Archive | August, 2006

>Wanted: six independents to join new Czech government

> A Czech minority government at last seems within sight in Prague. It will be a minority ODS government to include six independent experts and three women. As MfD wittily observes Topolánek could perhaps try a small ad:

“Wanted six independents to join new government. Immediate start. Inoffensiveness to Social Democrats, Christian Democrats andGreens essential.”

And, it seems, this is intended not as a temporary caretaker government, but a longer term arrangement, as an acceptable programme is now being negotiated. Some Civic Democrats detect a ruse to get the Speakership of parliament in the hands of the Social Democrat and thus gain the right to nominate a Prime Minister designate third time round if the first two attempts to form a government fail.

>Garton Ash on Muslims in the UK and France – sense but not political sensibility

>A prescient article by Timothy Garton Ash in today’s Guardian contrasting young British Muslims’ greater levels of disaffection, non-identification as citizens and sympathy for radical Islamicism with the situation in France. The reasons TGA briskly identified were: different religious traditions in historic regions of origin (Pakistan/Kashmir vs. the Maghreb); the war in Iraq and Bush-Blair axis vs. French scepticism; and absence of French style civic education in British school; and – moving into an uncharacteristically conservative riff for Garton Ash – the greater hedonism and self-indulgence of young Brits (lots of booze and soft drugs, not enough volleyball and sipping apéros in the local café). We need, says Garton Ash, to take Muslim disenchantment with Western majority lifestyles seriously as a legitimate conservative critique not a sign of backwardness or political disloyalty and be aware that young Muslims are often critical of aspects of Islamic culture found problematic by many in the West such as the position of women.

I found myself agreeing with this very sensible analysis – surely a sign of middle age when you find yourself fully agreeing with Timothy Garton Ash, but a welcome break on a day of rolling TV terror coverage– but I did wonder quite how one would going about turning a slowly fragmenting liberal UK into strong republican state like France and, indeed, whether riots in the banlieu and Jean-Marie Le Pen are not just a different kind of price for basically the same set of unresolved problems.

As usual, however, TGA was long on diagnosis and short on treatment. The only short-term political solution implied was to part company with the Bush White House and exit the Iraq imbroglio. Yes, but how Timbo? How?

>Tories’ new symbol resembles logo of defunct Czech party

>Interesting to note that the British Tories’ new proposed green and blue tree logo – intended no doubt to indicate a sense of rootedness and tradition, ecological sensibilities and a degree of Andrex style softness – closelly resembles that of the near defunct Czech Freedom Union (Unie svobody) party (below right), which crashed out of the Czech parliament in this June’s elections having desperately adopted anarchist symbols and screaming purple in a last ditch attempt to grab the youth vote and stay off their inevitable demise. An omen perhaps?

It aslo resembles the symbol of the Groupement de recherche et d’études pour la civilisation européenne(GRECE), the thinktank of the post-fascist French Nouvelle Droite, indicating its rootness in Indo-European pagan culture, so perhaps the paleo-Tory right could have some cause for hope

>Czech political deadlock: Senate steps in (and resolves nothing)

>The Czech Senate has stepped into the political crisis passing a constitutional law allowing the President to dissolve parliament if a constitutional majority (120+ deputies) vote for it in the lower house of parliament (LN 9 August).

The Civic Democrats and Greens support early elections, anticipating electoral gains. A poll by Factum Invenio (LN 7 August) – confirmed by a more recent poll – suggests that the Civic Democrats would poll 41 per cent, suggesting as I thought that some voters see Social Democrats tactics as obstructive. Other parties are on similar if slightly lower scores, although the Social Democrats fell back to 30 per cent. There is a marginal of error of +/- 2 per, but that would equate to a centre-right/Green majority or even a narrow Civic Democrat/Christian Democrat majority.

The Christian Democrats, Communists and Social Democrats are not keen on early elections, as they stand to lose support and not gain anything politically – so there is little prospect of the Senate’s law being approved by the lower house by the requisite constitutional majority (120+ votes). More deadlock…. We will have to wait and see what Klaus’s plan for resolving the situation is – details not specified, but it involves party leaders meeting under presidential auspices in ‘little circles’ and I dare might involve giving something to the Social Democrats, so that they would be inclined to help re-elect him President in 2007.

The mood in ODS reportedly is, however, for early elections, although given the difficulties of dissolving parliament and the question of electoral reform (currently out of the spotlight, but tricky and time consuming to enact) some kind of ODS-led caretaker government seems most likely..

>Central and East European migration – the Guardian/UKIP axis

>A bizarre debate on BBC2’s Newsnight addressing what is now suddenly seen as the problem of migration from Central and Eastern Europe –the product of local authorities complaining they will have to put up council tax because of strains on local services due to large numbers (which no one can very clearly estimate, we are at best talking about a scenario). Newsnight duly obliged by filming an on the spot report from Slough as negative as its earlier report on Poles in the UK had been positive.

In the studio debate there was a very odd series of exchanges between the UKIP’s probable next leader Nigel Farrage and the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee. Awkwardly for both, they agreed with each other almost 100% in not very different versions of the pull-up-the-drawbridge-they’re-stealing-our-jobs argument. Farrage was blustering away that CEE migrants were doing the locals out of jobs and causing unemployment – perhaps thinking of the work that outgoing UKIP leader Roger Knapman had done on his house by East European decorators. Toynbee agreed with him right down the line from a sort of social-democratic protectionist standpoint saying that CEE migrants were driving down wages, stopping employers investing in training and and benefiting only the wealthy, by keeping prices in restaurants down.

The last remark sounded like an odd piece of middle class guilt, as I suspect she probably eats in London’s pricier restaurants more than most. Hope she’s a generous tipper. Personally, I didn’t feel too guilty today buying a cup of coffee on the train for £1.60 from an obviously Polish catering person called Danuta. No sign of prices being held down by migration on the Stansted Express then. (The train then promptly broke down for half an hour – perhaps we should get some Polish track maintaince staff?. )

Polly Toynbee’s comment that high levels of CEE migration ‘preventing the proper working of the market’ was also very odd. As a social democrat she should realize that it is for the state (if anyone) to regulate social standards and as a pro-European she should know that the market we live in is the European Single Market not a national one. Her position was that we should impose labour restrictions on Bulgaria and Romania was also odd and inconsistent, delaying the ‘problem’ for a few years.

Here UKIP’s ‘solution’ of national sovereignty and closed borders was at least more logically consistent, although Farrage still went through contortions, showing touching concern for an organization he wants to leave by pronouncing himself against Eastward expansion of the EU. He is , however, favour of ‘trading’ with other European states. I’m sure other EU countries – Poland in the forefront – will just jump at the chance of agreeing such terms with a newly ‘independent’ UKIP-run UK, which I guess would be like a giant version of Frimpton on Sea.

Only the IPPR spokesperson seemed to talked any sense at all, eclipsing a lacklustre performance from Labour MP Fiona McTaggart, who was floundering saying that CEE migration was, but also wasn’t a problem…. CEE nationals who have come to the UK, he explainde, are mostly employed, tax paying, childless and have no access to social housing or benefits and will in the long term be relatively to integrate – a very small, manageable challenge for our multi-cultural society.

>Irish angles

>I had always assumed that Ireland’s Single Transferable Vote (STV) electoral system – a form of PR rarely used in West European contexts, except for things like British student union elections – was adopted on Irish independence to balance out political forces in a new democracy and give weight to local notables in rural areas, whose clientelistic networks tended to structure Ireland’s parties. In fact, today’s Irish Times reports in an article abour gerrymandering (easy to do with multi-member constituencies electing small numbers of MPs – TDs, I should say) – that STV was actually an parting gift of the British, enshrined in the Government of Ireland Act 1920 to protect the Ulster Unionist minority (yes, minority) in the island of Ireland – a political experiment that, of course, never took place as the Unionists (predictably) took the option of partition to make themseleves a local majority and adopted British style first-past-the-post guaranteeing them dominance in a religous-ethnic illiberal democracy until the suspension of direct rule.

Interesting, how once again there is a symbiosis between the politics of British Imperial retreat and Irish republicanism. This is neatly illustrated in the new play by Mary Kenny offering a fictionalized account of a meeting over brandy and cigars of Michael Collins and Winston Churchill (played by Mel Smith), which is currently in the news because cigars not lit on stage in Edinburgh under Scottish anti-smoking laws. British policy and the logjam around Irish Home rule effectively created Irish Republicanism as a political force, derailing the very different constitutional tradition of the Irish National Party. This was one of the few stories that the IT had in common with the Murdoch Times, which I also bought today.

The Irish Times mixture of old fashioned high quality journalist, interest – and very good coverage of East European politics (how many British newspapers had an editorial onthe Slovak elections?) and small country feel – restored my faith things Irish after an awful time seeing someone off an RyanAir flight to Brno at Stansted. RyanAir, surely the unacceptable unecological face of the Tiger economy, made its passengers, including families with small children kids stand sweltering in 60-70 long queues for a whole hour while very small number of staff slowly checked them all in. Naturally the flight was late being called and late taking off

When they finally made it to the front of the queue passengers were greeted by the slogan “Ryan Air – the On-time Airline”. I just about enough Irish to distinguish the Taoiseach from the Tánaiste , but I think Póg mahone is more or less the right response here. Not an expression, you’ll find in the Irish Times, I suspect…

>Czech Republic: Blue-Green coalition bites the dust

>And as one might have expected the interesting experiment of Green-centre right coalition is no more. All three parties have given up on it. For ODS it is now a question of the “Rainbow” option of governing the country alone tolerated by all non-communist parties until early elections. The Social Democrats still want some kind of deal direct and exclusively with ODS, probably a “semi-political” caretaker government. Also leading to early elections. ODS deputies – perceiving the perceptible weakening of their party’s position – have firmly ruled out a Grand Coalition or rerun of formal power sharing along the lines of the 1998-2002 Opposition Agreement. Although a compromise budget with some agreed cuts seems likely to be passed.

Klaus has refused formally to entrust Topolánek with the task of trying to form a government, not trusting him not to lose even more to the Paroubek’s playing hard ball. This is a victory – of sorts – for the Social Democrats, although something of a failure for Czech politics and art of political compromise. In the longer run perhaps, it is an opportunity for the country to move beyond the constant patching together of ‘tolerated’ minority govenment, although I had started to admire the subtlety and complexity of the politikáření at the heart of Czech politics. Will they finally move on to winner takes all Hungarian or Polish style politics? I doubt it somehow.

Looks like we have another gruelling election to look forward to next year and lots of tricky and complicated manoeuvring over electoral reform in the meantime. Better than being governed by Robert Fico, I guess,

… but wearing – even for political anoraks such as myself.

>Timothy Garton Ash’s long and winding road

>Timothy Garton Ash argues in yesterday’s Guardian that, despite the rise of Islamicist parties through democratic elections, we should not give way to the siren voices of ‘realism’ emerging on both left and right. There should, says TGA, be no kneejerk reaction against democracy promotion in foreign policy just because it is now a favoured theme of the Bush White House or because in its ‘hard’ military imposed variant democracy promotion has failed in Iraq. We can, he says, engage with elected terrorist (supporting) regimes because there is always a social and politic element in the ruling parties in question, which can be cultivated and cajoled into peaceful politics as happened with Sinn Fein or Kosovo Liberation Army. The Balkan experience, argues TGA, shows that ethnic conflict and state building problems par for the course but can beseen as part of a long, winding and very rocky road to democratization.

It’s hard not to feel that Garton Ash is waging something of an intellectual rearguard action here. His arguments have a rather plaintive ring about them and come across – without wanting to sound too much like a cynical ‘realist’ as Panglossian. Like the neo-cons he is critical of, TGA does not quite seem to have grasped that the (South) East European experience is not a universal template that will sooner or later prove true everywhere, if the we just go on believing hard enough – a sort of 21st century geo-political version of the Czech maxim that “Truth Will Prevail”.

Hard to disagree with his proposition that “the growth of liberal democracies is the best hope for the wider Middle East….. the best hope of modernization” but it this is ultimately anodyne. There is no EU sitting on the edge of the Middle East able to leverage change with the incetnive of membership – and legitimate because it (sort of) embodies values and cultural identity that all the belligerents share. Hezbollah would, self-evidently, not sign up to European or liberal values even in theory. Can there be liberal democracy without liberals or some rooted traditions of liberalism?

As theorists of democratization stress, many outcomes – including new forms of authoritarian are possible or violent breakdowns of political order – can result from elections and democratic transition. These may, moreover, be long term outcomes perhaps best not seen steps on a long and winding road leading to democracy other than in most convoluted, long term historical perspective… In the Garton Ash view, for example, the collapse of Russia’s democratic experiment in 1917 and the establishment of Soviet Union are mere step on the road, not a defining historical period

Some form of tougher minded democratic realism would seem to be in order…

>Prague: things fall apart as Greens turn over a new leaf

>The Green-right wing minority coalition that seemed something of a certainty after the Czech elections now seems to be falling apart according to the morning papers in Prague (LN, MfD 4 August). Frustrated that ODS leader Topolánek abandoned the idea of moving towards early elections – agreed with his two smaller partners – after face to face meetings with Social Democrat leader Paroubek, raised the possibility of an ODS only minority government or a ‘semi-political’ caretaker government and agreed further 1:1 talks with Paroubek, the Greens are now saying publicly that they may withdrawn from the coalition agreement and have a press conference scheduled for this afternoon. Topolánek says he won’t do the dirty on them and that a temporary Green/right coalition is an option on the table.

The Christian Democrats are also asserting themselves, having already rejected the minority-government-supported-by-rainbow option discussed in a previous post. Meanwhile the two months President Klaus gave Topolánek to form a government have expired. We seem to be back at square one with a ‘semi-political’ caretaker government of experts with a mild Civic Democrat flavour the most likely outcome, I think. But, of course, then where do we go? Probably straight into the politics of electoral reform some time next years, as constitutional laws would need to passed and that takes months.

>Czech Republic: more political cat ‘n’ mouse

>A later edition of today’s LN shows a dispirited looking troika of Green and right-wing leaders presenting their latest counter offer in the agonising cat-and-mouse game of trying to agree a Czech government of some kind: so far they seem to be the mice. They would like to take office as temporary minority government to lead the Czech Republic for a year to ensure a budget is passed and agreements with the EU about structural funds are signed on time and then have early elections with a reformed electoral system f Here the ideas they are reportedly floating are: an odd number of deputies so they cannot be a 100: 100 split again; an Italian style bonus for the winning side to produce a clear majority and to quote Topolánek ‘a more proportional system’ although quite how the latter would lead to a majority government, I don’t know.

The Social Democrats still intransigently refused to have anything to do with the three party bloc, Paroubek coming up (reports MfD) with the throwaway racist line that negotiating through press conference may be the way they do things in Botswana (why Botswana?), but not in Prague. Nice to know he has such high democratic standards, but as Botswana – despite being one of Africa’s more successful democracies historically – has a dominant party system now verging on Russian style illiberal democracy, carefully crafted government-opposition negotiations about power sharing (by media or otherwise) are not , I suspect, not a prominent feature of that country’s politics…

To return to check politics, the Social Democrats were not keen on early elections or electoral reform – pointing out, not unreasonably, that we have been there and done that all before in 1999-2001. They are willing to talk about it. Next week they will meet for the sixth (!) time to try and elect a parliamentary speaker and at least get the lower house of parliament in session.