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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…

Misdiagnosing threats to democracy in Eastern Europe

Littmann

Photo : diekatrin via Flikr  cc

I really don’t know why John Feffer’s Huffington Post post Hungary: The Cancer in the Middle of Europe? is being so widely shared and translated.

Its starting point that  things are going badly wrong in Hungary and that the country is taking a sharply illiberal turn under the conservative-national administration of Fidesz – and that in Jobbik it has a strong and virulent far-right party – is reasonable enough (although  it has been made many times before).  And there is indeed a climate of nationalism and anti-Roma racism on the Hungarian right, although Fidesz and Jobbik are probably as much rivals as ‘occasional allies’ especially given the stuttering performance of Hungary’s divided liberal-left.

And the transformation of Fidesz from a liberal party to conservative bloc occurred in the mid-late 1990s, not recently as some readers might assume from reading piece. Nor, being one of the major governing parties in Hungary since 1998 can Fidesz have interrupted a ‘rotating kleptocracy’ of liberal parties – the intepretation of why parties like Fidesz come to power offered in the conclusion.

But piece’s main argument that Hungary is Eastern Europe writ large or the shape things to come in the region. ‘What’s eating away at a free society in Hungary’, Feffer writes, ‘has metastasized. This same cancer is present elsewhere on the continent’.

And this is really hyperbole.  Read More…

Difficult Hungarian lesson

Hungary's parliament - Photo: Gothika/Wikicommons

The constitutional and institutional changes pushed through by Hungary’s ruling conservative-national Fidesz party following its emphatic election victory in April 2010 have attracted increasing coverage – and almost enirely negative –  from academic and journalistic observers of Central European politic, foreign governments and international bodies such as the European Parliament and Council of Europe.

As well as making multiple amendments to the existing constitution, the Fidesz government has used its huge majority – it has well over the 2/3 of seats in the National Assembly required  – enact a new constitution due to take effect 1 January 2012 and pass new electoral and media laws over the head of other parties, which fundamentally change the rules of the political game, destroying linstitutional checks and balances and embedding its own political influence against future majorities, which puts Hungary on course for at best low quality democracy and at worse some form of semi-authoritarian illiberal democracy.

The new constitution and related chanages, critics say, pares back power of Hungary’s previously

Fidesz European elections poster 2009 Photo: Burrows/Wikicommons

powerful Constitutional Court and made access to it more difficult; engineered a purge of the judiciary  and created a powerful National Judicial Office (headed by its own political appointee) with extensive powers to move and (un)appoint new judges.

New media law – already the target of demonstrations earlier this year (2011) –  have created new media board – staffed by Fidesz supporters and headed by prime ministerial appointee with a nine year term – which can review all media (including perhaps bloggers) for balance and impose heavy fines, resulting in self-censorship for the sake of commerical survival. Other key public appointees have similarly long terms of office and are only replace-able if new post holders are agreed by 2/3 parliamentary majority.

The charges are summarised here by Kim Lane Scheppele, who concludes that

Virtually every independent political institution has taken a hit. The human rights, data protection and minority affairs ombudsmen have been collapsed into one lesser post. The public prosecutor, the state audit office and, most recently, the Central Bank are all slated for more overtly political management in the new legal order  (…)

Fidesz party loyalists …will be able to conduct public investigations, intimidate the media, press criminal charges and continue to pack the courts long after the government’s current term is over..

Hungarian election posters 2010 Photo: Czank Mate/Wikicommons

The new electoral law, ably discussed here by Alan Renwick,  makes a number of changes  to Hungary’s complex ‘mixed’ electoral system, some of which – such as the introduction of a single round of voting in single member constituencies in preference to a French-style run-off – are arguably unpredictable.

But the net effect seems to be to make a strongly majoritarian electoral system more majoritarian and to provide a probable electoral bonus for the right by allowing non-resident Hungarian citizens, which following changes to citizenship law is now likely to include hundred thousand ethnic Hungarians living in Slovakia, Romania and Serbia, to vote in parliamentary elections.

The boundaries of the single member constitutencies used to elect most deputies have also, oddl,  been written into the electoral law – rather than subject to periodic independent review – making the changeable only through further constitutional amendment. Simulations linked to by Alan Renwick and Kim Scheppele suggest these are advantageous to Fidesz. More worryingly, changes to the make-up of the national Election Commission overseeing elections have reportedly seen a politically balanced body transformed into one run by Fidesz supporting appointees.

Party politics in Hungary may be further shaken up if proposed constitutional amendments listing the crimes of ruling party during communist dictatorship pass and the statue of limitations is lifted: any court cases brought against the post-communist Socialists, who are the successor party, may, Kim Scheppele suggests, bankrupt Hungary’s main moderate opposition party, leaving the far-right Jobbik as the principal oppositon to Fidesz.

There is, of course, another side the story. Fidesz supporters note the left-liberal bias to academic commentary on Hungarian politics on Hungary, which has never accepted national-conservative politics of Fidesz as legitimate; that the changes are wrongly described or exaggerated or ill informed due to the language barrier; and that some Western democracies to not meet the implied standards that Hungary is being subject to – US congressional districts boundaries, for example,  are extensively gerrymandered. Fidesz  is just clearing up the corrupt mess left by the Socialists, whose electoral collapse is entirely down to their own corruption. One eloquent such voice can be found in my former SSEES colleague, now a second term MEP George Schöpflin, writing in the FT, and in video below.

Some of the comments on Kim Lane Scheppele also reasonably dispute some points of fact.

I have tried to look things over from this angle, but even taking these points on board – and some of them are I suspect are valid – they fail to address the substance of the criticism:  George Schöpflin’s performance stressing misunderstanding and bad faith is sadly unconvincing. It is hard to not to interpret the changes as, whatever else they are, a very illiberal, ill advised and divisive power grab by the Hungarian right.

Who's next? Socialists and far-right in 2nd place in 2010

It is also one which I suspect will rebound both on Hungarian conservative-national right itself: some of the changes, such as the new electoral system will be rather unpredictable. Even allowing for partisan boundary changes – whose partisan effects can change over time quite quickly as the UK experience illustrates – a majoritarian system favours the right only so long as it is politically cohesive and has majority support.  The bad economic weather suggests even with  a tame media, any incumbent is likely to see its support rapidly erode.

The other concerns the divided nature of Hungary. As The Economist suggests there is a large liberal and left-wing Hungary: the Socialists and their liberal allies had, after all, until the 2010 meltdown, offered pretty stiff competition. Although the far-right seems to be offering stiff competion for the votes of the economically disempowered, there is no reason to think that in the longer term,  over a period of years, that a new centre-left bloc of some kind would not emerge. Indeed, the possible demise of the post-communist successor party might be a boon: in Poland the liberal Civic Platform now fills the space once taken by the post-communist left, while in Slovenia a new reformist centre-left bloc stepped almost effortless into the shoes of the discredited post-communist Social Democrats  (SD) and  Liberal Democrats (LDS).

But if – or perhaps when electoral support for Fidesz goes South – any left-liberal majority, will either have to come up with a 2/3 majority of its own (perhaps not altogether impossible) and carry out its own counter-revolution, or bump up the constitutional entrenchments now being put in place. (As George Schöpflin explains above, there will be no provision to change the constitution by referendum. ) The result perhaps five or ten years down the line would seem to be some very high stakes electoral politics – with all the temptations that will throw up – and/or the severest of constitutional crises, possibly attended by a very intense politics of civic mobilisation: this, after all, is way change happens when institutional channels to change are blocked and people sense that democracy has been rigged.

How could all this happen? Hungary, after all, was supposed to be one Central and Eastern Europe’s  most consolidated new democracies, yet suddenly leaves us dusting off our Fareed Zakharia and contemplating the prospects for a kind of Coloured Revolution on the Danube. Could it –  or something like it –  happen elsewhere in the region? Weren’t people like  me telling you that CEE was a region flawed but basically normal democracies?

There seem to several factors which have enabled democratic derailment:

  • Majoritarian electoral system, which, if there is a big  electoral win for one side and/or a collapse for the other (Fidesz polled 53% in 2010), would result in a constitutional majority in parliament. In CEE conditions, where electorates are volitile and economies (now) vulnerable, this was, in hindsight, perhaps just a matter of time
  • A unicameral parliament, or a least a weak upper chamber. Hungary has no upper house.
  • Well organised, cohesive party organisation. Single member districts and majoritarian electoral systems tend to promote this.
  • A party with a strong sense of ideological mission: if you are going to seize the chance to remake the constitutional order you need to believe in what you doing. Conservative-national parties in states  like Hungary which had a negotiated, compromise transition in 1989,  see politics as a part of  a ‘thick transition’ – a long-term struggle to finish the revolutionary work of 1989, by eliminating the (ex-)communist nomenklatura from public left.

Elsewhere the region, some other states partially fulfill these conditions: Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) had a similar anti-communist conservative-national outlook, but – like all governing parties – due to PR never had the votes or seats to contemplate giving its vision of a new ‘Fourth Republic’  constitutional form and is now politically on the back foot.

Romania Bulgaria and Slovakia appear slightly riskier propositions: the latter are both unicameral democracies, while the Romanian Senate closely mirrors the lower house. All have strong (soon-to-be) ruling parties seen by some as having illiberal inclinations: however, none seem to have the sense of ideological mission needed – two, Romania’s PSD and Slovakia’s SMER, are loosely social democratic, while Bulgaria’s GERB is a loose knit centrist or centre-right party of power.

GERB press conference 2009 Photo: Vladimir Petkov/ Wikicommons

None seem likely to come near 2/3 majority required to amend or replace the constitution (3/4 in Bulgaria should you merely want to amend), although Bulgaria’s GERB whose electoral support sits around 40% and is suspected by critics of sporadic electoral fraud might just manage an absolute parliamentary majority.

If we think the worst of such parties, then a more informal strategy of co-optation, corruption and politicisation of the state apparatus, spiced with the odd draconian media law, is perhaps what we should expect.

The lessons of  Hungary’s complex and unfolding, but probably unique, situation is that the political and power instincts of CEE parties and politicians are, indeed, be as bad as we feared, but that fragmented and loose parties and PR are like to keep democracy – albeit  corrupt and flawed –  in most places safe from frontal assualt by the region’s politicians.

Probably.

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.

Organisation and the far right: the Art of the possible

Cover of Inside the Radical Right by David Art  David Art’s new book Inside the Radical Right: The Development of Anti-Immigrant Parties in Western Europe (Cambridge University Press) is one of the boldest and most interesting pieces of writing on comparative European party politics I have seen for a long time. Its deceptively simple thesis is that the success of radical right parties in Western Europe is not, as conventionally argued, the combined product of  differing opportunity structures  (types of  electoral system, party system format and so on)  and differing social structures (varying levels of ethnic diversity, structural unemployment etc), but of the capacity of the far right to build and sustain political organisations and professional and credible core of activists suited to the demand of electoral politics. Nothing, Art argues – pointing out the contradictory morass of comparative findings  is consistent with the reality that social demand for anti-immigrant ethnocentric policies is roughly the same across Western Europe and that countries with similar institutional and social structures often present quite different outcomes for radical right parties: one of several pertinent examples that the example Art offers is that of Belgium where the success of Vlaams Blok (VB) in Flanders contrasts with the erratic and marginal performance of the National Front (FNb) in Wallonia.

 Success or failure in organisation building – which Art argues often precedes electoral success –  is Logo of Danish People's Partydependent partly  on the presence of sufficient large nationalist and/or radical right subculture, offering a source of recruits and a short-cut to long-term and disciplined party building, and the extent to which the radical right is socially and politically isolated through cordons sanitaire and social ostracisiation. While intellectuals, professionals and local notables pay little price for joining the Danish People’s Party, membership of (say) the British National Party would be a route to social isolation and career suicide.  Anti-fascist mobilisation, even of a fairly violent and intimidatory kind, is also found by Art to an effective sanction on far-right recruitment among the well educated and political experienced, if it comes at the right time.

Where there is a broad, established far-right sub-culture reaching into the middle  or upper classes and tolerant or pragmatic acceptance of the radical right, the road is open (eventually) for it to succeed in party politics.  An alternative route explaining the success of Denmark’s DF and the Freedom Party in the Netherlands is the success politicians, who rise to power at the head of ‘flash’ parties, but realise that serious and early organisation building – and a shift to fill the gap on the anti-immigrant  right –  is needed if they are to stick around.  Transforming an established minor party into a radical right, anti-immigrant actor is a further alternative and shorter route, which swops the advantage of having an existing organisational structure in place with the disadvantage of having wage ideological battles to kick out rival factions. This Art suggests occurred in the case of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP)  (originally an agrarian formation) and to a lesser extent Austria’s FPO (notionally a liberal party, but always something of a subcultural vehicle for former Nazis).

Art's argument in summary

Summary of Art' s comparative analysis

Art’s arguments boldly put party organisation – normally something of a Cinderella subject -centre stage in explaining the entry and survival of new political parties, although as the book makes clear large amount of private or state cash can, when carefully husbanded, be effective for voting winning, at least in the short term. Gerhard Frey’s German People’s Union (DVU) uses its millionaire founder’s cash for mass mailshot campaigns, while Geert Wilders Freedom Party (PVV) has only one formal member (Wilders himself) backed by a handpicked cadre of loyal followers.

Logo of Dutch Freedom Party (PVV)As Herbert Kitschelt’s blurb comments suggest with characteristic Exocet-like accuracy,  while the book makes its argument for the importance of organisation and its precursors as an anchor for small, emergent, defeated and marginal parties, it is less clear whether  it overturns or merely complements existing explanations based on variations in socio-economic and political opportunity structures. Indeed, in some ways the book offers a  very similar, but organisation-focused, structure and agency mix:  historical legacies and nationalist sub-cultures take the structure role with established parties’ cordon sanitaire strategies (or lack of them) and anti-fascist mobilisation supplying variations in agency.  (Social disapproval of far-right activism may perhaps be a structural factor, so the structure/agency split is not cut and dried).

The book could also perhaps point up more that, while organisation may matter generally (or, at least often,) there may – as my  diagrammatic summary hints – seem to be multiple paths to far-right success, rather than one over-arching formula, with Scandinavian cases , particularly, seeming to stand in terms of their origins and conditions of success – a very clear finding of Veugelers and Magnan’s 2005 article using configurational comparison to test out  Kitschelt’s theories on the conditions of far-right success.

An interesting question is how well Art’s model(s) travels beyond the eleven West Europe states covered in the book: the Spanish case (and perhaps that of Portugal?), for example, would seem to echo the German pattern of strong historical far-right subculture in a new democracy where the  emerging centre-right keeps radicals at arms length politically, while co-opting its more able or more moderate elements.

Logo of Slovak National Party

Logo Slovak National Party

For me, naturally, the still more interesting question is how well Art’s model might travel to Central and Eastern Europe.  Surprisingly, on first examination it seems to cross over quite well: Slovakia, Croatia, Hungary, Romania and, to a lesser extent,  Latvia seem to have success radical right parties and  nationalist intellectual and social milieux, looking favourably or ambiguously, on  interwar fascist movements and/or episodes of wartime collaboration with Nazi Germany. Slovenia, where historical controversy has raged over the role of the role of the wartime Domoobranci (Home Guard) , also seems to fit the model, although the origins and ideology of the Slovene national Party (SNS) seem more eclectic than the kind of party political projection of certain sub-cultures as, for example, with the identically acronymed Slovak National Party (SNS).  Poland represents, as so often,  interesting case with strong tradition of integral nationalism, but where collaborationist and neo-Nazi traditions are, for obvious historical reasons, marginal or absent.

Logo of Czech Republicans

SPR-RSČ logo

The Czech Republic, by contrast, approximates to the Dutch/Danish/British pattern of having a weak and marginalised far-right sub-culture, utterly cut off from the political mainstream: the experience of the Republican Party (SPR-RSČ) – represented in the Czech parliament in 1992-8 – also offers a nice illustration of how not to consolidate party organisation – the party leadership did not entirely neglect building an activist base, but was too egocentric and authoritarian to hold the party together. It seems tempting to put Bulgaria’s Ataka in the same category, although as a colleague recently pointed out to me recently, there are radical nationalist traditions and an anti-semitic Orthodox-oriented extremist sub-culture.

The question of cordons sanitaires  in CEE is, however, perhaps more difficult : there is little in the way of strong anti-fascist mobilisation in a region where social movements – and especially social movements of the radical left – are weak. To the best of my knowledge there are no formal cordons with radical right parties actually  represented in government in Slovakia and Poland,  although mainstream parties’ treatment of the Republicans in 1990s  perhaps comes closest.  Interestingly, however the SNS in Slovakia was a coalition partner for the centre-left, rather than Christian Democratic and liberal centre-right for whom such co-operation seems much less conceivable.  In the  end, what may matter more than an assessment of party strategy in CEE  is whether radical and mainstream are on an ideological continuum, or whether (as in the Czech Republic and Slovakia) they have different political and ideological points of departure.

When all is said and done, however, Art has written a fine academic book which offers some  elegant and orignal big picture comparison in an exceptionally clear and readable way interweaving  important comparative argument about politics and part development with informative and sometimes  close-up accounts of the highways and by-ways far-right activism.

>Space for the Czech far right, if I’m not far wrong

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A few weeks before the Czech elections earlier this year, I was asked if I wanted to write a briefing on the electoral prospects of the Czech far-right – given the economic crisis, a risk consultancy  analyst wondered, they might (as in Hungary) be expected to make advances. ‘Fat chance’, I said, ‘the Czech far right has been dead for more than a decade’. And, for once, my  prediction was right. While the liberal anti-corruption part Public Affairs did surge unexpectedly into parliament, the far-right was nowhere with somewhat over one per cent of the vote, all told. True, the recently banned and quickly re-reformed Workers’ Party (DS), whose paramilitary style street parades and confrontations with Roma – and connections with  organized racist violence –  have attracted much local and international publicity did manage the best Czech far-right result in parliamentary elections for more than a decade and does seem to have pockets of support among. young people in technical colleges, school mock elections suggested.

But 1.14 per cent is hardly the stuff of headlines and pales into insignificance with the hundreds of thousands of votes the late, unloved Republicans, whom I blogged about in an earlier post  managed in the 1990s (peaking at 8 per cent) when they seem to a fixture on the parliamentary scene. However, the DS’s obvious extremism, which has put in very much under the beady eye of the Czech police and security services, and apparent preference for street politics would seem to rule out put something of an obstacle in the way of electoral growth. In comparative European perspective, as the CR is an oddity because of the weakness of the far right/radical right.

Efforts to formulate some kind of united front of the Czech far-right –  capable of crossing the 1.5% and 3.0% barriers for minimal levels of state funding of electoral and party expense – of the kind abortively tried in the run-up to 2006 election seems not to have been attempted before this years elections. And the National Party (NS), which seemed a few years ago to be re-inventing radical right-wing populism with a smidgen of sophistication (more educated leadership and female leader) since folded due to lack of votes, cash and not being able to do the neo-fascist bootboy stuff well enough even to maintain a sub-cultural following in the manner of the DS despite some pretty foul rhetoric towards the end of its days about deporting Roma to India and the ‘Final Solution of the Gypsy Quesiton’.
So can we rest easily in our beds knowing that, whatever they think, say  and do in private, Czechs will stay out of the embrace of the radical right, at least in the polling booth? Not entirely, if polling commissioned by the Czech Interior Ministry on racism, extremism and radicalism and the Czech public’s attitudes towards them  is to be believed. Although operating with some rather blunt conceptual tools (radicalism = anti-government/establishment; extremism = anti-system etc) the findings make interesting reading.

The Czech radical right sub-culture and its organizations are comparatively unremarkable and very consistent in their views: collectivist, anti-capitalist, socially authoritarian xenophobic, racist with an especial animus towards Roma and ethno-nationalist. Some 8% of the Czech population are found to broadly share such attitudes with (interestingly) around 3/4of those willing (in theory) to actively support far-right organizations (the rest would potentially just vote for them). This, the report concludes, suggest a potential electorate for a putative successful far-right party of 8% – the peak level of electoral support actually attained by the Republicans (in 1996). However,  I would tend to see this a far bigger potential electorate than the 8% reported in the Czech media, since we seem to be talking about those ideologically very much in tune with the far-right.

Protest voters, we might conjecture could boost the 8% figure significantly in the right circumstances and, as the report depressingly confirms, much of the Czech public shares the ‘anti-Gypsyism’ (anticikánismus) that is the stock in trade of many CEE radical right groups: measures of the ‘social distance’ of respondents from minority groups finds that a whopping 45% of respondents take the ‘I would remove them from the CR’ option when asked about Roma, the most radical of the various statements of feeling offered (and not necessarily an actual policy they support).
There are also some indications that, as well as lacking the organizational and financial wherewithal to (re-)impact national politics – the far-right has so far miscalculated its strategy. The potential far-right electorate, the poll finds, is spread out across the age range, but radical right organizations ‘ activities are focused on the young, who, it seems often engage with it for the excitement, entertainment, esprit de corps without really buying in to its politics very much. In regional terms, the traditional ‘problem regions’ of East and North Bohemia are joined by traditional left-wing industrial region around Ostrava and, to a lesser extent, much of Moravia. Relatively prosperous South Bohemia also seems to be a region of electoral potential for the far-right.

Political Capital: Index of Welfare Chauvinism
However, if when and if it re-emerges – and in today’s political climate it is not beyond imagination – the radical right would not I suspect be a Czech Jobbik, drawing on traditional far-right sub-culture with a youthful Facebooking using leadership, as seemed to have occurred in Hungary – the kind of subculture well capable of building an organization in the long term as occurred with the Front national in France in 1980s –  but from a sub-strata of Eurospectic, economically populist ‘independents’  bubbling around the edge of the frayed Czech political system. According to Hungary’s Political Capital think tank Czech top the poll for welfare chauvinism, although I guess that may be in part

Watching the election lauch of Eurosceptic Sovereignty bloc, led by ex-newsreader and former independent MEP, Jana Bobošíková, this year, I couldn’t help wondered how long it might be  before the economically interventionist, nationalist and Euroseptic program of Ms B. might tap in to the Czech public’s darker moods” as she fulminated against “pseudo-humanist and so-called politically correct waffle about human rights and minorities” in her trademark yellow dress.

>Czech Far Right Has-Bean

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Sládek as Bean 

After a long period of exam season induced hibernation – if that’s the right word in the summer – I’ve completed a conference paper for a workshop on populism The Czech Republicans 1990-1998: Rise and Fall of Populist Radical Right Outsider Party. Not the most entertaining or easy bunch in Czech political history to write about and, as I argue in the paper, very much a part of the short 2-3 year interregnum that followed the immediate aftermath of the Velvet Revolution when all kinds of weird and wonderful parties – Moravian regionalists as a major force, who remembers that? – took the stage in a colourful, but misleading overture to Czech politics proper.

Thankfully, I now no longer need to sit in an overheated office reading the collected works of Miroslav Sládek, the Czech Republic own short-lived would-be Jean Marie Le Pen (and Mr Bean look-a-like: does Rowan Atkinson appreciate his contribution to anti-rascism in the Czech Republic, I wonder?) and occasionally watching strutting his stuff videos of grainy far-right rants in Old Town Square on You Tube. Should you feel, you’ve been missing out you can watch a bit of Czech political history below: a rather small crowd for a national rally by an up and coming radical right movement (as it was then).

Many thanks to Kevin Deegan-Krause for digging out the above  photomontage from his personal archive
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>BNP on Question Time: Kilroy wasn’t here

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I sat in the front of the TV with one eye on a sheaf of article from the Czech press and one eye on BBC TV’s widely billed, controversial edition of Question Time, it flagship panel discussion programme featuring British National Party leader Nick Griffin: the first time the far-right has been accorded the accolade of such recognition, although the BNP has had relatively easy access to the airwaves with its representatives regularly being interviewed on the radio. And, of course, British far-right parties have regularly been exposed and infiltrated by TV documentary makers since 1970s.

To make up for the howls of protest, the programme makers decided to make Nick Griffin’s appearence on their programme the central issue, so the format largely shifted from multiple current affairs questions and familiar party ding-dong to a series of critical uestions about the BNP and its leader: specifically were its views whacky, extreme and racist and its leader someone who cannot explain away his earlier public record as neo-fascist and Holocaust denier.

The answer, of course, is that they were and he couldn’t. All in all, it was reassuringly unimpressive performance by the BNP leaders, lacking not only any credible answers but also professionalism, poise or personal charm. I remember once watching Jean Marie Le Pen comprehensively outmanoeuvre a left-wing opponent on TV discussion with a mixture of sure footing cunning and avuncular bluster on French TV in the 1980s. Happily, the BNP leader clearly wasn’t in this league.

I was just about to turn back to Prague municipal politics, however, when suddenly I caught flash of the kind of leader the British radical populist far-right probably does need and the kind of politician we probably should fear: it was Chris Huhne, Liberal Democrats’ spokesperson for home affairs – up to that point a grey and totally forgettable presence on the panel, – launching into an eloquent tirade about how Britain should have closed its borders to citizens of new (that is predominantly, East European) EU member states for as long as possible and wasn’t it awful that the government that the government didn’t do this and lots of them came over here… Open borders in an opern liberal Europe. What a disaster.

For a fleeting moment, I though Mr Huhne, an unsuccessful contender for his party’s leadership in 2007, was making a pitch for the BNP leadership, which to judge from his poor performance Nick Griffin might soon be vacating. Then I realised, of course, that, having slipped out of anti-fascist mode, he was simply illustrating the well established truth that immigrant-bashing and playing up to the public xenophobia is OK provided you are a respectable person from a resepctable mainstream party. And, Mr Huhne, – public school, Oxford, the City, economist and financial journalist, long-serving MEP, policy expert – is certainly that.

And then it struck me that, here – not necessarily in the person of Mr Huhne – but some of some ambitious, well educated, well spoken, reasonably well known figure public figure gone maverick that the real threat of more articulate, credible and dangerous far-right lies. No of burden of neo-fascist pedigree or a penchant for anti-semitism tor seeing the positive side of Hitler that, fortunately for us, encumbers Nick Griffin (and later held back Le Pen and Joerg Haider). Political or media skills already honed. Stock of political respectability already laid in.

Such figures seem to be media personalities with a certain political-cum-academic commentators (Pym Fortyn, Robert Kilroy-Silk) or frustrated members of existing parties, who turn maverick or decide to air views on race, minorities or immigration they have previously kept to themselves. Interestingly, Liberal parties, typically often under electtoral pressure from bigger competitors of left and right, whose identity is often a rather unstable mix of anti-establishment, pro-market, pro-market and pro-little person/geographical periphery appeals, seem especially vulnerable to such occasionally odd mutations: Haider’s Austrian Freedom Party was originally a liberal grouping, controversial anti-Islamic politician Geert Wilders was once an MP for Holland’s Liberals the VVD; Germany’s FDP was hit by accusations of anti-semitism in 2002-3 because of statements of one its then rising stars, the late Jurgen Molleman; in the mid-1990s factions in the FDP associated with the nationalist Neue Rechte intellectual (unsuccessfully) sought a Haider-style transformation of the party.

I don’t, of course, expect to see Mr Huhne leading the BNP or indeed some populist confection (although I’m sure he’d do an excellent job if he did), but as the comedian Alan Davies pointedly pnoted on the This Week programme that followed Question Time‘s BNP-fest, Griffin’s party are not a hugely successful or professional outfit and don’t deserve high profile controverst treatment and still less the back-handed compliment of being banned from Question Time.

The real threats lie elsewhere. We clearly had a lucky escape when ex-Labour MP and chat show host Robert Kilroy-Silk proved too maladroit and egomaniacal to take over the UK Independence Party in 2004. Celebrity populists and mavericks peeling away from already opportunistic mainstream seem a potentially far more potent force than the wafer thin veneer of respectability and normality of a welfare chauvinist niche party that can’t escape its neo-fascist roots like the BNP.

>United Russia repesentative fails to impress EU far right

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Anyone who thinks Russia is on course for a new form of fascism will draw comfort from a EUobserver report about a meeting of EU far-right parties to co-ordinate their strategy against the Lisbon Treaty – it’s a very astute one, essentially do nothing and don’t go to Ireland, especially if you are Jean Marie Le Pen. However, who should be at the summit as an observer amid the Front national, Danish People’s Party and all the usual suspects but an unnamed representative of United Russia (ER) the loose pro-Kremlin, pro-Putin ‘party’ of local political bosses and ex- apparatchiks (and full marks to one of my student’s who noticed a parallel between ER and the Movemiento National in Franco’s Spain – perhaps they did know what they were doing sending an observer). Whoever he was he achieved the impressive feat of being seen as a crackpot by the assembled EU far right: “We had some hilarious discussions with the person they sent… he believes we should all join a bloc with Russia against the United States, which is hardly our position” one of the co-ordinators is reported as saying.
The new EU was represented mainly by Bulgaria’s Ataka which following the electoral collapse of the Greater Romania Party last year is the only really electorally dynamic extreme radical right grouping left in the region, although the Slovak National Party and Slovene National Party seem to be hanging on in there.