Archive | March, 2010

>Czech flag turns 90 – or does it?


Czech radio reports on its website that the Czech flag turns 90 today, having been designed in 1920. However, while the design of the flag may indeed have entered its ninth decade, for most of that time it was the flag of Czechoslovakia, red and white being the traditional colours of Bohemia, while the blue wedge was added to represent Slovakia. It was only taken over as the Czech flag when the Czechoslovak federation split up and the Czech Republic and Slovakia became independent states, making the Czech flag more of an upstart teenage than a venerable old banner.

Interestingly, Moravian and Silesia – the two other historic provinces that make up the Czech lands don’t , iconographically speaking, didn’t seem get a look in, perhaps because they were rather disapproved of politically in 1918 – the new state was supposed to be an expression of national statehood, not an assemblage of Habsburg provinces. The Czech Republic’s coat of arms does now, however, makes up for this by adding Moravian and Silesian eagles to the Bohemia lion (right).

Howver, in these days of political and social malaise – although perhaps you should treat that assertion with caution as, if you believe, the commenatators Czech politics and society are in a permanent state of malaise – some national rerebranding and an alternative national flag might be in order. This is the kind of topic that engages British bloggers, who have spotted that the Union Jack might need a makeover if Scotland goes independent, but doesn’t seem to have come up in a Czech context even during the Czecho-Slovak split.

So what would the options be? Officially, the Czech Republic’s flag in 1990-2 as a constituent part of a newly democratized Czechoslovak Federation was a rather unfetching red and white (right) easily confused with the Polish one, which also served as the Czechoslovak flag in 1918-20, so that was clearly a non-starter. A few far-right Czech bloggers want a black, red and white one with echoes of the Imperial Germany and on the same theme the wartime Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia had a non-descript red-blue-white tricolour (above left), but we don’t think we want to go there. At the time of the Czecho-Slovak split in 1992, Czech politicians did promise not to use the old Czechoslovak flag for the independent CR, but to revisit some of the rejected designs from 1919-20. However, as most of these echo the flags of Panama, Texas or some kind anarcho-syndicalist banner, it’s not surprising they went back on their word and stuck to Jaroslav Kursa’s classic 1920 design – pragmatism is one of many Czech virtues. The best of a not very good selection of proposed Czechoslovak flags of 1918 the period for my money is probably the sweeping asymetric tricolour opposite (left) but to today’s eye that looks far too much the kind of thing you might see flying over the Kremlin, so it looks like the Czechs will just have to stick to the one they have after all.

Perhaps they should call on David Černý of Entropa fame to do the next one?

>Exit Topolánek followed by a geek?

>So in the end, Czech Civic Democrat leader Miroslav Topolánek met the same fate as the hands of his more illustrious predecessor Václav Klaus – booted out by regions for electoral failure. Only this being Topolánek it more clumsy, disasterous and bathetic than the elegant failures and climdowns that mark the lower points of Mr Klaus’s career. While Klaus has the good sense to read the runes and step down in 2002, the maladroit Topolánek suffered the indignity of a massive vote against him in the ODS executive summarily removing him from the top of the party’s South Moravian list and role as the party’s national ‘electoral leader’ for the campaign. And, of course, Topolánek has been ousted weeks before an election not weeks after one – an impressive act of collective political courage (or desperation) by ODS intended to stem the party’s slide in the polls and loss of support to small new pro-reform parties.

The last straw seems to have been one of Topolánek’s characteristic foot-in-mouth remarks referring the Jewish background of caretaker Prime Minister Fischer – ironically the remarks were made in an interview with Lui magazine for gay men in a fumbling, bumbling effort to emphasize how unprejudiced he was: reading the transcript it might just be the case that Topolánek is talking hypothetical remarks about the lack of resolve and toughness of members of the current caretaker government (one of whom is openly gay – a rarity in Czech politics) and how it’s really just a matter of personality (‘…Fischer. He’s not gay, he’s simply Jewish and he backs off. It’s character’) . However, a (more out of context) video of the remarks suggests that he is straightfowardly linking lack blokish political determination is a consequence of Jewishness or homosexuality.

What ever the truth of, it’s appearances that count in politics. – and frankly what kind of an idiot politically would launch into any kind of off-the-cuff remarks about the Jewish background. Well, Topolánek that’s who.

It now seems a matter of time before Topolánek formally steps down as leader and disappears into the political shadows. His replacement as ‘electoral leader’ is Petr Necas, one time Labour and Social Affairs Minister, spokesman for intellectually minded social conservative sin ODS and leadership contender in 2002 (when he was endorsed by Vaclav Klaus and lost out in a narrow three-way contest). Necas is experienced, respectable and a safe pair of hands – certainly not the kind of person likely to be caught with penis on public display on Silvio Berlusconi’s poolside – and known for his dull worthiness. Leadership rival Jan Zahradil bluntly termed him a nerd (suchar) – or perhap ‘geek’ is a better translation – in 2002.

Such anti-charisma is being plugged by some Czech political pundits as likely to blunt the electoral attacks of both like TOP09 alternative right-wing parties and the Social Democrats both of whom were to some extent running against Topolánek, although the Social Democrats’ big welfare/big stimulus message seems likely to play well whoever leads ODS and I personally am sceptical that a bet on John Major-like dullness will pay off, a fact Necas himself seems to have grasped by trying to show his macho side, telling us that sometimes he does lose his temper and threatening to pull ODS nominated ministers out of the caretaker technocrat government in last few pre-election weeks.

A political obituary for Topolánek? He’s the man who held ODS post-Klaus, defined belatedly and for a more pragmatic, ecologically-minded realistic pro-market centre-right politics in the CR; and saw off Klaus and got the Lisbon Treaty ratified by the Czech parliament. A more substantive and interesting political figure than the gaffes, vulgar slips, lack of media polish, messy personal life for which he is likely to be remember. His greatest political failure was not to be an electoral winner in 2006, not to hold his minority government together in the spotlight of the EU Presidency. The greatest bit of bad luck of this famously lucky politican was the postponement of the scheduled early election of 2009 by the Czech Constitutional Court. After this Topolánek’s judgement and taste for politics seem to have deserted him, until he was mowed down by his own party.

You wonder, however, if any leader of ODS can ever really win an election in a meaningful sense ever again. After all every Czech elections since 1996 has seen the Social Democrats do better than expected, either by winning or do better than expected in defeat. Why should 2010 be any different?

And what one wonder would electoral defeat presage for the now very diverse Czech centre-right?

>A Young Generation Under Pressure?


A Young Generation Under Pressure? a new collection on generational politics and the politics of aging societies appears, perhaps not enirely co-incidently brought out by the German publisher Spring – ‘grey’ politics looms incredibly large in German academia. There is a short concluding chapter on pensioners’ parties in Europe. Who do you suppose could have such esoteric interests to write such stuff, I hear you ask. Can’t imagine.

And as a member of middle of the ‘rush hour’ generation caught between work, kids and life in general, how the hell did I find time to write it?

>Czech politics: How to be a successful loser


Karel Schwarzenberg tells Slovakia’s Sme that he doesn’t plan on leading his TOP09 party to victory in the forthcoming Czech parliamentary elections | Schwarzenberg: Nechceme vyhrať voľby.

Which is frankly just as well, as with 10-15% per cent preferences – now stagnating towards the lower end of that range as the novelty of his party wears thin and it becomes so last year (the clue is perhaps in the name) – the only role this rather interesting aristo-anti-politician is really likely to play is to a support party (and catalyst for change?) to the battered Civic Democrats.

>Frostbitten – or just mildly chilled?

The Cold War was not the whole story of the short C20th says this rather interesting essay in Foreign Affairs entitled Frostbitten

>Norewgian ‘greys’ get e-thumbs down

>A Norwegain website presents a ‘semiotic analysis of a political website’ – some of kind of university or high school assignment – about the web presence of that country’s tiny obscure Pensioners’ Party (do Norway’s pensioners have that much be disgruntled about?). The site gets the thumbs down for not running Obama style social networking, although it is a masterpiece compared to the websites of many minor parties and one wonders how web savvy even Scandinavian seniors are. I expect they prefer old fashioned communications techniques like email.

>CEE: A democracy of no qualities?


Notions of ‘democratic quality’ have become increasingly widespread over the past decade in the study of both new and established democracies. However, Andrew Roberts notes in his excellent new book The Quality of Democracy in Eastern Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2009) the concept remains fuzzy and ill-defined Scholars, who have used the notion, he rightly notes have basically tended to define it in three ways: 1) superabundance of the basic components that make up the procedural minimum of liberal democracy; 2) a set of favourable social and cultural prerequisites standing outside the political system; or 3) a set of desirable or efficiently arrived at policy outcomes promoting the public good, loosely overlapping with the concept of ‘good governance’ championed by many international organizations and NGOs.

However, he convincingly argues, all are unsatisfactory either because they conflate the attributes of high quality democracy with those of democracy in general, or because they confuse democratic quality with things such as social structures or policy outputs that, strictly speaking, fall outside the nature of the relationship between citizens and their elected representatives. Democratic quality, he suggests, must instead be understood in terms citizens’ abilities to influence their rulers through three forms of linkage: 1) electoral accountability (voters’ ability to dismiss politicians, who have broken promises or performed unsatisfactorily); 2) mandate accountability (voters’ ability to make meaningful choices from a range of distinct programmatic party positions) – and politicians’ willingness and ability to deliver on campaign promises; and 3) policy responsiveness (politicians’ willingness when in office to fit policy to public opinion – and voters’ ability to monitor and pressurize them to ensure that they do).

The book then seeks to operationalise and measure democracy quality (thus defined) across the new EU member states of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), widely considered to be stable and functioning liberal democracies, but also to have consolidated democracy in a flawed and low quality form burdened by legacies of the communist past, a detached and alienated citizenry, and a corrupt and self-serving politicians – you know the standard journalistic-cum-academic shtick you have probably come across a million times in The Economist and The Journal of Democracy or wherever. But is that really the case?

In successive uses a mixture of quantitative analysis and re-analysis of existing literature assesses electoral accountability, mandate accountability and policy responsiveness in CEE as well as comparison of the region with Western Europe and Latin American and finds that it ain’t necessarily so simple.

Based on data on economic performance, Roberts finds that CEE democracies show high level of electoral responsiveness. Despite significant general anti-incumbent voting, voters in the region do hold governments to account for poor economic performance. However, although CEE party systems are programmatic, mandate accountability in the region is much weaker – and, he finds, has remained consistency weak since the fall of communism. Party positions in the region are less clear and – usually as result of a politics of populist outbidding – the range of party positions on offer to voters tends to be less varied than in either Western Europe or Southern Europe. Examining politicians’ follow-through on campaign promises, Roberts finds that the relationship between winning parties’ campaign promises on (economic) reform and the subsequent direction of policy weak, although they are few volte faces on reform commitments of the kind common in Latin America. In CEE we are talking shades of economic liberalism from full-on to half-hearted.

However, contrary to the image of ‘lonely reformers’ by-passing popular preference through blame avoidance strategies, Roberts finds that, when making policy, CEE politicians are relatively responsive to public opinion. Although there is little active public input into policy making, qualitative case studies of pension and housing reform in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, highlights how favourable public opinion has been a key prerequisite for reforms to go ahead.

Overall, Roberts argues, CEE enjoys a reasonable quality of democracy, albeit democracy characterised by distinct patterns of accountability. Weak civil societies, constraints imposed on left and right imposed by international and European conditionalities and CEE voters’ tendency to punish all incumbents at the polls, reducing politicians’ incentives to fulfil campaign promises, sharply depresses mandate accountability, Roberts suggests. The region’s surprisingly good democratic quality, juxtaposition with Western Europe and Latin America suggests, can be traced to a single factor: its relatively high levels of socio-economic development and, in consequence, its well educated, capable and rational citizenries.

Overall, the book offers an elegant, and generally convincing set of arguments about how we should view democracy in CEE, cutting through much current conceptual fog and going rounding in circles and – what’s more opens to way to genuine pan- comparison of democratic systems in the old and new EU. What are debates in the ‘advanced democracies’ if not about ‘democratic quality’?

True, the empirical basis of book’s findings is, in some respects, rather limited and broadbrush (not really much sharp cross-national comparison) and its formulations leave some questions unaddressed. The stress on citizen-state linkages as at the heart of its conception democratic quality might, for example, be taken as implying that forms of direct democracy offer better quality democracy. Not a conclusion I personally would shy away from or loose any sleep over, but an issue that goes unmentioned in the book, which is quite party-centred.

Such limitations, however, arguably reflect a concern with mapping out new territory broad agenda-setting, rather than making slam dunk cast iron, empirical judgements over narrow range of cases or issues, which frankly makes for dull and pointless political science. I personally like the rather unusual research-in-progress fee to the book. For all the above reason, it may, I suspect come to be a seminal work for research on comparative quality of democratic governance. Will CUP kindly grace us a paperback copy or an affordable e-version?