Archive | May, 2010

>Czech elections: How I got it wrong (again) – and why

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The Czech election have happened and as soon as the exit polls came in, it was clear something pretty unusual had happened. When the results came in the Social Democrats ‘had won’, but both big parties’ score were way down on what had been predicted on unexpected and pretty much historic lows: the Social Democrats on 22.1%, the Civic Democrats on 20.2%. The big winners were the two new reformist centre-right parties TOP09 on 16.7% and Public Affairs (VV) on 10.9 who came close to pushing the Communists (KSČM) into fifth. In the end, however, KSČM – the only sure thing in Czech politics these days – pulled in 11.27%, a bad (-1.5%) but not a disasterous result. It was a bad election for small parliamentary parties: the Greens as widely expected were wiped out and – as also anticipated, but much more momentously- the Christian Democrats also fell below the 5% threshold and are out of parliament for the first time since 1990 and – in wider historical perspective taking into account the communist period (when they were a satellite party) and the pre-communist period – perhaps more than century.
Small left-wing parliamentary parties – the Citizens Rights Party – Zemanites of … can you guess? …. former Social Democratic PM Miloš Zeman and the Sovereignty bloc of former news presenter Jana Bobošiková – neither of which were given much of chance before the election, both polled unexpectedly well: 4.33% and 3.67% – enough for annual state funding – although this wasn’t enough for the mecurial Zeman who promptly resigned as leader of his own personal party. He was shortly joined by Christian Democrat Cyril Svoboda and Jiří Paroubek, who led the Social Democrats for the first time in ages to a worse-than-expected parliamentary election results – although without quite hitting the 8% managed by Vladimír Špidla in the 2004 European elections.

And, if I was head of the Czech Politics Pundits Party, I too would resign, because as you will gather, I was badly wrong in my forecast (again). However, mistakes can be instructive, so let’ go over how I got it wrong. I predicted

Social Democrats 27%

Civic Democrats 23%
Communists 13.5 – 14.0%
TOP09 12%
VV 8%
Christian Democrats 6%

My first main mistake was to assume – perhaps thinking of how British voters behaved earlier this month – was that new parties support would be less than that in the polls and that established parties somewhat greater. My assumption was that new parties new found popularity was fairly flakey and that some of their supporters either wouldn’t turn out to vote or would make a better-the-devil-you-know choice at the polls and opt in the end for an established parties. So Mistake No 1. was to underestimate the frustration of Czech voters and to overestimate the underlying appeal of established parties. A very West European error.

This led to two smaller errors: Mistake No. 2 was to overestimate the core electorate of historic parties such as the Communists – who lost votes in both relative and absolute terms – and the Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL), who did indeed fall below the 5% threshold. Interestingly, the gambler in me got this one right – I staked 10 euros on them crashing our of parliament winning have a princely four – while the more cautious blogging political scientist didn’t. Mistake No. 3 was to discount the prospects of small left-wing parties, despite the fact that polls showed at least one (SPOZ) creeping up in the polls to 3-4 per cent.

Overall, I show (as ever) a lack of political imagination – or an engrained sense of disbelief – about likely changes. Borrowing from the trends picked Kevin Deegan-Krause’s poll analysis, I at least see that both main parties are not going to suffer a dip in support, but what I failed to see is that far from rowing back from these trends being , in the actual results conistent of these trends writ very, very large indeed. A bit of imagination and the Deegan Krause analysis and you could have been there.

>Wordle-izing Slovakia’s centre-left

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And, as I know you’ve all been lying awake, wondering about the politics of Central European social democracy, here’s a quick Wordle-ization of the prgramme that Robert Fico’s Smer is serving up to the Slovak electorate for their also forthcoming elections – as in the CR from an eroding position of strength but as a dominant and incumbent party, rather than the kind of hard hitting opposition you wouldn’t want to meet on a dark night in the middle of a tricky EU presidency.

Compared to their Czech colleague Smer’s programme throws up a lot less in the way of concrete policy, stresses the words ‘Slovak’ and ‘state’ an awful lot – suggesting a more nationalist note (as frankly you would expect) as well as the party’s name. The spread of key words also suggests greater emphasis on the politics of anti-crisis and the country’s position in the world economy.

>Czech elections: Mind my Wordle

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So what are the Czech elections about? Well, as glance at the rash of orange billboards – and milder outbreak of blue ones – will tell you “It’s the welfare state, stupid”. And especially the health service, where the nominal charges introduced by the last centre-right government (remember that? Seems along time ago) have become a totemic issue.

Feeding the party platforms of the two main contenders into the Wordle the online word frequency art program basically confirms this impression. Words like ‘public’ ‘health’ ‘benefit’ and ‘care’ proliferate in the word clouds generated both for the Civic Democrats (ODS) (top – blue and green) and the Social Democrats (orange – opposite) although ODS alone lays claim to the words ‘working’ and ‘insurance’. Linguistically, the Social Democrats seem big on decisive top down action (or the promise of it) with the word Zavedeme (‘We will introduce’) topping the list, while ODS’s key doing word is ‘Solution’ (Řešení) although as this is not the imperfect aspect that more suggestive of beginning or trying to solve than resolving: ‘Approach’ might be another translation. And what – given that I am something of a born again fan of Grand Coalitions – we run both big parties’ programmes together through Wordle: the answer is a certain agreement on the key issues but not much of a coincidence of language (less frequent and hence smaller key words in the cloud) suggesting – perhaps a degree of ideological difference, although the extent to which that is real rather than just a matter of ideologically phrasing is, of course not clear, from this exercise.

>Czech elections: More new old politics

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The Czech elections are on the horizon and they promise to be interesting, if, as ever, deadlocked and inconclusive. They should perhaps tell catetaker Prime Minister Fischer and his government of technocrats not to packs their bags just yet.

Over at Pozorblog Kevin Deegan Krause has crunched all the Czech poll numbers and it comes down to this: the Social Democrats are ahead and will win (well, get most votes and seats) but are rapidly shedding support, although not as fast or as quickly as the centre-right Civic Democrats, whose support is being eaten into by two new parties: TOP09 of aristo-anti-politician Karel Schwarzenberg (and sundry old stagers from the Christian Democratic party, who are mainly keeping out of sight, having written a toughly pro-market programme) and Public Affairs (Věci veřejné – better translated as Res Publica) fronted by ex-TV investigative journalist Radek John, which was once a Prague-based local citizens grouping (there are many at muncipal level) but through fantastic PR, mysteriously large amount of cash, great use of social media to mobilize sympathises, and a clever (but content-lite) anti-establishment liberal programme stressing anti-corruption and direct democracy, has transformed into a national contender with poll ratings around 10 per cent. Both VV and TOP (with somewhat higher ratings) seem set to enter parliament.

The Communists – like death and taxes – are always with us and will come in with 10-15 per cent, leaving the big question, both for the outcome of the election and for me personally, whether the Christian Democrats – conspicuous by their limited and lacklustre campaign will make it over the 5 per cent hurdle. If they do, as Kevin Deegan-Krause’s simulation shows we will probably get a deadlocked parliament – unless ODS can close the gap with the Social Democrats more convincingly than seems likely – if not then the Social Democrats are numerically well placed to govern as a minority government with the tacit support of the Communists, except that dear of old President Klaus (himself elected as a Head of State in 2003 with the support of Communist deputies) entertain the possibility, leaving Social Democrat leader Jiří Paroubek facing the prospect of negotiating some kind of deal with Civic Democrats (neither side is keen – and a Grand Coalition has been ruled out by ODS) or – if he’s lucky – pulling on board the motley crew of Public Affairs deputies, who will quickly forget that they called him a political dinosaur and promised not to have anything to do with him once they get a whiff of power.

There have been no polls for the past few days due to legal restictions, but my prediction based on the excellent Pozorblog analysis and some guesswork is that Social Democrat – Civic Democrat gap will be a little narrower than predicted, the Communists every so slightly higher, Public Affairs appreciably lower (despite the hype and upward, there are enough doubts about who they are and what they stand for for voters to have doubts and go for the less groovy TOP or the wholly ungroovy ODS). TOP I suspect will come in slightly lower than predicted. And the Christian Democrats? I have bet 10 euros – yes, Brit followers of Czech and Slovak politics , you can bet online on CEE elections – that they will not make it into parliament (odds of about 2-1 although UK bookmakers seem to have stopped taking bets on the Czech elections, although you can have punt on Slovakia) but my instinct is that these great political survivors will use their extensive local scrape enough of their loyal core Catholic electorate to the polls to live to fight another day. And, of course, pundits are always wrong.

So my election guess

Social Democrats 27%
Civic Democrats 23%
Communist 13.5 – 14.0%
TOP09 12%
VV 8%
Christian Democrats 6%

In terms of Kevin Deegan Krause’s elegant and beautiful coalition predicting diagram (above), I seem to be predicting a centre-right majority (105/200) seats, although my feeling is that it might be more 102-3 seats, as I am guessing that TOP09 and especially VV will do less well than the polls suggest. In pratice, such a four party coalition with a narrow majority and a wounded and fractious ODS would be an unstable and difficult to manage entity, so deadlock whichever which you choose it. Czechs might do better of Messrs. Paroubek and Nečas could discover the virtues of Grand Coalitional politics – perhaps invited Schwarzenberg et al on board – and become the Clegg and Cameron of Czech politics, leaving populism and anti-establishment opposition to the Communists and Věckáři who are very good at it.

>Now listen carefully children….

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Hmm, the Czech Civic Democrats seem to be pitching for the votes of 12 year olds in this South Park parody reported in iHNed.cz– still what were British Conservative candidates told to bear in mind when addressing audiences? “Imagine you are talking to a class of primary school children”?


>New old politics

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The unfolding drama of coalition formation, although in a more lucid moment I had inadvertantly predicted it, left me non-plussed and not very happy: partly because I didn’t like the outcome and because, not for the first time, political events I thought I had handle on left me flat footed. I had basically expected the Lib Dems to go no further than a confidence and supply deal with the possibility of playing both big parties off against each other to some extent, but underestimated the Lib Dem thirst for office and the extent to which the right-wing Orange Book group of economic liberals (which includes Nick Clegg himself) had come to dominate the party’s leadership. In our local public library the next day I chanced upon a biography of the party’s previous leader (until 2005) Charlie Kennedy and flicked through to see if – as the instant political history in the papers claimed – he had really been forced out for political reasons (too left-wing), rather than because he was an alcoholic.

The answer though seems to be that the booze that did for him and that he was a walking political liability for years, although as everyone in the party – right down to an ex-student intern I interviewed for a place at UCL – knew for years he was often too drunk or hungover to function, the timing of his downfall (months after David Cameron and the Tory modernisers came on the scene) was to say the least interesting.

All this doesn’t, however, help my post-election hangover and bright-new-dawn ‘new politics’ rhetoric and reformspeak of the Cameron-Clegg doublt act – echoed by newspaper pundits across the political spectrum – leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

Most bitter and disorienting of all is the way that constitutional and electoral reform – a high minded preoccuption of liberal-minded intellectual folk since 1980s – and the main concession the Lib Dems have supposedly wrested from the Tories seems suddenly degraded like some rare radioactive isotope into a series of political fixes to shore up the new coalition: the 55% supermajority reqirement to dissolbe parliament conjured out of the air (the type of rule that would be consitutionally entrenched in countries with a written constitution) and the realisation that the alternative vote (AV) system we will be asked to vote is unlikely to the first step to some more rational and balance electoral system, but simply a means (if it passes) of boosting Lib Dem representation by steering lots of 2nd and 3rd preferences towards them, while keeping the system majoritarian enough to block small challenger parties like the Greens, whose minor miracle in winning Brighton Pavilion in a three-way fight is unlikely to be easily repeated elsewhere. Indeed, Václav Havel once advocated AV for Czechoslovakia precisely for this reason – because he thought it would favour the political centre, although I suspect that Lib-Cons (see how easily that phrase starts to trip of the tongue) will increasingly form a bloc and with the two parties’ voters tending to second preference each others’ candidate.

Frankly, a French or Hungarian style second-round run-off election would be more transparent. – and more fun (I like elections) If we do get AV, I’m sure the Lib-Dems will quickly discover its virtues and forget about Single Transferable Vote and any other form of PR or decide that that they would like it only for the House of Lords or local government.

There is little real discussion of the democratic merits or likely effects of AV in the press. Ironically, it seems, however electoral reform (any electoral reform) is seen – as in Romania and Bulgaria – as a kind of magic bullet, which will automatically and of itself bring in a host of desirable changes. I am sceptical. Indeed, so sceptical that I think I will vote ‘no’ in that referendum. I’ve never changed my mind about any key issue so decisively in such a short space of time. Perhaps two party (or two bloc) politics is what fits in this country- this is, after all, not Holland or Norway with a of multiple crosscutting historical and cultural cleavages to accomodate – and, in somewhat, new and re-invented form two bloc is what we will probably what we will end up with. A new old politics.

>Election diary

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I tried very hard not to be interested in the election campaign, avoiding the historic TV debates and most of the day-to-day media flim flam – although ‘Bigotgate’ offered a grim confirmation that politicians are exactly has depicted in the TV satire In The Thick Of It. In the end, however, the apparent Lib Dem surge, sheer uncertainly of the result and intriguing possibilities of hung parliament hooked me and pulled me and there I was on election night mug of coffee in hand up till 4am watching the TV results, pausing only to switch off the sound and dip into a Swedish crime novel when politicans and pundits came on to fill in a temoorary lack of any news. I, like they, could not work if it was a hung parliament, a Tory majority or another variant of hung parliament we were in until just before dawn the patter (or patterns) became clear: huge Tory gains against Labour in the South and Midlands, largely gains elsewhere, no gains in Scotland,; no Lib Dem surge, but a successful defence, with the odd exception, of seats held against Conservative challengers.
The oddest exception, of course, was North Irish-Estonian Lib Dem MP Lembit Opik, whose celebrity status on the chat show circuit and pop star Cheeky Girl girlfriend seemed no longer to endear him to Welsh voters he represented and he was overhauled by well established local Tory, who probably paid more serious attention to bread and butter issues. My colleague Allan Sikk mischeviously suggests that Opik could add a splash of colour Estonian politics by entering the race for the Estonian parliament in 2011 (party to be confirmed). Indeed, there is even a Facebook Group urging Lembit to enliven the political life ancestoral homeland with his own brand of eccentric liberal reformism. So far, however, it hasn’t exactly gone viral (supporters 3 including me). There is always an issue as to whether Lembit’s Estonian is as a good as Nick Clegg’s perfect Dutch.

A couple of days before the election I answered a journalist’s questions about the differences between British and UK parties for a mini-interview for the Czech financial freesheet E15. It wasn’t the first time I had chewed such things over but it was an interesting exercise. My thoughts? There is less more of an ideological divide in Czech politics, although not the gulf you would think from Czech parties in-your-face campaigning, and the UK has a post-Thatcherite consensus on certain fundamentals; the Czech Social Democrats’ high profile campaign defence of the welfare state and avoidance of the issue of how and when not if to make cuts makes it a very different political animal from the British Labour Party – although not necessarily less genuinely social democratic; the closest CEE equivalents to Blairite New Labopur were probably the market friendly ex-Communist parties of Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, but in the end they all got electorally roasted; if there is no Czech or Central European Nick Clegg is it probably because swathes of CEE voters tend to recognise themselves more in blunt spoken pugnacious strongmen like Orbán, Fico, Paroubek or even Topolánek than the role of clean cut middle class everyman (and, of course, it’s always a man) that British politicians seek to play – and English voters to go for. Interestingly, explaining the Liberal Democrats through a Czech prism is a convoluted and difficult exercise.

At 8 o’clock in the morning of 6 May, I walked down to polling station with my daughter before school, past a mass of Lib Dem hoarding that seems mysteriously to grow in size every day – perhaps a side effect of ‘Cleggmania’ – still wondering who to vote for. If there is a rising Lib Dem tide there is, the Guardian’s online poll-and-seat calculator suggests, an outside chance of this fairly solid Conservative seat changing hands.

There are no queues and I cast my vote, but instantly have h a vague presentiment that I had not quite done the right thing.

>Polls together

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The Guardian has thoughfully offered all its ICM/Guarduan opinion polling figures for last 26 years in downloadable form for readers to mash up. So in the spirit of do-it-yourself quantitaive analysis, I decided to look at the 1984-2010 six month moving average. It offers some interesting historical perspective and a reminder (above) of how party fortunes fluctuate: the Lib Dems real high point in terms of support comes in the mid-1980s in the wake of the 1983 election when they are over 30% before crashing badly in the late 1980s following disappointing 1987 election results and a botched merger with the Social Democratic Party. The Lib Dems then recovered to 20-25 per cent, which has chararacterised their supprt up until the current election campaign. The moral? Perhaps that the Lib Dems are more likely in the current to be beneficiaries of protest vote and vague desire for change and reform rooted in David Cameron’s apparent failure to ‘seal the deal’.
The same moving average for ‘other’ parties (below) shows a more regular pattern of relentless increase in minor party support over the last quarter century driven – interestingly – but European elections- the peaks in the graph. This seems true before the introduction of PR, when he Greens got 15% (the first big spike)

>Golden Brown: How Gordon might have pulled it off?

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And here’s a UK election result you won’t see this Thursday – again courtesy of the Prime Minister Forever 2010 computer simulation game: Labour and the Tories tied for the popular vote on 30% with Labour gaining 300 seats and Cameron’s Conservatives way behind on 230, and also marginally behind in terms of popular vote. The Lib Dem advances proves – as in real life and the last simulation I played – hard to stop, but this result is in terms of political consequencs the mirror image of the previous simulation: Lib-Lab co-operation with electoral reform in weak form on Labour’s terms.

The trick? Intensive debate practice for Gordon (he and Nick Clegg drew all three – Cameron as in two of the three real life ones ineffectives – and, of course, keep him away from the voters and stick to set piece events; coupled with a strategy concentrating on attacking the Tories in big cities and the electoral battlegrounds of the North West and Midlandss, more or less sacrificing Labout MPs in the South East and East, who were duly decimated at the hands of the Tories., so their colleagues in London and Birmingham could hand on against the odds. The upside of this from the Labour point of view was also that the low Labour vote in the South allowed the Lib Dems to win a few seats unexpectedly off the Tories – including, wonder of wonders, Mid-Sussex. The Greens, again, picked up Brighton Pavilion.