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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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Could Brexit lead to Frexit – or Czexit?

A powerful coalition of forces – ranging from the driest of conservatives to Greens and the radical left and taking in big business,  trade unions, churches and universities – has come together to underline the negative economic, social and political consequences of Brexit.

The UK leaving the EU, it is argued, will not only do lasting damage to the country’s economic prospects and political influence, but could have wider repercussions and might even  cause the Union to start unravelling.

This is not simply a matter of absorbing a mighty economic shock, the complexities of negotiating the terms of Brexit, or the umpredictable effects of a sharply changed balance of forces within a downsized Union – the greater weight of Eurozone vis-a-via the non-Eurozone, for example – but the new political dynamics that might take hold.

Some have argued that, emboldened by the example of Brexit, eurosceptics across the EU, will start to push for the exit option, triggering a kind of ‘domino effect’.  Writing for France Inter. Bernard Guetta gloomily takes for granted that post-Brexit

… so many politicians and political parties would follow headlong down this route to get a slice of the action. The pressure for similar referendums would arise all over Europe. The defenders of the European ideal would find themselves on the defensive. In such a crisis it would be very difficult to rebuild the EU.

Available evidence does suggest potential for such a process.  Polling by Ipsos Mori shows high public demand for referendums on EU membership in with significant minorities France (41%), Sweden (39%) and Italy (48%). favouring withdrawal. Other polling even suggested that post-Brexit a majority of Swedes would support exiting the EU.

 French, Dutch and Danish electorates do have experience of rejecting EU treaties in referendums – with voters in the Netherlands getting further practice in last month’s referendum on EU-Ukraine trade deal, which some see a dry run for a Nexit vote.

 And demands for exit from the EU – or referendums about it – have been raised by expanding parties of the populist right pushing their way towards power: Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party in Holland advocates Nexit, while French Front National plans to organise a referendum on Frexit within six months of coming to power.

FN leader Marine Le Pen, who relishes the idea of becoming Madame Frexit, also recommends that every EU member should have one (although her offer to visit the UK and help out the Brexit campaign has been abruptly turned down). Read More…

Comrade Baggins? When Middle Earth met Middle Europe

It’s not difficult to Christmas shop for my nephew.  Any of an array of Hobbit-branded products drawing on the latest New Zealand -filmed Peter Jackson blockbuster franchise would do. I settled on a DVD, a map of Middle Earth and a poster-sized calendar.

But – to borrow Timothy Garton Ash’s quip about Central Europe–tell me your Middle Earth and I’ll tell you who you are.

An interesting meme has been doing the rounds of the Czech internet in the past year: a review (or so we are told) of The Lord of the Rings published in 1977 in the (then) central organ of the Czechoslovak Communist Party Rudé právo denounced Tolkien’s fantasy masterpiece as a work of thinly disguised bourgeois and imperialist propaganda:

The Kingdom of Evil belching smoke and ash is transparently located in the East.  The working class, uniting to build heavy industry by the sweat of its brow, is depicted as revolting and evil orcs. (…) Those living the West – overflowing lands of milk and honey – the elves (that is the aristocracy), men (bourgeoisie) and hobbits (farmers) on the other hand live a prosperous life (although it is not explained how they get it) and their only problem is the ‘threat’ from the East.

The ‘forces of good’ are represented by a set of representatives of these reactionary circles… Their leader is Gandalf, a spreader of reactionary ideologies, which keep the population in ignorance and fear of progress. (…)

Small wonder then that Saruman, the defender of the oppressed and friend of progress, is branded a traitor and his stronghold is destroyed by a band of fanatical reactionaries. When he spread socialism to the Shire he is caught and subject to punishment without trial by the hobbits supported and paid by the capitalist powers of Gondor… But socialism cannot be destroyed by throwing its relics, not even its most sacred relics, into the fire. Hold out against encirclement by your reactionary neighbours Mordor!

It was not entirely clear if the review is real. As it turned out it was a clever pastiche. No date, scant referencing and no trace of in the archives. And, of courses, rather too much of hint of tongue-in-cheek for the notoriously humourless Rudé právo.

But that’s beside the point. It is exactly what Rudé právo could, or should have written about Lord of The Rings in mid-1970s. Moreover, the pastiche does seem to have drawn heavily on real Communist-era article published in Poland in 1971.

Because Communist regimes did have a problem with Tolkien and particularly with Lord of the Rings. Read More…

Czech Republic: Miloš Zeman’s year of living dangerously

Miloš Zeman Rozhlas 2013

Photo: David Sedlecký CC-BY-SA-3.0

The election campaign that propelled Miloš Zeman to the Czech presidency a year ago was a mixture of boundless self-belief, disregard for political convention and ruthless targeting of opponents.

Zeman’s first year in office has seen him bring these self-same qualities to bear in a concerted drive to remake the Czech political system, revealing a hitherto unsuspected taste for political risk-taking.

The net effect, however, has been far from Zeman intended. His initiatives have wreaked a trail of political destruction, felling both friend and foe alike and leaving the president himself politically damaged and deeply unpopular.

As an exercise in short-term tactics the imposition of a handpicked caretaker government under ex-finance minister Jiří Rusnok was a master-stroke, blindsiding the country’s parties and finally killing off the centre-right coalition.

But Zeman’s hubris and taste for the political coup de main quickly rebounded.

The Czech Republic is not Ukraine and its constitution was not so easily buckled into a semi-presidential system. A caretaker ‘government of officials’ (úřednická vláda) without a parliamentary majority can do only so much and survive in office for only so long.

Zeman’s grandiose visions of reuniting the Czech left and willingness to bend constitutional norms to pressurise opponents also concealed the lack of a well calibrated strategy. And more often than not the president’s blunderbuss tactics proved most deadly to his own supporters. 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…

Václav Klaus live and unplugged

A few years ago I honestly told myself that I would spend less time academically on Czech right-wing politics and more time on other things. The world really did, after all, need some decent research about Central European interest groups and under-the-radar new parties threatening to break through into Czech politics. Inevitably, things didn’t work out like that.

As the Czech media have noticed rather than sit at home and write his memoirs the former Czech president is embarking on the political equivalent of a European and world tour and – as with 1980s electro pop or – when you’re got all the albums, but didn’t manage to catch the acts live, it’s hard to stay away.

And so it was that I found myself in Pembroke College (Cambridge) listening to Klaus giving the Adam Smith Lecture (transcript including asides faithfully posted by the Václav Klaus Institute here).

In recent years figures on the left, not least fellow Scot Gordon Brown, have tried to reclaim Smith from his totemic status as an icon of the free market right, but – following in the footsteps of previous lecturers Charles Moore and Nigel Lawson – this will be a strictly orthodox interpretation.

 Accordingly, Klaus tells us about the Smithsonian influence over his career, explaining to semi-approved of status of classical pre-Marxian economists in communist Czechoslovakia and his position as a junior researcher attracted to liberal market economics in the 1960s, critical of the market socialist plans of the Prague Spring.

 Adam Smith, the Adam Smith Institute and the politics of Thatcher and Thatcherism were also an inspiration after the fall of communism when he is – he says – promoting the idea of a fully fledged capitalist market economy against residual ideas of a Third Way on the liberal left. Anglo Saxon liberal ideas helped see off the threat of a French – or German inspired social market economy in the Czech Republic.

 This is the classic Klaus back story. Read More…

Václav Klaus: A political phenomenon without political power

Photo: DerHuti  Wikimedia Commons   <a title="Licence" href=" http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en"

Photo: DerHuti Wikimedia Commons

In many ways a medium-sized Central European country like the Czech Republic could hardly have wished for a better president: an experienced, energetic and erudite politician of international standing able to engage both with the big European issues and handle the domestic problems thrown up by fractious politicians and crumbling coalition governments.

 A president tough-minded enough to periodically remind its citizens that they were living not in an impoverished mafia state, but in a tolerably well-administered, reasonably prosperous, if inevitably flawed, European democracy.

 As president during the last ten years Václav Klaus has been all of these things.

 But he has also been a blisteringly controversial head of state, whose views have often been sharply at odds with most of his fellow politicians or fellow citizens. Provocative and unignorable, Klaus has been loved and (more often) loathed both at home and abroad. He leaves office facing an indictment for treason brought by opponents  for alleged constitutional violations. He is, as Czech political scientist Lubomír Kopeček rightly terms him in a recent biography, a political phenomenon.

 But what lasting impacts does Klaus’s ten year period in office really leave? Read More…

Schwarzenberg: From castle to Castle?

Karel Schwarzenberg

And no sooner do I post on Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg at Chatham House than he decides to make waves in Czech domestic politics by announcing that he will be a candidate for the Czech Presidency, when Václav Klaus steps down from second and final term in 2013.

Media are reporting – in the style of the old Klaus vs. Havel coverage – that it stems from one too many eurosceptic broadside from the current occupant of Prague Castle. I suspect, however, that Mr (I mean Prince) Schwarzenberg is far too canny to make such spur of the moment decisions and that it represents a neat, logical and fitting exit from his unlikely career as party leader: the announcement was made at the second national congress of his TOP09.

If I was a TOPák, however, I wouldn’t be that enthusiastic.  Provided age treats him kindly – he will be 75 in 2013 – Schwarzenberg would, undoubtedly be a distinguished and effective head of state. But his exit as party leader would politically destabilising for TOP09, a loose alliance of local politicians, business interests and ex-Christian Democrats, which would look a whole lot less attractive with an aristocratic anti-politician at it helm. And, as the unhappy experience of Havel and Civic Movement shows, on/off presidential parties rarely prosper.

Vladimír Špidla

In the bigger picture, President Schwarzenberg would predictable and a safe choice, a re-assuring avuncular figure in times of trouble. But could the Czechs really not find someone younger, and conceivably perhaps – and I know this is a bit shocking – even female? Someone not part of the dissident/technocratic/business/intellectual establishment that has run the CR since 1989? Is there a Czech Mary Robinson in the wings?

It’s interesting that, despite being a media darling, Schwarzenberg’s popular rating with the voters is a mere 14%. In a direct election, legislation for which is chugging along uncertainly, he could quickly become an also-ran.

Knowing Czech politics, though – and if it were to be a direct election – it could easily be a Czech Sarah Palin. Of the establishment candidates mentioned here Přemysl Sobotka, the moderate and independent long-time Civic Democrat Senator, and ex-caretaker PM Jan Fischer would safe, if boring choices. Personally, if we’re doing grey ‘n’ technocratic I would go for ex-Social Democrat PM and former EU Social Affairs Commissioner Vladmir Špidla, whose rather grey public persona belies a more interesting and colourful figure. Špidla I have always felt, is one most under-rated figure in Czech politics.

Jiří Paroubek

Two other former Social Democrat PMs, Miloš Zeman and Jiří Paroubek – both populist bruisers of the first order – can also be assumed to have presidential ambitions. Either would be a potentially credible candidate in a popular election capable of pulling in Communist voters any directly elected left-wing president would need, but have too many parliamentary enemies to make it through the current indirect system where only deputies and Senators vote.

Paroubek, however, seems to be more concerned with building up his new LEV21 party and is on the record as urging one-time rival Zeman to run for head of state (probably hoping to hoover up voters and activists  from Zeman’s  own small vanity party SPOZ party, which pulled in an expected 4% in last year’s elections.

Klaus and the nationalist right: Catching a tiger by the tail?

Exit stage right? Photo: DerHuti

A few weeks ago, a journalist from the Slovak daily Pravda got in touch with me and various other political scientists interested in Czech politics to ask how we thought President Václav Klaus, who had just turned 70, was regarded abroad.

Being fairly literal minded, I answered his question without taking the obvious opportunity to give my own opinion at great, or indeed any length.

If I had, I would probably have seen Klaus as a potent and fascinating cocktail of negative and postive, leaning  probably towards the negative.  You can read what I and various others said here.

But the issue in Czech politics at the moment is not what Václav Klaus has done in two stints as prime minister and two terms as President, but what he will do as his second and final presidential terms comes to an end (he steps down in 2013).

Rumours abound that he will sponsor or lead or endorse some kind of new nationalist, eurosceptic party, perhaps based around the DOST initiative that has provided a rallying point for far-right nationalists and social conservatives and right-wing eurpsceptics with a more respectable, mainstream background, and whose web banner features Klaus prominently.

Ladislav Batora, Photo: Dezidor

The  controversry around appointment of Ladislav Batora, the chair of DOST, to post of director of personnel in the education ministry, nominally at the behest of the Public Affairs party but with the approval and support of Prague Castle, has been the most recent focus for such speculations.

Mr Bartora’s record of political involvement with  a diverse range far-right  groups seems pretty make him pretty much –  to quote  Finance Minister, Miroslav Kalousek – ‘a right old fascist’ (starý fašoun) and his (seemingly ongoing)  bad-mouthing of government politicians on Facebook suggested nothing more than a fringe politician enjoying his five minutes in the limelight, although, to be fair he did also managed to join a few small mainstream parties in a life of hectic political tourism.

But  President Klaus and his CEPin thinktank have a record of cultivating fringe figures and groups in a twilight zone between the extreme right proper and mainstream eurosceptic right once typified by Klaus himself that goes back several years.  I have picked up a few of them in this blog.

Some of his advisors, most notably the deputy head of the Presidential Chancellory Petr Hajek, have also come out with a range of  provocative and/or eccentric conservative views without being dropped by his boss.: Hajek, for example, has questioned the theory of evolution and dismissed gays as ‘deviants’ , while the CEPin thinktank has given space over to anti-Jihadi conservative fringe groups who see parallels between issues of migration and integration in Western Europe and the Czech experience with the Sudeten Germans.

Why is the Czech President cultivating such a strange collection of sometimes barely credible figures such as Batora or his DOST deputy František Červenka, who once dismissed the EU as plot by freemasons and paedophiles?

Even allowing for the fact that he might find a use for provocateurs and eccentrics without necessarily agreeing with them, the answer one might guess could be partly ideological. The drift of Klaus and sections of the Czech centre-right towards more nationally minded eurosceptic views centred on defence of the Czech state and scepticism towards Germany has been a matter of public record since late 1990s (rush out and buy the paperback of my book to read more).

Klaus’s rarer pronouncement on social issues such as multi-culturalism or civil partnerships (which he unsuccessfully veteo-ed as President) also suggest reveal growing conservative preoccupations, which may – we could surmise – be more fully developed and far-reaching than we suspected.

A second response is the Czech President is looking for an opening through which to influence and intervene in Czech (centre-)right politics from which he has beem increasingly marginalised since stepping down under considerable pressure as leader of the Civic Democrats (ODS) in 2002.

Could it really be the case that the Czech President is planning to lead a new party? Or at least planning to breath life into some kind of new eurosceptic, nationalist bloc perhaps centred on the Sovereignty party, which (predictably) he also has good relations.

Political opponents such as Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg certainly think so, as does Ladislav Batora who claims to have discussed it with Klaus in a meeting a couple of years ago, which lasted (wait for it…) an hour.

But really we have been here before. In 2008-9 as the Civic Democrats (then in government) wheeled round to pragmatic acceptance of the Lisbon Treaty, Klaus quit the party and rumours abounded that he would launch a new eurosceptic party, or back one of the two new anti-EU parties shaping up to contest the 2009 Euro-elections.

Leaflet for the eurosceptic Free Citizens' Party formed in 2009

It never happened. And the reason that Klaus  did not step up to the plate  and, indeed,  eventually signed the Treaty into law are the same: he had too few cards and perhaps  shrewdly realised that, even with his endoresement, it was likely to make limited impact. Certainly not the kind of impact needed for him to reshape the Czech centre-right he did so much to create in 1990s or have any decisive role in Czech politics.

Are the prospects for a new national bloc, perhaps taking the form of a French style Presidential rassemblement, better now? In many ways they are.  The Czech party scene has been de-stabilised by the ‘earthquake election’ of 2010. ODS is politically weaker than it has ever been and the governing coalition it leads is shaky.  The global economic outlook and the Euro is in the kind of crisis which Klaus and other eurosceptics foreaw.

Public opinion research highlights a niche in the electorate, where a socially  illiberal nationalist party might sit, and the are signs that very strong, but politically usually latent public prejudice against Roma are starting to find organised social and political expression among ‘ordinary people’, rather than just the marginal far-right sub-culture.

Demonstrations  organised by the far-right against ‘Gypsy crime’  in Vansdorf drew suprising numbers of local people, while incidents such as the smashing up a bar by Roma in a dispute over teenagers using fruit machimes provoked a succession local protests without  involvement of the extreme right.

So far only small town populists and figures with Mr Batora’s kind of track record have sought explicitly to capitalise politically on such sentiments.

President Klaus, while usually bluntly insensitive to Roma issues,  has perhaps sensing the untrollable potential of public ‘anti-Gypsyism’ (anticikanismus) as researchers term it expressed his disquiet about the rise of anti-Roma protests.

In the end, you wonder whether  illiberal Czech nationalism is  a tiger than the ever cautious, calculating Klaus will want to grab by the tail.

It might easily turn round and savage him.

Czech Republic: ‘Sovereignty’ a party to watch

Bobošíková

Last year’s Czech elections  were noticeable for the political breakthrough of two new pro-market centre-right parties,  TOP09 and which contributed to large, if now very shaky, majority centre right coalition, TOP09 and Public Affairs (VV). A less well noted feature of the election, however, was the relatively good performance of two new(ish)  extra-parliamentary parties of the left: the Citizens’ Rights Party – Zemanites (SPOZ) led by… yes, you guessed it  former Social Democrat Prime Minister Miloš Zeman,  and the Sovereignty (Suverenita) bloc  led by former TV newsreader and ex-MEP Jana Bobošíková.

Although neither made it into parliament, the 8% of votes they pulled in between them arguably contributed as much to the failure of the Social Democrats to win their widely predicted victory as the allure of new pro-reform parties:  Sovereignty gained 3.67% , while Zeman’s SPOZ came a bit closer to the 5% threshold with 4.22%. Both gained some modest state funding, although Sovereignty did manage  4.26% in the 2009 European elections.

Both SPOZ and Sovereignty are politically still in business, but for my money of the two Sovereignty , the weaker grouping in 2010, which re-elected Jana Bobošíková as leader last week is the more interesting and potentially the more significant.

Sovereignty’s politics are straightforward:   a mix of Czech nationalism, euroscepticism and the anti-elite, outsider rhetoric that many people like to call populism. It is, its website makes clear, a party ‘…defending the interests of citizens of the Czech Republic…’ with the conservatve-nationalist strap-lin “Law, Labour, Order” which sounds like a  mixture of Lenin and Marshall Pétain.  Its programme stresses the sovereign national state, the need to fight Europeanisation, globalisation and vested interests with a quick nod to the role of Christian roots and the dangers of illegal immigration  (never really an issue in the CR – due to so far rather limited scope of immigration into the country, legal and illegal) and Islam (again a non-issue even for nationalistcally minded voters – there are a handful of Muslims in the CR)

As with many strains of historic Czech nationalism, there is clear anti-German dimension,Suverrenita poster with the Sudeťáci   (Sudeten German diaspora and its  organisations) and their supposed revanchist claims on Czech territory, sovereignty and property a predictable and familiar target.  Overall, however, the language of the programme is conservative-nationalist, more Václav Klaus than Jean Marie Le Pen, although on the other hand Ms Bobošíková’s stinging denunciation of the EU’s  ‘pseudo-humanist and so-called politically correct waffle about human rights and minorities’ in launching her party’s election programme last year has overtones of  the Czech radical right for whom liberalism and humanism of the Masarykian tradition that still frames mainstream  Czech discourse are have always been an anathema. To some extent, the party draws on a trend – visible since the (anti-)EU accession referendum campaign of 2003 –  for mainstream social conservatives and right-wing eurosceptics to find common grown with those with backgrounds on the far right and the political fringe, most strikingly seen in the surprisingly Akce DOST initiative/petition, whose conservative-nationalist manifesto is very much in the territory being staked out by Sovereignty. (DOST representatives, including some of its wackier,  less salonfähig leaders, were recently received by President Klaus, who is keeping a none too discouraging eye on  developments.)

Sovereignty programme as seen by Worlde

Sovereignty's programme as seen by Wordle.net

Economically, Sovereignty seems to lean more to left than right, vigorously denouncing members of parliament for living high on the hog at public expense while condemning ordinary people to austerity. Shrewdly aware, that there are more discontented older people than young people in the CR – and that discontented pensioners show up to vote more often – Sovereignty has also been careful to make a lot of noise opposing pension reform. Its programme also contains a dose of economic nationalism of the kind popular even in the mainstream in 1990s: Czech technology, building up Czech (-owned) industry and so on.

Bobošiková’s re-election as leader of her party was not exactly a surprise. Until recently, the part was, after all, called Sovereignty – the Jana Boboíiková Bloc and the one time newsreader, former presidential  and ex-MEP  is by far the best known figure of the eurosceptic and populist group. Her re-launched, renamed party was officially formed in 2009 an amalgamation of independent groupings and fringe parties, but Ms Bobošíková’s career in politics and public life goes back rather earlier.

A newsreader and presenter for state-owned Czech Television from the mid-1990s, she was one of the few journalists to side with the station’s new management during the ‘Television Crisis’ of 2000-1, which saw strikes, blacked-out screens and mass protests against alleged efforts by the Czech Republic’s two major political parties to emasculate the independence of the country’s main public broadcaster.

The real story of the crisis is perhaps less black and white, but it led Ms B to the private TV Nova controlled by controversial ex-journalist and would-be media mogul, Vladmimír Železný, and into 2004 into the Independent Democrats (NEZ) grouping formed by Železný through an effective takeover of a small long-established local independents’ bloc. To some surprise, amid low turnout and a meltdown at the pools the then governing Social Democrats, NEZ, however, polled sufficient votes(8.08%) to elect two MEPs: Mr Železný and Ms Bobošíková. Despite an expensive campaign, however, NEZ flopped in the 2006 parliamentary elections in 2006 and (while it still exists) faded into obscurity (and financial controversy). Bobošíková and Železný quickly parted company in the EP, where she was an unimportant, though not inactive, non-inscrite

NEZ logo

NEZ logo

In 2006 Ms Bobošíková formed the Politika 21 party as a personal vehicle, which attracted some media attention when it fielded the estranged wife of Prime Minister Miroslav Topolánek as a Senate candidate, but made little political impact otherwise.  She also hit the headlines in 2008 accepting nomination  to stand as an independent presidential candidate by the Communist Party, but withdraw before MPs and Senators could throw her out in the first round of voting.  Seemingly trying to repeat the model of the 2004,  she formed Sovereignty in 2009 as a coalition between her own top-down creation and the long-time fringe grouping, the Common Sense Party (SZR). The grouping was later joined by the Secure Life Party (SŽJ), a grouping claiming to represent socially disadvantaged groups such as pensioners, disabled people and single mothers.

The newly  re-launched Sovereignty – Bloc of the Future (SBB) (the Bobošíková bit has been dropped) also appears to have rudimentary, but functional organisation,  if we take local elections as a crude proxy. In October 2010 Sovereignty was able to field 1639 candidates , a fraction of the total but respectable by the standards of Czech minor parties,  not bad.  The faction ridden Czech Greens, for example, a fairly long-established party which  represented in parliament between 2006 and 2010 only managed 1, 998 (although the Zemanovci had 2554)  (For reference Věci veřejné (VV), the smallest and newest parliamentary party ran 4,500 candidates). Predictably new parties did rather less well in terms of candidates elected – (Suverenita) had a mere 61, the Zeman-ites 81, Public Affairs 267, but – independents’ groupings aside – no one builds a party from the grassroots up in the CR these days, do they?

However, being electorally outshone by the Zeman grouping,  as I mentioned, sovereignty has a number of unusual features, that make it a party worth watching – and perhaps a grouping that may spring a surprise in 2014.

1. Despite being regarded by critics as an opportunistic lightweight (‘Bobo’),  Ms Bobošíková is a relatively experienced and media savvy figure with immediate recognition, who unlike the semi-retired Zeman is an energetic and active figure. Despite multiple establishment contacts, she is also a credible outsider and as a woman a relatively novel outsider. Prominent women politicians in mainstream Czech parties have generally fared badly, often being brutally marginalised by male colleagues.

Like Public Affairs which used its female leaders to emphasize its novel and anti-establishment credentials (before shunting them aside) Sovereignty – one of whose 2010 slogans was Chcete změnu, volte ženu (Vote For A Woman If You Want Change) clearly knows how to play this card.

2010 where parties' voters came from - SC&C Exit poll

2010 election: Where Czech parties' voters came from - SC&C Exit poll

2. Despite its harshly old-fashioned sounding nationalism, the party is in the Czech context something of transcender of established divisions. It is not obviously of left or right. It is neither communist or social-social democratic in origin, but neither is it  anti-communist.

Consequently, it seems able to draw in a remarkable range of sympathisers from other parties and backgrounds, ranging from ex-Communists like Senator Jaroslava Doubrava (of the regional party Severocesi.cz) to detached eurosceptics of the right linked to the pro-Klaus wing of the Civic Democrats, such as Vlastimil Tlustý  and ex-Social Democrats such Jana Volfová, a former General Secretary and close confidante of Miloš Zeman, most recently associated with the Secure Life Party. Two MPs expelled from Public Affairs are also reportedly keen to join.

Ms Bobošiková’s ideological fuzziness and good personal connections with both left and right clearly help here, but at a more underlying level she is helped by the fact that illiberal assertive Czech nationalism of a populist and anti-German stripe has pedigrees – and hence possibly popular appeal – on both left and right.

I say ‘possibly’ because in 2010, according to exit polling, Sovereignty, like Zemanovci, took voters mainly from the Social Democrats and had only slightly wider appeal  to former right-wing voters than Zeman and co. Moreover, rather tellingly Sovereignty took an atypically large slice of former Communist voters and the age and educational profile were squarely that of a party of the Czech left: older and less well-educated. Indeed,  more so than that of voters for  Zeman and his ex-Social Democrat veterans.

3. The third important element is the melting iceberg of Czech party system stability. Two new parties burst on to the political stage on the centre-right in 2010 while the Social Democrat (ČSSD) lost out to Sovereignty and SPOZ, meaning that overall new challengers took around a third of the vote.

The short-term net effect of such instability has, paradoxically, been to consolidate the Czech party system:  Public Affairs has, as was widely anticipated, gone into electoral freefall and both SPOZ and Suverenita have faded to 1-2 per cent support in the polls.  If an election was held tomorrow, polls suggest, four largish parties would make it into parliament, rather than the 5-6 that have been the case since since the mid-1990s.  Three of these (Civic Democrats, Social Democrats and Communists) are, moreover, well established parties that have also been around since 1990s. So much for party system change?

But, as various political scientists have pointed out, once the new party habit has been acquired it is hard to kick and, as 2010 elections in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia shown, come election time challenges can come right. Moreover, Ms Bobošíková claims to have learned the lessons of Public Affairs ill fated efforts to sustain itself as an organisation-lite Facebook party. Whether she can build a ‘mass party’ out of the current modest set up and ragbag of supporters must be questionable, although as a former Social Democrat general secretary with a subsequent track record in minor party politics,  Jana Volfová, should know a thing or two about how (not) to go about it.

In 2014 with economic austerity still biting and the EU possibly not looking the healthiest – certainly not the guarantee of economic stability and prosperity it once unfailingly appeared – a eurosceptic, populist party with cross-over appeal, that is relatively immune to anti-communist criticism (although the charge of right-wing extremism and flakiness could stick given the weird and wonderful collection of minor party politicians beating a path to its door) could do well.

SPOZ logo

SPOZ logo

SPOZ, I predict, is unlikely to be the the force it was in 2010:  its relatively good performance last year was dependent a remarkably high profile (and expensive) national billboard campaign.  Some say it was financed by Russian oil company Lukoil, others wonder if right-wing donors saw it as useful spoiler party. In any case, the party may be able to rely on big money again.

Suverentia, by contrast, had minimal billboard visibility. The party is also dependent on the mercurial figure of Zeman, whose has made repeated forays into and out of political retirement over the past few years: characteristically, resigned has leader of the party that bears his name after the election in recognition of its failure, but is still honorary president. Just to erase any lasting impression of greater moderation, Mr Zeman has also recently made his own contribution to emerging new lefrtright conservative-national ideological cocktail with a remarks (later elaborated on for good measure) explaining that Isalm is an enemy  ‘anti-civilization’.

Somehow, I don’t see Zeman as a Czech Pim Fortuyn.

Whether Ms Bobošíková will become some kind of Czech Sarah Palin or Pia Kjærsgaard is an altogether more intresting and  open question, however.