>Fico’s SMER more acceptably unacceptable, say European Socialists
SMER and Fico are predictably fuming in public. But broadly, the upshot is rather favourable for the Fico view. It is seemingly OK for a European social democratic party into enter a coalition with the extreme right soprovided it is effectively managed and reasonably soft-spoken. Doubtless there is a deal of pragmatism here. PES has a strong incentive in retaining a strong governing party as its Slovak partner and probably feels that will retain more leverage with Fico in, than out. But, how long before Socialists in Bulgaria, Romania or elsewhere try Slovak model of respectable (more or less) red-brown politics? The Party of European Socialists website, meanwhile, seems to have nothing to say on the subject. It last news item is dated 2nd October.
>Slovakia: open for business, open for immigration?
The shortages seem to be for semi-skilled labour predictably, in the construction, manufacturing, garment and agricultural fields. Despite the nationalist colouration of much Slovak politics, the potential growth in Ukrainian migration seems to be received with equanimity by most of the political spectrum with the key obstacle seemingly how quickly Ukrainian and Slovak officials can re-negotiate the technicalities of the existing bilateral agreement dating from 1994 (not very, is the answer there). The most revealing and interesting remark, however, is the comment attributed to Alexander Duleba of the liberal-leaning Slovak Foreign Policy Association thinktank that ‘It is in our interests to have Ukrainians here rather than people from non-European countries, who will pose a problem of integration in terms of culture and customs’. The subtext seemingly being that Slovakia should hoover up the limited supplies of suitably qualified, culturally assimilable migrants before other competitor countries in the CEE region do. However, as Ukraine itself has an ageing population and labour shortages of its own emerging in fields like the construction industry, I doubt whether even the most liberal open door policy to post-Soviet neighbours will avert the need for migration from points further East (and South).
>Young academics to back Mečiar?
>European Socialists may soften line on Slovakia’s SMER
PES will review SMER’s suspension at a meeting on 4 October. SMER’s only strong ally in PES at a party level have been the Czech Social Democrats.
>Slovak press sees Czechs as laggards despite latest reform package
>Slovak pensioners unaffected by Labour Code reforms
Pensions do, however, still seem to be something of a hottish political issue in Slovakia as, the same paper reports (2 July), the left-populist government of Robert Fico is busy tinkering with the state-supervised private pension funds established as part of the previous government’s welfare reforms. The proposed new Social Law will allow transfers from the second pillar (compulsory individual private saving) back into the state pension system. This – combined with higher payments for employers, the self-employed and higher earners – is reportedly intended to bale out the state pension system
>Never mind the Sex Pistols, here’s … Robert Fico
Somewhat distrusted for his populist leanings even as a rising star in opposition, since winning the 2006 elections, Fico has acquired the reputation of being something of the Johnny Rotten of Central European politics and has attracted similarly dreadful headlines. Forming what The Economist terned an ‘iffy and wiffy’ coalition with far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) and Vladimír Mečiar’s declining ex-ruling party of 1990s, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) after last year’s elections, his party gained the dubious distinction of being the first member party to be booted out of the Party of European Socialists. Despite leaving much of the previous right-wing government’s neo-liberal welfare and tax reforms in place, foreign trips to Libya (where, as well as having warm words for Colonel Gadaffi, as did Tony Blair, he described the Bulgarian nurses and one Palestian doctor convicted on trumped up sounding charges of spreading HIV, as ‘perpetrators’ – much to the consernation of the European Parliament and wider EU for whom it is an obvious injustice and a cause celebre) sent signals that he was a bit more Chavez than Blair, as did opposition to proposed stationing of the US anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, warming the cockles of President Putin’s heart on a visit to Moscow – savvier comrades in the Czech Social Democratic Party simply sidestepped the issue by calling for a referendum; and a visit to the Cuba Embasssy in Bratislava to celebrate the anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. Together with more minor signs and signals such as the BBC World Service suddenly losing its Slovak FM frequencies, the impression, fanned by liberal opponents, is of an emerging anti-Western, or at least anti-American, illiberal ‘Mečiarism lite’ out of step with the rest of the EU.
Whether such political acumen is enough to shift his reputation as one of the bad boys of the region, indeed or more broadly to establish a pragmatic left-populist alternative of the kind Smer seems to represent as legitimate part of the European political landscape remains to be seen.
>Pasta and populism – the Czech and Slovak elections
> At yesterday’s SSEES roundtable on the Czech and Slovak elections Tim Haughton and I strut ted our stuff discussing the electoral politics of the two countries’ elections in June. Karen Henderson then rounds up with a discussion of parallels and underlying issues. Alas, even with exciting developments in Slovakia, we don’t do big box office. There simply isn’t the same audience for Czech and Slovak politics
The same blocs of populist, urban-liberal and free markets can be detected across the two cases despite Slovak’s more regionally complex pattern and crosscutting cleavages. Corruption is an issue, but also a weapon and a source of mud to sling and the reality is hard to disntinguish from the hype. Corruption and clientelism are notoriously hard to measure directly, however, but we tend to agee that we are talking about something slightly different from murky world of post-Soviet ‘political technology’ and ‘virtual parties’
Mainstream catch all parties. Karen noted, allying with extremists are damned if they do (Robert Fico’s embrace of Slovak nationalists, the Kaczynskis’ link-up with Catholic ultras and rampant rural populists ) and damned if they don’t (the Czech Social Democrats’ keeping the Communists at friendly arms length for the sake of anti-communist political correctness – de rigeur for all mainstream Czech parties).
Over pasta and red wine academic attendees talked round a few more issues in Central European politics. Slovenia, it seems, like the Czech Republic also has a civil partnership law, – interesting given it is c Catholic country, although very much fitting in with received wisdom about Slovene liberal democratic culture. The Czechs are notionally Catholic by a large majority too, of course. Access to IVF, we are told, for single women is, however, a big issue divisive moral issue in Slovenia. And yes, someone really should do a mind numbingly detailed study Central European party clientelism in a single ministry, agency, district or whatever… PhD there for someone.
This being an Italian restaurent the waitress is, of course…. Slovak. She doesn’t give us give her view on populism, the left or Robert Fico, however.
>Czeching out Slovak politics
>Chewing over themes for an upcoming event on the Czech-Slovak elections via email, I realize just how tricky meaningful comparison of the two halves of the old Czechoslovakia is these days. Apart from a large academic sub-genre on the break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1990-2, the more standard pairing (as seen in dozens of US PhDs) is to compare Poland and the Czech Republic, but perhaps because the whole Mečiarism episode and the Hungarian minority dimensions produces a line up of parties making neat comparison difficult.
My initial thoughts were about a discussion on the politics of flat taxation, but from a Slovak angle this is too passé –influenced by my own preoccupation with the Pyrrhic victory and subsequent humiliation of the Czech Civic Democrats as their Blue Chance programme disappeared down the political plughole. The Slovaks meanwhile have done flat taxation and the Greens – wild cards in the Czech election pack – are as non-existent in Slovak as everywhere else in CEE. That leaves perhaps a discussion of contrasting Social Democratic hardmen Robert Fico and Jiří Paroubek (pictured). The Slovak PM and Czech ex-PM are the both fighting successful rearguard actions against neo-liberalism (say fans) or liberalism (say detractors) by trying to manage and work with some radical forces not beloved of the liberal West – Czech Communists, Slovak Nationalists, and Mečiar and his depeleted party …
A colleague also suggests that the now increasingly fashionable issue party patronage and the state – subject of a recent special issue of the Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics. Interesting but is damn hard to measure The Czech Republic and Slovakia are often paired in the literature as having high levels of state politicization and as late reformers in state transformation despite their different trajectories in 1990s with Klaus/Zeman and Meciar as the principal (pantomime?) villains of the piece. The new ODS government, which squeaked into power in the Czech Republic last month and still faces a confidence vote in October it is likely to lose, has still not wasted anytime replacing various officials and government nominees on public bodies… But I’m not sure quite what the comparative angle is here. Clientelism? Party patronage? Well, yes there’s a lot if it about, but how might it be different in the two countries? To cap it all, I find the Slovak party system hard to categorize. Even saying that it is unstable and fragmented seems too much of a generalization too far now Robert Fico and Smer have stacked up almost 30 per cent of the votes and got in the driving seat, although whether they will have the rubberish resilience of their Czech comrades at the end of four years in office.remains to be seen.
The gory details of the ongoing Czech political imbroglio (to date) will shortly appear as briefing paper on the website of the European Parties Elections and Referendums Network. Karen Henderson’s excellent briefing on the Slovak elections and their shorter, sharper outcome appears is just below.
>Slovakia: It’s politics, but not as we know it, Jim…
> Colleagues specializing in Slovak politics have been reflecting on the Slovakia’s new populist/nationalist/sort-of-Social Democrat coalition. Most are dispirited and rather shocked without necessarily seeing developments as an automatic re-run of the Mečiar period , despite the structural similarities in the coalition (dominant party with charismatic leader – this time Smer’s Robert Fico – with two much weaker and more radical partners).
Despite the equivocations and divisions of the Slovak Christian Democrats (KDH) over whether they wanted to work with Fico – still tearing the KDH leadership apart according to the Slovak press – it seems that Fico wasn’t that keen on working with them or indeed anyone else in the outgoing centre-right coalition. A majority coalition with the Hungarian minority party and the rump of Mečiar’s HZDS was apparently an option, but Fico’s Smer seem very rapidly to have opted to work with HZDS and the extreme Slovak National Party instead, who are more economically anti-market and probably more controllable as neither has anywhere to go (except into marginal opposition).
As Karen Henderson suggests (Sme 28 June 2006) CEE politics constitutes a kind of parallel universe – there are Social Democrats, Christian Democrats and liberals in familiar kind of settings, but politics is as they say in Star Trek “not as we know it Jim”. For her a Czech style liberal-Social Democrat coalition – burying the hatchet after knocking six bells out of each other in the election – or indeed a German style Christian Democrat/Social Democrat coalition is preferable and still possible if and when HZDS and SNS start misbehaving.
The problem is that in the Czech and German politics Grand Coalitions or left-right power sharing are a pis aller, rather than an option of choice. In Slovakia, there are too many options and Robert Fico seems to have gone for a different one. As she notes in a forthcoming briefing for the Sussex European Institute, parties are divided into three blocs: nationalist-populist camp (SNS, HZDS), a ‘social democratic’ left inclined to a rather brute economic populism (Smer) and a centre-right camp with the usual division between liberals (SDKÚ, ANO, Free Forum) and conservatives/Christian Democrats (KDH). In Czechia the former – represented by the Communists – is less nationalist and (economics aside) less populist – and excluded from the political game. The Social Democrats – despite Paroubek’s admiration for Fico – and some old left concerns about globalization and multi-national capital do not need (or want?) to play at being rampant populists defending the people against the elite (a line more typical of the Czech right and its disparagement of liberal intellectual elites).
Karen also noted Fico’s performance in a first TV interview as PM, where he responded to criticism from the Party of European Socialist by suggesting that he was being targeted by the vested interests of multi-national companies – working though the PES, one presumes. I watched this on the net. It was indeed a rambling performance even by the less than high standards of the region and from the body language and style it was hard not to think of him as a younger Mečiar
As Karen’s newspaper article notes, he does have other coalition options, but the question Tim Haughton asked in 2002 as Fico started his political ascent still seems open. We still don’t know if he is a man to be trusted or feared.
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