Archive | March, 2009

>Czech government falls: Is the curtain also slowly falling for the right?

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It was one of those theatrical, but drawn and deadly boring Czech parliamentary occasions – yet another attempt to vote out the Czech Republic’s minority centre-right government, albeit spiced up by the promise of three dissident deputies from the ruling Civic Democratic Party to vote the government out. I quickly got bored – the government had narrowly survived four such votes of no confidence as patronage and dissident legislators’ reluctance to pull the trigger and bring the curtain down on their own parliamentary careers. I busied myself with the rather more stimulating topic of calculating effective national electoral thresholds and checked the result later that evening.
And, lo and behold, the government actually fell, sunk by the combined votes of side-lined flat tax guru Vlastimil Tlustý and two deputies expelled from ever fractious Green Party, whose inclinations (if we set aside personal animus) were more to the left. Despite – or perhaps because of – a rich tradition of minority government, it’s the first time a Czech government has been unseated by a vote of confidence since 1989 and, if I’m not mistaken, ever in modern Czech history.

What do we expect now? Well for the duration of the Czech EU Presidency and the summer holidays, probably not a lot. The Topolánek government will limp on as a caretaker government, until early elections in autumn or conceivably summer (perhaps to coincide with Euro-elections scheduled for 4-5 June), no doubt accompanied a lot of wrangling with the opposition Social Democrats, who will seek to exercise some influence by trying to insist on a ministerial reshuffle to get rid of some particular betes noires.

If the polls and the results of last year’s regional elections are any guide, the Social Democrats will then sweep back to power and establish some reasonably stable government – possibly including the Christian Democrats, possibly not – but I dare say with the tacit support of the Communists (who might perhaps get to nominate a few independent ministers for their trouble).

And what does it all mean in the longer term when one strips away the War of the Newts style day-to-day politicking? First, it is clear that the fall of the Topolánek government has its roots in split on the right. Second, although the spectacle of deputies in the once well disciplined Civic Democratic parliamentary group breaking away and turning against their own party (more usually a speciality of the Social Democrats) is something of a first, is actually the second time that a minority Civic Democrat-led government has collapsed because of divisions within the right, the first occasion being the unveiling of the party funding scandal and subsequent ‘Sarajevo assassination’ of Václav Klaus by some of his own ministers in November-December 1997. Third the underlying causes are similar: to what extent should the right seek to push a market-oriented reform agenda and to what extent should it refashion its programme around a compromise with social, ecological and civil society building inclinations of various parts of the political centre.

The roots of what happened today can be found in the Pyrrhic victory of the 2006 election when the once enormous poll leads of the right evaporated under a Social Democrat orchestrated by Jiří Paroubek, which showed that too many Czechs had too many doubts about the radical agenda of flat taxes and market-led welfare and health reform that the Civic Democrats had signed up to as ideologically acceptable alternative to the stale euroscepticism of the late Klaus period. Miroslav Topolánek seems belated to have found his way towards a more pragmatic less eurosceptic Scandinavian style conservatism better attuned to Czech realia and in seeing of the rather vapid and flashy challenger of Prague mayor Pavel Bém at last December’s ODS congress to have clearly taken the majority of his party with him. But for all his undoubted guile, skill and survivabilty – and probably through some individual legislator’s miscalculation – his luck has now run own and his period as ODS leader may quite possibly be coming to an end.

Whoever takes over at the head of ODS, the current global crisis means that market liberalism of the kind that ODS has had as its ideological hallmark since its foundation is out of fashion. The Social Democrats can move into the Euro elections and parliamentary elections with a reasonably plausible narrative of pro-EU politics, strong welfare and energetic state intervention as the pillars of anti-crisis package to look after a fearful population. The right will have little to offer except the memory of unrealised Blue Chance reform package, some unpopular charges for health services and a reasonably handled EU Presidency. I guess that does leave a national-populist card to play and I suppose we will in some form see the Charge of the Klaus Brigade (few tears being shed at Prague Castle tonight, I expect), but whatever happens it’s hard to escape the feeling that the influence of the Czech (neo-)liberal right may be starting slowly to slip away.

>Cloudy blue

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Kevin Degan-Krause’s Pozorblog highlights the joys of Wordle, a site which will artily mash will any text as a arty looking ‘word cloud’ and, as it homes in on key words, tell you straight out and direct what the book is really about. Fed into the site the text of my book The New Right in the New Europe comes out pretty much as you might expect, although my tendency to overuse the word ‘however’ is rather brutally exposed.

However, I think you can probably forgive me that…

>Bulgaria: People’s Commissioners to European Commissioners?

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The Economist lays into Bulgaria’s Socialist Prime Minister for extraordinary plan to create forms of parallel political administration with the European Commission in which Commissioners would intervene directly (as opposed to indirectly) in the country’s government. A sort of Kosova-lite, in which the EU would quietly colonize Bulgaria – although seeing an election wheeze intending to shore up vastly unpopular domestic institutions and a vastly unpopular government, The Economist struck a eurosceptic note, by comparing it to Soviet oversight of the Bulgaria in the 1940s. And Bulgaria’s long serving communist strongman Todor Zhivkov did n more than one occasion reportedly offered to make Bulgaria the 16th Republic of the USSR. On the other hand, in 1930s and 40s didn’t Hayek and von Mises see collapsing weak, economically irrational national states with democracies all too inclined to sink into nationalist and populstic demagogy into a supranational federation run by well trained technocrats from Vienna as the best defence of liberal Europe?

>Lost World of Communism loses its way

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After weeks of overwork, I get time to watch a little TV. It’s a busman’s holiday. Itune into BBC’s 2’s The Lost World of Communism. This week’s second part of the series is about communist Czechoslovakia. The programme’s a disappointment, however. Well made and watchable. if built around the rather conventional TV history technique of tracing a few key figures and themes from the 1940s to the 1980s. Informative too, I guess – if you know practically nothing about Czechoslovakia. And, in fairness, there was some powerful documentary footage of Jan Palach’s funeral, and some rather less finely wrought, satirical films made in 1970 or 80s with an odd Benny Hill quality, neither of which I’d seen screened. There was also , for once, some effort to redress the balance and indicate that socialism did have its beneficiaries and supporters (A communist miner is proud of his awards, achievements – and earnings – under the old system, Karel Gott, the cheesy pop troubadour professes total ignorance of signing a document denouncing Charter 77 (unlikely), and points out that he earned as much hard currency for the country as Škoda factory (probably true)).
The rest, however, was less the Lost World of Communism than the World of Communism Everyone Who Knows Anything About Eastern Europe Already Knows About. Accordingly we got a familiar sideshow of images telescoping Czechoslovak socialism’s half century of existence the show trials of the 1950s and the judicial murder of Milada Horaková; the Prague Spring – reformist pop diva Marta Kubišová (and boy, could she sing) presents an impromptu bouquet to Dubček; then the tanks come crashing in and there are the familiar scenes; a brief bit on the stupification and stagnation of ‘normalization’, we see Václav Havel besieged by secret policeman at his country house, as well as some nods to Timothy Garton Ash with various references to Czechoslovakia as the Kingdom of Forgetting although they forgot to tell us what was being forgotten); then it’s 1989 Velvet Revolution and Havel and Kubišová on the balcony of the Melantrich building overlooking Wenceslas Square speaking and singing to a vast emotional and ecstatic crowd. An iconic scene. – but the lost world of communism stayed pretty much lost.

>Bar to advancement

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I’m sitting in a hotel bar with colleagues, nervously watching the time so I don’t miss my train and talking about party patronage and academic specialization. Like so many studies of parties, the one we’re discussing tends to tell us less about the effects of parties and more about the problem of the very notion of the political party, in both advanced and transitional democracies much less the bounded formal organization of the political science classics than fluid elite network overlapping with other networks. We lament the fact that intellectually curious political scientists are, as often as not, punished in career terms for asking new questions and shifting to new areas: to gain reputation and stature, we agree, you need to keep mining the same seam even when it’s pretty much exhausted.

I am myself pretty much exhausted when I get to St Pancras and I narrowly miss my train.

>Czech Republic: Communism (still) on their minds

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An interesting and well informed piece by Avizier Tucker on current debates on decommunization and historical memory appears in Transitions Online. The basic insight that a generational changing of the guard among historians and scholars of the communist past is changing the terms of the debate is well made: issues of personal morality, integrity and responsibility get disentangled from the writing of history as both Stalinists-turned reform communists-turned dissidents and non-communist victims of the regime leave the stage. However, whether this is leading to national new facing up of the past, let alone ‘catharsis’, I rather doubt. Indeed, the whole of Czech politics stretching back into dissident debates of the 1980s and before has been one long national conversation about the Czechs and their relationship with communism… Perhaps a necessary conversation, but the framing of the country’s historical memory as one giant, ongoing exercise in seeking catharsis from the communist experience seems restrictive.