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East European democracy: Sliding back or hollowed out?

Fidesz_fahaz_MSZP_sator

2010 Fidesz fahaz MSZP sator” by Czank Máté – Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

And in an article in latest issue of Global Policy the Hungarian political scientist and political economist Béla Greskovits has now offered precisely this. Read More…

Why Czechs need Jim Hacker as well as Sir Humphrey

The rise of Slovak-born tycoon Andrej Babiš and his anti-corruption movement ANO in the Czech Republic has been greeted more with dismay than delight, as a harbinger of the oligarchisation of politics and the flagging of Czech democracy. But the arrival of a billionaire populist on the scene need not deal a fatal blow to Czech democracy and may be seen, in hindsight to, have provide impetus for change.  But does underlines that any reconstruction of the state needs to run in parallel with the reconstruction of politics and the emergence of a new, more settled form of democratic party politics.

 Democratic politics is a moving target. The long term success of any programme to rein in the corrupt abuse of power arguably depends not only its ability to diagnose and treat current ills, but to anticipate the way democratic politics is moving. The danger is that changing nature of political and party landscape will run ahead of the reforms intended to regulate them, which are, in part,  a response to a political era dominated by ODS and ČSSD that is now receding.

In 1990s the Czech Republic opted for specific form of democracy foregrounding the role of political parties.  The Czech Constitution makes competition between parties the cornerstone of the country’s democracy. Legislation and Constitutional Court rulings  specify in detail some they should organise and operate to play this role. Parties are supposed to be voluntary associations of members open to society, which mobilise, include and educate citizens and transform partial interests into different, competing visions of the public good

The reality of Czech party politics, although oriented towards ‘standard’ Western European parties, has, of course, very differently. Parties have typically been closed rather than open; attractive to limited numbers of citizens; organisations with largely passive paper membership rather hotbeds of political activism; collusive rather than competitive; and deeply vulnerable to capture by corrupt vested interests. With the possible exception of the Communists (KSČM) and Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL)   the country’s political parties seem shell-like bodies, which de facto are loose alliances of elite groups and political professionals, overlapping more with the worlds of business and public administration than with the life of grassroots communities. Although constitutionally and legally privileged, Czech parties are, in many ways, weak organisations. Read More…

Czech Republic: How bad is Babiš?

An article about billionaire Czech politician Andrej Babiš by UK-based think tankers Andrew Foxall and Ola Cichowlas   of the Henry Jackson Society on the website of Foreign Policy has set the cat among the pigeons. Indeed the highly critical portrait  has sufficiently enraged the Slovak-born finance minister and deputy prime minister, whose ANO movement came second in the 2013 election and now tops the polls, that he has threatened to sue.

The broad thrust of the piece on the Czechs’ ‘oligarch problem’ is a familiar one: that Babiš’ has accumulated a dangerous concentration of economic, political and media power, including expanding newspaper and TV holdings and influence he can wield over public broadcasters; that are huge potential conflicts of interests between his business empire political role (shifts in government policy on bio-fuel have been cited as an obvious example); and that his own personal, professional and business background raise questions about his democratic credentials.

With a Communist family background, he made a pre-1989 career as official in communist-era foreign organisation dealing the petro-chemicals, had contacts with communist-era secret police, which registered him as an informer (wrongly a Slovak court has ruled  – although appeals are ongoing).  His post-1989 business career has been criticised for the possibly legally dubious separation of the original (state-owned) Agrofert company from its Slovak parent and left unanswered questions about foreign-registered companies and funds – and political favours -which helped build up business empire.

Veteran Prague-based business analyst James de Candole does an excellent job here summing up this issues and Czech-speaking readers could do worse than read Tomáš Pergler’s meticulously researched biography.

The FP piece, however, does a less good job. Read More…

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

146of365[NTR23]

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…

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