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Abe Lincoln on the beach

This small coastal town of Brittany is swathed with mist so early in the morning. There are only a couple places open to have breakfast, but there are a few people out and about including a woman with two small well groomed goats on lead heading for the boulangerie.

Luckily, the fog clear and the sun comes out and it’s time to settle on a sandy beach with some French newspapers and some holiday reading. The press has a different – and actually rather substantive – mix of bad news. Libération and Le Monde make The Guardian seem daft and fluffy: motorway tolls are up going up; Roma aslyum seekers live in Third World conditions on the streets on Marseille; a new populist faction of President Sarkozy’s party want to co-opt some of the illiberal themes of the National Front; France is friendly with unsavoury African dictators; the latests French translation of the Famous Five (Le club des cinq) is awful, fans say.

Having  swallowed a load of sea-water attempting to swim and had a coffee, I settle back with Crawley public library’s battered copy of  Doris Kearn Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln – ‘the book that inspired Barrack Obama’.  And it’s easy to see why.

A tall gangly politician from humble background , whose charisma, people skills, intellect , hard work and good judgement propel into a successful career in the law and then into national politics, where he comes from nowhere to blindside the clear front runner and other established politicians, but pull them all together in a coherent adminsitration and saves the country in a time of national emergency.

The book itself is rather uneven. Despite a mass of detail the first half, which relates the background and political career of Lincoln and is three more fancied rivals for the 1860 presidential nomination of the newly formed Republican Party is absorbing . It can be read either as textbook of What It Takes To Win In Politics and a window on US political and social history, which like many Europeans I know practically nothing about.

Abe comes through on top because he is intellectual able and grasps the issues; affable , making politically useful friends as he goes and rarely making enemies; moderate and centrist within this own party without being too obviously unprincipled; a charismatic speaker and good communicator comfortable with modern media; and a good strategist and campaigner, who builds up his position by making a series of good calls over the years, rather than waging brilliant short-term campaign.

A tad too folksy and pragmatic for my taste, but likely I suspect to have been my second choice if I was a mid 19th century  US Republican – and being everyone’s second choice is, of course, an excellent strategy for the moment when, as always seems to happen, the front runner’s lead slowly and inexorably crumbles.

All in all useful advice for anyone planning a political career and a useful reminder  to me why I am not Prime Minister or President of USA.

Political scientists with a taste for historical political science in the form of a historical party formation and political realignment with an intriguing mox of social and geographical division with a strange mix of  democratic free market capitalism and slavery, which European societies seems to have separated out into motherland and colonies.

The second half of the book is a bit less focused.  All of a sudden with the White House won, we are pitched into  secession and the Civil War, of which Lincoln’s victory (or rather that of any Republican candidate, I assume) is the casus belli. From thereon  in we get a  rich, but rather knotty narrative covering manoeuring and man management within the Lincoln administration(s),  the domestic politics, and diplomacy of the Civic War and the unfolding military picture.

It basically draws to a close with Lincoln’s assassination and a brief epilogue of the main dramatis personnae, most of whom seem to end up personally and politically unfulfilled with their greatest days behind them.

Overall, a readable if uneven holiday reading, but you feel basically rather uncritical in its treatment of Lincoln, whose political virtuosity seems in the end of the less interesting things about him.

Czech Republic: ‘Sovereignty’ a party to watch

Bobošíková

Last year’s Czech elections  were noticeable for the political breakthrough of two new pro-market centre-right parties,  TOP09 and which contributed to large, if now very shaky, majority centre right coalition, TOP09 and Public Affairs (VV). A less well noted feature of the election, however, was the relatively good performance of two new(ish)  extra-parliamentary parties of the left: the Citizens’ Rights Party – Zemanites (SPOZ) led by… yes, you guessed it  former Social Democrat Prime Minister Miloš Zeman,  and the Sovereignty (Suverenita) bloc  led by former TV newsreader and ex-MEP Jana Bobošíková.

Although neither made it into parliament, the 8% of votes they pulled in between them arguably contributed as much to the failure of the Social Democrats to win their widely predicted victory as the allure of new pro-reform parties:  Sovereignty gained 3.67% , while Zeman’s SPOZ came a bit closer to the 5% threshold with 4.22%. Both gained some modest state funding, although Sovereignty did manage  4.26% in the 2009 European elections.

Both SPOZ and Sovereignty are politically still in business, but for my money of the two Sovereignty , the weaker grouping in 2010, which re-elected Jana Bobošíková as leader last week is the more interesting and potentially the more significant.

Sovereignty’s politics are straightforward:   a mix of Czech nationalism, euroscepticism and the anti-elite, outsider rhetoric that many people like to call populism. It is, its website makes clear, a party ‘…defending the interests of citizens of the Czech Republic…’ with the conservatve-nationalist strap-lin “Law, Labour, Order” which sounds like a  mixture of Lenin and Marshall Pétain.  Its programme stresses the sovereign national state, the need to fight Europeanisation, globalisation and vested interests with a quick nod to the role of Christian roots and the dangers of illegal immigration  (never really an issue in the CR – due to so far rather limited scope of immigration into the country, legal and illegal) and Islam (again a non-issue even for nationalistcally minded voters – there are a handful of Muslims in the CR)

As with many strains of historic Czech nationalism, there is clear anti-German dimension,Suverrenita poster with the Sudeťáci   (Sudeten German diaspora and its  organisations) and their supposed revanchist claims on Czech territory, sovereignty and property a predictable and familiar target.  Overall, however, the language of the programme is conservative-nationalist, more Václav Klaus than Jean Marie Le Pen, although on the other hand Ms Bobošíková’s stinging denunciation of the EU’s  ‘pseudo-humanist and so-called politically correct waffle about human rights and minorities’ in launching her party’s election programme last year has overtones of  the Czech radical right for whom liberalism and humanism of the Masarykian tradition that still frames mainstream  Czech discourse are have always been an anathema. To some extent, the party draws on a trend – visible since the (anti-)EU accession referendum campaign of 2003 –  for mainstream social conservatives and right-wing eurosceptics to find common grown with those with backgrounds on the far right and the political fringe, most strikingly seen in the surprisingly Akce DOST initiative/petition, whose conservative-nationalist manifesto is very much in the territory being staked out by Sovereignty. (DOST representatives, including some of its wackier,  less salonfähig leaders, were recently received by President Klaus, who is keeping a none too discouraging eye on  developments.)

Sovereignty programme as seen by Worlde

Sovereignty's programme as seen by Wordle.net

Economically, Sovereignty seems to lean more to left than right, vigorously denouncing members of parliament for living high on the hog at public expense while condemning ordinary people to austerity. Shrewdly aware, that there are more discontented older people than young people in the CR – and that discontented pensioners show up to vote more often – Sovereignty has also been careful to make a lot of noise opposing pension reform. Its programme also contains a dose of economic nationalism of the kind popular even in the mainstream in 1990s: Czech technology, building up Czech (-owned) industry and so on.

Bobošiková’s re-election as leader of her party was not exactly a surprise. Until recently, the part was, after all, called Sovereignty – the Jana Boboíiková Bloc and the one time newsreader, former presidential  and ex-MEP  is by far the best known figure of the eurosceptic and populist group. Her re-launched, renamed party was officially formed in 2009 an amalgamation of independent groupings and fringe parties, but Ms Bobošíková’s career in politics and public life goes back rather earlier.

A newsreader and presenter for state-owned Czech Television from the mid-1990s, she was one of the few journalists to side with the station’s new management during the ‘Television Crisis’ of 2000-1, which saw strikes, blacked-out screens and mass protests against alleged efforts by the Czech Republic’s two major political parties to emasculate the independence of the country’s main public broadcaster.

The real story of the crisis is perhaps less black and white, but it led Ms B to the private TV Nova controlled by controversial ex-journalist and would-be media mogul, Vladmimír Železný, and into 2004 into the Independent Democrats (NEZ) grouping formed by Železný through an effective takeover of a small long-established local independents’ bloc. To some surprise, amid low turnout and a meltdown at the pools the then governing Social Democrats, NEZ, however, polled sufficient votes(8.08%) to elect two MEPs: Mr Železný and Ms Bobošíková. Despite an expensive campaign, however, NEZ flopped in the 2006 parliamentary elections in 2006 and (while it still exists) faded into obscurity (and financial controversy). Bobošíková and Železný quickly parted company in the EP, where she was an unimportant, though not inactive, non-inscrite

NEZ logo

NEZ logo

In 2006 Ms Bobošíková formed the Politika 21 party as a personal vehicle, which attracted some media attention when it fielded the estranged wife of Prime Minister Miroslav Topolánek as a Senate candidate, but made little political impact otherwise.  She also hit the headlines in 2008 accepting nomination  to stand as an independent presidential candidate by the Communist Party, but withdraw before MPs and Senators could throw her out in the first round of voting.  Seemingly trying to repeat the model of the 2004,  she formed Sovereignty in 2009 as a coalition between her own top-down creation and the long-time fringe grouping, the Common Sense Party (SZR). The grouping was later joined by the Secure Life Party (SŽJ), a grouping claiming to represent socially disadvantaged groups such as pensioners, disabled people and single mothers.

The newly  re-launched Sovereignty – Bloc of the Future (SBB) (the Bobošíková bit has been dropped) also appears to have rudimentary, but functional organisation,  if we take local elections as a crude proxy. In October 2010 Sovereignty was able to field 1639 candidates , a fraction of the total but respectable by the standards of Czech minor parties,  not bad.  The faction ridden Czech Greens, for example, a fairly long-established party which  represented in parliament between 2006 and 2010 only managed 1, 998 (although the Zemanovci had 2554)  (For reference Věci veřejné (VV), the smallest and newest parliamentary party ran 4,500 candidates). Predictably new parties did rather less well in terms of candidates elected – (Suverenita) had a mere 61, the Zeman-ites 81, Public Affairs 267, but – independents’ groupings aside – no one builds a party from the grassroots up in the CR these days, do they?

However, being electorally outshone by the Zeman grouping,  as I mentioned, sovereignty has a number of unusual features, that make it a party worth watching – and perhaps a grouping that may spring a surprise in 2014.

1. Despite being regarded by critics as an opportunistic lightweight (‘Bobo’),  Ms Bobošíková is a relatively experienced and media savvy figure with immediate recognition, who unlike the semi-retired Zeman is an energetic and active figure. Despite multiple establishment contacts, she is also a credible outsider and as a woman a relatively novel outsider. Prominent women politicians in mainstream Czech parties have generally fared badly, often being brutally marginalised by male colleagues.

Like Public Affairs which used its female leaders to emphasize its novel and anti-establishment credentials (before shunting them aside) Sovereignty – one of whose 2010 slogans was Chcete změnu, volte ženu (Vote For A Woman If You Want Change) clearly knows how to play this card.

2010 where parties' voters came from - SC&C Exit poll

2010 election: Where Czech parties' voters came from - SC&C Exit poll

2. Despite its harshly old-fashioned sounding nationalism, the party is in the Czech context something of transcender of established divisions. It is not obviously of left or right. It is neither communist or social-social democratic in origin, but neither is it  anti-communist.

Consequently, it seems able to draw in a remarkable range of sympathisers from other parties and backgrounds, ranging from ex-Communists like Senator Jaroslava Doubrava (of the regional party Severocesi.cz) to detached eurosceptics of the right linked to the pro-Klaus wing of the Civic Democrats, such as Vlastimil Tlustý  and ex-Social Democrats such Jana Volfová, a former General Secretary and close confidante of Miloš Zeman, most recently associated with the Secure Life Party. Two MPs expelled from Public Affairs are also reportedly keen to join.

Ms Bobošiková’s ideological fuzziness and good personal connections with both left and right clearly help here, but at a more underlying level she is helped by the fact that illiberal assertive Czech nationalism of a populist and anti-German stripe has pedigrees – and hence possibly popular appeal – on both left and right.

I say ‘possibly’ because in 2010, according to exit polling, Sovereignty, like Zemanovci, took voters mainly from the Social Democrats and had only slightly wider appeal  to former right-wing voters than Zeman and co. Moreover, rather tellingly Sovereignty took an atypically large slice of former Communist voters and the age and educational profile were squarely that of a party of the Czech left: older and less well-educated. Indeed,  more so than that of voters for  Zeman and his ex-Social Democrat veterans.

3. The third important element is the melting iceberg of Czech party system stability. Two new parties burst on to the political stage on the centre-right in 2010 while the Social Democrat (ČSSD) lost out to Sovereignty and SPOZ, meaning that overall new challengers took around a third of the vote.

The short-term net effect of such instability has, paradoxically, been to consolidate the Czech party system:  Public Affairs has, as was widely anticipated, gone into electoral freefall and both SPOZ and Suverenita have faded to 1-2 per cent support in the polls.  If an election was held tomorrow, polls suggest, four largish parties would make it into parliament, rather than the 5-6 that have been the case since since the mid-1990s.  Three of these (Civic Democrats, Social Democrats and Communists) are, moreover, well established parties that have also been around since 1990s. So much for party system change?

But, as various political scientists have pointed out, once the new party habit has been acquired it is hard to kick and, as 2010 elections in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia shown, come election time challenges can come right. Moreover, Ms Bobošíková claims to have learned the lessons of Public Affairs ill fated efforts to sustain itself as an organisation-lite Facebook party. Whether she can build a ‘mass party’ out of the current modest set up and ragbag of supporters must be questionable, although as a former Social Democrat general secretary with a subsequent track record in minor party politics,  Jana Volfová, should know a thing or two about how (not) to go about it.

In 2014 with economic austerity still biting and the EU possibly not looking the healthiest – certainly not the guarantee of economic stability and prosperity it once unfailingly appeared – a eurosceptic, populist party with cross-over appeal, that is relatively immune to anti-communist criticism (although the charge of right-wing extremism and flakiness could stick given the weird and wonderful collection of minor party politicians beating a path to its door) could do well.

SPOZ logo

SPOZ logo

SPOZ, I predict, is unlikely to be the the force it was in 2010:  its relatively good performance last year was dependent a remarkably high profile (and expensive) national billboard campaign.  Some say it was financed by Russian oil company Lukoil, others wonder if right-wing donors saw it as useful spoiler party. In any case, the party may be able to rely on big money again.

Suverentia, by contrast, had minimal billboard visibility. The party is also dependent on the mercurial figure of Zeman, whose has made repeated forays into and out of political retirement over the past few years: characteristically, resigned has leader of the party that bears his name after the election in recognition of its failure, but is still honorary president. Just to erase any lasting impression of greater moderation, Mr Zeman has also recently made his own contribution to emerging new lefrtright conservative-national ideological cocktail with a remarks (later elaborated on for good measure) explaining that Isalm is an enemy  ‘anti-civilization’.

Somehow, I don’t see Zeman as a Czech Pim Fortuyn.

Whether Ms Bobošíková will become some kind of Czech Sarah Palin or Pia Kjærsgaard is an altogether more intresting and  open question, however.

Setting the seal on CEELBAS: Parties and post-communism

Logo of the CEELBAS consortiumThe Centre for East European for Language Based Area Studies (CEELBAS) research consortium which has brought researchers interested in  various aspects of Russia and CEE at UCL, Birmingham, Oxford and beyond together in a variety of events and networks over the last few years is moving into its concluding phase, at least as far as social science are concerned – it will continue as a slightly different form dealing with culture and humanities. To mark its achievements the Centre  held a  conference  which saw me chairing a politics panel trying to paint a big picture overview of post-communist transformation, as well as providing characteristically generous support for a series of  more specialised workshops, including one I co-ran with Birmingham’s Tim Haughton and my SSEES colleague Allan Sikk on changing patterns of party stability and instability in CEE.

The bigger picture conference panel, slightly to my surprise at the time – although in hindsight it is perhaps less surprising – assumed the form of kind of clash between David Lane’s pessimistic and critical view of the trajectories of post-communist states, which he saw as having been set back or impeded in socio-economic and developmental terms by the attempted creation of market societies and market democracies. He anticipated new projects of statism and/or state corporatism with echoes of interwar Europe.

Aleks Szczerbiak speaks at CEELBAS conference

Aleks Szczerbiak on Poland

Other panel members – and at at least one questioner from the audience taking a social democratic perspective – questioned both some of the statistics and some of the assumptions: simple measures of output and development were surely misleading and increases in choice and personal freedom (both economic and – sometimes – political) had to be factored in. Moreover, where were the strong organised social interests required for experiments in (neo-)corportatism to come from?

The more optimistic strand of the discussion, from panelists who it must be said tended to foreground the experience of CEE, centred on the role of the EU and domestic elites in delivering relatively successful outcome, although there were some differences of emphasis about the nature of Polish politics – were the divisions between liberal and national-conservative camps that currently structure the party politics of CEE’s largest democracy legacies of Solidarity or a more durable and contemporary culture war?

I, alas, had to close the proceedings to avoid melting down the conference schedule. A rather good panel on post-communist social networks, which I caught the end of after rushing off to discuss a student’s dissertation plans with her, was waiting in the wings.

Picture of biscuits

Food for thought

The theme of party politics , as well as some of the surplus biscuits from the conference,  were, however, taken up in our smaller workshop the following week, where a dozen or so party specialist pondered the fact that – with the recent breakthough of new parties in previously stable-seeming party systems in the region – CEE party politics could no longer be understand as a weak, partical approximation of West European party systems.

The first panel centred on Stephen Whitefield and Robert Rohrscheider’s findings on the different forms ‘representational strain’ generated by party-voter relationships in CEE and Western Europe by parties trying to accommodate voters with different levels of partisanship. Interestingly, they find, Western Europe offers a tougher and more complex environment for parties than CEE, highlighting (perhaps) the gap in organising and campaigning capacities in the two halves of the continent. Their forthcoming book promises to be a real highlight.

Founders of anti-establishment parties

The many and varied leaders of CEE's new anti-establishment parties

Panel two saw Allan Sikk and I presenting our current work in progress on the emergence of anti-establishment, pro-reform parties in CEE. Like our fellow presenters, Andreas Bågenholm and Andreas Johansson Heinö (who has a very readable – even via Google translate – blog here dealing mainly with Swedish politics) we see the politicisation of corruption and the (party) politics of anti-corruption as an important party of the story, but we are also fans of Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) and causal complexity as our preliminary work suggests that not only are there  other factors are also in play and that are several ways for these parties to break through.

As Andreas and Andreas’s paper, which dealt with the impacts of the same set of moderate anti-corruption protests parties, suggests, however, ‘corruption’ may be as much a stand-in for more inchoate dissatisfaction and disgust with politics than bribe taking and –making. Some workshop participants think that a certain mix of high and low real-life corruption is needed for this kind of party to step onto the political stage, but I am swept away by the idea of corruption of a political metaphor.

Children's book about dinosaurs

What every CEE specialist should be reading?

There is more political metaphor in panel 3 in which Tim Haughton and Kevin Deegan-Krause lead off with an outline of their work on larger, more enduring mainstream parties (‘hardy perennials’) and, less horticulturally, suggested a threefold recipe for survival (effective leadership, organisational capacity, meaningful programme/identity) in the electoral jungle. Although like me a fan of his children’s dinosaur books, Kevin resisted my suggestion that such large, well evolved beasts called for more of a Jurassic Park analogy.

The surprise package of the workshop – and a theme running through discussion across the workshop – was the role of party organisation and specifically its role in anchoring enduring parties in CEE, nicely highlighted by Raimondas Ibenskas’s presentation on Lithuania and – as Mazen Hassan’s presentation on party institutionalisation showed – new democracies generally. As these – and David Art’s book (reviewed in an earlier post) – suggest from being something of niche interest in party studies the study of party organisation (and what ‘organisation’ in fact means) may be moving centre stage.

CEE parties: Gardeners’ World or Jurassic park?

A slow train wends it way through the tower blocks of South London to get me to plusher territory near Runnymede, where  Birmingham University’s Centre for Russian and East European Studies (CREES) is holding its annual research conference. As  ever this takes place in the Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park.

Cumberland Lodge was built by a Roundhead during the English Civil War, but smack bang in the middle of the royal estate it has had strongly  monarchist associations ever since. The interior also features in the The King’s Speech as George VI’s bedroom.   I always half expect to see Hercule Poirot coming round the corner or to hear that Colonel Mustard has been done in With the Candlestick, In the Library, but bar a brief mention of Ian Rankin, most of the conversation during my day stays off the subject of royalty and crime fiction and stay strictly political science – gardening.

The early morning panel I’m on features and interesting three-way discussion of the breakthroughs made by market populist parties in Central and Eastern Europe (my jointly authored contribution);   Tim Haughton’s presentation on the reasons some(mainly larger) parties in the same region have doggedly hung on and prospered as ‘hardy perennials’ ; and the changing role of parties in the (now) decidedly different context Russia (more ‘electoral authoritarianism’  than ‘competitive authoritarianism’).  Tim’s presentation is interesting – beyond the nice horticultural graphics and the underlying issues of party stability  – for its self-conscious use of metaphor.

The academic literature on parties is replete with metaphors mostly (as Tim and co-author Kevin Deegan Krause) note, of geological or meteorological inspirations: the ‘freezing’ of party systems,  ‘earthquake elections’ and so on. Other sub-genres of the literature, mostly those dealing with individual party organisations, rather than party systems, use a biological type of metaphor:  references to party ‘birth’ and ‘death’, the ‘life cycle’ of a party or its ‘genetic’ character are not hard to come by.

I used to think that such reliance on metaphor was a weakness of the literature and an inveterate bad habit: organisations are not organisms still less geological formations and, if you’re going to write about processes and structures write about processes and structures without lazily reaching for analogies. Our presentation had (we hoped) nothing more florid than pink and green Tosmana visualization, that might distantly have looked like some kind of exotic orchid to people sitting at the back,

But tracking down an old conference paper by Jernej Pinklo on ‘Metaphors of Nature in Political Science’, I realised I was my  first take  far too dogmatic. Shaking loose from metaphor was in reality damn near impossible, so what mattered was their conscious and creative use and application.

Chewing this over quick walk among the royal Rhododendrons, I realised, however, Central and Eastern Europe’s toughest and most aggressive enduring parties were perhaps not Chelsea Flower Show material, but instead exactly what their anti-establishment challengers accused them of being: political dinosaurs. Understood, of course, that dinosaurs were the most  longlasting and dominant life forms the ever: usually  big, capable of continual adaption  in changing environments, sometime aggressive and usually pretty much top of the food chain.

Do party specialists need to put down the garderning gloves and reach for their copy of Charles Darwin or Stephen Jay Gould?  Ideas of population ecology seems already to become established in the literature on interest groups  and, as  Ian Lustick’s recent paper suggests, political scientists generally might gain a lot from doing so.

>Chronicle of a (party) death foretold

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I am not always the most astute of pundits, but as the dust settled a year ago even I could see that the Veci veřejné (‘Public Affairs’), the anti-establishment, anti-corruption party that was the surprise package last May’s Czech elections would – to borrow Kevin Deegan Krause’s phrase – live fast and die young. And, as I write, VV seems to be on its political deathbed, rapidly expiring from an outbreak of splits and scandals, extreme even by local standards, that seems to be the political equivalent of ebola fever  – and may yet carry away the Czech government centre-right coalition  government of Petr Nečas in which VV is a junior partner. Expulsions and splits have seen four of VV’s 24 deputies leave the party; its chief sponsor and de facto leader Vít Bárta resign as transport minister; and its two bigger partners demand that Mr Bártaand cronies from the ABL security firm leave the government.
Vít Bárta/ Fotobanka ČTK
The problem? Revelations in the media over recent days, have bluntly confirmed  – with documentary and audio evidence – what most people suspected all along:

1) that, nothingwithstanding claims to a postmodern party of electronic direct democracy run through snazzy electronic referendums of members and sympathisers, Mr Bárta controlled and orchestrated the whole organisation;

2) that he used extremely an extremely basic method of party management to keep leading deputies on board,  of the kind that any City of London banker would recognise: he paid them huge sums of cash;

3) that he   backed VV as a project to foward his Napoleonic business ambition for his security company ABL, rightly recognising that public sector contracts were a lucrative source of cash and required political contacts;

4) that VV was conceived as an essentially local project,aimed at securing influence, indeed control, local councils in two Prague boroughs and was conceived as a kind of insurance policy or plan B, to run in parallel with efforts to gain influence in local organisations of the Civic Democrats;

5) that Mr Bárta is a ruthless operator keen on industrial espionage and subterfuge, including the creation of  ‘pseduo-competitors’ to maintain an illusion of transparency and competiton in tenders, and that he transfered some of these techniques to political activities using his company to track the activities of local politicians in Prague.

Given that Veci veřejné‘s appeal and origins were one of anti-corruption, transparency and taking on political dinosaurs – its name better translated as Public Interest or Res Publica and it was originally a local community politics initiative in Prague formed in respons to murky ways local municipal housing was being privatised deal – there would seem to be no way back, especially as Mr Bárta, who is clearly a strategic thinker of some skill, was foolish enough to put his strategy down in writing.
 Now the only question would seem to be which way the collapsing structure will fall and how many of its deputies will be recoverable, reliable and usable for the two main parties in centre-right coalition, the Civic Democrats (ODS) and TOP09. This is a totally a forlorn hope. There are some impressively able young er people and political marketers in the VV fold, as well oddballs, ABL cronies and second rank figures well out of their depth (like the party’s notional leader and hapless Interior Minister, the former investigative journal Radek John) and for a working majority the other two parties would need about 10-12 ex-Večkaři.
From a more nerdish political science point of view it seems a shame that this most unusual and interesting political phenomenon – closer to the ‘pocket parties’ created by businesspeople in the Baltic state or (it now seems) the phoney virtual parties of the former Soviet Union – is soon to be no more, although its death may be drawn out, mucky and unedifying. Perhaps most telling is that far from being corrupted and eaten into by holding power, the whole project was tainted and corrupt from the start, subverting the political appeal of anti-corruption and anti-establishment  politics to perpetuate and develop the very phenomena it was fighting against. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too worried, however, as other will no doubt be trying out and improving upon Mr Bárta’s business model in the choppy electoral markets of Czech politics.

>Tea parties Czech style?

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 The rise of the US Tea Party party movement has held a weird fascination even for those who normally find US politics boring or incomprehensible: revolutionary but right-wing;  a citizens movement, but one making inroads into party-electoral politics; leaderless, but well organised and unstoppable; anti-establishment protest movement born of economic crisis, but one animated by pro-market populism that wants to fell Big Government, rather than shelter behind the protections it can give. None of this is, of course, that inexplicable: money talks, US politics is loosely stuctured and the boundaries between parties and movements are blurred by European standards and there are strong exisiting traditions of anti-state, anti-tax and pro-market populism, recently revivied by the hubble-bubble over the internet economy.

“Budgetary responsability, anyone?”

Still, after the ‘shallacking’ dealt to out Barrack Obama, Tea Parties are (at least until next week) the wave of the future and commentators across the globe have been looking for parallels elsewhere, especially in their own particular patch. Major TP backer the Heritage Foundation predictably sees the movement going international and manages to mention both the Czech and Slovak Republic as well (rather more implausibly) Sweden as recent examples (was it the Sweden Democrats they were thinking of?). The Economist  also noted the same parallel a while back in relations to the emergence pro-market anti-establishmenTOP09 and Public Affairs in the CR and Freedom and Solidarity (SaS)  in Slovakia.

So not surprisingly, Czech commentators have jumped with alacrity into looking for Čajové dýchánky or teapartismus in their own neck of the woods. That Tea Parties are  an anti-establishment  populist revolt from below against experts and the political class, as MFDnes columnist and blogger Zdeněk Muller concludes, seems a safe, if unenlightening first move. But hang on, who in the Czech Republic is the establishment and who are the whacko populists? For some, any Czech and Central/continental European populism is, by definition, of the statist, collective, redistributionist variety. Milla Lilla on The New York Review of Books, for example, argues that the current wave of social and industrial protest in France against retrenchmant of pensions is a Tea Party a la française: angry, unco-ordinated popular mobilization  ritualistically going through the motions of attacking familiar targets, but triggered by times of global uncertainty –  at once in a familiar idiom, but hollow, new, different and edgy,

So, as early as March, one Czech right-wing commenator was rather confusedly urging a responsible  but Tea Party-ish revolt against the populism of the Social Democrats for wild and irresponsible promises, which allegedly made them unfit to run for office.As Czech voters were not unduly impressed by such promises on polling day (when the Social Democrats flopped badly) that could perhaps have left it to the good sense of the electorate and am I the only person to remember Václav Klaus’s weasel words in 1993 that transformation was basically over, or saying that salaries would double during the run-in to the 1996 election? 

So perhaps Lukáš Hoder, writing in FinMag, is closely to the mark in speaking of a ‘new populism’ of fiscal responsibility  which marries populist animus against elites with pro-market, or rather anti-statist, politics. Viewed through the prism of Czech politics, Public Affairs (VV) has a Tea Party-ish flavour to it in its crusade against political dinosaurs and support for market reforms in healthcare. On the other hand, VV’s cutting edge appeal seem to a more a mix of novelty and anti-corruption and its voters and legislators turned out to be a mixed and, in some ways, rather centrist bunch. Like Ivan Krastev, Mr Hoder fingers globalization, detached technocratic elites and top-down European integration as likely suspect for the new populism. But Krastev’s once fresh analysis of a couple of years ago now looks oddly dated in its characterisation of populismtmovements in Europe as being defined by cultrual illiberalism, economic egalitarianisn and xenophobically tinged nationalism. To borrow Benjamin Barber’s terminology from a seminal article which holds up surprisingly well despite being almost 20 years old (and very stereotypical on the post-communist world), these days angry populist can rally to either ‘Jihad’ (nativist fundamentalism of all types) or ‘McWorld ‘(citizens reduced to taxpayer-consumers in a world more about markets than states or societies).

Being more savvy than the aveage journalist, political scientists have, of course, picked up on this. Kevin Deegan Krause at Pozorblog , for example,  speaks of the rise of in CEE in recent years of  a new type of anti-establishment party ‘culturally liberal … attractive to younger, educated voters making extensive use of social networking software:’ with similar (10-15%) vote shares

 ‘…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 (though their methods and organization do not fit fully with any of the currently hypothesized [organiszational] models, even cartel and firm models), but with strong and intersecting elements of both.’

including the Czech Republic’s TOP and Public Affairs, Slovakia’s Freedom and Solidarity, the Green-ish youth-oriented Politics Can Be Different (LMP) in Hungary as well as  new pro-market parties that crashed onto the political stage in the Baltic states in over the past decade, such as  the People’s Party and New Era in Latvia or Res Publica. And, of course, as new youth driven protest parties go, we should not forget the region’s most successful one, the definitely not culturally or economically liberal, extreme -right Jobbik,  ‘a far-right for the Facebook Generation’ as an excellent analysis in EUobserver put it, although as one of my PhD student noted at a seminar last week Jobbik activists has a penchant for social activism and community politics(and marching around in paramilitary uniforms).

It’s hard to separate out the diverse elements of shifting kaleidescope: anger, youth, disenchament, anti- politics and anti-poltiicians, newnness, globalization, the web as a low cost means of mobilization.  Is the story one of organization, ideology or just raw indignation? And which of these is bringing something new?

The Czech Communists, for example, also see a parallel between Public Affairs (VV) and the Tea Parties, but for them it is old wine in new bottles: all are creatures of powerful business interests plugging the same Neo-Liberal Economic Doctrine (capitals letters for Capital, comrades). Oddly, enough this is very close the analysis carried in one page commentary the Last Word column accompanying the business-oriented Fleet Sheet press summary, which has seen VV and TOP09 (especially) as insurance policies for various politically well-connected business lobbies with the most vested of vested interests. Meanwhile, a column for long established contrarian Czech net journal Britské listy a similar but slightly different angle:  Tea Parties (and by implication VV) it argued are  examples of ‘asro-turf,’orchestrated  but spontaneous (pseudo-)grass roots movements created and financed by business sponsors for self-interested reasons – the subject of a new anti-Tea Party documentary (although the US Democrats and New Labour have used the same strategy) This analysis kind of fits, although VV was more virtual astro-turf as popular moblisation (such as it was) took place in cyber space, rather than in the form of placard waving and whooping at conventions.

Tea for ten million on an artifical lawn?

>Czech local elections: Another flicker on the seismograph?

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Did you miss them? How could you? Perhaps you were distracted doing something this weekend? The Czech local elections – spiced up by brace of Senate contests, which will (mostly) conclude with run-off elections next week – have been and gone. Admittedly, they didn’t not quite repeat the political earthquake of the parliamentary elections in May, but there were a number of powerful tremors and further aftershocks bringing down unstable party structures cannot be ruled out.

 
The main story of the weekend seems to be the electoral battering taken by the Civic Democrats (ODS) in major urban centres, where they have historically dominated: with the exception of Plzeň, they were beaten into second place in all provincial capitals by the (still leaderless) Social Democrats (ČSSD)and, as in the parliamentary elections in May, beaten into second place in Prague by TOP09. ODS did, however, manage to be the standard bearer for the centre-right in most of the 27 Senate seats up for re-election, although in most they trail the Social Democrats badly and are likely to register big losses come the second round of voting next week. Interestingly, the Christian Democrats – dumped out of parliament in May – managed to make it into the run-offs against Social Democrats in a couple of seats in Moravia. In the face of some (by Czech standards) pretty tough-minded austerity, many Czech voters have saw-sawed back to the centre-left – or at least actually bothered to vote – suggesting that the social market instincts of the Czech electorate should never be underestimated. A quick glance at numbers of candidates fielded (see below) also, interestingly suggests that ČSSD  (light orange) now has a sustained national organisational reach it once lacked, although almost  half of candidates running were unorganised independents (not graphed).


TOP09, the new party formed by ex-Christian Democrats and independents formed in 2009 and led by aristocratic ex-Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg confirmed that, at least in the short-term it is a force to be reckoned with, with a biggish slate of candidates polling well across the country – with support centred in urban areas – but (with the key exception of Prague) failing to overhaul the Civic Democrats other than in the Moravian city of Zlín (home of the Bat’a shoe empire), where it benefited from the   unpopularity of a long-term Grand Coalition of Civic and Social Democrats and seems well placed to take control of the city in alliance with local independents. In the longer term, however, the lack of a significant further breakthrough to follow up its success in May may weaken the party.  On the other hand, the party can draw comfort from its relatively good electoral performance – and organizational spread – running separately from the Mayors and Independents bloc with whom it ran a joint parliamentary electoral list in May, although the Mayors notched up 1243 councillors to TOP’s 1509 councillors despite fielding many more candidates. On the other had, a quick glance at figures for urban boroughs shows that TOP predominates in bigger cities and towns, where there is more local power and money (338 TOP borough councillors to the Mayors’ modest 22).
The other new party swept in parliament in May, Public Affairs (VV), fared much less well. Despite fielding a reasonably number of local candidates for a new party, flopped badly in both Senate and local elections: even in Prague where it had its origins it barely scrapped together 5 percent  and thanks to a gerrymandering by the outgoing Civic Democrat administration (splitting Prague into seven electoral districts) failed to make it onto the Prague city council. The Greens suffered a similar fate, although after years of electoral marginality they are probably used to it and, unlike VV whose demise may only be a matter of time, will probably live to fight another day. 
Even star VV Senate candidate, ex-Foreign Minister and ex-Senator Josef Zeleniec failed to make it into the second round running in Prague. How he and various other politicians from small more established liberal centre-right parties must regret hitching their wagons to VV: the party’s Prague electoral leader, Markéta Reedová, former leader of the European Democrats, anti-corruption campaigner and bugbear of the Civic Democrats during their less than squeaky-clean time at the helm of the Czech capital, looked shattered after the poll – as well she might having seen her former party (in alliance with the Greens) outpoll VV’s well funded operation. TOP09 now seems likely to take over the mayoralty in Prague and there will, I predict, soon be a queue of  prominent ex-VV-ers beating a path to TOP09.
Still, in most places TOP and the Civic Democrats seemed doomed to co-operate with ODS having the upper hand in most places except Prague.

>CEE: A democracy of no qualities?

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Notions of ‘democratic quality’ have become increasingly widespread over the past decade in the study of both new and established democracies. However, Andrew Roberts notes in his excellent new book The Quality of Democracy in Eastern Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2009) the concept remains fuzzy and ill-defined Scholars, who have used the notion, he rightly notes have basically tended to define it in three ways: 1) superabundance of the basic components that make up the procedural minimum of liberal democracy; 2) a set of favourable social and cultural prerequisites standing outside the political system; or 3) a set of desirable or efficiently arrived at policy outcomes promoting the public good, loosely overlapping with the concept of ‘good governance’ championed by many international organizations and NGOs.

However, he convincingly argues, all are unsatisfactory either because they conflate the attributes of high quality democracy with those of democracy in general, or because they confuse democratic quality with things such as social structures or policy outputs that, strictly speaking, fall outside the nature of the relationship between citizens and their elected representatives. Democratic quality, he suggests, must instead be understood in terms citizens’ abilities to influence their rulers through three forms of linkage: 1) electoral accountability (voters’ ability to dismiss politicians, who have broken promises or performed unsatisfactorily); 2) mandate accountability (voters’ ability to make meaningful choices from a range of distinct programmatic party positions) – and politicians’ willingness and ability to deliver on campaign promises; and 3) policy responsiveness (politicians’ willingness when in office to fit policy to public opinion – and voters’ ability to monitor and pressurize them to ensure that they do).

The book then seeks to operationalise and measure democracy quality (thus defined) across the new EU member states of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), widely considered to be stable and functioning liberal democracies, but also to have consolidated democracy in a flawed and low quality form burdened by legacies of the communist past, a detached and alienated citizenry, and a corrupt and self-serving politicians – you know the standard journalistic-cum-academic shtick you have probably come across a million times in The Economist and The Journal of Democracy or wherever. But is that really the case?

In successive uses a mixture of quantitative analysis and re-analysis of existing literature assesses electoral accountability, mandate accountability and policy responsiveness in CEE as well as comparison of the region with Western Europe and Latin American and finds that it ain’t necessarily so simple.

Based on data on economic performance, Roberts finds that CEE democracies show high level of electoral responsiveness. Despite significant general anti-incumbent voting, voters in the region do hold governments to account for poor economic performance. However, although CEE party systems are programmatic, mandate accountability in the region is much weaker – and, he finds, has remained consistency weak since the fall of communism. Party positions in the region are less clear and – usually as result of a politics of populist outbidding – the range of party positions on offer to voters tends to be less varied than in either Western Europe or Southern Europe. Examining politicians’ follow-through on campaign promises, Roberts finds that the relationship between winning parties’ campaign promises on (economic) reform and the subsequent direction of policy weak, although they are few volte faces on reform commitments of the kind common in Latin America. In CEE we are talking shades of economic liberalism from full-on to half-hearted.

However, contrary to the image of ‘lonely reformers’ by-passing popular preference through blame avoidance strategies, Roberts finds that, when making policy, CEE politicians are relatively responsive to public opinion. Although there is little active public input into policy making, qualitative case studies of pension and housing reform in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, highlights how favourable public opinion has been a key prerequisite for reforms to go ahead.

Overall, Roberts argues, CEE enjoys a reasonable quality of democracy, albeit democracy characterised by distinct patterns of accountability. Weak civil societies, constraints imposed on left and right imposed by international and European conditionalities and CEE voters’ tendency to punish all incumbents at the polls, reducing politicians’ incentives to fulfil campaign promises, sharply depresses mandate accountability, Roberts suggests. The region’s surprisingly good democratic quality, juxtaposition with Western Europe and Latin America suggests, can be traced to a single factor: its relatively high levels of socio-economic development and, in consequence, its well educated, capable and rational citizenries.

Overall, the book offers an elegant, and generally convincing set of arguments about how we should view democracy in CEE, cutting through much current conceptual fog and going rounding in circles and – what’s more opens to way to genuine pan- comparison of democratic systems in the old and new EU. What are debates in the ‘advanced democracies’ if not about ‘democratic quality’?

True, the empirical basis of book’s findings is, in some respects, rather limited and broadbrush (not really much sharp cross-national comparison) and its formulations leave some questions unaddressed. The stress on citizen-state linkages as at the heart of its conception democratic quality might, for example, be taken as implying that forms of direct democracy offer better quality democracy. Not a conclusion I personally would shy away from or loose any sleep over, but an issue that goes unmentioned in the book, which is quite party-centred.

Such limitations, however, arguably reflect a concern with mapping out new territory broad agenda-setting, rather than making slam dunk cast iron, empirical judgements over narrow range of cases or issues, which frankly makes for dull and pointless political science. I personally like the rather unusual research-in-progress fee to the book. For all the above reason, it may, I suspect come to be a seminal work for research on comparative quality of democratic governance. Will CUP kindly grace us a paperback copy or an affordable e-version?

>Model pupils

>André Krouwel’s well received presentation at SSEES about party transformation – which drew on earlier doctoral research specializing on Otto Kitscheimer and the ‘ctach-all’ made a number of very valuable, and possibly long overdue points about the way political scientists have studied parties: there has been a profusion of party ‘models’ on offer, many saying essentially the same thing using different labels and usually (over)emphasisng one particular aspect of party change (ideology, organization, or whatever) depending on the most striking developments of the moment or the cases on which authors were most familiar.

While model-heavy much party scholarship, he pointedly suggested, was evidence-light: either the data was not there or was not easily accessible (historical party development; contemporary parties’ use of state resources) or it posed methodological headaches (problems of coding pary programmes and documentation; obtaining data on small parties grouped as ‘others’ in even official statistics.

A ruthless synthesis of the many (often redundant) models was therefore in order and clearly André offered us one breaking party development into several dimensions and – for practical purposes – superficially rather recognisable historical phases: more radical, however, was the implicit suggestion in his work that party scholars‘ model-making and model fitting obsessions have led them to think in the wrong terms: rather than studying parties and typees of party – more often than not trying to pin them down in terms of various ideal-typical models – they (we) should be studying and comparing different types of party transformation.

At one time, I thought this a weakness of East European party studies – the unusual historical circumstances of CEE tending to buckle models based on West European experiences – but now I wonder if it is a more general affliction. In party studies, it seems, the Emperor has no clothes – due to weak and patchy data – but he may have been claiming to be wearing the wrong kind of clothes in the first place. Refreshingly, as well Andrew offered us to no underlying Grand Narrative of party development: there are many transformations in many directions, depending on historical circumstances. Some parties, such as the Dutch Socialist for example – an East Europeanist might think of Hungary’s Fidesz as a parall, have atavistically re-invented mass membership and ancilliary organizations.

>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.