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>Westernizing the CEE far-right?

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An intriguing question pops up in my email inbox. Can I think of two or three examples of parties in CEE that might plausibly resemble the ‘radical right wing populists’ (as opposed to old-style neo-fascist or integral-national extreme right) that have had a star billing in West European comparative politics for the last two or three decades? In truth I can’t. Plenty of successors to blood and soil national traditions, now somewhat tamed by post-1989 realities of liberal democracy and European integration – and yes, bucketsloads of economic populism some styling itself right (Hungary’s Fidesz), some left (Slovakia’s Smer) and some just down-the-line militantly anti-establishment (Poland’s Self-Defence) but even allowing for the rather flexible nature of the ‘radical right populist’ label and similar categories in Western European political science, the honest answer is that there really aren’t (m)any.

The political trajectories/opportunity structures of the two regions are just too different- national and historic minorities rather than multi-ethnic/multi-cultural societies resulting from migration are the key target and preoccupation in CEE. And, to take up the analytical framework of Herbert Kitschelt, any putative Western style radical-populist right in CEE lacks a libertarian-left against which to react (important post-1989 tendencies towards social liberalization, notwithstanding. True n some countries (Hungary, Poland) there a sort of revived historic conservative/national/Christian vs. liberal divide).

The best approximation I can think of is the Czech Republicans – in parliament 1992-8, now defunct – who had no close ties to the historic far right and were a recognizably welfare chauvinist party with an albeit with a dose of paranoid anti-communism thrown in. The party had electorate of young working class ‘transition losers’ in declining industrial regions They loosely identified with the Western radical right (logo borrowed from the German Republicans, contacts with French FN), but on the other hand were anti-German and anti-Romany in the best old style nationalist traditions. Led by the erratic Dr Sládek, who lacked the polish and political nous to build on his 1992 breakthrough and ran the party has a personal fiefdom of cronies, relatives and hangers, the party was blown away by the resurgent Czech Social Democrats, who do a more respectable (non-racist) form of economic populism, in 1998. There is a useful little article on the Republicans in Czech Sociological Review online here.

Since the late 1990s, the fragmented and marginalized Czech far right has been trying to come up with a more sophisticated form of the same formula. The most media savvy of the various groupuscules seems to be the National Party (Národní strana), which rather unusually for CEE is led by a woman, Petra Edelmannová. However, in the run up to the 2006 elections, the Czech far-right’s ambitions were limited to crossing the 2% barrier needed for state funding and the proposed National Forces coalition collapsed before it had even got off the ground.

In the longer term, I guess as CEE societies move closer to the West European ‘model’, – and relatively successful transformers like the Czech Republic should do so quickest – one might see the emergence of Western-style radical right parties if and when parties drawing on historic extreme nationalism flounder, that is. My guess though is that where exist they will not and will merely adapt fusing old Hungarian Justice and Life Party style sub-cultural anti-Semitic nationalism with something in the vein of Gianfranco Fini, Pim Forteyn or the Scandinavian Progress Parties.

>What’s making me go grey… ? Belgian Euro-election results, naturally

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Yesterday, I spent a frustrating couple of hours online trying to track down details of the Belgian pensioners party of the early 1990s Waardig Ouder Worden (Growing Old With Dignity). Although a typical peripheral minor party WOW did apparently inially poll well enough to win one MEP in 1994 and had one deputy on Antwerp council, where it it was founded, and seems to have been divided over its relationship with Vlaams Blok in the city. I had assumed that WOW was connected with the break-up of the mainstream Flemish nationalist Volksunie movement, but in fact – perhaps more in keeping with the fringe nature of grey parties – it was a split from the Rossem protest/get-rich-quick party founded in 1991 by the picaresque Flemish businessman and writer, Jean-Pierre van Rossen. Rossem, it seems, stood for Radicale Omvormers and Sociale Strijders voor een Eerlijker Maatschappij which apparently translates as ‘Radical Reformists and Social Fighters for a Fairer society’.
As van Rossen – who like many fringe populist politicians once worked as a university lecturer – was associated with the dubious Moneytron investment system, the Rossem part seems to have been intended as a vehicle for him to gain parliamentary immunity and avoid prosecution. The party contested the November elections for the Belgian national (federal) parliament and gained a surprising 3.2% of the vote winning three seats in the lower house and one in the senate. Despite being arrested for fraud a few days before the elections, Rossem was eventually sworn in on 7 January 1992 but his antics shouting – for example shouting ‘Vive la république’ as King Albert II was being sworn in as monarch – contributed to the party collapsing in predictable infighting. WOW seems to have been one of the earliest and biggest splits from the party.
So far so interesting, but what really drove me made was the impossibility of finding on-line Belgian European election results for 1994. The Belgian Interior Ministry and parliaments website only have the two most recent results. Wikipedia (boo hiss) to which more serious sites like ElectionWorld have sadly migrated does not have them, nor do they seem to have been written up in Electoral Studies.

>Ireland’s transfer season

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Taking a break from marking, I sat up late reading throughthe Irish election results with the help of the Irish Times election special. After a few scares along the way, dominant incumbent party – indeed dominant party in Irish politics full stop – Fianna Fáil scored a convincing victory, although its coalition partners the small liberal Progressive Democrats, like so many liberal parties in CEE, were finally whacked almost into parliamentary nothingness (2 deputies, TDs (Teachtaí Dála) I should say. Commentatrors suggest that, however, that in the Irish case the demise of PDs was more due them being victims og their own success in spreading the free market gospel, rather than victims of Fico-esque or Catholic nationalist populism. The Greens, support concentrated in Dublin, stood still and Sinn Fein – powersharing deal with Ian Paisley in the North – failed to make the anticipated breakthrough, probably because voters distrusted their left-of-centre economic policy (scaled back during the campaign) and they were squeezed by the two big parties, Fianna Fail and Fianna Gael, the latter (historically less nationalist) party making gains but still coming behind FF and having litle prospect of forming another ‘rainbow coalition’ with the Greens and previous coalition partner the Irish Labour Party, one of the few mainstream European social democratic parties to be a long-time minor party in its own national political system. An FF-Labour coalition isn’t apparently ruled out.

The best thing about Irish politics from the lecturer’s/anorak’s point of view, however, is Single Transferable Vote system, which is not only appealingly complex in istelf with its quotas, multiple transfers of voters from losing candidates (and sometimes winning candidates with a surplus), but offers incredible strategic permutations: how many candidates to field, how to manage the splitting of first preferance votes between candidates, ‘losers’ on first preferences being elected as transfers gradually increased their score, candidates hanging on across multiple rounds (up to 13 this election) in waiting for a big transfer from a popular losing candidate, competition between candidates from the same party in multi-member constituencies and, of course, the personal voter for personalities and politicians with a local following. STV Irish style is not super proportional due to the (constituionally fixed) size of constituencies (3-5 members) but it does offer ample scope for local independents to come through. There were 14 in the outgoing 166 member parliament, 5 in this. Interestingly, and perhaps for this reason, there were almost no extra-parliamentary minor parties standing. Sitting up till 1.00am looking over the results from bits of Dublin where various aunties and uncles life and trying to work out why Sinn Fein failed to get a TD elected in Donegal despute getting 20% of first preferences, I became an instant STV groupie.

>Election resources: Allemagne nul points…

>Since ElectionWorld merged with Wikipedia, I’ve been casting around for slightly more reliable election sites and recently came across the hub site www.electoralresources.org, which also has a useful accompanying blog, Electoral Panorama. Alas it doesn’t overcome some of the deficiencies of some national electoral authorities – Germany’s election office for example has a poor and patchy site, on which it is difficult to trace the performance of minor parties other than in a couple recent national Bundestag elections. The German language originals seem as bad as the English pages.

>Scotland: the red and the grey

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Well, as the polls anticipated Scotland’s minor parties including the fledging pensioners’ party were comprehensively dished by larger parties and in particular the Scots Nats who at first glance appear to have hovered up the voters previously garnered by Greens, Scottish Socialists and (on a more minor scale) John Swinburne’s pensioner’s party. Only the Greens – the most established and robust of minor parties hung on in the Scottish Parliament with two MSPs (down five). Looked at more closely – and course I was as I was checking out the pensioners’ party – there is a slightly more complex picture.

The Scottish Socialists (SSP) had split into two rival factions after party leader Tommy Sheridan’s apparent predilection for group sex and swingers’ clubs (and implausible sounding denials of subsequent tabloid revelations) disenchanted some of his former comrades, although he did rather unexpectedly win damages at a libel trial, seemingly through sheer force of personality. Electorally speaking, Sheridan’s Solidarity party came out on top over the official SSP but the combined far-left vote was down to a mere 2.1%, more than halved, suggesting that former voters had, for whatever reason had, indeed plumped for the Scots Nats.

This tends to suggest that charismatic populist leadership always mattered far more these than socialist ideology that preoccupied the sundry Trotskyist groups that managed to merge in Scotland in 1997. Further South George Galloway, leader of the anti-war leftist/Muslim Respect party (which is where the English SWP ended up) – another libel trial winner with an egocentric flair for self-promotion seems to be a politician in the same mould. Although his ability to keep his trousers is not in doubt, his sense of overconfident invulnerability also tripped him up, as dressing up in a leotard and pretending to be a cat on Big Brother was probably hard to sell to comrades and brothers as one of the many (meowing?) voices of anti-capitalism.

On the other hand, both Sheridan and Galloway are pretty canny and effective political operators, whose chutzpah and outrageous media bravura have to draw a certain admiration even from the sceptically and unsympathetic (like me) and so perhaps the first of a new breed of semi-celebrity egomaniac left-wing populists, part-celebrity, part stand-up comedian, part politician. Ken Livingstone is perhaps a clever and more successful example. The idea of new ‘left-wing populism’ has recently been developed in more academic terms by Luke March in a recent issue of SAIS Review, although I don’t think he covers the celebrity, sex and leotards angles.

To return to Grey politics, the Scottish Senior Citizens’ Unity Party (SSCUP) despite fielding almost a full set of regional lists and lost it single MSP, John Swinburne. Following the logic of the two-part electoral system as they had in 2003, the SSCUP like the Greens, the two socialist parties and all other minor parties apart from the Scottish Chrisitan Party more or less ignored the single member constituencies entirely and concentrated entirely on the regional list element, where seats are allocated using the Additional Member system which compensates parties with large support who have done poorly in the single member constituencies. This was presumably knowing they had no chance of winning and might inadvertently let in parties they disliked by splitting the vote and it was also logical because a canny voter using their second regional for a minor party might in fact be more likely to elect someone by using their regional vote for a minor party than rather big party that had already gained lots of MSPs elected in the single member contest in a region region. The SSCUP (like the Greens and SSP) actually only fielded one only one candidate in the first-past-the-post contests – party leader John Swinburne in Motherwell, who urged voters to back Labour in first-past-the-post contests (a self-chosen role of support party to the traditional centre-left that pensioners’ parties elsewhere in Europe not infrequently try to play).

Totting up the regional list vote the SSCUP did not do totally disastrously – nationally it came to 1.90% as opposed to 1.5% in 2003 with a growth in absolute number of votes polled from 28, 996 to 38,743, although turnout was up from 49.4% in 2003 to 51.8% the party did this time field lists in all eight regions (as opposed to three in 2003). So, no national breakthrough for tartan grey power, but a score that does put the SSCUP in the same bracket as other established fringe grey parties in Germany or Scandinavia, which pull in 1-2% of the national vote. The SSCUP came in as the most important extra parliamentary party nationally, although admittedly in a Scottish context that does mean being the sixth party.

Swinburne’s failure to re-enter Holyrood basically stemmed from a failure to see his personal vote in the single member Motherwell constituency – 6.51% and 1702 votes, slightly better than 1597 votes (6.29%) he got in 2003 – reflected as enough of a regional vote to gain one of the top-up-seats. In 2003 the SSCUP list in Central Scotland headed by Swinburne got 17, 146 votes (6.52%), this time a mere 7060 votes (2.48%). Basically, the Scottish Greys seemed to have tried too hard to be a national party, rather than focusing their limited resources on a few promising regions.

It will be interesting to see whether the SSCUP will now keep going, which I suspect will depend on the party funding regime, whether Swinburne stays on in politics and whether a new leader emerges – simple life expectancy statistics would seem to suggest that even if they overcome electoral hurdle pensioner politicians may have a limited career. Swinburne is 76. On the other hand, the leader of the German Grey Panthers Trude Unruh led the group (which founded in 1975 when she was in her fifties) for more than three decades before her recent death aged 80.

>Scotland’s Greys set for minor breakthrough?

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To the mild consternation of friends, family and colleagues, I have started to track the fortunes of Europe’s disparate band of pensioners’ parties, which if not quite the wave of the future seem at least an interesting side effect of current debates on grey power and ageing populations. And they are, of course, better represented (if still minor) phenomenon in Eastern Europe (Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, Poland, the Czech Republic in the 1990s and Russia too until the , but also present and in some cases registering on the political radar in Western states (Israel, Holland – well established fringe groupings in Scandinavia and Germany).

Indeed, closer to home Bonnie Scotland has it own grey party, the Scottish Senior Citizens’ Unity Party (SCSUP), which, thanks to the PR element in the Scottish electoral system, gained one MSP in the Scottish Parliament in 2003 – John Swinburne, former commercial director of Motherwell football club. In 2003, the SCSUP was something of a one man band, spending less than £4000 on its entire campaign and fielding only a handful of candidates – by comparison other minor parties such as the Christian values oriented People’s Alliance spent twenty times that. Although reviled by some (seemingly SNP-supporting) commentators who see the SCSUP as a Labour-inspired spoiler and in trouble of homophobic remarks at one time, Swinburne seems to have made enough of a mark and to have generated enough publicity as a novelty to create a reasonable party organization and attract some experienced and/or well known candidates for the upcoming 3 May elections this year. The interesting question is whether – like the Scottish Socialists and Greens in 2003 – the SCSUP can spring a surprise and grab rather more seats than anticipated.

Polling research carried in 2005 out in connection with proposals for Council Tax reform in Scotland by Help the Aged submitted to the Scottish Parliament suggested that 22% of retired people in Scotland would be prepared to use their second (regional list) vote to support the SCSUP, a figure suggesting the party had the potential to gain 7 or 8 members of the Scottish Parliament. More recent polling, suggests that when not lumped with ‘others’ the SCSUP has around 3% support, although for a minor party reliant on protest or floating voters – will older voters really want to bracket themselves politically as ‘greys’? – this is a very uncertain estimate. My own personal bet is that they might gain 3 or 4 deputies, although I can’t find any bookmarkers’ odds to allow me to modestly back my hunch.

Looking over, the experience of grey parties that have made (minor) breakthroughs (GIL group in Israel, pensioners’ parties in Holland in the mid-1990s, the unexpected entry of Germany’s Grey Panthers into the Berlin legislature last year), Scotland in 2007 does seem to fit the bill for an injection of grey party politics: a polity with strong social and welfare traditions facing (uncertain) reform; an election when the existing party system is in flux; some reasonable organization on the ground and a deal of publicity.

I spent my train journey home yesterday poring over pre-election coverage of the Irish elections in the Irish Times – a variegated party landscape but no pensioners’ party (above conditions, perhaps not fulfilled). Looks like I shall have to buy The Scotsman come Friday morning.

Is that possible in deepest mid-Sussex commuter country?

>How should we study Czech parties?

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Arriving back on Ryanair via Brno’s nicely modernizied airport surrounded by open countryside with now healthy toe and now recovered kids, I’m almost relieved to have to get back to work. One of the more interesting bits towards the end of a pretty desolately trip was a conversation with a colleague in Masaryk University’s impressively renovated Faculty of Social Studies building. The question to hand: how to the study Czech parties and party system. Czech (party) politics rather lacks the pasazz of other states in CEE and stable and straightforward to the point of being with parties that easily locatable with the dominant European party families to the point of being… well, boring. Rarely an electoral earthquake, exotic new party, bout of illiberal democracy or blast of pace-setting flat tax reforms to be found. Just the latest episode in an excruciating decade long pattern of left-right deadline and some compromise tax proposals trumpeted by the press with limited chance of being passed by parliament that have drawn flack even from within the Civic Democrats for their timorousness and accidental clobbering of middle income earners. More importantly, why should anyone not interested in Czech politics actually want pick up a journal and read about them

Surveying the familiar landscape of parties, we do admittedly have the Czech Communists (KSČM), who are still hardline, but receding in influence without spectacularly disappearing) who might represent a case study of demographically driven organizational decline of one of the region’s few genuine mass parties The cordon sanitaire around the Communists and nature of the Social Democrat-Communist relationship are also quite interesting – the management of extremist parties by larger moderate competitors is an issue of wider comparative interest given the recent iffy coalitions formed in Poland and Slovakia. There are also parallels in the handling of radical right parties by the mainstream in the old EU – the FPÖ in Austria or the Danish People’s Party and perhaps also be distant echoes of the Socialist-Communist relationship in France (my instinct was to compare KSČM with the scattering of small orthodox CPs across Western Europe, although as my Czech colleague pointed out the party has a kind of odd dual ideology, which could perhaps be compared to the development of Russia’s KPRF in the 1990s before it was Putinized which is chronicled in Luke March’s book) And, of course, the dear old Czech socdemáci themselves, one of the rare instance of a historic party that got transformed into something broader and more viable. The breakthrough of the Czech Greens also perhaps offer an opportunity to examine whether one of CEE’s richer and more secular societies is turning post-materialist and just why and how you can be a pro-market Green.

The more fundamental question we realised was just how do you study CEE? Czech political scientists feel they’ve done the groundwork on their home party system over the past decade or so (a fact confirmed by the Faculty’s well stocked bookshop) while Western specialists wonder what comes next after Democratization and Europeanization the two big agendas that have shaped research on CEE in the last decade and a half.

I spent the afternoon pondering this over several cups of decaffeinated Nescafe in preparation for presentation at the CEELBAS launch conference tomorrow, but when the contrasting agenda of research on democratic quality in old and new member states got too much, I decided to catch the end of Columbo had thoughtfully scheduled just then by Channel 5.

>Wot, no Portuguese liberals?

>Stumbled across in interesting academic blog essay on the non-emergence of a liberal party in Portugal by a University of Sussex PhD graduate.

>ie-politics: putting Sinn Féin in comparative context

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Came across an interesting discussion on placing Sinn Féin in comparative context on the equally interesting ie-politics blog. Odd that no one seems to think of placing SF in a category of nationalist/regionalist irredentist parties, but I guess that just my British/big state perspective, which takes no account of SF’s all-Ireland organization and its status in the Republic as an extremist pariah party preparing to duck under the cordon sanitaire and become a coalition player in the Republic, rather than the incomprehensible but no longer threatening peripheral irritant it seems viewed from London.

>The far right in Antwerp

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I’ve just spent two days at an ESRC workshop on the extreme right held – with a certain unintended appropriateness – in Antwerp, electoral power base of the Flemish ultra-nationalist party Vlaams Belang (‘Flemish Interest’). Formerly – until an ineffective legal banning order – Vlaams Blok, VB pulled over 30% of the vote the city, which has a large number of residents of Moroccan, Turkish and African origin as well as sizeable Orthodox Jewish community and looks likely to do just as well again in local elections this October. As Antwerp’s largest party, it is kept of municipal office only by a grand coalition of Socialists, Liberals, Greens and others backed by written cordon sanitaire agreement. Although I wasn’t aware of it, just how grimly toxic Antwerp’s community relations are after 15 years of Vlaams Belang as a major party were being brutally illustrated a couple of kilometres from where I was staying by the random racist murders of an Malian women and a two year old girl, whose nanny she was, and wounding of a Turkish woman (or a Belgian of Turkish descent?) sitting on a bench reading a book.

Not understanding any Dutch, I only later learned later from La Libre Belgique. that the shootings took place near the Old Town where I was staying, taking in the cathedrals, historic buildings, shops and ice cream when not sitting in a seminar room in Antwerp University’s fine new social sciences building. As a Walloon newspaper LLB showed a certain diffidence about commenting directly on Flemish racism, but its reporting was clear enough. The 18 year old gunman, who had bought a rifle and cartridges over the counter for 515 euros that same day, admitted the racist motivation of the killings. But for being shot and wounded himself by a policeman, hw would have killed more. He had just been expelled from agricultural secondary collegefor smoking in his dormitory. but came from a VB supporting family – his uncle was reportedly a party activist. VB leaders condemned the murder, disclaimed any respisnsibility for racist violence (at length) and questioned its racist motivation, noting that the little girl was white. The killer’s profile of quiet, unexceptional youth seems familiar from American and European high school masacres as does the fact that he reportedly expected the police to finish him off, suggesting a desire for suicide-by-cop. However, as the Flemish press (as reported in LLB) and Walloon academics interviewed in the same newspaper noted, the incident is part of a wider climate of exclusionary nationalism which is becoming more normal and publicly acceptable in Flanders and, to a lesser extent Wallonia (the Belgian Front National too has its bastions) – perhaps the most important (if intangible) influence of such parties.

As Cas Mudde astutely noted at the end of the some ‘extreme right’ characteristic such as nativism, opposition to immigration and populist anti-elitism have long been mainstreamed. Indeed, although we talk in terms of ‘immigration’ as an issue, most Western countries had already blocked primary immigration in the 1970s. The issue is more one of integration and mutli-culturalism than policing borders. As Anna Marie Smith’s excellent book on British New Right discourses of race and sexulaity notes, the notion of ‘immigrant’ has less to do with where people have travelled from/to and much to do with contructing political identities through exclusion and inclusion. This rather makes a nonsense of the notion of historicially derived party families with more or less similar ideologies – the divisions between far right, mainstream right and even in certain respects mainstream left are blurred and porous because of the extent of ideological development and convergence. The long ideological journey of New Labour is a case in point. This Mudde suggested meant that the rise of the far right is less a matter of its unique ideology, than its ability to take ownership of certain issues like ‘immigration’, which may at certain times become (be made?) salient for voters

The seminar’s more academic treatment of the far right and its progress (in some countries) noted that parties like VB are not pathological exceptions, whose success needs to be explained as an odd event, by focusing on the ‘demand side’ of social change, economic decline and identity crises, but an established part of the political landscape, which may in certain circumstance enter government, usually after traversing stages – ghettoization, marginalization, acceptance as ‘normal’ populist outsider etc. The cases discussed included not only – inevitably – VB, but also VB, Austria’s Freedom Party, the French Front National, the National Alliance in Italy and Hungary’s (declining) old fashionedly anti-Semitic far right, which for strategic reasons the mainstream right in Hungary might even need to partially sustain – as far as CEE is concerned the agrarian populists of Self-Defence and Catholic conservative League of Polish families have just made it to government office in Poland in coalition with more mainstream Catholic conservatives, this would have made a better talking point. A range of strategies for managing a rising populist radical right was revealed from the Austrian People’s party’s successful “co-opt and castrate” strategy, to cordons sanitaires of varying formality depending on local traditions and how well conventional parties can do without far-right support (quite well in France) to the very fluid Italian situation, where the post-fascist National Alliance seems to be ‘responsibilizing’ itself into a conventional conservative centre-right party – although not responsible enough to be accepted into the EPP. Meanwhile, Forza Italia – a party taht confounds east categorization if ever there was one, beyond noting the influence of business franchising models and the Berlusconi brand of charisma – is interestingly dividing up between liberals and Catholics. The issues to follow is perhaps not party competition but party co-operation and interdependence