Archive | August, 2011

Reykjavík diary

The  decision of the European Consortium for Political Research to stage its biennial (soon to annual) General Conference in Reykjavík has resulted in one of the biggest such events ever, with some 2000 political scientists temporarily boosting the Icelandic capital’s population by around 2%.

And decending through the clouds to Keflavík  airport with fields of basalt below, mountainous coastline to the right and the Atlantic ocean to the left, it was not hard to guess why. Iceland also intrigues  as a small state with economy nearly wrecked by the financial meltdown, a highly distinct language – the closest thing you are likely to hear to what the Vikings spoke – and cultural scene ranging from crime fiction to sculture and dance music.

The influx of ECPR delegates is, seemingly, almost too much for airport shuttle bus and the capital’s hotels, full to capacity and sometimes overbooked.  Arriving at mine, alongside strip of unprepossessing low-rise office blocks and light industrial units that stretch along the sea front, we are asked to move to a hotel in a small town just South of Reykjavik with a jacuzzi and hot tub.

I get a free bus pass and a cup of coffee for compliantly agreeing, but then while waiting for a while for a taxi that never came and a certain

Photo: Jóhann Heiðar Árnason

amount of confusion, I’m told I can stay after all.  I check in, getting to keep the bus pass, and go out to admire the view of mountains and sea across the bay.

There is a garage with a shop, actually more of a kind general store, and diner serving sandwiches and burgers. I rapidly come to understand the role of the garage as local social centre that had puzzled me so much wartching Night Shift and the importance of the hot dog in Icelandic life.  And there are free coffee refills.  Too good to be true.

…….

Iceland University is a 20 minutes bus ride away on the other side of town, but our panel, where we are analyising new anti-establishment parties in Central and Eastern Europe using Qualitiative Comparative Analysis is only in the afternoon and before that we have a date at the City Hall.

Iceland’s financial and political shocks have seen the country’s voters turn to some new anti-establishment parties of their own, including the Best Party of actor and comedian – and star of the Night Shift, Jón Gnarr. Starting as a  satirical protest , the party’s runaway momentum saw it win last year’s muncipal election and Mr Gnarr (or Jón , as I should say, as he’s that kind of guy, and besides first names are the proper form of address in this country, I think) is now mayor of Rejkjavik, although the realities of office has seen his popularity fall back from 34% to 19%.

We get to speak to the Best Party’s competent and thoughful campaign manager and learn a lot, seeing a lot of unexpected parallels between Best and anti-establishment protest parties we are more familiar with in CEE.

Gnarr: The MovieAlthough mainly reported as a joke party – and having detractors in other parties and the media, who see them as incompetent showmen  – we come away the impression of serious political outfit, which has its tactics quite well thought through.

On the plane back we learn more, watching  the story of the 2010 election campaign on the in-flight documentaries , Gnarr – The Movie, and learn some more.  The party is clearly built around Jon Gnarr, whose deadpan outrageous humour totally floors Iceland’s decent but worthy party politicians.

It is also hilarous. The guy in the next seat on the plane, who is quietly reading an a collection of John Stuart Mill’s writings, seems initially disconcerted as we  degenerate into helpless laughter beside him.

….

Despite time issues – not the least with our presentation – and our panel and paper (on paths to  anti-establishment parties’ breakthroughs  in Central and Eastern Europe) went well.  The other three papers had an interesting mix of approaches and strengths and weaknesses and, I later realised, we probably had the basis  for a great workshop, rather than a 90 minute panel. Chair and discussant Carsten Schneider, however, provided a tour de force critique of all four papers in 10-15 minutes.

Some of the other panels were a bit more frustrating, as paper overload killed off any real prospect of audience questions or discussion. Even with the most efficient time-keeping, five papers and two formal slots in a 90 minutes  for discussants reduces a room full of well informed specialists from all parts of the world  to a cast of dumb onlookers.

I wondered why in one of the biggest political science conference in Europe and one of most wired countries in Europe, no one had thought of a smarter way of doing things than the traditional panel format, which seems to date from another era.  If there are time pressures and many speakers , could we not a least tweet questions and comments?

President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson - Photo Sebastian Derungs/World Economic Forum

In the evening we are bussed to Reykjavik’s newly opened Harpa concert hall to be formally welcomed by the President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, a former professor of political science now in his fourth term as head of state. The President’s plenary lecture stressed that markets and economics should not take precedence over politics and that Iceland was a laboratory both for the dangers of market forces and the way politics and political consensus could avert them.

Iceland’s process of constitutional reform was a model, part of new wave of citizen-driven democratic change driven by the internet and social media, being played out against a background of shifting techtotic plates in global society. India and China were on the rise, while Iceland would become part of the New North.

Here there was plenty of tweeting and Facebook comment from those listening and – as it was intended to – the speech seems to havedown well with the mass ranks of political scientists.

But hang on.

Surely politicians, including long-serving ones such as the President himself (a man of the social democratic left, presiding until 2009 – over centre-right governments), were responsible for the lax regulation, which alloed the insane hubris unleashed by financial sector? Indeed,  Ragnar Grímsson is on record pre-crisis as praising the dynamism of the country’s unconventional (and as it turned out dangerous and pointless) financial sector.

Hard not to feel that, while perfectly OK  as democratic  counterveiling mechanism, his hugely popular stand against the Icesave Laws  –   rejected twice by voters in presidentially initiated referenda – is not altogether a principled stand against The Markets, but also one  against small savers and local authorities in the UK unlucky enough to have their money in duff Icelandic financial institutions and taxpayers like me.

 A small country like Iceland clearly cannot pay for massive losses of the crisis in toto – take a Reykjavik bus  (and with my free bus pass I took plenty) and you always see  a few people,  poorly dressed and look worn out and beaten up by life.

On the other hand unemployment, having peaked at 10 per cent, is 7.5% , similar to that in the UK, although low by East or Southern

Photo: James Cridland

European standards and  the Icesave  sums payable after assets sales are, it is reported, relatively small, suggesting that the whole Icesave has just served as convenient safety value for popular anger.

You wonder, however, whether the four-term President might have done his country a favour by perhaps his own political responsibiliy- and the malfunctioning (as elsewhere) of domestic democratic institution – stepping down to allow deeper political renewal, rather than  stoking the fires of  national grievance.

And is the rise of the internet really akin to the transition from feudalism? And the rise of the Scottish National Party part of the same New North ? I leave the Ragnar Grímsson’s address sceptical and disappointed.

Let’s hope Jón Gnarr runs for President. At least the jokes will be funnier.

….

On my last day I walk through Reykjavik again. It is the calmest and most peaceful capital city  I have ever been in. I decide to hire a bike and cycle along Seabraut taking in a view of mountains and sea.Then I get lost and end in an industrial estate beside a toilet factory.

Way out West

Cycling around the Icelandic capital is safe and easy. Laws allowing cycling on empty pavements are eminently sensible and cycle paths run beside main roads . The  view is mixed but interesting: large villas, blocks of flats small shops, mountains, small residential streets with whimical statues, a broad vista West with mountains and motorways, then mutlicoloured traditional houses.

With quite realising it, I circumnavigated the city and  done a Leif Ericson, discovering interesting places I didn’t mean to go to and had never heard of, although admittedly he had a longship while I only have a well used bike in low gear.  Appropriately enough, I finish up by the Leif Ericson statute and go for a cup of coffee.

A Czech dictator in the wings? Well, you’re the expert

Today’s daily Final Word commentary from Prague-based Fleet Sheet English news briefing service for the Czech Republic offers  a vision of the political future, which is either darkly paranoid or very tongue-in-cheek:

” For at least 40years, the West has been on a path to self-destruction, and politicians and business leaders have proven that they are unwilling or unable to take reasonable steps to reverse the trend. … in time of crisis.. [p]eople will take to the streets in increasing numbers, but the result will not be less theft by the criminal elite or better use of tax money. The political and business elite will instead respond with bludgeons, guns and, if necessary, tanks. The West is headed toward some form of dictatorship…”

V for... Very likely?

In the coming days we are promised, it’ll explore  several possibilities for who the next Czech dictator will be. Even with a rash of urban riots up and down the UK,  I don’t share that apocalyptic V for Vendetta vision, nor do I think even that the Czech Republic is a dictatorship in the making, whatever the dubious inclination of some of its political and business elites.

Still, it’ll be way to fill the ‘cucumber season’, the notorious summer hiatus in Czech political and journalistic life when nothing much goes on and overproduction of cucumbers or mushroom picking conditions force their way on to the front pages faute de mieux.

But hang on, if we’ll be hearing about the next dictator, who were the earlier ones? The Czech lands have been ruled from foreign capitals by Franz Josef II, Hitler and Stalin at various times, but do any of them qualify as Czech? The country had an communist one party regime and various communist party bosses, but power was rarely concentrated in the hands of individual ruler, more Party and nomenklatura institutions and elites.

Klement Gottwald

Klement Gottwald, Czechoslovakia’s ‘First Worker President’  is probably the best candidate, but even he had to manoeuvre between party and secret police factions and Moscow and might well have got the chop during de-Stalinisation if he had not opportunely died (of natural causes aggravated by heavy drinking) in 1953.

So what does this totalitarian history have to do with supposed authoritarian tendencies in today’s CR? The answer seem to be very little. I will, as ever, read the Last Word with interest to see who is in the frame for the El Presidente  role .

I suspect Václav Klaus and a rogue’s gallery of other, admittedly fairly dislikable figures,  will be lined up for our delectation: you can’t really go wrong bashing Czech political and business elites, even in the most hyperbolic terms.

But whatever his moral and political limitations, Klaus ain’t no Gottwald and anchored in middle of Europe and in the EU with all the democratic basic chugging along the country is not going to slide into  dictatorship, but remain marooned in  grimy and dysfunctional democratic politics.

Empty plinth in Berlin

Photo: Assenmacher

The ‘next dictator’ is thus Mr or Ms Nobody.

But, of course, all democratic systems do have authoritarian currents running through them.  And, in the CR I think the most powerful of these currents  is not populism, extremism or dodgy politicians with whacky right-wing  figures in their entourage like President Klaus or certain government ministers.

Transplant today’s Czech Republic to the middle of Latin America or some more unstable geo-political  or historical climate and  you would find that the ‘next dictator’ would be some mild mannered civil servant catapulted to power,  running a technocratic caretaker government that runs and runs.

Such  an úřednická vláda (‘government of officials’) ran the country to great acclaim under the Head of the Czech Statistical Office for , Jan Fischer (now Vice Presidnet of the EBRD) over a year in 2009-10. Admittedly he did so at the behest of the country’s political paries. Would many people have cared if he had slipped the leash and gone on? Or gone into politics with a new party?

Alberto Fujimori

As the Peruvian experience with mildy mannered agricultural expert and academic Alberto Fujimori, it’s the quiet, grey technocratic ones  you need to watch, not the big mouthed party-political bruisers who normally win elections.

Certainly, perhaps in the Czech Republic

“Vy jste ale odborník”, people often say. ” Well, you’re the expert”.

The real translation is  “Say or do what the hell you like. I’ll accept it.”

Power indeed.

Abe Lincoln on the beach

This small coastal town of Brittany is swathed with mist so early in the morning. There are only a couple places open to have breakfast, but there are a few people out and about including a woman with two small well groomed goats on lead heading for the boulangerie.

Luckily, the fog clear and the sun comes out and it’s time to settle on a sandy beach with some French newspapers and some holiday reading. The press has a different – and actually rather substantive – mix of bad news. Libération and Le Monde make The Guardian seem daft and fluffy: motorway tolls are up going up; Roma aslyum seekers live in Third World conditions on the streets on Marseille; a new populist faction of President Sarkozy’s party want to co-opt some of the illiberal themes of the National Front; France is friendly with unsavoury African dictators; the latests French translation of the Famous Five (Le club des cinq) is awful, fans say.

Having  swallowed a load of sea-water attempting to swim and had a coffee, I settle back with Crawley public library’s battered copy of  Doris Kearn Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln – ‘the book that inspired Barrack Obama’.  And it’s easy to see why.

A tall gangly politician from humble background , whose charisma, people skills, intellect , hard work and good judgement propel into a successful career in the law and then into national politics, where he comes from nowhere to blindside the clear front runner and other established politicians, but pull them all together in a coherent adminsitration and saves the country in a time of national emergency.

The book itself is rather uneven. Despite a mass of detail the first half, which relates the background and political career of Lincoln and is three more fancied rivals for the 1860 presidential nomination of the newly formed Republican Party is absorbing . It can be read either as textbook of What It Takes To Win In Politics and a window on US political and social history, which like many Europeans I know practically nothing about.

Abe comes through on top because he is intellectual able and grasps the issues; affable , making politically useful friends as he goes and rarely making enemies; moderate and centrist within this own party without being too obviously unprincipled; a charismatic speaker and good communicator comfortable with modern media; and a good strategist and campaigner, who builds up his position by making a series of good calls over the years, rather than waging brilliant short-term campaign.

A tad too folksy and pragmatic for my taste, but likely I suspect to have been my second choice if I was a mid 19th century  US Republican – and being everyone’s second choice is, of course, an excellent strategy for the moment when, as always seems to happen, the front runner’s lead slowly and inexorably crumbles.

All in all useful advice for anyone planning a political career and a useful reminder  to me why I am not Prime Minister or President of USA.

Political scientists with a taste for historical political science in the form of a historical party formation and political realignment with an intriguing mox of social and geographical division with a strange mix of  democratic free market capitalism and slavery, which European societies seems to have separated out into motherland and colonies.

The second half of the book is a bit less focused.  All of a sudden with the White House won, we are pitched into  secession and the Civil War, of which Lincoln’s victory (or rather that of any Republican candidate, I assume) is the casus belli. From thereon  in we get a  rich, but rather knotty narrative covering manoeuring and man management within the Lincoln administration(s),  the domestic politics, and diplomacy of the Civic War and the unfolding military picture.

It basically draws to a close with Lincoln’s assassination and a brief epilogue of the main dramatis personnae, most of whom seem to end up personally and politically unfulfilled with their greatest days behind them.

Overall, a readable if uneven holiday reading, but you feel basically rather uncritical in its treatment of Lincoln, whose political virtuosity seems in the end of the less interesting things about him.