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East European democracy: Sliding back or hollowed out?

Fidesz_fahaz_MSZP_sator

2010 Fidesz fahaz MSZP sator” by Czank Máté – Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

For some time analysts and commentators have understood that all is not well with democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. In the immediate aftermath, the region defied a raft of predictions that the dislocating effect of economic reform and resurgence of nationalist traditions would lead to a Latin American style breakdown of democracy. Democratic change and marketization were – certainly compared to other parts of the post-communist world – peaceful, quick and far-reaching, with the EU membership achieved within a relatively short time.

Indeed, much conventional wisdom has it, that the incentive of EU membership ‘leveraged’ politicians and electorates in some CEE states away from illiberal and nationalist politics. In short, while CEE democracy might have been short on civil society and public engagement and high on corruption and inefficiency, it seemed consolidated and safe.

All this seems to have changed since EU accession. Commentators looked for and quickly found ‘backsliding’ in Poland in 2005-7 as short-lived minority government headed by the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, which included two small populist-nationalist parties as coalition partners, took office. And post-transition fears of breakdown seemed belatedly to come true with onset of the Great Recession in 2008-9 and the landslide victory in Hungary in the 2010 parliamentary elections of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz.

Orbán’s subsequent use of his huge majority to rewrite the Hungarian constitution, strip back checks and balances and entrench his party in deep in the state, media civil society are well documented, as are his questioning of liberal democracy and formulation of a deeply illiberal nationalist project for the future of Hungary.

But discussion of the wider malaise seemingly gripping democracy in CEE has often been stronger on sounding the alarm and itemizing symptoms than on analysis.  Indeed, the term ‘backsliding’ was so loosely applied  that it covered phenomena ranging from the rise of right-extremism to difficulties negotiating coalitions.

Much writing has simply boiled down to the idea that development across the region simply can be understood as Hungary writ small.  Hungary’s illiberal political turn was a ‘cancer’ spreading to the rest of the region and Orbán, to quote the Guardian’s Ian Traynor simply the most prominent example of a new breed of ‘democratically elected populist strongmen …  deploying the power of the state and a battery of instruments of intimidation to crush dissent’.  Some journalists painting a bigger picture (or airing common geo-political concerns) preferred the term ‘Putinization’.

But such broad-brush treatment would never do. Anyone who knows the Czech Republic, for example, would see a democracy disfigured by corruption, disengagement and distrust. But neither its assertive head of state, president Miloš Zeman, nor ambitious billionaire populist newcomer Andrej Babiš quite fit the bill of a Czech Viktor Orbán. A nationalist turn, a new constitution, a dominant ruling party or a spectacular breakthrough by the extreme right. None of this is on the Czech agenda – or indeed quite  on the agenda elsewhere in CEE.

Clearly a much better comparative take on how to understand the travails of CEE democracy is called for, capable of embracing the political realities of both Prague and Budapest and all points in between.

And in an article in latest issue of Global Policy the Hungarian political scientist and political economist Béla Greskovits has now offered precisely this. Read More…

Eastern Europe 25 years on: catching up or catching cold?

Catch-up 2014 smaller cropped

Image: www.thecatchupindex.eu

25 years on from the fall of communism, the Wall Street Journal recently told its readers, Central and Eastern Europe is still playing catch-up. The reasons are mainly economic and infrastructural. Too little growth by the standards of the Asian tigers. Too few high speed rail links. Not enough motorways. Viktor Orbán bossing it over Hungary in an ever more worrying project of illiberal transformation. A bad subsidy habit fed by an indulgent EU. A Middle Income Development Trap waiting to be sprung. And –when did this ever happen before? –  progress that “ has fallen short of what many of its citizens had hoped”.

 But we shouldn’t be too harsh. The WSJ is not particularly well known for the quality of its CEE  reporting. And this occasion it’s absolutely right: Central and Eastern Europe is playing catch-up. The politics of catch-up, rather than geography or culture or post-communism, are probably what define the region best. If it wasn’t catching up, it wouldn’t be Central and Eastern Europe.  Historians of East Central Europe such as Andrew C. Janos or  Ivan Berend have long been preoccupied by the region’s longue durée efforts to push its levels of socioeconomic– and political – development into line Europe’s core West European states –  although they have sometimes bluntly simply spoken of “backwardness”.

 The post-1989 project of European integration and enlargement, although more usually referred to in terms of ‘convergence’ or ‘Return to Europe’ is also all about one catch-up – and a very ambitious form of catch-up: overcoming deeply rooted east-west divide, which as Janos and others have noted, predates the Cold War division of Europe.  Enlargement and integration – and liberal reform in CEE generally –been sold politically on the basis that the poor, historically peripheral societies of CEE will (and after a painful process of adjustment) reap the full benefits of prosperity, social welfare, democracy and freedom enjoyed by core West European societies that had the good luck to stay out of of the Soviet zone of influence after WWII.

 If, in the long term, integration fails to deliver, there may be significant consequences both for the EU and for the fate of democracy and liberal institutions in Central and East European countries themselves.  As recent developments in Hungary show, liberal and democratic reforms are not irreversible or consolidated as once thought or hoped. If the European project fails to deliver catch-up – or the Western model CEE was busy catching up on with proves exhausted and unattractive – it will exacerbate both centrifugal pressures in the EU and erosion of democracy in some or all of CEE. There is the uncomfortable possibility that in his nationalistic rejection of liberalism, Viktor Orbán may be a leader rather than a laggard as far as the future direction of the region is concerned –  the Central European vanguard of the revolt against a broken Western model that Pankaj Mishra sees rippling out  from Asia. Read More…

The different worlds of everyday post-communist democracy

 Original books often share two common virtues. They reach conclusions which make perfect sense in hindsight, but which somehow no one else managed to reach before. And they ask simple, big, often-asked questions, but answer them in new ways. Both of these apply to James Dawson’s new book Cultures of Democracy in Serbia and Bulgaria. How Ideas Shape Publics.

 The book’s key finding – based on innovative ethnographical fieldwork – is that Serbia has a more vibrant and, to some extent, more liberal, public sphere than Bulgaria, despite being rated considerably lower on most governance and democracy indices (the book focuses on Freedom House’s Nations in Transit measures).

On a conventional reading this makes little sense: Bulgaria is a low quality democracy, made slow, but steady progress as towards EU membership in 2007, while Serbia slid into semi-authoritarianism following the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the wars of Yugoslav succession as regime and (large parts of) opposition embraced a culture of militant illiberal nationalism. Serbia began EU accession negotiations only this year and officials are carefully avoiding speculation about when it might eventually join the Union as its 29th member.

 James Dawson’s book, however, tells it differently. Most conventional measures of democracy, he suggests, are too formal and legalistic, do little to tap into the day-to-day thinking of citizens. ‘Hard’ comparative scientists are too often driven by an essentially procedurally framing of democracy leading them to overlook a multitude defects and limitations in democratic practices. As a clever dissection of a well-known survey article in East European Politics and Societies makes clear, too many insights and observations appear simply as passing comments or incidental qualifying remarks, but in the end slip out of the final analysis. Read More…

Eastern Europe: Parties and the mirage of technocracy

Many commentators saw the governments of non-party technocrats formed in Greece and Italy in 2011 as an ill omen for development of party-based democracy in Europe. Established parties, it is suggested, are turning to technocratic caretaker administrations as a device to manage economic and political crisis, which allows them both to duck (or least share) responsibility for painful austerity measures. Such non-partisan governments of experts, it is argued, can only widen the yawning the legitimacy gap between governors and governed.

 Technocratically-imposed austerity backed by big established parties can further undermine party democracy by provoking anti-elite electoral backlashes:  the rise of new populist parties or breakthroughs by previously marginal radical groups. This in turn, makes coalition formation difficult and further rounds of caretaker government or awkward left-right co-operation more likely. The success of the Five Star Movement in Italy and its difficult political aftermath, which has finally resulted in an implausible Grand Coalition, seems to illustrate this scenario perfectly. Sometimes, caretaker technocrats themselves even add to the uncertainty, revolting against their erstwhile masters and founding their own new parties.

 How has the drift towards technocratic crisis management impacted Central and Eastern Europe?  The region is sometimes grouped with debt- and crisis-afflicted Southern Europe states as an economically weak periphery of flawed and potentially unstable democracies, where technocratic crisis governments are the order of the day. Read More…

Bulgaria: Anti-Roma protests echo Czech events

Anti-Roma protests in Varnsdorf, Czech Republic

Localised grassroots anti-Roma protests seen in the Czech Republic now seem to be repreated on a somewhat larger scale in Bulgaria: the Novinite agency is reporting clashes between riot police and a crowd of 3000 in the city of Plovdiv resulting in mass arrests with similar confrontations having taken place in the past few couple of days in Varna, Blagoevgrad and Sofia. 

The sequence of events in both countries seems very similar: a violent incident between local Roma and members ethnic majority triggers large-ish scale local protests of hundreds or thousand, sometimes initially peaceful but quickly becoming more unpredictable,  more spontaneous  – Facebook is mentioned in the reports on Bulgaria – and more aggressive, targeting Roma property, local authorities and the police.

The crowds are mostly, but not exlusively young, and mainly male and, unusually, the protests spread. Far right groups are involved and the protests have clearly nationalist flavor with national flags – as well as  predictable  stuff about  Roma crime etc – on display in reports from both states, but there also a  sense of a kind grassroots ‘social movememt’ feel to what seems to be going on, the mobilisation of uncivil society, if you will.  Bulgaria’s far-right party Ataka, for example, seems to have been caught on the hop with calls for emergency measures and hurring to organise its own party-controlled anti-Roma protests.

The question, of course, is why given high and consistent levels of anti-Roma racism in the CEE; huge levels of social exclusion and  the  often dire state of relations between Roma and majority groups, is why such protests have erupted now?  An easy answer , perhaps  rather too easy, is that it is a yet another symptom of the new Europan politics of  Hard Times we seem to be drifting into, a mixture of fear and boredom: an ethnicised East Central  European version of the frustrations and tensions we saw break out on the streets of England cities last month.  Roma are among the socially and most economically vulnerable to price rises, welfare cuts and austerity, but they offer a convenient focus for the frustrations of others feeling the social and economic fallout at first hand.

The Czech news magazine Respekt carries a profile of a young woman, Lenka Zenkerová , arrested during an anti-Roma protest last month for wearing a t-shirt with the home-penned slogan ‘Bring Back Hitler, Gas the Gypsies’.  Such blatant incitement to racial hatred is a crime- triggers action even in the Czech Republic, where anti-racism laws can be somewhat unevenly enforced. Most protesters were savvy enough to frame their sentiments – at least in writing – in terms of crime and social security, rather than repeat this  widely seen Czech skinhead grafitto of 1990s.

Source: Political Capital www.riskandforecast.com

In the profile Ms Zenkerová comes across as odd, but not that odd. Educationally  an average achiever, cut off from her parents in the way some people are. A  few stints at menial jobs, but she can’t stand them or does stick.  Little  money – minimal social security and the odd family handout or bit of internet-based work. Feels bored and trapped in a small town.

The  anti-Roma protests seem for her to be  source of excitement, empowermant and  minor celebrity.

Perhaps in this country she would have just helped trash the local branch of Dixons.  I guess that’s what makes us an advanced democracy.

In CEE, of course, with its weaker parties and institutions  more generally discontented and distrustful citizenry, you have to ask where it will all lead. Whether it will find stronger political expression or just be one of numerous poisonous undercurrents running beneath the region’s social and political development.  Bulgaria came third in the DEREX index of far-right electoral potential put together by the Budapest-based Political Capital Thinktank last year – Turkey and Hungary came top with the Czech Republic mid-table a mere 11th.

As noted in the previous post, far right parties may not ultimately be the big story politically, we darkly image, but  it will interesting , indeed necessary for once to watch  the small town and regional grassroots for  once.

Populism in Central and Eastern Europe Spectres of moderation?

Fright on the right?

Radicalism and extremism, especially of the far-right variety, hold an enduring hypnotic fascination for political scientists and journalists.

Extremist populism and illiberal movements more generally, we are told, relentlessly on the rise in both Western and Eastern Europe.

In countries such Austria or Flanders radical right parties have  stacked up sufficient votes to become as major political players and contenders for government office. Elsewhere  in countries such as France, Norway, Denmark they have sufficient electoral clout to influence the parliamentary arithmetic and help  make the political weather.

And just look the electoral breakthroughs in the past couple of years of the True Finns, the Sweden Democrats or Hungary’s Jobbik.

Or the illiberal leanings of mainstream parties of the right in Poland, Hungary and Latvia.  Remember the brouhaha about the British Conservatives’ East European allies?

Jobbik - the far right Movement for a Better Hungary

Indeed, instability, populism and extremism Central and Eastern Europe is surely where it’s at – or where it will be at. Authoritarian nationalism traditions,  high unemployment, vulnerable open economies, rampant corruption, the end of EU conditionality and minority nationalities and Roma  minorities  acting as functional substitutes for the multiculturalism  Western Europe.

But, of course, it isn’t

Social conditions and ethnic make-up in CEE region as a variable as they are in Western Europe, if not more so.  And, if far right and illiberal populists have recently broken through big time in Hungary and (slightly smaller time) in Bulgaria with the rise of the Ataka bloc in Bulgaria, they are so far going nowhere electorally most other countries in the region.

National Parties in Slovakia and Slovenia  have a maintained marginal parliamentary presence, based on a vote share of around 5% the Greater Romania Party is out of parliament despite a bounce in the 2009 Euro-elections and the Polish populist-nationalist right (or left, I’m never sure) collapsed.

A low-lying Will O the Wisp - look carefully. Photo: Deborah Tilley

As Cas Mudde shrewdly observed in 2002  extremist movements in Central and Eastern Europe have tended – and this trend has, interestingly, so far endured even in the difficult political and economic times we now  live in – to bite the dust as often as they have risen from the deck to sock it  to established parties.

But there is a spectre of populism haunting Central and Eastern Europe, which should give us pause,

But this one isn’t a scary monster, but a political  will-o’-the-wisp that often gets missed:  a new breed of anti-establishment party  lambasting the political class  in time honoured style but which combines mainstream, moderate, modernising priorities with a potent and uneven cocktail of appeals embracing anti-corruption, political reform, e-politics, ethical government, novelty or sheer entertainment value.

Academics, bankers, aristocrats and journos

Led by a diverse array of anti-politicians – aristocrats,  academics, artists, technocrats, bankers,  businessmen, bloggers, journalists, entertainers – such parties have scored a series of  sometime spectacular electoral victories, which can put even the best performing far-right ethno-populists distinctly in the shade, and lead directly to government office: New Era in Latvia in 1998, the Simeon II National Movement in Bulgaria in 2001, Res Publica in Estonia in 2003 and last year TOP09 and Public Affairs (VV) in the Czech Republic.

While often fissiparous and short-lived such ‘centrist populist’ protest parties, to borrow Peter Účen’s phrase,  seem to spreading and growing phenomenon: Lithuania has no fewer than three such coming up through the political mainstream in successive elections: the New Union (2000), the (mis-named) Labour Party (2004) and in the 2008 elections the National Resurrection Party founded by former TV presenter and producer Arūnas Valinskas, who seems to have been a mix between Chris Tarrant and Simon Cowell.

As Kevin Deegan-Krause observed the new breed of anti-political mainstream protest party is a slippery and multifaceted  thing.

…. not exactly a new party family (though in their cultural liberalism and anti-corruption emphases they share significant elements) and not exactly a new party type … but with strong and intersecting elements of both. Nor is it unique to Central Europe alone but elements of it have emerged also in the West

My UCL colleague Allan Sikk and I nevertheless decided to have a go at pinning down this new phenomenon more precisely, focusing in the first instance on Central and Eastern Europe,  presenting some of our findings in a paper  (downloadable here) at last month’s ECPR General Conference in Reykjavik.

Analysing elections in the region since 1998 using Charles Ragin’s Qualitative Comparative Analysis technique  we found no single story.

Different paths. Photo: Bob Embleton

 But we did find that these Anti-Establishment Reform Parties, as we called them, broke through electorally in three distinct  sets of circumstances:

  • When relatively narrow core of established mainstream parties, flanked by strong radical outsiders, faces  a deteriorating social situation characterised by rising corruption and/or rising unemployment.
  • When established governing parties of the mainstream pro-market right  fail to engage new or re-mobilised voters.
  • When the left or market sceptic conservative-nationalist are in office and opposition mainstream pro-market right – and the party system generally – is weakly consolidated and/or fragmented

Sometimes  these circumstance overlap, sometimes they run in sequence, but – while radical outsiders have walk on part – what matters, unsurprisingly, is the abilily of mainstream, big tent governing parties to hold together and retain a grip on corruption and the economy to stem electoral insurgencies, which are likely to be angry, anti-political, often offbear  but  decided – destabilisingly –  mainstream.

And like the patchy rise of the far-right, such trends –  as Kevin Deegan-Krause notes above and shrewder journalists have also  already  spotted are not be confined to the rarified political climate of Central and Eastern Europe. When Silvio Berlusconi and Forza Italia  burst onto the Italian political scene in 1994, people could have been forgiven for thinking it was just a strange denouement to Italy’s unique corrupt post-war politics.

Yes, Prime Minister? Photo: wiki.editor Jonny

Now you could be forgiven for wondering if varieties of personality-centred, broadly  liberal sometimes) neo-liberal anti-establishment poilitics might gradually be infiltrating in way into  more established democracies andbecoming a more Europe-wide phenomenon.

The Pirate Party has just entered the Berlin legislature with 8.5% of the vote and when we met them in a break in the ECPR conference, Iceland’s anarchic Best Party (see trailer for forthcoming documentary) founded by comedian Jón Gnarr which emerged as the city’s largest party last year (33%), turned out to be among the more focused and serious political outfits we had come across professionally.

When UEA’s Sanna Inthorn and John Street rhetorically titled a paper on young citizens and  celebrity politics  ‘Simon Cowell For Prime Minister?‘  they may perhaps not have been so far behind the curve.

Getting the name right?

What do you do if you’re a fading historic right-wing party in a small  northern European country with a strong, broadly  social-democratic political culture?

For the Scottish Conservatives, whose  secular decline despite the electoral bounce- back of 2010 in England and Wales is catalogued by a recent IPPR report, the answer would seem be to dissolve and rebrand as a new more modern, more appealing centre-right formation.

That at least is the idea of leadership contender Murdo Fraser (one floated as early 2007)- and one looked at with quiet sympathy by London Tories around David Cameron who basically buy in to the idea the Conservative identity is too toxic and too undermined by social change and the decline of political identities shaped by religion and Empire to be redeemable. Better a strong, autonomous allied party better than enfeebled rump.

But what – assuming Mr Fraser gets his way – would such a party be called?And what would it imply? Perhaps  in time the drawing in of pro-market elements of the Liberals or the SNP.

We know one thing. The new would include the word ‘Scottish’ and not include the word ‘Conservative’. But where to go from there?

Perhaps take inspiration from the Anglosphere?

The  main party of centre-right in New Zealand is the National Party, but that label is clearly not available. in Scotland

Canada has the Progressive Conservatives, but the ‘C’ word is out and Progressive tag (Scottish Progressives? Progressive Democrats?)  alone might be a linguistic modernisation too far, even in this age of political cross dressing. I guess,  still following Canadian politics, the label Reform might be a possibility.

After all, the Tories European Parliament Group – where this new party’s MEPs (if it won any) would sit – is called the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR). So perhaps Scottish Reform Party? Tory bloggers liked this idea. On the other hand, the label does have vaguely religious echos, which might be a bad idea given Scotland’s sectarian history.

Perhaps the Scandinavian right might offer inspiration.  Sweden has the Moderates (as does Estonia)  but I suspect the Scottish Moderates would not do well and might provoke a few guffaws given the Tories’ history of hot gospelling Thatcherism in Scotland in 1980s.

Iceland, of course, has the Independence Party – a pragmatic  fusion of Liberals and Conservatives , take note – but somehow that might not strike the right note in Scotland… And besides UKIP seems have baggsied the Independence label.

Some Scottish Tories also toyed, it seems, with the idea of becoming the Freedom Party, although this rather in-your-face label has only been successfully used by Geert Wilders anti-Islamic outfit in Holland and the late Joerg Haider’s radical right grouping in Austria and is more associated with European liberal parties.  Beside Scottish Freedom Party, sounds somewhat like a more radical version of the SNP.

Perhaps  Central and East European politics then?  After all, the dissolve-rebrand-and-reinvent formula was tried by a number of discredited former ruling (communist)  parties there.

However,   as even the most rapid Tory-phobe would admit,  we not talking about a bunch of ex- totalitarians, so it’s really the CEE right we should be looking. Here the word ‘Democratic’ seems to be the main label on office (Civic Democratic Party in the Czech Republic, Slovene Democrats, Bulgaria’s Union of Democratic Forces (as was)) – as well as general avoidance of the word ‘Party’.

Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria

So that would leave is with Scottish Democrats or Scottish Democratic Union (handy echoes of the Unionist tag, the Scottish Tories historically used until 1965  and which, oddly, seems a favoured option, despite stressing the English link and having slight undertones of Northern Irish protestant politics)

Unless,  like many a Central European and Scandinavian conservative, they started to think less in party terms and more in terms of alliance-making.  Slovakia had its Blue Coalition, Denmark its Blue Alliance.

Which perhaps begs the question of where the ranks of this new centre-right in this increasingly politically far away country called Scotland would come from.

>They say cutback, we say… червен картон

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Sofia, 26 March 2011 Photo: BSP TV

According to news reports, some 16,000  marched through the streets of Sofia under the auspices of the opposition Socialist Party to protest against unemployment and depleted public services. Allowing for differences in population size, this equates to a march about half the size of the Saturday’s  250, 000 strong trade union sponsored protest in London, but not all bad for a relatively a weak civil society stemming from all the usual post-communist legacies. And a mildly imaginative rouch with the theme of giving Bulgaria’s government a red card (червен картон). A day later there are blockades by car drivers angry about the price of fuel following the next day and demonstration about nuclear power plant construction are also in the pipeline no pun intended). Characteristically, perhaps all three are organised by political parties, rather than civil sociery organisation and, unlike in London, the radical left,  marginal in the region at the best of times and workerist, so there are no anarchist casseurs or direct action activists occupying smart shops in Sofia – and Socialist leader Sergei Stanishev is no Ed Milland (although possibly that should be the other way round)

London, 26 March 2011 Photo: Ben Hall
The Czech Republic does rather better in terms of turnout and civil society capacity with a 40, 000 strong protest against government austerity in Prague last September, which allowing for the CR’s 10 million population, compares well with Saturday’s TUC march  – and strikes toboot. Perhaps, however, that should be less a source of pride for the Czech labour movement – which plays a smart game, but is in structural decline (as Martin Myant, a far from unsympathetic observer, outlines in the latest issue of Czech Sociological Review than a warning for Brits: Prague’s centre-right coalition government has pressed on regardless, more sensitive to its own internal tensions and a beating from the electorate, than to the massed ranks of the Czech public sector on the streets of the nation’s capital. The UK’s – or perhaps I should say England’s – more rampantly anti-statist traditions make it still more easy to shake off the concerns teachers, nurses, social workers and students, especially when it is pitched vaguely a march for The Alternative that no one can meaningly and identify anarchists and UK Uncut add to the fog of war. No one, thankfully, has quite persuaded the bulf of Czechs that the social market and the welfare state belongs on the scrapheap of history.

>2010: For whom the bell TOLs?

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The BBC’s annual Correspondents Look Foward programme has, characteristically, nothing to say about Central and Eastern Europe. It is now a backwater of global politics, seemingly. Even Russia barely gets a mention and the programme peters out with a self-indulgent discussion of the World Cup.

Transitions Online (TOL), does however, does carry a look ahead feature on CEE in 2010 but, unfortunately, it is scarely better than the BBC’s non-discussion of the region. A translation of a commentary in the Czech economic daily Hospodářské noviny, it manages to serve up every cliche in the book about Central and Eastern Europe being rocked by a wave of nationalism and populism driven by economic crisis, which will hit harder in the region in the coming year.

Interestingly, the concrete developments that are flagged offer, as so often, a mixed picture: the Czech communists indeed may gain greater leverage after the Czech election, but they are hardly putting on the votes and this will depend on the electoral arithmetic and the decisions of the Social Democrats if they win (hardly evidence of a ‘wave of extremism’) . A Grand Coalition is frankly just as likely.

Hungary’s election is likely to produce a sweeping win for the right putting paid for would-be reformist, centre left government led by a beleagued centre-left PM called Gordon B. – which sounds disconcertingly familiar, although in this case the wretched incumbernt is Gordon Bajnai and the third party is likely to be the far-right Jobbik. At last some genuine extremists on the up to give all that fire and brimstone some reality… However, although on 12% in the latest poll Jobbik seems unlikely to match the 14% it took in the Euro-elections. A historically good score of 10%, I should think, but the far-right has had electoral presence of around 5% previously and sat in parliament, so we are not in totally new territory here.

Robert Fico, perhaps the one sure thing in Central and East European politics these days, also seems set to romp home in the Slovak elections – and it seems that this bad boy of the European Socialist Group will indeed play the nationalist card and here too there is a far-right competitor of sorts in the Slovak National Party (SNS).

The game plan for anyone inclined to a favourable view of RF is that it’s all in the good cause of dumping the Slovak Nationalists as a coalition partner and possibly out of parliament by incorporating some of their electorate into the political elephant that is SMER. Along with the seemingly unstoppable electoral juggernaut of Fidesz, Poland’s Civic Platform, Bulgaria’s GERB – a kind of centre-right parallel to Fico’s interesting mix of mainstream respectability and edgy populism – SMER is now one of biggests and the highest polling party in the region, althoughs its 40%-ish ratings , which have actually been dipping a bit recently, pale before the 2/3 of the vote Viktor Orbán and his merry men (and women) seem set to pull in.

In any case, the real story seems to be one of big parties sweeping up votes by whatever means works, although yes, there is populism and nationalism about, this year as every year in the same way that there is grass in your garden. It is sometimes under control, n, occasionally grows and gets a big unruly and out of control, changes colour across the seasons and then gets cut again. It’s not very lovely, and everything out there doesn’t always look that rosy, but its part of the landscape and, of course, you don’t have the option of paving it over and replacing the populace with a handpicked citizenry composed of liberal-minded financial journalists and economics PhDs

Happy New Year.

>Bulgaria: People’s Commissioners to European Commissioners?

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The Economist lays into Bulgaria’s Socialist Prime Minister for extraordinary plan to create forms of parallel political administration with the European Commission in which Commissioners would intervene directly (as opposed to indirectly) in the country’s government. A sort of Kosova-lite, in which the EU would quietly colonize Bulgaria – although seeing an election wheeze intending to shore up vastly unpopular domestic institutions and a vastly unpopular government, The Economist struck a eurosceptic note, by comparing it to Soviet oversight of the Bulgaria in the 1940s. And Bulgaria’s long serving communist strongman Todor Zhivkov did n more than one occasion reportedly offered to make Bulgaria the 16th Republic of the USSR. On the other hand, in 1930s and 40s didn’t Hayek and von Mises see collapsing weak, economically irrational national states with democracies all too inclined to sink into nationalist and populstic demagogy into a supranational federation run by well trained technocrats from Vienna as the best defence of liberal Europe?