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.
The results of the elections to the European Parliament which took place across the EU’s 28 member states last week very much as predicted – at least in the ‘old’ pre-2004 member states: driven by frustration with austerity, economic stagnation, diminished opportunities and a yawning sense of disconnect with established parties and politicians, a variety of outsider parties made sweeping gains and unignorably stamped themselves on the electoral map.
In Northern Europe, where socio-economic malaise and disconnect were often refracted through the politics of anti-immigration, this tended to benefit right wing, Eurosceptic parties. In Southern Europe anti-austerity parties of the radical left such as Greece’s Syriza or Podemos in Spain gained most.
The most spectacular gains were been made by parties of varying political complexions which had a long-time presence on at the political margins: UKIP in the UK, the Front National in France, Sinn Féin in Ireland. Whatever their coloration, scale of their political success underlines the potential fragility of mainstream parties in Western Europe even in states with well-established party systems previously considered immune to populist surges such as Spain or the UK.
Many commentators have lumped in the newer EU member states of Central and Eastern with the unfolding (if exaggerated) story of a populist backlash in the EU’s West European heartlands. Anticipating the strong showing of the radical right in Denmark, Holland and Austria The Observer’s Julian Coman, for example, causally assured readers that ‘across much of eastern Europe, it is a similar story’
But, in fact, it was not. Read More…
The spectacular breakthrough of Pepe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy in February underlined the potential for a new type of anti-establishment politics in Europe – loosely organised, tech savvy and fierce in its demands to change the way politics is carried class, but lacking the anti-capitalism or racism that would make them easily pigeon-holeable as traditional outsider parties of far-left or far-right.
But for observers of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), the dramatic eruption of new parties led by charismatic anti-politicians promising to fight corruption, renew politics and empower citizens is nothing new. Indeed, over the last decade a succession of such parties – led by a colourful array of ‘non-politicians’ ranging from aristocrats to central bankers, journalists and businessmen – have broken into parliaments in the region.
Some have achieved spectacular overnight success in elections on a scale easily comparable to Grillo’s and (unlike Grillo) have often marched straight into government. Some examples include Simeon II National Movement (NDSV) in Bulgaria in 2001, New Era in Latvia in 2002 and Res Publica (Estonia 2003) and, more recently, the Czech Republic’s Public Affairs party (2010), the Palikot Movement (Poland 2011), Positive Slovenia (2011) and Ordinary People (Slovakia 2012),
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…
I really don’t know why John Feffer’s Huffington Post post Hungary: The Cancer in the Middle of Europe? is being so widely shared and translated.
Its starting point that things are going badly wrong in Hungary and that the country is taking a sharply illiberal turn under the conservative-national administration of Fidesz – and that in Jobbik it has a strong and virulent far-right party – is reasonable enough (although it has been made many times before). And there is indeed a climate of nationalism and anti-Roma racism on the Hungarian right, although Fidesz and Jobbik are probably as much rivals as ‘occasional allies’ especially given the stuttering performance of Hungary’s divided liberal-left.
And the transformation of Fidesz from a liberal party to conservative bloc occurred in the mid-late 1990s, not recently as some readers might assume from reading piece. Nor, being one of the major governing parties in Hungary since 1998 can Fidesz have interrupted a ‘rotating kleptocracy’ of liberal parties – the intepretation of why parties like Fidesz come to power offered in the conclusion.
But piece’s main argument that Hungary is Eastern Europe writ large or the shape things to come in the region. ‘What’s eating away at a free society in Hungary’, Feffer writes, ‘has metastasized. This same cancer is present elsewhere on the continent’.
And this is really hyperbole. Read More…
At 8.30am I am sitting in a thinktank seminar on ‘subterranean politics’ in Europe. At 8pm I am sitting in launch event for a book about populism in Europe and the America. It is a long day framed with big questions and incomplete answers.
At one of the regular European Council for Foreign Affairs regular Black Coffee Mornings Mary Kaldor of the LSE launches her project team’s new report on Subterranean Politics in conversation with Mike Richmond of the Occupied Times. ‘Subterranean politics’ is an appealing term, but a vague (and undefined) one intended to capture a plethora of alternative and protest phenomena: new anti-capitalist social movements (like the much feted Occupy), successful far-right parties like Hungary’s Jobbik or the True Finns; sundry less easily categorisable new parties like the German Pirates or Italy’s Five Star movement and broader, more subtle – perhaps truly subterranean – changes wrought on citizens and politics by the internet and below-the-radar reactions to the crisis.
The more interesting argument is that what has changed is such fringe, anti-establishment phenomena are bleeding into the political mainstream and what they all have in common is demands for new forms of politics, rather than simply demands for economic redress – economic crisis triggering political crisis. It isn’t entirely clear how these impacts are supposed to happen (or indeed if there was a common impact). The clearest answer offered –referencing some rather well established academic ideas about social movements- was that we were in a new cycle of protest and that the generational change would bring this about change in the mainstream, perhaps in the similar way that the demands and leaders of 1968 were gradually incorporated into academic, political and cultural establishments of 1980s and 1990s.
(The more conventional party-political far left, oddly, didn’t get a mention, although Greece’s Syriza perhaps illustrates margins-to-mainstream transition of the most direct and immediate kind under conditions of acute crisis).
Europe, needless to say, was absent from the idea of various practitioners ‘subterranean politics’ as it is from much conventional political discourse, regarded as distant, technocratic and neo-liberal and generally part of the problem. Perhaps the focus on the national level, someone suggested, would in time gradually further stoke xenophobia.
Overall, the impression is of discussion feeling its way uncertainly along, sensing political and social change – of ‘something kicking off’ to borrow Paul Mason’s phrase, but unable adequately to name more than a few of its parts or move beyond a rather flakey zeitgeistish rhetoric of a ‘global revolutions’ linking Tahir Square to Westminster and Wall Street . Instead it seems to collapse in on itself, recycling familiar debates about national and European democratic deficits, the rise of the far right and citizen distrust of politicians. Ideas floated to remedy the malaise – localism, new institutions to meet a (supposed) public yearning for participation, the use of social movements as a space for deliberation and reconfiguring, Tobin taxes – seemed well worn and oddly moderate.
Pretty much the stuff that establishment politicians and journalists are already taking about surely? Have the margins already shaped the mainstream? Or are the new politics of crisis and uncertainly less a product of the woes of capitalism and the Eurozone than a continuation of much longer term democratic deficits?
By evening I have moved to home ground – and moved on to drinking black sugary tea – for the launch at UCL of a new book on Populism in Europe and the Americas. Although co-sponsored by the Counterpoint thinktank the discussion at this second event was resolutely more academic: the book is a new collection which – as co-editor Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser and co-discussant Paul Taggart made clear – ambitiously tries to combine inter-regional comparison (European populism mainly radical right, Latin American radical left(ish) – reflections on whether populism was a boon or bane for democracy (an overview of the argument can be found here )
I had mixed feelings about this. Despite having written a case study chapter in the book (on the Czech radical right)– and liking the sweep of the comparision I sensed that events were rushing ahead: as the Subterranean Politics briefing flagged up, European populist phenomena, are far from confined to the far-right. Indeed, oppositional, anti-establishment, anti-elite mobilisation appears so diverse and fragmentary that much debtated, well honed concepts of populism and populist parties almost appears something of straitjacket. Perhaps it always was.
A recent report I read suggested that the travails of Public Affairs (VV) party had put voters in the Czech Republic off new political parties: VV, which burst from nowhere onto the political scene in the 2010 elections as an establishment, anti-corruption party, has rapidly, but not totally, unwound in the two years since as a junior partner – and weakest link – in the current centre-right coalition in Prague.
Lax party discipline, lack of organisation; some very dodgy and incompetent ministers; and rapid confirmation of what many had lon suspected – that the party was a pet project ABL security company and its owner Vít Bárta, originally conceived to forward their commercial interests in Prague.
But the new party habit, once acquired, can be hard to kick. Numerous small left-wing parties seem, relatively speaking, to be prospering at the political margins and, more remarkably, there still seems to an appetite for new businessmen anti-politicians peddling an anti-corruption and anti-establishment message. The modern voter’s political crack cocaine…
In recent weeks and months two candidates have stepped forward to offere a new improved version of Public Affairs formula:
The first is Andrej Babiš, the super-wealthy owner of the Agrofert food and chemicals conglomerate. Originally hailing from Slovakia, but moving to Prague as a student, Mr Babiš made his fortune in the murky business and political environment of 1990s with all the attendant political connections that you would expect.
His entry into politics – which from what can be gathered was planned quite carefully beforehand – came with an interview in September last year with the Czech equivalent of the FT, Hospodářské noviny, in which he spoke out against levels of corruption in the Czech Republic and called for the creation new civic mobilisation akin in some way to the Civic Forum movement of 1989.
He was, of course, a rather unlikely dissident – the son of a Communist foreign trade official, who had lived abroad for periods in Switzerland and North Africa for periods as boy and later embarked on a the same career. And not only was he himself (naturally) a Party member, but he was also listed as a secret police informer.
But, as he explained in a clever folksy, what-you-see-is-what-you-get appearence on Czech TV’s Jan Kraus Talkshow, this was all already well known (no relevations in store then) and his dealings with StB, ever present in an areas dealing with non-communist world, were do with mismanaged phosphate imports and commerical contacts, not hunting down dissidents.
The result: Akce nespokojených občanů 2011 (ANO2011), the Discontented Citizens’ Initiative, a citizens’ grouping founded by Babiš, which combined the internet based organising tactics of VV with current vogue for new political organisation to have catchy numbers-and-letters acronyms (‘Ano’ = ‘Yes’).
ANO2011’s organisation, running straight out of Agrofert headquarters, however seemed to be pure Forza Italia, as does his argument that the Czech Republic could be managed by practical businesspeople in the manner of a firm, although the is also a nod towards liberal reformist rhetoric that has washed around the ex-dissident centre of Czech politics almost as long as anyone can remember: ANO2011 is, for example, to be ‘a civic movement composed of trustworthy independent personalities’ opposing vested political interests (all other parties, major and minor, including VV and President Klaus)
All this is rather contrast with the time and care Vít Bárta put in creating VV as a party with semblance of autononous existence and a quite serious and detailed political programme, not without some good idea.
The ANO2011 Appeal is a vague document promising in very non-specific terms to fight corruption, make the rule of law work properly and bring about Swedish or Swiss levels of prosperity. Making a virtue of this – like many new parties – it gets round this by presenting it in terms of transparency and openess, promising consultation with the public, appealing to citizens for their ideas about what should be done.
Inevitably, of course, despite predictable early denials, the movement has plans to becoming a party: it will contest the regional elections later this year with an eye to breaking through to national power in 2012.
A programme of roundtables and events has already kicked off and the movement/party is already recruiting political managers in the regions and hoovering up minor parties and regional groupings for a spot of astro-turfing. Given the scale of Babiš’s resources – his personal wealth and the size of Agrofert’s dwarf that of Bárta – and the postive feedback he received in initial polling (around a third of respondents saying they might vote for him), such programme- and party building may yield quicker than experced dividends, making him may be a force to be reckoned with.
A second perhaps more intriguing potential newconer, mooted as a possible presidential candidate by the latest issues of the newsmagazine Respekt, is the Japanese-Czech businessman Tomio Okamura. The product of a fractured and difficult bi-cultural background, Mr Okamura – who has lived most of his life in the Czech Republic and is a native speaker of the language, is a self-made businessman best known to the public as spokesman for the Czech tourism industry and to TV viewers as part of the line-up of investors on Den-D, the local version of Dragon’s Den.
Although more modestly resourced than either Babiš or Bárta, Mr Okamura has been similarly building up his public profile, writing a bestselling book about his life and business and a more recent one with the Macheviallian sounding title The Art of Governing.
This, according to Respekt is a mishmash of reformist go-getting sentiment with a nod towards morality and traditional values, interwar Czechoslovakia and (more worryingly) some of the Czech radical right’s nostrums for resettling Roma – Mr Okamura’s take on inter-ethnic relations in the Czech Republic seems to be that racism is not an obstacles to success and that minorities should fit in and get with things (as he has).
Inevitably, there is also the same Berlusconi-eque anti-political rhetoric of bringing common sense business solution to political problems found with Babiš, whose entry into politics Okamura welcomes. As he tells readers of his blog with characteristic up-frontness
… the idea of running the state like a firm (firemního vedení státu)… [is] a proposition that fascinates me… The state is one big firm and there is no better solution than it being run by pros.
Experienced people with a sense of material and criminal responsibility. People who have come through in an open selection process, not through the backstage negotiation of party leaderships or regional party cliques.
Bar some exceptional political events and an injection serious financial and political backing, Okamura is unlikely to be a serious contender for the presidency come the Czech Republic’s first direct elections in 2013. He himself seems to be talking (more realistically) of a running at a Senate seat as an independent.
But despite some hubris and naivity, Mr Okamura has played skillfully on his unusual status as very recognisably Czech figure who is also at the same an unusual and somewhat unplaceable outsider. The same kind of play helped make Barack Obama – not for nothing is Mr Okamura’s first book called The Czech Dream – or, more omenously, Peru’s outsider technocrat, turned authoritarian populist President of 1990s, Alberto Fujimori.
Czechs- like European voters generally these days I guess – have weakness for anti-political pitches. The technocratic ex-caretaker Prime Minister Jan Fischer (a statistician not a businessman by background), for example, is likely to prove a popular presidential candidate
Followers of Czech politics of long memories may even remember that in their earliest days the Civic Democrats – now often reviled as corrupt, political hacks – based their appeal on an ethos business-like organisation and professionalism (as Magdaléna Hadjiisky ably explains in a recent issue of Sociologický časopis).
All in all, if you are in the Czech political futures market and looking at the stock of businessman-antipolitician start-ups, I can only say ‘Buy!’.