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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…

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>The quality of governance is not strained

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Prof. Bo Rothstein of Gothenburg’s University’s Quality of Government Institute  is a supporter of the Glorious Blues. Not Chelsea, but sixteen times Swedish champions FF Malmo. His presentation to SSEES’s politics centred on Anti-Corruption Indirect Big Bang Approach  was, however, strictly Premier League stuff. The issue, as he explained to our medium sized but on-the-ball audience, was in fact one less one of politicians taking the occasional (or not so occasional) backhander as of institutions in much of the world delivering or not delivering basic public goods such as clean water and  health, which left some people literally dying of corruption  – and of repeated failed attempts to find a magic bullet to slay corrupt, inefficient institutions and the informal structures that underpinned them. 
Both marketisation and democratisation had failed in this role, often merely transforming the problems into slightly new guise (or even aggravating them). As Robert Putman had realised individual-level incentives  based on expectations of other people locked in corrupt (and non-corupt) behaviour – although unlike Putnam he did not think that associationalism was related to social capital., meaning there was no easy  macro- institutional fix – or even a not-so-easy cultural one. Sadly, therefore corrupt, dysfunctional institutions were in many ways the norm and well governed Weberian states in Europe and North America the exception: why it should be asked was Sweden with large bureaucracies and large welfare programmes was not (as it should be) a cesspool of corruption and patronage-driven instability ?
Rally backing Indonsia’s anticorruption committee – Photo Ivan Atmanagara .
The answer his research (and new book – forthcoming with Chicago University Press later this year) suggested he key he argued – awkwardly from a normative point of view – was, rather than (electoral) democracy,  liberal state impartiality (and/or citizens’ sense of it) constituted the most effective means of dealing a ‘big bang’ blow (over a 10-20 year timescale). Delving into the Swedish (and British/Scandinavian)  experience to find how corupt tax-farming and aristocratic rent-seeking in public office turns into squeaky clean public admininistration (Swedish foreign arms sales excepted) through historical case studies had proved inconclusive: several historians sent into the archives to do the job had (intellectually speaking) disappeared iwithout trace and drowned in the mass of documentation. It seemed, however, that an indirect strategy, partly triggered by political choices and partly by the imperatives of technological modernization was the key
Questions centred on whether his understand of democracy was not, in fact, a diminshed subtype (along the lines of Zakaria’s notions of democracy-as-elections) and whether the British colonial legacy played a role. As for patriotic Brits it did not: the new book contained a paired case study of Singapore and Jamaica in the new book (also available here as a working paper) examined how – despite seemingly better prospects Jamaica had sunk into corruption and stagnation, while ethnically divided Singapore had prospered although as one questioner suggested with a population the size of Brighton and Hove, the island state was an outlier rather than blueprint for the development of good governance.
All in all, big answers to big questions with a refreshingly wide range of cases and mehthods, rather than political science navel gazing we usually too often go in for.