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East Central Europe: liberalism gone missing – or just never there?

Refugees welcome hashtag

Spread of #refugeeswelcome 3 September 2015

This commentary on liberalism and the responses to the refugee crisis in East Central Europe was co-authored with James Dawson.

 Images from Hungary showing security forces turning tear gas and water cannon on refugees from behind a newly fortified border will come as little surprise to many observers of East Central Europe.  The government of Victor Orbán has systematically exploited the refugee crisis to ramp up a long-standing rhetoric of nationalist intolerance and consolidate its grip on power by passing a raft of emergency powers, further eroding Hungary’s once robust legal checks and balances. Such actions have drawn a storm of international opprobrium – including harsh criticism from the governments of Austria, Croatia and Serbia, all of which have taken a more humane and pragmatic approach to managing the influx of refugees.

Few criticisms of Hungary’s actions have come from neighbouring EU states in East Central Europe still widely seen as front runners in liberal political and economic reform. Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic initially opted to close ranks with Orbán to head off the European Commission’s proposals for compulsory quotas. Wrong-footed and exasperated by the sudden re-discovery of liberal compassion on the part on Germany and other West European governments, leaders ranging from Slovakia’s social democratic prime minister Robert Fico to Poland’s newly elected conservative president Andrzej Duda provoked astonishment in Western European capitals by conceding that they might take a handful of those fleeing the war in Syria hand-picked on the basis of their religion. Poland has lately broken ranks by responding to pressure from Berlin, Paris and Brussels to sign up to quotas, yet even the deal’s supporters doubt it will ever be implemented against a backdrop of consistently hostile public attitudes towards refugees in the region. As one social media visualisation graphically showed, widespread use of #refugeeswelcome stopped abruptly at the old Iron Curtain. Such stances have been widely lambasted as hypocritical, ungenerous, lacking in compassion, and contradicting the long-term interests of East Central European states themselves.

Yet just a decade ago these same former Eastern bloc countries acceded smoothly to the EU on the basis that they had fulfilled the Copenhagen Criteria as ‘functioning liberal democracies’. Why has liberalism, once a rallying cry for pro-European leaders from Warsaw to Sofia and a condition built into the EU’s demanding  pre-accession acquis, suddenly gone missing when it is needed most? Read More…

>Croatian greys quit government

> reports that the Croatian Pensioners’ Party (HSU) have quit the ruling coalition. As they have one deputy that may not make much immediate different but seems is an interesting and direct impact of financial crunch, which has moved down the headlines recently – at least in relation to Eastern Europe.
“ZAGREB, CROATIA 24 July 2009 – The president of the Croatian Pensioners’ Party (HSU) Silvano Hrelja announced today that the party was leaving the leading coalition.
In a conversation for, Hrelja revealed that HSU will now join the opposition parties in a battle against the Cabinet’s tricks.
HSU reminds that on Thursday they sent a clear message to the Cabinet that they will not accept a larger tax than the one agreed upon, and that they accept the Cabinet taxing only the difference for amounts over three thousand kuna, at a maximum rate of three percent.
“Considering that the Cabinet did not find the calculation to plug the hole in the budget, they later said that they need to tax the entire amount of all of the salaries and pensions that surpass three thousand kuna, we considered the negotiations over. This sort of burden would mean nearly a four times larger burden for workers and pensioners” say sources from HSU. They consider that the latest Cabinet proposal to also be unacceptable, considering that it is considerable less favourable than the one they had already agreed upon.
“Considering that the Cabinet was at least nine months late to react, and considering that the Minister of Finance Ivan Suker has been deceiving not only the media, and coalition partners, but the whole Croatian public, HSU has brought the unanimous decision to leave the coalition, defending our reputation and continuing the fight for the rights of Croatian pensioners” it says in the report by the central HSU committee, which also seeks the resignation of the Minister of Finance.”

>Croatia: every loser wins

>The Croatian Pensioners Party (HSU) may have been cut down to a single deputy in recent elections but reports Javno despite this they have become the third ‘grey’ grouping to enter government (the others are in Israel and Slovenia), signing a formal coalition agreement with the victorious Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). I dare say that may lead to merger and final eclipse.

>Croatia: grey day for pensioners’ party, as reformed nationalists win surprise victory


And – as with the Scottish elections earlier this year – so with the Croatian elections pre-election speculation about gains for a pensioners’ party prove groundless amid low turnout and a polarized two-horse race. Unofficial results suggest that the reformed nationalists of the HDZ have pulled ahead of the ex-communist social democratic opposition, the reverse of what exit polls predicted. Meanwhile, the Croatian Pensioners Party (HSU) seems likely to drop from 3 deputies to 1 deputy – it’s the peasant party (HSS) are the winners in the minor party race this time – but not to be wiped out as exit polling had forecast. HSU leader Vladimir Jordan (pictured) may be spared the need to resign as he had promised if the party got no seats, but clearly has nothing to be cheerful about. At least, he didn’t promise to eat a beetle like the overconfident leader of the Czech Pensioners for a Secure Life party 1998. Minor party success though seems be as much about the disfunctionality and failure of established big parties than the inherent attractiveness of little interest parties.

>Croatian ‘greys’ set for strong election result?


As the Croatian elections approach, the government – the Javno website reports – quickly pays off 2.037 billion kuna owed to earmarked for the settling of debts to 462,888 members of the pensioners’ fund – the proceeds of privatizing the the T-TH telecoms company. Presumably this is intended to shore up the vote of the ruling HDZ and perhaps dish the Croatian Pensioners’ Party (HSU). HSU polls suggest may again cross the 5 per cent hurdle needed to enter parliament and could even finish third, gaining 7-8% of the vote 8-10 seats in the 150 member legislature, although as the HSU has been quite politically close to HDZ in the past this might, in fact, prove counterproductive. It may send a signal that a strong ‘grey’ party enables pensioners to gain what the political system would otherwise deny them. The HSU claims 47,000 members and – like Die Grauen in Germany – also have a youth section apparently comprising some 20% of this membership.

Elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia , Euro2day notes quoting the FT, Slovenia’s DESUS – European’s most succesful ‘grey’ party – seemed unafraid of elections, having backed the (successful) rival presidential candidate to that nominated by centre-right coalition of which it is a member. It was said they might may not back the government in a vote of confidence, but in fact the DESUS leadership unanimously opted to do so. A huge (by Slovene standards) recent demonstation of up to 70, 000 trade unionist demanding higher wages and better social standards suggests a social climate in theiry favourable to DESUS, which perhaps explains why it might be tempted to become a semi-detached member of the coalition. DESUS and HSU recently held a meeting in Zagreb passing on good wishes to each other, exchanging experiences and unveiling (long-running) plans for a congress of European pensioners’ parties to be held in Ljubljana.

My own paper trying to begin to make sense of Europe’s small pensioners’ parties now appears on the web on the site of the conference on minor parties I am going to in Birmingham next week: an overview of what’s out there and some hypotheses – derived from a large-ish literature about party formation – about why they are relatively successful in places like Croatia, Slovenia, Holland and Israel. Unfortunately, I have yet to come up with decent analytical strategy to unpick a mass morass of possibly relevant factors, so it is – as one of my colleagues kindly put it – still a piece of ‘exploratory political science’.

>Croatia: opposition set to win, but Greys to re-enter parliament say polls


The Economist Intelligence Unit ViewsWire (25 September) carries the following report on the upcoming election in Croatia suggesting a swing to the conventional centre-left and away from the Croation Democratic Union, which has tried to clean up its act in the past few years and become the Fianna Fáil of SE Europe (actually, perhaps not the best analogy, given the Irish PM’s current inabilty to remember various large and odd payment to him and his party, but let that pass). Interestingly, the Croatian Pensioner’s Party seems set to re-enter parliament and increase its vote share, if the polls are to be believed. Despite their co-operation to the HDZ, I wonder if they will end in – or influencing – government, shwoing the same pragmatism as their fellow Greys in neighbouring Slovenia. The HSU’s slippers-and-armchairs-in-the-sunset does not exactly chime with the West Europe vogue for seeing retired people as active citizens, generators of social capital, civi cohesion and (part-time) economic growth etc etc Meanwhile Angus Reid global press monitoring, however, quotes a poll published in the Croatian press putting the HSU on a more niche score of 6.4%. EIU piece follows
“Croatia’s politics

The opposition leads the polls as an election nears

Ahead of the parliamentary election, now expected on November 25th 2007, the opposition Social Democratic Party (SDP) has consolidated its poll lead over the incumbent Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). The SDP first opened up a clear lead over the HDZ during the first half of 2007, following the illness and subsequent death of its leader, Ivica Racan. Under his successor, the 40 year-old Zoran Milanovic, the SDP has maintained its popularity, and in many polls appears to have built an even stronger advantage.

Mr Milanovic says he would nominate Ljubo Jurcic as the party’s candidate for prime minister. Mr Jurcic, a professor of economics, has only recently joined the SDP and is popular in his own right. Mr Milanovic’s recent statements on the importance of parliamentary control of elected governments have led to speculation that he might be coveting the role of speaker of the house in an SDP-led legislature. There have been suggestions that potential conflict between the political ambitions of the two men might produce some tension within the SDP. Nevertheless, the party is in a strong position in terms of support among voters.

Not there yet

Even if November’s election results reflect current polls, the SDP will need to secure the support of several other parties to form a viable government. According to the latest monthly poll carried out by the PULS organisation for Croatian television, the SDP commands the support of 29% of the electorate, compared with 24% for the HDZ. If this pattern were repeated in a national election, the SDP could win as many as eight out of ten electoral districts and have 56 MPs, as against 42 for the HDZ. There is an 11th electoral district, composed of the Croatian diaspora, which traditionally elects HDZ MPs. Parliamentary representation from this district will depend on the number of votes cast, but in the previous election in November 2003 the votes of the diaspora secured four MPS for the HDZ.
The poll shows t hree groupings competing for support behind the SDP and the HDZ. Foremost among these is a coalition—between the Croatian Social Liberal Party (HSLS), the Croatian Peasants’ Party (HSS) and a smaller regional party—that has the support of 9% of the electorate (implying 14 seats in an election). This coalition is closely followed by the right-wing Croatian Party of Rights (HSP), with 8% (which is likely to translate into 13 seats in parliament), and the
Croatian Pensioners’ Party (HSU), also with 8% (although the national distribution of the HSU’s support points to just eight seats in parliament). Backing for the centre-left Croatian People’s Party (HNS), the most likely coalition partner for the SDP, has declined, although it is still above the 5% minimum threshold for parliamentary representation. The HNS’s attempt to promote
Radomir Cacic as candidate for prime minister does not appear to have helped the party, and the HNS seems to have lost support to the SDP in recent months.
Coalition required
The pollssuggest that the SDP will emerge as the largest single party following the November election. However, the SDP will need to build a multi-party coalition in order to form a viable government. Aside from its traditional political ally, the HNS, the SDP will probably need to secure the support of the HSLS-HSS coalition. Although the SDP has worked with these parties in government before, the HSLS-HSS coalition has refused to commit to any pre-election co-operation with the SDP, the HDZ or the HNS, and has suggested that it is willing to work with any party that offers concessions in areas that it considers most important, such as securing the interests of agriculture in EU membership negotiations.”