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>Regional poll suggests Czech Christian Democrats face electoral oblivion


Lidovci příliš nezáří ani na jihu Moravy – ve své tradiční baště reports ČT24, the Czech CNN (as if). Translated this means that the Czech Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL) are – according to regional polling – down to a grim six percent even in their historic bastion of South Moravia. They polled 11% of the vote there in 2006 election but nationally only just made it over the 5% threshold, this poll suggests their electoral support may be halved and, come parliamentary elections at the end of next month, they will go the way of the Hungarian KNDP and other small Christian parties in CEE – down the electoral plughole. With mass organization, tradition and some deeply embedded support in Catholic regions, they couldn’t totally be written off even as an extra-parliamentary party, but like the KNDP in the end they will end up simply as a building bloc for other alliance. Bad news for the Czech right in the short-term: if KDU-ČSL flops so do their slim chances of a parliamentary majority, but their demise would exactly not great news for the Social Democrats either, wiping from the political map a moderate, stable, pro-European grouping with a genuine commitment to a social market, leaving them more reliant than they might like to be. The culprits are, of course, the new TOP09 party headed up by Habel confidante Prince Karel Schwarzenberg and various, pragmatic pro-market Christian Democrat defectors such as Miroslav Kalousek. In the end, they might I guess find their way into the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) creating a broader based right – TOP09 is almost unashamedly openly a short-term vehicle and ODS current stand-in leader Petr Nečas is a practicing Catholic who can do social conservatism. If, of course, ODS does not desend into factional conflict there is a Civic Democatic Party left for them to make their way into. I suppose they will just have to wait for Václav Klaus to descend from the heavens (or at least the battlements of Prague Castle) and save them.

>Czech parties start billboard war, go negative


Six weeks before the parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic and the campaign is in full swing – at least in the media and in the rapid proliferation of billboards and campaign hoardings just about everywhere. By contrast, in the UK we have just over two weeks to go to our own poll and everything seems oddly low key. I have yet to see single billboard and media coverage is mercifully easy to escape.
In the CR, most of the running is being made by the Social Democrats, who have flooded the country with their trademark orange billboards with bland advertising style depiction of ‘ordinary people’ from different walks of life and clear promises to retain and/or increase social benefits of all kinds and to abolish the modest 30 crown charge introduced by the last centre-right government for visits to the doctor (I think most regional authorities – all bar Prague run by the Social Democrats – are paying it anyway, so de facto it may largely have been abolished already). The party also promises not to make swingeing cuts in public services, but to put up taxes and (especially) clobber the rich. Centre-right parties – the Civic Democrats and the new TOP09 party – are determined to make precisely such cuts and – by standards of the British campaign- are being pretty direct and up front about where the axe would fall , althought – as the Social Democrats point out – CR’s fiscal deficit is actually rather modest in comparison with the UK, although as a weaker and poorer economy Czechs should probably be concerned.

Other parties are conspicous by their billboard absence. I saw only one Christian Democrat billboard during the whole of my recent trip to the CR – the party is probably in disarray and/or out of cash – and none for the Civic Democrats, (ODS) although this seems to be a deliberate strategy to hold fire until the final two weeks of the campaign and rely on press advertising telling voters that the Social Democrats will hand their money to scroungers (picture of some muscular and rough looking bloke in a pub – presumably during the daytime). ODS have run a load of anonymous billboards satirising the Social Democrats’ big welfare message more overtly (‘Paroubek: I will abolish vets’ fees’, ‘ČSSD: we oppose getting up early in the morning’).

The Social Democrats have responded in kind with some still more blunt negative advertising showing various ODS leaders under the banner ‘Don’t blame us, you voted for us’ and one of ODS’s stand-in leader Petr Nečas proclaiming ‘We don’t care less about ordinary people: Charges for visiting the doctor will simply happen’. Going negative in the CR lacks a certain lightness of touch and element of humour, but I dare say it is effective.

And, how are things going in the Czech campaign? So far Social Democrats are comfortably ahead in the polls and look on course to emerge as largest pary (probably not gaining (m)any seats) and set for a minority government backed by the Communists with occasional deal making smaller parties of the centre and centre-right to get through some of the stuff the Communists won’t wear. Petr Nečas, performed better than expected in TV head-to-head with Social Democrat leader Jiří Paroubek – despite a somewhat cerebral geekish image, he was confident, to the point and able throw in a few sound bites, although was Paroubek better at hammering home basic messages likely to be understood and remembered by voters in their living rooms – but he seems unlikely to be a game changer.

The 64,000 crown question is, however, whether such left-right co-operation would extend to some of the more painful fiscal measures and rowing back from campaign promises – and certainly from he tone of the campaign – likely to be necessary in government. Paroubek, despite having built his political success in the last four years on being a bruising populist, made his early career as moderate and has plenty of experiences working with the right in Prague politics, so I suspect, in reality, he probably has a shrewd appreciation not only of how to win elections but also of what can and (more to the point) what cannot be delivered when they have been won.

>Exit Topolánek followed by a geek?

>So in the end, Czech Civic Democrat leader Miroslav Topolánek met the same fate as the hands of his more illustrious predecessor Václav Klaus – booted out by regions for electoral failure. Only this being Topolánek it more clumsy, disasterous and bathetic than the elegant failures and climdowns that mark the lower points of Mr Klaus’s career. While Klaus has the good sense to read the runes and step down in 2002, the maladroit Topolánek suffered the indignity of a massive vote against him in the ODS executive summarily removing him from the top of the party’s South Moravian list and role as the party’s national ‘electoral leader’ for the campaign. And, of course, Topolánek has been ousted weeks before an election not weeks after one – an impressive act of collective political courage (or desperation) by ODS intended to stem the party’s slide in the polls and loss of support to small new pro-reform parties.

The last straw seems to have been one of Topolánek’s characteristic foot-in-mouth remarks referring the Jewish background of caretaker Prime Minister Fischer – ironically the remarks were made in an interview with Lui magazine for gay men in a fumbling, bumbling effort to emphasize how unprejudiced he was: reading the transcript it might just be the case that Topolánek is talking hypothetical remarks about the lack of resolve and toughness of members of the current caretaker government (one of whom is openly gay – a rarity in Czech politics) and how it’s really just a matter of personality (‘…Fischer. He’s not gay, he’s simply Jewish and he backs off. It’s character’) . However, a (more out of context) video of the remarks suggests that he is straightfowardly linking lack blokish political determination is a consequence of Jewishness or homosexuality.

What ever the truth of, it’s appearances that count in politics. – and frankly what kind of an idiot politically would launch into any kind of off-the-cuff remarks about the Jewish background. Well, Topolánek that’s who.

It now seems a matter of time before Topolánek formally steps down as leader and disappears into the political shadows. His replacement as ‘electoral leader’ is Petr Necas, one time Labour and Social Affairs Minister, spokesman for intellectually minded social conservative sin ODS and leadership contender in 2002 (when he was endorsed by Vaclav Klaus and lost out in a narrow three-way contest). Necas is experienced, respectable and a safe pair of hands – certainly not the kind of person likely to be caught with penis on public display on Silvio Berlusconi’s poolside – and known for his dull worthiness. Leadership rival Jan Zahradil bluntly termed him a nerd (suchar) – or perhap ‘geek’ is a better translation – in 2002.

Such anti-charisma is being plugged by some Czech political pundits as likely to blunt the electoral attacks of both like TOP09 alternative right-wing parties and the Social Democrats both of whom were to some extent running against Topolánek, although the Social Democrats’ big welfare/big stimulus message seems likely to play well whoever leads ODS and I personally am sceptical that a bet on John Major-like dullness will pay off, a fact Necas himself seems to have grasped by trying to show his macho side, telling us that sometimes he does lose his temper and threatening to pull ODS nominated ministers out of the caretaker technocrat government in last few pre-election weeks.

A political obituary for Topolánek? He’s the man who held ODS post-Klaus, defined belatedly and for a more pragmatic, ecologically-minded realistic pro-market centre-right politics in the CR; and saw off Klaus and got the Lisbon Treaty ratified by the Czech parliament. A more substantive and interesting political figure than the gaffes, vulgar slips, lack of media polish, messy personal life for which he is likely to be remember. His greatest political failure was not to be an electoral winner in 2006, not to hold his minority government together in the spotlight of the EU Presidency. The greatest bit of bad luck of this famously lucky politican was the postponement of the scheduled early election of 2009 by the Czech Constitutional Court. After this Topolánek’s judgement and taste for politics seem to have deserted him, until he was mowed down by his own party.

You wonder, however, if any leader of ODS can ever really win an election in a meaningful sense ever again. After all every Czech elections since 1996 has seen the Social Democrats do better than expected, either by winning or do better than expected in defeat. Why should 2010 be any different?

And what one wonder would electoral defeat presage for the now very diverse Czech centre-right?

>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.

>Tory story


Our piece on the European Conservatives and Reformers group in Political Quarterly gets the once over from one of the bloggers on Conservative Home. It is, alas, not a very insightful commentary as, as well confusing the Civic Democrats (ODS) with Poland’s Civic Platform in the initial posting and for good measure implying that ODS leader Miroslav Topolánek has just taken over as head of Poland’s other main party, Law and Justice, it spends most of its time on auto-pilot rebutting the charge sheet of media criticism of the ECR summarise dat the start of the article (which we don’t agree with).
I suppose that’s what comes from being in the trenches of the party political blogosphere churning out comment and criticism to keep whatever side you on supplied with ammunition and dutifully toe-ing the party line, or pussyfooting around i (in this case we are asked to belivethat the Tories’ East European allies are a market friendly proper centre-right, whereas similar parties not interested in the ECR embrace like Hungary’s Fidesz are evil populist baddies).

Like a lot of politics lecturers, I know, while it fascinates me, the the whole me good/you bad bullshit world of partisan politics also rather appals.

For the first time in very a long while, I almost feel glad to be an academic…

>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.

>Czech Republic: Civic Democrats’ leading green quits


Bad news for anyone holding our any hope for the greening’ of the Czech Civic Democrats (ODS) alone the lines what the British Tories under David Cameron have (supposedly) embraced: ODS’s one renown and respected ecological expert Senator Bedřich Moldan is quitting the party after 20 years membership and is tipped to stand for the new TOP09 party. He is interested in standing for a new Senate seat, but won’t defend his existing one where the partner of ODS leader Miroslav Topolánek is likely to be parachuted in (a nepotisitic looking move that is likely to damage the party – and will probably be stoked by undercurrents of sexism which always make sure that prominant Czech women politicians always have a particularly bad time).
Moldan’s statement as reported in the Czech press does not really explain his decision to quit the party, but it seems more than possibly that political differences may have something to with it, although on the other hand he stuck loyally by the party under Václav Klaus when it was at its most militantly anti-ecologist. Indeed, he was a member from its foundation in 1991. These days the party is more about climate-change-dunno than climate change denial, although VK has naturally left his ideological fingerprints everywhere despite stepping down as leader the best part of a decade ago.

>Dr Novák Goes to Prague


As the last 2009 issue of the news magazine Respekt points out, one of the few political players who will be able look back on difficult, confusing and not very good year for Czech politics is caretaker Prime Minister, Jan Fischer. Chosen for his obscurity, adminstrative competence, colourlessness and lack of political partisanship and clout, Mr Fischer, the head of the Czech Statistical Office, has since morphed into the Little Big Man of Czech politics, enjoying record approval ratings even has he oversees painful economic medicine and has gained a degree of leverage and free of manoevre from the parties that put him into office. He also, of course, shoulld include the judges of the Czech Constitutional Court on his New Years card list as it was their decision that scrapped the planned bringing foward of scheduled parliamentary elections as unconstitutional – and hence extending is term of office from one summer to one year. Rumour (vehemently denied by Mr Fischer himself) even has it that he might, at the crucial moment, throw in his lot with the new TOP09 party, still doing well in the polls having edged narrowly ahead of the Communists in to take third place.
So what going on? Alas, as a little judicious underlining of the Respekt profile by Ondřej Kundra makes clear, there is little mystery in Mr Fischer’s seemingly unlikely political stardom and the magazine pretty much answers its own questions even before it has asked them.

As Respekt flatteringly notes, Fischer

“… has none of the usual arrogance of political bigwigs (papalášské projevy) taking the form of insulting journalists and political opponents, speeding madly through red traffic lights with sirens on, or opulent holidaying with lobbyists (s lobbisty) [something of a dirty word in Czech, lobbista]. And his personal life too has not changed since he left the Statistical Office to take up the post of Prime Minister. In fact, his life hardly differs from that of the ordinary Czech (běžného Čecha)

Every morning he goes out of his high-rise flat to walk the dog, and when his packed schedule allows, relaxes by taking weekend walks with his second wife Dana in the Krkonoš Mountains. He enjoys reading (his favourite authors are Karel Poláček and Isaac Bashevis Singer) and has for years regularly driven to have lunch and his favour patisseries in an ordinary (řadové) restaurants in a small, Central Bohemian town near to where he owns a small holiday cottage (chalupu)”

We also learn that he’s very goal oriented and has learned good English

In other words, Mr Fischer is, or appears to be, ordinary, decent (I am thinking of the Czech word slušný here) person and a non-politician with a modest lifestyle of a ‘typical’ Czech: hard-working and desire to educate himself still further; high-rise living in communist-era flats; a dog (no doubt a dachshund) ; safe, rather middle brow literary tastes; cheap, unpretentious pub meals and a sweet tooth; and a liking for healthy outdoor pursuits not too far afield from the family chata or chalupa (roughly the Czech equivalent of the Russian datcha).

You’ve heard of Mr Smith Goes to Washington.

Well, this is a sort of Mr Novák Goes To Prague.

For me – however, worthy, dull and ordinary Mr Fischer may actually be – this rings hollow. Indeed it smacks of cliché. The same rather fawning pen portraits of the unremarkable but honest Czech official cataputled to high political office can be found in the early 1990s describing Václav Klaus who, let us remember, also had a powerful work ethic, lived in a high rise flat , learnt good English and enjoyed hiking. The reference to the small town Bohemia is also rather archetypical. Admittedly, the CR is a country whose pattern of settlement is characterised by a predomince of small and medium towns. But the small-medium sized town iand its values are in many ways the ‘typical’, ster eotypical Czech community that you can see snow covered on a dozens of Czech Christmas and New Year cards. Not for nothing did Karel Poláček use the okresní město (‘county town’) to depict Czech society in microcosm.

As different elements of the profile makes clear, Mr Fischer is, in fact, probably, like Mr Klaus, a more complex, unusual and interesting character than the dull Everyman evoked above. He is, for example, not only the Czech Republic’s first Jewish Prime Minister – no big deal in the CR except for various nutcases on the neo-Nazi fringe – but also the first PM seriously to practice or profess any religious faith. He is also someone very much part of the Czech administrative elite: a well paid, well connected civil servant close the heart of government for years – indeed, the only highly placed official to regularly attend cabinet meetings – and, of course, someone whose early career begins in the late communist era and includes the obligatory Communist Party card.

The profile has, however, hit on a deeper truth. This is (sometimes) how many Czech would like their rulers to be: technocratic, dull, like them and apolitical, at least in the sense of being non-party or non-partisan.

So it is actually this more Dr Novák Goes to Prague or Engineer Novák Goes to Prague as Czechs in their anti-political fantasy lives – stoked to a high degree by much of the country’s intellectual discourse – would reallly to be rescued by well qualified ordinary technocrat rather than a completely average (wo)man in the street.

And, in fairness, both the writer and Mr Fischer himself clearly realize that the current caretaker PM’s political superstar-dom is the Czech public’s latest fling with anti-political intellectual populism seeking temporary respite in government thinkers, artists, technocrats and aristocrats
As both note Mr Fischer does not need to put together a programme beyond that of ‘normal admionistration’ of the state; run a party, contest elections, broker coalitions and trade-off all the multiple demands these throw up. No wonder he can remain calm and civil and avoid slagging off political opponents in emotive, overblown rhetoric.

Happily, Mr Fischer ain’t no Fujimori in the making and seems perfecti;y aware that he is riding the crest of the latest anti-political wave and will soon need to step down and walk away into the sunset, noting that

‘People in my position must be under political control, must – in short – emerge from voting by the public. Because there is always the rise that a populist could emerge, who could start to abuse this position, build up in own position on it. That’s unacceptable. A bad signal for democracy’

Indeed. Perhaps more worrying is the sneaking suspicion that many Czech voters wouldn’t actually be at all that bothered if their country took a few years off politics to be run on liberal lines by a committee of upright but approachable technocrats – a sort of Central European Hong Kong. Perhaps as a province in the liberal-market Mitteleuropa run from Vienna by a caste of solid (unelected) Habsburg-schooled administrators, which Hayek and von Mises projected in 1940s.

>Going green with ODS in Copenhagen


In a loosely Cameroonian spirit, the Czech Civic Democrats (ODS) are calling for global environmental responsibility over climate change at the Copenhagen conference: a tough call, as they are not entirely agreed that it is taken place and, if it is, what is causing it. The two most prominent ODSáci attending the conference are a case in point: ecological expert and one of the few plausible green figures in the party, Senator Bedřich Moldan, and the more climate change sceptical MEP Miroslav Ouzký.
The result? A confused press release, which carefully doesn’t mention the cause of climate change, but instead stresses a grab bag of lesser (but shared) ODS concerns: money must not be wasted; the competitiveness of European industry must not be damaged; deforestation in the Third World is a/the key issue; technology not emissions limits will save us; big countries are dominating the conference and obstructing an agreement (wake up and smell the fair trade coffee, gentlemen). Somehow the party is more irritating in confused, evasive mode, than it is when in traditional Klausian flat earth mode.

>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.