Archive | February, 2007

>Western specialists on Eastern Europe: Time to take stock?


An interesting article by Professor Phil Hanson of the University of Birmingham makes its way into my inbox in connection with a discussion about crossovers between the comparative study of politics and economics of post-communist states. The paper traces the decline (and re-emergence under different labels) of “comparative economics” the label under which communist economies were studies for much of the 1970s and 80s. These days some very non-comparative studies of post-communist transition economies are labelled ‘comparative’ because of the lingering sense of CEE and the FSU as sui generis. Meanwhile political economists writing on ‘varieties of capitalism’ have revived the sub-discipline in a new guise.

For specialists on post-communist politics, the article highlights some interesting parallels and differences. Comparative politics was (and is) a much better established sub-discipline/tradition than comparative economic studies with a fairly rich vein of work comparing communist and post-communist states both before and (especially) after 1989, although US work on post-communist politics is far more (rigorously) comparative than the more monographic British tradition of research. However, one can see parallels: for example, the ‘invasion from the mainstream’ of 1990s as non-area specialists moved in the study the region with generalised/generalizable theoretical approaches – which led to sharp polemic between Valerie Bunce and Philippe Schmitter on the pages of Slavic Review and occasionally resurfaces, despite the emergence of a kind of consensus that knowledge of area specifics and broad generalizability comparability are both important.

Another and the slow erosion of the ‘competitive advantage’ enjoyed by Western specialists on CEE politics purely because of country specific knowledge, cultural background and language skills (in Western academia) others didn’t have. This is partly due to eclipse of distinct communist political systems – post-communist states are, on the whole, merely variations of democracy or electoral authoritarianism (aka ‘hybrid regimes’) although the Central Asian states seem to offer relatively original forms of authoritarianism less amenable to mainstream political science analysis. However, there are other factors at work too.

It is especially interesting to observe the steady rise of Central and East European political science, largely relegated to a kind of poor relation or apprentice status in the 1990s. Although still very uneven in terms of quality and international profile – Estonia and Hungary are the clear leaders as far as I can tell – and suffering a chronic lack of cash and (in some cases) starting from a low base of expertise, it seems to make horse sense that (in the coming years) the basic research on Hungarian or Czech domestic politics should be carried out by Hungarian and Czech political scientists with the need for excessive duplication by Western-based country-watchers shaped by the pre-1989 area studies tradition.

Of course, some Central European scholars say they value an outside view as it helps them see their own countries from a broader perspective and there are, of course, formal and informal research networks spanning East and West. But I wonder though if this is not really a coded reference to the (slowly closing) resource and expertise gap? Would the arguments would/ should perhaps be applied in reserve. Would Poles and Slovenes start moving to research US or British politics from a more objective perspective if they had the resources? There are US and British traditions of studying German or French domestic politics, it’s true, but somehow I can’t help feeling that shares in Western country specialists on CEE – like those of comparative economists Phil Hanson writes about – perform steadily but are in long term decline.

Phillip Hanson, ‘The Tasks Ahead in Comparative Economic Studies: What Should We Be Comparing?’, Japanese Journal of Comparative Economics, 44 (1) January 2007, 1-14.

>Political parties in the Baltic (and beyond) – Is unstable is the new stable?

>Came across a very interesting 2004 paper by Estonian political scientist Allan Sikk – the HTML ‘ghost’ of a PDF file – on “Successful new parties in the Baltic states”. The rise of new parties and fall of old ones has been a repeated and marked phenomenon in the three Baltic states since early 1990s, and but echoed in some other (similarly successful) post-communist democracies(Slovakia, Poland). Traditional sociological explanations of new party formation (cleavage and value change – the rise of Green parties in W Europe for example) Sikk suggests play poorly in the Baltic/post-communist context. There are simply no signs of major social or value change fast enough to keep up with the rapidity of new party formation. This leads us to look at factors like resource mobilization and political opportunity structures. although parties are rather good at mixing and matching resources (‘substitutability’) when the traditional building blocks of party formation (grassroots activism, new social demands) ain’t there.

Rather he suggests, the formation of new parties (and, as he astutuely notes, its logical flip side the break-up of old one – an understudied area – but part of the same process) serves as a kind of democratic control mechanism giving vent to public frustration with (real and imagined) corruption and a vehicle for innovative and reform in an ultra-competitive and changing electoral market. Sikk also, very interestingly, argues that the high stakes of early transition politics (opportunities shaping state and society through privatization and marketization, if necessary through radical or unpopular policies) provide incentives politicians to, in effect, create disposable parties. The logic is that incentives for party stabilization will – all other things being equal (perhaps a big assumption) – grow as the scope of decisions that politicians can make narrows to what is normal in a small, reasonably well established democracy locked into EU membership.

Sikk’s work, which seems to some extent a response to the specifics of the Baltic sub-region (and an attempt to think more widely about post-communist parties and democracy on the basis of it) feeds into a growing academic interest with the volatility of many CEE party systems and a realisation that that party political instability can be ‘normal’ and even ‘good’. Well entrenched parties and party systems such as Hungary and the Czech Republic tended to viewed these days as a source of stagnation and clientelism – and thus on the whole an obstacle to liberal reform – rather than a facet of democratic consolidation (the academic consensus of the early-mid 1990s). Indeed a recent article in the journal Democratization argues that once stable West European party systems and once volatile CEE party systems are (for different reasons) convergent around a European model of workable-to-beneficial instability with a dose of populism.

In any case, I’ll be first in the queue to buy Allan Sikk’s book…. Although, being Estonia, perhaps I should judt expect an e-book.

>Czech public opinion: more Euro-sceptic than eurosceptic?


Czechs have a somewhat underdeserved reputation as a nation of eurosceptics, but – despite the heavy duty ‘euro-realism’ of President Klaus and other Civic Democrat luminaries over the years – the Czech public (and above all the right-wing inclined Czech public) has been solidly in favour of (if ignorant about) both EU membership and most curent (and planned) forms of EU integration (Common Security and Foreign policy, environment and – despite a short-lived downward turn – the French and Dutch referendums of 2005 the becalmed Constitutional Treaty). Legions of the Czech Republic’s better off, better educated, heavily pro-European right-wing voters have simply tended to be oblivious to their party’s rampant ‘euro-realism’ which it has, in any case, downplayed in domestic election campaigning since the departure of Klaus as party leader. The biggest blocs of eurosceptics are found among left-wing (and especially Communist) voters, who are more rural/small town, worse off, older and more concentrated in the state sector – a pattern common across CEE. There are, however, limits to the Czechs’ lukewarm embrace of the European project, which Eurobarometer and other polling has suggested can be found in any suggestion of transferring control over social and economic policies to Brussels.

It is therefore interesting to see in the latest CVVM polling report just how solidly a bloc of public opinion has hardened against adoption of the Euro, narrowing the majority in favour from 29% in 2001 to 7% today – a result many of ‘don’t knows’ becoming ‘nos’. Another interpretation is that – as with membership of the EU itself – opposition tends to harden up as change becomes a more concerete prospect. Except that Euro adoption isn’t on the cards in the CR until around 2009-10, neither is not an issue exactly grabbing the headlines. Deficits in public financing make meeting the Maastricht criteria a challenging prospect and – as a rather interesting PhD thesis I examined last year argued – the party system tends to act as a brake.

The Civic Democrats have (in theory) ideological objections to Euro and official party policy is hold a referendum on Euro adoption, although whether this would merely be over timing or an acquis-busting attempt to opt out is unclear. Contradicting this, declarations by ODS politicians seem to reckon clearly with Euro membership – Topolánek suggested last year only his party’s zeal to reform public finances would mean joining sooner than expected. However, the party’s flat tax plans – now diluted by coalition partners and likely to be largely stymied due to lack of a real parliamentary majority – would have entailed hair-raising increases in the public deficit and an unceratin bet on a spurt of rapid economic growth rapidly righting things. The opposition Social Democrats are ideologically all in favour of the Euro, but rather less in favour of the reductions in public spending required to bring it about rapidly.

>Hungary for change?


Conversation in a café with a long-term observer of Hungarian politics about the prospects of the Hungarian right: Orbán and Fidesz are big, sprawling and militant constantly seeking to moblize against the Socialist government which they see – very radically – as not legitmate and it is questionable whether they can maintain their current breadth. Orbán, it seems, is personally and politically tired out – the radical strategy of confrontation has led nowhere very much, absorbs political energy and obstructs policy renewal and Fidesz’s big tent does not stretch far enough to outvote the combined forces of Socialist and Liberals but merely makes it difficult to cater credibly for Hungary’s diverse constituencies resulting in vague populism. Despite once champioing the creation of a national middle class, Fidesz is now apparantly lurching towards economic Orbán has recently done Blair-style visits to deprived estates to stress that he is fishing outside the tradition (rural/religious/provincial) waters Hungarian right-wing support.

Fidesz‘s smaller ally, the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) has broken away claiming to represent both the historic heritage of the post-1989 Hungarian right (when as much larger grouping, it formed the core of Hungary’s first democratically elected government after one-party rule) and a more market friendly, socially- and internationally respectable civic-minded conservatism.

Despite cobbling together a minority government and squeaking through a parliamentary vote of confidence, fhe Czech ODS faces a similar strategic dilemma: to confront or accomodate (well, at least talk to) the much loathed centre-left. In the CR, however, there are clearer pathways to left-right co-operation and even Grand Coalition arrangements than in Hungary: the Czech Social Democrats are not a communist successor party, despite the ‘communist’ inclinations right-wing politicians and commentators spot when it suits them, and broad inclusive national coalitions have historical precedents in the Czech lands that embeds them better in the political culture

Could an oversized Fidesz, I wondered, start to erode and fragment? No probably not I was told. Too much time spent studying the stable and stolid world of Czech politics, it seems, had left me with a rather fevered political imagination, although a scenario like Orbán’s sudden departure Haider-style in a fit of pique might trigger a party crisis. ODS at least managed to keep going after the departure of its charismatic founder and his occasional efforts at backseat driving from Prague Castle. Well, I wondered, could the Hungarian Democratic Forum come through the middle like Poland’s liberal-conservative Civic Platform making Hungary’s party politics triangular once again (Socialists vs. Liberal vs. Conservative Nationalists). Again unlikely, it seems. Hungary’s mixed electoral systém makes a widespread small party breakthrough difficult because of the need to win many single member constitutencies.

>Local hero


Looking over the BBC childrens TV website for something educational for my daughter, I came across the mildly surreal, mildly entertaining online games Councillor Quest II and Captain Campaign intended to provide citizenship education and promote civic engagement. An interesting comic strip version of what local politics is about – centring on the environment and anti-social behaviour, mildly contentious but basically respectable and focused on formal channel and, of course, very media driven. Sponsored by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. It seems to centre on a resource mobilization model of politics with fund raising and picking the right people for right jobs the key to success. Glad to see my taxes are being spent on something useful.

And did I have a go at something so daft? Yes, of course I did . I ran a reasonably successful national campaign against GM food, but bombed as a local councillor turning up to investigate anti-social behaviour at a nightclub at 11.00 in the morning and then forgetting my constituency surgery that afternoon altogether.

>Wot, no Portuguese liberals?

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

>European Parliament: Czech Civic Democrats’ Northern exposure

>A report by Czech Civic Democrat MEP Hyněk Fajmon in the right-wing house magazine CEVRO bemoans the election of French Gaullist Joseph Daul as chair of the EPP faction (‘markedly anti-liberal, anti-American and protectionist’) and his party’s failure to gain a vice chairmanship complaining of an ‘…agreement between the founding EU6 members with the Southern wing and the Austrians, Romanians and Hungarians. We were part of the minority Northern coalition, which was this time outvoted. The Poles ended like us’. The Civic Democrats clearly still have a yen to see the EPP break up.

>ie-politics: putting Sinn Féin in comparative context


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

>Romania on my mind


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

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

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

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

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

>Bale-ing out the Tories


Having finally handed over the manuscript of my long-time-in-the-making monograph on the Czech right to the publisher a few weeks ago –The New Right in the New Europe: Right-wing Politics and Czech Transformation (RoutledgeCurzon, forthcoming July-September 2007 or thereabouts)I’m currently wondering whether I should go researching the political right or move onto other things that interest me like issues of democratic quality in CEE or the demographic politics of the region.

Still old habits die hard. So yesterday I caught the train over to Sussex University yesterday to hear Tim Bale talk about on his ongoing research on the British Tories. Having published on things as varied as Swedish Greens, New Zealand electoral reform, New Labour and Cypriot Communists in the past, Tim’s now committed himself to writing not one, but two books on the British Tories and, having already interviewed various plays and written some shorter pieces on the Blues, seems already to have acquired minority celebrity status on the Conservative Home website. His research centres on taking the Tories as a case study of party adaptation – the conventional wisdom in political history and political journalism is that the Tories are a pragmatic, office-seeking party par excellence, who always bounce back quickly. The first issue – and the first book – deals with why the Tories have not adapted and bounced back since being walloped in 1997, the second with a more long term study of how they adapted and changed since 1945.

The literature on party adaptation and change is, as Tim pointed out, rather ad hoc conceptually and empirically rather under-tested, while work on British politics is typically a rather insular affair with no real comparative perspective cast on our own dear party system, which is just not linked with other cases or used to feed into wider debates. Studies of Belgium and Holland gave us the model of consociational democracy, Sartori’s ideas about polarised party competition draw on the Italian experience, whilst the French case offers us the notion of semi-presidentialism, but the UK? Well, perhaps the ‘Westminister model’ and some interesting stuff on sub-national governance. A lot of the discussion then turned less on the Tories – although an interesting point was raised around whether they could ‘win’ when not being in office by boxing Labour onto traditional centre-right ground – than how to do comparison of different episodes of Tory adaptation and have a readable book that the general reader could get something out.

Although Tim self-deprecatingly claimed he was doing not so much a research in progress seminar as a research-before-progress seminar, it was one of the best and most interesting presentations of unfolding research that I’ve heard in a long time. He also bailed me out – no pun intended – to the tune of 50p to buy a stiff pre-seminar latte at one of the umpteen coffee bars that honeycomb Sussex University (a form of social engineering to encourage collegiality, apparantly) . What more could you ask for?