Archive | June, 2007

>Czech right needs Cameron style greening says commentator

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The following rather interesting commentary on the future of the Czech civic right appeared in Lidové noviny on 15 May under the headline “The Civic Democrats and green class consciousness”. (The Czech original can be found here.) Bored stiff, I (freely) translated when my train broke down for 40 mins outside Redhill the other week when reading about theories of party formation just got too much. Although there is an element of cod political sociology in it, as CVVM’s latest polling on Czech environmental attitudes confirms, its basic supposition about the Czech’s left is less than post-material and the only greenest part of the Czech public is to be found in its nascent middle class -is correct, although as in Britain there’s widespead support for environmental measures that cost little or nothing or are done by someone else (‘the government’ say left-leaning and poorer Czech respondents). The article is also an interesting counterpoint to other commentaries suggest the Civic Democrats future lies in moving towards the rural, socially conservative electorate by embracing the Christian Democrats as well as a rather revealing about the Czech right.
“The British Conservative Party has been the Czech Civic Democrats’ one great European ally. But under its new leader David Cameron the party has started to go green. Anyone opening the website of the recent winner of Britain’s local elections might at first have the impression that it was an English version of the Czech Greens’ site. David Cameron is seen walking showily among people planting trees and his political vocabulary is peppered with phrases like ‘quality of life’, ‘the fight against global poverty’ and ‘getting more women into politics’. His slogan ‘Vote blue, go green’ says it all.
Cameron’s Conservative Party stresses the same issues as the Green Party or ex-President Havel in the Czech Republic. The Tory leader says that the European Union should focus on the economic challenge of globalization, the ecological challenge of climate change and on the moral and security challenges of global poverty. The Conservative Cameron would also like to lower CO2 emissions with higher taxes on air travel, a tax which would impact most on frequent flyers. In an interview with the newsmagazine Týden in early 2007 Václav Klaus declared that the ‘greening of the right’ – which is not just observable in Great Britain – was ‘unbelievably unfortunate’. According to the Czech President, who is now profiling himself as a harsh critic of the theory of global warning, the Greens stand ‘squarely on the other side of the ideological barricades’.
How can we explain the greening of the British Tories? Is it an unacceptable ideological deviation, surrender to the enemy? Or simply populist opportunism, which will lead to short terms success, but come back to haunt a conservative party in the long term? This is party true, but the main explanation lies elsewhere. The ‘greening of the right’ is the logical outcome of the development of Western societies, which sees ever great emphasis on ‘post-material’ values.

And this stress is understandably most widespread among the middle class, people with higher education and higher incomes, who are among the traditional vote of the right. In the last German parliamentary elections it emerged that the German Greens had an electorate with essentially the same social composition as the ‘bourgeois’ FDP. Moreover, the German Greens’ voters had a higher average income than those of other parties.
I am not a Marxist, but Marx is often an unusual source of inspiration. As in this case. ‘Green ideology’ is simply the current ‘class consciousnesses of the Western bourgeoisie, or definitively the greater part of it. Of course, it is an ideology we can – indeed should – intellectually polemicize with. Nevertheless, a practically minded election planner must legitimately ask themselves what social classes a right-wing party should seek the support of when its erstwhile clientele is so unattracted by free markets and flat taxation or is mainly interested in reducing greenhouse gases, wind- and solar power, healthy lifestyles and, being wealthy, is willing to pay a premium for them in green taxes. If the right loses the bourgeoisie, it will die out and the current bourgeoisie is and will probably for a long time to come be at the very least. Indeed, it will probably get greener and greener. And this is true in the Czech Republic, where the post-materialist trend is as yet not as strong as in Western Europe.
The biggest election ‘loss’ was suffered by the Civic Democrats in 2002 when [then Social Democrat leader] Vladimír Špidla managed to appeal to appeal to sections of the Czech middle class. Under Stanislav Gross and Jiří Paroubek the Social Democrats lost this catch and but for the success of the Czech Greens a Communist-Social Democrat coalition – either overt or in the form of Communist support for a minority government – would be governing the Czech Republic – the nightmare warned against in the Civic Democrat election campaign.
In my view one clear imperative for the Civic Democrats flows from this: if they want to be successful they must win over the Czech middle class, either directly or through coalitions with its representatives (or representatives of the most important and influential sections of the Czech middle class). And Czech Green Party is precisely such a representative. The Greens are in a Czech context on the right as regards their negative attitude to the communist past and especially in the social composition of their electorate, but some aspects of its programme and views put them on the left, the balance of these two trends being a position in the political centre.
The greening of the European right is a challenge for the Czech right comparable to Cameron’s ‘challenge of climate change’, one with which it will have to come to terms in a much more fundamentally and sophisticated way than it has so far. Opportunistic rebranding or parroting some of the arrant nonsense uttered by Czech and international “environmentalists” would be as unfortunate as complete dismissal of environmental issues or the problems of Africa accompanied the oft-repeated mantra that the market is panacea for us.

Josef Mlejnek jr. (
josefmlejnek@seznam.cz)”

>BBC World Service: Poles apart on lustration

>Excellent report on lustration and decommunization issues in Poland on BBC World Service’s Assignment programme accessible here. Interesting how in challenging Poland’s ‘forgiving’ lustration settlement – in which telling the truth about collaboration with the dark repressive side of the regime mattered more than collaboration itself – right-wing forces are re-treading tactics of the Czech anti-communist right in the early 1990s. The ‘wild’ publication of list of collaborators etc

>Humanitarian intervention – yours for £1.67 a week

> Today’s inbox brings a request to do an electronic survey on UK Military Intervention from a UCL School of Public Policy Master’s student – well designed and straightfoward bar one rather laborious hypothetical scenario about an electronic ballot on UK humanitarian intervention in a Dafur like situation for an extra £1.67 a week in tax. The survey, which contains an altrusitic appeal to ‘advance knowledge in political science’ with the chance to win an iPod, is open to anyone (presumably some fairly serious statistical weighting and discussions of validity of anonymous online samples will find its way into the dissertation) is online here

>Westernizing the CEE far-right?

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An intriguing question pops up in my email inbox. Can I think of two or three examples of parties in CEE that might plausibly resemble the ‘radical right wing populists’ (as opposed to old-style neo-fascist or integral-national extreme right) that have had a star billing in West European comparative politics for the last two or three decades? In truth I can’t. Plenty of successors to blood and soil national traditions, now somewhat tamed by post-1989 realities of liberal democracy and European integration – and yes, bucketsloads of economic populism some styling itself right (Hungary’s Fidesz), some left (Slovakia’s Smer) and some just down-the-line militantly anti-establishment (Poland’s Self-Defence) but even allowing for the rather flexible nature of the ‘radical right populist’ label and similar categories in Western European political science, the honest answer is that there really aren’t (m)any.

The political trajectories/opportunity structures of the two regions are just too different- national and historic minorities rather than multi-ethnic/multi-cultural societies resulting from migration are the key target and preoccupation in CEE. And, to take up the analytical framework of Herbert Kitschelt, any putative Western style radical-populist right in CEE lacks a libertarian-left against which to react (important post-1989 tendencies towards social liberalization, notwithstanding. True n some countries (Hungary, Poland) there a sort of revived historic conservative/national/Christian vs. liberal divide).

The best approximation I can think of is the Czech Republicans – in parliament 1992-8, now defunct – who had no close ties to the historic far right and were a recognizably welfare chauvinist party with an albeit with a dose of paranoid anti-communism thrown in. The party had electorate of young working class ‘transition losers’ in declining industrial regions They loosely identified with the Western radical right (logo borrowed from the German Republicans, contacts with French FN), but on the other hand were anti-German and anti-Romany in the best old style nationalist traditions. Led by the erratic Dr Sládek, who lacked the polish and political nous to build on his 1992 breakthrough and ran the party has a personal fiefdom of cronies, relatives and hangers, the party was blown away by the resurgent Czech Social Democrats, who do a more respectable (non-racist) form of economic populism, in 1998. There is a useful little article on the Republicans in Czech Sociological Review online here.

Since the late 1990s, the fragmented and marginalized Czech far right has been trying to come up with a more sophisticated form of the same formula. The most media savvy of the various groupuscules seems to be the National Party (Národní strana), which rather unusually for CEE is led by a woman, Petra Edelmannová. However, in the run up to the 2006 elections, the Czech far-right’s ambitions were limited to crossing the 2% barrier needed for state funding and the proposed National Forces coalition collapsed before it had even got off the ground.

In the longer term, I guess as CEE societies move closer to the West European ‘model’, – and relatively successful transformers like the Czech Republic should do so quickest – one might see the emergence of Western-style radical right parties if and when parties drawing on historic extreme nationalism flounder, that is. My guess though is that where exist they will not and will merely adapt fusing old Hungarian Justice and Life Party style sub-cultural anti-Semitic nationalism with something in the vein of Gianfranco Fini, Pim Forteyn or the Scandinavian Progress Parties.

>Grey summer days ahead

> The World Bank has produced a report on reform and ageing populations in CEE and the FSU entitled From Red to Gray which will have to join various social policy, politics of ageing and party formation literature on my summer reading list- along with the odd crime novel perhaps.

>Wag the dog? New faction highlights dilemmas of Czech right

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Hard to know entirely what to make of the new factional grouping (no name other than self-description as ‘reformist parliamentary platform’) set up in the Czech Civic Democratic Party (ODS), but ex-Finance Spokesman and ex-flat tax supreme, Vlastimil Tlustý (picture opposite). It seems to have little programme beyond keeping ODS loyal to its programmatic principles and acting as a vehicle for Tlustý’s dissident views – already very publicly promoted in ODS fora – that the reform package agreed by the minority Green/Christian Democrat/Civic Democrat government was too insipid and gave too much away to coalition partners and the whims of the two ex-Social Democrat deputies, who hold the balance in the Czech lower house. Despite signing up eight ODS deputies reports say Tlustý’s criticism (echoed by economists of a liberal stripe, who were similarly underwhelmed by the package) has wider sympathy in the party and its parliamentary group. Indeed, arguably it reflects a pattern of discomfort with the pragmatism (or more kindly realism) of ODS leader Miroslav Topolánek, traceable to collapse of last year’s negotiations for a Grand Coalition with the Social Democrats. Tellingly, the faction is open to ODS deputies, senators and regional governors.

ODS leader Miroslav Topolánek seems to be continuing to play it cordially with Tlustý, whose sidelining in last year’s long drawn out series of coalition negotiations and previous prominence make him a powerful potential rival for Topolánek if things unravel. Tlustý, similarly, had kept party discipline and voted in parliament for a reform package he disliked in the apparent hope of seeing it beefed up later, although in an interview carried in video by MFD (and televised?) on 9 May he bluntly described Topolánek is a ‘conman’ (podvodník) guilty of ‘electoral fraud’ in admitting a programme to voters he knew to be unrealizable – although quite where the votes would come from for radical reforms is very unclear given the coalition-based politics of the CR, God alone knows. For the moment, however, Topolánek’s characterization of the faction as a ‘pressure group’ bringing positive pressure to bear seems pretty accurate – it wants to be a tail that wags the dog exercising leverage over ODS, its smaller partners and the two dissident Social Democrats (who don’t have much of a future in politics after this parliament is dissolved) by creating uncertainty as to whether it will back the government. Lidové noviny carries its founding declaration.

Viewed in a longer term, however, the emergence of an open elite level faction in ODS is unprecedented. There were rumours of a similar type of faction in 1992-3 being formed deputies dissatisfied with Klaus’s lack of free market and/or anti-communist élan and, of course, the ill-fated ‘platform’ of supporters of Jan Ruml in 1997-8 after the later had ‘assassinated’ Klaus in a televised call for him to resign. However, this group’s efforts at independence led to threats of expulsion and it proved simply to be a rallying point for the foundation of the a new anti-Klaus party, the Freedom Union, a once rising force now firmly in the dustbin of Czech political history. Topolánek’s reaction is thus both an sign that ODS has become the more pluralistic party dreamed of by its would-be reformers of 1990s in which dissenting views get a hearing and regional voices matter and indication of the acute political weakness of Topolánek as leader. In the medium term a fight is shaping up between pragmatists like Topolánek who recognise the Czech free market’s rights limitations and look to cut the best realist compromise deals they can and those who see this as selling the party’s soul and presaging its decline into a Southern European style alliance of regional and business lobbies. This latter group, however, need to find that political North West Passage of Czech politics, a route to a strong liberal centre-right majority government in the Czech Republic which the voters and the electoral system have combined to deny ODS for more than a decade.

>AAPPS worth reading?

>The American Academy of Political and Social Science has an interesting looking, if naturally US-oriented, blog.

>Slugging it out in the garden: a rum deal

> The cold damp summer weather has seen a huge incursion of slugs into our back garden keen to eat what passes for a flowerbed. They say that you can deal with slugs by leaving out saucers of beer as distraction-cum-death trap, but we didn’t have any and it seemed a shame to waste even a drop of good Czech lager on the little blighters, so I thought I’d try a drop of the hard stuff and another Czech specialty on them: a tot of the country’s (in)famous ‘domestic rum’ (tuzemský rum), now known as tuzemák as under EU regulations it cannot be called ‘rum’ as it is distilledfrom beet- not cane sugar. The slugs clearly must have got wind of this as they ignored it, making their usual beeline for the (remaining) flowers.

>Never mind the Sex Pistols, here’s … Robert Fico

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I travelled up to London on the train listening to an oddly alternating mix of Irish traditional music and the Sex Pistols on a cheap (and malfunctioning) MP3. This mix of lyrical national sentiment and take-me-as-you-find-me iconoclasm was not entirely inappropriate, as Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico was in town – and (more importantly, if more briefly) was visiting SSEES, where as a Masaryk Scholar in 1999 he first set out the idea of founding the new political party, that became SMER – Social Democracy, now Slovakia’s dominant party – The plan was create a new force, which could deliver reform of the centre-left without becoming bogged down in the old nationalist vs. liberal, world vs. Vladmír Mečiar conflicts that characterized Slovak politics for much of the 1990s.

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.

Fico in person, however, did quite a good job of puncturing this enfant terrible image and. unlike some politicians of a more liberal persuasion in similar circumstances, was more than willing to take questions and comments and argue his case. He justified the coalition in terms of stability and as the best option for getting key social democratic policies through, arguing that he had effectively cordoned off SNS and HZDS by having them in office, rather than keeping them out of government and stressed that his foreign policy was more European and less American oriented than that of previous governments. The Visegrad group still mattered for Slovakia and its European policy would reflect this. Overall, the session left me turning over some interesting thoughts about the nature of social democracy in CEE and its (possible) relaionship with nationalism, liberalism and populism, which distantly echo debates in Britain’s very own populist-cum-social democratic party, New Labour. Once again, as with home grown left-populists like George Galloway or Tommy Sheridan, I was impressed with an ability to put across position I was basically unsympathetic to.

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.

>Grey day for working pensioners in the Czech Republic

>Respekt (‘Důchod a trest’, 4-10 June, 9) notes a ruling by the Czech Supreme Administrative Court that restriction banning pensioners from entering into permanent employment dating from the mid-1990s (1996 it seems) is legal on the grounds that the loss of pensioner rights for breaching such restrictions could be construed as ‘socially just’. They can only have (a series of) fixed temporary contracts not exceeding a year. The measure, which replaced a cruder earlier restriction setting a ceiling on pensioners’ earnings if they wished to retain pensions, reflects a logic of rationing work, rather than maximizing employment.