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Does Eastern Europe have lessons for Brexit Britain?

Vote_Leave_-_geograph.org.uk_-_5002468

Photo Bob Harvey, CC BY-SA 2.0,

In the aftermath of the EU referendum a number of Central and South East Europeanists wrote blogs reflecting on possible parallels between Brexit and break-ups of multinational socialist states like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia in early 1990s.

There are certainly parallels to be drawn.  They lie, as Catherine Baker notes, often in the political dynamics of exiting a large multi-national structure: the desire of smaller nations (Scotland) to ‘exit the exit’; the woes of asymmetric federalism, where nations ina multinational union have varying degrees of autonomy; the changeable nature of public opinion; the EU as a symbol of modernisation and liberalism (the ‘March for Europe’, and the normalisation of  radical positions through by media coverage – and now social media ‘echo chambers;.

Scotland’s (now much more likely) exit from the UK – as noted in the lead-in to #indyref – had echoes not only of Yugoslavia’s disintegration or Czechoslovakia’s ‘Velvet Divorce’ in 1992 but also – more distantly, but perhaps more pertinently –  of the dilemmas faced by small, newly independent Central European states emerging from the Habsburg Empire in 1918. Read More…

Why Czechs need Jim Hacker as well as Sir Humphrey

The rise of Slovak-born tycoon Andrej Babiš and his anti-corruption movement ANO in the Czech Republic has been greeted more with dismay than delight, as a harbinger of the oligarchisation of politics and the flagging of Czech democracy. But the arrival of a billionaire populist on the scene need not deal a fatal blow to Czech democracy and may be seen, in hindsight to, have provide impetus for change.  But does underlines that any reconstruction of the state needs to run in parallel with the reconstruction of politics and the emergence of a new, more settled form of democratic party politics.

 Democratic politics is a moving target. The long term success of any programme to rein in the corrupt abuse of power arguably depends not only its ability to diagnose and treat current ills, but to anticipate the way democratic politics is moving. The danger is that changing nature of political and party landscape will run ahead of the reforms intended to regulate them, which are, in part,  a response to a political era dominated by ODS and ČSSD that is now receding.

In 1990s the Czech Republic opted for specific form of democracy foregrounding the role of political parties.  The Czech Constitution makes competition between parties the cornerstone of the country’s democracy. Legislation and Constitutional Court rulings  specify in detail some they should organise and operate to play this role. Parties are supposed to be voluntary associations of members open to society, which mobilise, include and educate citizens and transform partial interests into different, competing visions of the public good

The reality of Czech party politics, although oriented towards ‘standard’ Western European parties, has, of course, very differently. Parties have typically been closed rather than open; attractive to limited numbers of citizens; organisations with largely passive paper membership rather hotbeds of political activism; collusive rather than competitive; and deeply vulnerable to capture by corrupt vested interests. With the possible exception of the Communists (KSČM) and Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL)   the country’s political parties seem shell-like bodies, which de facto are loose alliances of elite groups and political professionals, overlapping more with the worlds of business and public administration than with the life of grassroots communities. Although constitutionally and legally privileged, Czech parties are, in many ways, weak organisations. Read More…

Czech Republic: How bad is Babiš?

An article about billionaire Czech politician Andrej Babiš by UK-based think tankers Andrew Foxall and Ola Cichowlas   of the Henry Jackson Society on the website of Foreign Policy has set the cat among the pigeons. Indeed the highly critical portrait  has sufficiently enraged the Slovak-born finance minister and deputy prime minister, whose ANO movement came second in the 2013 election and now tops the polls, that he has threatened to sue.

The broad thrust of the piece on the Czechs’ ‘oligarch problem’ is a familiar one: that Babiš’ has accumulated a dangerous concentration of economic, political and media power, including expanding newspaper and TV holdings and influence he can wield over public broadcasters; that are huge potential conflicts of interests between his business empire political role (shifts in government policy on bio-fuel have been cited as an obvious example); and that his own personal, professional and business background raise questions about his democratic credentials.

With a Communist family background, he made a pre-1989 career as official in communist-era foreign organisation dealing the petro-chemicals, had contacts with communist-era secret police, which registered him as an informer (wrongly a Slovak court has ruled  – although appeals are ongoing).  His post-1989 business career has been criticised for the possibly legally dubious separation of the original (state-owned) Agrofert company from its Slovak parent and left unanswered questions about foreign-registered companies and funds – and political favours -which helped build up business empire.

Veteran Prague-based business analyst James de Candole does an excellent job here summing up this issues and Czech-speaking readers could do worse than read Tomáš Pergler’s meticulously researched biography.

The FP piece, however, does a less good job. Read More…

Teaching Eastern Europe: A course by any other name?

Process of coming to terms with the past after 20 years

Photo: gynti_46 via Flikr [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

 Like most British academics I’m loath to put any of my courses through multiple committees merely for a change of name. But sometimes you come to a point where you just know that the old name’s old name’s just got to go.

 The Politics of Transition and Integration in Central and Eastern Europe  course has evolved since I started teaching it some ten years ago. Less on communism, more on the EU. Out with Democratic Consolidation, in with Quality of Democracy.  Downplay ethnic conflict, foreground state-building and welfare state reform. Fond farewell (sniff) to George Schöpflin’s book on Eastern Europe and the ‘condition of post-communism’. Hello to a new generation of work on leverage and democracy in CEE with sharper methodology and fewer Shakespearean quotes.

Oh and make a small, small berth on reading list for Theories of European Disintegration alongside  Andrew Moravcsik and Frank Schimmelfenning onwhy the EU integrated and why it expanded.

And yes the end, there are no two ways about it. That name too will have to change, paperwork or no paperwork. Transition, at least in the democratisation sense of the word, is almost a historical topic. And integration (well EU membership anyway) is ten

 But the difficult question, of course, now is what do I call it? If the region’s current politics are no defined by transition and integration, what does define them? Read More…

An ‘Arab 1989’ in 1989?

Arab woman

Photo: Wally Gombetz CC BY-SA 2.0

When the Arab Spring broke out two years ago, and there were plenty of commentaries about the Arab 1989. And, perhaps against their better judgement, many specialists on Eastern Europe – including me – piled in to muse about the lessons post communist transitions might hold for unfolding democratisation in the Middle East and North Africa.

A few of these, such as the lecture Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Foundation gave at UCL well thought through and insightful. But in hindsight  many of these pieces did not go further than juxtaposition  seasoned with a dose of speculation.

Having witnessed the academic spats of the 1990s when East European area studies got bogged down in polemics with comparative political scientists, in part driven by anguish and reproach over the failure of area specialists to anticipate the collapse of Communism, perhaps we should have known better.

The military intervention in Egypt and the brutal and tenacious resistance of the Assad regime in Syria – and the apparent internationalization of the Syrian civil war – have caught many commentators flat-footed. There doesn’t seem to be so much writing about the Arab 1989 (or even 1848) now.

  One of the biggest problems of such current affairs driven, instant cross-regional analysis is that we hardly know the beginning of the story, still less its end. To put it in the jargon of political science, we do not have a consolidated outcome.

 But perhaps, in any case, the question is the wrong way round. Rather than East Europeanists pondering what post-communist transition tell us what the unfinished story of the Arab Spring, we should asking what events in the Middle East tell us about post-communist region we actually (supposedly) know something about. Maybe we should view events in Eastern Europe in a new light. Read More…

“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.

Reykjavík diary

The  decision of the European Consortium for Political Research to stage its biennial (soon to annual) General Conference in Reykjavík has resulted in one of the biggest such events ever, with some 2000 political scientists temporarily boosting the Icelandic capital’s population by around 2%.

And decending through the clouds to Keflavík  airport with fields of basalt below, mountainous coastline to the right and the Atlantic ocean to the left, it was not hard to guess why. Iceland also intrigues  as a small state with economy nearly wrecked by the financial meltdown, a highly distinct language – the closest thing you are likely to hear to what the Vikings spoke – and cultural scene ranging from crime fiction to sculture and dance music.

The influx of ECPR delegates is, seemingly, almost too much for airport shuttle bus and the capital’s hotels, full to capacity and sometimes overbooked.  Arriving at mine, alongside strip of unprepossessing low-rise office blocks and light industrial units that stretch along the sea front, we are asked to move to a hotel in a small town just South of Reykjavik with a jacuzzi and hot tub.

I get a free bus pass and a cup of coffee for compliantly agreeing, but then while waiting for a while for a taxi that never came and a certain

Photo: Jóhann Heiðar Árnason

amount of confusion, I’m told I can stay after all.  I check in, getting to keep the bus pass, and go out to admire the view of mountains and sea across the bay.

There is a garage with a shop, actually more of a kind general store, and diner serving sandwiches and burgers. I rapidly come to understand the role of the garage as local social centre that had puzzled me so much wartching Night Shift and the importance of the hot dog in Icelandic life.  And there are free coffee refills.  Too good to be true.

…….

Iceland University is a 20 minutes bus ride away on the other side of town, but our panel, where we are analyising new anti-establishment parties in Central and Eastern Europe using Qualitiative Comparative Analysis is only in the afternoon and before that we have a date at the City Hall.

Iceland’s financial and political shocks have seen the country’s voters turn to some new anti-establishment parties of their own, including the Best Party of actor and comedian – and star of the Night Shift, Jón Gnarr. Starting as a  satirical protest , the party’s runaway momentum saw it win last year’s muncipal election and Mr Gnarr (or Jón , as I should say, as he’s that kind of guy, and besides first names are the proper form of address in this country, I think) is now mayor of Rejkjavik, although the realities of office has seen his popularity fall back from 34% to 19%.

We get to speak to the Best Party’s competent and thoughful campaign manager and learn a lot, seeing a lot of unexpected parallels between Best and anti-establishment protest parties we are more familiar with in CEE.

Gnarr: The MovieAlthough mainly reported as a joke party – and having detractors in other parties and the media, who see them as incompetent showmen  – we come away the impression of serious political outfit, which has its tactics quite well thought through.

On the plane back we learn more, watching  the story of the 2010 election campaign on the in-flight documentaries , Gnarr – The Movie, and learn some more.  The party is clearly built around Jon Gnarr, whose deadpan outrageous humour totally floors Iceland’s decent but worthy party politicians.

It is also hilarous. The guy in the next seat on the plane, who is quietly reading an a collection of John Stuart Mill’s writings, seems initially disconcerted as we  degenerate into helpless laughter beside him.

….

Despite time issues – not the least with our presentation – and our panel and paper (on paths to  anti-establishment parties’ breakthroughs  in Central and Eastern Europe) went well.  The other three papers had an interesting mix of approaches and strengths and weaknesses and, I later realised, we probably had the basis  for a great workshop, rather than a 90 minute panel. Chair and discussant Carsten Schneider, however, provided a tour de force critique of all four papers in 10-15 minutes.

Some of the other panels were a bit more frustrating, as paper overload killed off any real prospect of audience questions or discussion. Even with the most efficient time-keeping, five papers and two formal slots in a 90 minutes  for discussants reduces a room full of well informed specialists from all parts of the world  to a cast of dumb onlookers.

I wondered why in one of the biggest political science conference in Europe and one of most wired countries in Europe, no one had thought of a smarter way of doing things than the traditional panel format, which seems to date from another era.  If there are time pressures and many speakers , could we not a least tweet questions and comments?

President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson - Photo Sebastian Derungs/World Economic Forum

In the evening we are bussed to Reykjavik’s newly opened Harpa concert hall to be formally welcomed by the President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, a former professor of political science now in his fourth term as head of state. The President’s plenary lecture stressed that markets and economics should not take precedence over politics and that Iceland was a laboratory both for the dangers of market forces and the way politics and political consensus could avert them.

Iceland’s process of constitutional reform was a model, part of new wave of citizen-driven democratic change driven by the internet and social media, being played out against a background of shifting techtotic plates in global society. India and China were on the rise, while Iceland would become part of the New North.

Here there was plenty of tweeting and Facebook comment from those listening and – as it was intended to – the speech seems to havedown well with the mass ranks of political scientists.

But hang on.

Surely politicians, including long-serving ones such as the President himself (a man of the social democratic left, presiding until 2009 – over centre-right governments), were responsible for the lax regulation, which alloed the insane hubris unleashed by financial sector? Indeed,  Ragnar Grímsson is on record pre-crisis as praising the dynamism of the country’s unconventional (and as it turned out dangerous and pointless) financial sector.

Hard not to feel that, while perfectly OK  as democratic  counterveiling mechanism, his hugely popular stand against the Icesave Laws  –   rejected twice by voters in presidentially initiated referenda – is not altogether a principled stand against The Markets, but also one  against small savers and local authorities in the UK unlucky enough to have their money in duff Icelandic financial institutions and taxpayers like me.

 A small country like Iceland clearly cannot pay for massive losses of the crisis in toto – take a Reykjavik bus  (and with my free bus pass I took plenty) and you always see  a few people,  poorly dressed and look worn out and beaten up by life.

On the other hand unemployment, having peaked at 10 per cent, is 7.5% , similar to that in the UK, although low by East or Southern

Photo: James Cridland

European standards and  the Icesave  sums payable after assets sales are, it is reported, relatively small, suggesting that the whole Icesave has just served as convenient safety value for popular anger.

You wonder, however, whether the four-term President might have done his country a favour by perhaps his own political responsibiliy- and the malfunctioning (as elsewhere) of domestic democratic institution – stepping down to allow deeper political renewal, rather than  stoking the fires of  national grievance.

And is the rise of the internet really akin to the transition from feudalism? And the rise of the Scottish National Party part of the same New North ? I leave the Ragnar Grímsson’s address sceptical and disappointed.

Let’s hope Jón Gnarr runs for President. At least the jokes will be funnier.

….

On my last day I walk through Reykjavik again. It is the calmest and most peaceful capital city  I have ever been in. I decide to hire a bike and cycle along Seabraut taking in a view of mountains and sea.Then I get lost and end in an industrial estate beside a toilet factory.

Way out West

Cycling around the Icelandic capital is safe and easy. Laws allowing cycling on empty pavements are eminently sensible and cycle paths run beside main roads . The  view is mixed but interesting: large villas, blocks of flats small shops, mountains, small residential streets with whimical statues, a broad vista West with mountains and motorways, then mutlicoloured traditional houses.

With quite realising it, I circumnavigated the city and  done a Leif Ericson, discovering interesting places I didn’t mean to go to and had never heard of, although admittedly he had a longship while I only have a well used bike in low gear.  Appropriately enough, I finish up by the Leif Ericson statute and go for a cup of coffee.

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.

>The quality of governance is not strained

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Prof. Bo Rothstein of Gothenburg’s University’s Quality of Government Institute  is a supporter of the Glorious Blues. Not Chelsea, but sixteen times Swedish champions FF Malmo. His presentation to SSEES’s politics centred on Anti-Corruption Indirect Big Bang Approach  was, however, strictly Premier League stuff. The issue, as he explained to our medium sized but on-the-ball audience, was in fact one less one of politicians taking the occasional (or not so occasional) backhander as of institutions in much of the world delivering or not delivering basic public goods such as clean water and  health, which left some people literally dying of corruption  – and of repeated failed attempts to find a magic bullet to slay corrupt, inefficient institutions and the informal structures that underpinned them. 
Both marketisation and democratisation had failed in this role, often merely transforming the problems into slightly new guise (or even aggravating them). As Robert Putman had realised individual-level incentives  based on expectations of other people locked in corrupt (and non-corupt) behaviour – although unlike Putnam he did not think that associationalism was related to social capital., meaning there was no easy  macro- institutional fix – or even a not-so-easy cultural one. Sadly, therefore corrupt, dysfunctional institutions were in many ways the norm and well governed Weberian states in Europe and North America the exception: why it should be asked was Sweden with large bureaucracies and large welfare programmes was not (as it should be) a cesspool of corruption and patronage-driven instability ?
Rally backing Indonsia’s anticorruption committee – Photo Ivan Atmanagara .
The answer his research (and new book – forthcoming with Chicago University Press later this year) suggested he key he argued – awkwardly from a normative point of view – was, rather than (electoral) democracy,  liberal state impartiality (and/or citizens’ sense of it) constituted the most effective means of dealing a ‘big bang’ blow (over a 10-20 year timescale). Delving into the Swedish (and British/Scandinavian)  experience to find how corupt tax-farming and aristocratic rent-seeking in public office turns into squeaky clean public admininistration (Swedish foreign arms sales excepted) through historical case studies had proved inconclusive: several historians sent into the archives to do the job had (intellectually speaking) disappeared iwithout trace and drowned in the mass of documentation. It seemed, however, that an indirect strategy, partly triggered by political choices and partly by the imperatives of technological modernization was the key
Questions centred on whether his understand of democracy was not, in fact, a diminshed subtype (along the lines of Zakaria’s notions of democracy-as-elections) and whether the British colonial legacy played a role. As for patriotic Brits it did not: the new book contained a paired case study of Singapore and Jamaica in the new book (also available here as a working paper) examined how – despite seemingly better prospects Jamaica had sunk into corruption and stagnation, while ethnically divided Singapore had prospered although as one questioner suggested with a population the size of Brighton and Hove, the island state was an outlier rather than blueprint for the development of good governance.
All in all, big answers to big questions with a refreshingly wide range of cases and mehthods, rather than political science navel gazing we usually too often go in for.

>Culturomics: Count me in

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‘Denocracy’: 1800 – 2000
Between  Christmas shopping and some intense research on interest groups and welfare institutions, courtesy of The Economist, I come across the excellent Culturomics site. The idea is simple: to track and visualize mention of keywords in the digitized Google books in any time period from 1800 collect using a simple trendline. Feeding in some political science keywords priducing some interesting, but not totally unexpected – and, in truth not totally meaningful – results. “Democracy” produces a wave pattern rquite eminiscient of Huntington’s Three Waves, although suprisingly there is no big upward spike around 1989. 
Marxism, at least as a keyword, is in decline from 1980s, perhaps reflecting a cultural-intellectual climate that passes through the collapse of communism but continues to our time: plenty of anti-capitalist around these days but fewer Marxists and revolutionary socialists, I suspect. ‘Communism’ has a similar profile, although, interestinglt, here it’s all down hill after around 1968.
‘Marxism’: 1800 – 2000
You can also compare trends: running Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky against each other (citation wise) yields a few mildly interesting patterns with Vladimir Iliich and Josif Vissonarovitch closely running in parallel, but with some curious point where gaps open up. Stalin, as you might expect, does better in 1930 and 40s. Trotsky, unsurprisingly, bringing up the rear, but with a steady growth of interest from 1960s.
‘Stalin’ (blue), Lenin (red) and Trotsky (green): 1920-2000
How good a research tool is this? Certainly an interesting way of brainstroming cultural trends and – with sone tweeking –  literature reviews, although too broad brush to rely on that much. And, of course, for cultural tool it is hopeless insensitive to culture or, to be more precise, to contingent historical meanings: ‘democracy’ or ‘communism’ does not mean the same thing to different writers and may refer to fundamentally different ideas in, say, 1860 and 1960s.
Also available in Russian, German and Spanish.