Tag Archives: parties

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

Exit stage right? Photo: DerHuti

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

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

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

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

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

Ladislav Batora, Photo: Dezidor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaflet for the eurosceptic Free Citizens' Party formed in 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It might easily turn round and savage him.

Reykjavík diary

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

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

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

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

Photo: Jóhann Heiðar Árnason

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

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

…….

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

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

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

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

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

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

….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But hang on.

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

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

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

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

Photo: James Cridland

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

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

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

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

….

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

Way out West

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

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

Czech Republic: ‘Sovereignty’ a party to watch

Bobošíková

Last year’s Czech elections  were noticeable for the political breakthrough of two new pro-market centre-right parties,  TOP09 and which contributed to large, if now very shaky, majority centre right coalition, TOP09 and Public Affairs (VV). A less well noted feature of the election, however, was the relatively good performance of two new(ish)  extra-parliamentary parties of the left: the Citizens’ Rights Party – Zemanites (SPOZ) led by… yes, you guessed it  former Social Democrat Prime Minister Miloš Zeman,  and the Sovereignty (Suverenita) bloc  led by former TV newsreader and ex-MEP Jana Bobošíková.

Although neither made it into parliament, the 8% of votes they pulled in between them arguably contributed as much to the failure of the Social Democrats to win their widely predicted victory as the allure of new pro-reform parties:  Sovereignty gained 3.67% , while Zeman’s SPOZ came a bit closer to the 5% threshold with 4.22%. Both gained some modest state funding, although Sovereignty did manage  4.26% in the 2009 European elections.

Both SPOZ and Sovereignty are politically still in business, but for my money of the two Sovereignty , the weaker grouping in 2010, which re-elected Jana Bobošíková as leader last week is the more interesting and potentially the more significant.

Sovereignty’s politics are straightforward:   a mix of Czech nationalism, euroscepticism and the anti-elite, outsider rhetoric that many people like to call populism. It is, its website makes clear, a party ‘…defending the interests of citizens of the Czech Republic…’ with the conservatve-nationalist strap-lin “Law, Labour, Order” which sounds like a  mixture of Lenin and Marshall Pétain.  Its programme stresses the sovereign national state, the need to fight Europeanisation, globalisation and vested interests with a quick nod to the role of Christian roots and the dangers of illegal immigration  (never really an issue in the CR – due to so far rather limited scope of immigration into the country, legal and illegal) and Islam (again a non-issue even for nationalistcally minded voters – there are a handful of Muslims in the CR)

As with many strains of historic Czech nationalism, there is clear anti-German dimension,Suverrenita poster with the Sudeťáci   (Sudeten German diaspora and its  organisations) and their supposed revanchist claims on Czech territory, sovereignty and property a predictable and familiar target.  Overall, however, the language of the programme is conservative-nationalist, more Václav Klaus than Jean Marie Le Pen, although on the other hand Ms Bobošíková’s stinging denunciation of the EU’s  ‘pseudo-humanist and so-called politically correct waffle about human rights and minorities’ in launching her party’s election programme last year has overtones of  the Czech radical right for whom liberalism and humanism of the Masarykian tradition that still frames mainstream  Czech discourse are have always been an anathema. To some extent, the party draws on a trend – visible since the (anti-)EU accession referendum campaign of 2003 –  for mainstream social conservatives and right-wing eurosceptics to find common grown with those with backgrounds on the far right and the political fringe, most strikingly seen in the surprisingly Akce DOST initiative/petition, whose conservative-nationalist manifesto is very much in the territory being staked out by Sovereignty. (DOST representatives, including some of its wackier,  less salonfähig leaders, were recently received by President Klaus, who is keeping a none too discouraging eye on  developments.)

Sovereignty programme as seen by Worlde

Sovereignty's programme as seen by Wordle.net

Economically, Sovereignty seems to lean more to left than right, vigorously denouncing members of parliament for living high on the hog at public expense while condemning ordinary people to austerity. Shrewdly aware, that there are more discontented older people than young people in the CR – and that discontented pensioners show up to vote more often – Sovereignty has also been careful to make a lot of noise opposing pension reform. Its programme also contains a dose of economic nationalism of the kind popular even in the mainstream in 1990s: Czech technology, building up Czech (-owned) industry and so on.

Bobošiková’s re-election as leader of her party was not exactly a surprise. Until recently, the part was, after all, called Sovereignty – the Jana Boboíiková Bloc and the one time newsreader, former presidential  and ex-MEP  is by far the best known figure of the eurosceptic and populist group. Her re-launched, renamed party was officially formed in 2009 an amalgamation of independent groupings and fringe parties, but Ms Bobošíková’s career in politics and public life goes back rather earlier.

A newsreader and presenter for state-owned Czech Television from the mid-1990s, she was one of the few journalists to side with the station’s new management during the ‘Television Crisis’ of 2000-1, which saw strikes, blacked-out screens and mass protests against alleged efforts by the Czech Republic’s two major political parties to emasculate the independence of the country’s main public broadcaster.

The real story of the crisis is perhaps less black and white, but it led Ms B to the private TV Nova controlled by controversial ex-journalist and would-be media mogul, Vladmimír Železný, and into 2004 into the Independent Democrats (NEZ) grouping formed by Železný through an effective takeover of a small long-established local independents’ bloc. To some surprise, amid low turnout and a meltdown at the pools the then governing Social Democrats, NEZ, however, polled sufficient votes(8.08%) to elect two MEPs: Mr Železný and Ms Bobošíková. Despite an expensive campaign, however, NEZ flopped in the 2006 parliamentary elections in 2006 and (while it still exists) faded into obscurity (and financial controversy). Bobošíková and Železný quickly parted company in the EP, where she was an unimportant, though not inactive, non-inscrite

NEZ logo

NEZ logo

In 2006 Ms Bobošíková formed the Politika 21 party as a personal vehicle, which attracted some media attention when it fielded the estranged wife of Prime Minister Miroslav Topolánek as a Senate candidate, but made little political impact otherwise.  She also hit the headlines in 2008 accepting nomination  to stand as an independent presidential candidate by the Communist Party, but withdraw before MPs and Senators could throw her out in the first round of voting.  Seemingly trying to repeat the model of the 2004,  she formed Sovereignty in 2009 as a coalition between her own top-down creation and the long-time fringe grouping, the Common Sense Party (SZR). The grouping was later joined by the Secure Life Party (SŽJ), a grouping claiming to represent socially disadvantaged groups such as pensioners, disabled people and single mothers.

The newly  re-launched Sovereignty – Bloc of the Future (SBB) (the Bobošíková bit has been dropped) also appears to have rudimentary, but functional organisation,  if we take local elections as a crude proxy. In October 2010 Sovereignty was able to field 1639 candidates , a fraction of the total but respectable by the standards of Czech minor parties,  not bad.  The faction ridden Czech Greens, for example, a fairly long-established party which  represented in parliament between 2006 and 2010 only managed 1, 998 (although the Zemanovci had 2554)  (For reference Věci veřejné (VV), the smallest and newest parliamentary party ran 4,500 candidates). Predictably new parties did rather less well in terms of candidates elected – (Suverenita) had a mere 61, the Zeman-ites 81, Public Affairs 267, but – independents’ groupings aside – no one builds a party from the grassroots up in the CR these days, do they?

However, being electorally outshone by the Zeman grouping,  as I mentioned, sovereignty has a number of unusual features, that make it a party worth watching – and perhaps a grouping that may spring a surprise in 2014.

1. Despite being regarded by critics as an opportunistic lightweight (‘Bobo’),  Ms Bobošíková is a relatively experienced and media savvy figure with immediate recognition, who unlike the semi-retired Zeman is an energetic and active figure. Despite multiple establishment contacts, she is also a credible outsider and as a woman a relatively novel outsider. Prominent women politicians in mainstream Czech parties have generally fared badly, often being brutally marginalised by male colleagues.

Like Public Affairs which used its female leaders to emphasize its novel and anti-establishment credentials (before shunting them aside) Sovereignty – one of whose 2010 slogans was Chcete změnu, volte ženu (Vote For A Woman If You Want Change) clearly knows how to play this card.

2010 where parties' voters came from - SC&C Exit poll

2010 election: Where Czech parties' voters came from - SC&C Exit poll

2. Despite its harshly old-fashioned sounding nationalism, the party is in the Czech context something of transcender of established divisions. It is not obviously of left or right. It is neither communist or social-social democratic in origin, but neither is it  anti-communist.

Consequently, it seems able to draw in a remarkable range of sympathisers from other parties and backgrounds, ranging from ex-Communists like Senator Jaroslava Doubrava (of the regional party Severocesi.cz) to detached eurosceptics of the right linked to the pro-Klaus wing of the Civic Democrats, such as Vlastimil Tlustý  and ex-Social Democrats such Jana Volfová, a former General Secretary and close confidante of Miloš Zeman, most recently associated with the Secure Life Party. Two MPs expelled from Public Affairs are also reportedly keen to join.

Ms Bobošiková’s ideological fuzziness and good personal connections with both left and right clearly help here, but at a more underlying level she is helped by the fact that illiberal assertive Czech nationalism of a populist and anti-German stripe has pedigrees – and hence possibly popular appeal – on both left and right.

I say ‘possibly’ because in 2010, according to exit polling, Sovereignty, like Zemanovci, took voters mainly from the Social Democrats and had only slightly wider appeal  to former right-wing voters than Zeman and co. Moreover, rather tellingly Sovereignty took an atypically large slice of former Communist voters and the age and educational profile were squarely that of a party of the Czech left: older and less well-educated. Indeed,  more so than that of voters for  Zeman and his ex-Social Democrat veterans.

3. The third important element is the melting iceberg of Czech party system stability. Two new parties burst on to the political stage on the centre-right in 2010 while the Social Democrat (ČSSD) lost out to Sovereignty and SPOZ, meaning that overall new challengers took around a third of the vote.

The short-term net effect of such instability has, paradoxically, been to consolidate the Czech party system:  Public Affairs has, as was widely anticipated, gone into electoral freefall and both SPOZ and Suverenita have faded to 1-2 per cent support in the polls.  If an election was held tomorrow, polls suggest, four largish parties would make it into parliament, rather than the 5-6 that have been the case since since the mid-1990s.  Three of these (Civic Democrats, Social Democrats and Communists) are, moreover, well established parties that have also been around since 1990s. So much for party system change?

But, as various political scientists have pointed out, once the new party habit has been acquired it is hard to kick and, as 2010 elections in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia shown, come election time challenges can come right. Moreover, Ms Bobošíková claims to have learned the lessons of Public Affairs ill fated efforts to sustain itself as an organisation-lite Facebook party. Whether she can build a ‘mass party’ out of the current modest set up and ragbag of supporters must be questionable, although as a former Social Democrat general secretary with a subsequent track record in minor party politics,  Jana Volfová, should know a thing or two about how (not) to go about it.

In 2014 with economic austerity still biting and the EU possibly not looking the healthiest – certainly not the guarantee of economic stability and prosperity it once unfailingly appeared – a eurosceptic, populist party with cross-over appeal, that is relatively immune to anti-communist criticism (although the charge of right-wing extremism and flakiness could stick given the weird and wonderful collection of minor party politicians beating a path to its door) could do well.

SPOZ logo

SPOZ logo

SPOZ, I predict, is unlikely to be the the force it was in 2010:  its relatively good performance last year was dependent a remarkably high profile (and expensive) national billboard campaign.  Some say it was financed by Russian oil company Lukoil, others wonder if right-wing donors saw it as useful spoiler party. In any case, the party may be able to rely on big money again.

Suverentia, by contrast, had minimal billboard visibility. The party is also dependent on the mercurial figure of Zeman, whose has made repeated forays into and out of political retirement over the past few years: characteristically, resigned has leader of the party that bears his name after the election in recognition of its failure, but is still honorary president. Just to erase any lasting impression of greater moderation, Mr Zeman has also recently made his own contribution to emerging new lefrtright conservative-national ideological cocktail with a remarks (later elaborated on for good measure) explaining that Isalm is an enemy  ‘anti-civilization’.

Somehow, I don’t see Zeman as a Czech Pim Fortuyn.

Whether Ms Bobošíková will become some kind of Czech Sarah Palin or Pia Kjærsgaard is an altogether more intresting and  open question, however.

Setting the seal on CEELBAS: Parties and post-communism

Logo of the CEELBAS consortiumThe Centre for East European for Language Based Area Studies (CEELBAS) research consortium which has brought researchers interested in  various aspects of Russia and CEE at UCL, Birmingham, Oxford and beyond together in a variety of events and networks over the last few years is moving into its concluding phase, at least as far as social science are concerned – it will continue as a slightly different form dealing with culture and humanities. To mark its achievements the Centre  held a  conference  which saw me chairing a politics panel trying to paint a big picture overview of post-communist transformation, as well as providing characteristically generous support for a series of  more specialised workshops, including one I co-ran with Birmingham’s Tim Haughton and my SSEES colleague Allan Sikk on changing patterns of party stability and instability in CEE.

The bigger picture conference panel, slightly to my surprise at the time – although in hindsight it is perhaps less surprising – assumed the form of kind of clash between David Lane’s pessimistic and critical view of the trajectories of post-communist states, which he saw as having been set back or impeded in socio-economic and developmental terms by the attempted creation of market societies and market democracies. He anticipated new projects of statism and/or state corporatism with echoes of interwar Europe.

Aleks Szczerbiak speaks at CEELBAS conference

Aleks Szczerbiak on Poland

Other panel members – and at at least one questioner from the audience taking a social democratic perspective – questioned both some of the statistics and some of the assumptions: simple measures of output and development were surely misleading and increases in choice and personal freedom (both economic and – sometimes – political) had to be factored in. Moreover, where were the strong organised social interests required for experiments in (neo-)corportatism to come from?

The more optimistic strand of the discussion, from panelists who it must be said tended to foreground the experience of CEE, centred on the role of the EU and domestic elites in delivering relatively successful outcome, although there were some differences of emphasis about the nature of Polish politics – were the divisions between liberal and national-conservative camps that currently structure the party politics of CEE’s largest democracy legacies of Solidarity or a more durable and contemporary culture war?

I, alas, had to close the proceedings to avoid melting down the conference schedule. A rather good panel on post-communist social networks, which I caught the end of after rushing off to discuss a student’s dissertation plans with her, was waiting in the wings.

Picture of biscuits

Food for thought

The theme of party politics , as well as some of the surplus biscuits from the conference,  were, however, taken up in our smaller workshop the following week, where a dozen or so party specialist pondered the fact that – with the recent breakthough of new parties in previously stable-seeming party systems in the region – CEE party politics could no longer be understand as a weak, partical approximation of West European party systems.

The first panel centred on Stephen Whitefield and Robert Rohrscheider’s findings on the different forms ‘representational strain’ generated by party-voter relationships in CEE and Western Europe by parties trying to accommodate voters with different levels of partisanship. Interestingly, they find, Western Europe offers a tougher and more complex environment for parties than CEE, highlighting (perhaps) the gap in organising and campaigning capacities in the two halves of the continent. Their forthcoming book promises to be a real highlight.

Founders of anti-establishment parties

The many and varied leaders of CEE's new anti-establishment parties

Panel two saw Allan Sikk and I presenting our current work in progress on the emergence of anti-establishment, pro-reform parties in CEE. Like our fellow presenters, Andreas Bågenholm and Andreas Johansson Heinö (who has a very readable – even via Google translate – blog here dealing mainly with Swedish politics) we see the politicisation of corruption and the (party) politics of anti-corruption as an important party of the story, but we are also fans of Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) and causal complexity as our preliminary work suggests that not only are there  other factors are also in play and that are several ways for these parties to break through.

As Andreas and Andreas’s paper, which dealt with the impacts of the same set of moderate anti-corruption protests parties, suggests, however, ‘corruption’ may be as much a stand-in for more inchoate dissatisfaction and disgust with politics than bribe taking and –making. Some workshop participants think that a certain mix of high and low real-life corruption is needed for this kind of party to step onto the political stage, but I am swept away by the idea of corruption of a political metaphor.

Children's book about dinosaurs

What every CEE specialist should be reading?

There is more political metaphor in panel 3 in which Tim Haughton and Kevin Deegan-Krause lead off with an outline of their work on larger, more enduring mainstream parties (‘hardy perennials’) and, less horticulturally, suggested a threefold recipe for survival (effective leadership, organisational capacity, meaningful programme/identity) in the electoral jungle. Although like me a fan of his children’s dinosaur books, Kevin resisted my suggestion that such large, well evolved beasts called for more of a Jurassic Park analogy.

The surprise package of the workshop – and a theme running through discussion across the workshop – was the role of party organisation and specifically its role in anchoring enduring parties in CEE, nicely highlighted by Raimondas Ibenskas’s presentation on Lithuania and – as Mazen Hassan’s presentation on party institutionalisation showed – new democracies generally. As these – and David Art’s book (reviewed in an earlier post) – suggest from being something of niche interest in party studies the study of party organisation (and what ‘organisation’ in fact means) may be moving centre stage.

Organisation and the far right: the Art of the possible

Cover of Inside the Radical Right by David Art  David Art’s new book Inside the Radical Right: The Development of Anti-Immigrant Parties in Western Europe (Cambridge University Press) is one of the boldest and most interesting pieces of writing on comparative European party politics I have seen for a long time. Its deceptively simple thesis is that the success of radical right parties in Western Europe is not, as conventionally argued, the combined product of  differing opportunity structures  (types of  electoral system, party system format and so on)  and differing social structures (varying levels of ethnic diversity, structural unemployment etc), but of the capacity of the far right to build and sustain political organisations and professional and credible core of activists suited to the demand of electoral politics. Nothing, Art argues – pointing out the contradictory morass of comparative findings  is consistent with the reality that social demand for anti-immigrant ethnocentric policies is roughly the same across Western Europe and that countries with similar institutional and social structures often present quite different outcomes for radical right parties: one of several pertinent examples that the example Art offers is that of Belgium where the success of Vlaams Blok (VB) in Flanders contrasts with the erratic and marginal performance of the National Front (FNb) in Wallonia.

 Success or failure in organisation building – which Art argues often precedes electoral success –  is Logo of Danish People's Partydependent partly  on the presence of sufficient large nationalist and/or radical right subculture, offering a source of recruits and a short-cut to long-term and disciplined party building, and the extent to which the radical right is socially and politically isolated through cordons sanitaire and social ostracisiation. While intellectuals, professionals and local notables pay little price for joining the Danish People’s Party, membership of (say) the British National Party would be a route to social isolation and career suicide.  Anti-fascist mobilisation, even of a fairly violent and intimidatory kind, is also found by Art to an effective sanction on far-right recruitment among the well educated and political experienced, if it comes at the right time.

Where there is a broad, established far-right sub-culture reaching into the middle  or upper classes and tolerant or pragmatic acceptance of the radical right, the road is open (eventually) for it to succeed in party politics.  An alternative route explaining the success of Denmark’s DF and the Freedom Party in the Netherlands is the success politicians, who rise to power at the head of ‘flash’ parties, but realise that serious and early organisation building – and a shift to fill the gap on the anti-immigrant  right –  is needed if they are to stick around.  Transforming an established minor party into a radical right, anti-immigrant actor is a further alternative and shorter route, which swops the advantage of having an existing organisational structure in place with the disadvantage of having wage ideological battles to kick out rival factions. This Art suggests occurred in the case of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP)  (originally an agrarian formation) and to a lesser extent Austria’s FPO (notionally a liberal party, but always something of a subcultural vehicle for former Nazis).

Art's argument in summary

Summary of Art' s comparative analysis

Art’s arguments boldly put party organisation – normally something of a Cinderella subject -centre stage in explaining the entry and survival of new political parties, although as the book makes clear large amount of private or state cash can, when carefully husbanded, be effective for voting winning, at least in the short term. Gerhard Frey’s German People’s Union (DVU) uses its millionaire founder’s cash for mass mailshot campaigns, while Geert Wilders Freedom Party (PVV) has only one formal member (Wilders himself) backed by a handpicked cadre of loyal followers.

Logo of Dutch Freedom Party (PVV)As Herbert Kitschelt’s blurb comments suggest with characteristic Exocet-like accuracy,  while the book makes its argument for the importance of organisation and its precursors as an anchor for small, emergent, defeated and marginal parties, it is less clear whether  it overturns or merely complements existing explanations based on variations in socio-economic and political opportunity structures. Indeed, in some ways the book offers a  very similar, but organisation-focused, structure and agency mix:  historical legacies and nationalist sub-cultures take the structure role with established parties’ cordon sanitaire strategies (or lack of them) and anti-fascist mobilisation supplying variations in agency.  (Social disapproval of far-right activism may perhaps be a structural factor, so the structure/agency split is not cut and dried).

The book could also perhaps point up more that, while organisation may matter generally (or, at least often,) there may – as my  diagrammatic summary hints – seem to be multiple paths to far-right success, rather than one over-arching formula, with Scandinavian cases , particularly, seeming to stand in terms of their origins and conditions of success – a very clear finding of Veugelers and Magnan’s 2005 article using configurational comparison to test out  Kitschelt’s theories on the conditions of far-right success.

An interesting question is how well Art’s model(s) travels beyond the eleven West Europe states covered in the book: the Spanish case (and perhaps that of Portugal?), for example, would seem to echo the German pattern of strong historical far-right subculture in a new democracy where the  emerging centre-right keeps radicals at arms length politically, while co-opting its more able or more moderate elements.

Logo of Slovak National Party

Logo Slovak National Party

For me, naturally, the still more interesting question is how well Art’s model might travel to Central and Eastern Europe.  Surprisingly, on first examination it seems to cross over quite well: Slovakia, Croatia, Hungary, Romania and, to a lesser extent,  Latvia seem to have success radical right parties and  nationalist intellectual and social milieux, looking favourably or ambiguously, on  interwar fascist movements and/or episodes of wartime collaboration with Nazi Germany. Slovenia, where historical controversy has raged over the role of the role of the wartime Domoobranci (Home Guard) , also seems to fit the model, although the origins and ideology of the Slovene national Party (SNS) seem more eclectic than the kind of party political projection of certain sub-cultures as, for example, with the identically acronymed Slovak National Party (SNS).  Poland represents, as so often,  interesting case with strong tradition of integral nationalism, but where collaborationist and neo-Nazi traditions are, for obvious historical reasons, marginal or absent.

Logo of Czech Republicans

SPR-RSČ logo

The Czech Republic, by contrast, approximates to the Dutch/Danish/British pattern of having a weak and marginalised far-right sub-culture, utterly cut off from the political mainstream: the experience of the Republican Party (SPR-RSČ) – represented in the Czech parliament in 1992-8 – also offers a nice illustration of how not to consolidate party organisation – the party leadership did not entirely neglect building an activist base, but was too egocentric and authoritarian to hold the party together. It seems tempting to put Bulgaria’s Ataka in the same category, although as a colleague recently pointed out to me recently, there are radical nationalist traditions and an anti-semitic Orthodox-oriented extremist sub-culture.

The question of cordons sanitaires  in CEE is, however, perhaps more difficult : there is little in the way of strong anti-fascist mobilisation in a region where social movements – and especially social movements of the radical left – are weak. To the best of my knowledge there are no formal cordons with radical right parties actually  represented in government in Slovakia and Poland,  although mainstream parties’ treatment of the Republicans in 1990s  perhaps comes closest.  Interestingly, however the SNS in Slovakia was a coalition partner for the centre-left, rather than Christian Democratic and liberal centre-right for whom such co-operation seems much less conceivable.  In the  end, what may matter more than an assessment of party strategy in CEE  is whether radical and mainstream are on an ideological continuum, or whether (as in the Czech Republic and Slovakia) they have different political and ideological points of departure.

When all is said and done, however, Art has written a fine academic book which offers some  elegant and orignal big picture comparison in an exceptionally clear and readable way interweaving  important comparative argument about politics and part development with informative and sometimes  close-up accounts of the highways and by-ways far-right activism.

CEE parties: Gardeners’ World or Jurassic park?

A slow train wends it way through the tower blocks of South London to get me to plusher territory near Runnymede, where  Birmingham University’s Centre for Russian and East European Studies (CREES) is holding its annual research conference. As  ever this takes place in the Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park.

Cumberland Lodge was built by a Roundhead during the English Civil War, but smack bang in the middle of the royal estate it has had strongly  monarchist associations ever since. The interior also features in the The King’s Speech as George VI’s bedroom.   I always half expect to see Hercule Poirot coming round the corner or to hear that Colonel Mustard has been done in With the Candlestick, In the Library, but bar a brief mention of Ian Rankin, most of the conversation during my day stays off the subject of royalty and crime fiction and stay strictly political science – gardening.

The early morning panel I’m on features and interesting three-way discussion of the breakthroughs made by market populist parties in Central and Eastern Europe (my jointly authored contribution);   Tim Haughton’s presentation on the reasons some(mainly larger) parties in the same region have doggedly hung on and prospered as ‘hardy perennials’ ; and the changing role of parties in the (now) decidedly different context Russia (more ‘electoral authoritarianism’  than ‘competitive authoritarianism’).  Tim’s presentation is interesting – beyond the nice horticultural graphics and the underlying issues of party stability  – for its self-conscious use of metaphor.

The academic literature on parties is replete with metaphors mostly (as Tim and co-author Kevin Deegan Krause) note, of geological or meteorological inspirations: the ‘freezing’ of party systems,  ‘earthquake elections’ and so on. Other sub-genres of the literature, mostly those dealing with individual party organisations, rather than party systems, use a biological type of metaphor:  references to party ‘birth’ and ‘death’, the ‘life cycle’ of a party or its ‘genetic’ character are not hard to come by.

I used to think that such reliance on metaphor was a weakness of the literature and an inveterate bad habit: organisations are not organisms still less geological formations and, if you’re going to write about processes and structures write about processes and structures without lazily reaching for analogies. Our presentation had (we hoped) nothing more florid than pink and green Tosmana visualization, that might distantly have looked like some kind of exotic orchid to people sitting at the back,

But tracking down an old conference paper by Jernej Pinklo on ‘Metaphors of Nature in Political Science’, I realised I was my  first take  far too dogmatic. Shaking loose from metaphor was in reality damn near impossible, so what mattered was their conscious and creative use and application.

Chewing this over quick walk among the royal Rhododendrons, I realised, however, Central and Eastern Europe’s toughest and most aggressive enduring parties were perhaps not Chelsea Flower Show material, but instead exactly what their anti-establishment challengers accused them of being: political dinosaurs. Understood, of course, that dinosaurs were the most  longlasting and dominant life forms the ever: usually  big, capable of continual adaption  in changing environments, sometime aggressive and usually pretty much top of the food chain.

Do party specialists need to put down the garderning gloves and reach for their copy of Charles Darwin or Stephen Jay Gould?  Ideas of population ecology seems already to become established in the literature on interest groups  and, as  Ian Lustick’s recent paper suggests, political scientists generally might gain a lot from doing so.

>Civic Democrats: Teenage kicks or mid-life crisis?

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The principal party of the Czech centre-right, the Civic Democrats (ODS), have been celebrating the 20th anniversaty of their foundation. The party founded, by Václav Klaus in April 1991 from the right-wing anti-communist majority in the disintegrating Civic Forum movement, can probably lay claim to being Central and Eastern Europe’s most enduring  newly formed post-1989 party. Certainly as far as major political players on the centre-right are concerned probably, only Hungary’s Fidesz’s can compete and in Fidesz’s case ideological mutation in the mid-1990s from anti-communist liberal to conservative nationalist probably gives ODS the edge , even if the Czech Republic’s more proportional electoral system has (thankfully) never seen ODS stack up Fidesz style absolute majorities in parliament.
However, the party’s celebration of two decades as a political force, at which it was addressed by  current leader Prime Minister Petr Nečas, it founder and current Czech President Václav Klaus and 2002-10 leader  and ex-PM Miroslav Topolánek, seems to have been a rather more angst-ridden , divided and downbeat affair, than similar celebrations ten years ago. Then, having come through financial scandal under founder-leader Klaus and seasoned its Thatcherite neo-liberalism with dose of Czech nationalism, it was looking forward to election victory in 2002. It lost that election and, despite winning big in vote terms in 2006, has never managed to put together a stable majority government since. 1996 Ideological and strategic divisions – and the unsolved dilemma of how to manage its relationships with powerful informal networks of political ly connected business interests – were all on show at the event, which seems to have been the Czech right-wing version of the Three Tenors, albit with considerably less harmony on show. 
They are also thrown into sharp relief by the current woeful state of Petr Nečas’s coalition, whose large  majority in parliament looks a good deal less solid given splits and relevations from within junior coalition party the populist anti-corruption party, Public Affairs (VV), where the waters have been muddied by accusations that the spilt in the party was not just due  to VV being in the pocket of ABL security firm , but was engineered in factions in ODS (although this seems less well documented that the role of ABL and its founder busienessman Vít Bárta in taking over VV as a vehicle).

For Klaus ODS’s woes lie in its move under Topolánek away from his own patent mix of neo-liberalism and eurosceptic nationalism to embrace the political centre and themes such as civil sociey and environmental protection. Far better to do pragmatic power sharing deals with the left, than allow such ideologcal contagion. Having flirted with flat taxes and fiscal populism (does anyone remember the Blue Chance programme?), through a mixture of trail and error Topolánek adopted precisely this course as a means of broading ODS appeal, which despite touching 35% under his leadership, was not sufficient to deliver a workable majority – and tended to mobilise the left –  leaving him reliant on small parties like the declining Christian Democrats and faction-ridden Greens. 
Photo: Petr Novák, Wikipedia
Both parties exited parliament in the 2010 elections, leaving a new political landscape charcterised by an ODS drastically weakened by the rise of reformist challenger TOP09 and the need to ally with the opaque and unknown VV. This, Topolánek (opposite) argued, was really a step too far and agreed with Klaus that the usual emergency option of pragmatic co-operation with the Social Democrats, who are at least a known quantity, was preferable. The recent and farcical reshuffle of the Czech government and the bizarre hard-to-deal with behaviour of VV deputies and officials – none of whom seem to talk to each other without secretly taping other and offering some may-or-may-not-be-true revelation that crops up on the front pages the next day – makes the point.
But the issue running in parallel with the question of how expansive and centrist the Civic Democrats should or shouldn’t be is that of corruption and clientelism. One interpretation of Czech politics  is simply to see the country’s various parties (with the possible exception of the Communists) as   corrupt vehicles for shadowy, informal politico-business networks: this is, for example, forms the master narrative of daily  The Final Word commentary that accompanies the daily English press resume The Fleet Sheet, which speaks in a seemingly well informed way of the Czech Republic as an ‘electro-state’ dominated by powerful vested interests  (of which power generation company ČEZ is the most powerful) grouped more broadly into ‘Five Families’.I deological divisions between parties and political programmes are, in this view, a mere facade as shadowy figures get their claws into parties and politicians, extracting billions one way or another through various soft, untransparent and uncompetitive deals  involving public property and policies which subvert the public interest.
Election poster attacking new anti-corruption parties 2010
There is plenty of evidence of an anecdotal, journalistic kind that such relationships exist. The press is full of it and poltiicians themselves report them. In the dying days of his premiership Topolánek condemned political ‘godfathers’ within (kmotří ) – powerful regional bosses tied to networks of vested interests, subverting the s(upposed ly) bottom-up democratic national organisations the Civic Democrats have traditional prided themselves on. But the real extent and scope of such relationships and the way they relate to programmatic/ideological issues that voters and politicians themselves spend a lot of time: on academic political science shows that parties offer basically ideologically coherent programmes and that voters register this and vote on them accordingly in ways which reflect wealth, class, education and age. In forming coalitions, parties clearly negotiate on programmatic issues, as well as the who-gets-what-ministry concerns that the simple model of pure corrupt clientelism would suggest. In the end, the Last Word model – even if we assume that it is based on the purest and most reliable of inside information – seems only to offer half the story, all too remincient of the darkly conspiratorial view of the world offered by the Czech far-right in days when it was electoral force. (Communists would probably also find it a good read, although with perhaps too little mention of global capital).
Pete Nečas      Photo: Aktron/Wikimedia Commons
What matters more, however, is the ‘social fact’ that parties – and certain partiers in particular such as the Civic Democrats – are seen as toxically contaminated by corrupt clientelistic networks. It would be interesting to try to quantify and track over time the public’s views on the Civic Democrats and separate it out from the Czech public’s massive and growing distrust of parties and politicians in general – but tack in Prague, the Three Tenors touched on this second, probably now more intractable problem for the party, which seems to overlap for public and politicians alike with Machivellian politics of smears, plots and spin of the type well illustrated by recent events around VV. None had very convincing answers. 
For Klaus – forgetting the financing scandals of 1990s – the problem seems to be one of  ideological slippage and lack of political backbone, belief and mission, creating the space for faction fighting and corrupt interest politics. For Topolánek, it was dealing with Public Affairs, legitimising what everyone knew  – or shrewdly suspected –  from the start to be a pocket party serving business interests with naked ambition of advancing private commerical interests. But VV would, of course, never have become a political force without the apparently burgeoning politics of ‘godfathers’, which he was unwilling or unable to prevent. Nečas’s message was to recognise that voters have been looking for novelty but of Keep Calm and Carry On: the party was down but not out and its organisation, experience and programme would carry it through.
And the Civic Democrats’ contribution to Czech democracy over the last two decades? Stable, conventional  model of party politics; a new liberal pro-market ideology defining the Czech centre-right; being there when the big decisions were made and getting some of them right, they all agreed. Having written on that elsewhere, I won’t disagree. But, while Topolánek saw ODS as immature 20 year old with teenage lack of focus,  the party, in fact, seems dangerously flabby and middle-aged. 
In the end, I do wonder if the Civic Democrats will be around in recognisable form in another twenty years. Or another ten.