Archive | April, 2011

>Civic Democrats: Teenage kicks or mid-life crisis?

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The principal party of the Czech centre-right, the Civic Democrats (ODS), have been celebrating the 20th anniversaty of their foundation. The party founded, by Václav Klaus in April 1991 from the right-wing anti-communist majority in the disintegrating Civic Forum movement, can probably lay claim to being Central and Eastern Europe’s most enduring  newly formed post-1989 party. Certainly as far as major political players on the centre-right are concerned probably, only Hungary’s Fidesz’s can compete and in Fidesz’s case ideological mutation in the mid-1990s from anti-communist liberal to conservative nationalist probably gives ODS the edge , even if the Czech Republic’s more proportional electoral system has (thankfully) never seen ODS stack up Fidesz style absolute majorities in parliament.
However, the party’s celebration of two decades as a political force, at which it was addressed by  current leader Prime Minister Petr Nečas, it founder and current Czech President Václav Klaus and 2002-10 leader  and ex-PM Miroslav Topolánek, seems to have been a rather more angst-ridden , divided and downbeat affair, than similar celebrations ten years ago. Then, having come through financial scandal under founder-leader Klaus and seasoned its Thatcherite neo-liberalism with dose of Czech nationalism, it was looking forward to election victory in 2002. It lost that election and, despite winning big in vote terms in 2006, has never managed to put together a stable majority government since. 1996 Ideological and strategic divisions – and the unsolved dilemma of how to manage its relationships with powerful informal networks of political ly connected business interests – were all on show at the event, which seems to have been the Czech right-wing version of the Three Tenors, albit with considerably less harmony on show. 
They are also thrown into sharp relief by the current woeful state of Petr Nečas’s coalition, whose large  majority in parliament looks a good deal less solid given splits and relevations from within junior coalition party the populist anti-corruption party, Public Affairs (VV), where the waters have been muddied by accusations that the spilt in the party was not just due  to VV being in the pocket of ABL security firm , but was engineered in factions in ODS (although this seems less well documented that the role of ABL and its founder busienessman Vít Bárta in taking over VV as a vehicle).

For Klaus ODS’s woes lie in its move under Topolánek away from his own patent mix of neo-liberalism and eurosceptic nationalism to embrace the political centre and themes such as civil sociey and environmental protection. Far better to do pragmatic power sharing deals with the left, than allow such ideologcal contagion. Having flirted with flat taxes and fiscal populism (does anyone remember the Blue Chance programme?), through a mixture of trail and error Topolánek adopted precisely this course as a means of broading ODS appeal, which despite touching 35% under his leadership, was not sufficient to deliver a workable majority – and tended to mobilise the left –  leaving him reliant on small parties like the declining Christian Democrats and faction-ridden Greens. 
Photo: Petr Novák, Wikipedia
Both parties exited parliament in the 2010 elections, leaving a new political landscape charcterised by an ODS drastically weakened by the rise of reformist challenger TOP09 and the need to ally with the opaque and unknown VV. This, Topolánek (opposite) argued, was really a step too far and agreed with Klaus that the usual emergency option of pragmatic co-operation with the Social Democrats, who are at least a known quantity, was preferable. The recent and farcical reshuffle of the Czech government and the bizarre hard-to-deal with behaviour of VV deputies and officials – none of whom seem to talk to each other without secretly taping other and offering some may-or-may-not-be-true revelation that crops up on the front pages the next day – makes the point.
But the issue running in parallel with the question of how expansive and centrist the Civic Democrats should or shouldn’t be is that of corruption and clientelism. One interpretation of Czech politics  is simply to see the country’s various parties (with the possible exception of the Communists) as   corrupt vehicles for shadowy, informal politico-business networks: this is, for example, forms the master narrative of daily  The Final Word commentary that accompanies the daily English press resume The Fleet Sheet, which speaks in a seemingly well informed way of the Czech Republic as an ‘electro-state’ dominated by powerful vested interests  (of which power generation company ČEZ is the most powerful) grouped more broadly into ‘Five Families’.I deological divisions between parties and political programmes are, in this view, a mere facade as shadowy figures get their claws into parties and politicians, extracting billions one way or another through various soft, untransparent and uncompetitive deals  involving public property and policies which subvert the public interest.
Election poster attacking new anti-corruption parties 2010
There is plenty of evidence of an anecdotal, journalistic kind that such relationships exist. The press is full of it and poltiicians themselves report them. In the dying days of his premiership Topolánek condemned political ‘godfathers’ within (kmotří ) – powerful regional bosses tied to networks of vested interests, subverting the s(upposed ly) bottom-up democratic national organisations the Civic Democrats have traditional prided themselves on. But the real extent and scope of such relationships and the way they relate to programmatic/ideological issues that voters and politicians themselves spend a lot of time: on academic political science shows that parties offer basically ideologically coherent programmes and that voters register this and vote on them accordingly in ways which reflect wealth, class, education and age. In forming coalitions, parties clearly negotiate on programmatic issues, as well as the who-gets-what-ministry concerns that the simple model of pure corrupt clientelism would suggest. In the end, the Last Word model – even if we assume that it is based on the purest and most reliable of inside information – seems only to offer half the story, all too remincient of the darkly conspiratorial view of the world offered by the Czech far-right in days when it was electoral force. (Communists would probably also find it a good read, although with perhaps too little mention of global capital).
Pete Nečas      Photo: Aktron/Wikimedia Commons
What matters more, however, is the ‘social fact’ that parties – and certain partiers in particular such as the Civic Democrats – are seen as toxically contaminated by corrupt clientelistic networks. It would be interesting to try to quantify and track over time the public’s views on the Civic Democrats and separate it out from the Czech public’s massive and growing distrust of parties and politicians in general – but tack in Prague, the Three Tenors touched on this second, probably now more intractable problem for the party, which seems to overlap for public and politicians alike with Machivellian politics of smears, plots and spin of the type well illustrated by recent events around VV. None had very convincing answers. 
For Klaus – forgetting the financing scandals of 1990s – the problem seems to be one of  ideological slippage and lack of political backbone, belief and mission, creating the space for faction fighting and corrupt interest politics. For Topolánek, it was dealing with Public Affairs, legitimising what everyone knew  – or shrewdly suspected –  from the start to be a pocket party serving business interests with naked ambition of advancing private commerical interests. But VV would, of course, never have become a political force without the apparently burgeoning politics of ‘godfathers’, which he was unwilling or unable to prevent. Nečas’s message was to recognise that voters have been looking for novelty but of Keep Calm and Carry On: the party was down but not out and its organisation, experience and programme would carry it through.
And the Civic Democrats’ contribution to Czech democracy over the last two decades? Stable, conventional  model of party politics; a new liberal pro-market ideology defining the Czech centre-right; being there when the big decisions were made and getting some of them right, they all agreed. Having written on that elsewhere, I won’t disagree. But, while Topolánek saw ODS as immature 20 year old with teenage lack of focus,  the party, in fact, seems dangerously flabby and middle-aged. 
In the end, I do wonder if the Civic Democrats will be around in recognisable form in another twenty years. Or another ten.

>Chronicle of a (party) death foretold

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I am not always the most astute of pundits, but as the dust settled a year ago even I could see that the Veci veřejné (‘Public Affairs’), the anti-establishment, anti-corruption party that was the surprise package last May’s Czech elections would – to borrow Kevin Deegan Krause’s phrase – live fast and die young. And, as I write, VV seems to be on its political deathbed, rapidly expiring from an outbreak of splits and scandals, extreme even by local standards, that seems to be the political equivalent of ebola fever  – and may yet carry away the Czech government centre-right coalition  government of Petr Nečas in which VV is a junior partner. Expulsions and splits have seen four of VV’s 24 deputies leave the party; its chief sponsor and de facto leader Vít Bárta resign as transport minister; and its two bigger partners demand that Mr Bártaand cronies from the ABL security firm leave the government.
Vít Bárta/ Fotobanka ČTK
The problem? Revelations in the media over recent days, have bluntly confirmed  – with documentary and audio evidence – what most people suspected all along:

1) that, nothingwithstanding claims to a postmodern party of electronic direct democracy run through snazzy electronic referendums of members and sympathisers, Mr Bárta controlled and orchestrated the whole organisation;

2) that he used extremely an extremely basic method of party management to keep leading deputies on board,  of the kind that any City of London banker would recognise: he paid them huge sums of cash;

3) that he   backed VV as a project to foward his Napoleonic business ambition for his security company ABL, rightly recognising that public sector contracts were a lucrative source of cash and required political contacts;

4) that VV was conceived as an essentially local project,aimed at securing influence, indeed control, local councils in two Prague boroughs and was conceived as a kind of insurance policy or plan B, to run in parallel with efforts to gain influence in local organisations of the Civic Democrats;

5) that Mr Bárta is a ruthless operator keen on industrial espionage and subterfuge, including the creation of  ‘pseduo-competitors’ to maintain an illusion of transparency and competiton in tenders, and that he transfered some of these techniques to political activities using his company to track the activities of local politicians in Prague.

Given that Veci veřejné‘s appeal and origins were one of anti-corruption, transparency and taking on political dinosaurs – its name better translated as Public Interest or Res Publica and it was originally a local community politics initiative in Prague formed in respons to murky ways local municipal housing was being privatised deal – there would seem to be no way back, especially as Mr Bárta, who is clearly a strategic thinker of some skill, was foolish enough to put his strategy down in writing.
 Now the only question would seem to be which way the collapsing structure will fall and how many of its deputies will be recoverable, reliable and usable for the two main parties in centre-right coalition, the Civic Democrats (ODS) and TOP09. This is a totally a forlorn hope. There are some impressively able young er people and political marketers in the VV fold, as well oddballs, ABL cronies and second rank figures well out of their depth (like the party’s notional leader and hapless Interior Minister, the former investigative journal Radek John) and for a working majority the other two parties would need about 10-12 ex-Večkaři.
From a more nerdish political science point of view it seems a shame that this most unusual and interesting political phenomenon – closer to the ‘pocket parties’ created by businesspeople in the Baltic state or (it now seems) the phoney virtual parties of the former Soviet Union – is soon to be no more, although its death may be drawn out, mucky and unedifying. Perhaps most telling is that far from being corrupted and eaten into by holding power, the whole project was tainted and corrupt from the start, subverting the political appeal of anti-corruption and anti-establishment  politics to perpetuate and develop the very phenomena it was fighting against. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too worried, however, as other will no doubt be trying out and improving upon Mr Bárta’s business model in the choppy electoral markets of Czech politics.