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Czech democracy in the mirror: What the presidential elections tell us

Prezidentské volby 2013, volba prezidenta

Photo: Juandev via Wikimedia Commons

The first direct elections of the Czech president offered a refreshing contrast to the back room manoeuvring and political horse-trading that accompanied the election in parliament of presidents Havel and (especially) Klaus. Despite the nastiness of the Zeman campaign and vacuousness of the political marketing around Karel Schwarzenberg, voters were offered a clear choice between personalities and priorities and turned out in large numbers to make it.

 Television pictures of voters ranging from ski-suited holiday-makers to prisoners choosing the new head of state send quiet but clear message of a country that takes its democracy seriously and knows how to use it.

 But the elections also hold up a more subtle mirror to Czech democracy, showing a political system still defined by patterns laid down in 1990s, which may nevertheless be on the cusp of change. Read More…

Czech presidential elections: Schwarzenberg comeback sets up close run-off

Image: www.volimakarla.cz

Few observers, even a matter of weeks beforehand, would have predicted the success of the two candidates who will be contesting the second round run-off to choose the Czech Republic’s first directly elected president, which takes place on 25-26 January.

 Miloš Zeman, who topped the poll in the first round on 11-12 January with 24.2 per cent, is a former Prime Minister who led the Czech Social Democratic Party between 1993 and 2001. However, he acrimoniously split with the party he once led and his return from political retirement in 2009 to lead his own Citizens’ Right Party (SPOZ) was regarded by many as a vanity project. SPOZ failed to enter parliament in the May 2010 parliamentary elections and Zeman’s presidential bid, announced in June last year, seemed set to be similarly unsuccessful.

 Karel Schwarzenberg, the aristocratic Czech foreign minister, who ran Zeman a close second with 23.4 per cent of the vote, was perhaps always a more plausible contender. A scion of the Austro-Hungarian nobility, diplomat and former chief of staff to Václav Havel, Schwarzenberg was one of the Czech Republic’s most popular politicians.  The electoral success in 2010 of TOP09, the newly formed party he led, owed much to Schwarzenberg’s appeal as retro anti-politician. However, although one of the first to announce his candidacy, Schwarzenberg‘s campaign soon flagged badly, damaged by TOP09’s role in the governing centre-right coalition and unwavering commitment to austerity. At 75, Schwarzenberg was the oldest candidate and had not always appeared in robust good health. By December 2012 polls still put his support at under 10 per cent and – while I’d always fancied Zeman (politically I mean) most commentators including me had written Schwarzenberg’s challenge off. Indeed, I thought those who even mentioned him as outsider possibility were well off the mark. Read More…

Why Miloš Zeman is the Czech comeback kid

Milos Zeman

Photo: www.prezydent.pl via WikiMedia

 The political return of former Social Democrat leader and leading presidential hopeful Miloš Zeman has been one of the more surprising emerging-from-under-the -radar phenomena in Czech politics over the past couple of years.

 For most observers of Czech politics Zeman was something of a historical figure, linked with the early years of transiton and the political battles of 1990s. Having shifted the Czech Social Democrats from a minor party to one of the big players in early-mid 1990s by making them a robust party of opposition, Zeman won a notable election victory in 1998, did a deal with his erstwhile nemesis Vaclav Klaus to form a minority government and served one term as Prime Minister (1998-2002) and then retired to his cottage in the Vysočina highlands.

Retirement seems not to have suited him and still nursing political ambitions – and much to the horror of many former colleagues – he won a ‘primary’ among Social Democrat supporters to be the party’s presidential candidate in the 2003. Alas as the Czech head of state was still indirectly elected by MPs and senators at the time, enough Social Democrat parliamentarians failed to vote for him that he was humiliatingly eliminated from this contest early on (Vaclav Klaus was finally elected and then re-elected for a second term in 2008).

Zeman then finally parted company with his former party, wrote some splenetic, best-selling memoirs attacking ex-colleagues – memorably described by one academic reviewer as a ‘foul fart of a book’ – and it seemed that that was the last we would hear of him. The cigarette-smoking, beer- and becherovka drinking Zeman, known for his ponderous quotes, not very funny bonmoty and bruisingly effective political personality was set to become just another memory of 1990s.

But come 2013, if the latest and last polls are to be believed, Zeman is the front runner in the Czech Republic’s first direct presidential elections, edging ahead of one-time favourite Jan Fischer, the former prime minister in the 2009-10 technocratic caretaker government. As Klaus steps down, Zeman steps up. We seem set for Fischer-Zeman second round run-off on 25-26 January. And even if Zeman unites a huge swathe of right-wing voters behind Fischer, given the left-leaning inclination of the Czech electorate he must surely be in with a shouting chance of taking over at Prague Castle on 7 March.

How has this happened when so many other would-be comebacks and political vanity projects fail? Just think of the stillborn LEV21 party of Zeman’s one time rival and fellow semi-detached ex-Social Democrat Jiří Paroubek.

Several factors seem to have combined in Zeman’s favour:

1. He is well known

For many voters. as well as being a known quantity. Zeman’s big political personality and experience as Prime Minister makes him a reasonably credible figure for high office. His flaws – the embarrassing off the cuff remarks, off jokes and occasional lack of political energy – are also well known and may therefore be discounted in advance by voters.

Notwithstanding the Opposition Agreement deal with Klaus, from a left-wing point of the point of view Zeman’s time in front-line politics can be seen reasonably  successful. Zeman also left office at a time of his own choosing, rather than because of crisis, scandal or electoral defeat. Almost the only Czech prime minister to do so (caretakers excepted).

2.He is a reasonably plausible outsider

At the same time, having been out of national politics for the best part of a decade and broken his links with the Social Democrats, Zeman can credibly position himself as something of anti-establishment outsider.

His presidential run comes at a time when Czechs are generally disillusioned with established parties and when the Social Democrats could no find no experienced, high profile politician to stand for head of state (or at least none who were acceptable across the party and willing to run – former EU Commissioner Vladimír Špidla might have been an option). (Indeed, the Social Democrats seem rather short of big charismatic leaders generally just now. The current party leader Bohumil Sobotka is articulate and intelligent, but as someone acidly commented at a recent conference I went to comes across more as a spokesman than a leader.)

Lukewarm semi-endorsement by old rival Václav Klaus might even pull in a few voters from the right – although like Klaus such ‘naughty right-wingers’ will probably be expressing their dislike for the various centre-right and centrists candidates more than wanting to propel Zeman to office.

3. His support is well organised and well financed

Although there are questions over where Zeman’s political money comes from, with widely reported links to the Russian oil company Lukoil (denied by Zeman) and other Russian donors (not denied). Whatever the truth, the Zeman campaign has sufficient resources and organisation to be effective – and it started organising early. The Citizen’s Rights Party – Zemanites (of which Zeman is oddly only the honorary leader) was formed in October 2009 and contested the May 2010 parliamentary elections, pulling in a not negligible 4.33% – seemingly all at the expense of the Social Democrats – which was almost enough to cross the 5% threshold to enter parliament.  SPOZ’s origins, in fact, go back some years earlier to the curiously named, Friends of Miloš Zeman association, run by Zeman’s former right-hand man and the ex-communist apparatchik Miroslav Šlouf.

Despite clearly having cash to splash, SPOZ – as its reasonably solid performance in the October 2012 regional elections showed – also has organisation on the ground.  The collection of 50,000 signature petition to nominate Zeman was also a notably quick and efficient operation. Šlouf and various other ex-Social Democrats in SPOZ are not political amateurs.

4. He has potentially broad appeal

While disliked and dismissed on the right, Zeman is acceptable to a range of left-wing voters, including Communist voters who might be put off by a candidate with closer links to the Social Democrats or with associations to Havel or the dissident movement.  The Social Democrats official candidate Jirí Dienstbier jr. – son of the late dissident of the same name – has fought a shrewd campaign positioning himself a moderate, modern politician and actively solicited the support of the Communist Party (KSČM – which for once is not running its own candidate). Despite, this Dienstbier is off the pace and you wonder how many Communist voters might hold his family background against him.

Zeman is less difficult for the party and   has rather cleverly tacked towards some KSČM positions, for example his critical sounding remarks about the EU – he is he says a Euro federalist but against an EU superstate (work that one out) – and demands for additional funding if he flies the EU flag at Prague Castle.

5. He has been underestimated

Finally, that most telling of political assets: Zeman has been underestimated by opponents. Despite the low key but obvious momentum he has had since 2010.  He has been viewed a something of a political has-been or a buffoon. Somehow despite everything, for many it is hard to believe that he could really actually win.

Despite a slow build up media scrutiny about funding and Lukoil connections – Zeman has faced little scrunitny or critical opposition in the campaign. Certainly few questions have been as to one what kind of a president he would be. Until the recent efforts of civic initiatives to boost the campaign of Foreign Minister and TOP09 leader Karel Schwarzenberg, the main political parties (ODS, CSSD, TOP09) seem have written off their chances of their candidates and to be saving their real time, energy and money for parliamentary elections.

What kind of President would Zeman be?

His website offers only a selection of bland, somewhat fence-sitting views. His statements suggest he is still broadly on the mainstream pro-European centre-left and would be considerably less toxic to many abroad than Klaus. He was even one of only three presidential candidates to accept an invitation to a debate organised by Prague Gay Pride (two refused). On the other hand his denouncing of Islam as an ‘anti-civilization’ could have come straight from Geert Wilders.

 Perhaps we will have to wait for 7 March to find out…

What will Klaus do next?

Photo: DerHuti via WikiMedia Commons

What will Václav Klaus do next? This has been a pertinent question in Czech politics pretty much any time over the last twenty years and, of course, no more so than now: VK steps down from his second and final term as President of the Czech Republic on 7 March with nowhere very obvious to go  politically. Klaus himself has been typically sphinx-like about his future plans, telling the Prague news magazine Euro shortly before Christmas that following the end of his presidential term he could

see no reason to signal any immediate political ambitions, but I don’t think it’s the end of the road (nemyslím, že je všem dnům konec) so we’ll se what happens. But I don’t think I’ll be announcing a return to Czech politics tomorrow. I don’t think that’s realistic. But I wouldn’t rule out some kind of attempt to go into European politics (pokus o politiku evropskou).

As the interview was ending he also lobbed in the (not very plausible sounding) revelation that in 2002 – in the wake of a bad defeat in national parliamentary elections which had seen his Civic Democrat party (ODS) finally stir into life and contemplate throwing him out – he had considered running for the European Parliament. They would, he explained, happily have given him the top spot on the party list to get him out of the way. And – if you believe the rest of this rather unlikely sounding story –  no doubt they would. Read More…

Pussy Riot: Russia’s Plastic People?

The widely criticised detention and trial of the three members of the Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot, now awaiting verdicts in Moscow on charges of ‘hooliganism’ for an anti-Putin protest happening at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour has been widely – and rightly – reported as a litmus test of the nature of power and opposition in contemporary Russia.

But for anyone with a slightly longer historical  memory – and an interest in East European affairs –  it also has echoes of earlier trial of a group of muscians in a politically constructed trial  four decades ago: that of the Plastic People of the Universe in communist Czechoslovakia in 1976 on a charge of ‘organised disturbance of the peace’.

Having stemmed popular protest following the Soviet-led invasion in 1968 that had terminated the Prague Spring reforms  and then a variety of organised political groups in the early 1970s, Czechoslovakia’s hardline communist rulers wished to complete the ‘normalisation’ of the country by sending a powerful and intimdating signal to artists, intellectuals and young people with unconventional tastes.

Plastic People 1976 from Charta77 on Vimeo.

Subsequent jail sentences for the long-haired Plastici ranged from eight to 18 months. Outrage over the trial provided the key impetus for the   diverse groups to coalesce into the Charter 77 movement, creating the peaceful civic dissent that eventually provided the political leadership for the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

In some ways Pussy Riot trial seems to offer direct parallels. An authoritarian regime with no real ideology which has emerged in the wake of a failed democratic experiment seeks to reassert its potentially fragile social control  itself by making an example of a rebellious non-conformist musicians with an English name.

A trial with a veneer of legality –  and large doses of bathos and farce – ensures and proceeds to a predictable, politically fixed conclusion. Custododial sentences for loosely framed public offence seem a distinct possibility. But in seeking to dish out exemplary punishment and send a signal to sectors of society inclined towards protest and opposition, the regime miscalculates. The trial creates a focus for a diverse national and international coalition

But the Pussy Riot trial also underlines how authoritarianism and opposition have moved on.  Czechoslovakia’s Plastici were alternative, avant-garde and  deeply at odds with their cultural and artistic values of the regime, but were in no sense a political opposition. Left alone they would probably have eked out an existence as part of a marginal underground sub-culture. But while happy to see people  retreat into private and family life, Czechoslovakia’s communist ‘normalisers’ were determined to monopolise public space and seek and  crush pockets of organised cultural and social non-conformity.

Putin’s more modernised post-Soviet regime wouldn’t have bothered.

Photo: Игорь Мухин at ru.wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

It has learned the lesson that, provided the commanding heights of media and economy are securely under control, society can be kept on a much looser leash.

As various  in-the-field projects written by SSEES students about St Petersburg punks and Moscow football hooligans attest, marginal sub-cultures happily flourish on the fringes of contemporary Russian society.

It is independent political activity and political protest that brings a sharp, brutal tug on the leash. For while they might share some of their avant-garde aethetics and style, unlike the Plastics, Pussy Riot are clearly in the business of overt, provocative political opposition – opposition intended to be seen and heard as widely as possible.

The two trials also highlights changes in the breadth, gender and social composition of those involved in anti-regime protest in Eastern Europe. While the Plastics of 1970s –  like the  later Czech dissident cultural and intellectual elites their trial helped give rise to- were exclusively male, with wives and female partners very much in the background. Pussy Riot’s identity, impact and elan, by contrast, stem from the fact that its members are young, female and feminist – although the Western media, well accustomed to kick-ass punk heroines, doesn’t dwell on the gender politics.

Where the two historical moments seem to touch, however, is in highlighting the underlying continuties of an over-powerful (post-)communist power apparatus accountable neither to law, nor society.

Pussy Riot’s commitment to

… horizontal political activity, self-organization and the capability to be aware of oneself as an equal participant in civil politics, to understand one’s rights and fight for them to develop…

would be immediately comprehensive to even the most non-hip, conservative Chartist of the 1970s or 80s, as well as to those like Havel  with more obviously Bohemian cultural leanings, although its feminism, anti-sexism and libertarian leftism and in-your-face political militancy would probably be less palatable. Also deeply familiar across the the gap of decades and countries is the absence of the rule of law, facade of independent legal process and the obvious  political pliability of judges and courts.

Whatever the sentences next week, the final unanswered question is if and how the Pussy Riot  trial will have the politically galavanising effect similar to that of the Plastics forty years ago. Putin’s Russia is not Communist Czechoslovakia whose apparent strength eventually proved so brittle, but a far more adaptable and multifaceted regime whose hard to grasp mix of concession, repression and regression may be altogether tougher to crack.

Europe’s loose change

  It has to be the single oldest thing in the entire house:  a silver one Gulder piece from the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy minted in 1878, given as a curio to one of the kids by a Czech relative.

About the size of a British two-pound coin, it’s well made and in surprisingly good condition, it would – as far as I can work out from a brief online trawl of historical statistics – once have been a sizeable chunk of someone’s weekly income. Or at least someone from lower social strata.

Its good condition is probably explained by the fact that it probably wasn’t in circulation that long. In 1892 the Gulden (known in Hungarian as the forint, in Czech the zlatý)) was replaced by a new Austro-Hungarian currency the Krone tied – with a degree of fiscal discpline that some modern day of the Euro would no doubt appreciate – to the Gold Standard. Further background can be found on the found here on the Policy and History website in a paper written by Richard Roberts in 2011, which seeks to draw lessons from the Habsburg experience of a single currency without one state. The main conclusion is that budgetary indiscipline can be fixed by tough minded independent central bank(s) policing tough fiscal rules for governments, which wish to play ball.

Despite the popularity of the Uncanny Historical Parallel as insight way into the present – BBC Radio 4’s The Long View documentary  series, for example, does a fascinating  job of ‘uncovering the present behind the past’, especially in interviews with contemporary politicians – I’m not sure if the Habsburg model of European integration, if that is what it was, has that much to tell us. As Richard Roberts notes, there is something of a difference between two governments co-ordinating to govern a single currency and  17 (or in a broad  sense 27). He also seeks the EU’s (surely now stalled?) enlargement agenda as the important and potentially derailing difference of the EU/Eurozone with the Dual Monarchy which is seen as victim of exogenous, apocalyptic shock of WWI.

All this seems rather oddly to ignore more basic political issues of identity and democracy. The Habsburg Dual Monarchy and its currency crumbled due to its inability, among many other things, to create and accomodate national political structures – six states emerged from its former territory in 1918 (today by my reckoning 11) – while the current EU seems to be struggling due to  inability to roll back and rein in well entrenched national states .

Perhaps, at bottom, despite huge democratisation of European political systems a century on, the problem is really the same – mismatch between political forms, political identities and functional economic necessities, the type of conundrum outlined by Gary Marks and Lisbet Hooghe in their ‘postfunctionalist’ take on integration a couple of years ago.

A quick root around around the odd coins and other bits of funny money amid the odds and ends on the mantelpiece reveals some Czechoslovak crowns from 1950s and 1970s and a 50 Euro cent piece with the national design of Greece.

The Lion sleeps tonight? Former Czech PM’s new party launches

I share a  bias with many political scientists working on political parties: I tend to over-rate new parties with political organisation and some real grassroots  presence and under-rate those which are top-down vehicles created for individual politicians.

So I am grateful to Kevin Deegan-Krause over  at Pozorblog for  taking seriously the Czech Republic’s  newest party, namely  LEV – the National Socialists founded by ex-Social Democrat Prime Minister Jiří Paroubek, while I caught up . For it is now clear that, as new parties go,  the new group is certainly a serious project with serious potential to impact Czech politics over the next 2-3 years.

After last year’s elections Mr Paroubek seemed  pretty much politically finished: the simple, in-your-face  pro-welfare message that had pulled the Czech Social Democrats (ČSSD) back from the political brink  in 2005-6 failed to pull in sufficient numbers of voters – and especially not younger voters – allowing a centre-right coalition to sweep into power. Cold comfort that ČSSD were (narrowly) the largest party so after a brief post-election rant, Mr P stepped down.

But a few months in the political wilderness watching post-election seem to have convinced Paroubek that he has a political role to play after all – and that the party he once led is so awful, inept and corrupt he should found a new one. And, with a 3% rating in the polls, his barely founded new party is not doing too badly.

It’s not altogether an original move. One of the reasons the Social Democrats failed to regain office in 2010 was the inroads made into their vote by new, small left-wing parties, including both the eurosceptic Sovereignty party and the Citizens’ Rights Party (SPOZ) of another former (1998-2002) ČSSD Prime Minister, Miloš Zeman, whose confrontational Mr Paroubek (aka The Bulldozer) emulated.

In other respects too Mr Paroubek has been working straight from the How To Set Up A New Party playbook of Czech politics. In no particular order we have

1. Get A Catchy Acronym Making Feeble Nod Towards Ideological Heritage.

The most successful new centre-right party of 2010 was TOP09 supposedly standing – although I doubt even many party members can still remember it – for Tradice, odpovědnost, prosperita [Tradition, Responsibility and Prosperity] to show that it was a kind of solid and reliable Central European conservative party.

Paroubek’s new outfit is called Národní socialisté – levice 21. století. [National Socialists – 21st Century Left), which can be abbreviated (with a little imagination) to LEV, the Czech word for lion – the lion of Bohemia being a key historic symbol of the Czech nation. Just look at any Czech coin.

Mr Paroubek, has however not gone Nazi. The National Socialists (aka National Socials) were the main historic party of the progressive Czech middle class and intelligentsia preaching a distinct mix of liberalism, democratic socialism and Czech nationalism. They existed in emasculated  form satellite party under communism, re-named  the Czechoslovak Socialist Party, underwent various name changes in 1990s and, despite considerable resources slowly declined into obscurity and bankruptcy. Others, such as Václav Klaus, could offer the voters all the aspirant middle class liberalism and Czech nationalism they could ask for in far more modern form.

Score 8/10

Logo of ČSNS2005

2. Acquire Off-The-Shelf Organisation, Take Over  A Minor Party

Even the most ‘instant’. leader dominated new parties need some semblance of organisation to run lists of candidates and have some kind of legitimacy. Besides Czech law explicitly conceives of parties as national membership organisations. The quickest route here is simply to take over the shell of an enfeebled, minor party or small local group. Businessman Vít Bárta showed how this should be done by taking over a tiny local citizens group called Public Affairs in Prague in 2005, pumping it full of money and PR know-how, and achieving surprise breakthrough into parliament in 2010.

Mr Paroubek was a member of the satellite Socialist Party in 1980s.  He then jumped  ship to the re-founded Social Democrats in 1990, where he was General Secretary until 1993, before being ousted by Zeman who realised that talking moderation and consensus would get ČSSD nowhere (a lesson Paroubek learned well). So it is not totally surprising that Paroubek sought to take over the shell of the old Socialists, now going under the monicker of the Czech National Social Party 2005 (ČSNS2005). This has not gone that smoothly, despite initial overtures, but Mr Paroubek may pull in some ČSNS2005’s couple of hundred members and it hasn’t stopped him using the National Socialist label.

If he plays his cards right, he could also pull in part of the more sizeable Zeman organisation, SPOZ, which seems to be at the end of the road as Zeman lack the energy to campaign consistently. Despite their being no love lost between them, Mr Paroubek has diplomatically said he would back Zeman to become president.

And, of course, he may also win over a few ex-Social Democrats.

He is, however, recruiting just about any politician who needs a political home with some ex-deputies for Public Affairs heading his way. The Czech Republic has an excellent record for recycling.

Score 5/10

Jiří Paroubek Photo" Cheryl Thurby, US Defense Dept

3.  Have A Big Name Celebrity Leader , Preferably An Outsider

Many new parties have had to rely on aristocrats (Karel Schwarzenberg, TOP09) or media profile of ex-TV presenters (Jana Bobišíkova of Sovereignty, Radek John of Public Affairs).  This is one area where Paroubek need have no worries. Everyone knows his name and he is a love/hate figure rivalled only by Václav Klaus, although the balance probably tilts a bit more to the latter.

It’s a bit more difficult for Paroubek to fit into the role of outsider, but he seems to be working hard at it and with a little practice he should manage the trick Václav Klaus does so well: being an ‘inside outer’ totally of the establishment, but claiming somehow credibly to be outside it. After all, how did you get to be well known in the first place.

Score  9/10

4. Find A Political USP

Even in these post-modern times, it seems in the Czech Republic you do actually need to stand for something and offer the voters something  new politically (an least an improvement on the old offering): anti-corruption; nationalism and euroscepticism (perhaps anti-Roma politics); or genuinely red-blooded market reform have all been popular. Being in favour of direct democracy (preferably via the internet) also adds a certain panache.

Here Mr Paroubek is struggling a bit. Taking over the National Socialist brand seemed to suggest he was going to go  for left-wing (or at least non-anti-communist) brand of nationalism with potentially broad appeal to many left-wing voting. A sort of Blue Labour strategy, to borrow from the British political lexicon. This seems precisely the card being played by Sovereignty. And, of couse, the Czech Communists also do a statism-and-nationalism cocktail.

The party’s programme is waffly rehash of musings about the historic traditions of the National Socialists, a sustainable social market economy and the need to watch out in a dangerous globalised world whose only very distinct element is it advocacy of a pro-natal policies (as per the Christian Democrats).

Paroubek’s statements on things like the Euro seem to have been either vague or sensible, long-term stuff you would expect an incumbent PM to spout:  a stout defence of the long-term viabikity if the Euro is not thing that the next Populist Big Thing should offer, although rehashed social-democratic position did not stop Zeman’s SPOZ from picking up 4% in 2010.

Score 2/10

5. Good Timing

The run-in time for a successful new party seems to be about 1-2 years, the time it takes to build up media momentum; a modicim of organisation; and contest (and do unexpectedly well) in some kind of second order election. The idea is then to breakthrough in the months and weeks before the elections: the Czech Greens managed this to perfection in 2006, as did TOP09 and Public Affairs, who benefitted from running Euro-election,  in 2010.

LEV seems to be aiming to do use the regional  and Senate elections of 2012, as a springboard –  demanding organisationally, but probably do-able if it can do well in a reasonable number of regions and scrape a couple of senators by recruiting local independents.

Score 7/10

6. Money

Although momentum goes a long way,  few tens of millions of crowns are  frankly indispensible, for a least a modest billboard campaign, making wealthy individual supporters (Greens 2005/6); contacts in the business world built up in government (ex-Christian Democrats in TOP09); or other mysterious private sponsor acting as Fairy Godmother (Bárta’s ABL security company in the case of Public Affairs in 2010, persons unknown for Zeman’s SPOZ).

The financial background of LEV is, as yet, as mystery, but as an ex-PM and seasoned political operator, who spend a long period in the murky world of Prague city politics before re-entering national government, I personally would be surprised if Mr Paroubek could not sort out sufficient.

Likely score 8/10

By my reckoning,  that is 40 out of a possible 60, or an overall 6.6/10. A credible also ran, I would say , but another source of lost votes for the Social Democrats.

Schwarzenberg: From castle to Castle?

Karel Schwarzenberg

And no sooner do I post on Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg at Chatham House than he decides to make waves in Czech domestic politics by announcing that he will be a candidate for the Czech Presidency, when Václav Klaus steps down from second and final term in 2013.

Media are reporting – in the style of the old Klaus vs. Havel coverage – that it stems from one too many eurosceptic broadside from the current occupant of Prague Castle. I suspect, however, that Mr (I mean Prince) Schwarzenberg is far too canny to make such spur of the moment decisions and that it represents a neat, logical and fitting exit from his unlikely career as party leader: the announcement was made at the second national congress of his TOP09.

If I was a TOPák, however, I wouldn’t be that enthusiastic.  Provided age treats him kindly – he will be 75 in 2013 – Schwarzenberg would, undoubtedly be a distinguished and effective head of state. But his exit as party leader would politically destabilising for TOP09, a loose alliance of local politicians, business interests and ex-Christian Democrats, which would look a whole lot less attractive with an aristocratic anti-politician at it helm. And, as the unhappy experience of Havel and Civic Movement shows, on/off presidential parties rarely prosper.

Vladimír Špidla

In the bigger picture, President Schwarzenberg would predictable and a safe choice, a re-assuring avuncular figure in times of trouble. But could the Czechs really not find someone younger, and conceivably perhaps – and I know this is a bit shocking – even female? Someone not part of the dissident/technocratic/business/intellectual establishment that has run the CR since 1989? Is there a Czech Mary Robinson in the wings?

It’s interesting that, despite being a media darling, Schwarzenberg’s popular rating with the voters is a mere 14%. In a direct election, legislation for which is chugging along uncertainly, he could quickly become an also-ran.

Knowing Czech politics, though – and if it were to be a direct election – it could easily be a Czech Sarah Palin. Of the establishment candidates mentioned here Přemysl Sobotka, the moderate and independent long-time Civic Democrat Senator, and ex-caretaker PM Jan Fischer would safe, if boring choices. Personally, if we’re doing grey ‘n’ technocratic I would go for ex-Social Democrat PM and former EU Social Affairs Commissioner Vladmir Špidla, whose rather grey public persona belies a more interesting and colourful figure. Špidla I have always felt, is one most under-rated figure in Czech politics.

Jiří Paroubek

Two other former Social Democrat PMs, Miloš Zeman and Jiří Paroubek – both populist bruisers of the first order – can also be assumed to have presidential ambitions. Either would be a potentially credible candidate in a popular election capable of pulling in Communist voters any directly elected left-wing president would need, but have too many parliamentary enemies to make it through the current indirect system where only deputies and Senators vote.

Paroubek, however, seems to be more concerned with building up his new LEV21 party and is on the record as urging one-time rival Zeman to run for head of state (probably hoping to hoover up voters and activists  from Zeman’s  own small vanity party SPOZ party, which pulled in an expected 4% in last year’s elections.

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.

“Can you recommend a good book on Czech politics?”

There must be a good book here somewhere

No trouble.

I’m always happy to help people working on CEE politics, especially our former research students. And forecasting and analysis for real world organisations concerned with political risk is always an interesting challenge.

But then I rather hesitate. Trouble is, I sense the kind of book this person really wants has not actually been written.

Sure, there are introductory histories and guides, but SSEES graduate with a background in the regions knows all this kind of stuff.

And there  are some  fine  academic books  (usually comparative) about the Czech party system, or cleavages, or privatisation or lustration, or national identity or whatever.   But these are academic in the bad as well as the good sense: oriented towards theoretical and comparative problems; wordily anchored into numerous literatures;  clearly written but dry and colourless.

Immodestly, I think of some bits of my own book, which has, after all,  just come in paperback. When not trying to critique Herbert Kitschelt’s concept of regime legacies or fit new models party organisation to Czech parties, it has some (I hope) some quite informative and readable passages.

Photo: Akron

Probably, the best academic book I’ve read on Czech politics in the sense I think the questioner means was Martin Horak’s  study of Prague  politics Governing the Postcommunist City.  As well as riffing very skillfully with some unconventional ideas path dependency and punctuated equilibria, it manages to give a holistic view of the city’s post-communist politics of 1990s and in your mind’s eye you  can sense political processes unfolding across offices , dodgy new developments, half finished motorway projects and crumbling historic buildings.

But even this only goes so far.  The basic problem is that there is a gap between academic treatments of Czech politics, which focus on  formal rules and institutions,  but can’t quite integrate the the corruption and sleaze, and journalistic accounts which is nigh on obsessed with – and well informed – but lacks perspective. The CR for all its faults is not Russia and is actually one of CEE’s better functioning democracies.

Speaking at the Central European Symposium, the Czech journalist Jan Macháček summed up Czech politics rather nicely as the political  leaders staying on the top floor of their part’s  conference hotel with lobbyists, dodgy sponsors and informal power brokers safely esconced in the suites one floor below. He meant it as reportage , but it works  equally well as a metaphor for the limitations of different styles of political analysis.

In the end, I recommended a different book altogether where the Czech Republic barely features in the index.