Archive | July, 2008

>Grey horizons in sunny Cologne

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Having spent day after day commuting into London to revise a conference paper on Eastern Europe’s pensioners’ parties, I finally headed off to Cologne to the workshop on Politics and Public Policies in Ageing Societies, organized the Max Planck Institute for The Study on Societies, not to be confused with other Max Planck Institutes (or should that be Institutes Max Planck?) as Cologne has several. As the politics of ageing is a relatively new area for me, the two day conference was an interesting one and, helped by liberal supplies of decent coffee and fruit juice and well functioning air conditioning, I learned a lot. My own paper got a more encouraging response than I had expected, which I guess means it will get another reworking means and so won’t be retiring just yet.

Although there were some people working on ‘grey’ interest groups, the balance of attendees reflected the current bias towards researching ageing societies through the lens of social policy, demography, gerontology and pension policy, although as Achim Goerres’s excellent introductory made clear there are plenty of mainstream political sciences perspectives waiting to explored. Indeed, the (German) notion of a ‘generational contract’ seems to be direct invitation to political theorists (of whom there were none at the conference) to develop some kind of contractarian perspective on the whole problem.

Emerging into the unexpected heat, I navigated my back to Cologne’s main station, had an ice cream and a walk near the cathedral until backache and stifling temperature made the S-Bahn to airport a more appealing prospect. Here, I settled down with a couple of litres of mineral water, an iPod full of radio documentaries and a crime novel to wait for the flight back to Gatwick, pausing occasionally to improve my German by dipping into a tabloid someone had left to read about Radovan Karadzić working als Sex-Guru. Funny they didn’t mention that in The Guardian.

>Lithuania investigates ‘war crimes’ of WWII Jewish resistance fighters

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Excellent report on BBC Radio 4’s Crossing Continents programme about historical memory in Lithuania, where the authorities are investigating the supposed war crimes of Jewish resistance fighters in World War II, whilst dragging their feet over prosecuting the country’s own wartime collaborators who took part in the Holocaust. Lithuania’s deputy foreign minister explains that Soviet mass deportations of the country’s elite were also a ‘genocide’. Anti-communism with an undercurrent of anti-semitism. Uncomfortable listening.

>Sofia Weekly on Bulgarian reform debate

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The excellent online Sofia Weekly of 12 July carries the following pot pourri of news items about Bulgaria’s on-off debate about party and electoral reform.

“Bulgaria President Hosts Forum on Electoral Reform

The Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov opened Monday a forum to discuss the proposed reform of the country’s political model and election system, especially the introduction of majority representation that he himself had promoted over the recent months.

The public discussion is attended by a total of eighty persons, including the Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev, the Sofia Mayor and informal leader of the GERB party Boyko Borisov, all leaders of major political parties, as well as a number of leading Bulgarian sociologists, political scientists, and journalists.

At the opening of the forum the President expressed his doubts that the leading political parties would manage to achieve a consensus for the political reform.

Yet, Parvanov put forth his position that the introduction of majority representation elements, i.e. the adopting of a mixed representation system would turn into an antidote against the people’s indifference to politics and parties.

“None of us believes that the introduction of majority representation is the universal cure”, the President said.

He added, however, that the adding of majority elements to the proportional representation, the voters would have the opportunity to select from two “menus” – one of political parties, and another of personalities.

Parvanov rejected the allegation that the majority representation would make the buying of votes easier with the words: “It is easier to purchase a small, neat party.”

In his opening statement, the President declared himself against the introduction of a preferential proportional system, in which the voters would be able to rearrange the party tickets by pointing out that the experiment with this system had failed at the last elections for Members of the European Parliament in the spring of 2007.

He also said the preferential system would cause quarrels within the parties and coalitions, and push out of the ticket the smaller coalition partners.

The President called for the establishing of clear rules for the founding and registration of political parties. He pointed out the fact there were as many as 380 political parties in Bulgaria meant many of them were used to cover corporate interests.

Parvanov was positive that the political campaigns were the main corruption factors in Bulgaria because during them a lot more hidden party funds were spent. He suggested that a public register of the donors, advertising, PR, and lobbyist groups be set up.

According to the President and former leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, Monday’s discussion was unprecedented because of the goodwill to debate and tackle important issues.

Bulgaria President: Obligatory Voting Might Give Birth to Political Monsters

Bulgaria’s President Georgi Parvanov said at the end of Monday’s discussion of the proposed electoral system reform that he himself initiated that he was firmly against the introduction of obligatory voting.

In his words, such a measure could lead to the creation of “political monsters” as the voters would try to find ways to protest against being force to vote.

“At this point we need to win people with policies, not through forcible and administrative action”, the President said warning the politicians would not be able to tackle the consequences of such a measure for decades to come.

Parvanov pointed out the point of the whole debate was to find a solution for the curing of the parties and political system in Bulgaria, because in the last parliamentary elections the winner received only about 450 000 votes.

He stressed the negativity of this trend, and made it clear that the parties should seek a way up from the bottom that they had reached.

After the five-hour long debates, however, the President discovered the support for the introduction of greater majority representation in the political system was waning. He admitted that even the Bulgarian Socialist Party, whose leader he was before becoming President, had stepped back from its former position on electoral reform.

Parvanov also concluded that the political parties and the other participants in Monday’s forum were unable to reach a consensus on the introduction of majority representation. In his words, the idea had many proponents but no one was willing to step in and assume the political responsibility for its realization.

Bulgaria Nationalist Leader: Electoral System Debate Is Fake

The leader of the extreme right and nationalist Ataka party Volen Siderov stated Monday that the discussion forum organized by the President Parvanov for reforms in the electoral system was insincere and fake.

According to the Ataka leader, the debate was a simulation because at the end the governing majority was going to adopt whatever changes it wanted without listening to the opposition.

“It is neither honest, nor moral to achieve a victory by default through changing the rules of the game”, he stated.

“We here are present at an advertising campaign of the President for a new political model”, Siderov said adding, “What other type of model do you want, Mr. President, autocracy or a military junta?”

The nationalist leader announced that there were two members of the Supreme Council of the Bulgarian Socialist Party and one advisor of the PM working in the board of Information Services Jsc, which helped with the counting of the votes.

“It is not important who votes but who counts the votes”, Siderov concluded.

He compared Monday’s forum to the round table of 1990, which in his words the former Communist Party, whose successor the BSP is, used to make a PR campaign.

The President Parvanov retorted to Siderov that it was really bad when there were people who fell asleep in 1990 and woke up today.

Sofia Mayor Borisov: Party Leaders Should Be Allowed to Be Mayors

The Sofia Mayor and informal leader of the GERB party Boyko Borisov demanded Monday that the reforms in the electoral system allow party leaders to hold positions such as his.

During the roundtable on the proposed electoral reforms organized by the President Parvanov, Borisov stated he could not see the point of banning party leaders from being mayors, while the Prime Minister could hold their position and still remain chair of their party.

The provisions prohibiting party leaders from holding mayor’s office has forced Borisov to hand over the leadership of his party GERB to Tzvetan Tzvetanov, and to assume the title of “informal leader”.

During his statement at the forum, the Sofia Mayor also demanded that the electoral lists be finally updated in order to prevent abuses with the votes of dead persons, and those living no longer at their permanent address.

Instead, Borisov insisted that all Bulgarian citizens vote at their current address. He also declared himself in favor of abolishing the state subsidy for political parties, and against the renting of municipal property for party headquarters.

The Sofia Mayor also suggested that the Interior Ministry should inspect the minority-populated regions in order to check whether the persons were actually there, or whether somebody else voted instead of them by using their IDs.

Borisov meant primarily the thousands of Bulgarian expatriates of Turkish origin living in Turkey, whose coming back to Bulgaria by bus in order to vote has turned into a problematic phenomenon.

The MP Lutvi Mestan from the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms party retorted it would be too bad for the elections reform discussion if it was centered only around the minority-populated regions.

Earlier, the Prime Minister Stanishev said the electoral system changes would most likely be voted in November. He replied to the demands for a referendum on obligatory voting made by the National Movement for Stability that the politicians should be careful with referendums because they could turn into a populist tool. ”

>Romania: President’s party calls foul over electoral boundaries

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Vehement complaints from representatives of the pro-presidentia Democratic Liberals in Romania, reports Nine O’Clock, (PD-L) that the opposition Social Democrats (PSD) and National Liberal Party (PNL), who currently form a minority government are colluding in the Electoral Code Commission, which is drawing up the (sort of) single-member (‘uninominal’) districts, which are an element in the new electoral system. Less than confidence inspiring to read that this body, which is loosely equivalent to the UK’s Boundary Commission is made up of representatives of political parties and works mainly on the basis of proposals agreed in deals between parties at local (counyt) level. Still, I suppose gerrymandering is a fairly well established practice in some ‘advanced democracies ‘as well….

>Parties indifferent to Bulgarian President’s electoral reform plans

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As might perhaps have been anticipated, the Bulgarian President’s package of electoral and party regulation reforms, reports the Sofia Echo, has met an indifferent-to-frosty reputation from parties of the governing coalition – like most CEE presidents (and unlike President Basescu in neighbouring Romania) Bulgaria’s President Purvanov is not a big political player. The declining Movement for Stability and Progress, of ex-PM and -man-who-would-be-king-if-Bulgaria- was-monarchy, Simeon Saxe-Coburg, are according to the Echo against it because as a small party they would lose out from any more majoritarian system and, as they rightly, point out because it isn’t the most obvious solution to (supposed) problems of vote-buying. However, the Movement’s website reports that it is in favour of some form of mixed electoral system, although it seems to see the ‘majoritarian’ element partly in terms of allowing voters greater choice of individual candidate by freeing up the system of preferential voting allow electors to re-order the ranking on party lists. Other small parties like the far right Ataka bloc are against, presumably for similar reasons. The Turkish minority party, the Movement for Rights and Freedom’s, also has more to lose than to gain: there seem to be concentrated minorities of ethnic Turks in five of Bulgaria’s 28 districts (see map), suggesting about the same level of parliamentary representation for the MRF as now (assuming lack of ethnic polarization). However, any new electoral system, especially one with a less proportional outcome, might deprive the MRF would lose its pivotal kingmaking status, so the party would have to risjk much for limited gains.
The Bulgarian Socialists, who might, as a big, once very dominant party, have something to gain electorally, also now seem lukewarm. The Sofia Echo quotes Socialist PM Sergei Stanisheas saying that the “BSP had already bet on the majority element in the 2007 elections for European Parliament, but this did not lead to great results”, although I’m not clear if that means the euroelections were held using some kind of ‘mixed’ MMP system.The Bulgarian election commission’s website suggests that it was a straightforward party-listed based proportional contest, although unfortunately I can’t read enough Bulgarian to read the technical summary.

With heroic optimism (and a certain disregard for the facts) President Purvanov sums up the result of his abortive roundtable on report by as saying that “we all seem to be in favor of introducing a stronger majority element in the elections but no one wants to take the responsibility and make the decision in favour of it.” Not how I read it.

Meanwhile, in a separate development the Echo also reports that the country’s two Green parties have merged.

>Honey, I fried the planet

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Nosing around for political simulation games that might be useful for teaching purposes, I came across a test version the online CO2FX educational game simulating global warming and development issues. It plays quite well. You get to play Brazil and there are parts for political, scientific and scientific advisers (although I combined all three). I go for a distinctly unhistoric free market-ish development strategy, slashing taxes and scrapping agricultural subsidies by the early 1970s and putting on few green carbon taxes when economic growth and huge popularity make this possible. I misjudge things and by the turn the 21st century I realise I have to boost R & D budgets and impose punitive carbon taxes to push the nation’s fossil fuel dependency down – compensating for this by further reductions in personal and business taxes. I do manage to get fossil fuel use down to 20% but 2040 without too much pain. Unemployment rises a bit, but GDP is still rising and the government is still popular, but human development indicators (never great under my regime) are awful. Life expectancy dips below 1960s levels. Meanwhile, the ice caps have melted, rising sea levels have caused flooding and CO2 and global temperature have soared. I blame the Chinese.

>The kids aren’t all right

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Burning the midnight oil, I stumble across a report about Russian policymakers plans to knock the country’s youth into shape with a mixture of authoritarianism (no Halloween celebrations, thank you very much), Mary Whitehouse style moral panics about TV violence and officially orchestrated youth organizations and events – in additional to the already well reported Nashi grouping, there is now a sort of Putin scouts movement called Mishki (Teddy Bears), to put post-Soviet patriotic backbone into the Russian 8-15. To judge from this report Miski lacks much in political sophistication, so let’s hope its activities are vaguely fun, although as its website lacks even a decent computer game I doubt it.

Moving on from the temptation to spend too much time gawp with the usual mixture of horror and amusement at the Potemkin civil society in (post-?) Putin Russia, it struck me that official Russia’s notions of youth and its problems provide interestingly contrast with the liberal-civic perspective, which seems to inform debate about the limitation of disengaged youth CEE and W Europe, where the blame is self-critically heaped on politicians and political institutions. Although in CEE there does seem to be shared that civic/patriotic values have been eroded by the consumerist hedonism.

>Bulgarian President pushes for electoral and party reform referendum

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The Sofia Echo reports that, having come up with a package of proposed political reforms aimed at introducing some a new of Mixed Member Proportional electoral system and tougher registration requirements for parties, Bulgarian President Georgi Purvanov is pushing for a Romanian (New Zealand?) style referendum to enact the proposals, although, unfortunately for him, referenda are not binding on legislators. Post-1989, the Bulgarians have never had a national referendum, however, so who knows what may happen, if the other politicos do accede to his wish.
The President is, of course, also consulting with party leaders and reportedly won the support of the Socialist Party (BSP), his former political home, but right-wing parties seem rather more leery. The proposals, which specify that to be legally registered parties must have branches in 2/3 of municipalities, seem directed at culling small, local grouping that have done increasingly well at local level in the last couple of years, prompting allegations of vote buying and other dubious practices. These seem to have been borne out by a series of court decisions annulling municipal elections. Critics suggest, however, that established parties, including big powerful groups like the BSP, have simply been caught napping, letting their grassroots organization wither, as attention shifted to elite-level politics in Sofia and the formulation of party lists central to the current system of PR. Rising political force, GERB, a sort of centre-right populist concoction riding very high in the national polls is, more understandably, also rather short of local organization.

The electoral reform element of sketchy overview of the presidential proposals are expertly dissected by Matthew Shugart at Fruits and Votes. Seems, however, that they are more about corralling powerful local politicians into established (big) parties than eliminating corrupt practices.

And as postscript I should note that a presidentially sponsored Round Table to seek consensus on changing the electoral system and party regulation regime is due to held on 7 July. Watch this space