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>Uncertainties of Romanian electoral reform

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Electoral systems, as I always tell my students, are sticky: they tend not to change, sometimes because they are legally or constitutionally entrenched, more often because those parties that benefit from the existing system are (by definition) powerful and block (or fail to agree) changes that might weaken their dominant position and give more representation to competitors. This broadly speaking seems true of Central Europe since 1989. Most changes to electoral systems that have occurred have been variants on the theme of list PR, changing thresholds for representation, electoral formulae or the number of electoral district.

So I was intrigued to hear that – as a kind of afterthought to last year’s presidential-partliamentary standoff – Romania’s has passed legislation changing its electoral system from a list PR system to ‘mixed’ system combining PR and first past the post. A referendum sponsored by President Basescu to change the electoral system to a pure first-past-the-post model with two rounds of voting was held at the same time as the recent Euro-elections failed due to low turnout, so parliamentary parties got together and passed their own version of electoral reform. It is, apparently uncertain, whether and if Basescu will sign the bill into law or the country’s main political forces will have another bite of the cherry and try to introduce a straight first-past-the-post system.

The new ‘mixed’ system apparently agreed is itself interesting emough. It seemingly loosely approximates to the German system with half the deputies to the lower house chosen using PR lists and half from single member districts using the first past the past (what Romanian-sourced reports in English call a ‘uninominal’ system). There will be a national threshold for representation (presumably applying to the PR section. If new system is (as seems to be the case) the same as the compromise proposals on the table reported in The Diplomat in July, independents will need an absolute majority to win in SMDs (which seems unfair). However, if the new law follows the proposal in the Diplomat report) instead of having two votes (as in Germany), Romanians will vote only in single member constituencies with votes of losing parties being pooled and used as the basis for electing members by PR. The effect of such linkage (I think) would be to reduce the representation of winning party and boost the representation of second running parties, which may still pick up a bonus of tactical votes from those want to help them to victory in single member districts.

Romania’s change in electoral system unusual both for the fact it took place at all and because it bucks a global trend towards greater proportionality, but surprisingly, it seems nigh on impossible to find any information about the new law in English or French and as I can’t read Romania, I’ve been asking Romanian specialists at SSEES all week for details about the change and why it happened The answer – as with the failed project of Czech electoral reform in 1999-2001 – seems to be a deal between the two big parties of left and (centre-)right: the Social Democrats and the pro-Presidential Liberal Democrats (not to be confused with the National Liberal Party) to dish smaller competitors and force political concentration and consolidation around themselves. The Hungarian minority seems likely to be relatively unaffected as its support is geographical concentrated.

Lots of worthy reasons for changing the system are reported (eliminating party faction fighting, reducing the power of party bosses, bringing MPs closer to communities etc), vaguely echo the arguments of President Havel in early 1990s as he tried in vain to introduce SMDs into Czech(oslovak) political system. However, I suspect the net effect in Romania – and indeed the CR if they ever tried it – would be to weaken party structures increasing the power of politicians with local power base and probably increasing (or just changing the pattern of?) clientelism and pork barrel politics as local bosses sort to deliver for their own backers. All in the best Romanian and Southern European traditions, of course. Still, as I also my student, clientelism is in a certain sense functional for linking state and society– in the short term.

>Slovakia: Empty lionizing of Dubček suggests social democracy lacks roots

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A recent issue of Slovak daily Sme contains a report of a speech by Slovak PM Robert Fico (full text here) to mark the fifteenth anniversary of the death of Alexander Dubček, ill-fated leader of the Prague Spring and early figurehead of post-communist social democracy in Slovakia. As a man of the left, Fico, unsurprisingly has a positive take on Dubček whose thoughts he told his audience he and fellow leaders of SMER find alive and inspiring to this day and feel moral duty to continue them. Just what thoughts Dubček and his generation of Prague Spring reform communists more have to offer to contemporary Slovakia was, was however, left tantalizingly vague. Dubček, Fico told listeners, saw democracy as essentially an exercise in civilized dialogue. He was also a ‘leading figure in the European socialist movement’ and a humanist, aware of his responsibility for civilization, who believed in advancing knowledge through co-operation with scholars (s vedcami). Another speaker, Ivan Laluh, president of the Alexander Dubček Society , offered a similarly motherhood-and-apple-pie assessment of Dubček as standing for ‘humanism, social justice, decency and tolerance’ – which could apply to most European liberal, social democratic or (even) Christian Democratic politicians of any standing.
The awkward truth seems to be that, however sympathetically one might look at the tragedy of Czechoslovak reform communism – and it is something of a breath of fresh air to find more than the dismissal and amnesia characteristic of much Czech public debate on the period – it has little to say today. Dubček’s political inactivity during the ‘normalization’ period of the 1970s and 80s and short-lived political career after 1989 also amount to relatively little. So why the fuss? At one level, there is a simple a nationalist rationale. Slovaks Fico pointedly noted should ‘immerse ourselves more deeply in the thought of Slovak scholars and politicians, who have inscribed themselves on the consciousness of Europe’ even if – as in Dubček’s case – these are somewhat shallow waters. Dubček’s status in Slovakia is therefore understandably higher – Slovakia’s newest university in Trenčín was re-named Alexander Dubček University in 2002, an honour unlikely to be bestowed on any Czech leaders of the Prague Spring in their home republic.

Fico opponents might, however, detect a darker side in his comments that Dubček’s concept of democracy as civilized debate had not been attained in contemporary Slovakia as people were too intolerant and ‘too strongly intoxicated with freedom of speech’ which, translated, may mean there is too much criticism of his government in the media and society. Possibly, we should think back beyond the humanism and apple pie to remember the more authoritarian impulses during the 1960s of Dubček et al to regulate pluralism and debate so as to ensure they delivered social consensus around the ‘right’ result – something often overlooked in many accounts because the Prague Spring was progressive and democratically minded by the standards of communist one party rule in Eastern Europe. As Peter Siani-Davies’s excellent book on the Romanian Revolution reminds us the semi-authoritarian populism of the National Salvation Front in part had its roots in the technocratic authoritarianism and engineered dialogue to ensure Consensus of would-be communist reformers who opposed Ceausescu, as well as the country’s more obviously authoritarian and nationalist traditions.

In other ways, however, the vacuous lionizing of Dubček seem to underline the ideologically shallow roots of SMER and the Slovak centre-left. In the absence of a strong historic social democratic tradition, it has few models or historical figures to draw on not obviously compromised by association with the Stalinism of 1950s or the ‘normalization’ of the 1970s and 80s and ‘Europe’ no longer offers a comfortable template following SMER’s suspension from the Party of European Socialists. Moreover, as the current controversy over public remembrance of Andrej Hlinka awkwardly demonstrates, there are plenty of historic reference points for those of Catholic-populist-nationalist persuasion to fix on.

>The right stuff at SSEES

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The long running working-paper-in-the-making that I have co-written with Aleks Szczerbiak, Tim Haughton and Brigid Fowler on the comparative politics of the centre-right in Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic gets an airing as a talk in at the SSEES European politics seminar series. Despite my hinting that this was not going to be rip roaring exposé of the far right quite a few SSEES students turn and there are some useful questions and comments.

Can Poland’s Law and Justice (Pis) really be classified as centre-right given its homophobia, links with the Catholic ultras and non-membership of the EPP? I stress that, as far as I know, PiS’s estrangement from the European People’s Party and membership of the Alliance for a Europe of Nations (AEN) in the European Parliament is self-chosen and that Hungary’s Fidesz (safely ensconsed in the EPP) is in many ways more radical. PiS is also a broad catch-all grou, which was one of our criteria for defining the centre-right. But, says another questioner, this rather undermines your argument that the Polish centre-right is fragmented as it has two quite large (if antagonstic) parties: PiS and the liberal-conservative Civic Platform (mentioned before in this blog). This is again a good point, although the division of the Polish right into equal sized conservative and liberal-conservative blocs still represents a failure to (re-)create an overarching bloc and both – having been founded in 2001 – are fairly new formations. Did we see the parties as catch in an ideology vs. strategy vs. interests trilemma? Well, sort of, ideology building required political focus that distracts from campaigning (and vice versa) but for us ideology was a kind of organizational glue and solution to collective action probelm more than anything.

More trenchant theoretical criticism comes from my SSEES colleague Felix Ciuta. As a security theorist of a constuctivist inclination, he doesn’t like my reservations about our emerging stress on ideology. It may be unmeasurable in many ways, but so (ultimately) are many things and my preferred stress on the cohesion of party founding elites is arguably an illustration of this. More seriously, he argues our whole analysis despite testing various theoretical explanations is very much geared towards various forms of elite action – the supply side, so to speak of party formation and we ignore (or just assume) electoral demand for centre-right parties of various stripes. This is a perceptive observation, although I felt that the different explanations we look at to explain centre-right party success (legacies and resources, electoral and constitutional incentives, path dependency and critical junctures) cast elites in slightly different roles.

Moreover, Felix noted, my concluding remarks that studies (of the right) in CEE needed to be more aware of the role informal elite networks played in party formation and stabilization and less fixated with formal institutional models, was, from a Romanian perspective, bleedin’ obvious (my paraphrase, not his words). In Romania (and many post-Soviet points East) parties are self-evidently vehicles for elite networks. At the very least, ideology and elite cohesion should really be the starting point not the end point – I was quite sure whether to be pleased or despair at an invitation to write another on a 15,000 word paper, althought there was a certain iron logic to it.

Our rather long and winding road through different explanations of centre-right party success (each wholly or partly ruled out I guess reflected the fact that we approached the topic from very much a Visegrad angle: successful reformers with fairly programmatic (and in Hungary and the Czech Republic) stable) party politics. But the discussion suggests, very interestingly, that in examining the politics in successful Visegrad states, we can learn from work done in relation to reform laggards such as Bulgaria or Romania on post-communist patronage and clientelism. There is I belief some work on clientlism, patronage and networking in relation to Baltic parties, which as I mentioned seem to be almost disposable institutions, but this (at least till now) has been little known among British specialists on wider Central and Eastern Europe. Coincidently enough, Herbert Kitschelt and Steven I Wilkinson have new edited book just out on, Patrons, Clients and Policies (Cambridge University). Being one of Professor K’s fans I naturally rushed out and bought it. It looks very good.

>Romania on my mind

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Had an interesting conversation with one of my PhD students who is doing some research on local level participation by young people in Romania. Apart from the fact, that as in the West ‘participation’ seems to be a tale of non-participation. Indeed Guardian journalist Gary Young astutely argues in a recent commentary that behind all the hype about Barack Obama, the real story to report in US politics is that of a non-voting disengaged poor and disempowered America. A local level parties apparently in Romania are mainly vehicles for business interests and local oligarchies with no real relation to local society. This actually sounds rather like the Czech party system, which is generally considered to have proper parties and to be more open and more ideologically based. I guess it could be merely a question of degree; an indication that local politics doesn’t matter and is simply detached from national electoral politics; or a by-product of over stable parties and consequent lack of the ‘robust competition’ which seems to have replaced path dependence as the new flavour of the month in comparative research on CEE.

She also pointed me towards an interesting online article on the Romanian centre-right by Ed Maxfield. This develops a few ideas some collaborators and I sketched out a few years ago in a collection for Routledge by applying them to the case of Romania’s electorally rather weak civic anti-communist pro-market centre-right parties. Skating (as we did) rather unevenly between rival explanations such as the demands of electoral constituencies, available ideological themes, and problems of party organization it argues that the weakness of Romania’s first centre-right reformist vehicle, the Democratic Convention (CDR) was rooted its lack of credibility as a successor party to anti-communist opposition (mantle claimed by the National Salvation Front (FSN) and later ‘social democratic’ mutations); inability to make a credible nationalist appeal (again captured by the FSN and later the Greater Romania Party (PRM); or put together a convincing pro-market discourse to overcome deep rooted populist and etatist inclinations. It also seems to have fluffed the need to build stable party structures although the article is a bit vaguer here.

In Romania, the unusual character of the National Salvation Front (and later incarnations) as nomenklatura vehicle that could present itself as a revolutionary and democratic force, rather than a successor party is clearly the key to understanding much of the country’s post-1989 politics. This is conventionally understood as a legacy of the personalistic or neo-patrimonial character of the Ceausescu regime, although the way and the force with which such legacies play out is less deterministic and fixed than often assumed. As the article interestingly argues, the rise of the Greater Romania Party – CEE strongest far right grouping – is less a product of atavist nationalist traditions stretching back to the Iron Guard as filtered through Ceausescu, than a populist crisis of the party system (perhaps akin to that that produced the rise of the Simeon II National Movement at about the same time in neighbouring Bulgaria). The question as ever is how is structured and legacy driven (centre-right) party develop is and what scope there is for political choices to overcome there. Here perhaps for Romania the obvious comparator is Bulgaria and the Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) – later United Democratic Forces (ODS) which seemed an impressive example of centre-right party building against the odds, but has since fragmented. A researcher called Duncan Brown at the University of Keele has just completed a PhD on the SDS/ODS, apparently, but seems academically rather elusive and hasn’t published much on this very interesting case, which is a pity.

There’s also the question of whether creates large anti-market constituencies determine the weakness/failure of the pro-market right or vice versa. I remember Czech opinion polls in 1990, that despite the ‘liberal’ and ‘pro-market’ tag attached to the Czechs, showed huge scepticism about the specifics of mass privatization, sale to foreigners, so I wonder whether public preferences on the market are set more by early post-transition politics and perhaps early experience of economic reform than preset ‘interests’, living standards or ‘traditions’. It’s pleasing to see our framework being taken up – the collection that emerged from it has just received the backhanded accolade of being reviewed by doyen of European Comp Pol. Herbert Kitschelt (Slavic Review) where I’m told its gets a predictable battering for lack of grand theory etc – but I couldn’t help wondering whether the Romanian case did highlight more interesting strands in the story of the CEE centre-righ less evident in the dull old Visegrad cases. I was a little surprised that Ed Maxfield, in non-academic life an organizer for Britain’s Lib Dems, doesn’t pick up on the Romanian National Liberals (PNL) as fellow liberals, rather than part of the spongy ‘centre-right’ category we were grappling with. They are, after all members of the ELDR Euro-party, which recently held a congress in Bucharest and also part of a diverse but detectable ‘lost’ party family historic liberal parties with clear organizational links to late 19th century cleavages that Lipset and Rokkan famously wrote of can be found in a number of European countries, although party system development and varying competitive pressures have pushed them in various directions: the pro-market ‘right-wing’ Dutch VVD which developed as part of the pillarization system; the British Lib Dems (part rural non-conformist Celtic fringe, part intellectual and metropolitan elite and leafy suburban salaria)t; the Venstre parties in Norway and Denmark and so on.

Interestingly, the National Liberals’ historic rivals (and uneasy post-1989 allies) the National Peasant Party also belonged to another ‘lost’ party family, that of Agrarian parties, although Nick Sitter and Agnes Batory rediscovered it in an excellent article in the European Journal of Political Research. This is part of a wider conundrum of and the survival and adaptation of (some) ‘historic parties’, whose death was generally rather exaggerated in early writing on the region – the Czech Social Democrats and Polish Peasants come to mind. A further strand the article highlights is the role of social-liberal and social-democratic forces in the (eventual) formation of the pro-market centre-right, in this case Petre Roman’s social democrats turned Democrats. As a look at the Portuguese, Slovenian or indeed US case shows – Social Democrats of the USA being a key waystation for some neo-con in the early 1970s – anti-communist Social Democracy can generate some very robustly right-wing politics.