the uncertainty, revolting against their erstwhile masters and founding their own new parties.

 How has the drift towards technocratic crisis management impacted Central and Eastern Europe?  The region is sometimes grouped with debt- and crisis-afflicted Southern Europe states as an economically weak periphery of flawed and potentially unstable democracies, where technocratic crisis governments are the order of the day. Read More…

Václav Klaus live and unplugged

A few years ago I honestly told myself that I would spend less time academically on Czech right-wing politics and more time on other things. The world really did, after all, need some decent research about Central European interest groups and under-the-radar new parties threatening to break through into Czech politics. Inevitably, things didn’t work out like that.

As the Czech media have noticed rather than sit at home and write his memoirs the former Czech president is embarking on the political equivalent of a European and world tour and – as with 1980s electro pop or – when you’re got all the albums, but didn’t manage to catch the acts live, it’s hard to stay away.

And so it was that I found myself in Pembroke College (Cambridge) listening to Klaus giving the Adam Smith Lecture (transcript including asides faithfully posted by the Václav Klaus Institute here).

In recent years figures on the left, not least fellow Scot Gordon Brown, have tried to reclaim Smith from his totemic status as an icon of the free market right, but – following in the footsteps of previous lecturers Charles Moore and Nigel Lawson – this will be a strictly orthodox interpretation.

 Accordingly, Klaus tells us about the Smithsonian influence over his career, explaining to semi-approved of status of classical pre-Marxian economists in communist Czechoslovakia and his position as a junior researcher attracted to liberal market economics in the 1960s, critical of the market socialist plans of the Prague Spring.

 Adam Smith, the Adam Smith Institute and the politics of Thatcher and Thatcherism were also an inspiration after the fall of communism when he is – he says – promoting the idea of a fully fledged capitalist market economy against residual ideas of a Third Way on the liberal left. Anglo Saxon liberal ideas helped see off the threat of a French – or German inspired social market economy in the Czech Republic.

 This is the classic Klaus back story. Read More…

Václav Klaus: A political phenomenon without political power

Photo: DerHuti  Wikimedia Commons   <a title="Licence" href=" http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en"

Photo: DerHuti Wikimedia Commons

In many ways a medium-sized Central European country like the Czech Republic could hardly have wished for a better president: an experienced, energetic and erudite politician of international standing able to engage both with the big European issues and handle the domestic problems thrown up by fractious politicians and crumbling coalition governments.

 A president tough-minded enough to periodically remind its citizens that they were living not in an impoverished mafia state, but in a tolerably well-administered, reasonably prosperous, if inevitably flawed, European democracy.

 As president during the last ten years Václav Klaus has been all of these things.

 But he has also been a blisteringly controversial head of state, whose views have often been sharply at odds with most of his fellow politicians or fellow citizens. Provocative and unignorable, Klaus has been loved and (more often) loathed both at home and abroad. He leaves office facing an indictment for treason brought by opponents  for alleged constitutional violations. He is, as Czech political scientist Lubomír Kopeček rightly terms him in a recent biography, a political phenomenon.

 But what lasting impacts does Klaus’s ten year period in office really leave? Read More…

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