In the immediate aftermath of the fall of communism many Western analysts feared that, far from ‘returning to Europe’, Central and Eastern Europe would slip into a spiral of Latin-American style instability and authoritarianism.
Stanford professor Ken Jowitt predicted that ‘demagogues, priests and colonels more than democrats’ would shape the region’s future, while Polish-American political scientist Adam Przeworski famously wrote that the ‘East has become the South’.
Even as astute an observer of the region as Timothy Garton Ash was moved to conclude in mid-1990 that ‘Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia are the countries where the fate of democracy hangs in the balance today’.
But the region quickly confounded the doomsayers. Central Europe emerged as one the most successful newly democratizing regions in the post-Cold War world. Many states including the Czech Republic made smooth and rapid progress to OECD and EU membership and were soon marked down by Western political scientists as consolidated, if flawed democracies. In the Czech case, the flaws were readily apparent. The democracy that emerged was, for example, far from the optimistic vision of a prosperous, settled Central European state sketched out by Václav Havel when he looked into the country’s future in his 1991 Summer Meditations.
As well as failing to sustain the common state with the Slovaks, Czechs saw overblown claims of a post-communist ‘economic miracle’ disintegrate amid corruption scandals that ended the Klaus government in 1997. And, while the Czech Republic did generate a stable system of ‘standard’ parties of left and right recognizable to West European eyes, Havel’s warnings that party politics would become the preserve of a caste of career politicians seemed, in hindsight, prophetic.
The strong locally-rooted civil society and political decentralization Havel envisaged as the bedrock of Czech democracy were present only in fragments. Local democracy was too often expressed in the murky world of municipal politics and a system of belatedly implemented regional government that become a still greater byword for corruption. Non-ideological consensus politics that Havel and others hoped would be a defining feature of Czech democracy have existed only in bastardised form of Grand Coalitions and power-sharing deals that had more to do with dividing the spoils of office than agreeing inclusive, balanced policies.
To most outside observers, however, the Czech Republic remained one of a belt of successful, stable Central European democracies, scoring well on most indices of governance, reform, and democracy, albeit with a clear lag behind West European democracies. Most would have agreed with the assessment of the Hungarian economist and political scientist Béla Greskovits that CEE states, including the Czech Republic, had created poor quality, but essentially ‘crisis-proof’ democracies where market economics co-existed in ‘low equilibrium’ with democratic politics.
However, following the enlargement of European Union in 2004 and, particularly, the onset of the global economic downturn and the Eurozone crisis, many commentators have started to view the future of Central Europe in much darker terms seeing the onset of ‘democratic backsliding’ or a ‘democratic recession’. Hungary has been at the centre of such concerns. The metamorphosis of Viktor Orbán from pro-Western Christian Democrat to authoritarian populist exploiting an electoral landslide to impose an illiberal constitution, rein in the media and emasculate the judiciary, was particularly shocking.
In 2012 Romania’s Prime Minister Victor Ponta tried similarly to exploit a landslide election victory to overturn of established procedures and strip away constitutional checks and balances to unseat his country’s president Trajan Basescu. Elsewhere voters across CEE have turned not to establishment strongmen but to a range of to protest parties ranging from Poland’s ultra-liberal Palikot Movement to neo-fascists of Jobbik in Hungary. Where does the Czech Republic fit into this picture? Read More…
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…
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.