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A spectre of … something is haunting Europe

Occupy London - occupy sign
Photo: Tom Morris, via Wikicommons

 At 8.30am I am sitting in a thinktank seminar on ‘subterranean politics’ in Europe.  At 8pm I am sitting in launch event for a book about populism in Europe and the America. It is a long day framed with big questions and incomplete answers.

At one of the regular European Council for Foreign Affairs regular Black Coffee Mornings Mary Kaldor of the LSE launches her project team’s new report on Subterranean Politics  in conversation with Mike Richmond of the Occupied Times.  ‘Subterranean politics’ is an appealing term, but a vague (and undefined) one intended to capture a plethora of alternative and protest phenomena: new anti-capitalist social movements (like the much feted Occupy), successful far-right parties like Hungary’s Jobbik or the True Finns; sundry less easily categorisable new parties like the German Pirates or Italy’s Five Star movement and broader, more subtle – perhaps truly subterranean – changes wrought on citizens and politics by the internet and below-the-radar reactions to the crisis.

The more interesting argument is that what has changed is such fringe, anti-establishment phenomena are bleeding into the political mainstream and what they all have in common is demands for new forms of politics, rather than simply demands for economic redress – economic crisis triggering political crisis. It isn’t entirely clear how these impacts are supposed to happen (or indeed if there was a common impact). The clearest answer offered –referencing some rather well established academic ideas about social movements- was that we were in a new cycle of protest and that the generational change would bring this about change in the mainstream, perhaps in the similar way that the demands and leaders of 1968 were gradually incorporated into academic, political and cultural establishments of 1980s and 1990s.

 (The more conventional party-political far left, oddly, didn’t get a mention, although Greece’s Syriza perhaps illustrates margins-to-mainstream transition of the most direct and immediate kind under conditions of acute crisis).

 Europe, needless to say, was absent from the idea of various practitioners ‘subterranean politics’ as it is from much conventional political discourse, regarded as distant, technocratic and neo-liberal and generally part of the problem. Perhaps the focus on the national level, someone suggested, would in time gradually further stoke xenophobia.

Demonstrators on Army Truck in Tahrir Square, Cairo

Tahir Square. Photo: Ramy Raoof via Wikicommons

 Overall, the impression is of discussion feeling its way uncertainly along, sensing political and social change – of ‘something kicking off’ to borrow Paul Mason’s phrase, but unable adequately to name more than a few of its parts or move beyond a rather flakey zeitgeistish rhetoric of a ‘global revolutions’ linking Tahir Square to Westminster and Wall Street . Instead it seems to collapse in on itself, recycling familiar debates about national and European democratic deficits, the rise of the far right and citizen distrust of politicians. Ideas floated to remedy the malaise – localism, new institutions to meet a (supposed) public yearning for participation, the use of social movements as a space for deliberation and reconfiguring, Tobin taxes – seemed well worn and oddly moderate.

 Pretty much the stuff that establishment politicians and journalists are already taking about surely? Have the margins already shaped the mainstream? Or are the new politics of crisis and uncertainly less a product of the woes of capitalism and the Eurozone than a continuation of much longer term democratic deficits?

By evening I have  moved to home ground – and moved on to drinking black sugary tea –  for the launch at UCL of a new book on Populism in Europe and the Americas.  Although co-sponsored by the Counterpoint thinktank the discussion at this Populism in Europe and the Americassecond event was resolutely more academic: the book is a new collection which – as co-editor Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser and co-discussant Paul Taggart made clear – ambitiously tries to combine inter-regional comparison (European populism mainly radical right, Latin American radical left(ish) – reflections on whether populism was a boon or bane for democracy (an overview of the argument can be found here )

 I had mixed feelings about this. Despite having written a case study chapter in the book  (on the Czech radical right)– and liking the sweep of the comparision  I sensed that events were rushing ahead: as the  Subterranean Politics briefing flagged up, European populist phenomena, are far from confined to the far-right. Indeed, oppositional, anti-establishment, anti-elite mobilisation appears so diverse and fragmentary that much debtated, well honed concepts of populism and populist parties  almost appears something of straitjacket. Perhaps it always was.

Is there a Czech Berlusconi in the wings?

Political afterlife in Prague? Photo: Frederico Saggini / Wikicommons

A recent report I read suggested that the travails of Public Affairs (VV) party had put voters in the Czech Republic off new political parties: VV, which burst from nowhere onto the political scene in the 2010 elections as an establishment, anti-corruption party, has  rapidly, but not totally, unwound in the two years since as a junior partner – and weakest link – in the current centre-right coalition in Prague.

Lax party discipline, lack of organisation; some very dodgy and incompetent ministers; and rapid confirmation of what many had lon suspected – that the party was a pet project  ABL security company and its owner Vít Bárta, originally conceived to forward their commercial interests in Prague.

But the new party habit, once acquired, can be hard to kick. Numerous small left-wing parties seem, relatively speaking, to be prospering at the political margins and, more remarkably, there still seems to an appetite for  new businessmen anti-politicians peddling an anti-corruption and anti-establishment message. The modern voter’s political crack cocaine…

In recent weeks and months two candidates have stepped forward to offere a new improved version of Public Affairs formula:

Anti-political protest voring: Addictive with short term high? Photo: Pyschonaught/Wikicommons

The first is Andrej Babiš, the super-wealthy owner of the Agrofert food and chemicals conglomerate. Originally hailing from Slovakia, but moving to Prague as a student, Mr Babiš made his fortune in the murky business and political environment of 1990s with all the attendant political connections that you would expect.

His entry into politics – which from what can be gathered was planned quite carefully beforehand – came with an interview in September last year with the Czech equivalent of the FT, Hospodářské noviny, in which he spoke out against levels of corruption in the Czech Republic and called for the creation new civic mobilisation akin in some way to the Civic Forum movement of 1989.

He was, of course, a rather unlikely dissident – the son of a Communist foreign trade official, who had lived abroad for periods in Switzerland and North Africa for periods as boy and later embarked on a the same career. And not only was he himself (naturally) a Party member, but he was also listed as a secret police informer.

But, as he explained in a clever folksy, what-you-see-is-what-you-get appearence on Czech TV’s Jan Kraus Talkshow, this was all already well known (no relevations in store then) and his dealings with StB, ever present in an areas dealing with non-communist world,  were do with mismanaged phosphate imports and commerical contacts, not hunting down dissidents.

The result: Akce nespokojených občanů 2011 (ANO2011), the Discontented Citizens’ Initiative, a citizens’ grouping founded  by Babiš, which combined the internet based organising tactics of VV with current vogue for  new political organisation to have catchy numbers-and-letters acronyms (‘Ano’ = ‘Yes’).

ANO2011’s organisation, running straight out of Agrofert headquarters, however seemed to be pure Forza Italia, as does his argument that the Czech Republic could be managed by practical businesspeople in the manner of a firm, although the is also a nod towards liberal reformist rhetoric that has washed around the ex-dissident centre of Czech politics almost as long as anyone can remember: ANO2011 is, for example, to be  ‘a civic movement composed of trustworthy independent personalities’ opposing vested political interests (all other parties, major and minor, including VV and President Klaus)

All this is rather contrast with the time and care Vít Bárta put in creating VV as a party with semblance of autononous existence and a quite serious and detailed political programme, not without some good idea.

The ANO2011 Appeal is a vague document promising in very non-specific terms to fight corruption, make the rule of law work properly and bring about Swedish or Swiss levels of prosperity. Making a virtue of this – like many new parties – it gets round this by presenting it in terms of transparency and openess, promising consultation with the public, appealing to citizens for their ideas about what should be done.

Inevitably, of course, despite predictable early denials, the movement has plans to becoming a party: it will contest the regional elections later this year with an eye to breaking through to national power in 2012.

A programme of roundtables and events has already kicked off and the movement/party is already recruiting political managers in the regions and hoovering up minor parties and regional groupings for a spot of astro-turfing. Given the scale of Babiš’s resources – his personal wealth and the size of Agrofert’s dwarf that of Bárta – and the postive feedback he received in initial polling (around a third of respondents saying they might vote for him), such programme- and party building may yield quicker than experced dividends, making him may be a force to be reckoned with.

Tomio Okamura Photo: Podzemnik/Wikicommons

A second perhaps more intriguing potential newconer, mooted as a possible presidential candidate by the latest issues of the newsmagazine Respekt, is the Japanese-Czech businessman Tomio Okamura. The product of a fractured and difficult bi-cultural background, Mr Okamura – who has lived most of his life in the Czech Republic and is a native speaker of the language, is a self-made businessman best known to the public as spokesman for the Czech tourism industry and to TV viewers as part of the line-up of investors on Den-D, the local version of Dragon’s Den.

Although more modestly resourced than either Babiš or Bárta,  Mr Okamura has been similarly building up his public profile, writing a bestselling book about his life and business and a more recent one with the Macheviallian sounding title The Art of Governing.

This, according to Respekt is a mishmash of reformist go-getting sentiment with a nod towards morality and traditional values, interwar Czechoslovakia and (more worryingly) some of the Czech radical right’s nostrums for resettling Roma –  Mr Okamura’s take on inter-ethnic relations in the Czech Republic seems to be that racism is not an obstacles to success and that  minorities should fit in and get with things (as he has).

Inevitably, there is also the same Berlusconi-eque anti-political rhetoric of bringing common sense business solution to political problems found with Babiš, whose entry into politics Okamura welcomes. As he tells readers of his blog with characteristic up-frontness

… the idea of running the state like a firm (firemního vedení státu)… [is] a proposition that fascinates me… The state is one big firm and there is no better solution than it being run by pros.

Experienced people with a sense of material and criminal responsibility. People who have come through in an open selection process, not through the backstage negotiation of party leaderships or regional party cliques.

Bar some exceptional political events and an injection serious financial and political backing, Okamura is unlikely to be a serious contender for the presidency come the Czech Republic’s first direct elections in 2013. He himself seems to be talking (more realistically) of a running at a Senate seat as an independent.

Okamura on Babiš seen through Wordle.net

But despite some hubris and naivity, Mr Okamura has played skillfully on his unusual status as very recognisably Czech  figure who is also at the same an unusual and somewhat unplaceable outsider. The same kind of play helped make Barack Obama – not for nothing is Mr Okamura’s first book called The Czech Dream –  or, more omenously, Peru’s outsider technocrat, turned authoritarian populist President of 1990s, Alberto Fujimori.

Czechs-  like European voters generally these days I guess –  have weakness for anti-political pitches.  The technocratic ex-caretaker Prime Minister Jan Fischer (a statistician not a businessman by background), for example, is likely to prove a popular presidential candidate

Followers of Czech politics of long memories may even remember that in their earliest days the Civic Democrats  – now  often reviled as corrupt, political hacks – based their appeal on an ethos business-like organisation and professionalism (as Magdaléna Hadjiisky ably explains in a recent issue of Sociologický časopis).

All in all, if you are in the Czech political futures market and looking at the stock of businessman-antipolitician start-ups, I can only say ‘Buy!’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Score 8/10

Logo of ČSNS2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

Score 5/10

Jiří Paroubek Photo" Cheryl Thurby, US Defense Dept

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

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

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

Score  9/10

4. Find A Political USP

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

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

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

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

Score 2/10

5. Good Timing

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

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

Score 7/10

6. Money

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

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

Likely score 8/10

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

Poland’s elections: Eyes down

Photo: Piotrus

As in 2007 Poland’s parliamentary elections in two weeks are being followed mainly as a battle between the (now incumbent) liberal Civic Platform (PO) and the conservative-national Law and Justice (PiS), which despite modest electoral revival has been on the back foot for most of the last parliamentary term. Indications are therefore that despite a narrowing in the polls PO’s leader Prime Minister Donald Tusk will become the first Polish post-communist premier to lead his party back into office.

But let’s look further down the likely results list to the smaller fry.

In what was once to be a kaladoscopeic politial system, smaller parties in Polish seem to have been reduced to a political footnote.  Indeed, they were nigh on wiped out by the polarisation between the two  liberal and conservatiive big parties in 2007. The main two stories here are whether the post-communist liberal-left – once the dominant counterweight to the post-Solidarity Catholic conservative – right can advance beyond minor party status and whether the Polish Peasant Party (PSL) can hang on as a niche interest party (indications are that it can, comfortably so in this election).

Elsewhere, observers of populism and extremism breathe easy, although the League of Polish Families is still politically in business, there

Palikot's Movement

seem likely to be no revival of  radical/ultra-conservative nationalist right or of the agarian radicalism once represented by Andrzej Lepper’s Self-Defence. Lepper was founded hanged this August, having apparently committed suicide, leaving his much diminished party in disarray.

But, if opinion polls are to be believe, there is a new party poised to make a (modest) electoral breakthrough – the the movement created by maverick ex-Civic Platform Deputy Janusz Palikot .

Palikot, a businessman first elected for PO in 2005 , cuts a colourful, not to say downright eccentric figure, having appeared at a press conference wearing a T-shirt saying “I am from the SLD” [the main party of the post-communist] on the front and “I am gay” on the back, claiming he wanted to highlight the need to defend of minorities (For factual claridication, he is hetereosexual and not a member of the SLD). Still more oddly he later he produced a gun and a dildo at a press conference called to discuss the case of police officers accused of rape – symbols of state of justice and law enforcement in Poland apparently. No friend of the conservative right, he is also on record as calling the late PresidentKaczybski a yokel (cham) and (after his death) suggesting he bore responsibility for the crash of the presidential flight at Smolensk and  had ‘blood on his hands’.  He left the Platform following this remark to found his own movement in 2010.

Janusz Palikot Photo: Peterson

Although dismissed as  likely to get nowhere by at least Polish politics analyst I spoke to one at the time of its foundation, some polls have Mr Palikot (Palikot’s Movement (Ruch Palikota), formerly the Movement in Support)  on up to 7%.

Critics dismiss Palikot as an oddball  showman and buffoon, complaining of the palikotyzacja of Polish politics in a culture of spin and stunts and general vulgarity. But Palikot, a former vice president of the Polish Business Council and chairman of a parliamentary anti-bureaucracy commission, is at least a semi-serious political figure and his party fills a clear political gap.

It  has a stright-down-the-line socially and economically and radical secular – not say anti-clerical –   programme proising a Modern State, which goes straight for the taboo issues glossed over or ignored by the more conservative and/or pragmatic PO. The Palikot Movement  wants to  scrap religious education in state schools, scrap state subsidies of churches and  introduce free contraception, legal abortion on demand and civil partnerships for same sex couples. It also a mixed electoral system combining first-past-the-post and PR and the abolition of the Polish Senate (oddly self-defeating for a small party but a popular nostrum across the CEE region) as well as a war on bureauracy

Polish voters, more perhaps than anywhere else in the CEE region, are wont to spring surprises. It is entirely possible that come the weekend the Palikot Movement will just be another pre-election flash in the pan.

But the party’s surge in the polls seems well timed and Palikot an archtypical media savvy, semi-celebrity outsider politician of the kind with a mainstream, but anti-establishment message  increasingly successful in contemporary European democracies.

He is certainly more likely to be leading a new party into the Sejm than any on radical right or social populist fringe.

Populism in Central and Eastern Europe Spectres of moderation?

Fright on the right?

Radicalism and extremism, especially of the far-right variety, hold an enduring hypnotic fascination for political scientists and journalists.

Extremist populism and illiberal movements more generally, we are told, relentlessly on the rise in both Western and Eastern Europe.

In countries such Austria or Flanders radical right parties have  stacked up sufficient votes to become as major political players and contenders for government office. Elsewhere  in countries such as France, Norway, Denmark they have sufficient electoral clout to influence the parliamentary arithmetic and help  make the political weather.

And just look the electoral breakthroughs in the past couple of years of the True Finns, the Sweden Democrats or Hungary’s Jobbik.

Or the illiberal leanings of mainstream parties of the right in Poland, Hungary and Latvia.  Remember the brouhaha about the British Conservatives’ East European allies?

Jobbik - the far right Movement for a Better Hungary

Indeed, instability, populism and extremism Central and Eastern Europe is surely where it’s at – or where it will be at. Authoritarian nationalism traditions,  high unemployment, vulnerable open economies, rampant corruption, the end of EU conditionality and minority nationalities and Roma  minorities  acting as functional substitutes for the multiculturalism  Western Europe.

But, of course, it isn’t

Social conditions and ethnic make-up in CEE region as a variable as they are in Western Europe, if not more so.  And, if far right and illiberal populists have recently broken through big time in Hungary and (slightly smaller time) in Bulgaria with the rise of the Ataka bloc in Bulgaria, they are so far going nowhere electorally most other countries in the region.

National Parties in Slovakia and Slovenia  have a maintained marginal parliamentary presence, based on a vote share of around 5% the Greater Romania Party is out of parliament despite a bounce in the 2009 Euro-elections and the Polish populist-nationalist right (or left, I’m never sure) collapsed.

A low-lying Will O the Wisp - look carefully. Photo: Deborah Tilley

As Cas Mudde shrewdly observed in 2002  extremist movements in Central and Eastern Europe have tended – and this trend has, interestingly, so far endured even in the difficult political and economic times we now  live in – to bite the dust as often as they have risen from the deck to sock it  to established parties.

But there is a spectre of populism haunting Central and Eastern Europe, which should give us pause,

But this one isn’t a scary monster, but a political  will-o’-the-wisp that often gets missed:  a new breed of anti-establishment party  lambasting the political class  in time honoured style but which combines mainstream, moderate, modernising priorities with a potent and uneven cocktail of appeals embracing anti-corruption, political reform, e-politics, ethical government, novelty or sheer entertainment value.

Academics, bankers, aristocrats and journos

Led by a diverse array of anti-politicians – aristocrats,  academics, artists, technocrats, bankers,  businessmen, bloggers, journalists, entertainers – such parties have scored a series of  sometime spectacular electoral victories, which can put even the best performing far-right ethno-populists distinctly in the shade, and lead directly to government office: New Era in Latvia in 1998, the Simeon II National Movement in Bulgaria in 2001, Res Publica in Estonia in 2003 and last year TOP09 and Public Affairs (VV) in the Czech Republic.

While often fissiparous and short-lived such ‘centrist populist’ protest parties, to borrow Peter Účen’s phrase,  seem to spreading and growing phenomenon: Lithuania has no fewer than three such coming up through the political mainstream in successive elections: the New Union (2000), the (mis-named) Labour Party (2004) and in the 2008 elections the National Resurrection Party founded by former TV presenter and producer Arūnas Valinskas, who seems to have been a mix between Chris Tarrant and Simon Cowell.

As Kevin Deegan-Krause observed the new breed of anti-political mainstream protest party is a slippery and multifaceted  thing.

…. not exactly a new party family (though in their cultural liberalism and anti-corruption emphases they share significant elements) and not exactly a new party type … but with strong and intersecting elements of both. Nor is it unique to Central Europe alone but elements of it have emerged also in the West

My UCL colleague Allan Sikk and I nevertheless decided to have a go at pinning down this new phenomenon more precisely, focusing in the first instance on Central and Eastern Europe,  presenting some of our findings in a paper  (downloadable here) at last month’s ECPR General Conference in Reykjavik.

Analysing elections in the region since 1998 using Charles Ragin’s Qualitative Comparative Analysis technique  we found no single story.

Different paths. Photo: Bob Embleton

 But we did find that these Anti-Establishment Reform Parties, as we called them, broke through electorally in three distinct  sets of circumstances:

  • When relatively narrow core of established mainstream parties, flanked by strong radical outsiders, faces  a deteriorating social situation characterised by rising corruption and/or rising unemployment.
  • When established governing parties of the mainstream pro-market right  fail to engage new or re-mobilised voters.
  • When the left or market sceptic conservative-nationalist are in office and opposition mainstream pro-market right – and the party system generally – is weakly consolidated and/or fragmented

Sometimes  these circumstance overlap, sometimes they run in sequence, but – while radical outsiders have walk on part – what matters, unsurprisingly, is the abilily of mainstream, big tent governing parties to hold together and retain a grip on corruption and the economy to stem electoral insurgencies, which are likely to be angry, anti-political, often offbear  but  decided – destabilisingly –  mainstream.

And like the patchy rise of the far-right, such trends –  as Kevin Deegan-Krause notes above and shrewder journalists have also  already  spotted are not be confined to the rarified political climate of Central and Eastern Europe. When Silvio Berlusconi and Forza Italia  burst onto the Italian political scene in 1994, people could have been forgiven for thinking it was just a strange denouement to Italy’s unique corrupt post-war politics.

Yes, Prime Minister? Photo: wiki.editor Jonny

Now you could be forgiven for wondering if varieties of personality-centred, broadly  liberal sometimes) neo-liberal anti-establishment poilitics might gradually be infiltrating in way into  more established democracies andbecoming a more Europe-wide phenomenon.

The Pirate Party has just entered the Berlin legislature with 8.5% of the vote and when we met them in a break in the ECPR conference, Iceland’s anarchic Best Party (see trailer for forthcoming documentary) founded by comedian Jón Gnarr which emerged as the city’s largest party last year (33%), turned out to be among the more focused and serious political outfits we had come across professionally.

When UEA’s Sanna Inthorn and John Street rhetorically titled a paper on young citizens and  celebrity politics  ‘Simon Cowell For Prime Minister?‘  they may perhaps not have been so far behind the curve.

Klaus and the nationalist right: Catching a tiger by the tail?

Exit stage right? Photo: DerHuti

A few weeks ago, a journalist from the Slovak daily Pravda got in touch with me and various other political scientists interested in Czech politics to ask how we thought President Václav Klaus, who had just turned 70, was regarded abroad.

Being fairly literal minded, I answered his question without taking the obvious opportunity to give my own opinion at great, or indeed any length.

If I had, I would probably have seen Klaus as a potent and fascinating cocktail of negative and postive, leaning  probably towards the negative.  You can read what I and various others said here.

But the issue in Czech politics at the moment is not what Václav Klaus has done in two stints as prime minister and two terms as President, but what he will do as his second and final presidential terms comes to an end (he steps down in 2013).

Rumours abound that he will sponsor or lead or endorse some kind of new nationalist, eurosceptic party, perhaps based around the DOST initiative that has provided a rallying point for far-right nationalists and social conservatives and right-wing eurpsceptics with a more respectable, mainstream background, and whose web banner features Klaus prominently.

Ladislav Batora, Photo: Dezidor

The  controversry around appointment of Ladislav Batora, the chair of DOST, to post of director of personnel in the education ministry, nominally at the behest of the Public Affairs party but with the approval and support of Prague Castle, has been the most recent focus for such speculations.

Mr Bartora’s record of political involvement with  a diverse range far-right  groups seems pretty make him pretty much –  to quote  Finance Minister, Miroslav Kalousek – ‘a right old fascist’ (starý fašoun) and his (seemingly ongoing)  bad-mouthing of government politicians on Facebook suggested nothing more than a fringe politician enjoying his five minutes in the limelight, although, to be fair he did also managed to join a few small mainstream parties in a life of hectic political tourism.

But  President Klaus and his CEPin thinktank have a record of cultivating fringe figures and groups in a twilight zone between the extreme right proper and mainstream eurosceptic right once typified by Klaus himself that goes back several years.  I have picked up a few of them in this blog.

Some of his advisors, most notably the deputy head of the Presidential Chancellory Petr Hajek, have also come out with a range of  provocative and/or eccentric conservative views without being dropped by his boss.: Hajek, for example, has questioned the theory of evolution and dismissed gays as ‘deviants’ , while the CEPin thinktank has given space over to anti-Jihadi conservative fringe groups who see parallels between issues of migration and integration in Western Europe and the Czech experience with the Sudeten Germans.

Why is the Czech President cultivating such a strange collection of sometimes barely credible figures such as Batora or his DOST deputy František Červenka, who once dismissed the EU as plot by freemasons and paedophiles?

Even allowing for the fact that he might find a use for provocateurs and eccentrics without necessarily agreeing with them, the answer one might guess could be partly ideological. The drift of Klaus and sections of the Czech centre-right towards more nationally minded eurosceptic views centred on defence of the Czech state and scepticism towards Germany has been a matter of public record since late 1990s (rush out and buy the paperback of my book to read more).

Klaus’s rarer pronouncement on social issues such as multi-culturalism or civil partnerships (which he unsuccessfully veteo-ed as President) also suggest reveal growing conservative preoccupations, which may – we could surmise – be more fully developed and far-reaching than we suspected.

A second response is the Czech President is looking for an opening through which to influence and intervene in Czech (centre-)right politics from which he has beem increasingly marginalised since stepping down under considerable pressure as leader of the Civic Democrats (ODS) in 2002.

Could it really be the case that the Czech President is planning to lead a new party? Or at least planning to breath life into some kind of new eurosceptic, nationalist bloc perhaps centred on the Sovereignty party, which (predictably) he also has good relations.

Political opponents such as Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg certainly think so, as does Ladislav Batora who claims to have discussed it with Klaus in a meeting a couple of years ago, which lasted (wait for it…) an hour.

But really we have been here before. In 2008-9 as the Civic Democrats (then in government) wheeled round to pragmatic acceptance of the Lisbon Treaty, Klaus quit the party and rumours abounded that he would launch a new eurosceptic party, or back one of the two new anti-EU parties shaping up to contest the 2009 Euro-elections.

Leaflet for the eurosceptic Free Citizens' Party formed in 2009

It never happened. And the reason that Klaus  did not step up to the plate  and, indeed,  eventually signed the Treaty into law are the same: he had too few cards and perhaps  shrewdly realised that, even with his endoresement, it was likely to make limited impact. Certainly not the kind of impact needed for him to reshape the Czech centre-right he did so much to create in 1990s or have any decisive role in Czech politics.

Are the prospects for a new national bloc, perhaps taking the form of a French style Presidential rassemblement, better now? In many ways they are.  The Czech party scene has been de-stabilised by the ‘earthquake election’ of 2010. ODS is politically weaker than it has ever been and the governing coalition it leads is shaky.  The global economic outlook and the Euro is in the kind of crisis which Klaus and other eurosceptics foreaw.

Public opinion research highlights a niche in the electorate, where a socially  illiberal nationalist party might sit, and the are signs that very strong, but politically usually latent public prejudice against Roma are starting to find organised social and political expression among ‘ordinary people’, rather than just the marginal far-right sub-culture.

Demonstrations  organised by the far-right against ‘Gypsy crime’  in Vansdorf drew suprising numbers of local people, while incidents such as the smashing up a bar by Roma in a dispute over teenagers using fruit machimes provoked a succession local protests without  involvement of the extreme right.

So far only small town populists and figures with Mr Batora’s kind of track record have sought explicitly to capitalise politically on such sentiments.

President Klaus, while usually bluntly insensitive to Roma issues,  has perhaps sensing the untrollable potential of public ‘anti-Gypsyism’ (anticikanismus) as researchers term it expressed his disquiet about the rise of anti-Roma protests.

In the end, you wonder whether  illiberal Czech nationalism is  a tiger than the ever cautious, calculating Klaus will want to grab by the tail.

It might easily turn round and savage 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.

>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.

>It was twenty two years ago today…

>That student demonstration in London against the Tory government that turned violent?

I was there. Quite close to where it all kicked off, in fact, although by accident and I missed the more dramatic bits that got on the telly.

But don’t worry,  I wasn’t bloke with the fire extinguisher. And actually,  I didn’t leven leave the house today. And did nothing more violent that scrawl some red lines on a draft of someone’s PhD.  You see it, was all more than 20 years ago…

On 24 November 1988 along with with several coach loads of Leeds University students went down to London for the biggest student protest of the decade. It was  a nationwide National Union of Students demonstration to protest against (shock horror) the abolition of student maintenance grants and their replacement with loans.  We were genuinely outraged and waves of mobilization – added to the prospect of a good day out with out mates- even reached the rather apolitical, but very friendly Russian Department. As I recall coach tickets were about £3 or £4. It was quite a warm day, as I remember, and we all got quick a kick out of marching through the streets and chanting – sense of empowerment or identify incentives, I guess I would call it today – and there was a real buzz to being in large, like-minded crowd of people just like us.
Then for some reason we ended up in a milling crowd in a dead end somewhere near the Houses of Parliament. We were by Westminster Bridge and we couldn’t go anywhere. We all got quite bored and fed up and the crowd probably thinned out slightly, giving it a slightly more militant and political composition. There were certainly an impressive variety of far-left and Trotskyist newspaper sellers, which – being interested in theories of state capitalism and the like in those days – I could probably have ticked off trainspotter style. I’m not quite sure what happened next. The mood was, I suppose, probably getting uglier. I remember a police inspector walking ineffectually through the milling crowd with a megaphone telling us to disperse and everyone conspicouously ignoring him, although I don’t think we had any very militant intentions. We just didn’t want to day to be over. In the end my friend, now I believe a successful lawyer in California although we lost touch year ago, suggested that call it a day and find a pub.
This was a pretty convincing argument even during the days of High Thatcherism. We didn’t find a pub and, with anti-Zellig like precision, we missed the “Battle of Westminster” A few minutes later mounted police  spectacularly charged through the milling crowd at the end of the bridge and brought the impasse to an end. The university’s more militant student revolutinaries, I was told, had cunningly taken the tube over the river, but been arrested. Back on the coach, we booed as the radio news reported that students had rained missiles down on police and cheered when we learned that the Queen Mother had been stuck in the traffic chaos we had caused.
‘Major conflict’: The young Dr Sean woz ‘ere (almost)

Back on our early morning Russian grammar class the next day – present participles, I think it was ( I was rather good at them) – we wondered what had happened. Clearly, we hadn’t been manipulated by sinister Trotskyists, although we couldn’t vouch that they hadn’t led the march somewhere it shouldn’t have gone by packing the front ranks. Perhaps we wouldn’t have cared if we had known. At least, we thought  they saved from being stuck in some park listening to some dull as ditchwater speech the then National Union of Students President, Maeve Sherlock (now Baroness Sherlock).

Like a lot (but not all) protest in the 1980s, it all came to nothing – and I suspect deep down  we inwardly knew that at the time –  and the system of student loans duly  came in in my final year. On graduation, having been pretty frugal, I owed the state-back Student Loans Company the princely sum of £300.

This is, of course, all history. The Battle of Westminster – or perhaps we should say, Brief But Somewhat Violent Police Charge of Westminster is now the subject of a much cited academic article about social identity and crowd psychology: it is  quite right that it was cock-up rather conspiracy han and that , yes, as Social Identity Analysis suggested we were slightly been radical and less law-abding after the event than before, but we didn’t all rush to join the Socialist Workers Party.

It was, of course, a different age then. No internet, no mobiles, no Twitter, no Facebook.  Approximately, half the student numbers of today (although the queues for the banks of photcopiers in hte Library were horrendous( None of us would have understood the ‘tuition fees’. And I would have no more believed that communism would collapse than that men from Mars would land outside Leeds Town Hall.

And in hindsight, it all seems rather than cosy and innocent, although after Mrs Thatcher’s third election victory in 1987, the papers were full of predictions that a Maoist-style free market Cultural Revolution was about the be unleashed. Perhaps it was and I never noticed.

So having a break for coffee I watch Guardian online footage of the London Day of Action with marchers trooping past UCL. How does it all compare? The atmosphere, placards and slogans seem curiously the same – has no one thought of a catchier slogan than “They Say Cutback, We Say Fightback” in two decades –  and the numbers (around 50,000) are similar too, although the current protest seem slightly bigger and to have a momentum missing im 1988. The Twitter feed of the demo – not something available in 1988 (my reporter friend from Leeds Student tasked to track Maeve Sherlock quickly lost his story in the unfolding chaos) – suggests today’s students are about as witty as we were when it comes to doing homemade placards, although the stakes today are (for some people, at least) bigger and humour blacker.  Organizational confusion and resulting breakawy leading to a headline-grabbing clash  around a symbolic centre of power (then Westminster, today Millbank), is spookily similar – as are the debates about whether it has done the student cause a favour by crashing onto the headlines and registering  anger or just played into the hands of a hostile media. There are also the predictable accusations that the whole thing was staged by extremists (then the Socialist Workers Party, this time round anarchists).

What seems different (at least judging by the Guardian footage) is that today’s marchers are a damn sight more socially and ethnically diverse – and younger , including FE and college students- than the crowd I was in 1988: the proposed changes of 2010 seem a much bigger deal than those of 1988 and also much more of a class issue, like to see some denied big opportunities and others.In truth, however, I suspect, what has happened is that proposals have thrown into sharp relief the already class-ridden  and unequal character of higher education.

My own feelings about  events are surprisingly mixed. I am fascinated by (what might be) an unfolding social movement, but a mixture of middle age and being one of the ‘Thatcher’s Children’ generation that saw most protest lead to naught leaves me with an engrained scepticism. I also doubt that the interests of university staff and students are as closely aligned as trade union and student union leaders would have us believe. 

The new movement is inevitably overhyped. A blog post written by one of the students occupying  UCL’s Jeremy Bentham Room – a nice, undisruptive target used mainly for social events and conferences- claims student protests are inventing a new organizational model.  Actually, he seems to be re-discover the idea of the social movement in the age of Facebook and blogging  and splashing about an awful political science jargon. There’s a pleasingly in-your-face quality to all this and if this is the beginning of a the kind of multiform ‘alliance of resistance’ some trade unionists have started to image – a sort of angry-as-hell Tea Party movement  of the public sector- capable of real national impact, rather than a replay of the damp squib student protest of 1980s, then I guess that’s OK and a few pieces of schlock political science analysis are a small price to pay.


After all, who knows, maybe we are all in it together?

>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?