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From Babiš to Brexit (interview with Eurozpravy.cz)

babis-brexit

Photos in montage: David Sedlecký CC BY-SA 4.0 and The Millennium Report, 2016

You focus on right-wing parties in the Czech Republic – I mean ODS and TOP 09. According to surveys, they are not very popular and they are in opposition at present. Where did Czech right-wing parties make mistakes?  Do you think that they will be able to come back into government soon?

I don’t think right-wing parties will return to government other than as junior partners and TOP09 may not even return to parliament.

Where did Czech right wing parties go wrong? For ODS in not thinking early enough what the right-wing politics would represent in a Czech context once the basic tasks of transformation were over; sticking too long with Václav Klaus, whose idea of free market nationalistic, eurosceptic right-wing politics did not appeal broadly enough; in under-estimating the importance (and politically destructive effects) of corruption; in trying too late to reform its corrupt regional structures.  TOP09 suffered from being anti-ODS, too heavily dependent on the personal appeal of Karel Schwarzenberg.

Do Czech right-wing parties need a strong leader as Václav Klaus used to be?

Parties benefit from having attractive and charismatic leaders, and neither ODS nor TOP09 currently has one. Petr Fiala has done a good job “de-toxifying” ODS and rescuing it from extinction, but is dry and professorial. Miroslav’s Kalousek reputation is well known.   However, I don’t think a dynamic, charismatic leader alone would make the Czech right the political force it previously was.

As I mention above, Klaus’s strength and charisma was a mixed blessing: it gave ODS a clear ‘brand’ but stifled the development of the party longer term. Read More…

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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…

What will the Euro elections tell us about Eastern Europe?

Plakat do Parlamentu Europejskiego 2014 Platforma Obywatelska

Photo: Lukasz2 via Wikicommons

The elections to the European Parliament which take place across the EU’s 28 member states between 22 and 25 May are widely seen a series of national contests, which voters use to vent their frustration and give incumbent and established parties a good kicking. Newspaper leader writers and think-tankers got this story and have been working overtime to tell us about a rising tide of populism driven by a range of non-standard protest parties.

The conventional wisdom is that the ‘populist threat’ is all eurosceptic (and usually of a right-wing persuasion) although in some cases the ‘eurosceptic surge’ is clearly a matter of whipping together (and familiar) narrative than careful analysis: how the European Council for Foreign Relations came to think that the pro-business pragmatists of ANO currently topping the polls in the Czech Republic belong in the same eurosceptic bracket as the Austrian Freedom Party, Front national, Hungary’s Jobbik – or even the moderate Catholic conservatives of Law and Justice (PiS) – is very hard to fathom.

But, as a simultaneous EU-wide poll using similar (PR-based) electoral systems, the EP elections also provide a rough and ready yardstick of Europe-wide political trends, ably tracked by the LSE-based Pollwatch 2014 and others.

And, for those interested in comparison and convergence of the two halves of a once divided continent, they a window into the political differences and similarities between the ‘old’ pre-2004 of Western and Southern Europe and the newer members from Central and Eastern Europe (now including Croatia which joined in 2013). Read More…

A billionaire populist derails the Czech Social Democrats

On 26 October after two terms in opposition the Social Democrats (ČSSD) emerged as the largest party in early elections in the Czech Republic with the near certainty of the forming the next government. Their political opponents on centre-right whose tottering three-year coalition government finally collapsed amid personal and political scandal in June were routed.

The once dominant Civic Democrats (ODS) founded in 1991 by Václav Klaus to bring British-style Thatcherite conservative to post-communist transformation, was cut down to minor party status with mere 7 per cent of the vote. Its one time partner in government, TOP09, which had championed fiscal austerity slipped to 11 per cent.  The Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL) – staged a modest recovery edging back into parliament with 6 per cent support, but remained – as they had always been in the Czech lands – a niche party.  ‘Heads Up!’, the newly formed conservative eurosceptic bloc endorsed by former president Václav Klaus, scraped a humiliating 0.42 per cent

 But far from prompting celebration on the centre-left, the result provoked only despondency and dissension. Within days the party was consumed by infighting between supporters of party leader Bohuslav Sobotka and internal opponents allied with the Czech president Miloš Zeman.

The gloom and factionalism are easily explicable. Despite ‘winning’ the election, the Social Democrats’ 20.45 per cent was its lowest in the history of the independent Czech Republic, falling disastrously short of its 25 per cent target vote – let alone the 30 per cent that seemed had attainable at the start of the campaign.  Ominously, for the party, this was the second successive election fought in opposition in which the Social Democrat vote has declined. The Social Democrats’ ‘victory’ was very largely an optical illusion caused by the still heavier punishment meted out by voters to its traditional opponents on the centre-right.

 The result has left the Social Democrats having to come to terms – and quite possibly to govern – with new and unusual political force:  the ANO anti-corruption movement led by agro-food billionaire Andrej Babiš, which in the course of the election campaign moved from extra-parliamentary obscurity to centre-stage, taking 18.65 per cent of the vote to become overnight the Czech Republic’s second biggest party.

 The Social Democrats’ poor showing and the success of Babiš’s movement – as well as the more modest breakthrough of the populist Dawn of Direct Democracy (UPD) group – were not only embarrassing for a party, which had hoped to emulate the sweeping victories won centre-parties in Slovakia and Romania last year. They also drastically curtailed its governmental options.

Having finally decided after years of agonising that a pact (but not a coalition) with the Czech Republic’s hardline Communist Party (KSČM) was a price worth paying for a government of the left with a strong parliamentary majority, the Social Democrats now find that this prospect has disappeared. Together the two parties command a mere 83 seats in the 200 member lower house. Although the Christian Democrats are a biddable potential partner, unlike in previous elections the Social Democrats have few coalition-making options in the political centre.  Except to turn to Andrej Babiš. 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…

Getting the name right?

What do you do if you’re a fading historic right-wing party in a small  northern European country with a strong, broadly  social-democratic political culture?

For the Scottish Conservatives, whose  secular decline despite the electoral bounce- back of 2010 in England and Wales is catalogued by a recent IPPR report, the answer would seem be to dissolve and rebrand as a new more modern, more appealing centre-right formation.

That at least is the idea of leadership contender Murdo Fraser (one floated as early 2007)- and one looked at with quiet sympathy by London Tories around David Cameron who basically buy in to the idea the Conservative identity is too toxic and too undermined by social change and the decline of political identities shaped by religion and Empire to be redeemable. Better a strong, autonomous allied party better than enfeebled rump.

But what – assuming Mr Fraser gets his way – would such a party be called?And what would it imply? Perhaps  in time the drawing in of pro-market elements of the Liberals or the SNP.

We know one thing. The new would include the word ‘Scottish’ and not include the word ‘Conservative’. But where to go from there?

Perhaps take inspiration from the Anglosphere?

The  main party of centre-right in New Zealand is the National Party, but that label is clearly not available. in Scotland

Canada has the Progressive Conservatives, but the ‘C’ word is out and Progressive tag (Scottish Progressives? Progressive Democrats?)  alone might be a linguistic modernisation too far, even in this age of political cross dressing. I guess,  still following Canadian politics, the label Reform might be a possibility.

After all, the Tories European Parliament Group – where this new party’s MEPs (if it won any) would sit – is called the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR). So perhaps Scottish Reform Party? Tory bloggers liked this idea. On the other hand, the label does have vaguely religious echos, which might be a bad idea given Scotland’s sectarian history.

Perhaps the Scandinavian right might offer inspiration.  Sweden has the Moderates (as does Estonia)  but I suspect the Scottish Moderates would not do well and might provoke a few guffaws given the Tories’ history of hot gospelling Thatcherism in Scotland in 1980s.

Iceland, of course, has the Independence Party – a pragmatic  fusion of Liberals and Conservatives , take note – but somehow that might not strike the right note in Scotland… And besides UKIP seems have baggsied the Independence label.

Some Scottish Tories also toyed, it seems, with the idea of becoming the Freedom Party, although this rather in-your-face label has only been successfully used by Geert Wilders anti-Islamic outfit in Holland and the late Joerg Haider’s radical right grouping in Austria and is more associated with European liberal parties.  Beside Scottish Freedom Party, sounds somewhat like a more radical version of the SNP.

Perhaps  Central and East European politics then?  After all, the dissolve-rebrand-and-reinvent formula was tried by a number of discredited former ruling (communist)  parties there.

However,   as even the most rapid Tory-phobe would admit,  we not talking about a bunch of ex- totalitarians, so it’s really the CEE right we should be looking. Here the word ‘Democratic’ seems to be the main label on office (Civic Democratic Party in the Czech Republic, Slovene Democrats, Bulgaria’s Union of Democratic Forces (as was)) – as well as general avoidance of the word ‘Party’.

Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria

So that would leave is with Scottish Democrats or Scottish Democratic Union (handy echoes of the Unionist tag, the Scottish Tories historically used until 1965  and which, oddly, seems a favoured option, despite stressing the English link and having slight undertones of Northern Irish protestant politics)

Unless,  like many a Central European and Scandinavian conservative, they started to think less in party terms and more in terms of alliance-making.  Slovakia had its Blue Coalition, Denmark its Blue Alliance.

Which perhaps begs the question of where the ranks of this new centre-right in this increasingly politically far away country called Scotland would come from.

>Civic Democrats: Teenage kicks or mid-life crisis?

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The principal party of the Czech centre-right, the Civic Democrats (ODS), have been celebrating the 20th anniversaty of their foundation. The party founded, by Václav Klaus in April 1991 from the right-wing anti-communist majority in the disintegrating Civic Forum movement, can probably lay claim to being Central and Eastern Europe’s most enduring  newly formed post-1989 party. Certainly as far as major political players on the centre-right are concerned probably, only Hungary’s Fidesz’s can compete and in Fidesz’s case ideological mutation in the mid-1990s from anti-communist liberal to conservative nationalist probably gives ODS the edge , even if the Czech Republic’s more proportional electoral system has (thankfully) never seen ODS stack up Fidesz style absolute majorities in parliament.
However, the party’s celebration of two decades as a political force, at which it was addressed by  current leader Prime Minister Petr Nečas, it founder and current Czech President Václav Klaus and 2002-10 leader  and ex-PM Miroslav Topolánek, seems to have been a rather more angst-ridden , divided and downbeat affair, than similar celebrations ten years ago. Then, having come through financial scandal under founder-leader Klaus and seasoned its Thatcherite neo-liberalism with dose of Czech nationalism, it was looking forward to election victory in 2002. It lost that election and, despite winning big in vote terms in 2006, has never managed to put together a stable majority government since. 1996 Ideological and strategic divisions – and the unsolved dilemma of how to manage its relationships with powerful informal networks of political ly connected business interests – were all on show at the event, which seems to have been the Czech right-wing version of the Three Tenors, albit with considerably less harmony on show. 
They are also thrown into sharp relief by the current woeful state of Petr Nečas’s coalition, whose large  majority in parliament looks a good deal less solid given splits and relevations from within junior coalition party the populist anti-corruption party, Public Affairs (VV), where the waters have been muddied by accusations that the spilt in the party was not just due  to VV being in the pocket of ABL security firm , but was engineered in factions in ODS (although this seems less well documented that the role of ABL and its founder busienessman Vít Bárta in taking over VV as a vehicle).

For Klaus ODS’s woes lie in its move under Topolánek away from his own patent mix of neo-liberalism and eurosceptic nationalism to embrace the political centre and themes such as civil sociey and environmental protection. Far better to do pragmatic power sharing deals with the left, than allow such ideologcal contagion. Having flirted with flat taxes and fiscal populism (does anyone remember the Blue Chance programme?), through a mixture of trail and error Topolánek adopted precisely this course as a means of broading ODS appeal, which despite touching 35% under his leadership, was not sufficient to deliver a workable majority – and tended to mobilise the left –  leaving him reliant on small parties like the declining Christian Democrats and faction-ridden Greens. 
Photo: Petr Novák, Wikipedia
Both parties exited parliament in the 2010 elections, leaving a new political landscape charcterised by an ODS drastically weakened by the rise of reformist challenger TOP09 and the need to ally with the opaque and unknown VV. This, Topolánek (opposite) argued, was really a step too far and agreed with Klaus that the usual emergency option of pragmatic co-operation with the Social Democrats, who are at least a known quantity, was preferable. The recent and farcical reshuffle of the Czech government and the bizarre hard-to-deal with behaviour of VV deputies and officials – none of whom seem to talk to each other without secretly taping other and offering some may-or-may-not-be-true revelation that crops up on the front pages the next day – makes the point.
But the issue running in parallel with the question of how expansive and centrist the Civic Democrats should or shouldn’t be is that of corruption and clientelism. One interpretation of Czech politics  is simply to see the country’s various parties (with the possible exception of the Communists) as   corrupt vehicles for shadowy, informal politico-business networks: this is, for example, forms the master narrative of daily  The Final Word commentary that accompanies the daily English press resume The Fleet Sheet, which speaks in a seemingly well informed way of the Czech Republic as an ‘electro-state’ dominated by powerful vested interests  (of which power generation company ČEZ is the most powerful) grouped more broadly into ‘Five Families’.I deological divisions between parties and political programmes are, in this view, a mere facade as shadowy figures get their claws into parties and politicians, extracting billions one way or another through various soft, untransparent and uncompetitive deals  involving public property and policies which subvert the public interest.
Election poster attacking new anti-corruption parties 2010
There is plenty of evidence of an anecdotal, journalistic kind that such relationships exist. The press is full of it and poltiicians themselves report them. In the dying days of his premiership Topolánek condemned political ‘godfathers’ within (kmotří ) – powerful regional bosses tied to networks of vested interests, subverting the s(upposed ly) bottom-up democratic national organisations the Civic Democrats have traditional prided themselves on. But the real extent and scope of such relationships and the way they relate to programmatic/ideological issues that voters and politicians themselves spend a lot of time: on academic political science shows that parties offer basically ideologically coherent programmes and that voters register this and vote on them accordingly in ways which reflect wealth, class, education and age. In forming coalitions, parties clearly negotiate on programmatic issues, as well as the who-gets-what-ministry concerns that the simple model of pure corrupt clientelism would suggest. In the end, the Last Word model – even if we assume that it is based on the purest and most reliable of inside information – seems only to offer half the story, all too remincient of the darkly conspiratorial view of the world offered by the Czech far-right in days when it was electoral force. (Communists would probably also find it a good read, although with perhaps too little mention of global capital).
Pete Nečas      Photo: Aktron/Wikimedia Commons
What matters more, however, is the ‘social fact’ that parties – and certain partiers in particular such as the Civic Democrats – are seen as toxically contaminated by corrupt clientelistic networks. It would be interesting to try to quantify and track over time the public’s views on the Civic Democrats and separate it out from the Czech public’s massive and growing distrust of parties and politicians in general – but tack in Prague, the Three Tenors touched on this second, probably now more intractable problem for the party, which seems to overlap for public and politicians alike with Machivellian politics of smears, plots and spin of the type well illustrated by recent events around VV. None had very convincing answers. 
For Klaus – forgetting the financing scandals of 1990s – the problem seems to be one of  ideological slippage and lack of political backbone, belief and mission, creating the space for faction fighting and corrupt interest politics. For Topolánek, it was dealing with Public Affairs, legitimising what everyone knew  – or shrewdly suspected –  from the start to be a pocket party serving business interests with naked ambition of advancing private commerical interests. But VV would, of course, never have become a political force without the apparently burgeoning politics of ‘godfathers’, which he was unwilling or unable to prevent. Nečas’s message was to recognise that voters have been looking for novelty but of Keep Calm and Carry On: the party was down but not out and its organisation, experience and programme would carry it through.
And the Civic Democrats’ contribution to Czech democracy over the last two decades? Stable, conventional  model of party politics; a new liberal pro-market ideology defining the Czech centre-right; being there when the big decisions were made and getting some of them right, they all agreed. Having written on that elsewhere, I won’t disagree. But, while Topolánek saw ODS as immature 20 year old with teenage lack of focus,  the party, in fact, seems dangerously flabby and middle-aged. 
In the end, I do wonder if the Civic Democrats will be around in recognisable form in another twenty years. Or another ten.

>Chronicle of a (party) death foretold

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I am not always the most astute of pundits, but as the dust settled a year ago even I could see that the Veci veřejné (‘Public Affairs’), the anti-establishment, anti-corruption party that was the surprise package last May’s Czech elections would – to borrow Kevin Deegan Krause’s phrase – live fast and die young. And, as I write, VV seems to be on its political deathbed, rapidly expiring from an outbreak of splits and scandals, extreme even by local standards, that seems to be the political equivalent of ebola fever  – and may yet carry away the Czech government centre-right coalition  government of Petr Nečas in which VV is a junior partner. Expulsions and splits have seen four of VV’s 24 deputies leave the party; its chief sponsor and de facto leader Vít Bárta resign as transport minister; and its two bigger partners demand that Mr Bártaand cronies from the ABL security firm leave the government.
Vít Bárta/ Fotobanka ČTK
The problem? Revelations in the media over recent days, have bluntly confirmed  – with documentary and audio evidence – what most people suspected all along:

1) that, nothingwithstanding claims to a postmodern party of electronic direct democracy run through snazzy electronic referendums of members and sympathisers, Mr Bárta controlled and orchestrated the whole organisation;

2) that he used extremely an extremely basic method of party management to keep leading deputies on board,  of the kind that any City of London banker would recognise: he paid them huge sums of cash;

3) that he   backed VV as a project to foward his Napoleonic business ambition for his security company ABL, rightly recognising that public sector contracts were a lucrative source of cash and required political contacts;

4) that VV was conceived as an essentially local project,aimed at securing influence, indeed control, local councils in two Prague boroughs and was conceived as a kind of insurance policy or plan B, to run in parallel with efforts to gain influence in local organisations of the Civic Democrats;

5) that Mr Bárta is a ruthless operator keen on industrial espionage and subterfuge, including the creation of  ‘pseduo-competitors’ to maintain an illusion of transparency and competiton in tenders, and that he transfered some of these techniques to political activities using his company to track the activities of local politicians in Prague.

Given that Veci veřejné‘s appeal and origins were one of anti-corruption, transparency and taking on political dinosaurs – its name better translated as Public Interest or Res Publica and it was originally a local community politics initiative in Prague formed in respons to murky ways local municipal housing was being privatised deal – there would seem to be no way back, especially as Mr Bárta, who is clearly a strategic thinker of some skill, was foolish enough to put his strategy down in writing.
 Now the only question would seem to be which way the collapsing structure will fall and how many of its deputies will be recoverable, reliable and usable for the two main parties in centre-right coalition, the Civic Democrats (ODS) and TOP09. This is a totally a forlorn hope. There are some impressively able young er people and political marketers in the VV fold, as well oddballs, ABL cronies and second rank figures well out of their depth (like the party’s notional leader and hapless Interior Minister, the former investigative journal Radek John) and for a working majority the other two parties would need about 10-12 ex-Večkaři.
From a more nerdish political science point of view it seems a shame that this most unusual and interesting political phenomenon – closer to the ‘pocket parties’ created by businesspeople in the Baltic state or (it now seems) the phoney virtual parties of the former Soviet Union – is soon to be no more, although its death may be drawn out, mucky and unedifying. Perhaps most telling is that far from being corrupted and eaten into by holding power, the whole project was tainted and corrupt from the start, subverting the political appeal of anti-corruption and anti-establishment  politics to perpetuate and develop the very phenomena it was fighting against. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too worried, however, as other will no doubt be trying out and improving upon Mr Bárta’s business model in the choppy electoral markets of Czech politics.

>Czech politics: The urge to merge?

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The ink’s hardly dry on the Czech coalition agreement and the Civic Democrats (ODS) haven’t even yet been routed in the local elections – although we still haven’t the foggiest who their candidate for mayor of Prague is – and already ODS MEP Hynek Fajmon is weighing in on his blog Spojit ODS a TOP09? Ne! Blog – Hynek Fajmon (blog.iDNES.cz) to say his party should not merge with TOP09. He’s  dead right that it wouldn’t work for organisational reasons – ODS is too structured and locally embedded, compared to TOP for merger to be an easy prospect and, for the same reasons, a loose electoral alliance like a join list would probably flounder. The stuff about ideological incompatibilities is – ODS is eurosceptic and anti-environmental, TOP a load of tree hugging europhiles – is, however, wishful thinking. True believers like Fajmon are becoming something of rare breed in ODS these days even in the rareified environment of the European Parliament. After all, the two parties signed a coalition agreement on time and in good order with most of the cracks down Public Affairs’ esoteric demands on referenda and the the like.

And, call me a fashion victim if you will (curiously, no one ever does…), but with sweaters like the one sported by Mr F. on his blog, you do begin feel that the days of the Civic Democrats may indeed be numbered…I own a similar one myself.


>Czech Republic: What the elections mean

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So, what does the Czech ‘earthquake election’ mean for Czech and Central European politics? As with the famous Ho-Chi Minh quote on the French Revolution, it is basically too early to tell – and probably will be for about another 10 or 20 years, but, I think, there four sets of issues/consequences to watch and think through.


1. A sudden and unprecedented (but not irreversible?) decline of (big) established parties

As all commentators have noticed, the election is an earthquake in Czech politics because of the simultaneous fall in the votes of the two big parties, that have been the pillars of the Czech party system for the last 15-20 years : the Civic Democrats (ODS) and Social Democrats (ČSSD). It is the lowest national vote for ODS since the party’s foundation in 1991 and puts the Social Democrats on a level of national support they had in 1995-6, although – as noted – they did experience a more catastrophic electoral meltdown in the 2004 European elections and bounced effortlessly back in the 2006 parliamentary elections.

Previously, however, when one big party declined the other picked up support – with the exception that is of the Opposition Agreement period (1998-2002) when the they co-operated politically as a part of a confidence and supply agreement to enable a minority Social Democrat government. In that period, however, existing parties (the Communists and a Christian-Democrat led centrist alliance) gained from voter discontent – or, at least, vote desire to vote against incumbents. As the lastest analysis at Pozorblog makes clear (see graph) the swing in support for new parties is unprecedented in Czech terms and pretty damn big in regional terms.

The 2010 result is still more striking because the fragmentation – and equalization – of the Czech party politics it has brought about – again Kevin Deegan-Krause has done the numbers over at Pozorblog – follows on an election result in 2006, which saw polarization and an large increas in support for both big parties. Indeed, in 2006 ODS polled a record vote. Such polarization seemed to be part of a CEE-wide trend at the time, but may now have been derailed.

Does this herald a cycle of ever more unstable party politics with new parties rising and falling with increased tempo and scale, as the stable-seeming party systems of CEE such as Hungary, the Czech Republic and (who knows) even dear old Slovenia defaulting to ‘normal’ postcommunist politics under the exogenous shocks of the economic crisis and/or because finally voters have got truly fed up with them and a perfect storm of mismanaged strategy and credible new parties has blown up and blown them away. Kevin Deegan Krause suggests this and it’s seductive and plausible argument.

On the other hand if organization and ‘standard’ predictable identity have tended over the long term to bring success, then in years to come they should tend do so again, especially once the lustre of anti-establishment newness wears off TOP09 and Public Affairs (as it very rapidly will when they enter government) and their lack of organizational (and in VV’s case) programmatic resources is laid bare. So there may be no automatic or quick spiral into cycle of parties rising and falling. ‘Old’ and ‘new’ parties – and here I am really thinking really of parties of the centre-right – ODS, TOP09, VV and Christian Democrats – are likely to be engaged in projects of realignment, likely to produce some Italian style alliance or bloc probably centred on ODS.

Moreover, however fickle the voters – and I think that with the exception of some parts of the ODS electorate and small loyal core electorates of Communists and Christian Democrats, they have always been pretty fickle bunch – there is a limited reservoir of politicians, journalists, businesspeople and aristocrats with the experience, credibility and financial backing to launch a credible new party projects. They are not that easy to do. As that “one of the reasons that new parties do not survive is that they never really get started”.

‘New’ parties tend to work when they are breakaways from old parties – or recycled versions of earlier elites – with an aura of newness. Leaving aide the iconic Schwarzenberg, TOP09 seems run by hardened ex-Christian Democrats with a long political track record. What is TOP09 without the Prince? Public Affairs seems to form something of a fascinating exception here, but even here if you look closely you see that it has recycled part of many of the CR’s small off-the-radar liberal parties. The issue therefore seems to be just as the organizational stability and elite cohesion of existing parties in preventing breakaway projects and the ability of extraparliamentary politicians to bring together, mobilize and unite diffuse elements, than the voters ever changing moods.

One critical point, may be the ability or inability of new parties to take control of the regions – currently all run by Social Democrats with the exception of Prague. The battle for political control of the Czech capital in municipal elections in November will be an intresting test of whether TOP and VV can consolidate- although both are strong in the capital it will be a relatively easy initial test.

2. A victory for the centre-right, but a difficult to manage coalition

Viewed in left-right terms for the first time since 1992 – well, in fact 1998 although in that year the Freedon Union’s leaders never for a moment allying with the ODS, having just broken away from it – this year’s election result break the deadlock between left and right. Coalition talks are have just started to form a ODS-TOP09-Public Affairs (VV) coalition, which, on paper, would enjoy a thumping majority (118 of 200 seats). However, the fly the in ointment is VV, whose origins, leaders and financial backing are uncertain and whose politics are as much anti-establishment and populist as right-wing,liberal and pro-market: the demand to cut the military budget and spend the money on schools seems characteristic. If VV is included ina coalition, the calculation at the back of ODS and TOP politicans is probably that even if VV’s parliamentary group splits – and the track record of loose, charistmatically led new parties which experience a meteoric rise would seem to make that a racing certainty – enough of its 24 strong group of deputies will gravitate to ODS or TOP09 to leave the government with a working majority.

Still, given that the emerging Nečas government will need to make some tough financial decisions – and will be programmatic committed to doing – there are likely acute problems of party and coalition management, especially as TOP09 is itself a hastily put together conglomeration of ex-Christian Democrats, the odd ex-ODS politician and independent local politicians: seasoned with the odd businessman and emininent physian the latter group, especially, may have little experience of – or taste for – party discipline in parliament.

3. Instabilty, infighting and realignment on the centre-right

The upshot of all – even if you subscribe to the somewhat conspiratorial view of Erik Best’s the Final Word – that TOP09 and VV are, in essence, fake parties intended to soak up protest voting and then fold (into ODS) and will not change the status quo where powerful vested interests dominate – is that there will be some major realignment on the right. This, as I suggest above, will be part organizational, but also part ideological: if there is some degree of consolidation a ‘Canadian scenario’ would seem most probably with the insurgent anti-corruption, market populist agenda of TOP09 and VV absorbed into the mainstream, most probably represented some kind of remade ODS.

4. The rise of left-wing populist challenge to the Communists and Social Democrats

The Social Democrats, despite the shock of defeat, are in many ways in somewhat less of a crisis than ODS. True the robust confrontation welfare populism and negative campaigning of Paroubek era may be dumped – although, in fact, negative campaigning of the right against the lack of realism of Paroubek’s Social Democrats may have done the job in persuading many of their voters not to turn out – and a turn back to some quieter more moderate version of Czech social democracy is likely. However, that’s a cycle we’ve seen before with the shift from the bombastic Zeman to the technocratic Špidla to the even more bombastic Paroubek (leaving out the ill-fated, brief premiership of Stanislav Gross in 2004-5). The Social Democrats will also benefit from not being in government – and hence free to oppose unpopular cuts, and regroup and rethink – and are more experienced in bouncing back from bruising electoral setbacks and political meltdowns.

The unexpectedly good performance of two, little fancied minor left-wing parties: Zeman’s SPOZ and the Sovereignty party should give them food for though. Zeman’s party was regarded as something of joke and/or vanity project, having little more than Zeman himself, a bog standard centre-left programme with few new idea (rehashing ideas the Social Democrats have regularly used) and surprisingly large amounts of cash for national billboard advertising. Some wonder whether it was not a Russian style spoiler party deliberatly backed by interests favouring the right. If so, it succeeded brilliantly.

The somewhat less successful Sovereignty is, however, probably the one to watch and seems to be in for the longer term (Zeman has quit his own party): it has a more innovative blend of centre-left economics, anti-establishment rhetoric and a dosh of euroscepticism and in Jan Bobošiková – striking in trademark bright yellow dress – a striking figure with the cache of newness. Interestingly, Sovereignty and SPOZ seem to have picked up votes in quite different regions (see below) suggesting that scope for some more ambitious project – a Public Affairs (VV) of the left, if you will.

It has also not escaped attention that despite its Prague stronghold (its origins lie in local politics in the Czech capital) VV seems to have picked up more than a few left-wing voters – doing surprisingly well in the industrial Moravia-Silesia region in the North-West of the country.

The Mother of All Questions for the Czech left, however, is what will happen the Communist Party (KSČM) and its famously loyal voters? TOP09 was able to fell Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL)- another party with a loyal core electorate, but limited wider appeal. but only, arguably, because TOP was founded by ex-Christian Democrats and because part of the KDU electorate was a more floating and centrist one. Would parties of the populist left be able to do a similar job on KSČM? The Czech Communists are bigger with a bigger core electorate and its seems unlikely that there is a Czech Robert Fico concealed somewhere inside the party reading to launch a Czech Smer? The Czech Social Democrats and their voters would, however, seems to offer more than sufficient scope for a small-medium size new social-national party of the populist left.