Archive | October, 2006

>Reintegrating the Balkans – trains, planes and automobiles

>A guest lecture at SSEES by Erhardt Busek, Co-ordinator of the EU’s Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe discussing the region’s shift From Stabilization to Integration. ‘Integration’ in this context means states in the region working with each other to take over the programmes and structures created and administered top-down by the EU , rather than actually joining the EU – Macedonia’s candidate status means little as there are no negotiations, Croatia is better placed and might make into the Union by 2010 despite Slovene objections over various unresolved issues between the two coutries. Regional integration, Busek makes clear, in this context is about practical everyday infrastuctural links – waste water, air links, bridges, river management and rail links (something the World Bank also has an interest in) – which now loom larger than security, despite the unstable situation in Kosovo/a . I couldn’t help wondering if this basically technocratic, economistic view of what drives integration would really cut it with the realities of nationalism and identity, despite the dying away of violent interethnic conflict.

Dr Busek speaks in calm, understated way – more as if briefing a group of seven than addressing to an audience of seventy – doesn’t waffle and finishes his presentation on time in about 40 minutes. I like his style. Questions immediately raise the issue of Kosovan final status and it is suggested that the EU really should take education into the acquis so it can intervene to put South Eastern Europe’s dilapidated higher education system into order, which has been bled dry by the departure of talented young for the West or better paid work elsewhere.

Through a haze of fatigue, my mind wanders and I can’t help thinking of him as a kind of latter reincarnation of Austro-Hungarian adminsitrator patiently sorting the woes of the Balkans. Dr Busek is a Christian Democrat, but I then began to think of Hayek’s(or was it von Mises’s?) vision of a Europe run from Vienna by a multinational bureaucracy of neutral West Europeans dissolving the failed Ruritanian nation states into a new market- liberal order. The EU is, of course, has democratic as well as bureaucratic structure and is more of a social-liberal compromise (Busek is Christian Democrat). Still Dr Busek gets my vote – except that he doesn’t need it, of course.

>A healthy culture of protest

>An interesting article in the Guardian a few days ago on protests against the ‘rationalization’ (closing or cutting) of smaller local hospitals reconstructing the ‘heat map’ drawn up by the government to steer the pain away from government held marginal constituencies to those held by opposition parties. One of the largest (demonstration of 7000 people) recently took place just down the road in Haywards Heath (Mid-Sussex, safe Tory) about the Princess Royal Hospital, which is set to lose its Accident and Emergency and maternity units. The injured and expectant are, it seems, going to be expected to troll down to Brighton and get through its knarls of traffic the Royal Sussex County hospital and places like that. A nightmare I can easily imagine – my younger daughter was born at the PRH last year.

From a politics angle hospitals are interesting as a focus for local political mobilization – they are unifying and ‘non-partisan’ cause (everyone gets ill; almost all agree that a good local public hospital is necessary) seen as a local service, but – in the UK have been historically controlled by central government with no real local accountability (as was the case, say, with social services or secondary education), first via big bureaucratic Regional Health Authorities, latterly via a morass of smaller ‘trusts’ – constantly reorganized and amalgamated – created during the pseudo-privatizations of 1980s

Middle class, middle of the road social movements backed by constituencies and local worthies tend not to get the academic and media attention of tree hugging anti-road protests. But, as the experience of Wyre Valley – where the incumbent Labour MP was turfed out by voters in 2001 in favour of an independent backed by a protest group opposing against the closure of the local hospital – such movements probably have the potential to shake up the party system, more effectively than sundry minor parties, if they take the crucial step into contesting elections. As the Guardian hints in an anti-political climate, one might see many such independent MPs propelled to parliament in the manner of Wyre Valley’s Dr Richard Taylor (re-elected in 2005).

Does this avoid the need for parties? No, of course not. As any politics undergraduate knows, they serve a whole range of functions and tend to emerge. Could it change the British party system? Perhaps, perhaps…. In academic another incarnation, I would be very interesting in researching the world of local health protests and respectable independents. As it is I am poring over the results of the Czech Senate elections. Somebody has to.

>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.

>Wonky thinking

> The rich undergrowth of UK thinktanks, NGOs and policy wonkery yields yet another report of renewing British democracy, this time a report on political parties from the Young Foundation. Somewhat more realistic in seeing that parties are functional for democracy and need reforming (or re-forming), rather than bypassing, a quick skim read suggests, unlike the intellectually lightweight, politely populist and oh so 1980s Power Report, skillfully skewed by Tim Bale, Paul Taggart and Paul Webb in a recent article in Political Quarterly. The same territory is being currently exploted on Radio 4’s the Westminister Hour by Demos founder and ex-Blair sidekick Geoff Mulgan. Strange how the world of ‘practictioners’, thintanks etc is so far behind academic debates and generally make a pig’s ear of academic research when it does try to draw on it…

>Ian Bremner’s The J-Curve

Student (and other) devotees of comparative politics can find a link to the Newsnight discussion of the latest piece of pop political science – Ian Bremner’s The J Curve – HERE which seems very much the same (very American intellectual preoccupations as Fukuyama’s Statebuilding. Elegant, parsimonious and generalizable in the best (worst?) political science traditions, certainly although suspected by some comment-writers on the Newsnight site of being a user’s guide running US foreign policyfor the not-too-bright.

>”New elections please, duck” say Polish liberals

> Despite the conventional wisdom about flat, stunted civic societies in Central and Eastern Europe, as Petr Kopecký and Cas Mudde suggested in an excellent edited collection a few years ago (Uncivil Society?, Routledge, 2002) waves of civic mobilization do break over CEE fairly regularly. These days, more often than not, however, they are semi-orchestrated by liberal and right-wing parties trying to depict opponents as authoritarian throwbacks threatening democracy against whom a ‘new 1989’ is needed. The militant right-wing Hungarian protest culture – which first emerged in full view with the founding of the ‘civic circles’ movement in 2002 after the right narrowly lost elections and has gained a new lease of life with the Hungarian Socialists PM’s unwisely candid remarks that he had lied to win the election about a ‘fucked up’ economy (A European Commission report confirms Hungary has the worst fiscal stats in the EU – those other neo-liberal refuseniks, the Czechs and Slovenes do quite badly as well).

Now, reports OpenDemocracy, Poland’s liberal Civic Platform (OP) party is co-ordinating citizen protests to press ahead with a scheduled parliamentary vote on holding easrly elections against the wishes of the conservative-nationalist government of the Kaczynski brothers (President and PM respectively) which also includes the ultra-conservative League of Polish Families (LPR), who also do their own in right-wing Christian line counter-protes. The minority coalition was recently unstuck by the secret taping of an injudicious attempt to ‘buy’ an MP from another party (a practice not totally unknown in Czech politics, although despite murky accusations hard evidence has never emerged) Playing on the Kaczynski surname and Polish word for duck, the movement has the witty slogan “Sorry, Kaczory, jutro wybory!, which (I think) means”Sorry, ducks, elections tomorrow”.

>Czech politics: Topolánek not seeking PM’s post, perhaps also bowing out as ODS leader

>In Prague the political plot thickens. Mayor of Prague Pavel Bém, a close political associate of Miroslav Topolánek whose minority Civic Democrat government predictably failed to win a vote of confidence last week, revealed on TV today that Topolánek will not be seeking the post of PM if entrusted a second time with forming a government by President Klaus. Instead, the party has three suitable (unnamed) independent candidates for PM.

Presidential secretary Ladislav Jakl  has let it be known that Klaus sees the country as heading for early elections, an increasingly widely held view that Bém’s comments reinforce suggesting some form of caretaker government lasting 1-2 years. However, the Social Democrats, themselves dying to have go at forming a government, are unlikely to back any such attempt. The third and constitutionally allowed attempt at government formation is in the gift not on Klaus, but of the (Social Democrat) speaker of the lower house and the Czech Communists have indicated their willingness to back a minority Social Democrat government (although their expectations of nominated some independent ministers or negotiating some kind about controlling key posts in parliament seem exaggerated)

Czech newspapers such as LN (5 October) have already suggested that the embattled and not very politically successful could be bowing out as ODS leader and this merely adds to  that impression. Topolánek’s government will not only be one of the shortest in Czech history, but, I think, also the only one to lose a confidence vote and it is hard not to see him as a political loser, especially when one thinks how ODS seemed set to roar into power in 2004-5.

Speculation is already starting as to who might replace him at the next ODS congress due at the end of the year – Bém is a potential candidate as is the widely respected governor of the Moravian-Silesia region Evžen Tošenovský, who declared candidacy against Klaus in 2002 helped persuade VK to step down but led to a wave of vituperation from Klaus loyalists promoting him to withdraw from the contest. Outgoing Social Affairs Minister Petr Nečas, who notes the unseemly haste with which other ODS politicians are jostling for the four deputy chairpersonships (Právo, 7 October 2006), is potentially a candidate, as may be the ambitious eurosceptic head of ODS’s MEPs Jan Zahradil. Both came close to beating Topolánek in 2002 in a three way split of delegate votes. However although both men are only in their forties, ideological bulldogs like Zahradil and Nečas may be already be Yesterday’s Men. The hands on experience and perceived pragmatism of regional bosses like Bém and Tošenovský seem what is in demand in today’s Civic Democratic Party.

>Czech minority government loses confidence vote – over to Klaus…

>As widely expected the Czech minority government of Miroslav Topolánek failed to win a vote of confidence last night, losing 99 votes to 96, and now falls. Communists and Social Democrats voted solidly against and, as expected the government was backed by the Greens and – interestingly – some Christian Democrats. Other Christian Democrats abstained. Ironically, as one Social Democrat was ill, if the ‘right’ had voted en bloc they might have squeaked it.

Now the ball is back in President Klaus’s court and he gets his second (and final) go at appointing a Prime Minister. Topolánek wants a second throw of the dice, but I suspect Klaus will want to orchestrate and broker much more actively to ensure that a second government can win a vote of confidence. This is because a) he wants a reasonably predictable situation in parliament – and some duly grateful MPs – in place least until February 2007 he will be seeking re-election by parliament; and b) the third and final attempt at government formation is the prerogative of the Speaker of the lower house, a Social Democrat, giving the crafty ex-Social Democrat PM Paroubek a crack at cobbling together a minority government propped up by the Communists. All he would need would be the vote one maverick Christian Democrat or Green MP and he would be back in office…

>Between Cameron and Chavez


David Cameron is certainly having a influence on me– why only today I bought my first fruit smoothie. In political terms, however, despite his, in principle, not unappealing combination of bourgeois liberalism and Green politics, I am, it seems, not subject to the Cameron effect, the acid test being an involuntary smile at Steve Bell’s acidic take on DC in today’s Guardian. For my money, however, the now somewhat obscure Czech philosopher Václav Bělohradský, who terrorized the Prague intelligentsia in the 1990s out of some of its complacent certainties, does a much better combination of liberalism, ecology and anti-capitalism.

Beverage-wise, however, it seems I am more Hugo Chavez (chain drinking of coffee) than Dave Cameron (single smoothie and the odd mineral water). There, however, the similarities end. Quite why this archetypical Latin American populist and loud mouthed purveryor of cheap oil is so lionized on the liberal-left – even suppying some material for the first issue of the (ever dull) house magazine of new Universities and Colleges Union – I’ll never know…

>Czech politics: Civic Democrats high in the polls, but stymied in parliament and bugged in office

>The September poll from IVVM shows – when filtered through a model, which allows for non-voters and those less sure if they would turn out – that the Civic Democrats are roaring ahead with a estimated 37 per cent of the poll (were it held tomorrow). Unfortunately for them we are still along way from early elections – although many including ex-President Václav Havel (just turned 70 – many happy returns) believe that ultimately they are inevitable.

In the real world a minority ODS government faces a confidence vote on 4 October, which it stands seemingly little chance of winning, especially as they are embroiled in a war of words with the main opposition Social Democrats over police bugging of 46 telephones lines belonging to 7 politicians and journalists (and 1 doctor) and their families and associates revealed by Tomáš Almer, head of the police’s covert surveillance department in a letter to parliamentarians. The wire taps were related to an investigation into the ‘Kubice affair’, named after the head of the Czech police’s elite task force for fighting organized crime, who claimed in May – mid-election campaign – that (then) Social Democrat PM Paroubek and other Social Democrat Ministers were inmeshed with criminal stuctures, which had subverted large chunks of Czech public administration. Unsurprisingly, Paroubek vehemently rejected the charge ). Oddly, however, the ‘Kubice affair’ exploded in May the court warrant for the eavesdropping was issued only the day the right-wing minority government took office (4 September).
This created the bizarre situation where (until the warrent was scrapped on 24 Spetember) the police were in all probability bugging their own boss , new Minister of the Interior Ivan Langer, for three weeks. Langer is widely thought to have been involved in the leaking of information from Kubice’s unit, although the identities of those bugged has not yet been revealed. (MfD 30.9.2006)

Interestingly, perhaps because they have stayed out of this mudslinging, the Greens also come out well from Septembers poll, confirming their potential as voter getters, although unlike the Christian Democrats they have no real core vote so the bulk of their support could melt away … Even more interestedly, unlike the British Greens, recently touted by radical human rights actvist Peter Tatchell, as ready-made vehicle for the socialist left, the Czech Greens are the most stalwart allies of the liberal right and having already promised their votes to Mirek Topolánek’s beleagured Civic Democrats (subject to a few minor conditions). A rather Cameroonian blue-green with echoes of a Swedish style alliance for reform e