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Populism: Europe’s coat of many colours


Photo: Henning Mühlinghaus CC BY-NC 2.0

The politcal challenges thrown up to the status quo in Europe in the aftermath of global recession and the Eurozone crisis has prompted a surge of media and think-tank interest in the concept of populism.

Although a notoriously slippery term – and one often used in a loose, disparaging sense to describe demagogic promise-making by unsavoury extremist outsiders – most academic researchers concur with the definition of the Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde: an ideological construction that sees politics as dominated by immoral and collusive elites who do down a homogeneous and unsullied People – sometimes by promoting the interests of undeserving minorities.  Populists thus offer themselves to electorates as truth tellers, tribunes of the People and righters of wrongs.

However, as populism is famously a ‘thin ideology’ whose basic construct needs to filled in and filled out  with political ballast from elsewhere. For this reasons populism seems chameleon-like. It can assume many political colourations: from the (much studied) extreme right through regionalism, free marketry and radical left populism.

The academic study of comparative populism and the sense that populist movements have been the main beneficiaries of the politics of austerity triggered by the global recession of 2008-9 are brought together in a new collection edited by Takis S. Pappas and Hanspeter Kriesi European Populism in the Shadow of the Great Recession (ECPR Press, 2015).

ecpr bookThe book assesses the political impact of the Recession by examining pre- and post-crisis fortunes of 25 populist parties in 17 European countries, which are grouped in five regional clusters: Nordic (Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland); North European (France, Holland, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland); Southern Europe (Italy and Greece); and Central and Eastern Europe (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia); and the ‘Anglo-Celtic’ pairing of the UK and Ireland.

In Nordic and Northern Europe countries and – with the rise of UKIP – the UK the main populist challengers are radical right or anti-immigrant parties, in Southern and Eastern Europe populism is a more mixed bag comprising conservative-nationalism, radical leftists, technocratic market reformers and hard-to-categorize anti-corruption movements. 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…

Europe as antipolitics machine

Entropa Total

Photo: Daniel Antal via Flikr

The customers in this Westminster café seem a strange mix of  suited civil servants and builders in boots and hi-vis. But it’s worth the early start and the cup of industrial strength tea to beat a path back to the European Council for Foreign Affairs, who this week are  putting on two-handed discussion on Legitimacy: Democracy versus Technocracy.

Despite the abstraction of the title, the event focuses on the experience of the two countries which have borne the brunt of the current crisis and catalysed the political weaknesses in the Eurozone Greece and Ireland.  Looking at experiences and perspectives of small countries is (I think quite rightly) a particular concern of the ECFR, although Greece is admittedly not exactly under the radar right now.

Both speakers, Brigid Laffan of UCD  and Loukas Tsoukalis of the ELIAMEP thinktank sensibly  avoided addressing the populism vs. technocracy dichotomy of the title – one of ECFR’s favourite motifs, but too simple and stylised –   and instead  stressed the way in which the new politics of low-growth and hard times locked in by the Eurocrisis (especially grim in Greece despite success in budget-cutting and squeezing living standards to effect ‘internal devaluation’) are reshuffling the party political deck. Populist ‘challenger parties’ such as the True Finns and (possibly – notes teas-stained and illegible here) Syriza in Greece were picking up support and making electoral breakthroughs in both creditor and debtor states.

The net result was a new ‘politics of constrained choice’ reflected the oft-noted (and often prosaic seeming) fact that EU is a system of multilevel governance: now see national governments trying (and failing) to be accountable to both their own domestic electorates and EU partner governments. This meant not the abolition of any scope for national policy responses – there was some political wiggle room and EU members had quite different capacities for adaptability and reform – but its constriction.

However, elections so far (as in Ireland) had seen frustrated voters turn to main opposition parties and, to a lesser extent, to previously marginalised but coalitionable  substitutes for them (Syriza) the next cycles of elections would put this to the test. The unanswered question was much social pain and dislocation, economic contraction and what level of unemployment – especially youth unemployment – would it take to trigger an explosive political crisis.

Cyclists demonstrating

Photo: Gesimpopos via Wikicommons

For Ireland the answer would seem to be quite a lot. Irish society, said aid Prof Laffan, was a characterised by pragmatism, ideological moderation and a certain fatalistic passivity – there had been little in the way of Southern Europe contentious politics and anti-austerity protest – partly reflecting its historical experience, partly its more global and transatlantic, outlook. With the exception of the last point, it sounded oddly, but familiarly, East European. In Greece, where there was more anger, protest and populism, there was very little nationalistic, euroscepticm (or Euro-scepticism) – notwithstanding the media attention lavished on Golden Dawn – with few people advocating Grexit. However, the main political surprises, both speakers agreed, were still to come.

But what of Populism versus Technocracy? ‘Challenger parties’ was another term for populism – understood here to mean a loose amalgam of demgagogic, impossibilist demands, rather than in the more precise academic sense – although the speakers tended, I think rightly, to see such parties as an unknown threat yet to come, rather than recycling the  hackneyed and predictable line that the rise of the far-right is already upon is. But where was the technocracy?

European Commission flags

Photo: Sebastien Betrand via Wikicommons

The answer was partly in the presence of technocrats and technocratic governments in Greece and Italy, but more in the technocratic nature of the unelected European institutions now moving to centre-stage: the European Central Bank  (‘a pivotal’ institution) and the European Commission, which noted the new fiscal pacts and oversight arrangements were empowering as never before (although I seem to remember reading other commentaries arguing that the crisis had, in fact, disempowered the Commission and robbed it of the political initiative it once possessed).

I wasn’t sure whether such how fully European level institutions really are or whether the problem with them is the fact that they are technocratic or the fact that they are European. Leaving this aside, however, the option of a top-down technocratic solution to the crisis centring around such institutions, it was argued, risked further de-legitimation of the EU – there was a need to re-build EU institutions into new frameworks of accountability perhaps by enhancing roles of national parliaments with European Parliament also having a potential role despite its failure to become a fully-fledged (and legitimate) European-wide legislature.

Rather interestingly – although ominously – the concept of democracy evoked was as accountability without representation similar to the one Mark Leonard of the ECFR claimed to detect emerging in China.  But unfortunately, at national level there are democratic structures with the reverse profile: representation without (clear lines of) accountability

It’s hard to see this staving off the rise of see off populist challengers.  In the absence of growth the [Euro] system lacks the political and economic resources to see them off as it once did to Communist Parties after 1945.  The whole, complex multi-level economic and political system of the EU, it seems is set up as a giant anti-politics machine, a production line for populist  challengers parties of all shades and models that is ready to roll.

Sligo yeats

Photo: Rowan Gillespie via Wikicommons

And in a sense this is the one bright spot to the pessimism-laden analysis that isthe stock in trade of thinktanks these days: the uncertainty around the exact form that such new forms will take. While the ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’ line from Yeats’s The Second Coming  – surely one of the all time favourite lines for of the  literate political scientist to quote – may indeed fit our current sense of fear and foreboding we do not yet know the identity of the rough beast  politicall slouching towards Bethlehem – or should that be Brussels? –  to be born

>Klaus: Good for Ireland and good for Europe


No sooner does Václav Klaus turn up in the Irish Republic, hobnobbing undiplomatically with local eurosceptics during a ‘private’ part of his presidential visit then polls appear showing Irish voters may back the Lisbon Treaty. It certainly can’t be because of the ruling party’s ‘Yes’ campaign, whose worthy but soporific efforts can seen by clicking the image above.

So, rather than being the EU’s leading ‘dissident’ as he suggests, a sort of Andrei Sakharov of European integration silenced and held under house arrest in Prague Castle, by totalitarian europhiles, the Czech President, it seems , is be more the Gorbachev of the eurosceptic movement. As soon as he turns up to show a little fraternal encouragement, things go spectacularly belly up Just think Mikhail Sergeyevich’s efforts to promote democratic socialism on visits to China and East Germany in 1989.

>Polish elections: SSEES roundtable debates Civic Platform’s (uncertain?) prospects


Meanwhile, before you can say ‘Jaroslaw Kaczynski’ there is a (well attended)roundtable on the Polish elections at SSEES, where Aleks Szczerbiak struck an interestingly sceptical note about the durability of Civic Platform’s victory. Donald Tusk’s party has, he thinks, perhaps put together an unfeasibly broad electoral coalition based more of rejection of the incumbent government than support for a liberal-consevative centre-right. It had hoovered up votes of those who incline to more to the post-communist left, which was wrongfooted by the speed with which early election were called. Moreover, the Kaczynski’s Law and Justice (PiS) party remained, he thought, remained a poweful force having gained both voters and voters in a way not wholly reducible to taking over the electorate pole-axed radical parties Self-Defence and the League of Polish Families (LPR) (cut loose by Radio Marija, which backed PiS). PiS, it was suggested also had a powerful and coherent conservative-national narrative based on the project of a ‘Fourth Republic’ cleansed of the pervasive influence of an informal establishment (Uklad) of left-liberal communists-turned-capitalists and shady characters. Tusk’s PO, by contrast, travelled rather light in terms of ideology stressing modernity and decency. The idea of young, educated migrants and the emergeny middle classes turned on conservative, rural Poland was something of a myth: only about 30, 000 of the 750, 000 Poles in the UK voted and thir liberal votes were probably counted out by the Law and Justice inclined ballots of a similar number of Polish Americans in the US. Moreover, any coalition with the Peasant Party (PSL) would be tricky, given the latter’s inclination to play hardball on all kinds of issues, ruthless extract policy concessions for their rural base and use state posts as patronage resources to sutain their party (Civic Platform want to decentalize and clean up, but I wondered can you really build or sustain a party in CEE these days without a dose of clientelism and patronage?). Civic Platform and its new government might like so many previous Polish election winners fall apart all too soon.

Others speakers, including my SSEES economist colleague Tomasz Mickiewicz who doubles as astute poltical analyst, saw PO as having better prospects. There was ample scope for privatization – about 20% of Poland’s GDP is still in the state sector, second only to Russia among post-communist states, apparently. (Ironically, Law and Justice’s Gaullist dislike of privatizition had deprived it of resources for its social spending commitments). Moreover, its rhetoric of European modernity and a free market with functional welfare, he thought had been effective – the party had managed to reinvent itself as something else other than a elite, secular liberal party indifferent to national tradition and religion. Mass emigration to the UK and Ireland had given Poles a clear sense of just how this could work – migrants might not count much electorally, but they were cultural vectors for change in small town and rural Poland, perhaps enabling PO to puncture PiS economically populist warnings of impoverishment all round. Apparently, some Poles also see Ireland’s political model of two (broadly speaking) right-wing parties and a rump social democratic left as as desirable as its Celtic Tiger economic policies. Ireland’s chronic patronage and clientelism probably also offer an (unintended) parallel…

The roundtable was finished off by a very fluent and engaging review of Polish foreign policy by Nat Copsey, who foresaw a change of tone in Poland’s EU policy as well as its external relations with Russia and Ukraine, masking a lot of underlying continuity. In part this was because the Terrible Twins’ foreign policy, while less than comptently managed, were less terrible in practice than their public comments often suggested.

>Young academics to back Mečiar?


Even in its current much diminished, more moderate form Vladimír Mečiar’s populist-nationalist Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) is not known for its intellectual qualities, so it is interesting to see that it has just founded a Young Politcal Scientists Club for sympathetic adademics to advise and feed in ideas. The rationale, reports Sme, is to counter the heavy bias in Slovak political science community towards liberal, pro-market parties. This I suspect does exist, although ,that said, Slovak political science is of a generally rather high quality with less obvious and uncomfortable partisianship creeping in than (for example) in the neighbouring Czech Republic. It will be interesting to see whether this initiative develops and contributes to the modernization of HZDS, whose vagueness plus loyal base of voters remembering the bad/good old days when VM dominated Slovak politics may be an asset for future growth. In Croatia the broadly similar Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), for example, took Ireland’s Fianna Fáil as its model of thoroughly modern small country nationalism. HDZ founder Franjo Tudjman did, however, have the decency to die at a poltically opportune moment…

>Ireland’s transfer season


Taking a break from marking, I sat up late reading throughthe Irish election results with the help of the Irish Times election special. After a few scares along the way, dominant incumbent party – indeed dominant party in Irish politics full stop – Fianna Fáil scored a convincing victory, although its coalition partners the small liberal Progressive Democrats, like so many liberal parties in CEE, were finally whacked almost into parliamentary nothingness (2 deputies, TDs (Teachtaí Dála) I should say. Commentatrors suggest that, however, that in the Irish case the demise of PDs was more due them being victims og their own success in spreading the free market gospel, rather than victims of Fico-esque or Catholic nationalist populism. The Greens, support concentrated in Dublin, stood still and Sinn Fein – powersharing deal with Ian Paisley in the North – failed to make the anticipated breakthrough, probably because voters distrusted their left-of-centre economic policy (scaled back during the campaign) and they were squeezed by the two big parties, Fianna Fail and Fianna Gael, the latter (historically less nationalist) party making gains but still coming behind FF and having litle prospect of forming another ‘rainbow coalition’ with the Greens and previous coalition partner the Irish Labour Party, one of the few mainstream European social democratic parties to be a long-time minor party in its own national political system. An FF-Labour coalition isn’t apparently ruled out.

The best thing about Irish politics from the lecturer’s/anorak’s point of view, however, is Single Transferable Vote system, which is not only appealingly complex in istelf with its quotas, multiple transfers of voters from losing candidates (and sometimes winning candidates with a surplus), but offers incredible strategic permutations: how many candidates to field, how to manage the splitting of first preferance votes between candidates, ‘losers’ on first preferences being elected as transfers gradually increased their score, candidates hanging on across multiple rounds (up to 13 this election) in waiting for a big transfer from a popular losing candidate, competition between candidates from the same party in multi-member constituencies and, of course, the personal voter for personalities and politicians with a local following. STV Irish style is not super proportional due to the (constituionally fixed) size of constituencies (3-5 members) but it does offer ample scope for local independents to come through. There were 14 in the outgoing 166 member parliament, 5 in this. Interestingly, and perhaps for this reason, there were almost no extra-parliamentary minor parties standing. Sitting up till 1.00am looking over the results from bits of Dublin where various aunties and uncles life and trying to work out why Sinn Fein failed to get a TD elected in Donegal despute getting 20% of first preferences, I became an instant STV groupie.

>ie-politics: putting Sinn Féin in comparative context


Came across an interesting discussion on placing Sinn Féin in comparative context on the equally interesting ie-politics blog. Odd that no one seems to think of placing SF in a category of nationalist/regionalist irredentist parties, but I guess that just my British/big state perspective, which takes no account of SF’s all-Ireland organization and its status in the Republic as an extremist pariah party preparing to duck under the cordon sanitaire and become a coalition player in the Republic, rather than the incomprehensible but no longer threatening peripheral irritant it seems viewed from London.

>Irish angles

>I had always assumed that Ireland’s Single Transferable Vote (STV) electoral system – a form of PR rarely used in West European contexts, except for things like British student union elections – was adopted on Irish independence to balance out political forces in a new democracy and give weight to local notables in rural areas, whose clientelistic networks tended to structure Ireland’s parties. In fact, today’s Irish Times reports in an article abour gerrymandering (easy to do with multi-member constituencies electing small numbers of MPs – TDs, I should say) – that STV was actually an parting gift of the British, enshrined in the Government of Ireland Act 1920 to protect the Ulster Unionist minority (yes, minority) in the island of Ireland – a political experiment that, of course, never took place as the Unionists (predictably) took the option of partition to make themseleves a local majority and adopted British style first-past-the-post guaranteeing them dominance in a religous-ethnic illiberal democracy until the suspension of direct rule.

Interesting, how once again there is a symbiosis between the politics of British Imperial retreat and Irish republicanism. This is neatly illustrated in the new play by Mary Kenny offering a fictionalized account of a meeting over brandy and cigars of Michael Collins and Winston Churchill (played by Mel Smith), which is currently in the news because cigars not lit on stage in Edinburgh under Scottish anti-smoking laws. British policy and the logjam around Irish Home rule effectively created Irish Republicanism as a political force, derailing the very different constitutional tradition of the Irish National Party. This was one of the few stories that the IT had in common with the Murdoch Times, which I also bought today.

The Irish Times mixture of old fashioned high quality journalist, interest – and very good coverage of East European politics (how many British newspapers had an editorial onthe Slovak elections?) and small country feel – restored my faith things Irish after an awful time seeing someone off an RyanAir flight to Brno at Stansted. RyanAir, surely the unacceptable unecological face of the Tiger economy, made its passengers, including families with small children kids stand sweltering in 60-70 long queues for a whole hour while very small number of staff slowly checked them all in. Naturally the flight was late being called and late taking off

When they finally made it to the front of the queue passengers were greeted by the slogan “Ryan Air – the On-time Airline”. I just about enough Irish to distinguish the Taoiseach from the Tánaiste , but I think Póg mahone is more or less the right response here. Not an expression, you’ll find in the Irish Times, I suspect…