Archive | October, 2008

>Czech public blame Russians and Georgians alike

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Opinion polling reveals the Czech public holds a characteristically divided / balanced set of views the Russo-Georgian war: majorities disapprove of both Georgian intervention in South Ossetia and Russia’s response, with predictable splits on left/right lines and the usual swathe of ‘don’t knows’.

>Slovakia: New social services law highlights creeping statism

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Slovak daily Sme reports on an amendment to the Law on Social Services passing through the Slovak parliament supported by the ruling centre-left Sme that obliges regional authorities to take social services from public providers (preferably ones they have established themselves) and only then, if there is no capacity to, use private/third sector providers. Social services clients can opt for non-state providers but lose care allowances, if they do (some choice). Opposition deputies criticized the amendment as denying choice and suppressed civil society/the third sector. Doubtless there are a few counter-arguments about cost, quality and risks of commercialization, but the Slovak system seems in striking contrast with the recently reformed Czech Social Services law, which seeks to diversify the range of providers within a new toughened up inspection framework and add in offer some element of client/customer choice. Slovak regional authorities protest they simply don’t have the cash to run social services properly, although lack of resources is also a problem affecting the new Czech system.

>Czech Republic (again): Prague mayor to challenge PM

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Yet more on the Czech Republic, I’m afraid where, perhaps spurred by the general atmosphere of real and impending crisis – things are moving fast. Prague mayor Pavel Bém has told PM Miroslav Topolánek “Come upon punk, make my day” and announced he will challenge him at the forthcoming congress of for the leadership of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS). Well, actually he said “You wanted it, Mirek, so you can have it ” following the PM’s disparaging remarks in a newspaper interview about his leadership potential, but you get the picture. Bém has, it seems, a good chance of winning, but it is apparent from his remarks, some vague waffle about ‘conservative values’ , that he has little in the way of a programme for the main party of Czech right, still less the kind of strategic vision that might keep the Czech Republic’s delicate – but successful – balance of the ‘social’ and liberal.
The nightmare vision being floated by some commentators (such as the Final Word of the one page Czech daily news digest The Fleet Sheet ) is that some kind of re-constructed caretaker government will be put together by President Klaus, which will not only fail to get the Lisbon Treaty ratified by the Czech parliament (the CR is one of the handful of EU states not to have done this), but cause eurosceptic havoc in the EU just as the Czechs get to hold to Union’s Presidency, not so much sweetening Europe as leaving a very bitter taste in the mouth.

The Final Word scenario of a Klaus coup culminating in the CR being slung out of the EU, however, strikes me as a bit fanciful. I can fully believe that President Klaus would love to pull the strings from Prague Castle, intervening in politics in the just the way he also criticized President Havel for doing (I always though the charge about half justified). I wonder, however, whether there are really the votes in the Czech parliament to deliver a government with the ideological stamp of Klaus on it. The anti-Topolánek forces are also a disparate bunch and there is reason to suspect that some of Bém’s business/political dealings make him an accident waiting to happen.

There are also those who think that for all his unsophisticated bluster and lack of intellectual polish Topolánek’s perhaps soon-to-end tenure as leader did sketch out a political model for the Czech right that, if improved and adapted, could serve it give it a continuing voice in Czech politics: co-oridnated reforms off tax, welfare, and public services in a single package, a pragmatic mix pro-market policies with state intervention to support key groups working mothers and young people; an iinherent willingness to compromise with (and co-opt the agendas of) smaller parties like the Greens and the Christian Democrats; and, course, a junking of quixotic Klaus obsessions such as climate change denial, rants against multi-culturalism that does not exist in the Czech Republic, and grandoise fantasy visions of remade, de-integrated EU.

Topolánek, unluckily for him, was outplayed by a better, tougher leader in Jiří Paroubek and caught by circumstances no incumbent could control. If ODS descends into factional conflict, – and junks what passes for ideological debate in the party- as it threatened to do, but didn’t, following Klaus’s semi-forced departure as leader in 2002, then Paroubek may manage to establish the Social Democrats as the natural party of government in the Czech Republic, although global economic conditions and the problem of how to handle the Communists (already painfully evident in difficulties forming coalitions at the regional level) may make this less than straightfoward.

The future may be orange, but it isn’t bright.

>Czech Senate run-off elections: Orange wave rolls over the provinces

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Well, you should never believe that lousy pundit Dr Sean. The results for the 26 second round run-off elections to the Czech Senate (1 third of the 81 member Senate come up for re-election every two years*) are now in and it’s more good news for the Social Democrats and more bad news for the centre-right.
The results of the run-offs were as follows

Social Democrats 22 (I predicted 19)
Civic Democrats 3 (prediction 6)
Communists 1 (prediction 1)
Christian Democrats 0 (prediction 1)

The big story is the Social Democrats polled better than expected in the provinces, overturning first round Civic Democrat leads in three electoral districts. Especially notable is that they did so well in larger provincial towns and cities, winning not only in Zlín (where they had sitting a Senator) but also in Oloumouc, Brno and Plzeň which had always been fairly safe territory for the right and had elected right-wing Senators in 2002. They even managed to squeak in ahead of the Christian Democrats in their historic South Moravian heartland winning in Uherské Hradiště by half a percent. Only in Prague did the right-wing vote hold up: all three seats in the capital were won by ODS by large margins, but these were the only seats they won. The future, at least in the provinces, is orange, the Czech Social Democrat have left red to the Communists, whose one 2nd round candidate, as anticipated, won in Znojmo by a country mile). And, just to complete the picture, I should that that old warhorse Jiří Dienstbier did win for the Social Democrats without too much difficulty in Kladno and thus returns to national political office some 16 years after being dumped out of parliament by Czech voters in 1992. However, his 56% of the poll in a bastion of the left was one of the Social Democrats less impressive results, so perhaps there were a few Old Bolsheviks out there who still have forgiven him for Charter 77.

So, should we get excited about the result? Predictably, Social Democrat leader Jiří Paroubek says that these results show that the current government is toast and that a caretaker administration of technocrats should take over to lead into early elections next June and allow the Czech Presidency of the EU to pass with dignity without being undermined by domestic instabilty. I personally doubt that such a dramatic scenario is on the cards. I dare say the current centre-right government will put out some feelers for a bit of bipartisanship on the Presidency – in truth, despite some differences of language, the two big parties’ priorities for the Presidency aren’t a million miles apart and the Czech Republic’s lack of real political clout in Europe means that the range of realistic goals any government could set is quite narrow.

In some ways perhaps not. The French style two round majoritarian election system used to elect the Czech Senate and the six year interval between elections tends sometimes to produce such dramatic massacre of incumbent parties. The Civic Democrats had similarly crushing victories over the incumbent centre and centre-left in Senate elections in 2004, for example. Their current loses thus just undo their dominant position in the Senate, which has limited powers in any cases, returning the second chamber to the balanced state the staggered re-election of a third of Senators every two years is supposed to achieve.

On the other hand, the results keep up the pressure on the government and on Civic Democrat leader and Prime Minister Miroslav Topolánek and mark a significant advance for the Social Democrats, who have always previously failed to translate their position as one of the two big national parties in Czech politics into effective performance in the highly localized Senate contests. In a slightly more long term perspective the votes confirm some ongoing trends in Czech politics: the eclipse of small centre-right liberal parties (possibly we should include the Greens in this category too) and the creeping advance of the Social Democrats as an electoral force in South Moravia at the expense of the Christian Democrats, whose identity crisis these results will do nothing to assuage.

The only unpredictable factor, of course, is the global economic downturn. If Hungary does go the way of Iceland and the rest of the region catches cold, we may see some more dramatic shifts on the Czech political scene. My bet, however, is that if the economic chips are all down we would be more likely to see some kind of a government of national unity, than early elections. After all, what self-respecting party of the traditional left promised to defend ‘social certainties’ that Czech voters so prize would want to take over in such circumstances?

*One Social Democrat was elected with an absolute majority in the first round last week)

>Czech Republic: Klaus ‘anti-Gore’ role underlines marginality

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Transitions Online carries a (for once) interesting report about President Václav Klaus’s links with – and fundraising for – US climate changer deniers for whom he has become (in the absence of a more heavyweight international figure) a kind of figurehead. Hard not to feel ever so slightly sorry for VK, whose political marginality is mercilessly underlined by the report of his links with this declining lobby.
Klaus has, it’s true, has made a rather bathetic mini-comeback in Czech politics trying to rally the Civic Democrat troops for the Senate run-off elections (today and tomorrow) in an echo of his back-against-the-wall fight for his political life ten years ago as his scandal hit and split party seem to be in meltdown. This time though I suspect the Civic Democrat vote will melt away as surely as the ice caps.
The President’s term ends in 2012.

>Czech Republic: government survives – unimpressively

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I suppose I should have been on tenterhooks over the vote of no confidence in the Czech parliament not reading about the ‘greying’ of Europe’s trade unions, but frankly I wasn’t. True the Czech government is a minority administration and there a several ‘independent’ or semi-detached deputies in the chamber, making things unpredictable: four dissident, disillusioned or bought off Social Democrats; a group of three rebel Civic Democrats led by ex-Finance Minister, flat tax advocate and latterly orchestrator of a fake self-incriminating sex scandal, Vlastimil Tlustý, who are deeply hostile to the current Prime Minister, Mirek Topolánek (Topolánek dumped Tlustý and most radical flat tax commitments in early 2007); and various discontented deputies in the smallest, newest and most fractious parliamentary groups, the Green Party (junior party in the current centre-right government).

But a Czech government has never fallen in a no confidence vote and this one had survived three such votes, so I thought it would again would manage reasonably comfortably. At bottom, rebel and dissident MPs have no real incentive to bring a government down as they have no certainty of being re-elected in early elections or improving their position if some caretaker administration takes over. To succeed the motion would also need a majority of all deputies (101 votes), not just a majority of those voting, meaning that all former Social Democrats and at least one deputy from the coalition would need to vote ‘no’ (not just abstain)

And, of course, the government did survive – by 97 to 96 votes. But I was only half right. Social Democrat defectors either didn’t vote (2) or backed the government (2), but Tlustý and his allies abstained and two Greens didn’t vote. Presumably, some of them had calculated that although the government wouldn’t fall, it might just be politically humiliated and de-stabilized enough to give them additional leverage of various kinds. And, we should remember, if a formal vote of no confidence isn’t passed, it’s actually constitutionally very tricky to dissolve the lower house of the Czech parliament before scheduled elections.

I suppose the next thing to watch probably is the Civic Democrat congress and the position within the party of embattled Prime Minister – and, frankly which recently Czech Prime Minister hasn’t been embattled – Topolánek. I guess to a considerable extent this depends on the Senate run-off elections later this week and how badly the right does. The first-past-the-post system and strong, local and regional variations in Czech politics make for some fascinating contests, although this year independents and smaller parties have done less well, so most are straight Social Democrat/Civic Democrat contests.

My prediction, for what it’s worth, is that the 26 seats up for grabs will break down something like this Civic Democrats 7, Social Democrats 19, Christian Democrats and Communists 1 each. Contests to watch: Brno City (can the Civic Democrats pull in enough voters for other right0wing parties to overhaul the Social Democrats’ first round lead; Kladno – ex-dissident and former Czechoslovak Foreign Minsiter, Jiří Dienstbier had a narrow first round win standing on the Social Democrat ticker. He should win in the second round, if (and is that a big if?) Communist voters in this historically ‘red’ town overlook old emnities and vote for him.

>Slovakia and Argentina: the East becoming the South – or the North?

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Slovak daily Sme discusses the parallels between Argentina, Iceland and Slovakia as small vulnerable economies and, specifically, the state taking control of the second pillar of a reformed pension system (compulsory individual savings). The global financial crisis is of course in a sense, good news for politicians with genuine etatist leanings such as Robert Fico, for whom the three pillar pension system left by radically reforming predecessor governing has become a real battleground.

>Czech Republic: Right hopes to deal sucker punch

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Visitors to the Civic Democrats’ website are confronted by the following appeal to parry a left hook with a right and turn out to vote for the right in the second round run-off elections to the Czech Senate next Friday and Saturday. Somehow rather unconvincing compared to the hysterical, but effective anti-socialist rhetoric of the Klaus era – or even the more contrived posters of 2006 warning of a communist-social pact returning us to the bad old days of totalitarianism. Indeed, when the Communists are probably about to step in as a support party for the Social Democrats at regional level all we get is a not too well done boxing metaphor. I dare say ODS’s PR consultants (if they haven’t been sacked already after the election debacle) are right to think that anti-communism won’t wash too much with jaded and economically fearful electorate. “Out for the count” or “Kick us when we’re down” might be a more appropriate slogans for a Czech centre-right that clearly hasn’t found the blend of pro-market and pro-welfare it needs for big time political success.

>Bulgarian pensioners get anti-crisis payment

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Perhaps with an eye to possible protests and possible votes, Bulgaria’s coalition government are bunging the country’s pensioners a one off payment of 50 leva – around 20 quid or US$35 reports the Sofia Weekly. Bulgaria is the poorest member of the EU and parliamentary elections are scheduled next June. No doubt the incumbent Socialists are hoping that their efforts will be more convincing that the bruised Czech Civic Democrats’ fruitless efforts to reassure pensioners that they were being looked after economically, although in comparison with Bulgaria they probably are.
350 000 Bulgaria Retirees Receive BGN 50 Compensation against Financial Crisis

“About 350 000 Bulgarian retirees are going to receive a one-time allowance of BGN 50 with their November pensions as part of the government’s measures to tackle the consequences of the global financial crisis.

The news was announced Thursday by Bulgaria’s Labor Minister Emiliya Maslarova, who explained that all retirees whose monthly pensions were below BGN 113,49 would benefit from the measure.

However, the allowance will be paid per household not per person, i.e. a household with two retirees with pensions below BGN 113,49 would be entitled to receive only one BGN 50 allowance.

The allocation of the BGN 50 allowance was necessitated by the inflation of basic products and services in the recent months. The inflation compensations will cost the national budget about BGN 17,5 M.”

>Czech Republic: the political marketing wot won it for the left

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I can’t vouch for its academic quality, but any Czech-speaking readers interested in knowing more about the rough, tough election-winning tactics of the Czech Social Democrats might be interested in reading the BA dissertation of political science student, Tomáš Kubík, which examines the party’s 2006 general election campaign which saw it transform the seeming certainty of crushing defeat at the hands of the right to a very narrow loss indeed, leaving the right to cobble together the current precarious minority government. The conclusion is, it seems, that it was US political conultants PSB, thorough, ongoing polling and the resultant strategy focused on a segmented electorate wot won it – well, rescued it- in 2006 for ČSSD. A similarly to-the-point bread camapign stressing economic issues and social security seems also to have delivered the goods two years on.