Archive | July, 2007

>Outfoxed? Polish populists make unlikely marriage


You could have knocked me down with a feather when I read (in the Slovak) press that Poland’s ultra-Catholic League of Polish Families (LPR) and raucous agrarian populist Self-Defence are to merge into a single grouping to be known as League and Self-Defence (LiS). This cumbersome title allows a punning acronym as ‘lis’ is the Polish for ‘fox’ and the new grouping was launched by Self-Defence’s Andrzej Lepper and the rather younger, smoother LPR leader Roman Giertych holding a cuddly toy fox, which vaguely reminded me of the mascot of the Czech mortgage company ČMSS (see below) or the ever popular British children’s TV character, Basil Brush.

Politically speaking, the move is clearly a response to Self-Defence’s being chucked out of the conservative minority coalition government headed by Law and Justice Party of terrible twins Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski and, presumably, to the impending prospect of early elections where the LiS alliance might produce electoral gains (although the dividends of merged blocs are not always as high as their founders imagine). Although both Self-Defence and LPR are anti-liberal, anti-EU and perhaps more rural than urban, they strike me as rather unlikely bedfellows given the rather different social mileux they spring from and the fact that Self-Defence seemed to embody a fairly secular economic populism and relatively agnostic line on decommunization. Lepper’s comment that both groups would ‘retain their identity’ also seemed to contradict the sense of a merger, the organizational and financial mechanics of which would, given the best will in the world, be inevitably be tricky

>Sexing up the EU


Raw sex is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the European Union, still when you think the cultural dimension of the acquis communautaire. But, reports EUobserver. (9 July), the Commission seems to have managed this implausible feat in a glossy 45 second commercial released on its EU Tube site. Splicing together sex scenes from various European arthouse movies, it finishes up by urging that cinema lovers across the EU27 should ‘come together’…. and support the EU’s efforts to promote European cinema. Apart from some surprise that most of the British media hadn’t picked up the story, my first thought was that the EU have clearly rather wasted the skills of some very bright creative/ auteur as, by dropping the reference to cinema, it would be ideal way of promoting the new EU Constitution (excuse me, Amending Treaty…) through the eurosceptic but sex-obsessed British tabloids.

Indeed, it wouldn’t be the first time that sex had been used the EU to voters unenthused with its particular brand of technocratic multi-level governance. A Slovak ad agency tasked with boosting turnout for Slovak’s 2003 EU accession referendum tried a similar tack in an effort to mobilize some of those more difficult to reach sections of the Slovak electorate: posters of young couples entwined in a passionate clinch with the slogan lepšie je byť dnu ako von (‘Better to be in than out’ – and naturally an EU symbol and some accession explainers, so no one misunderstood it as some kind of effort to halt demographic decline).

Sadly, on the day the Slovak embrace of the Union rather more lukewarm than that of the couple in the poster – perhaps because the result was something of a foregone conclusion and the country’s eurosceptics had given up in advance. Lowish numbers dutifully went to the polls to give the European Union a big, but perhaps less than ecstatic, ‘yes’. As the maverick exiled left-wing philosopher, Ivan Sviták, brutally observed one week into Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution ‘[p]eople are attracted by the lifestyle of prosperous societies, not the ideology of freedom; by being able to travel, not the moral defence of human rights; by the video shop with a shelf full of porn, not the values of humanism’. Eurocrats and politicians please take note.

>Czech Presidency: Dienstbier to enter the fray?


And as if by magic – or possibly journalistic legerdemain – Lidové noviny (9 July) reports that ex-dissident and ex-Czechoslovak Foreign Minister, Jiří Dienstbier is about to enter the fray. He first flew a kite about a possible presidential candidacy in March and apparently had talks with Social Democrat leader and ex-PM Jiří Paroubek in May about getting the main opposition party’s backing. Dienstbier easily ticks all the boxes in terms of gravitas, party political independence/inoffensiveness, social market and pro-European credentials to be a credible candidate – he has since been Czech ambassador-at-large and personal representative of President Havel to UN and UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the former Yugoslavia.
Somehow, however I can’t raise much enthusiasm about the prospect of a President Dienstbier. It would hardly represent much of a generational change: another president from the narrow group of largely male, Pragocentric dissident and technocratic counter-elites that emerged in the 1970s in the wake of the collapse of the Prague Spring. The one time I saw Dienstbier speak, at the launch of his memoirs in Prague in 1999 in the café-bar of a bookshop in Prague, he seemed less than statesmanlike, giving as I remember it, a rambling and blustering condemnation of (then imminent) NATO intervention in Kosovo. True, the memoirs themselves were sober and factual to the point of dullness and his scepticism about intervention and US-dominated coalitions has been amply justified elsewhere. Frankly, I think I just prefer my politicians sharp suited, sharp tongued, combative and professional in the Václav Klaus or George Galloway mould and – at least we are talking about a figurehead role like that of the Czech President – some slightly bonkers views seem only to add political spice.

>Wanted (but not necessarily by me): President non-Klaus


As the end of Václav Klaus‘s term as Czech President draws into view, his political opponents are desperately casting around for a credible candidate to unseat him – calls to find such a person have recently been issued by Green Party leader Martin Bursík – in coalition with Klaus‘s centre-right Civic Democrats, who are, of course, backing their former leader to the hilt for a second term (probably to keep him busily occupied quixotically denouncing global warning as left-wing conspiracy and thus out of day-to-day Czech right-wing politics, where he might actually have some influence). Ex-President Václav Havel has also made a rare public foray into Czech politics with a similar appeal and now Social Democrat leader and ex-PM Jiří Paroubek has joined him with a neat job specification: said non-Klaus must be a pro-European, non-party figure with, as the Czechs say, strong ‘social sentiment’ (= commitment to welfare state and some form of social market). Failing such a unity candidate he would want a candidate of the left (which I interpret as meaning one guaranteed to pull in the votes of Communist deputies – the Czech President is elected by a joint session of the two houses of the Czech Parliament, not by popular vote).

The trouble is that it is hard to find any such figure with any real political gravitas or credibility. Indeed, it is hard to find any such figure who is not, politically speaking, a non-entity. Names floated in the Czech press include the former head of the Czech Academy of Sciences Helena Illnerová and the former Rector of Charles Univesity Ivan Wilhelm and Christian Democrat Defence Minister Vlasta Parkanová. Despite having spent more than a decade studying Czech politics and knowing the importance and prestige education in the Czech pysche I still am baffled as to why – even if a weak President would suit them – Czech political parties always see distinguished academics as suitable and credible candidates to be head of state. This seems to be the rough equivalent of proposing Anthony Giddens to take over in Buckingham Palace in some future British republic (although personally I suspect he would do a rather good job). Of the three names Parkanová is the most serious candidate, but – although it is positive that Czechs are still thinking of a woman President – to me she lacks breadth of appeal and statute. Despite entering politics as a nominee of the liberal Freedom Union party, she has since joining the Christian Democrats endorsed some of the party’s illiberal social positions as well as backing the stationing of US radar bases by sponsoring a rather excruciating parody of Russian pop song about Yurii Gargarin, neither of which would exactly pull in the votes of left-wing parliamentarians. Moreover, some Christian Democrats, perhaps seduced by the prospect of a long-term merger with the Civic Democrats, are quite happy to back Klaus, who – it must be noted – enjoys approval ratings of around 70 per cent and would probably win a popular vote.

As in 2003, it seems that lack of a candidate with breadth and depth will see Klaus win. Indeed, both the parliamentary arithmetic and lack of alternatives favour Klaus much more strongly this time round. In 2003 two political heavyweights, ex-dissident Christian Democrat and former President of the Czech Senate Petr Pithart (whom I admired) and ex-leader of the Social Democrats Miloš Zeman (whom I admired rather less), at least seemed initially to have a chance of making it to Prague Castle before inter- and intra-party split made it clear that neither could build a broad enough parliamentary coalition and a desperate search for ‘non-partisan’ figures began in the ranks minor (ex-)politicians and academics. Reluctantly, I ended up thinking that in electing Klaus, the Czech parliament had made the best choice. Unfortunately, bar some kind of Barack Czech Obama figure bursting onto the political scene, I think I probably be thinking the same when Klaus is re-elected.

>Slovak pensioners unaffected by Labour Code reforms


Slovakia’s liberal daily Sme reports (4 July) that the country’s new (less liberal) Labour Code) passed by parliament will have limited impact on pensioners. The Code – seemingly in contrast to the Czech Republic – does not recognise the concept of a ‘working pensioner’ and proposals for restrictions on rolling temporary contracts for employees already in receipt of a pension were dropped after objections by the Ministry of Culture (controlled by the main governing party SMER) at the consultation stage. Those still employed who were past normal retirement age and paying into the state pension scheme will gain higher pension entitlements, but those already retired who take up employment will only gain marginally with much depending on what type of employment contract they conclude. Overall, the amended Code has been criticized for giving employees enhanced social rights and allegedly putting a heavier burden on (small and medium) employees.

Pensions do, however, still seem to be something of a hottish political issue in Slovakia as, the same paper reports (2 July), the left-populist government of Robert Fico is busy tinkering with the state-supervised private pension funds established as part of the previous government’s welfare reforms. The proposed new Social Law will allow transfers from the second pillar (compulsory individual private saving) back into the state pension system. This – combined with higher payments for employers, the self-employed and higher earners – is reportedly intended to bale out the state pension system

>Unsunny afternoon


It’s a typical English July summer day. Weird weather – this time rainy and cool in mid-summer– and an unravelling terror plot feverishly covered in the media. I get the train to London to give a student some feedback on her MA performance and tie up various other administrative loose ends of printing, signing and tidying the afternoon away. There;s no visible security clampdown and, fortunately, I am the bearer of good news as far as the student is concerned. None of the rest is very onerous and end up tracking down and reading French language study of Luxembourg politics to find out something more about the Alternative Democratic Reforms (ADR) party, which superficially seemed to West Europe’s only example of a sustained success by a pensioners’ party – the ADR which has pulled in up to 10% of the vote in the Grand Duchy since it emerged in the early 1990s having began as a Commitee for Pensions Justice seeking to bring (state-supervised?) private sector pensions up to the generous level of those paid to public sector employees. In fact, as the pensions issue receded it seems to have as has made the transition to being a right-wing populist/anti-establishment party and was perhaps always more about poujadisme as ‘grey power’.
When I leave SSEES the odd summer times make themselves felt a bit more forcefully: 30 seconds into my five minute walk to the Undergound monsoon like downpour begins and as I run into the tube station I almost bump into two machine gun wielding cops, also presumably taking shelter from the weird weather.