Archive | October, 2007

>Czech public opinion: underlying trends may favour Social Democrats

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While the Polish left languishes as an unwanted add-on in a political system dominated by conservative liberals and conservative populists, polling by CVVM in the Czech Republic points to the underlying strength of the Social Democrats (ČSSD) in that country. ČSSD enjoys a 6% (but oscillating) poll lead over the incumbent centre-right Civic Democrats and their leader ex-PM Jiří Paroubek (very unpopular) enjoys personal poll ratings only somewhat better than Civic Democrat leader and current PM Miroslav Topolánek (very, very unpopular). However, the real story is elsewhere in broader Czech attitudes to the country’s main political parties and views on issues of taxation and income differentials.

The Social Democrats come out in the Czech public mind as a strongly led party with a commitment to protecting the socially underprivileged rated even higher (72%) than that of the hardline Czech Communists (68%). At the same time, however, the party enjoys good rating for economic competence (44%) and is seen as more likely to promote the middle class (which we should perhaps take in the American sense of the term, since in Czech it is střední vrstva – the ‘middle layer’). The Civic Democrats (ODS) also have a clear profile, but are seen as rather more cynically power-seeking (75% – 60% for the Social Democrats) and hugely conflictual (67%, compared to 54% for the Social Democrats) despite efforts to promote themeselves as a party of the small- and medium-sized business, as a pary of business and the rich. Indeed, voters see them as less likely to promote middle class development (36%) than the Social Democrats (58%) or, incredibly, the Commuists (40%). They also rate worse than the Social Democrats on the economic competence question – only 42% thought ODS had programme, which would promote growth.

Meanwhile another survey suggests that, despite a liberal minority favouring flat(ter) taxes a clear majority of Czechs favour some form of progressive redistributive income tax. Although this view declines with income and education, it is widely held across all social groups, seeming to provide a certain empirical backing to the old cliché of the Czech as plebian, egalitarian nation. The bigger picture seems to be that although the liberal free market right represents a sizable chunk of Czech society, it is a minority corralled by a majority favouring some form of social market, ‘social-democratic’ a loose sense, not necessarily partisan sense. Despite the cynical attitude of Czechs towards all political parties – which narrow majorities pragmatically recognise as necessary for democracy – the Social Democrats, if they can translate it in terms of effective strategy (and so far they have good record of doing so) have a distinct advantage. Such ‘social’ blocs naturally exist elsewhere in the region. Aleks Szczerbiak wrote of the an economically ‘social Poland’ (represented by Law and Justice and smaller radical parties) defeating ‘liberal Poland’ in 2005 and, as noted below, think they may have achieved a kind victory-in-defeat in 2007.

As an interesting footnote the survey on parties also confirms that the Czech Greens are seen as party of the centre or right. A merely 19% thought that they were concerned with the socially underprivileged, the second lowest rating after ODS (12%).

>Will Europe’s real liberals please step forward?

>An interesting discussion of the similarities and dissimilarities between Britain’s Liberal Democrats and Poland’s Civic Platform

(PO) written by Ed Maxfield appears on the Lib Dem Liberal Voice website followed up by very intersting and intelligent discussion of the highways and byways of – that lost tribe of European politics – the liberals as European party family. Given some less than liberal social position and desire for a flat tax revolution, it strikes that PO are more Cameroonian conservatives minus the upper class social baggage, or perhaps an equivalent of the party that would emerge of the dull kaleidecsope of British (actually English) party politics got shaken up and some of the more assertively free market Lib Dems teamed up with some of the more socially liberal, decentralist Tories to form a kind of Blue-Orange Alliance (interestingly, the campaign colours of both Civic Platform and fellow Czech liberal-conservatives/conservative liberals in the Czech Civic Democrats) . I guess that would leave the hang ‘em and flog ‘em rump of the Tories as a kind of English nationalist Law and Justice party. The analogy, of course, breaks down because of the strength of the British social democratic left, which – despite a close shave in 1983 – has refused to go down the tubes electorally in the manner of post-communist parties in Poland, Slovakia and (possibly) Hungary.

>Polish elections: SSEES roundtable debates Civic Platform’s (uncertain?) prospects

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Meanwhile, before you can say ‘Jaroslaw Kaczynski’ there is a (well attended)roundtable on the Polish elections at SSEES, where Aleks Szczerbiak struck an interestingly sceptical note about the durability of Civic Platform’s victory. Donald Tusk’s party has, he thinks, perhaps put together an unfeasibly broad electoral coalition based more of rejection of the incumbent government than support for a liberal-consevative centre-right. It had hoovered up votes of those who incline to more to the post-communist left, which was wrongfooted by the speed with which early election were called. Moreover, the Kaczynski’s Law and Justice (PiS) party remained, he thought, remained a poweful force having gained both voters and voters in a way not wholly reducible to taking over the electorate pole-axed radical parties Self-Defence and the League of Polish Families (LPR) (cut loose by Radio Marija, which backed PiS). PiS, it was suggested also had a powerful and coherent conservative-national narrative based on the project of a ‘Fourth Republic’ cleansed of the pervasive influence of an informal establishment (Uklad) of left-liberal communists-turned-capitalists and shady characters. Tusk’s PO, by contrast, travelled rather light in terms of ideology stressing modernity and decency. The idea of young, educated migrants and the emergeny middle classes turned on conservative, rural Poland was something of a myth: only about 30, 000 of the 750, 000 Poles in the UK voted and thir liberal votes were probably counted out by the Law and Justice inclined ballots of a similar number of Polish Americans in the US. Moreover, any coalition with the Peasant Party (PSL) would be tricky, given the latter’s inclination to play hardball on all kinds of issues, ruthless extract policy concessions for their rural base and use state posts as patronage resources to sutain their party (Civic Platform want to decentalize and clean up, but I wondered can you really build or sustain a party in CEE these days without a dose of clientelism and patronage?). Civic Platform and its new government might like so many previous Polish election winners fall apart all too soon.

Others speakers, including my SSEES economist colleague Tomasz Mickiewicz who doubles as astute poltical analyst, saw PO as having better prospects. There was ample scope for privatization – about 20% of Poland’s GDP is still in the state sector, second only to Russia among post-communist states, apparently. (Ironically, Law and Justice’s Gaullist dislike of privatizition had deprived it of resources for its social spending commitments). Moreover, its rhetoric of European modernity and a free market with functional welfare, he thought had been effective – the party had managed to reinvent itself as something else other than a elite, secular liberal party indifferent to national tradition and religion. Mass emigration to the UK and Ireland had given Poles a clear sense of just how this could work – migrants might not count much electorally, but they were cultural vectors for change in small town and rural Poland, perhaps enabling PO to puncture PiS economically populist warnings of impoverishment all round. Apparently, some Poles also see Ireland’s political model of two (broadly speaking) right-wing parties and a rump social democratic left as as desirable as its Celtic Tiger economic policies. Ireland’s chronic patronage and clientelism probably also offer an (unintended) parallel…

The roundtable was finished off by a very fluent and engaging review of Polish foreign policy by Nat Copsey, who foresaw a change of tone in Poland’s EU policy as well as its external relations with Russia and Ukraine, masking a lot of underlying continuity. In part this was because the Terrible Twins’ foreign policy, while less than comptently managed, were less terrible in practice than their public comments often suggested.

>Extreme right polls well in first round of Slovene presidential elections

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Slovenia News reports a more or less evenly split vote in the first round of Slovenia’s presidential elections, with the candidate of the far-right National Party coming a strong fourth with striking 19% of the poll. As the recent Swiss elections show, nothing stirs the far-right like respectable small state Alpine prosperity.

>Pole-axed: minor parties obliterated in Poland’s election

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Results from Poland’s electoral commission reveal a complete slaughter of minor parties: not only are once medium-sized formations like Self-Defence and the League of Polish Families cut down to extra-parliamentary minows, the niche fringe groups of (occasional) interest to me barely register: the Women’s Party comes in at a mere 0.27% and the pensioners’ party seems not even to have made it onto the ballot, although I note that an outfit called the Labour Party picked up 1%. Is this the country that put the Friends of Beer party into parliament?

>Polish elections: Polarization sends Civic Platform to victory

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So, ‘early’ (actually much delayed) exit polls suggest, Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) has been clobbered by the market liberal-conservative modernisers of Civic Platform (OP), predicted to clock-up a huge 43-45% of the vote compared to a mere low thirtysomething for PiS. If true, OP might even be able to form a single party majority government, although thinking back to how wrong the Czech exit polls were last year Donald Tusk would do well to put the champagne on ice and start thinking about who potential coalition partners might be. With the exception of the Peasant Party, all the usual minor parties (Self-Defence, League of Polish Families etc) seem to have been wiped out, with niche parties that interested me so much (Women’s Party, Pensioners’ Party etc) not getting a look in. The Polish post-communist left, however, seems set to demonstrate its usual resilience in the face of defeat and establish itself a medium-sized third force. However, the numbers actually shape up what is striking is how very polarised these elections are despite the presence of a PR electoral system in theory reasonably conducive to small parties – a tendency also very visible in Czech elections last year and, of course, long established in Hungary whose mixed half PR/half-first past-the-post system offers strong incentives for two-party/bloc politics. An additional factor may be the role of the media in ‘presidentializing’ and polarising party politics. The Tusk-Kaczynski TV debate (which Tusk won convincingly) appears to have played a major role in outcome both in the sense of exlaining who won and in reflecting and reinforcing a sense that the election was basically a two horse race. The Czech series of pre-election Paroubek-Topolánek TV duels last year, althought there was no clear winner, seems to have had the same polarizing effect,boosting the two main parties’ vote at the expense of more minor playes

>Czech politics: even left-wing voters back Klaus for second term

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Meanwhile elsewhere on the Czech political scene, public opinion according to polling by STEM is turning in favour of Václav Klaus staying on for a second term as President. The Czech President is indirectly elected by a joint session of parliament, rather than by popular voter, so the results are mainly interesting for the ideological cross-currents they reveal swirling around VK. Even a majority of left-wing voters (52% of Social Democrat supporters and 46% (!) of Communist sympathisers) want VK to go on, mainly it seems because they despair of the left- and centre ever cominG up with a serious alternative candidate. Better the devil you know than the devil ….you’ve frankly never heard of, it seems.

>Czech Civic Democrats split over EU Reform Treaty

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As if a precarious-to-noneexistent parliamentary majority and divisions over relations with coalition partners (too many concessions on nukes to the Greens etc) and policy (flat(er) tax proposals not flat enough for some) now, reports Lidové noviny, the Czech Civic Democrats (ODS) are split over the EU Reform Treaty. This, according to Prime Minister Topolánek in an echo of Gordon Brown, is an acceptable compromise, which is sufficiently different from the old EU Constitutional Treaty that no referendum is necessary. Not so say various ODS senators and deputies, most of whom seem to be Young Guns without ministerial office, who insist on a referendum. It will be interesting to see how the issue plays (if at all) at the upcoming ODS congress. There, however, British parallels end as, I suspect, any referendum on the the issue in the Czech Republic would be a winnable, if risky, proposition.

>German and Israel Greys hit by scandal and splits

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Germany’s long-established, but consistently marginal, pensioners’ party Die Grauen have been hit by financial scandal, reports reports Kölnische Rundschau (10 October 2007) in a reference very kindly sent by Michael Koss. Four party leaders as well as the Greys’ charismatic founder and leader, 82 year old Trude Unruh are implicated in a scandal involving the faking of receipts for donations and (as I think) and holding of undeclared party meeting in the guise of educational seminars. 60 Officals from the regional public prosecutors office and tax authorities raided and searched 22 business premises associated with the party and foundations and associations linked to it in six cities in North Rhine Westphalen. Germany’s party financing regime offers reasonably generous funding for minor parties able to pull in at least 1 per cent (I think) of the national poll in federal elections – which Die Grauen have generally managed – and in 2006 the party received 1.3 million euros in Federal subsidies. Party spokesmen denied tax evasion or fraud, claiming the accusations were driven by personal resentments of members passed over (I think) in elections.

Trude Unruh, briefly a Bundestag MP between 1987 and 1990 as an independent co-opted on the Green list, made her name through fiery parliamentary speeches advocating old people’s interests, founded Grey Panthers movement as an advocacy group for older people in her home city of Wuppterpal in 1975.

As Flickr photographer rrho notes, the Greys have recently toned down the militant rhetoric of social protest, emphasing instead with a strong undercurent of populism that they are ‘young’ (at heart) and ‘neutral’, bringing some success in regional elections in Berlin last year, another of the party’s strongholds (relatively speaking), where they entered the city council.

Meanwhile, Israel News International reports Israel’s pensioners party, Gil, one of only two ‘grey’ parties actually in government (the other is in Slovenia) has also been hit by splits and scandal. Eralier this week Gil seemed to be acting as a classic small interest party exercising its ‘blackmail potential’ bythreatening to leave the Kadima-Labour-Shas coalition, unless it agreed to stump up for increased pensions. Cynics would see this an attempt to raise the party’s visibility after a slide in the polls, apparent However, Gil has lost support in recent polls because of its backtracking on several campaign promises and internal scandals (yes, here too!) concerning an alleged sexual assault on a party activist by a Gil deputy, financial impropriety (adding an unauthorised signatory with the power to draw on party accounts) and violations of campaign contribution laws.

In the Israeli context, in addition to an ageing population and a growing number of retirees, pension issues are further complicated by the fact that 11% of the country’s 729,577 pensioners (as of August 2007) receive only a basic pensioner entitlement stemming from the fact of having immigrated to Israel when already past official retirement age (61 years four months for women and 66 years four months for men). Pensioner poverty is also high with 26% of pensioners or their spouses receiving supplementary benefits from the state. The leader of the Gil parliamentary group, Moshe Sharoni, also made its continuation in the coalition condition that no proposals for the division were agreed by the government.

However, Ha’aretz and Jersualem Post later reported, Sharoni’s line now seems to have been more of a personal initiative, which antagonised other Gil deputies who voted 4-3 to remove him from his post, raising the likelihood that Israeli’s Greys – true to the country’s traditions of fissiparous minor party politics – will split. His critics objected to him breaching coalition agreements by unsuccessfully trying to push through a bill hiking pensions by a massive 20% (from 16% to 20% of average salary – not too high in relative terms) usuing his post as Chair of the Knesset Labour and Welfare Committee. His recent statements about female party employees and the Israel courts have also beeen considered embarassing.

Top photo: rrho

>Education portfolio too hot to handle for Czech Greens

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Who’d be an Education Minister in East Central Europe these days? Once a something of a political backwater, you now face an unenviable set of competing demands: of implementling EU-endorsed plans for transformation of communist-era education systems to shape up for the knowledge economy, putting a culture of critical, independent learning and foreign language learning in place of entrenched ex-cathedra methods, rote-learning and a bias towards technical specialisms; an ageing, over-feminized and under-qualified teaching workforce at primary and secondary level, chronically underpaid but with relatively good levels of union organization; unreformed teaching training institutions; and a need to expand and reform higher education, similar lines taking advantage of sizeable EU structural funds while your country is still sufficiently far behind the EU average to qualify for them.

The most spectacular recent casualty of this conundrum was (now ex-)Czech Education Minister Dana Kuchtová, one of three Green cabinet members, in the current centre-right led minority administration. Projects for the reform of higher education, which should have qualified for tens of billions of crowns of EU funds, were not ready and not up to scratch, leaving rectors of universities furious. Although such situations are not untypical problem across the new CEE member states, given inexperience and not sufficiently professionalized or qualified civil service concerned Ms Kuchtová seems to have had the misfortune to have inherited problems at the Czech Education Ministry just as they came to a head and to have mismanaged the crisis both administratively and politically, making promises she couldn’t keep and antagonising MPs in the Education Committee of the Czech Chamber of Deputies.

Lower down the education system in the Czech Republic, a new reformed curriculum stressing theme and competences (‘learning how to learn’), rather than the accumulation of knowledge in traditional subject areas is being rolled out. There are sceptical reports in the press as to whether current teaching staff have the ability and inclination to teach it as intended with suggestions that it is essentially a Potemkin repackaging of the old syllabus. Conservative resistance is also coming directly by the traditional Czech intelligentsia and scientific establishment, who see traditional teaching methods based on a canon of knowledge as central to Czech national identity (and one might add, the rather elitist culture of the Czech intelligentsia itself). In a telling phrase a letter signed by a host of leading academics including the sociologist, ex-dissident and feminist scholar, Jiřina Šiklová, warns in a characteristic phrase that the new reforms threaten to lead to the ‘degradation of the Czech population into an unthinking mass (dav) of consumers’ (Cynics might say that was possibly largely the situation already, which was why reform is needed – why do Czech intellectuals harp on with fantasies of imminent national decay rooted in lack of culture/morality/education so persistently?)

Meanwhile, Czech unions representing secondary school teachers are preparing once again to stage strikes over low pay, joining their colleagues in Bulgaria, who are already locked in acrimonious series of strikes. Here, government ministers see salary increases as potentially budget busting and linked to reductions in the size of the teaching force justified by Bulgaria’s rapidly ageing population and consequently declining school population, performance-related pay and financial decentralization and ring-fencing of education budgets. Figures reported in the Slovak press recently also highlight that the country’s teachers are amongst the worst paid professionals in the country.

The political demise of Dana Kuchtová, under pressure from both the Civic Democrats and junior partner in the coalition, the Christian Democrats, has also triggered a minor crisis in the Green party, offering a focus for party members discontented with leader Martin Bursík for excessive accommodation of right-wing parties and in effect hanging, Kuchtová, a former activist with the South Bohemian Mothers anti-nuclear group, out to dry. The EU funds fiasco, they argue was no worse at the Education Ministry than at many other Czech ministries struggling to download European funds on time, but served as a pretext for the two right-wing parties in the coalition to target and pressurize the small and inexperienced Greens. Kuchtová’s resignation was partly prompted by a desire to head off factional conflict in the party.

Discontent is also mounting among some Greens about the role of the Green-nominated Foreign Minister, aristocratic and ex-Havel confidante Karel Schwarzenberg. Although his appointment was seem as a major political coup for the Greens at the time the government was formed, some Greens have, it seems, now worked out that Schwarzenberg is in no way carrying out a Green foreign policy but rather one informed by his own aristocratic sense of public service and Schwarzenberg family tradition. Clearly, the nation’s schoolchildren are not the only ones in the Czech Republic who need to learn faster.

Karolína Vitarová-Vránková, ‘Ekonomika a štěstí pro ZS’, Respekt, 1-7 October, pp. 60-1