Tag Archives: democracy

What drives the rise of Europe’s new anti-establishment parties?

 The spectacular breakthrough of Pepe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy in February underlined the potential for a new type of anti-establishment politics in Europe – loosely organised, tech savvy and fierce in its demands to change the way politics is carried class, but lacking the anti-capitalism or racism that would make them easily pigeon-holeable as traditional outsider parties of far-left or far-right.

But for observers of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), the dramatic eruption of new parties led by charismatic anti-politicians promising to fight corruption, renew politics and empower citizens is nothing new. Indeed, over the last decade a succession of such parties – led by a colourful array of ‘non-politicians’ ranging from aristocrats to central bankers, journalists and businessmen – have broken into parliaments in the region.

 Some have achieved spectacular overnight success in elections on a scale easily comparable to Grillo’s and (unlike Grillo) have often marched straight into government. Some examples include Simeon II National Movement (NDSV) in Bulgaria in 2001, New Era in Latvia in 2002 and Res Publica (Estonia 2003) and, more recently, the Czech Republic’s Public Affairs party (2010), the Palikot Movement (Poland 2011), Positive Slovenia (2011) and Ordinary People (Slovakia 2012),

 In a new paper my UCL colleague Allan Sikk and I explore what these parties, which we term anti-establishment reform parties, have in common and what drives their success. Read More…

An ‘Arab 1989’ in 1989?

Arab woman

Photo: Wally Gombetz CC BY-SA 2.0

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misdiagnosing threats to democracy in Eastern Europe

Littmann

Photo : diekatrin via Flikr  cc

I really don’t know why John Feffer’s Huffington Post post Hungary: The Cancer in the Middle of Europe? is being so widely shared and translated.

Its starting point that  things are going badly wrong in Hungary and that the country is taking a sharply illiberal turn under the conservative-national administration of Fidesz – and that in Jobbik it has a strong and virulent far-right party – is reasonable enough (although  it has been made many times before).  And there is indeed a climate of nationalism and anti-Roma racism on the Hungarian right, although Fidesz and Jobbik are probably as much rivals as ‘occasional allies’ especially given the stuttering performance of Hungary’s divided liberal-left.

And the transformation of Fidesz from a liberal party to conservative bloc occurred in the mid-late 1990s, not recently as some readers might assume from reading piece. Nor, being one of the major governing parties in Hungary since 1998 can Fidesz have interrupted a ‘rotating kleptocracy’ of liberal parties – the intepretation of why parties like Fidesz come to power offered in the conclusion.

But piece’s main argument that Hungary is Eastern Europe writ large or the shape things to come in the region. ‘What’s eating away at a free society in Hungary’, Feffer writes, ‘has metastasized. This same cancer is present elsewhere on the continent’.

And this is really hyperbole.  Read More…

Czech democracy in the mirror: What the presidential elections tell us

Prezidentské volby 2013, volba prezidenta

Photo: Juandev via Wikimedia Commons

The first direct elections of the Czech president offered a refreshing contrast to the back room manoeuvring and political horse-trading that accompanied the election in parliament of presidents Havel and (especially) Klaus. Despite the nastiness of the Zeman campaign and vacuousness of the political marketing around Karel Schwarzenberg, voters were offered a clear choice between personalities and priorities and turned out in large numbers to make it.

 Television pictures of voters ranging from ski-suited holiday-makers to prisoners choosing the new head of state send quiet but clear message of a country that takes its democracy seriously and knows how to use it.

 But the elections also hold up a more subtle mirror to Czech democracy, showing a political system still defined by patterns laid down in 1990s, which may nevertheless be on the cusp of change. Read More…

Party government: All we want for Christmas is you…?

All I want for ChristmasAt an eye-watering £75 Hans Keman and Ferdinand Müller-Rommel’s new Party Government in the New Europe which came out earlier this year with Routledge is unlikely to have made it to under many people’s Christmas trees this year. It does, however, offer a quite thought-provoking, if not causally readable, a state-of-the-art survey of research on the place of parties in European democracy – and one with laudable and long overdue goal of taking in  both established West European democracies and the younger democratic systems in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE).

 As Keman and Müller-Rommel make clear, despite an onslaught of social and geopolitical transformation – post-modernisation, de-industrialistion, Europeanisation, globalisation and so on – patterns of European party government have proved surprisingly resilient. Although public dissatisfaction and electoral volatility have mounted in Western Europe – driving the emergence of new parties that many of us political scientists professionally know and love– old established parties have maintained a central position in government.

While an impressive feat – and mildly reassuring to the middle aged and middle of the road, the editors are almost certainly right to term is growing mismatch between the represented in parliament and the pool of from which of governing parties are drawn as a ‘gap in representational quality’. Eastern Europe’s party systems till recently also been characterised by high (if reducing) volatility, but Keman and Müller-Rommel claim, rather intriguingly, greater fluidity of parties and party systems implies less of a representation deficit. A chapter by Fernando Casal Bértoa and the late Peter Mair party system institutionalisation in CEE confirms that the region’s parties are both less institutionalised than those in earlier waves of democratisation and are bcoming, if anything, less institutionalised, but is rather less sanguine about what the prospect implies for democracy.

 Political scientists have often, if somewhat implicitly, followed Schumpeter in seeing party competition as i being about picking teams of elites to govern. However, as Ian Budge and Michael McDonald point out this not only ties the profession to an elitist and technocratic model that many would find rather toxic, neglects the question nature of the democratic majorities which underpin them.  More specifically, they are concerned with the question of whether – and how – elected governments’ majorities should overlap with the position of the mythical median voter in the political centre or with the electorate of largest party (which may be elsewhere).

 Through a series of simulations, they find that there is often considerable tension between the two according to the format of party system and the speed and scope of policy change under a new government. Slower rates of policy change make it more straightforward to reconcile the two models of ‘democratic congruence’. Such findings Budge and McDonald note are particularly relevant to CEE, where lack of voter-party identification makes simplified party competition models of this kind a good(ish) approximation of reality.

 Social policy specialists are not everyone’s idea of sexy, but – as well driving forward many of the best innovations institutional theory – they have long seen party competition as a key factor shaping policy outcomes. Perhaps not altogether surprisingly then this book features as a triple whammy of chapters in this area. Klaus Armingeon kicks off, testing whether the classical proposition that strength of left parties, leads to stronger trade unions and more egalitarian welfare states, applies to Central and East Europe. While CEE the does exactly not invalidate this view – Armingeon finds no instances of social democratic welfare states without strong left parties – many CEE case fit the West European paradigm uncomfortably:  there are many instances of strong left parties with weak trade unions and minimal welfare states.

 CEE party specialists might at this point nod sagely and wonder whether the region’s self-styled social democratic parties – many successors to ruling communist parties – can be straightforwardly taken at face value as programmatically ‘left’ parties.  For as F.G Schmidt notes – and Armingeon himself allows – additional factors such as the national legacies of communist rule clearly needs to be factored in. Schmidt analysis of patterns of party government and social policy in CEE accordingly picks out two distinct groups of states, which intuitively make sense: the Visegrad countries and Slovenia, where – as in Western Europe – the party-political coloration of governments matter for social polciy and Bulgaria, Romania and the Baltic states where it does not.

 Paul Penning top things off using Charles Ragin’s QCA to show that the left/right complexion of governing parties matters for welfare policies only in combination with factors such pre-existing benefit levels, integration into global markets or corporatism.  Frustratingly, however, data limitations stop him extending the analysis to CEE, where – as in so many areas – QCA might help unpick spaghetti-like patterns of similarities and difference with the West.

 Although it narrows ‘party government’ to party influence on policy, overall Party Government in the New Europe is an engaging collection, refreshingly free of padding, which gives a lucid overview of a well established but obviously still evolving research agenda. Despite the good intentions, however, it sadly makes limited progress in integrating the comparative study of Western Europe and CEE. Faced with the usual awkward patterns of difference and similarity, even chapters genuinely pan-Europe in scope fall back on the old standbys of simply juxtaposing the two halves of the New Europe or viewing the East through the prism of the West.

 Like the inevitable presents of socks and aftershave, useful, familiar and not altogether unwelcome, but not quite…

Europe as antipolitics machine

Entropa Total

Photo: Daniel Antal via Flikr

The customers in this Westminster café seem a strange mix of  suited civil servants and builders in boots and hi-vis. But it’s worth the early start and the cup of industrial strength tea to beat a path back to the European Council for Foreign Affairs, who this week are  putting on two-handed discussion on Legitimacy: Democracy versus Technocracy.

Despite the abstraction of the title, the event focuses on the experience of the two countries which have borne the brunt of the current crisis and catalysed the political weaknesses in the Eurozone Greece and Ireland.  Looking at experiences and perspectives of small countries is (I think quite rightly) a particular concern of the ECFR, although Greece is admittedly not exactly under the radar right now.

Both speakers, Brigid Laffan of UCD  and Loukas Tsoukalis of the ELIAMEP thinktank sensibly  avoided addressing the populism vs. technocracy dichotomy of the title – one of ECFR’s favourite motifs, but too simple and stylised –   and instead  stressed the way in which the new politics of low-growth and hard times locked in by the Eurocrisis (especially grim in Greece despite success in budget-cutting and squeezing living standards to effect ‘internal devaluation’) are reshuffling the party political deck. Populist ‘challenger parties’ such as the True Finns and (possibly – notes teas-stained and illegible here) Syriza in Greece were picking up support and making electoral breakthroughs in both creditor and debtor states.

The net result was a new ‘politics of constrained choice’ reflected the oft-noted (and often prosaic seeming) fact that EU is a system of multilevel governance: now see national governments trying (and failing) to be accountable to both their own domestic electorates and EU partner governments. This meant not the abolition of any scope for national policy responses – there was some political wiggle room and EU members had quite different capacities for adaptability and reform – but its constriction.

However, elections so far (as in Ireland) had seen frustrated voters turn to main opposition parties and, to a lesser extent, to previously marginalised but coalitionable  substitutes for them (Syriza) the next cycles of elections would put this to the test. The unanswered question was much social pain and dislocation, economic contraction and what level of unemployment – especially youth unemployment – would it take to trigger an explosive political crisis.

Cyclists demonstrating

Photo: Gesimpopos via Wikicommons

For Ireland the answer would seem to be quite a lot. Irish society, said aid Prof Laffan, was a characterised by pragmatism, ideological moderation and a certain fatalistic passivity – there had been little in the way of Southern Europe contentious politics and anti-austerity protest – partly reflecting its historical experience, partly its more global and transatlantic, outlook. With the exception of the last point, it sounded oddly, but familiarly, East European. In Greece, where there was more anger, protest and populism, there was very little nationalistic, euroscepticm (or Euro-scepticism) – notwithstanding the media attention lavished on Golden Dawn – with few people advocating Grexit. However, the main political surprises, both speakers agreed, were still to come.

But what of Populism versus Technocracy? ‘Challenger parties’ was another term for populism – understood here to mean a loose amalgam of demgagogic, impossibilist demands, rather than in the more precise academic sense – although the speakers tended, I think rightly, to see such parties as an unknown threat yet to come, rather than recycling the  hackneyed and predictable line that the rise of the far-right is already upon is. But where was the technocracy?

European Commission flags

Photo: Sebastien Betrand via Wikicommons

The answer was partly in the presence of technocrats and technocratic governments in Greece and Italy, but more in the technocratic nature of the unelected European institutions now moving to centre-stage: the European Central Bank  (‘a pivotal’ institution) and the European Commission, which noted the new fiscal pacts and oversight arrangements were empowering as never before (although I seem to remember reading other commentaries arguing that the crisis had, in fact, disempowered the Commission and robbed it of the political initiative it once possessed).

I wasn’t sure whether such how fully European level institutions really are or whether the problem with them is the fact that they are technocratic or the fact that they are European. Leaving this aside, however, the option of a top-down technocratic solution to the crisis centring around such institutions, it was argued, risked further de-legitimation of the EU – there was a need to re-build EU institutions into new frameworks of accountability perhaps by enhancing roles of national parliaments with European Parliament also having a potential role despite its failure to become a fully-fledged (and legitimate) European-wide legislature.

Rather interestingly – although ominously – the concept of democracy evoked was as accountability without representation similar to the one Mark Leonard of the ECFR claimed to detect emerging in China.  But unfortunately, at national level there are democratic structures with the reverse profile: representation without (clear lines of) accountability

It’s hard to see this staving off the rise of see off populist challengers.  In the absence of growth the [Euro] system lacks the political and economic resources to see them off as it once did to Communist Parties after 1945.  The whole, complex multi-level economic and political system of the EU, it seems is set up as a giant anti-politics machine, a production line for populist  challengers parties of all shades and models that is ready to roll.

Sligo yeats

Photo: Rowan Gillespie via Wikicommons

And in a sense this is the one bright spot to the pessimism-laden analysis that isthe stock in trade of thinktanks these days: the uncertainty around the exact form that such new forms will take. While the ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’ line from Yeats’s The Second Coming  – surely one of the all time favourite lines for of the  literate political scientist to quote – may indeed fit our current sense of fear and foreboding we do not yet know the identity of the rough beast  politicall slouching towards Bethlehem – or should that be Brussels? –  to be born

Uncorking democracy

Photo: Davide Restivo, Lenzburg, Aarau, Switzerland. Via Wikicommons

Like a good wine or an old cheese, comparative research on democratisation is often described as a ‘mature’ academic literature and, as such, one that can lay claim to have accumulated some real knowledge about one of the central trends in global politics over last two centuries or so. Leonardo Morlino’s new book Changes for Democracy: Actors, Structures, Processes, however, warns that even such cautious satisfaction is not in order.

 There has, he suggests, been high-level theorising of institutional change and empirical research with quantitative research preoccupied with operationalization tends to produce simplistic variable-driven theories.  Regionally oriented approaches to democratisation –beginning with the ‘transition’ approaches developed by O’Donnell and other Latin Americanists in 1970s – however, get the lowest marks for offering  ‘questions but not theoretical results’ heralding a  ‘…retreat from theory or a fear of developing a theory… ’ .

 Morlino’s wide-ranging book which – sometimes rather awkwardly –  mixes literature review, empirical analysis and discusses concepts tries to correct this with an ambitious three-part reflection seeking to identify underlying mechanisms of democratisation. It takes in definitions of democracy (and illiberal democracy); phases of democratisation and democratic ‘anchors’ and the question of deepening democracy once established.

 

The book is in some ways a rather untidy and frustrating read. Parts of the discussion, seemed laboured and the book shifts frustratingly between recapitulation and revision of conventional approaches such Dahl’s minimal definition of procedural democracy to much more novel insights. In the end in its own terms, however, its does deliver  picking out three key shared mechanisms of democratisation:  learning as the main motor transition; ‘anchoring’ mechanisms as key to consolidation; and the fact that the good qualities of good democracies tend to converge, rather than being brutally traded-off.

 Set against the sheer complexity and diversity of global democratisation, however, such conclusions to me seemed a little sparse. Much more interesting were the arresting and sometimes rather brilliant linkages Morlino make between phases of democratisation which tend to be theorised and studied in isolation. Reflections on ‘anchoring’ democracy, for example, lead to an innovative idea about the nature of political crises in modern democracies as rooted to initial patterns of democratic consolidation.  His suggestion that the well-worn ‘transition’ perspective might be used to analyse shifts within democracies from one model of democracy to another is a similarly arresting insight.

 All in all while not quite a vintage work, certainly a book with some subtle and interesting flavours worth savouring for a while.

(A longer version of this review is forthcoming in Czech Sociological Review)

 

Difficult Hungarian lesson

Hungary's parliament - Photo: Gothika/Wikicommons

The constitutional and institutional changes pushed through by Hungary’s ruling conservative-national Fidesz party following its emphatic election victory in April 2010 have attracted increasing coverage – and almost enirely negative –  from academic and journalistic observers of Central European politic, foreign governments and international bodies such as the European Parliament and Council of Europe.

As well as making multiple amendments to the existing constitution, the Fidesz government has used its huge majority – it has well over the 2/3 of seats in the National Assembly required  – enact a new constitution due to take effect 1 January 2012 and pass new electoral and media laws over the head of other parties, which fundamentally change the rules of the political game, destroying linstitutional checks and balances and embedding its own political influence against future majorities, which puts Hungary on course for at best low quality democracy and at worse some form of semi-authoritarian illiberal democracy.

The new constitution and related chanages, critics say, pares back power of Hungary’s previously

Fidesz European elections poster 2009 Photo: Burrows/Wikicommons

powerful Constitutional Court and made access to it more difficult; engineered a purge of the judiciary  and created a powerful National Judicial Office (headed by its own political appointee) with extensive powers to move and (un)appoint new judges.

New media law – already the target of demonstrations earlier this year (2011) –  have created new media board – staffed by Fidesz supporters and headed by prime ministerial appointee with a nine year term – which can review all media (including perhaps bloggers) for balance and impose heavy fines, resulting in self-censorship for the sake of commerical survival. Other key public appointees have similarly long terms of office and are only replace-able if new post holders are agreed by 2/3 parliamentary majority.

The charges are summarised here by Kim Lane Scheppele, who concludes that

Virtually every independent political institution has taken a hit. The human rights, data protection and minority affairs ombudsmen have been collapsed into one lesser post. The public prosecutor, the state audit office and, most recently, the Central Bank are all slated for more overtly political management in the new legal order  (…)

Fidesz party loyalists …will be able to conduct public investigations, intimidate the media, press criminal charges and continue to pack the courts long after the government’s current term is over..

Hungarian election posters 2010 Photo: Czank Mate/Wikicommons

The new electoral law, ably discussed here by Alan Renwick,  makes a number of changes  to Hungary’s complex ‘mixed’ electoral system, some of which – such as the introduction of a single round of voting in single member constituencies in preference to a French-style run-off – are arguably unpredictable.

But the net effect seems to be to make a strongly majoritarian electoral system more majoritarian and to provide a probable electoral bonus for the right by allowing non-resident Hungarian citizens, which following changes to citizenship law is now likely to include hundred thousand ethnic Hungarians living in Slovakia, Romania and Serbia, to vote in parliamentary elections.

The boundaries of the single member constitutencies used to elect most deputies have also, oddl,  been written into the electoral law – rather than subject to periodic independent review – making the changeable only through further constitutional amendment. Simulations linked to by Alan Renwick and Kim Scheppele suggest these are advantageous to Fidesz. More worryingly, changes to the make-up of the national Election Commission overseeing elections have reportedly seen a politically balanced body transformed into one run by Fidesz supporting appointees.

Party politics in Hungary may be further shaken up if proposed constitutional amendments listing the crimes of ruling party during communist dictatorship pass and the statue of limitations is lifted: any court cases brought against the post-communist Socialists, who are the successor party, may, Kim Scheppele suggests, bankrupt Hungary’s main moderate opposition party, leaving the far-right Jobbik as the principal oppositon to Fidesz.

There is, of course, another side the story. Fidesz supporters note the left-liberal bias to academic commentary on Hungarian politics on Hungary, which has never accepted national-conservative politics of Fidesz as legitimate; that the changes are wrongly described or exaggerated or ill informed due to the language barrier; and that some Western democracies to not meet the implied standards that Hungary is being subject to – US congressional districts boundaries, for example,  are extensively gerrymandered. Fidesz  is just clearing up the corrupt mess left by the Socialists, whose electoral collapse is entirely down to their own corruption. One eloquent such voice can be found in my former SSEES colleague, now a second term MEP George Schöpflin, writing in the FT, and in video below.

Some of the comments on Kim Lane Scheppele also reasonably dispute some points of fact.

I have tried to look things over from this angle, but even taking these points on board – and some of them are I suspect are valid – they fail to address the substance of the criticism:  George Schöpflin’s performance stressing misunderstanding and bad faith is sadly unconvincing. It is hard to not to interpret the changes as, whatever else they are, a very illiberal, ill advised and divisive power grab by the Hungarian right.

Who's next? Socialists and far-right in 2nd place in 2010

It is also one which I suspect will rebound both on Hungarian conservative-national right itself: some of the changes, such as the new electoral system will be rather unpredictable. Even allowing for partisan boundary changes – whose partisan effects can change over time quite quickly as the UK experience illustrates – a majoritarian system favours the right only so long as it is politically cohesive and has majority support.  The bad economic weather suggests even with  a tame media, any incumbent is likely to see its support rapidly erode.

The other concerns the divided nature of Hungary. As The Economist suggests there is a large liberal and left-wing Hungary: the Socialists and their liberal allies had, after all, until the 2010 meltdown, offered pretty stiff competition. Although the far-right seems to be offering stiff competion for the votes of the economically disempowered, there is no reason to think that in the longer term,  over a period of years, that a new centre-left bloc of some kind would not emerge. Indeed, the possible demise of the post-communist successor party might be a boon: in Poland the liberal Civic Platform now fills the space once taken by the post-communist left, while in Slovenia a new reformist centre-left bloc stepped almost effortless into the shoes of the discredited post-communist Social Democrats  (SD) and  Liberal Democrats (LDS).

But if – or perhaps when electoral support for Fidesz goes South – any left-liberal majority, will either have to come up with a 2/3 majority of its own (perhaps not altogether impossible) and carry out its own counter-revolution, or bump up the constitutional entrenchments now being put in place. (As George Schöpflin explains above, there will be no provision to change the constitution by referendum. ) The result perhaps five or ten years down the line would seem to be some very high stakes electoral politics – with all the temptations that will throw up – and/or the severest of constitutional crises, possibly attended by a very intense politics of civic mobilisation: this, after all, is way change happens when institutional channels to change are blocked and people sense that democracy has been rigged.

How could all this happen? Hungary, after all, was supposed to be one Central and Eastern Europe’s  most consolidated new democracies, yet suddenly leaves us dusting off our Fareed Zakharia and contemplating the prospects for a kind of Coloured Revolution on the Danube. Could it –  or something like it –  happen elsewhere in the region? Weren’t people like  me telling you that CEE was a region flawed but basically normal democracies?

There seem to several factors which have enabled democratic derailment:

  • Majoritarian electoral system, which, if there is a big  electoral win for one side and/or a collapse for the other (Fidesz polled 53% in 2010), would result in a constitutional majority in parliament. In CEE conditions, where electorates are volitile and economies (now) vulnerable, this was, in hindsight, perhaps just a matter of time
  • A unicameral parliament, or a least a weak upper chamber. Hungary has no upper house.
  • Well organised, cohesive party organisation. Single member districts and majoritarian electoral systems tend to promote this.
  • A party with a strong sense of ideological mission: if you are going to seize the chance to remake the constitutional order you need to believe in what you doing. Conservative-national parties in states  like Hungary which had a negotiated, compromise transition in 1989,  see politics as a part of  a ‘thick transition’ – a long-term struggle to finish the revolutionary work of 1989, by eliminating the (ex-)communist nomenklatura from public left.

Elsewhere the region, some other states partially fulfill these conditions: Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) had a similar anti-communist conservative-national outlook, but – like all governing parties – due to PR never had the votes or seats to contemplate giving its vision of a new ‘Fourth Republic’  constitutional form and is now politically on the back foot.

Romania Bulgaria and Slovakia appear slightly riskier propositions: the latter are both unicameral democracies, while the Romanian Senate closely mirrors the lower house. All have strong (soon-to-be) ruling parties seen by some as having illiberal inclinations: however, none seem to have the sense of ideological mission needed – two, Romania’s PSD and Slovakia’s SMER, are loosely social democratic, while Bulgaria’s GERB is a loose knit centrist or centre-right party of power.

GERB press conference 2009 Photo: Vladimir Petkov/ Wikicommons

None seem likely to come near 2/3 majority required to amend or replace the constitution (3/4 in Bulgaria should you merely want to amend), although Bulgaria’s GERB whose electoral support sits around 40% and is suspected by critics of sporadic electoral fraud might just manage an absolute parliamentary majority.

If we think the worst of such parties, then a more informal strategy of co-optation, corruption and politicisation of the state apparatus, spiced with the odd draconian media law, is perhaps what we should expect.

The lessons of  Hungary’s complex and unfolding, but probably unique, situation is that the political and power instincts of CEE parties and politicians are, indeed, be as bad as we feared, but that fragmented and loose parties and PR are like to keep democracy – albeit  corrupt and flawed –  in most places safe from frontal assualt by the region’s politicians.

Probably.

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.

Area studies in the dock again?

Cover of Brzezinski's book The Grand Failure

Foreseeing Soviet collapse?

In the early-mid 1990s  –  along with a chain of momentous social and political consequences- the fall of communism also triggered soul searching and crises in the academic world among specialists on Soviet and East European politics: Why, with the possible and belated exception of Zbigniew Brzenzinki, had no one seen the speed and completeness of the Soviet collape coming?

Breast beating self-examination and self-criticism among wrong footed  USSR and Eastern European specialist soon gave way to academic spats between proponents of Soviet/East European area studies and comparativeists more closely plugged in to the political science mainstream, who argued that the  (ost-communist world  should be seen along with Latin America and parts of Africa and Asia as just one more newly democratizing region.

As anyone who takes my comparative politics courses knows, the most famous expression of this was Bunce/Schmitter & Karl polemic played out on the pages of Slavic Review which still makes informative and interesting reading today, although the polemical positions expressed have since softened, become more complex and the dabtes has generally  moved on.

Indeed, two decades of research on post-communist systems have, in broad terms,  yield a pretty thorough and sophisticated understanding of the various paths  taken by the former socialist world. So much so, that come the Arab Spring  East European politics specialists have moved play the role that Latin Americanists twenty odd years ago, offering interpretations of events in North Africa and the Middle East based on analogies with Eastern Europe and the former USSR, while specialists on the region  are bogged down trying to make sense of unfolding events and fight off requests for TV studios and journalists. Is Egypt closer to Romania in 1989 or East Germany? Or Yugoslavia in 2000? And so on.  As you know, in a minor way, even I have been at it.

But, of course, as with Eastern Europe in 1990s, the inevitable question comes – why did specialists on the region failed to see the wave of protest and regime change coming? F. Gregory Gausse takes up this challenge in an article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs (many thanks to the person who forwarded me a copy of the article).  The answer  he gives is threCover of Foreign Affairsefold :

1) that they misread the natire of regime  institutions, failing to see the political importance of armies and secuirty forces and their ability, in some case, to detach themselves from authoritarian rulers:

2)  that they ignored ‘Pan-Arabism’, the extent to which people in one Arab country would take events in others as template and inspiration for protest; and

3) that they under-estimated the ability of de-mobilised societies to spring into life over night and over-estimated the effectiveness of regimes’ ability  to stabilise themselves, and especially their the extent of their (admittedly often limited) social constituencies and their abilities to co-opt better-offsocial groups.

Parallels with the misreadings and mistakes of (post-)Sovietologists of the 1980s and 1990s? Well, yes and no. A clear commonality is the over-estimation of authoritarian stability and failure to sense that there was potential for ‘Now Out of Nothing’ mass mobilisation (but how can you tell when such mobilisation will occur?) and the critical role of demonstration effective across a culturally similar region. East Europeans inMap of Miidle East 1989 may not have spoken a common language, but saw themselves culturally as European  and as historically belonging to West not East.

Moreover,  for communist Eastern Europe there is one single lynchpin, the USSR:  misunderstand the unravelling but genuine reform politics  of the Gorbachev period and you would be likely to miss everything else. I still can’t get away from the feeling that Central and East European democracy is ultimately just a side effect of  perestroika .

Misinterpretation of institutions offers few parallels: no East European armies acted as midwives of revolution and well placed and savvy communist party-state apparatus at best negotiated themselves off the political stage. Perhaps, howver,  the underlying commonality is of failing to grasp the sheer adaptability of authoritatarian institutions, both in the good sense (accomodation to democracy) and the bad (‘stolen revolutions’, surreptious denial of popular aspirartions for far reaching change).

But does Area Studies have some fatal flaw? Some of the accusations of parochialism and disconnect from wider comparative and theoretical development in political science were perhaps true in the case of Soviet and East European Area Studies during late communism – I am. let’s admit it,  a  fan of Schmitter, both generally and on this point – but it seem hard to make the same charge even half stick for Middle East studies.

Perhaps the real point is that even being comparatively and theoretically well tooled and having the language, cultural and historical background are insufficient to waves of regime change until they are upon you.  Social and political science is not about prediction, but the ability to make accurate anticipations (even retrospectively?) of major historical developments is a reasonable test.

The jury’s still out, but trouble is peering into the dock,  I’m not actually sure who the accused is.

Update: Martin Brown (via Facebook) helpfully points out the following roundtable discussion between US Sovietologists on H-net.