Archive | September, 2009

>Germany’s many shades of grey


A predictable article in Earth Times about the crucial nature of the ‘grey vote’ in Germany’s forthcoming elections. Crucial in the sense there are lot of pensioner voters, but not in the sense of any distinct bloc of pensioner votes. But wait. At the end, we read that Germany now has three pernsioners’ parties, who hauled in 1.4 per cent of the vote in June’s Euro-elections (quite good in by historic standards). Seems I am behind the times.

>View from a castle

Two days later I find myself, still somewhat to my surprise at a conference on Society, History and Politics organized by Prague’s Institute for Contemporary History at the chateau-cum-conference centre of the Academy of Sciences in Liblice.

The chateau is lovely, almost embarassingly so, and perhaps not something the Academy will want to draw attention to as it tries to fight off swingeing cuts in its budget driven partly by post credit crunch austerity and partly by the shifting balance of power in Czech higher education. The universities want to get their hands on more of the research spending, hinting very sotto voce that the Academy is an old-style centralized monopoly based on the Soviet model and needs shaking up.

I am something of fish out of water, although the difference in approach are fascinating: dense detailed investigation of localities and time periods without the usual ‘model fitting’ preoccupations of most political science conferences or the concern with big scale (national, European) institutions. The papers (well not mine obviously) are of almost uniformly high quality and perhaps because the Czech language medium forces me to concentrate more, I realise that I learned a lot.

The central focus is much more on 1989 than the Brno conference, but there a still new insights on offer . The mass spontaneity of popular mobilization during the Velvet Revolution was more a subjective experience of surprise and togetherness than a reality; the mass flyers and leaflets produced during the early weeks of the revolution in the Czech lands and Slovakia, when caredully and painstakingly analyzed reveal – outside the more radical and anti-communist capital cities – a desire for a kind of monitory popular democracy firmly rooted in social(ist) property relationships.

Interestingly, Czech contemporary historians’ research interests also bleed into political science and sociology. There are papers on the not-in-fact-quite-so-successful success story of Roma integration in Český Krumlov and Czech political parties after 1989 and their historic identities, although frustratingly I miss the one the role of Social Democrat exiles who re-founded the Czech Social Demoratic party in 1989. Not only would the pre-history of debates about what social democracy means in post-communist CEE be very interesting to know, but clearly the Big Orange Machine currently Czech politics upside down by giving up on early elections might not exist if things had turned out differently in 1989/90.

It would be an interesting piece of academic alchemy if political science and historical methods could really be harnessed together, but it rarely seems to happen, either in the Czech context or generally. Jason Wittenburg’s book on Hungary is the only major work of this kind that really comes to mind. All too ofte, political scientists dabble well intentionedly in historical research and historians in contemporary political processes without quite coming up with anything new.

I pack my bag and switch on the telly to catch the latest political news, but there’s only a discussion of whether Elton John and David Furnish should be allowed to adopt a Ukrainian orphan. “Adoption by two high-quality homosexuals (dva kvalitní homosexuálové) is preferable to life in an Ukrainian institutions”, a spokeswomen for Czech Children’s fund enlightenedly tells viewers. Then we are on the sports news. Slavia Prague play well, but they are outclassed at every turn and eventually beaten by Genoa.

I walk outside with my suitcase to sit and read and soaking the sun and the atmosphere. Then I hitch a lift with the Goethe Institute’s minibus to the rather less lovely surroundings of Holešovice station.

>Czech Republic: Elections to be held as scheduled shock


I’m sitting in my parents-in-laws sixth floor flat in Brno with a glass of my father-in-law’s red wine at one elbow and Czech-English dictionary at the other. Having spent all summer finishing various conference papers at short notice, I’ve been a conference on 20 Years of Czech Democracy at Masaryk University in Brno. We have an interesting first panel discussion of pinpointing the reasons for stability and longevity of the Czech party system; learn how the Czech Social Democrats have terrific and well focused political marketing and how Czech voting is stably class-based and generating right-wing suburbs on the periphery of Prague and Brno, while those left in the city centres toy with various centrist and populist parties. I disagree with the keynote address which frames Czech democracy in terms of democratic consolidation, admittedly broadly conceived. I think we should starting thinking about democratic quality and how well democracy works, not bracketing the CR with Serbia
While all this is going on the Czech parliament is passing an amendment to the Constitution allow it dissolve itself – the Constitutional Court (“the last guarantee of democracy” as one of my fellow panelists – possibly ironically – put it) which is practically next door to the Faculty of Social Studies where we are conferencing had struck down the previous one-off constitutional law shorterning the parliamentary term, so they have to pass a sensible general amendent along the lines they should have published years ago. Early elections postponed from October to November. Or so we thought.
Today brings the news that the Social Democrats don’t want early elections at all, despite what they spent the last nine months saying. So terrified are they of the possibility of another successful challenge in the Constitutional Court to the latest amendment that they helped pass that they would rather the current caretaker government of technocrats formed in May continued for another nine months when scheduled elections can take place. Oh, and the technocrats will also get to make swingeing cuts to balance the budger including 3% salary cuts for public sector employees. The fine Social Democrat marketing campaign to be promisng decent living standards for ordinaty people wound up. Parliament isn’t to be dissolved. The inter-party pact between the main parties of left and right that brought the caretaker government into exisitence is null and void. Topolnek resigns as a deputy in protest, pointlessly and rather riskily I thought. The technocrats in the ‘non-political’ government – whose leverage is increasing by the minute – want a new one to give them a democratic mandate (of sorts) but will only agree go on if they are allowed to rein in the budget deficit and cut public spending.
‘Politologové jsou zaskočeni’ the TV news says. Damn right we are. We should have been discussing issues of consensus, competition and the problem of building stable majorities yesterday, not waxing lyrical about the institutionalization of parties, although I suppose their stability as individual organizations add to the instability (or perhaps I should call that finely balanced nature) of the Czech party system . The current turn of events poses some pretty sharp questions about the Czech model of democracy and readiness with which politicians can chop and change the rules of the game when they put their minds to it and, having created in political system in which parties rule the roost, flee from government in times of economic crisis and hand over to a team of technocrats for a year does have a whiff of South America or Serbia about it.
I am going to another conference on the 1989 next. Unwise in many ways, as I am not a historian, but perhaps safer in some as the dull certainties of Czech political crisi management seem to be collapsing around us. The next 20 hours of Czech democracy are a lot harder to understand than last last 20 years