Archive | April, 2010

>Virtually Nick Clegg

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I didn’t go to Westminster school, can’t ski, don’t speak Dutch and may not vote Liberal Democrat, but in a very real sense for about an hour last night I was Nick Clegg and, what’s more, I see the 2010 election results come in seat-by-seat and I can tell you all about them. The Lib Dems achieved the electoral breakthrough all the polls have been forecasting on a impressive scale with105 seats – very much at the upper end of what the pundits were saying. Unfortunately, however, the Tories also put in a much better than anticipated performance winning 296 seats, coming close to a majority and, giving a good moral claim to be PM. I

t looks like some kind of Lib-Con pact is on the cards, probably centring on electoral reform, but the Lib Dem hand isn’t as strong as it might of been if Dave can buy off the Scottish and Welsh Nats – who hold a total of 12 seats and the Democratic Unionists. Things look very bad for Gordon Brown – Labour was outpolled by the Lib Dems (26: 25 per cent) and Labour has just over 200 seats. Minor parties did better than anticipated though: Caroline Lucas came through the middle to take Brighton Pavilion, as did Salma Yaqcoob for the Respect party in Birmingham Hall Green. The BNP polled a scary 21% in Barking.

OK, I admit it, I haven’t had an out of body experience, slipped through a time warp, Nor has my wife been sllipping pyschotropic substances into my Nescafe. I was playing Theory Spark’s excellent – if rather belated – update of election simulation game Prime Minister Forever 2010. The game is based on their very successful President Forever game, which simulates US presidential contests (including primaries – it’s incredibly hard to win as Obama, by the way, and boy is Iowa crucial). For computer game buffs, I should say it’s essentially a resource management game with no very flashy graphics and you need to play experimentally a couple of time to get the hang of it, but there’s not too much to keep track of and enough real strategy there to make it intriging challenge for anyone with a serious-ish interest in electoral politics, who fancies themselves an armchair election general.

My strategy as the virtual Nick Clegg was to try to match what has actually happened over the last weeks cencentrating on winning TV debates and building momentum for third party breakthrough, campaigning mainly in marginal seats South and West of England and relying on the Big Mo to secure Lib Dem seats elsewhere, especially Scotland. It was tough: Gordon Brown did unexpectedly well in the first debate, but with better preparation I achieved the same kind of breakthrough the real life Clegg did in debate 1, only in virtual PC debates 2 and 3. Indeed, astonishingly my political timing was, I think, rather better than that of the real Clegg Cleggmania took hold a bit later than it has in real life eaving the Tories little time to bounce back. Gordon’s early momentum burned itself out, you will be unsurprised to hear.

My mistake though was not to campaign in the Midlands, where the Lib Dem electoral surge tended to open the way to the Tories, tranforming them into three-way marginals. The result was a distinctly Pyrrhic victory.

>Eurostar to Brno? The Economist’s fantasy Europe

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The Economist offers an odd, slightly heavy handed bit fantasy geography (aren’t there just a few more important things going on?) re-arranging the countries of Europe by character, political stability and fiscal rectitude. The Czech Republic is now boring enough to swap places with Belgium and more deserving of its north-west European spot as dully politically stable (at least, by contemporary Belgian standards). I guess that’s fine by me. If we can take the Eurostar to Prague and Brno, then it’s a much shorter trip to see the in-laws. But hey, I see Brits have to move down to a spot just off Portugal, as our deficit is large and we don’t seem likely to produce a majority government. Oh well, at least the sun will shine, although with global warning we are probably set for Meditteranean temperature just by staying put and waiting 20 years.

Real afficianando of fantasy geography should, however, perhaps try the Strange Maps blog.

>Regional poll suggests Czech Christian Democrats face electoral oblivion

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Lidovci příliš nezáří ani na jihu Moravy – ve své tradiční baště reports ČT24, the Czech CNN (as if). Translated this means that the Czech Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL) are – according to regional polling – down to a grim six percent even in their historic bastion of South Moravia. They polled 11% of the vote there in 2006 election but nationally only just made it over the 5% threshold, this poll suggests their electoral support may be halved and, come parliamentary elections at the end of next month, they will go the way of the Hungarian KNDP and other small Christian parties in CEE – down the electoral plughole. With mass organization, tradition and some deeply embedded support in Catholic regions, they couldn’t totally be written off even as an extra-parliamentary party, but like the KNDP in the end they will end up simply as a building bloc for other alliance. Bad news for the Czech right in the short-term: if KDU-ČSL flops so do their slim chances of a parliamentary majority, but their demise would exactly not great news for the Social Democrats either, wiping from the political map a moderate, stable, pro-European grouping with a genuine commitment to a social market, leaving them more reliant than they might like to be. The culprits are, of course, the new TOP09 party headed up by Habel confidante Prince Karel Schwarzenberg and various, pragmatic pro-market Christian Democrat defectors such as Miroslav Kalousek. In the end, they might I guess find their way into the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) creating a broader based right – TOP09 is almost unashamedly openly a short-term vehicle and ODS current stand-in leader Petr Nečas is a practicing Catholic who can do social conservatism. If, of course, ODS does not desend into factional conflict there is a Civic Democatic Party left for them to make their way into. I suppose they will just have to wait for Václav Klaus to descend from the heavens (or at least the battlements of Prague Castle) and save them.

>The Straight Choice online UK election leaflet archive

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I came across a very interesting website mapping UK election leaflets – The Straight Choice | The election leaflet project. Voters are invited to photo or scan election material that comes through their letterbox. Interesting, as it picks on variation in party organization and strategies characteristic of Single Member Distrcit contests and as a do-it-yourself, networkde way of building up an archive of historical material. Surprising, that no research institute thought of asking people to do this. And, of course, it would be an interesting exercise for other countries, CEE states included. Pity, I binned all the leaflets a week ago as part of my general UK-election-campaign-ophobia.


>UK Tories to send gay MP to quell Polish social conservatives

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Conservative party to send gay MP to quell EU extremists reports The Guardian. The story? Nick Herbert, Conservative MP for Arundel and South Downs, Tory spokesperson for the environment and one of several openly gay Conservative MPs has drawn the short straw and has agreed to go to Poland to attend a gay pride event in Warsaw in July (so far, so straightfoward) and also held the Tories’ highly socially conservative ally, Law and Justice (PiS) embark on a ‘journey’ to modernize its negative views on homosexuality. Possibly a tall order. One of the founders of the PiS, Poland’s late President Lech Kaczynski banned such events when mayor of the Polish capital. You have to feel sorry for Mr Herbert. He seems a nice guy. He met my mum when canvassing and was quite charming when she told he she was a dyed-in-the-wool social democrat, would like Gordon Brown as PM and a would not vote conservative if her life depended on it. I wonder if he will get on as well with Catholic social conservative in Warsaw as social democrats in Mid-Sussex.

>Shock horror – Czech Social Democrat leader once a Socialist, then a moderate

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I have been sent convincing proof that Czech Social Democrat leader Jiří Paroubek was in 1989 a functionary of the satellite Czechoslovak Socialist Party (ČSS) (above right) and gave an interview to the ČSS newspaper saying nice things about Victorious February, the Communist takeover of 28 February 1948, which saw the secular liberal-nationalist National Socialists – a stalwart of the progressive intelligenstsia in interwar Czechoslovakia and close to President Beneš broken and transformed into feeble, fellowing travelling appedage of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (some historians argue that this was the Nationalist Socialist own fault for misreading the political situation and indulging in nationalism and populism, rather than sticking to their own more liberal traditions, but that’s another story).

Should we be shocked? Answer no – I am, alas, as you know, not the Perez Hilton of CEE political bloggers, and this is, frankly underwhelming news. Allthough omitted from his official online CV, Paroubek’s membership of ČSS has been known for years and he can (if he can bothered) argue that he did not join Communist Party and sought through ČSS to promote some kind of political change. He joined in 1970. ČSS did have some contacts with left-wing Chartists (in Brno – not Prague where Paroubek was based) and, in fairness, the party did quickly jumpeship from the regime during the Velvet Revolution – its newspaper Svobodné slovo was one of the first to open report events. Havel’s famous speech in Wenceslas Square was delivered from the balcony of the Socialist Party’s publishing house, Melantrich. That might in many ways be a feeble argument – satellite parties were a powerless moribund facade organizations, but then Paroubek did leave in 1986, so he probably worked that out and correctly saw that satellite were not likely to be major vehicles for change in Gorbachev-era CEE. He had a middle management role in catering enterprise and later deputy director a footwear company – not quite ‘top managment’ mentioned in his official CV, but it made him small enough fry for the secret police to dismiss him as a potential informer.

In 1990 Paroubek showed a certain amount of foresight – and ambition – in joining the newly revived Social Democrat Party (ČSSD), re-founded by ageing exiles. Despite it wealth and a certain pedigree, the Socialist Party was obviously going nowhere politically after 1989, as historic brand of nationalism and liberalism was too sui generis to recreate in contemporary Czechoslovakia and the party basically stood for nothing. (Other Socialist Party functionaries joined the Moravian regionalists.) As he was relatively young. capable and not an exile Paroubek quickly rose to become the Social Democrats’ General Secretary – reading through the party’s history in the early years after 1989 as a PhD student I remember he was a constant presence – however, ČSSD’s notalgic harping back to the 1940s, hostility to former communists and refusal to criticize market reforms (backed by Paroubek who truly was Mr Moderation at this time) made the party a flop. Only with the recruitment of reform communists and a more confrontational policy of speaking up for transition losers in blunt and populist terms did the party get anyway, finally making an electoral breakthorough in 1996 under Miloš Zeman (who joined in 1992 and bear Paroubek to the leadership in 1993). I

If anyone is scouring old newsppers, they should dig out some of Paroubek’s anti-Zeman quotes, because of course, after more than a decade out of national politics doggedly establishing himself faute de mieux as a figure in Prague politics – including a stint in a Grand Coalition with the right in the nation’s capital- Paroubek returns: first as Minister of Local Development, then as hard-talking populist saviour of the Social Democrats when the party went into electoral and political after being routed in the 2004 Euro-elections. These, as we all know, days Paroubek out-Zemans Zeman (now also returned to politics with his own mini-grouping the Party of Citizens Rights) for being a high profile populist bulldozer, who understands that sound bites in defence of welfare and public spending are the way to win a Czech election

I doubt any of Paroubek’s potential voters will care about a bit of ideological waffle from 1980s – or, indeed all that dead-end moderation of the early 1990s.

>Czech parties start billboard war, go negative

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Six weeks before the parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic and the campaign is in full swing – at least in the media and in the rapid proliferation of billboards and campaign hoardings just about everywhere. By contrast, in the UK we have just over two weeks to go to our own poll and everything seems oddly low key. I have yet to see single billboard and media coverage is mercifully easy to escape.
In the CR, most of the running is being made by the Social Democrats, who have flooded the country with their trademark orange billboards with bland advertising style depiction of ‘ordinary people’ from different walks of life and clear promises to retain and/or increase social benefits of all kinds and to abolish the modest 30 crown charge introduced by the last centre-right government for visits to the doctor (I think most regional authorities – all bar Prague run by the Social Democrats – are paying it anyway, so de facto it may largely have been abolished already). The party also promises not to make swingeing cuts in public services, but to put up taxes and (especially) clobber the rich. Centre-right parties – the Civic Democrats and the new TOP09 party – are determined to make precisely such cuts and – by standards of the British campaign- are being pretty direct and up front about where the axe would fall , althought – as the Social Democrats point out – CR’s fiscal deficit is actually rather modest in comparison with the UK, although as a weaker and poorer economy Czechs should probably be concerned.

Other parties are conspicous by their billboard absence. I saw only one Christian Democrat billboard during the whole of my recent trip to the CR – the party is probably in disarray and/or out of cash – and none for the Civic Democrats, (ODS) although this seems to be a deliberate strategy to hold fire until the final two weeks of the campaign and rely on press advertising telling voters that the Social Democrats will hand their money to scroungers (picture of some muscular and rough looking bloke in a pub – presumably during the daytime). ODS have run a load of anonymous billboards satirising the Social Democrats’ big welfare message more overtly (‘Paroubek: I will abolish vets’ fees’, ‘ČSSD: we oppose getting up early in the morning’).

The Social Democrats have responded in kind with some still more blunt negative advertising showing various ODS leaders under the banner ‘Don’t blame us, you voted for us’ and one of ODS’s stand-in leader Petr Nečas proclaiming ‘We don’t care less about ordinary people: Charges for visiting the doctor will simply happen’. Going negative in the CR lacks a certain lightness of touch and element of humour, but I dare say it is effective.

And, how are things going in the Czech campaign? So far Social Democrats are comfortably ahead in the polls and look on course to emerge as largest pary (probably not gaining (m)any seats) and set for a minority government backed by the Communists with occasional deal making smaller parties of the centre and centre-right to get through some of the stuff the Communists won’t wear. Petr Nečas, performed better than expected in TV head-to-head with Social Democrat leader Jiří Paroubek – despite a somewhat cerebral geekish image, he was confident, to the point and able throw in a few sound bites, although was Paroubek better at hammering home basic messages likely to be understood and remembered by voters in their living rooms – but he seems unlikely to be a game changer.

The 64,000 crown question is, however, whether such left-right co-operation would extend to some of the more painful fiscal measures and rowing back from campaign promises – and certainly from he tone of the campaign – likely to be necessary in government. Paroubek, despite having built his political success in the last four years on being a bruising populist, made his early career as moderate and has plenty of experiences working with the right in Prague politics, so I suspect, in reality, he probably has a shrewd appreciation not only of how to win elections but also of what can and (more to the point) what cannot be delivered when they have been won.

>1917 – Austro-Hungarian propaganda.

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Someone, who like me has Czech inl aws, passes me a blog link to some Czech language 1917 – Austro-Hungarian propaganda. Small wonder thisThrone and Altar stuff never held Austria-Hungary together, although some Catholic relative seems to have kept it as a family heirloom, rather outdoing my wife’s Moravian relatives who never seem to have shared such religiosity and been bigger fans of the First Czechoslovak Republic. I suppose the Habsburg Empire would be a hard sell even for the best spin doctors, although I expect these days they’d be stressing its single market, lack of borders and common currency. A century on package tours, cheap air travel and well stocked hypermarkets are what unite the peoples of the former Dual Monarchy (and the rest of Europe). Progess of a kind a guess, but in century’s time EU prospectuses about growth, cohesion or peacekeeping discovered on some antique hard drive might seen equally quaint and forlorn.

>Easter Holiday diary

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It’s family holiday time in the Czech Republic. The neighbouring out-of-town high rise estates where my in-laws have improved slightly in some respects as some grey brutalist communist-era towersblocks have been insulated and refaced with a splash of pastel colours in the years following EU membership, althhough such refurbishment now seems to have slowed. There is also a very nice ‘muti-generational playground’ with a pirate theme just near the local football pitch, which – innovatbively – even has an exercise corner for seniors although there were no pensioners in evidence and precious few kids around on the cold Sunday morning we were there. The local mayor is a leading light on the Greens regional list for the forthcoming eletions, I was interested to discover. She doesn’t seem to be have been able to have done much about the ubiquitous graffiti on every available wall and dogshit on every availablle grass verge though. What’s the Czech for pooper scooper?

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Traipsing between tower blocks is no fun, so we quickly drive off to country. Having invested a 40 minutes being passed from queue to queue and counter to counter in the local post-office to buy a 10 day motorway vignette, we take full advantage of the empty, new motorway to Kroměřiž – part of slow, corrupt and not-likely-to-be-completed-any-time-somm road expansion and upgrading programme. The proverbial road to nowhere.

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The kids eat ice cream sundae in spa town of Luhačovice. I have backache and want to buy some ibuprofen. This means locating the local pharmacy, as the idea that so much as an aspirin on sale anywhere is anathama. Eventually, I get there and get a packet for three times the price they would cost at my local Tesco in England. Frustrating? Not half. With the collapsing pound, the Czech Republic is expensive as well as rather overregulated by British standards. Apparantly, Czech pharmacies have fought an effective rearguard lobbying action to hang on to their retail monpoly. On the other hand, perhaps I am too quick to think it is a basic human right to buy anything at knock down prices at the nearesr hypermarket.

My holiday reading, The Spirit Level, does a good job of popularizing academic finding that more equal market democracies have a better quality of life and fewer social and health problems – although I am less convinced by some of the evolutionary pyschology about status anxiety used to fillin the blanks and policy recommendations are the end some fairly tired and unimginative social democratic prescriptions like employer share ownership, co-operatives and municipal enterprises- worthy and probably quite effective, but frankly the political equivalent of a dose of ibuprofen.

Time was I knew the bookshops of Brno like the back of my hand. These days, however, I hardly ever stick my nose over the threshold of a knihkupectví, but instead spend a lot of time at zoos, children’s theatre and riding the city’s public transport system with my tram-crazy offspring. Today, we head to the Divadlo Polarka to see a performace of the classic Czech (well, izvinytye actually Russian) children’s favourite Mrazík. The theatre foyer is packed with surpisingly unruly school groups, who make up the children’s theatre’s clientele, supervised by an implausibly small number of teachers, who are good deal less fierce and imposing than the dragon remembered by wife from the 1970s when kids had to say ‘Yes, comrade’ instead of ‘Yes miss’ in class. Coincidently, Czech news magazine Respekt reports that Czech parenting has become considerly more liberal since the mid-1990s, leaving schools struggling to cope with more loud and assertive generatio ns of kids, who are a whole lot less cowed by authority.

Eventually, we get a seat – although it is 10am in the morning and the second performance of the day – the Polarka’s actors put in a fantastic performance with perfectly co-ordinated music, acrobatics, rapid scene changes and great story telling that knocks the average English panto into a cocked hat.

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Brno zoo is a bit of a disappointment, but the new refurbished Anthropological museum Anthropos with its papier mache cave people and life-sized model mammoth is a much more interesting proposition.

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