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>UK Tories to send gay MP to quell Polish social conservatives


Conservative party to send gay MP to quell EU extremists reports The Guardian. The story? Nick Herbert, Conservative MP for Arundel and South Downs, Tory spokesperson for the environment and one of several openly gay Conservative MPs has drawn the short straw and has agreed to go to Poland to attend a gay pride event in Warsaw in July (so far, so straightfoward) and also held the Tories’ highly socially conservative ally, Law and Justice (PiS) embark on a ‘journey’ to modernize its negative views on homosexuality. Possibly a tall order. One of the founders of the PiS, Poland’s late President Lech Kaczynski banned such events when mayor of the Polish capital. You have to feel sorry for Mr Herbert. He seems a nice guy. He met my mum when canvassing and was quite charming when she told he she was a dyed-in-the-wool social democrat, would like Gordon Brown as PM and a would not vote conservative if her life depended on it. I wonder if he will get on as well with Catholic social conservative in Warsaw as social democrats in Mid-Sussex.

>Czech politics: How to be a successful loser


Karel Schwarzenberg tells Slovakia’s Sme that he doesn’t plan on leading his TOP09 party to victory in the forthcoming Czech parliamentary elections | Schwarzenberg: Nechceme vyhrať voľby.

Which is frankly just as well, as with 10-15% per cent preferences – now stagnating towards the lower end of that range as the novelty of his party wears thin and it becomes so last year (the clue is perhaps in the name) – the only role this rather interesting aristo-anti-politician is really likely to play is to a support party (and catalyst for change?) to the battered Civic Democrats.

>Traces of nuts may be detectable


The mildy controversial article Tim Bale, Aleks Szczerbiak and I wrote for Political Quarterly about the British Tories and their East European allies in the new European Conseravtives and Reformers Group (ECR) European Parliament has just appeared – interested readers based in universities with an institutional subscription to PQ might like to click through here. Otherwise, friends and colleagues, please feel free to drop me an email to ask for an electronic offprint.
The new ECR group, however, looks a bit more shaky than it might have done a few months ago, if the recent interview with Civic Democrat faction leader in the EP Miroslav Ouzký, who pulls no punches in telling Czech news magazine Respekt that the leaving the European People’s Party was a bad move, depriving his party of political clout and was the brainchild of arch-eurosceptic and one time Klaus protege, Jan Zahradil (now the Vice-Chair of ECR). The ECR’s dependence on small one MEP parties, Ouzký says – as we too argued in the article (seealso an East European oriented presentation I did on the subject last year fwith some figures) leaves it vulnerable to collapse.

My co-author, Tim Bale, is also author of new book on the British Tories, which he describes here in a podcast on the Bookhugger site. I had a small enabling role here, as it was recording in my office: a fact obvious by default for anyone who knows it in that Tim is seated in front of the only area not cluttered with untidy piles of books, papers and coffee cups: the space-age window-cum-porthole which sometimes leaves me feeling more like Major Tom than Dr Sean.

>Conservatively speaking


The paper on Czech conservatism in Liblice has now appeared in a conference paper archive on the website of the Henrich Boell Foundation, who jointly sponsored the event with the Institute for Contemporary History in Prague. There are also some much better and more interesting papers alongside.

What I wonder would the English Greens call their foundation – if, of course, they had the cash and the votes to create one, of course?

Update: The broken hyperlink the papers originally posted has now been fixed.

>Fractured alliance


Tim Bale’s brief on the Parliamentary Affairs website trails some of the arguments and analysis about the new European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group in the European Parliament that Tim, Aleks Szczerbiak and I have been working on.

>The Czech right: culture, folk roots and a bit of fusion


Public engagement is flavour of the month just now, so when asked out of the ether to contribute something about Czech politics to the launch issue of cultural-political monthly intended to fill the gap left by the winding up of the long-established Czech intelligenstia Literární noviny I agreed. The venture is, rather unusually, being undertaken by a newly formed cultural and publishing co-operative (an institutional form rarely seen in the CR outside the housing sector)

Clearly, I should have asked for some CDs in payment as well as a small donation to charity because, as I later discovered, the moving spirit behind the project who contacted me, Jiří Plocek is a musician and sometime member of famed folk/jazz/bluegrass fusionists Teagrass. Still, readers who you want to improve their reading experience might want to click in to one of the group’s performances with Hungarian singer Irén Lovász here

The topic they asked me to write on, framed in an interestingly Czech terms (since when did anyone in the UK care about the authenticty of anything? ) was:

“Is there an authentic political right in the Czech Republic?

When observers question the authenticity of the right in the Czech Republic, they generally have one three things in mind: 1) that the Czech right’s largely pro-market orientation makes it an alien import ill suited to Czechs’ Central European traditions; 2) that on a European level the Czech right is an isolated and odd phenomenon with few real partners beyond the British Tories; or 3) that right-wing parties and ideologies in the Czech Republic have, wittingly or unwittingly, been little more than a cover for corrupt and self-interested networks of politicians, businesspeople and officials. All three contain elements of truth but also strong elements of caricature.

The emergence of strong liberal-conservative right wing in the Czech Republic after was one of the early political surprises in post-communist Central Europe. Many observers assumed that Czechoslovak politics would be shaped the country’s ‘social democratic tradition’ or cultural and geographical proximity to the social market economies of Austria and Germany. A Czech centre-right, if it emerged at all, was expected to be Christian Democrat in outlook. The rise of Václav Klaus in 1990-1 backed by a coalition of Civic Forum anti-communist grassroots activists and the formation of ODS quickly put paid to such illusions – as did the early electoral marginalization of KDU-ČSL.

However, that the civic right that coalesced around Klaus did have social and intellectual roots extending back the normalization period and back to 1960s followed: the penetration of Western neo-conservative and neo-liberal ideas into Czechoslovakia during the brief window opened by the Prague Spring; the discrediting of the once strong Czech democratic-socialist tradition after the 1968 invasion; the frustration of a generation of well educated people stifled by the rigidity of the Husák regime; the isolation of dissent from the bulk of Czech society; the parallel formation of ‘grey zone’ of technocrats including Klaus and other liberal economists, who were left by the regime with little to do but read and bide their time. In hindsight, it is clear such phenomena set the scene for the emergence of a powerful civic right in early 1990s.

However, the Czech right arguably has some deeper historical roots. Despite an Anglo-Saxon Thatcherite veneer in many ways ODS was more national-liberal Contemporary Czech right-wing eurosceptic concerns with ‘national interests’ or the Czech place in an emerging federal Europe would have been immediately recognisable in Czech political debates 90 or 100 years ago. Viewed in this perspective, the unlikely phenomenon of ‘Czech Thatcherism’ is simply the latest assertion of a liberal Czech national identity in a region dominated by Austro-German traditions of corporatism and state paternalism.

Such independence can, however, breed isolation. While KDU-ČSL seamlessly integrated into broader West European family of Christian Democratic parties, Czech right-wing commentators have often agonized about whether ODS is in European terms truly a ‘standard’ authentic party. This issue has been starkly illustrated by formation in the European Parliament by ODS and the UK Tories of the new European Conservatives and Reformers group (ECR). While the Tories and ODS are well matched in their enthusiasm for free markets and dislike of the Lisbon Treaty, the remainder of the ECR is an uncomfortable mix of Latvian and Polish nationalists, Belgian populists and Dutch Christian fundamentalists. Such concerns about the inauthenticity of Czech right are, however, probably misplaced. Right-wing forces across Europe form an uneven patchwork of beliefs and traditions that defies easy categorisation. The Civic Democrats’ political pas de deux with the British Tories and lack of other major European allies suggest political weakness, not political abnormality.

A more lingering doubt is raised by the relationship between business and politics on the Czech right and the suspicion that right-wing parties’ ideological commitment to competition with the left is in reality skin deep and always set aside when money, power or political office are at stake. For many the sight of Miroslav Topolánek and other leading right-wing politicians sunning themselves on an Italian yacht in the company of a ČEZ lobbyist and a leading member of ČSSD graphically illustrated this. Those with longer memories may recall how cut throat electoral ODS- ČSSD competition in 1998 was succeeded by the Opposition Agreement, or how Václav Klaus successfully sought the support of Communist deputies in his bid to become President in 2003.

However, although shot through with an unedifying sleaze and graft – and an often brutal, pragmatism – in many respects Czech party politics is a highly conventional contest of left and right. As much political scientist have found Czech right-wing politicians and voters consistent and clear of ideological pro-market views and – quite often, at least – vote and act accordingly. The Czech right is also consistent in its social and electoral constituency: a distinct younger, better educated, better off urban electorate worked disproportionately in the private sector and tending to live in Bohemia rather than Moravia. Such a base has proved too narrow to deliver the right convincing parliamentary majorities, but is a common profile for conservative parties inclining towards market liberalism across Europe.

Over the past decade, political deadlock between left and right has repeatedly forced the Czech Republic’s major political parties of right and left, against their own inclinations, into ad hoc political co-operation. The current Fischer government is simply the latest instalment in this pattern. Pragmatic deal making or overarching left-right co-operation pacts such as the Opposition Agreement do not, however, make Czech parties of the right less authentically right-wing (or parties of the left less authentically left-wing). Indeed, co-operation across ideological and party divides has been a recognisable pattern in many European democracies, including interwar Czechoslovakia, and has often been a successful model for national development.

Taken together, this suggests that two decades after the fall of communism the Czech Republic does indeed possess a distinct and authentic right-wing rooted in the country’s culture, history and society. Authenticity is, however, in itself not a lodestone for good politics, effective government or political success. Indeed for critics of the Czech right such as Jiří Pehe the problem is precisely that it draws all too authentically on nationalistic and provincial reflexes of Czech society. Such judgements are probably too harsh, understating the liberal and modernizing impulses that have animated Czech right-wing politics.

One thing, however, does seem certain. When Czechs look their country’s right-wing they will, to some extent, see themselves reflected back. Whether that is a pleasant sight is, of course, a matter that they themselves must decide.”

Update: The free launch issue of Kulturní noviny did indeed appear and can downloaded in PDF format here

>TOP cats


Want to know the name of the man who will determine the future direction of Czech politics? I’ll tell you. It’s His Serene Highness Prince Karl Johannes Nepomuk Josef Norbert Friedrich Antonius Wratislaw Mena von Schwarzenberg. That’s Karel Schwarzenberg to you, me and the Czech elecorate. Mr Schwarzenberg (as I shall call him) is the widely respected and popular Czech independent of aristocratic descent and Swiss-Austrian-Czech background, who is heads the newest party on Czech political scene: TOP09. That might sound like some kind of trade fair but the acronym, in fact, stands for Tradition, Responsibility and Prosperity a slogan vaguely reminiscent of Vichy France, so understandably they are sticking with the corny but safe TOP09.

That lack of class perhaps gives the game away. The party is not really Mr Schwarzenberg’s creation, but that of one time Christian Democrat leader and smooth political operator Miroslav Kalousek. Mr Kalousek quit the KDU-ČSL when its scandal hit leader Jiří Čunek finally stepped down to be replaced by older stager and former Foreign Minister, Cyril Svoboda. Mr Svoboda is – at least compared to Mr Čunek – squeakly clean and comes without any of the scandals concerning money in brown envelopes, derailed criminal investigation or populist outbursts about Roma that marked his predecessor inglorious stint at the top of Czech politics. Still, he’s not good enough for Mr Kalousek and sundry other heavyweights Christian Democrats because of his obvious inclination to work with the Social Democrats. Kalousek et al are rather more market-oriented and much prefer the right: Mr K was the driving force being some pretty detailed and well thought ideas in the Christian Democrats’ 2006 election programme, although he did rather blot his copybook but suddenly deciding that he would break the political impasse after the election by entering a coalition with… the Social Democrats with the tacit parliamentary support of…. the Communists. Kalousek was ousted by an internal rebellion for his pains.

Not the best recommendation for the leader of new centre-right party. Enter Mr Schwarzenberg. Having managed the family estates and supported Czech dissidents in exemplory fashion under communism, served as an advisor to Václav Havel and been elected to the Czech Senate as independent in 2004, Mr S. was propelled into top rank politics when the Greens screwed huge concessions from the Civic Democrats in 2007 to claim the post of Foreign Minister and then played a trump card by choosing the experienced, capable and mutli-lingual Schwarzenberg as Czech Foreign Minister. By all accounts, he did a decent job batting on a very sticky wicket as the Czech EU Presidency – and ultimately the government – slowly fell apart.

Now, however, he has, as he himself observed, staked all his political capital on one spin of the political wheel. TOP09 has a bland but broadly right-of-centre programme, which all about clean and straightfoward politics and getting things done and balancing market forces and social resposibility. And, of course, it’s Europhile and Atlanticist. Anyone with a long enough memory will be distinctly reminded of the programme of the now defunct Freedom Union, which broke away from ODS with much hullabaloo in 2008. The early indications for TOP09 – despite being well financed (14 million crowns in donations from businesspeople and wealthy supporters – one of 11 million), having linked up with movement of local independent mayors and, at last, got a new party logo – look less promising. The party has recorded poll preferences of 2% and 3.5%, which suggest a less than stunning entry onto the Czech political stage (if any) in October’s early elections.

On the other hand, the party might just be poised for a late and effective pre-election surge: the Freedom Union, you will remember peaked too early in the polls before the 1998 elections and never really recovered. Perhaps TOP09 will match the Czech Greens’ rather better timed picking up of momentum in 2006. And, of course, in Mr Schwarzenberg they’ve got a fascinating political figure. And, you will remember, exiled aristos turned political independents do have a certain political track record in the region. Bulgaria’s exiled king Simeon II stormed to political success and turned the Bulgarian party system upside down in 2001 (his former bodyguard’s party GERB has now just repeated the trick) and, more recently, the Hungarian Democratic Forum saved itself from political death by fielding Prince George Habsburg, grandson of Hungary’s last king and former head of the Hungarian Red Cross, as the number 2 on its European elections list last June.

This seems reflects a rather interesting mix of anti-political perception of remnants of Central European aristocracy as special breed of charismatic and cultured technocrats, who can step down into the grim and graft of the political arena, work a little stardust and provide honest and non-partisan solutions no-one else could manage: their education and polish, so it is said, makes them confident movers and shakers, their cosmopolitan background chimes with ideals of an integrated and united Europe, and their long-settled family wealth makes them impervious to the blandishments of corruptin – after all, why take a bribs when you own large chunks of Switzterland.

I’m not sure if I entirely like this buy this argument, which seems to be just a snobbish veneer applied to what is really an form of anti-political populism. For my money Mr Svoboda was just as a good a Foreign Minister as Mr Schwarzenberg. But it’s certainly true that Mr Schwarzenberg and TOP09 – if they can somehow gain the Czech equivalent of Big Mo over the summer – may be the last best hope for the Czech centre-right. On most other scenario, no matter how well the Civic Democrats do – and they are currently ahead in the polls – they will as in 2006 have no allies strong enough to build a parliamentary majority. And that leaves us looking at either a minority Social Democrat(-led) government helped into power by the Communists, or some kind of ill tempered Grand Coalition between Civic and Social Democrats.

>Czech government falls: Is the curtain also slowly falling for the right?


It was one of those theatrical, but drawn and deadly boring Czech parliamentary occasions – yet another attempt to vote out the Czech Republic’s minority centre-right government, albeit spiced up by the promise of three dissident deputies from the ruling Civic Democratic Party to vote the government out. I quickly got bored – the government had narrowly survived four such votes of no confidence as patronage and dissident legislators’ reluctance to pull the trigger and bring the curtain down on their own parliamentary careers. I busied myself with the rather more stimulating topic of calculating effective national electoral thresholds and checked the result later that evening.
And, lo and behold, the government actually fell, sunk by the combined votes of side-lined flat tax guru Vlastimil Tlustý and two deputies expelled from ever fractious Green Party, whose inclinations (if we set aside personal animus) were more to the left. Despite – or perhaps because of – a rich tradition of minority government, it’s the first time a Czech government has been unseated by a vote of confidence since 1989 and, if I’m not mistaken, ever in modern Czech history.

What do we expect now? Well for the duration of the Czech EU Presidency and the summer holidays, probably not a lot. The Topolánek government will limp on as a caretaker government, until early elections in autumn or conceivably summer (perhaps to coincide with Euro-elections scheduled for 4-5 June), no doubt accompanied a lot of wrangling with the opposition Social Democrats, who will seek to exercise some influence by trying to insist on a ministerial reshuffle to get rid of some particular betes noires.

If the polls and the results of last year’s regional elections are any guide, the Social Democrats will then sweep back to power and establish some reasonably stable government – possibly including the Christian Democrats, possibly not – but I dare say with the tacit support of the Communists (who might perhaps get to nominate a few independent ministers for their trouble).

And what does it all mean in the longer term when one strips away the War of the Newts style day-to-day politicking? First, it is clear that the fall of the Topolánek government has its roots in split on the right. Second, although the spectacle of deputies in the once well disciplined Civic Democratic parliamentary group breaking away and turning against their own party (more usually a speciality of the Social Democrats) is something of a first, is actually the second time that a minority Civic Democrat-led government has collapsed because of divisions within the right, the first occasion being the unveiling of the party funding scandal and subsequent ‘Sarajevo assassination’ of Václav Klaus by some of his own ministers in November-December 1997. Third the underlying causes are similar: to what extent should the right seek to push a market-oriented reform agenda and to what extent should it refashion its programme around a compromise with social, ecological and civil society building inclinations of various parts of the political centre.

The roots of what happened today can be found in the Pyrrhic victory of the 2006 election when the once enormous poll leads of the right evaporated under a Social Democrat orchestrated by Jiří Paroubek, which showed that too many Czechs had too many doubts about the radical agenda of flat taxes and market-led welfare and health reform that the Civic Democrats had signed up to as ideologically acceptable alternative to the stale euroscepticism of the late Klaus period. Miroslav Topolánek seems belated to have found his way towards a more pragmatic less eurosceptic Scandinavian style conservatism better attuned to Czech realia and in seeing of the rather vapid and flashy challenger of Prague mayor Pavel Bém at last December’s ODS congress to have clearly taken the majority of his party with him. But for all his undoubted guile, skill and survivabilty – and probably through some individual legislator’s miscalculation – his luck has now run own and his period as ODS leader may quite possibly be coming to an end.

Whoever takes over at the head of ODS, the current global crisis means that market liberalism of the kind that ODS has had as its ideological hallmark since its foundation is out of fashion. The Social Democrats can move into the Euro elections and parliamentary elections with a reasonably plausible narrative of pro-EU politics, strong welfare and energetic state intervention as the pillars of anti-crisis package to look after a fearful population. The right will have little to offer except the memory of unrealised Blue Chance reform package, some unpopular charges for health services and a reasonably handled EU Presidency. I guess that does leave a national-populist card to play and I suppose we will in some form see the Charge of the Klaus Brigade (few tears being shed at Prague Castle tonight, I expect), but whatever happens it’s hard to escape the feeling that the influence of the Czech (neo-)liberal right may be starting slowly to slip away.

>Cloudy blue

Kevin Degan-Krause’s Pozorblog highlights the joys of Wordle, a site which will artily mash will any text as a arty looking ‘word cloud’ and, as it homes in on key words, tell you straight out and direct what the book is really about. Fed into the site the text of my book The New Right in the New Europe comes out pretty much as you might expect, although my tendency to overuse the word ‘however’ is rather brutally exposed.

However, I think you can probably forgive me that…

>Topolánek: Kant go on like this


Czech PM Miroslav Topolánek kicks off the congress of the ruling Civic Democratic Party (ODS), the most crucial in years. He’s a competent, but not very inspiring speaker. The speech itself is no masterpiece, but when read off is effective, clear and to the point. The party’s meeting on the outskirts of Prague is symbolic of its marginalization in Czech politics (echoes of the Communist Party’s last Central Committee meeting in November 1989 before the regime’s collapse?). The party needs to find a strategy not for just election victory, but to create a sustainable Czech right-wing in the long term. It meeds to discuss the reasons for its thumping defeat in regional and Senate elections in an open, but civilized way. The debate should be between those who want to stay in ODS, not those who are planning to leave. Anyone who doesn’t like the realities can leave – if, as expected, he retains his leadership of the party, some probably will.
There’s also some vapid stuff about Christian values, including a quite from Kant (has Topol been reading the seer of Koenigsburg? or do I detect a speechwriter at work?) suggesting that Topolánek may be inclining to some revamp of the idea – in circulation since the mid-1990s – of making ODS a sort of centrist secular Christian Democratic party. This impression is reinforced by the call for ‘balance’ – classic trope in Czech political discourse – between realism and idealism, liberalism and conservatism, ‘heart and head’. A very similar slogan (rozum a srdce) was used under Klaus in 1998, but Topolánek’s stress on listening to what Czech citizens really want (i.e. not a triple helping of market forces and euroscepticism) suggests he see the need for the former, rational pragmatism, not the stoking of the ideological passions Václav Klaus wants to keep burning.

Anyone who doesn’t fancy tough choices and a difficult path, Topolánek concludes, can go elsewhere. One man who has sort of followed this advice is indeed VK.The Czech President, contrary to reports, will be turning up at the congress, gives a speech tomorrow morning. Expect something subtly poisonous and, who knows, a call for a new party?