Archive | April, 2008

>Ask a silly question….


The Czech Republic’s Centre for Public Opinion Research issues a regular series of press releases on its findings (all in Czech), which often find their way pretty much unedited into the Czech press. Some are, however, more informative than others: recent CVVM research tells us that, shock horror, many Czechs don’t like with democracy.

Indeed, headline grabbingly 32% want (or tend to want) the abolition of political parties and the dissolution of parliament; 24% think they would be better off under an (unspecified) non-democratic regime and another 22% think authoritarianism would be allowable in certain circumstances (which we don’t know because this quanaitaive polling); 14% would like a return to Communist one party rule, with 1% more wanting a authoritaran rule who makes quick decisions. In keeping the Czech army traditionally apolitical role and lack of social prestige, however, only one percent want a military dictatorship.

At this point the traditional anguished response would be to say what shallow roots democracy has in the CR, how exaggrated its democratic tradition is etc etc… However, the polling is frankly meaningless, as no such alternative regime choices or party-less democracy is on the agenda and most respondent obviously knew it. A mere 9% thought it likely that parties and partliament would be wound up in the next five years and only 1 per cent though one-party rule or dictatsorship would return. In other words the responses are simply an expression of frustration and general pissed-off-ness pretty much common to all democracies. Predictably, it is the poor, old, less educated and Communist Party voters who are most ‘undemocratic’ in their views.

In other, slightly more meaningful polling CVVM measures Czech attitudes towards foreigners and tolerance towards minority and disadvanatged groups. Most Czechs, quite sensibly do not want to live next door to alcholics or drug users, people with a criminal record or mental illnesses. Gays are the next least favoured group of potential neighbours (29%) followed by black people (26%), although dislike of gays next door has dropped sharply from 42% in 2003. Tellingly, Roma do not seem have been mentioned in the survey, but the suspicion must be that they would the poll pretty high up the Czech list of undesirables.

Czech views on foreigners living in the CR are stable and lukewarm to hostile. Public opinion on allowing foreigners to saettle the country have softened slightly over the past five years, but are evenly divided, but – as five years – the overwhelming majority (68%) want immigrants if they come to adapt to Czech customs not ‘partly’ but ‘as much as possible’. Interestingly, a clear majority are against (49%: 37%) are against favouring EU citizens over other foreigners, although this a little more welcoming to fellow EU-ropeans than in 2003. Most – in the best West European traditions – see immigrants as a threat to local workers and what them restricted to shortage professions or barred from working in areas of high unemployment.

>Romanian electoral reform: bitter fruit?


Alan Renwick posts the following explanation of the new Romanian electoral system as a ‘seed’ (comment) on the Fruits and Votes electoral systems blog, which has picked up the story. There is some very interesting clarification of the seat allocation mechanism for the PR stage:

“The new Romanian electoral system really lives up to the old cliché, ‘a complex form of PR’. Here is an attempt to make sense of it, for which Marina Popescu takes primary credit.
In autumn 2007, following years of popular pressure fomented by an NGO and the press for improving accountability and strengthening the linkages between citizens and elected representatives via the shift to a ‘uninominal’ (i.e., single-member-district) electoral system, the Romanian government proposed a mixed-member system. This would have been similar to the one used for the Italian Senate from 1993 to 2005, but would have ensured proportionality by having a variable number of at least 50 per cent of seats reserved for compensation, rather than just 25% as in Italy.
This bill passed through parliament, but the President did not sign it. Instead, he called a consultative referendum, which unexpectedly proposed introducing a French-style two-round majoritarian system. Following a campaign appealing to concerns with improving accountability and aversion to party lists, 83.4 per cent of the voters supported the initiative but the turnout (at 26.5 per cent) fell short of the 50 per cent quorum required. The President then appealed to the Constitutional Court, which annulled the government’s electoral reform legislation arguing that the anticipated use of a national list amounted to an indirect election and was thus anti-constitutional.
The current electoral system was adopted in February-March 2008 by parliament and is based on SMDs [Single Member Districts] only in the limited sense that the pre-1993 Italian Senate was. All 42 counties of Romania are divided into single-member districts and each citizen has a single vote to be cast for a candidate. Candidates win the seat automatically if they obtained over 50 per cent of the constituency vote. Nevertheless, the overall composition of parliament will be proportional: the two-tier seat allocation method used in the old closed-list system is retained, using the Hare quota at the county level, and then d’Hondt for nationally cumulated votes and seats remaining after the county-level allocation, with a five percent legal threshold applied throughout. Parliament can vary in size to guarantee each party the number of seats due to it proportionally. But parties may end up with more seats than that if they win enough seats with an absolute majority.
Now here’s the really complicated bit. Besides the SMD outright winners, a party’s seats are allocated to candidates in decreasing order of the ratio between the absolute number of votes they received and the quota in the county where they ran. However, the seat allocation mechanism assures that every SMD is assigned a representative who actually ran for election in that district, and this goal is consistently prioritized over rewarding the highest vote getters. How will all of that work in practice? We don’t have to wait too long to find out: elections are due by the end of November.
Seed planted by Alan Renwick — 16 April 2008 @
What I’m still left wondering about is a) whether – perhaps that should be, how in a Romanian context – SMD boundaries will be gerrymanded to maximise certain parties’ chances of winning seats straight off (thus presumably reducing those to be distributed by PR, although there seems to be some confusion of this – Alan Renwick’s explanation above clearly assumes this will not happen, but as other Fruits and Votes posters note, there is a constitutional stipulation abut population per depputy and not doing so would result in some SMDs having 2 representatives ; and b) whether the new system will create incentives for local notables to deploy heavy duty patronage and rule-bending.

>Czech Social Democrats warn of reform shock


The Czech Social Democrats have built on the success of their hard-hitting, negative 2006 parliamentary election campaign – which saw them return from the political dead to run the right very close – with some equally tough advertising in the run-up to this year’s Czech regional elections. The theme, that old but always effective chestnut, that the government is clobbering grandmothers, chidren and the socially vulnerable. The stress focus is on new charges brought in for visiting the doctor (actually rather symbolic), higher charges for prescriptions and the cutting back of universal child benefits. The slogan ODSouzení k reformě! means Condemned to Reform, but is a play on the words stressing the misdeeds of governing Civic Democrats (ODS). It worked in 2006 and a very similar campaign enable Poland’s Catholic-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) to overhaul the liberal Civic Platform in 2005 – before handing them a landslide in 2007 by running a thoroughly maladroit government with some distinctly dodgy junior coalition partners. The Czech regions, which run hospitals and secondary education, are currently dominated by the right, which has always tended to do better in regional elections, possibly as the Social Democrats don’t have the same level of organizational implantation locally, or the same numbers of loyal voters willing to turn out for less important ‘second order’ elections. They currently lead in the national polls, however, and have gone negative early, so don’t bet against them.

>Czechs ponder armed anti-communist resistance, but duck bigger issues


Czech daily Lidové noviny carries an interesting exchange of views on the case of the Mašin brothers, Josef and Ctírad, who (in common with a few other isolated groups) waged a small scale armed resistance against Czechoslovakia’s communist regime in early 1950s before escaping via East Germany to West Berlin in 1953, shooting their way out of trouble in a series of hair’s breadth escapes. A third member of their group, Milan Paumer escaped with them. Others fleeing with them – or associated with them in Czechoslovakia – were captured and executed. There have been various books of varying quality published in Czech, German and English, unravelling the story. An English langauge entry on Wikipedia gives an overview and a website in Czech with various historical resources and documents can be found here.

Sentenced to death in absentia, the Mašins are considered heroes by some and morally ambiguous extremists by others, principally for their ruthlessness: killing a fireman investigating a massive arson attack sabotaging harvested hay; a cashier shot in a robbery to raise funds; and the killing two Czech policemen in raids on police stations for firerms (one was chloroformed and then had this throat cut). The group also shot dead East German soldiers and policemen hunting them in their flight across the GDR. Some German civilians were also killed in the crossfire, probably by the East German police.

Both brothers later emigrated to the USA and served in the US army. They still live in the US and seem have never set foot in post-communist Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic. This, however, seems to be more due to a lack of recognition than through concern about their legal position: the third escapee, Milan Paumer, returned to the Czech Republic in 2001 and is active in radical anti-communist politics. It’s hard to find anything much about their exact legal statusas debate is dominated by discussion of their moral and political question. There is a (largely symbolic) 1993 law on the Illegality of the Communist Regime, however, so presumably they face no legal threats.

Indeed, the post-communist Czech right (now including the Greens) have always sought to honour them the Mašin and pass another (again essentially symbolic) law recognising them (and ex-political prisoners of 1950s) as a ‘third resistance’ with a status equivalent to those who fought for Czechoslovak independence during World War 1 and anti-Nazi resistance fighters in WWII. The traditional left and some liberals, however, have always been leery of this. The controversy is now being replayed because of Prime Minister Topolánek’s recent awarding the new (but rather low-ranking) Prime Minister’s medal to the two Mašin brothers and Paumer.

Lidové noviny reports the discovery of supposedly new archive material concerning plans to assassinate Czechoslovakia’s first Communist President Klement Gottwald – stressing the far-reaching political character of their actions. In a later issue Anna Šabatová, the wife of left-wing ex-dissident Petr Uhl, puts the case against recognition: the Mašin brothers are so politically and socially divisive, she claims, they erode any possibility of a shared sense of Czech history, which is vital to the development of democracy. They are neither heroes not villains. Lionizing them sends the wrong message about the kind of values Czechs should build their future society on: killing the innocent in the name of higher political goals is, after all, the moral rationale of people we often term terrorists. Moreover, the police records cited in defence of the far-reaching political character of their resistance are – like many such records of supposed armed plots against communist – totally inreliable. The regime needed to convince the world (and itself) that it faced dangerous armed counter-revolutionaries.

Šabatová’s piece, however, has the result of persuading me that, on balance, Topolánek was probably right. This was partly because I didn’t find her counter-arguments very convincing: phrases like ‘the debate about our past is above all a debate about our future’ trip easily off the pen, but mean little in practice. The notion of a ‘common history’ – of overcoming the divisions of the past through intellectual debate and intellectual accommodation – is deeply rooted one in the thinking of many ex-dissidents thinking. Petr Pithart was perhaps the prime and most eloquent exponent of this view bother before and after 1989. Why should there be a ‘common history?’ Is the essence of democracy not difference? Is the ‘cancerous polarisation of our society’ not just a description of pluralism? Czechs disagree about healthcare reform, the direction of the EU and the electoral system, so why not history? The idea the ‘right’ interpretation of history by intellectuals somehow generating values for the future is also deeply embedded, but frankly TV soap operas, advertising and package holidays probably do more to shape values than polemics in

If, as Czech law says, communist rule was as an illegal totalitarian regime then armed resistance seems hard to discredit morally and politically. Was it so different from the action of Czechoslovak paratroopers sent into the country during the World War II to organize politically important, but militarily insignificant, acts of resistance? Some of them also ended up shooting at the Czech policemen. Leaving aside parallels with anti-Nazi resistance, historical memory of the Hungarian Revolution seems rather oddly able to contemplate secret policeman hanging from lampposts without seeing the episode as essentially morally ambiguous. Most people will accept some degree of brutality, ‘collateral damage’ and moral transgression as regrettable but inevitable if they think, overall, there is legitimate reason to use violence. The worst one can perhaps say is that it armed resistence was clearly futile as a strategy, but then so (viewed at the time) was the peaceful dissident resistance of the 1970s and 80s.

Of course, the inconvenient truth, that not many Czechs outside the confines of the Communist Party want face too directly, is that the ‘if’ at the start of the paragraph is quite a big ‘if’. Hungarians can safely assume that the communist regime lacked social roots. Czechs, embarrassingly and misguidedly, voted the Communists into power in 1946. The heroism and brutality of the Mašins is a good way for all sides to deal with this while simultaneously ducking the question head on. Indeed, it seems to serve as an odd social pyschological safety valve.