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>UK Tories to send gay MP to quell Polish social conservatives

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Conservative party to send gay MP to quell EU extremists reports The Guardian. The story? Nick Herbert, Conservative MP for Arundel and South Downs, Tory spokesperson for the environment and one of several openly gay Conservative MPs has drawn the short straw and has agreed to go to Poland to attend a gay pride event in Warsaw in July (so far, so straightfoward) and also held the Tories’ highly socially conservative ally, Law and Justice (PiS) embark on a ‘journey’ to modernize its negative views on homosexuality. Possibly a tall order. One of the founders of the PiS, Poland’s late President Lech Kaczynski banned such events when mayor of the Polish capital. You have to feel sorry for Mr Herbert. He seems a nice guy. He met my mum when canvassing and was quite charming when she told he she was a dyed-in-the-wool social democrat, would like Gordon Brown as PM and a would not vote conservative if her life depended on it. I wonder if he will get on as well with Catholic social conservative in Warsaw as social democrats in Mid-Sussex.

>2010: For whom the bell TOLs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year.

>Poland: mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the most social of them all?

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The Warsaw Voice reports the latest political shenanigans around the law restricting Poland’s currently wide ranging entitlements to early retirement. President Kaczynski has vetoed the bill, putting the small post-communist social democratic left in a (for once) important position: their votes would be needed by the liberal-peasant coalition govenment to overide the veto. Having looked like they might initially play the role of defenders of social welfare and big and early pensions, they now seem likely to opt for the role of modernizing opponents of the conservative-national right and help overturn the veto. Well, this is Poland, after all.

>Poland: retiring early retirement

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The Warsaw Voice reports protests by trade unionists over the scaling back of early retirement schemes – one of the last remaining special social policies of the transition period intended – some say – to dampen down the possibilty of Latin American style social unrest. Probably the political system is stable enough, the government popular enough, the coffers empty enough and workers in declining heavy industies weak enough to allow this to happen now. Public sector workers may have few unpleasant surprises up their sleeves, but as events last year in Bulgaria showed, no one cares that much if the education system grinds to halt.

>Communist ice (cream) age

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The long shadow of the communist-era even reaches the ice cream stall at the Luhačovice municipal lido. My daughter wants a Helena ice cream – named after and endorsed by Helena Vondráčková, the politically conformist 1960s pop diva turned stalwart of normalization era light entertainment. Vondráčková looks about 20 on the wrapper, but must be well over 60. “Helena, she’s a famous Czech singer, kočičko”, the man at the stall helpfully explains to my daughter, who isn’t interested and also objects that she isn’t a cat. Curiously, the lolly is actually made in Poland. Presumably Vondráčková (her name is mis-spelled Vondráčkowá on the wrapper) has a few fans there . Meanwhile, as the anniversary of the 1968 invasion is near, on the radio they are playing a song by Marta Kubišová, another star of the Prague Spring era whose less than compliant attitude to normalization led to two decades of obscurity before 1989. She is a better singer, but doesn’t have an ice cream named after her.

>Poles together on the EU – probably

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Friday morning found me sitting in the slightly faded elegance of a high ceilinged Georgian drawing room in the Polish Embassy in Grosvenor Square which served as venue for the Poland and the EU conference. The audience of about 100 is a varied mix Polish(-descended) or Polish-oriented academics, researchers, journalists and students with smaller scattering of people such as myself for whom Poland is just part of a wider East Central European beat. The morning began with an address from the Polish ambassador, Barbara Tuge-Erecińska, who stressed the commonality of interests between Poland and the UK on the future direction of the EU and the positive role that opening of UK labour markets has had in promoting Britain in Poland. A super-effective piece of public diplomacy worth any amount of more conventional initiatives, we were given to understand, although – she was far too diplomatic to mention – an inadvertent side effect of British civil servants’ underrestimation of numbers of Poles likely to come to the UK after accession.

The conference proper was kicked off by Aleks Szczerbiak with a presentation on Polish public opinion and the EU. Fresh from disillusioning liberal minded Polish students at SSEES with anticipations that Civic Platform would quickly splinter and Law and Justice might prove a political heavyweight that was down but not out, Aleks again offered a slightly against-the-grain take on Polish politics. Despite the high (and growing) popularity of the EU among much of the Polish public and the rise of the europhile Civic Platform and (crushing of anti-EU parties like the League of Polish Families (LPR) and Self-Defence) in last month’s elections, Polish europhilia was more a happy coming together of different factors than a profound trend. Public expectations in the run up to accession had been low and – thanks to the British and Irish governments’ politically miscalculated opening of their labour markets to new CEE member states – membership had delivered in precisely those areas where it was popularly offering the greatest immediate benefits: opportunities for Poles to work and study abroad. As agricultural subsidy for new member states came on tap, farmers had also gained far more on balance than they had anticipated. Moreover, Aleks argued, the Polish public still tended to view its country’s EU membership in somewhat brutally self-interested and instrumental terms as a source of external funding and a battleground for national interests. There was also an underlying concern about the position and power of Germany in the enlarged EU. In the longer term, I understood, there was still space for a revival of some form of euroscepticism. Moreover, as he later pointed out in the Q and A, high levels of trust in the EU and EU institutions are essentially the flip side of engrained distrust in national institutions: europhilia might – I understood – simply be a side effect of the dysfunctionality of Polish democracy (even EU membership formally gives it a Western seal of approval)


Jacek Kucharczyk of the Warsaw-based Institute of Public Affairs (ISP) offered a slightly more sanguine assessment: there had, he suggests, been a genuine shift in Polish public opinion following accession and the pre-accession period he suggests would in hindsight come to be seen as the high watermark for radical eurosceptic parties like Self-Defence and the LPR; the crushing victory of Civic Platform was significant both as expressing a desire to express Polish Europeaness and national identity in new terms and in bringing to power a europhile liberal-peasant coalition with roots in co-operation in the European Parliament as part of the sprawling EPP faction; Europe was, moreover, an issue too lacking in salience to ever re-engage Polish voters, even assuming it ever engaged them in the first place (the rise of eurosceptic parties being, as several questioners later pointed out, more a facet of domestic issues, rather than concern over the EU per se). Simona Guerra then concluded the session with some discussion of focus research among students in Poland on attitudes to the EU: there are interesting regional variations and at aggregate level interesting correlations between Catholicism/religiosity and support the EU, most practicing Catholics tending to favour integration.

The conference then broke for lunch and – after a very tasty Polish buffet and an interesting conversation about the shift from the ‘JP2 [= John Paul II] generation’ to the ‘MP3 generation’ in Poland – I made a break of my own for Kings Cross to get home in time to take my daughter to Brownies. How many of these Polish-centred judgements, I wondered looking dozily out of the train window on the way home, were applicable more widely to other New Members States?Most lacked Poland’s size and sense of historical importance; Slovaks and Latvians had however, reaped a similar migration premium, Romanians and Bulgarians will not (at least in the immediate post-accession period); many Czechs might share the underlying discourse of ‘national interests’ and anxieties over Germany that seem to inform Polish debates at an underlying level.

>Will Europe’s real liberals please step forward?

>An interesting discussion of the similarities and dissimilarities between Britain’s Liberal Democrats and Poland’s Civic Platform

(PO) written by Ed Maxfield appears on the Lib Dem Liberal Voice website followed up by very intersting and intelligent discussion of the highways and byways of – that lost tribe of European politics – the liberals as European party family. Given some less than liberal social position and desire for a flat tax revolution, it strikes that PO are more Cameroonian conservatives minus the upper class social baggage, or perhaps an equivalent of the party that would emerge of the dull kaleidecsope of British (actually English) party politics got shaken up and some of the more assertively free market Lib Dems teamed up with some of the more socially liberal, decentralist Tories to form a kind of Blue-Orange Alliance (interestingly, the campaign colours of both Civic Platform and fellow Czech liberal-conservatives/conservative liberals in the Czech Civic Democrats) . I guess that would leave the hang ‘em and flog ‘em rump of the Tories as a kind of English nationalist Law and Justice party. The analogy, of course, breaks down because of the strength of the British social democratic left, which – despite a close shave in 1983 – has refused to go down the tubes electorally in the manner of post-communist parties in Poland, Slovakia and (possibly) Hungary.

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

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

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

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

>Pole-axed: minor parties obliterated in Poland’s election

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Results from Poland’s electoral commission reveal a complete slaughter of minor parties: not only are once medium-sized formations like Self-Defence and the League of Polish Families cut down to extra-parliamentary minows, the niche fringe groups of (occasional) interest to me barely register: the Women’s Party comes in at a mere 0.27% and the pensioners’ party seems not even to have made it onto the ballot, although I note that an outfit called the Labour Party picked up 1%. Is this the country that put the Friends of Beer party into parliament?

>Polish elections: Polarization sends Civic Platform to victory

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So, ‘early’ (actually much delayed) exit polls suggest, Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) has been clobbered by the market liberal-conservative modernisers of Civic Platform (OP), predicted to clock-up a huge 43-45% of the vote compared to a mere low thirtysomething for PiS. If true, OP might even be able to form a single party majority government, although thinking back to how wrong the Czech exit polls were last year Donald Tusk would do well to put the champagne on ice and start thinking about who potential coalition partners might be. With the exception of the Peasant Party, all the usual minor parties (Self-Defence, League of Polish Families etc) seem to have been wiped out, with niche parties that interested me so much (Women’s Party, Pensioners’ Party etc) not getting a look in. The Polish post-communist left, however, seems set to demonstrate its usual resilience in the face of defeat and establish itself a medium-sized third force. However, the numbers actually shape up what is striking is how very polarised these elections are despite the presence of a PR electoral system in theory reasonably conducive to small parties – a tendency also very visible in Czech elections last year and, of course, long established in Hungary whose mixed half PR/half-first past-the-post system offers strong incentives for two-party/bloc politics. An additional factor may be the role of the media in ‘presidentializing’ and polarising party politics. The Tusk-Kaczynski TV debate (which Tusk won convincingly) appears to have played a major role in outcome both in the sense of exlaining who won and in reflecting and reinforcing a sense that the election was basically a two horse race. The Czech series of pre-election Paroubek-Topolánek TV duels last year, althought there was no clear winner, seems to have had the same polarizing effect,boosting the two main parties’ vote at the expense of more minor playes