Archive | February, 2008

>Startling admissions: Grassroots opposition to Putin (and Medvedev)?

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UCAS admissions interviews of prospective students applying to student SSEES are a hit and miss affair for the interviewer. Apart from the small matter of whether we should admit applicant (usually I recommend we do) they sometimes they genuinely interesting – a Chinese applicant tells me her impressions of travelling in North Korea, an ex-intern with the Lib Dems tells me that ex-leader Charlie Kennedy’s drink problem were common knowledge even to party minions. At other times, they can be pretty dull. But then what did I really have say about the state of world politics that was very compelling when I was 18?

As always I diligently read through the applications. They tend, however, to follow a fairly predictable formula, probably reflecting teachers’ and schools’ advice, designed to pitch reliably to admissions tutors across several institutions: top (predicted) grades, fearsome amounts of voluntary work and extra curricular activities; and a lot about why politics really, really matters in the world.

So, as ever, today I never quite know what you’re going to hear. Today’s interviewees do, however, throw me one interesting idea: two of them assure me, perhaps from lack of knowledge, perhaps because at they take a longer view than those middle aged enough to remember perestroika, that Putin’s authoritarianism, is just a passing phase and that in the historical slightly long term Russia will be democratic.

Who knows, they might be right? The latest phase of the Putin era seems to be playing itself according to script with extensively rigged presidential elections. But how heir anointed Medvedev and VP will share power is unclear. Rigged elections, are, moreover the political science literature on semi-authoritarian ‘hybrid regimes’ tells us fairly unsustainable as a means of control over the longer term. Sooner or later turn into a focus for political protest.

Does Russia have the potential for this? Ukraine’s Orange Revolution seems to have accelerated the trend towards authoritarianism. The latest issue of the Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics, however, carries an interesting article by activist and researcher Karine Clément noting the bubbling up of grassroots social movement – networks of pensioners, disaffected tenants and community activists radicalised by the overweening power of local state apparatus-cum-business elite. A shorter, openly accessible article on tenants’ movements by her can be found here. She also heads up an NGO called the Institute for Collective Action, whose (Russian-language) website can be found here.

The conventional answer would be that such movements are just localized shoots of civic activity, which will collapse due to collective action problems once they start to co-ordinate or be co-opted or stifled by Kremilin-friendly parties and official power structures.

Controlled elections… managed democracy … nascent grassroots civic movements. Rather reminds me of the perestroika era, the chaotic fag end of which I caught in my student days.

>Do Slovak and Czech Christian Democrats have a prayer?

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The continuing dominance of Robert Fico’s SMER in Slovak politics – ably tracked and analyzed by Kevin Deegan Krause in the excellent Pozorblog – is aggravating an ongoing crisis of the sundry liberal and Christian parties that held sway amid a blaze oneo-liberal welfare and labour reform between 1998 – 2006. The splits and rivalries, seem basically about personal ambitions and rival personalities, but are punctuated by calls for generational renewal (is there a Slovak Barack Obama in the house?) and seem to also have an ideological/politcal subtext centring on one issue: about how to confront the populist/national-populist left, whose poll ratings and (worringly) dislike of NGOs and desire to heavy-handedly regular the press have uncomfortable echos of the dominance once exercised by Vladimír Mečiar and his HZDS (now seemingly relegated to a bit part in Fico’s coalition government).
The core of the Slovak centre-right is notionally Christian Democratic – there two mainly parties using the tag, the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), which has roots in the Christian dissidence before 1989, the more (socially) liberal Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), formed as something of a personal vehicle for then Prime Mikuláš Dzurinda, although various neo-liberal technocrats seems to have hitched a ride with KDH too. The woes of the various stripes of Slovak Christian Democrats have interesting echoes in the current travails of the Czech Christian Democrats who, squeezed between powerful free market right and social democratic and communist left, have never had the whip hand in government and never been able to integrate liberal forces to broaden their appeal. The closest they came to a breakthough was in the ill-fated Quad-Coalition (4k) project in 1999-2001 when the two big parties of left and right were cosying up to each other. The exit from poilitics of the adroit Josef Lux in 1998 after being diagnosed with leukaemia (he died in 1999) finished KDU’s prospects of being as much more than a niche party for Catholics in rural regions and confused centrist voters with nowhere to go. Despite good poll rating the fraught 4K project collapsed and split much like the Slovak Democratic Coalition, which indirectly it and spawned Dzurinda’s SDKÚ
There followed faction fighting between more liberal (Bohemian-based) and more conservative (Moravian-based) elements in KDU; consequent frequent changes of leader (none, however, very personally commanding) and the lack of a clear strategy as to what Czech Christian Democrats actually stood for and whether they were of the left, right or centre (a perennial dilemma for small parties in a system with well established large parties) has seen the party’s support dwindle to its core electorate leaving it hovering dangerously over the 5% threshold that spells political oblivion.
The directionlessness of the party was gruesomely illustrated by the sudden initiative of then KDU leader Miroslav Kalousek in 2006 to enter a Social Democrat-led minority coalition government with Communist support (it never materialized – he was sacked after an internal revolt) and its turning in desperation to newly elected Christian Democrat Senator and small town mayor Jiří Čunek, whose staggering popularity in the 2006 Senate election stemmed from expelling local Roma with chronic rent arrears from municipal housing in the town centre and re-locating them in the outskirts of town. Rapidly embroiled in corruption allegations stemming from his mayoral term(s) and squeezed out ministerial office (he was Minister of Local Development), but not the KDU leadership Čunek’s small town populism has proved inadequate to re-launch his party. As highlighted in other posts the Civic Democrats – behind in the polls to the Czech Social Democrats (who, nevertheless, have not reached Fico-like levels of support) – are effectively marking time to see which of their minor allies, the Greens or the Social Democrats, will implode first and which they might somehow absorb to bolster themselves ideologically and electorally.

Ironically, KDU’s long and detailed 2006 election programme, which, rather in the Slovak style, combined neo-liberal fiscal and welfare prescriptions (toned down to suit Czech tastes) as well as the usual social market, family protection, communitarian stuff was widely praised by experts as more realistic and better through through than the Civic Democrats’ shot-in-the-dark version of flat tax-led neo-liberal reform.
And generational renewal? Commentators and politicians in CEE are always harping on about this, but it’s hard to see quite how newer or younger will necessarily mean better. Such comments are, usually a disguised call for in political renewal or cleaner, better, more liberal government – amen to that, but even though there is no primaries system there is ample scope for new parties to emerge or young technocrats to parachute themselves into organizationally weak, elite-led parties. The Slovak experience suggests that many voters don’t want renewal of this kind, but stability. Is the Slovak Barack Obama actually Robert Fico?

>Flagging prospects for change?

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The new state in the making/EU protectorate of Kosova/o has a new flag (opposite), selected through a competition, but designed to have no associations with any ethnic group or historical tradition. It comes out a rather anodyne blue and yellow creation with a star design vaguely resembling that of the EU. Very similar colour scheme and design to that adopted, for similar reasons, by Bosnia-Herzegovina (below)and, I suspect, likely to be no more successful in bridging ethnic divisions. South Africa seems to have done rather better in the design of a new flag symbolizing national reconciliation, but then in that case there was arguably some kind of socially rooted reconciliation process so the opposing sides’ colours and symbols could be safely and strikingly merged in a new flag.

I don’t really research the Western Balkans although it is interesting to see CEE states scrambling to take (opposite) side on the question of whether the recognise the new state. Romania and Slovakia are firmly against (large Hungarian minorities), those without national minorities and eager to stress their Atlanticism (Poland) are edging towards recognition, while near neighbours and EU President Slovenia seems to have a position of studied neutrality/indecision expressing understanding for just about everyone’s point of view. Things will really get interesting once the Kosovars, recognised by some EU states but not others, apply for EU membership.

>Klaus wins amid whiff of corruption and populist cameo

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So, inevitably, Václav Klaus is re-elected in the third round of the re-run Czech presidential election with 141 parliamentary voters to Švejnar‘s rather paltry 113. They vote in public – Klaus’s supporters are confident of winning and so don’t make a fuss, but the whole process is still painfully slow and still takes all day. VK still manages to pick up the vote of now expelled Social Democrat deputy Evžen Snitílý, most Christian Democrats and a few independent right-wing Senators carefully ‘minded’ by ODS parliamentarians to make sure they didn’t change their minds.

Snítilý joins a fairly long line of ex-party colleagues who have succumbed to the persuasion and blandishments of the right over the year. I can’t think of a single case of case of anyone defecting the other way from Civic to the Social Democrats. There is also the curiously incident of the non-appearance of Green deputy, Olga Zubová, which leave Green leader Martin Busík gobsmacked when he is informed of it by text message mid-way through the morning speeches. A Green Minister is finally dispatched to her home to find out what is going on. Apparently, she is ill due to post-operative complications from recent surgery, although Green leaders find the incident ‘inexcusable’ and ‘strange’ – which I take as a hint they suspect some kind of shady goings on. Her absence could have made all the difference by lower the attendence and hence the number of votes needed for a majority in the third round, but in the event it doesn’t. Snítilý’s vote for Klaus is arguably more crucial. In the lunch break TV commentators more or less openly speculate about whether this long-serving Social Democrat has been tempted to ‘secure his family’s future’ or just had a nervous breakdown. Ceské noviny reports most of the corruption allegations briefly here and also suggests that the going rate for a pro-Klaus vote is about 2 million crowns (around £55,000 sterling).

You almost believe the diagnosis of the Communists’ presidential candidate, Jana Bobošiková, the independent populist Euro MP and ex-news reader, that the Czech Republic is one small step from a mafia state. There was admittedly a great deal of exaggeration as various parliamentarians melodramatically confided their fears about the threatening texts and emails they had received for voting the ‘wrong’ way in the previous election and but true some loon(s) did sent some deputies and senators envelopes with bullets in. Moreover, the apparent nobbling of opposition MPs – an accusation that keeps surfacing in connection with the Civic Democrats in tight situations – did give Czech politics a distinct whiff of the post-Soviet . Perhaps, as the news magazine Respekt suggested, all we have is simply a shop window for Czech politics as it really is, although in truth it was probably the 2004 and 2006 Senate elections, whose majoritarian system benefited the Civic Democrats hugely, that sealed Klaus’s re-election more than the big bucks or shady deals that may have pushed him over the finishing line and saved us from a third or fourth set of presidential elections.
With the Christian Democrats won over to Klaus (expect a generous new restitution settlement with the Catholic Church) Švejnar never really had a chance. Various commentators suggest that his challenge was a kind of heroic failure – it was impressive that it materialized at all, a shrewd move by the Greens who first floated his candidacy, a clever play by the Social Democrats, who swallowed their dislike of Švejnar’s economic liberalism and tried to use the election to derail the government (as Klaus’s election derailed theirs in 2003)., and so on. I am rather sceptical about this, however. There are no second prizes in politics – the only and obvious winners are Klaus and ODS. Even the Communists, who seem to have not bothered to vote for Švejnar in the end, missed out on their previous role as kingmakers due to lack of parliamentary voters and a rather blatantly fielded set of public demands.

Possibly, the only other winner may be Jana Bobošiková, who bowed out as Communist standard bearer even before the voting had started, but gained some useful publicity and dealt very confidently and professionally with media questioning about her (basically pointless) candidacy. She was an interesting choice for the Communists, who in previous presidential elections have usually settled on some crusty academician. Bobošiková, by contrast has the demeanour of Anna Ford and the politics of Robert Kilroy-Silk with perhaps a touch of Imelda Marcos. She was elected to the European Parliament in 2004 on the populist eurosceptic Independent Democrats (ND) list of by ex-TV magnate Vladimír Železný, but broke with Železný, who checkered business and political career is full of such breaks, she is now associated with the tiny Politika 21 party, which briefly came to fame when the ex-wife of Civic Democrat PM Miroslav Topolánek stood as a Politika 21 candidate in the 2006 Senate elections. Leaving the far-right Republicans, who were very much a phenomenon of the 1990s and finally pegged out as a parliamentary force in 1998, the Independent Democrats were perhaps the closest the Czech politics has come to a populist upsurge of the kind seen elsewhere in CEE.

>Slovene PM plays the grey card

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Prime Minister of Slovenia, Janez Jansa, reports Slovenia News, received representatives of the Pension and Disability Insurance Institute of the Republic of Slovenia and the Slovenian Federation of Pensioners’ Organizations ’ to discuss options for improving the social position and social inclusion of pensioners. He want to improve the social condition of future generations of pensioners and pointed out that on taking office his government had index-linked pensions and was planning to increase the capacity of retirement homes, but ‘the Government is also looking into certain measures that could be implemented in the context of reducing public spending’ (unspecified). Circle well and truly squared then. What’s the date of the next parliamentary election?*

Citing more or less directly from the EU active ageing strategy – Jansa adds that he wants to promote the social inclusion of older people and draw on their knowledge to advance national goals.

* 9 October 2008

>Czech presidential election: farce and deadlock as Klaus misses out by 1 vote

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The final round of voting in the Czech presidential election is marked by further procedural wrangles, confused reports that three (or four?) parliamentarians have been taken ill and accusations of skulduggery. Some of the voting figures from the second round have been miscalculated, but opposition parties’ don’t seem care as the second round is just a prelude to the decisive third round; Christian Democrat Senator Josef Kabáč, ,one of the tellers, seems to have gone AWOL on the second day with no one noticing. This was initially reported as being due his disgust at Parliament voting in public, but actually – it turns out – because of heart problems.

Then there are accusations – an overheard conversation in a corridor – that Civic Democrat Interior Minister Ivan Langer and one of his parliamentarian colleagues have done some kind of shady deal with Social Democrat deputy, Evžen Snítílý. There seems to be a history of this kind of thing in Czech politics. The current centre-right minority government only took office last year thanks to the defection of two social democrat deputies, who now sit as independents (Both voted for Klaus in the presidential election) Similar things took place in the 1990s – for some reason Czech Social Democrats seems to lack a certain ideological backbone. The situation is resolved, sort of, when Snítílý collapses and has to leave the proceedings for medical reasons – or was that part of the agreement (if there was an agreement?)?

When the vote, when it finally takes place, slightly against expectations, Václav Klaus one vote short of election, probably due to the unexpected absence – or unnoticed – of Kabáč. Klaus polls 139 votes. Švejnar is far behind won113 voters, but because the Communists parliamentarian have physically stayed put in the Spanish Hall put pushes up the majority required to 140. There are (despite the graphic above) 26 abstentions and three absences.

As in 2003, the whole three-round election process now need to be repeated. Friday is the day to watch. The Czech press is full of the predicable fuming about the undignified and farcical nature of the whole process, but you do wonder when the country will opt for the simple expedient of electing the President directly?

As far as the contest is concerned, Klaus remains favourite. Švejnar would need not only to garner some Christian Democratic votes, but also get the Communists actively on side. Unlikely, but doubtless combative Social Democrat leader and ex-PM Jiří Paroubek will try to stitch such an coalition together – or perhaps just block the whole process.

>Czech presidential election: Boredom in Bohemia, but Klaus edges ahead

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The day of the Czech presidential elections is at last upon us. Naturally, I tune in to ČT24, the Czech CNN, bright and early to listen the joint session of the Czech parliament that is to elect the President. The speechifying takes till lunchtime. Klaus says he offers continuity and stability and also throws a blatant pitch for Christian Democrat votes stressing the need for a social dimension in politics and his opposition to euthanasia and political correctness. Švejnar that he offers change, consultation and consensus – a new Technicolor vision for Czech politics – but is moderate and sensible and doesn’t want anyone to be left behind (Interesting and revealing how two such economic liberals need to play to the ‘social’ orientation of the majority even in parliament).

Then various leading Czech politicos take the floor. It‘s generally rather predictable stuff. Civic Democrat leader Topolánek gives Klaus a ringing endorsement – VK is, love him or hate him, is not bland and boring and is a Czech patriot. There are some surprisingly effective speeches by Green leader Martin Bursík and Social Democrat leader Jiří Paroubek. Despite strong personal animosity and being on opposite sides of the political divide – Bursík’s liberal-minded Greens are in coalition with the centre-right Civic Democrat party Klaus founded – both accuse him of transforming the presidency into a personal vehicle; failing to consult the government on key decisions; carrying out a personal foreign policy; and discrediting the country with extreme and eccentric views on climate change and European integration. Klaus walks out when independent Senator and ex-student leader of 1989 Martin Mejstřik starts laying into him, although given Mejstřik’s awkward hyperbole and irritating use of Latin proverbs in every other sentence, who can blame him?

Then we get to voting proper – sort of. In the best Czech traditions, deputies and senators actually spend the next nine hours trying to agree procedural questions – whether they will vote in a secret ballot or openly, and how they should decide that (jointly or as seprate chambers). Finally, as evening wears on, they find a compromise and agree to vote in public. In round 1, Klaus is narrowly ahead (139: 138), but no one wins in both chambers of parliament. Round 2 takes place, but parliamentarians vote to finish the session at 9pm and re-convene tomorrow. The Social Democrats block Civic Democrat efforts to extend the session – presumably they want a breathing space to Officially, the results will be announced tomorrow, but unofficially we know Klaus is ahead by 142: 135.

If repeated in the third round, he’s re-elected by 1 vote. Combined the Civic Democrats and Christian Democrats have 140 parliamentarians, so they need – and seem already to have gained the support of 2 non-aligned senators or deputies. The anti-Klaus parties – Social Democrats, Communists, Greens and various small liberal groups in the Senate – have perhaps 125-130 definite votes.

Klaus’s stock on, the OpenDemocracy virtual political futures market on the Czech presidential election has now risen to a commanding 79%.

>Electoral reform catching in SE Europe?

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Plans to reform the electoral system along majoritarian (first-past-the-post) lines seem to be catching in South Eastern Europe – at least if you are incumbent President or an ex-communist Social Democrat whose reformist commitment was fairly recently acquired. Bulgaria’s head of state, President Georgi Purvanov is, it seems, basically both. So it comes as no surprise that – following the (as unyet unresolved) Romanian electoral reform imbroglio – he should be toying with electoral reform broadly in the direction of a move from PR to majoritarian electoral system. As in Romania centre-right parties (specifically the UDF, but also the newly ascendant GERB party and parliamentary defectors from the governing National Movement for Stability and Prosperity, whose have set up a New Democracy grouping) are also attracted by the idea, seemingly seeing its radicalism as an opportunity for some kind of broader clean break giving impetus for reform and an spur to centre-right party building, which is as problematic in Bulgaria as Romania, although I guess Serbs of liberal-right persuasion must look on in envy.

As my SSEES colleague Eric Gordy notes in a piece written after the first round of Serbia’s presidential elections “… the DSS [Serbian Democratic Party of just-about-re-elected incumbent Tadic] has not adopted a conservative profile but a contrarian one, and as a result there is no coherent conservative political force in the country but rather a motley collection of populist and ultra-right movements. The DS [Democratic Party] and the DSS are not liberal and conservative parties in the sense that these terms are understood in modern politics; rather, both are in the mould of the highly adaptable and utterly immovable ‘parties of power’ that characterized politics in the period between the two world wars throughout the region”. On the other hand, the situation I suspect is not that far removed enough for the Bulgarian or Romanian (would-be) centre-right to feel great satisfaction. If they do want a further does of interwar style clientelist transformismo with a dash of Putin thrown in, first-past-the-post would probably be just the ticket, however.

>Economist podcast: My (un)certain ideas of Europe

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Anyone interested in my thoughts on ‘Democracy in post-communist Europe’ can hear these podcast in latest of the Economist‘s Certain Ideas of Europe series in a discussion with Ivan Krastev of Bulgaria’s Centre for Liberal Strategies, who, naturally, has all the mostinteresting ideas and all the best sound bites: democracy in contemporary post-communist Europe – and indeed the non-post-communist in the rest of Europe – he concludes is best summed up as ‘bearable dissatisfaction’. Need you ask more?