Archive | May, 2008

>Lustration: From Prague to Baghdad… to Sussex

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Today sees me heading over the Downs to a research in progress seminar by Roman David of Newcastle University as the Sussex European Institute on lustration in CEE. It’s a fairly well explored area with quite a rich sub-literature on various forms of ‘transitional justice’. Although a Czech, David came to Newcastle via posts in South Africa, Hong Kong and the US and his presentation Hungary, Poland and the CR, it was backlit by strong international concern with international comparison, which I liked – one of his more recent articles is entitled ‘From Prague to Baghdad’.

The presentation itself was a substantive one with two important original aspects: 1) the concept of a ‘lustration system’ with a certain logic and ideal typical form as opposed to a simple empirical run through and comparison of legal and administrative provisions in different countries (one might, he added, in the Q&A, use some more generalizable term, although he didn’t suggest one – ‘transitional justice regime?, ‘transitional justice system’?); and 2) real empirical findings testing the claimed impacts and benefits of lustration, principally increased regime legitimacy (more trust in democratic political institutions) and greater societal trust (benefits well known). Using a clever survey technique based on hypothetical vignettes in the three countries, which also controlled for anti-communism, he found that Czech-style ‘exclusionary models’ and Polish-style ‘inclusion’ models based upon truth telling (confession) about the past had positive effects on both political and social trust. It wasn’t (yet) possible to establish how great a contribution lustration systems might make to the general development of trust and legitimacy in transition societies (possibly rather limited in CEE contexts, I suspected), and there were some question over whether the individually based experimental nature of the survey (individuals responding to hypothetical, if immediately understandable, scenarios) could be scaled up to the social level. On this evidence, however, lustration certainly didn’t do any harm.

>Of parties, populism and partocracy

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Slovak political scientist Miroslav Kusý writes a commentary about ‘partocracy’ in Slovakia in the liberal daily Sme. This theme, once a favourite uniting ex-dissidents, liberals and anti-political populists with a more rough hewn character, has receded from academic and intellectual debate in the past few years in favour of a slightly different take on the problem of (supposedly) defective and sub-standard democracy in CEE: populism a.k.a. ‘the populist backlash’.

Kusý’s definition of ‘partocracy’ is a fairly straightforward one: party government carried out for not the people but for parties- i.e. parties failing in their tasks of representing and aggregating the popular will (or some portion of it). A principal-agent problem, as we call it in the trade. Then, however, we descend into partisanship. The current coalition led by Robert Fico’s populist-cum-social democrat party Smer Kusý says is an example of partocracy because it lacks ideologically common position with its smaller nationalist coalition allies and is united with them by a thirst for office, as (supposedly) proved by various scandals.

Kusy also cites a recent article in the Czech intellectual weekly Literární noviny by Czech political scientist and ex-Havel advisor Jiří Pehe who regrets that parties have given up on ‘their traditional role of forces in society’ (and, yes, the language original Czech really does have that odd echo of the Communist Party’s ‘leading role’) but are instead (shock horror!) reacting to public opinion ‘to appeal to the largest possible number of people’. (Pehe’s piece is a rather dull piece retreading the Czech ‘party versus civil society’ Klaus-Havel debate of the 1990s, arguing that social modernization makes parties less necessary and a political role for NGOs, citizens and intellectuals more necessary).

Kusý himself laments the ‘vulgar vocabulary, party polemics instead of civilized dialogue, and insults instead of substantive argument’. Alas, as argument about democracy or explanation of developments in either contemporary Slovak (or Czech) politics none of this really washes. It’s hard to think of any concept of party competition by big parties that doesn’t involve appealing to large numbers of voters or many established democracies, where party political communication takes place at the level of an academic seminar without a dose of knockabout polemics. Pehe’s assertion that Western political parties have opened themselves up to civil society seems fairly questionable- who can he have in mind? Possibly Greens in a very early stage of development? And political polarization – contrary to what he seems to think – as often or not tends to increase political participation and the increase in turnout at the last Czech elections showed.

The argument in Sme about ‘partocracy’ is also pretty lame. Ad hoc, unprincipled coalitions do not add up to ‘partocracy’. The term was widely applied to clientelistic party systems with an element of cosy consensus between governing parties say as those of post-war Italy or Austria, but has an intellectual heritage going back the early 20th century. In a CEE context one of thinks of critiques of interwar Czechoslovak democracy, both in 1920s and 30s and in more exaggerated form after 1945 (Evard Beneš’s Democracy Today and Tomorrow – Beneš being one of the few political scientists ever to become head of state. He wrote a thesis about political parties in 1913. Woodrow Wilson comes to mind as another President-politolog). Havel’s writings both as dissident and President take up this tradition: his elegantly written fulmination against party government in his 1991 set of essays Summer Meditations, although not unprescient, was striking for the fact that it came when Czech parties had barely formed.

As conventionally used ‘partocracy’ refers not just to a vaguely defined lack of principle in coalition-making but to politicization of the state and/or party penetration of civil society by client-patron networks and a failure of representation. Both (especially the first) are problems in contemporary CEE, but the Sme article entirely bypasses these issues. More to the point, however, love it or hate, Fico’s rationale for forming a coalition with nationalist parties does have a pretty clear programmatic logic: the nationalist HZDS and SNS did after all his more statist (ahem, ‘social-democratic’) economic policies. A pragmatic power seeking logic of the kind the Kusý piece envisages probably would have led to the politically less costly option of a coalition of Smer with some outgoing parties of the right or centre. As for a failure of representation, Smer’s high opinion poll ratings suggests that such principal-agent problems are not bugging the median Slovak voter, whom seems to feel represented rather well.

All in the all, the problem seems to be that Slovak liberal commentators don’t like Smer and their Czech equivalents dislike both major parties of left and right. I think I share these dislikes, But they would probably do well to set out why, rather than dressing things up as a unique crisis of post-communist democracy complete with ill fitting notions of ‘partocracy’.

>SSEES student breaks the blogjam

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One of SSEES’s soon to be final year politics students has a blog with references and resources to Ukrainian and post-Soviet politics. It’s something of a first for SSEES student blogs I have come across as completely avoids the what-my-flatmate-did-last-night-can-I-get-my-essay-in-on-time genre in favour of a diet of up-to-date and interesting political links.

>That’s the Volunteer Fire Department…

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For reasons that are not entirely clear, a camper van with the markings of the Volunteer Fire Department of a small German town, of Stickenbuettel has appeared in our suburban street. Stickenbuettel is somewhere near the North German seaside resort of Cuxhaven near the mouth of the river Elbe. The van is UK-registered but, naturally, left-hand drive so presumably someone as bought it as a cheap way of going on holiday in Europe (Europe outside the British Isles , I mean. )

The Cuxhaven Fire Department, you will be pleased to hear, has its own exhaustive Wikipedia entry (in German) which tells us everything you need to know including the fact that they have their own cadet force, but not why they are flogging their surplus vehicles to suburban mid-Sussex.

>Slovakia 15 Years On – or how we learned to stop worrying and love populism

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Somehow without quite realising I agreed to co-organise a one day conference at SSEES on Slovakia 15 Years On. However, with the help of the British Czech and Slovak Association, the Slovak Embassy and colleagues from SSEES and elsewhere, this turns out to be a whole lot less onerous that I had feared and on the day the event itself both interesting and successful and we are even lucky enough to get a keynote address from the current Slovak Ambassador to the UK, Juraj Zervan.
The ambassador, suffering (like me) from hay fever, reviews Slovakia’s development as a small Central European nation bringing it up to date with a discussion of the current ‘dynamic and stable’ government, which he says is building upon earlier reforms while developing a less passive foreign policy than the previous government and not losing sight of the social side of economic development. My scribbled notes also say that he stressed the importance of using state monopolies to forward the development of the economy, but it is not clear (at least from my notes whether this means using existing state holdings, or actively developing them.

Over lunch I hear less sanguine views about the current government from others: it has no real interest in foreign policy and is mainly interested consolidating its domestic position (very successfully so far) in controlling the finances of ministries and doing advantageous deals with the Russians over gas without much of an eye to longer term energy security. On the other hand, Tomáš Valášek of the Centre for European Reform reminds us the afternoon session, Slovakia has an excellent corps of EU-minded diplomats and previous Slovak governments’ focus in democracy promotion in SE Europe (while successful) overlooked the question of Ukraine, whose future Slovakia a more direct interest in as far as its own security is concerned.

The rest of the politics session centres on the question of populism in Slovak politics. As Tim Haughton notes, this is less related to the EU, whose influence on domestic politics is somewhat tangential and ad hoc than the general trend of democratic politics across Europe to ‘go populist’. As Kevin Deegan-Krause explains in a presentation that is theoretical, accessible and witty, populists appeal tend to move around the political landscape depending on who is in power (and part of the establishment) and who is not and can use various bits of kit from the toolbox of populists appeals (there are many). Holding government office tends to wear down populist lustre and new parties therefore do best as populist insurgents. The big exception to this rule, is of course, Fico’s Smer, which has bucked the trend and remained popular and populist in office. The reason, as Karen Henderson highlighted, in her presentation on the disarray of the Slovak opposition, is that populist parties reflect social and electoral demand. It matters little that the opposition can depict Fico as a semi-democratic ‘Mečiar lite’ (my phrase, not hers) and win international support, when they lack any coherent unifying political project – either for themselves or society – and Slovak voters are elsewhere. Interestingly, although some Slovak officials and politicians can rather sensitive about discussion of the current government – seemingly fearing an outbreak of Fico bashing as soon as any Western political scientist takes the floor – intellectual undercurrents seem to be shifting towards taking Smer much more seriously.

The day it should be said also included a morning session on culture: presentations on the refraction of Slovakia’s transformation to a consumer capitalist society through fiction with an outwardly trashy and sensational edge; a clever and interesting sounding novel with a mentally handicapped narrator, which, again, offers a skewed, satirical perspective on Slovak society and reveals much more going on than first meets the eye; and the work of the Slovak composer Eugen Suchoň, the centenary of whose birth is rapidly approaching.

In the margins of the conference I also learn that Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico ate a lot of kangaroo steaks whilst a visiting scholar at SSEES in 1999; that a Slovak designed the dollar bill; that (allegedly) a fifth of Slovaks are of aristocratic descent and that some Slovaks may be allergic to the metals in the new Euro coins and will need to watch out for skins complaints when the single currency is introduced in Slovakia in 2009 (now a source of predictable anguish in parts of the Czech press – the fact that the Slovaks are ahead in European integration, that is, not the skin allergies). And for anyone who can’t work out the puzzles of Slovak politics or culture, there is always the rather neat (and rather cheap) Slovak-themed puzzle I came across from Puck Puzzles, which illustrates this post.

>The European dog that doesn’t bark

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Yesterday sees me acting as discussant at a workshop on the Europeanization of parties in Eastern Europe at SSEES sponsored by the CEELBAS consortium, although as quickly transpires the story is actually one of non- or minimal Europeanization. The EU and ‘EU-related issues’ ) have not demonstrably changed party politics in CEE in the way that the EU has leveraged and shaped the region’s public administration and public policy.

The EU as an issue in domestic party politics in CEE has, however, been non-existent or at best a here-today-gone-tomorrow controversy which surfaces then quickly disappears around the time of accession. In many CEE countries, smallness and the consensus carried over from getting in to the EU couple with the public’s standard lack of interest in the EU on the part of voters combine to make the EU a total non-issue, whose main impact is provide an occasional reference point for politicians berating each other’s performance and an career option for politicians with an eye on the European Parliament or the European Commission.

As Agnes Batory’s excellent paper put it, as far as parties are concerned it Europeanization is, bluntly put, ‘the dog that didn’t bark. They haven’t changed very much or changed in obviously EU-related ways and the ‘anti-EU’ populist backlash that various academics and journalists have detected in various recent electoral upheavals can, looked at through different spectacles, be perfectly adequately explained by domestic factors – something I suspect that is also true of the coalition deals struck in 2005-6 with various dodgy minor parties in Poland and Slovakia most often cited as an EU-related, although as one paper rightly noted this seemed to fit in more to a process of the ‘de-Europeanization’ of party competition. I also Agnes Batory’s paper for tracking the ‘dog that doesn’t bark’ tag back to Sherlock Holmes story Silver Blaze – political scientists really should read more detective stories. I’ve heard there is one academic the US who bases his entire research methods course on episodes of Columbo- plenty of different modes of deduction and induction to study from the good Lieutenant

Back at the seminar, however, the €64,000 question is, of course, ‘so what’? What if Europe isn’t reshaping party politics in CEE, why should we care? I put both questions and got an excellent several-party answer from Stephen Whitefield: there may be implications for democratic governance in CEE; there is a puzzle to solve because we would expect the EU to be picked up and politicized by political entrepreneurs and emerge (but then disappear) as a political issue amid the electoral churning of the more volatile party systems of the region such as Slovakia, Poland or Estonia. The EU in CEE Stephen suggested – at least, as far as my illegible notes suggest (please correct me if you read this) was more part of a politics of democratic deficits and populism, whereas in Western Europe politics (and the way the EU played in domestic politics) centred on economic performance

Having exceeded my discussant’s brief and added to the mood of ‘Europeanization scepticism’, I had coffee and sandwiches courtesy of CEELBAS before leaving for the tropical heat of the fifth floor and a meeting of the SSEES post-graduate teaching committee.

>Personality politics: Beyond our Ken?

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When you start getting text messages from the Czech Republic asking you who voted for in the London mayoral election, you know that the Ken vs Boris duel really has caught the political imagination. The answer, readers may be disappointed to know, is actually I voted for no one because (thank God) I no longer live in London and can’t vote. I did, however, take a trip into the London Vote Match website to do their online quiz to find out, who I ought to have voted for. These type of political quizzes tend to place me all over the political spectrum, and this time apparently, I am squarely in the centre-left and should have voted for incumbent Ken Livingstone and, rather more worryingly, not a million miles from the far-left Left List.

This probably reflects the fact the questions were heavily loaded towards transport and ecological issues, rather than the economy more generally and didn’t ask about the mayor’s predilection for Hugo Chavez. Still, it looks like, in my own terms, I was right to text my friend back that view the Conservatives’ big personality candidate Boris Johnson je úplný šašek and that I preferred the existing mayor. I wonder if this is what Václav Havel had in mind when he argued that parties and ideologies should give way to forms of democratic politics based on personalities and personal qualities … The Czechs, it should be said, studiedly avoid electing anyone to executive office , from President to local mayor, by direct election – the nearest thing to personality based politics in the Czech Republic being the ultra-low turnout elections to the Czech Senate. These tend to throw up a mix of worthy independent doctors-turned-politicians and dodgy small town populists