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>Who killed Czech politics?

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Czech President Václav Klaus weights in with a what-does-it-all-mean-all mean-for-us interpretation of the farcical ‘scandal’ in the CR’s governing centre-right Civic Democrat Party (ODS), which saw Prime Minister Topolánek’s rival Vlastimil Tlustý commission some ‘compromising’ photos of himself in order to catch Topolánek out. (Unfortunately, only a very minor ODS deputy, Jan Morava, snapped at the bait, although the opposition claims – with no real evidence – that he was working at Topolánek’s behest). Tlustý and his small band of supporters are currently waging (and losing) a destructive faction fight with Topolánek in ODS, although at least one pro-Topolánek deputy has resigned the ODS parliamentary whip and, given the government’s wafer thin parliamentary majority, we can look forward to nail biting votes of no confidence after the November regional and Senate elections have given a clearer indication of the Czech political weather.

So, what does it all mean? Klaus claims it shows that Czech politics has been emptied of real ideological content and, we are given to understand, descended into a crude and dirty struggle for power. Topolánek retorts that, if Czech politics, lacks content it is a legacy of the powersharing ‘Opposition Agreement’ deal Klaus himself negotiated with the centre-left in late 1990s to run a minority government. He (Topolánek) was barely able to stomach it, apparantly, but (surprise, surprise) kept stumm at the time, despite a leaked, disparing text message Klaus wrote about him after his suprise election as ODS leader in 2002. Tlustý, one of the few ex-Communist Party members left in a senior position in ODS (although like millions of other Czechs he was simply an opportunistic/pragmatic Party card holder, I should add) is, Topolánek say, is typical, cynical product of the Opposition Agreement era.

Although being a little precious – Czech politics has had its seamy side pretty much since the fall of the communism in November1989 – both PM and President are, I think, right and wrong at the same time. Tlustý had previously identified himself as standard bearer of those in ODS disillusioned with the compromises the party made after 2006 to hold power, especially the dilution of its radical flat-tax agenda it developed in opposition. As well as posing for mocked-up photos with blondes in swimming pools, he has a lot of techncial background on fiscal and tax issues. Regardless of Tlustý’s sincerity, there is clearly an ideological debate rumbling about the direction of the Czech under the surface. Unsurprisingly, neither PM nor President really want to acknowledge that.

Klaus is right, however, in seeing Topolánek as taking ODS in a more flexible, pragmatic direction, filtering its ideological agenda of liberal market reform – as welll as umpteen dodgy sectional and personal interests – through the realities of Czech politics and Czech society and coming up with a political programme and strategy defined by the need to keep the Greens/liberal-centrist on board and the deep rooted disinclination of many Czechs for any kind of red-blooded Thatcherism. The art of the possible. The 64,000 crown question is whether without the charisma and ideological hot gospelling of Klaus, he can hold together party and coalition together. The right are doing better in the polls and Green leader and market friendly eco-liberalMartin Bursík has, for the moment, crushed internal opposition , but watch this space.

>Bulgarian President pushes for electoral and party reform referendum

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The Sofia Echo reports that, having come up with a package of proposed political reforms aimed at introducing some a new of Mixed Member Proportional electoral system and tougher registration requirements for parties, Bulgarian President Georgi Purvanov is pushing for a Romanian (New Zealand?) style referendum to enact the proposals, although, unfortunately for him, referenda are not binding on legislators. Post-1989, the Bulgarians have never had a national referendum, however, so who knows what may happen, if the other politicos do accede to his wish.
The President is, of course, also consulting with party leaders and reportedly won the support of the Socialist Party (BSP), his former political home, but right-wing parties seem rather more leery. The proposals, which specify that to be legally registered parties must have branches in 2/3 of municipalities, seem directed at culling small, local grouping that have done increasingly well at local level in the last couple of years, prompting allegations of vote buying and other dubious practices. These seem to have been borne out by a series of court decisions annulling municipal elections. Critics suggest, however, that established parties, including big powerful groups like the BSP, have simply been caught napping, letting their grassroots organization wither, as attention shifted to elite-level politics in Sofia and the formulation of party lists central to the current system of PR. Rising political force, GERB, a sort of centre-right populist concoction riding very high in the national polls is, more understandably, also rather short of local organization.

The electoral reform element of sketchy overview of the presidential proposals are expertly dissected by Matthew Shugart at Fruits and Votes. Seems, however, that they are more about corralling powerful local politicians into established (big) parties than eliminating corrupt practices.

And as postscript I should note that a presidentially sponsored Round Table to seek consensus on changing the electoral system and party regulation regime is due to held on 7 July. Watch this space

>The long and winding road that leads… to our special issue of Party Politics

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After a very long gestation period of some four and half years the special issue of Party Politics on parties of the centre-right in Central and Eastern Europe guest edited by Aleks Szczerbiak and mehas finally appeared. I read through and I was generally pleased with the articles have turned out. The unintendedly long, period of writing, re-writing, talking and meeting – interrupted in my case by the publication of a book and the birth of daughter – clearly benefited it. Maybe all academic articles should take this long to write …

>Slovakia: In a right mess

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The woes of Slovakia’s centre-right Christian Democratic parties continue apace. Three deputies of the Christian Democrat Movement (KDH) have quit to found a Conservative Democratic Party (KDS), which, they say, will be more resolutely committed supporting traditional values and targeting financial support to (traditional) families. Meanwhile dissident members of the more liberal Slovak Christian and Democratic Union (SDKÚ) of ex-Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda (itself originally a breakaway from KDH) have been kicked out of the party for allegedly breaking resolutions not to air internal disputes in public. Their platform is a vaguer one of ‘generational change’ and renewal, outlined in a platform called Time for Change. The key generational change seems to be getting rid of Dzurinda, recently re-elected but seen as an electoral liability. Those expelled include several deputies and important elements of SDKÚ’s Bratislava organisation, where the party is strongest. Who know perhaps they will found a new party too? To complete the picture, we should perhaps add that Slovakia also has a further mainstream centre-right party – the electorally weak, but intellectually more influential Civic Conservative Party (OKS), which has never one parliamententary representation, who espouse a kind of Czech-style neo-con/neo-liberal fusion. The Slovak centre-right is clearly paying the price in opposition for its fragmented structure. This seem to provide cracks along which it fractures in the face of underlying strategic dilemmas: how to manage in a country with an electorate seemingly more inclined to the centre-left than centre-right; and what does being on the Christian Democratic right actually means in Slovak. The Czech right faced a rather similar situation in 2002, but with the crucial difference that the right is basically united in a single party, ODS, and that its long servingbut discredited leader Václav Klaus (finally) decided to step down.

Meanwhile, in the Slovak governing coalition things seem to have got rather jolly again. Vladimír Mečiar even recommends Prime Minister Robert Fico as Slovakia’s next president. Presumably, given the relative weakness of the Slovak presidency, Fico will resist this flattering offer. I suppose the idea of semi-presidential regime might distantly take his fancy, but he does not have the votes to change the constitution.

>Blog tracks Czech anti-Islamic ‘ultraconservatives’

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A Czech political blog, seemingly written by a student of Middle Eastern studies, contains quite a short paper (in Czech) on the activities of the small Young Right (Mladá pravice) grouping, which occupies an odd kind of no man’s land between the Czech far right proper and the fringe of the Czech centre-right proper, especially Václav Klaus’s CEP thinktank, rather cockamammy attempts to fuse ‘anti-Jihadism’and anti-immigrant positions drawn from Western Europe and North America with traditional Czech nationalism at outlined in a previous poste. Leaving aside the rather ponderous attempts at theory building, the paper is quite an interesting read, although I am little galled to find myself described (unreferenced) as an ‘American political scientist’ – despite the vogue for all things ‘Czeltic’, some Czechs seem automatically to assume that anyone called Seán is American – who thinks the Czech right is as a Central European national-liberal mutuation of Anglo-American models. Clearly, the library of the West Bohemian University haven’t forked out for a copy of my book.

>Do Slovak and Czech Christian Democrats have a prayer?

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The continuing dominance of Robert Fico’s SMER in Slovak politics – ably tracked and analyzed by Kevin Deegan Krause in the excellent Pozorblog – is aggravating an ongoing crisis of the sundry liberal and Christian parties that held sway amid a blaze oneo-liberal welfare and labour reform between 1998 – 2006. The splits and rivalries, seem basically about personal ambitions and rival personalities, but are punctuated by calls for generational renewal (is there a Slovak Barack Obama in the house?) and seem to also have an ideological/politcal subtext centring on one issue: about how to confront the populist/national-populist left, whose poll ratings and (worringly) dislike of NGOs and desire to heavy-handedly regular the press have uncomfortable echos of the dominance once exercised by Vladimír Mečiar and his HZDS (now seemingly relegated to a bit part in Fico’s coalition government).
The core of the Slovak centre-right is notionally Christian Democratic – there two mainly parties using the tag, the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), which has roots in the Christian dissidence before 1989, the more (socially) liberal Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), formed as something of a personal vehicle for then Prime Mikuláš Dzurinda, although various neo-liberal technocrats seems to have hitched a ride with KDH too. The woes of the various stripes of Slovak Christian Democrats have interesting echoes in the current travails of the Czech Christian Democrats who, squeezed between powerful free market right and social democratic and communist left, have never had the whip hand in government and never been able to integrate liberal forces to broaden their appeal. The closest they came to a breakthough was in the ill-fated Quad-Coalition (4k) project in 1999-2001 when the two big parties of left and right were cosying up to each other. The exit from poilitics of the adroit Josef Lux in 1998 after being diagnosed with leukaemia (he died in 1999) finished KDU’s prospects of being as much more than a niche party for Catholics in rural regions and confused centrist voters with nowhere to go. Despite good poll rating the fraught 4K project collapsed and split much like the Slovak Democratic Coalition, which indirectly it and spawned Dzurinda’s SDKÚ
There followed faction fighting between more liberal (Bohemian-based) and more conservative (Moravian-based) elements in KDU; consequent frequent changes of leader (none, however, very personally commanding) and the lack of a clear strategy as to what Czech Christian Democrats actually stood for and whether they were of the left, right or centre (a perennial dilemma for small parties in a system with well established large parties) has seen the party’s support dwindle to its core electorate leaving it hovering dangerously over the 5% threshold that spells political oblivion.
The directionlessness of the party was gruesomely illustrated by the sudden initiative of then KDU leader Miroslav Kalousek in 2006 to enter a Social Democrat-led minority coalition government with Communist support (it never materialized – he was sacked after an internal revolt) and its turning in desperation to newly elected Christian Democrat Senator and small town mayor Jiří Čunek, whose staggering popularity in the 2006 Senate election stemmed from expelling local Roma with chronic rent arrears from municipal housing in the town centre and re-locating them in the outskirts of town. Rapidly embroiled in corruption allegations stemming from his mayoral term(s) and squeezed out ministerial office (he was Minister of Local Development), but not the KDU leadership Čunek’s small town populism has proved inadequate to re-launch his party. As highlighted in other posts the Civic Democrats – behind in the polls to the Czech Social Democrats (who, nevertheless, have not reached Fico-like levels of support) – are effectively marking time to see which of their minor allies, the Greens or the Social Democrats, will implode first and which they might somehow absorb to bolster themselves ideologically and electorally.

Ironically, KDU’s long and detailed 2006 election programme, which, rather in the Slovak style, combined neo-liberal fiscal and welfare prescriptions (toned down to suit Czech tastes) as well as the usual social market, family protection, communitarian stuff was widely praised by experts as more realistic and better through through than the Civic Democrats’ shot-in-the-dark version of flat tax-led neo-liberal reform.
And generational renewal? Commentators and politicians in CEE are always harping on about this, but it’s hard to see quite how newer or younger will necessarily mean better. Such comments are, usually a disguised call for in political renewal or cleaner, better, more liberal government – amen to that, but even though there is no primaries system there is ample scope for new parties to emerge or young technocrats to parachute themselves into organizationally weak, elite-led parties. The Slovak experience suggests that many voters don’t want renewal of this kind, but stability. Is the Slovak Barack Obama actually Robert Fico?

>Electoral reform catching in SE Europe?

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Plans to reform the electoral system along majoritarian (first-past-the-post) lines seem to be catching in South Eastern Europe – at least if you are incumbent President or an ex-communist Social Democrat whose reformist commitment was fairly recently acquired. Bulgaria’s head of state, President Georgi Purvanov is, it seems, basically both. So it comes as no surprise that – following the (as unyet unresolved) Romanian electoral reform imbroglio – he should be toying with electoral reform broadly in the direction of a move from PR to majoritarian electoral system. As in Romania centre-right parties (specifically the UDF, but also the newly ascendant GERB party and parliamentary defectors from the governing National Movement for Stability and Prosperity, whose have set up a New Democracy grouping) are also attracted by the idea, seemingly seeing its radicalism as an opportunity for some kind of broader clean break giving impetus for reform and an spur to centre-right party building, which is as problematic in Bulgaria as Romania, although I guess Serbs of liberal-right persuasion must look on in envy.

As my SSEES colleague Eric Gordy notes in a piece written after the first round of Serbia’s presidential elections “… the DSS [Serbian Democratic Party of just-about-re-elected incumbent Tadic] has not adopted a conservative profile but a contrarian one, and as a result there is no coherent conservative political force in the country but rather a motley collection of populist and ultra-right movements. The DS [Democratic Party] and the DSS are not liberal and conservative parties in the sense that these terms are understood in modern politics; rather, both are in the mould of the highly adaptable and utterly immovable ‘parties of power’ that characterized politics in the period between the two world wars throughout the region”. On the other hand, the situation I suspect is not that far removed enough for the Bulgarian or Romanian (would-be) centre-right to feel great satisfaction. If they do want a further does of interwar style clientelist transformismo with a dash of Putin thrown in, first-past-the-post would probably be just the ticket, however.

>The missing middle

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A SSEES graduate emails me to ask if I know of any useful readings about the development of the Russian middle class. I don’t really. Russia not my main area of expertise, but it’s an interesting question. Middle classes are generally rather weak, dependent on/or overshadowed by the state and squeezed between the very rich and the fairly poor even in the more liberal CEE states and middle class revival is a theme that has entertained and agonized sociologists, right-wing parties seeking a counter-weight to social forces rooted in the communist, and liberals who see the new and/or old (historic) middle class as a potential dynamo for economic liberalism and civic engagement. Bulgaria even has a think tank called the Association for Middle Class Development.

I suspect the consensus would probably be that the Russia probably lacks a ‘middle class’ in any very meaningful sense, but the only thing I could think was a short polemical piece in Transitions Online by Andrei Piontkosky, former director of the closed down Strategic Studies Centre in Moscow. He makes the interesting point that the emergent Russia middle class – like those of Latin America – are indifferent to democracy and something of a minor prop for the Putin regime. A similar point was made a few years ago in more academic form in a very prescient article by Neil Robinson, who draw a parallel with ‘bureaucratic authoritarianism’ as a side effect of modernization in South America more explicitly. Unfortunately, as if to make the point – Piontkovsky seems more concerned with ‘modernization’ than democracy per se – which seems to suggest that the problem is that Russia has the wrong kind of authoritarian rule. Rather oddly, having started out with argument that Russia is a heading for a novel form of (semi-)authoritarianism ‘that is neither socialism nor capitalism but some hitherto-unknown creature’, he ends up suggesting that Putin is some kind of authoritarian neo-liberal in the Pinochet mould.

As more expert colleagues aren’t to hand, a quick google reveals a lot of informed journalistic comment – a sketch in Business Week, an article by Masha Lipman in the Washington Post, and two posts on Johnson’s Russia list (here and here) – but seemingly little in the way of academic research. How can you research something that doesn’t exist – and perhaps historically never did? The most I can turn up is a reference to a conference paper by a Dr Anna Ochkima of Penza State Pedagogical University presented at last year’s meeting of the American Sociological Association. Alas there is no publicly accessible online version, Dr Ochkima doesn’t have an email address listed, and her university doesn’t seem even to have a website. So much for Russian middle class development.

>Czech public opinion: underlying trends may favour Social Democrats

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While the Polish left languishes as an unwanted add-on in a political system dominated by conservative liberals and conservative populists, polling by CVVM in the Czech Republic points to the underlying strength of the Social Democrats (ČSSD) in that country. ČSSD enjoys a 6% (but oscillating) poll lead over the incumbent centre-right Civic Democrats and their leader ex-PM Jiří Paroubek (very unpopular) enjoys personal poll ratings only somewhat better than Civic Democrat leader and current PM Miroslav Topolánek (very, very unpopular). However, the real story is elsewhere in broader Czech attitudes to the country’s main political parties and views on issues of taxation and income differentials.

The Social Democrats come out in the Czech public mind as a strongly led party with a commitment to protecting the socially underprivileged rated even higher (72%) than that of the hardline Czech Communists (68%). At the same time, however, the party enjoys good rating for economic competence (44%) and is seen as more likely to promote the middle class (which we should perhaps take in the American sense of the term, since in Czech it is střední vrstva – the ‘middle layer’). The Civic Democrats (ODS) also have a clear profile, but are seen as rather more cynically power-seeking (75% – 60% for the Social Democrats) and hugely conflictual (67%, compared to 54% for the Social Democrats) despite efforts to promote themeselves as a party of the small- and medium-sized business, as a pary of business and the rich. Indeed, voters see them as less likely to promote middle class development (36%) than the Social Democrats (58%) or, incredibly, the Commuists (40%). They also rate worse than the Social Democrats on the economic competence question – only 42% thought ODS had programme, which would promote growth.

Meanwhile another survey suggests that, despite a liberal minority favouring flat(ter) taxes a clear majority of Czechs favour some form of progressive redistributive income tax. Although this view declines with income and education, it is widely held across all social groups, seeming to provide a certain empirical backing to the old cliché of the Czech as plebian, egalitarian nation. The bigger picture seems to be that although the liberal free market right represents a sizable chunk of Czech society, it is a minority corralled by a majority favouring some form of social market, ‘social-democratic’ a loose sense, not necessarily partisan sense. Despite the cynical attitude of Czechs towards all political parties – which narrow majorities pragmatically recognise as necessary for democracy – the Social Democrats, if they can translate it in terms of effective strategy (and so far they have good record of doing so) have a distinct advantage. Such ‘social’ blocs naturally exist elsewhere in the region. Aleks Szczerbiak wrote of the an economically ‘social Poland’ (represented by Law and Justice and smaller radical parties) defeating ‘liberal Poland’ in 2005 and, as noted below, think they may have achieved a kind victory-in-defeat in 2007.

As an interesting footnote the survey on parties also confirms that the Czech Greens are seen as party of the centre or right. A merely 19% thought that they were concerned with the socially underprivileged, the second lowest rating after ODS (12%).

>Polish elections: SSEES roundtable debates Civic Platform’s (uncertain?) prospects

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Meanwhile, before you can say ‘Jaroslaw Kaczynski’ there is a (well attended)roundtable on the Polish elections at SSEES, where Aleks Szczerbiak struck an interestingly sceptical note about the durability of Civic Platform’s victory. Donald Tusk’s party has, he thinks, perhaps put together an unfeasibly broad electoral coalition based more of rejection of the incumbent government than support for a liberal-consevative centre-right. It had hoovered up votes of those who incline to more to the post-communist left, which was wrongfooted by the speed with which early election were called. Moreover, the Kaczynski’s Law and Justice (PiS) party remained, he thought, remained a poweful force having gained both voters and voters in a way not wholly reducible to taking over the electorate pole-axed radical parties Self-Defence and the League of Polish Families (LPR) (cut loose by Radio Marija, which backed PiS). PiS, it was suggested also had a powerful and coherent conservative-national narrative based on the project of a ‘Fourth Republic’ cleansed of the pervasive influence of an informal establishment (Uklad) of left-liberal communists-turned-capitalists and shady characters. Tusk’s PO, by contrast, travelled rather light in terms of ideology stressing modernity and decency. The idea of young, educated migrants and the emergeny middle classes turned on conservative, rural Poland was something of a myth: only about 30, 000 of the 750, 000 Poles in the UK voted and thir liberal votes were probably counted out by the Law and Justice inclined ballots of a similar number of Polish Americans in the US. Moreover, any coalition with the Peasant Party (PSL) would be tricky, given the latter’s inclination to play hardball on all kinds of issues, ruthless extract policy concessions for their rural base and use state posts as patronage resources to sutain their party (Civic Platform want to decentalize and clean up, but I wondered can you really build or sustain a party in CEE these days without a dose of clientelism and patronage?). Civic Platform and its new government might like so many previous Polish election winners fall apart all too soon.

Others speakers, including my SSEES economist colleague Tomasz Mickiewicz who doubles as astute poltical analyst, saw PO as having better prospects. There was ample scope for privatization – about 20% of Poland’s GDP is still in the state sector, second only to Russia among post-communist states, apparently. (Ironically, Law and Justice’s Gaullist dislike of privatizition had deprived it of resources for its social spending commitments). Moreover, its rhetoric of European modernity and a free market with functional welfare, he thought had been effective – the party had managed to reinvent itself as something else other than a elite, secular liberal party indifferent to national tradition and religion. Mass emigration to the UK and Ireland had given Poles a clear sense of just how this could work – migrants might not count much electorally, but they were cultural vectors for change in small town and rural Poland, perhaps enabling PO to puncture PiS economically populist warnings of impoverishment all round. Apparently, some Poles also see Ireland’s political model of two (broadly speaking) right-wing parties and a rump social democratic left as as desirable as its Celtic Tiger economic policies. Ireland’s chronic patronage and clientelism probably also offer an (unintended) parallel…

The roundtable was finished off by a very fluent and engaging review of Polish foreign policy by Nat Copsey, who foresaw a change of tone in Poland’s EU policy as well as its external relations with Russia and Ukraine, masking a lot of underlying continuity. In part this was because the Terrible Twins’ foreign policy, while less than comptently managed, were less terrible in practice than their public comments often suggested.