Archive | September, 2008

>Path of at least some resistance


A few months ago I discovered that the leafy local footpath to our town centre was due to be closed because it crosses the grounds of a local secondary school and the headmaster reckoned the path was a source of crime and disorder. Quite a few others reckoned it was some of his students, who were the main source of disorder. But backed by our local county councillor, who is also a governor of the school, it was all quickly signed and sealed behind-closed-doors ‘consultation’ helped by a tailor made section of the Highways Act allowing local rights of way to be closed in the interests of preventing crime and disorder. There is with a special provision for public footpaths passing near schools to get the chop. A very New Labour mix of social authoritarianism and simple kneejerk approach to prioritizing education.

Venting my frustration, I wrote a Disgusted-of-Mid-Sussex letter to the local newspaper and when they printed it (local newspapers will print anything) and forgot about it. Some time latter got a call from the local representative of the Ramblers’ Association, who lives in a neighbouring town. At about 600 metres, the path ‘s not exactly a hiking route, but the Council in their wisdom – while not telling the locals about on, they did inform the RA as a standard bit of consultation. The key thing he tells me is keep a eye on the Official Notices section hidden away at the back of the local paper and send off a letter of objection in time when the Extinguishment Order is officially published. It finally appears in August as he anticipates- so as a few people as possible will see it – and I duly send off my letter. The RA man, out councillor on the District Council and ‘other interested local organizations’ also meet and distribute a Friends of Footpath leaflet to our and nearby streets. They will, he tells me, be a lot of objections and hopefully forcing the County Council to hold a local public enquiry. They could have spared themselves the expense, if they had

The RA man tells me that as well as the headmaster, Conservative councillors and the Director of Children’s Services are pushing to close the footpath. It is a kind of test case. The first time in the county that a footpath would have been closed under the crime and disorder clause. The Tories, he tells me are ideologically opposed to footpaths, crossing any kind of private property and instinctively like closing them. I am capable of believing pretty much anything bad about the Tories, but , in fact, I discover both the anti-footpath county councillor and the pro-footpath district councillor are actually Liberal Democrats.

All this rather reinforces my view that local politics is very much a closed game played by councillors, officials and a small cadre of worthy older people who are ‘active in the community’. Fortunately, however, there are some differences within this small pond of political participation, so it will be a while before the somewhat misnamed local Community College gets to fence itself off from the local community.

>A spoonful of lustration makes the Euro-medicine go down?


Václav Klaus famously warned Czechs that their country risked dissolving into the EU like a sugar cube in a cup of coffee – now, in an ironic take on this (and Czechs of do irony, really well of course) the centre-right/Green government has issued a promotional video clip is promising that the Czech Republic’s forthcoming Presidency of the EU next year to sweeten our bitter, half drunk cup of coffee of a continent. In the clip we also get to see a table-ful of high flying Czechs doing things with sugar cubes which reflect their professions, while making amused or bemused expressions and giving the occasional smile – see the clip here with some drily humorous explanatory English subtitles added in.

Most non-Czechs watching will, like me, probably struggle to recognise the scientists and architects in the line up , but will clock hockey legend Jaromír Jagr (‘passes’ sugar cube using spoon) Chelsea goalie Petr Čech (‘saves’ sugar cube) and supermodel Tereza Maxová (finally eats sugar cube – must be starving). I haven‘t been following the politics of the Czech EU presidency as closely as I once would but, as the video shows, there seems to the a mixture of navel gazing about ‘How does the world see us?’ see forthcoming conference to be addressed by deputy PM and Europe supremo Alexander Vondra) and profile raising – rather depressingly reminiscent of the national zviditelňování of the early 1990s when Czechs could have been forgiven more for self-consciously trying to raise the international profile their newly (re-)founded state

But what distinct themes can the Czechs bring to Europe? The first – and rather wearyingly familiar idea – is that they can bring lessons from the experience of having resisted, or a least survived, communism. The latest version of this, a favourite with ex-dissidents, is contained in the Prague Declaration of the conference on Communism and the European Conscience in June where which Václav Havel was keynote speaker. The Declaration asserts in long-winded and legalistic terms that Nazism and communism, although different in some respects, were part of a common European totalitarian legacy; that ‘bad conscience’ over communism is a burden for future generations, a source of division between East and West and a block on national reconciliation; and that there is a continuing legacy of communism in the form of unpunished crimes, uncompensated victims and various authoritarian regimes around the world. The Declaration then calls the classification of crimes committed in the name of communism as crimes against humanity; a shared Europe-wide approach to totalitarian crimes backed by Institute of European Memory and Conscience and a pan-European museum/memorial of victims of all totalitarian regimes; and the establishment of 23 August, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed in 1939, as a day of remembrance of the victims of both Nazi and Communist totalitarianism.

The same demands were recently reiterated more succinctly to the European Parliament by the director of the Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, Pavel Žaček. However, although the Czech Deputy PM for European Affairs, Alexander Vondra (an old Havel confidant) acted as patron of the conference, it seems stretching it a bit to see as a likely Czech initiative for sweetening up Europe this as suggested in report in EUobserver. Czech politicians from the main parties of government and opposition are notably thin on the ground among the 396 signatories and Vondra himself doesn’t seem to have signed it, although Bulgarian and Latvian centre-right politicians are well represented and, indeed, the Bulgarian parliament recently endorsed the Declaration.

Rather than being a beacon of conscience about Europe’s totalitarian past, the sugary little CR – under guidance of Vondra’s non-ministerial European Affairs Unit – seems set to push for mildly reformist, liberal agenda centring on competitiveness, energy security, budget reform and gaining a clear(er)place for the EU in the world: i.e. something capable of pulling together a reasonable large coalition and not explosive skeleton-in-cupboard issues of decommunization and historical justice. Now, in the credit crunch era, they could perhaps throw in the Czech Republic’s experience of mopping billions in bad debts through their effective nationalization.

The other main priority, of course, is not to demonstrate disastrous incompetence.

>Czech electoral reform debate: sense and insensibility


Czech current affairs TV programme Politické spektrum devotes a recent issue to that old chestnut of Czech politics (politický evergreen), reform of the electoral system. There are, in truth, a small forest’s worth old chestnuts in Czech politics, but this programme is actually quite interesting. After a maddening filmed introduction featuring some pointless whining by representatives of small extra-parliamentary parties, who claim that the current PR electoral system – and specically its 5% threshold – is illegal, unconstitutional, dictatorial etc because it doesn’t allow Israeli style one-man-and-his-dog parties into partliament, we get a sensible and well informed, discussion on the electoral system between Czech political scientists. They conclude sensibly enough that the underlying issue is the relatively even balance of social and political forces in the CR and the occasional instability of its parties – as recent ructions in the Civic Democratic Party. On the other hand, that hasn’t stopped both big and little parties from litigious trying to bend the electoral system (back) in their direction as Kieran Williams notes in a characteristically polished recent article in Europe-Asia Studies.

>Slovenia: the red, grey and the (sort of) green


Well, slightly contrary to expectations, the left bloc of parties in Slovenia has squeezed a narrow victory: the Social Democrats (SD) are now the new main party of the left, narrowly out polling the incumbent centre-right Slovene Democrats (SDS). The once dominant Liberal Democracy (LDS) and its trendier breakaway Zares will play supporting roles as junior coalition partners. Most strikingly, however, the Slovene pensioners’ party DESUS has almost doubled its vote from 4.04% to 7.45% and gains an extra 2 deputies in the 90 seat lower house. They have straightfowardly said they will ally with the winner of the election – i.e. the left – whose more redistributive policies have, in any case, historically been more their cup of tea. This interest-based pivotal politics of being friend to left and right for the right political payoff, has some echoes of the game played by Peasant Party in Poland. However, its is large increases in funding for the pension system , rather than agriculutal subsides, that DESUS is interested in harvesting, somewhat to the discomfort of the thoroughly modern lefties of SD, LDS and Zares.

The main causalities of the election seem to be the Christian New Slovenia (NSi) party, who may just squeeze in once right-wing inclined expat votes are counted. Elsewhere Slovenia’s Youth Party (SMS), part of the European Federation of Greens, got into parliament, but as part of a joint list with the Slovene People’s Party (SPP), a member of the centre-right Christian Democrat-led European People’s Party and member of the outgoing right-wing government. Presumably, this reflects SPP agarian origins as a peasant party and some kind of shared concern with nature and countryside. Green-agrarian coalition have previously featured in Latvian, Croatian and (briefly) Czech politics. On the other hand, perhaps it’s a marriage of convenience. Two other Green lists completely bombed.

>Slovenia: Knickers to PR


Romanian and Bulgarian electoral reform not exciting enough for you? Are you, like me, getting a bit bored with that McCain-Obama thing in… er what’s that country called again , – and gearing up for Slovenia’s forthcoming parliamentary poll? If so, you’ll certainly like the detailed explanation of Slovenia’s open-list PR electoral system, which seem to have echoes of the Finnish and Estonian systems, in Sleeping With Pengovsky. Though not too lively at first glance – bare breasts and women’s knickers on the title banner, my just eyes glazed over – once you get into it and there’s plenty of plenty of interesting stuff on Slovene politics for political scientists to gawp at.

>Who killed Czech politics?


Czech President Václav Klaus weights in with a what-does-it-all-mean-all mean-for-us interpretation of the farcical ‘scandal’ in the CR’s governing centre-right Civic Democrat Party (ODS), which saw Prime Minister Topolánek’s rival Vlastimil Tlustý commission some ‘compromising’ photos of himself in order to catch Topolánek out. (Unfortunately, only a very minor ODS deputy, Jan Morava, snapped at the bait, although the opposition claims – with no real evidence – that he was working at Topolánek’s behest). Tlustý and his small band of supporters are currently waging (and losing) a destructive faction fight with Topolánek in ODS, although at least one pro-Topolánek deputy has resigned the ODS parliamentary whip and, given the government’s wafer thin parliamentary majority, we can look forward to nail biting votes of no confidence after the November regional and Senate elections have given a clearer indication of the Czech political weather.

So, what does it all mean? Klaus claims it shows that Czech politics has been emptied of real ideological content and, we are given to understand, descended into a crude and dirty struggle for power. Topolánek retorts that, if Czech politics, lacks content it is a legacy of the powersharing ‘Opposition Agreement’ deal Klaus himself negotiated with the centre-left in late 1990s to run a minority government. He (Topolánek) was barely able to stomach it, apparantly, but (surprise, surprise) kept stumm at the time, despite a leaked, disparing text message Klaus wrote about him after his suprise election as ODS leader in 2002. Tlustý, one of the few ex-Communist Party members left in a senior position in ODS (although like millions of other Czechs he was simply an opportunistic/pragmatic Party card holder, I should add) is, Topolánek say, is typical, cynical product of the Opposition Agreement era.

Although being a little precious – Czech politics has had its seamy side pretty much since the fall of the communism in November1989 – both PM and President are, I think, right and wrong at the same time. Tlustý had previously identified himself as standard bearer of those in ODS disillusioned with the compromises the party made after 2006 to hold power, especially the dilution of its radical flat-tax agenda it developed in opposition. As well as posing for mocked-up photos with blondes in swimming pools, he has a lot of techncial background on fiscal and tax issues. Regardless of Tlustý’s sincerity, there is clearly an ideological debate rumbling about the direction of the Czech under the surface. Unsurprisingly, neither PM nor President really want to acknowledge that.

Klaus is right, however, in seeing Topolánek as taking ODS in a more flexible, pragmatic direction, filtering its ideological agenda of liberal market reform – as welll as umpteen dodgy sectional and personal interests – through the realities of Czech politics and Czech society and coming up with a political programme and strategy defined by the need to keep the Greens/liberal-centrist on board and the deep rooted disinclination of many Czechs for any kind of red-blooded Thatcherism. The art of the possible. The 64,000 crown question is whether without the charisma and ideological hot gospelling of Klaus, he can hold together party and coalition together. The right are doing better in the polls and Green leader and market friendly eco-liberalMartin Bursík has, for the moment, crushed internal opposition , but watch this space.

>Slovene elections: Centre-right and Pensioners to consolidate hold on power?


Slovene blogger Pengovsky offers a sardonic overview of Slovenia’s election campaign and the Patria arms ‘scandal’ (alleged bribery of PM by Finnish arms manufacture). As elsewhere in the region, there will be polarization between main parties of left and right. Unlike elsewhere in the region, minor parties will have a role to play. The pseudonymous Pengovsky – who seems to be a journalist – reckons the current centre-right coalition will shade it, despite have overreacted to the Patria allegations and the Pensioners’ Party (who currently hold the Defence Portfolio and are ‘playing stupid’) will gain votes and increase their political importance, perhaps even becoming the second largest coalition partner.

>You’re nicked – why the UK’s best ever cop show is even better in Czech


Meeting academic colleagues for lunch at Sussex University, the conversation turns from the US elections (McCain’s campaign under-reported and under-estimated), politics in Brighton (would the Tories sweep all three seats at the next election, or could Green leader Caroline Lucas come through the middle in Brighton Pavilion) to life in Lewes (hilly, human and with a rather cool new local currency featuring 18th century revolutionary Tom Paine). Then we move seamlessly to talk about TV cops. One of my colleagues thinks Taggart is the British best TV cop show. It’s certainly the longest running. But sitting up late and switching on the telly after I was unable to face reading through yet another conference paper, I’d downloaded I realized that the best UK cop show surely has to be 1970s classic The Sweeney, which ITV4 was thoughtfully re-running in the small hours. for the benefit of pooped academics.

The series, which centres on Inspector Jack Regan (John Thaw) and sidekick Sergeant George Carter (Dennis Waterman) of Scotland Yard’s Flying Squad was considered pretty shocking when it came out in early 1975. This was partly because it had a dose of sex and violent, but mainly because it for transferring the (today well worn) stereotype of rough, tough, morally ambiguous cops, who break the rules to beat the crooks to realistic-looking British context. Previous depictions of British cops in TV and film had showed them as stolid, decent and reliable, if not always too quick on the uptake.

These days The Sweeney’s 1970s setting and formula of blags, fags and slags is seen as something of a period piece, well made popular entertainment cum sociological document and nostalgia trip try for anyone old enough the remember the period. I am, just. Sometimes everyday objects and street scenes bring the childhood memories rushing back. Indeed, the Sweeney has been skillfully and ironically pastiched by the hit show Life on Mars in which a modern cop is spookily sent back to 1970s (or thinks he has – he is a coma) and tries to make his way in the less rule-bound politically incorrect, more boozy, violent and corrupt police culture depicted in the Sweeney and similar shows of the period.

While ITV4 shows old episodes, its more high-brow digital cousin BBC4 has even done a documentary, musing over the issues and serious critics have chewed over just how Reganesque the police of 1970s actually were and whether the Sweeney’s focus on old style villains blagging banks was a bit dated even when it was made. Little mention of drugs, terrorism, race, political extremism, strikes etc – as Life on Mars’s lovingly crafted pastiche reminded viewers.

Oddly, however, the re-runs don’t quite match up to Czech language version of The Sweeney I used to watch in the mid-1990 on Prima TV, the country’s second private channel, which packed with old krimis from various West European countries. The series, rendered Inspektor Regan, was well dubbed and the dialogue, as far as I could tell, seemed make a rather easy transition into low colloquial Czech, yielding such lines as “Ten je velkej práskač, šéfe. Bydlí s nějakou kočkou v Epping Forestu” (‘He’s a right grass, ‘guv. Lives with some bird in Epping Forest’). It also produced a few interesting insights into the Regan-Carter relationship at the heart of the show. Carter, the younger and more (relatively speaking) more scrupulous character, invariably calls his boss Regan as ‘Guv’ (or Guv’nor), while the cynical but charismatic Regan calls him ‘George’. The translators in the Czech version captures the distance in their outwardly matey relationship more directly: Regan calls Carter ty, but Carter always address him as vy. For me the dilapidated urban landscapes, corrupt – or at least cynical – cops with little regard for law, armed robberies and organized crime of seventies London also had echo of the Czech Republic of the 1990s, although the Czech internet suggests the show had few Czech fans. In Central Europe, the cardboard-cut out antics of The Professionals (Profíci) – screened on Czech TV even under the communists- are far more popular.

There is though, perhaps one a crucial underlying difference. The cops of the Sweeney, however violent, cynical and obliviously to the rule of law – are still basically, at bottom, the goodies for most British viewers, even now. Czech public, I suspects, regards its own regards the police officer as thick useless, corrupt and not ultimately on their side, an attitude seeping into views about politicians, officials of all kinds. And, of course, they don’t need to be told that in the 1970s, they were living on another planet.

>Czech political scandal: Staged photos trigger low farce

>And, as they say on all the best shopping channels, did you think I was done? Done with Czech politics that is. Just when you think it safe to avert you eyes from the CR and focus on other big issues like the Slovenian election, scandal erupts. And this is not just some boring any old tale of corrupt payments and dubious conflicts of interest.

Oh no. In the twinkling of an eye – as only Czech politics can – we descend from ideological battles over public services and tax-and-spend to low farce that anyone scripting a political satire would probably reject as implausible. Dissident Civic Democrat flat-tax advocate (and ex-Finance Minister in the short-lived centre-right coalition of 2006), Vlastimil Tlustý (pictured), was so shocked by the corrupt and cynical behaviour of his fellow ODS deputies (did it really taken him this long to discover it?) that he started recording them secretly on a dictaphone and – presumably when this didn’t quite yield up what he wanted – teamed up with journalists from TV Nova and the daily MF Dnes with a rather bizarre entrapment scheme: he staged some ‘compromising’ photos of himself and a blonde filmed in a hotel swimming pool (here, if you really must look, although the most comprising thing revealed is that Tlustý could do with losing a few kilos). The journos, posing as private detectives, offered it various of his party colleagues, who would – it was assumed – jump at the bait showing all the world just how very sleazy they were.

A prime ministerial aide turned down the offer of the pics of Tlustý and the unnamed blonde, but, alas, young ODS deputy Jan Morava felt duty bound to get material and even told the ‘detective’ in a secretly filmed meeting that he also wanted to arrange the taking on some surveillance picture on a Green MP’s daughter with himself, so he could blackmail or intimidate her mother into backing the government: the Greens, I should say, are divided on whether to stay in the centre-right coalition government and, to complicate, matters further are just at this very moment having a make or break congress to decide the leadership and future direction of their party. It’s unclear what Morava’s exact relationship with the MP’s daughter was, although evidence in the press suggests some kind of friendship or romance, but you get the general idea…

The political upshot of all this? Prime Minister Topolánek calls for both Tlustý and Morava to leave parliament and makes an emotional apology to the Greens at their congress and begs them to get their act together (and stay in the coalition). He says he is appalled and shocked at such filth and feels like leaving politics. Possibly true at an emotional level, but can you really get to the top of Czech politics and have such a delicate conscience. I rather doubt it.

The odds on the government collapsing have just shortened, I would say. Who knows? Perhaps that was the whole idea all along.

>Electoral reform back on the agenda in the Czech Republic


Oh no, they’re at it again. After the saga of abortive electoral reform in 1999-2001 undertaken in the interest of stability – at least that’s what they said – by the Czech Republic’s two main parties during the era of their’Opposition Agreement’ pact, you would have thought Czech politicians had learned their lesson. But no. The governing coalition is currently reviewing options for reforming the electoral system to the lower house of parliament to break the political logjam, which has seen no strong majority government since 1996.

Last time round, it was a straightforward effort to increase the representation of bigger parties at the expense of smaller but introducing a highly disproportional form of proportional representation that could just about squeeze through the constitutional requirement to use PR for the lower chamber of parliament. It didn’t and a more modest reform reducing the size of electoral districts was passed in 2002 instead. (The two bigger parties lacked the votes to change the Constitution and besides, any change, in the electoral law requires majorities in both houses of parliament to pass, unlike normal legislation where the lower house has the final say).

Now, however, the goal is ensure a strong majority government and avoid squeezing useful little parties like the Greens. The options outlined by the Justice Ministry – whittled down from an original nine to six in inter-ministerial discussions – centre mainly on two-tier forms of PR which give a bonus in seats to the party with the largest vote at the expense of the second strongest, but give smaller parties roughly proportional representation. The Czech press reports that ‘Scottish’, ‘Dutch’ and ‘Greek’ models are being considered, although I am not sure how accurate these analogies are. An Italian style awarding of a direct bonus to the winning party has been ruled out as too crude and probably unconstitutional, as has a ‘Polish’ model of having parallel thresholds. Readers who know Czech are recommended to click through from the link(s) above to the excellent coverage in Hospodářské noviny.

Applied to the 2006 elections, the net effect of the all the proposels models would be to reduce the Social Democrats representation at the expense largest party (the centre-right Civic Democrats) and the smallest party, their allies (at least for the moment – internecine faction fighting at the upcoming Green Party conference may change this. Indeed the government may collapse). However, if the 2006 vote was reproduced and the Greens don’t implode or move left, such changes would give the current Civic Democrat/Christian Democrat/Green coalition a working majority. But – and it’s a big ‘but’ – it’s the Social Democrats who are currently ahead in the polls and thus likely to benefit if one of these is adopted. The result might actually be another minority Social Democratic government playing off ‘support parties’ to their left (the Communists) and right (the Greens or whatever liberal eco-centrist types can make it into parliament – there have been a few over the years), the basis of the fairly successful 1998-2002 government.

Personally, I am sceptical that the requisite political hurdles can be crossed to change the electoral system. Much will depend whether the Social Democrats and, to a lesser extent, the Communists think it will benefit them politically.