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>Review essay: East European parties and the state

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A review essay that I wrote for Czech Sociological Review last year, that burst Incredible Hulk like from what was originally conceived as small conventional book review is now available has appeared in the journal’s online archive. The essay reviews two similarly conceived books about the relationship between party competition and political abuse of the state bureaucracy in Central and Eastern Europe: Anna Gryzmala-Busse’s Rebuilding Leviathan and Conor O’Dwyer’s Runaway Statebuilding. The essay is downloadable here as are replies/rejoinders from the two authors, which can be found here and here. There is, however, not too much less blood on the carpet – certainly less than in my Lisbon hotel room. The perfect political science book hasn’t been written after all and when people start devoting critical essays to your work, it’s perhaps a sign that you have made it.

>Bar to advancement

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I’m sitting in a hotel bar with colleagues, nervously watching the time so I don’t miss my train and talking about party patronage and academic specialization. Like so many studies of parties, the one we’re discussing tends to tell us less about the effects of parties and more about the problem of the very notion of the political party, in both advanced and transitional democracies much less the bounded formal organization of the political science classics than fluid elite network overlapping with other networks. We lament the fact that intellectually curious political scientists are, as often as not, punished in career terms for asking new questions and shifting to new areas: to gain reputation and stature, we agree, you need to keep mining the same seam even when it’s pretty much exhausted.

I am myself pretty much exhausted when I get to St Pancras and I narrowly miss my train.

>Lithuania: Who wants to be… Prime Minister?

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Over at Pozorblog Kevin Deegan Krause has a whimsical and pointed commentary about the vacuous but brilliant election campaign of Lithuania’s National Resurrection Party (Tautos prisikėlimo partija), run by a TV presenter Arūnas Valinskas, who hosts the local franchise of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The TPP’s advertising mix of clean up, calls novelty and anti-establishment ‘kick the bums out’ billboards, Pozobrblog notes (and illustrates) – which propelled it into parliament and into government last year – is a near perfect illustration of the rise of what my SSEES colleague Allan Sikk calls ‘newness as project’ in the Baltic and beyond – the rise (and fall of) new disposable, use-and-discard parties, who’ve taken the notion of parties as a public utlity (an expression used by Ingrid van Biezen in relation to the increasingly detached, statecentric nature of moden party organization) to its logical end. Parties are as about as programmatic or as permanent as the mobile company: funkiness, celebs, a certain brand identity, but basically the same product at the same price.
I can to get through WordPress’s reader registration procedure to comment, directly dirctly at Pozorblog but it occurs to me is that such funky new post-modern parties still require a very basic old style factor to produce and splash high quality advertising: money. Although celebrity and media savvy might, I supposed compensate, for hard cash to some extent, the real story might be rise of various pocket sized Baltic Berlusconis, each getting their fifteen minutes of … power.

It’s also interesting to think of how and why such projects have failed in some contexts: Vladimír Želeny’s Independent Democrats’ party in the Czech Republic , for example, had similar ingredients, but scrapped a couple of MEPs in 2004 (one an ex-newsreader, one the media mogul himself) then pretty disappeared from sight until VŽ poached the Libertas.cz trademark.

>Israelis seek winning formula for interest parties

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Ha’aretz carries an interesting report about how various Israeli politicians are trying to repeat the success (unlikely to be repeated) of the Israeli pensioners’ party GIL in 2006 with a formula by combining interest politics with a dash of populist razzmatazz. This time a disabled people’s party and a couple of constitutional reform cum clean government parties seem to be taking the field. The conflict in Gaza, however, seems to have dampened the Israeli electorate’s appetite for novel micro-parties this time, howoever

>Too many cooks don’t spoil political broth, say Israeli leaders

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Another interesting article in the Jerusalem Post, this time about arguments from the country’s politicians, that, contrary to received opinion, the proliferation of small, short-lived, single-issue/interested based parties in Israel is good for democracy

>British politics: Leaked membership lists highlights surban far-right

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I am (briefly) back in the UK. The papers are full stories about the far-right British National Party, prompted by the leaking and posting online of a list of the party’s 12,000 members. There’s a lot a hand wringing about data protection and privacy, although I kind of wonder whether there is actually an argument for Estonian style total transparency about party membership. There they are all legally online.
Although the original site has been taken down, I found the list easily via Wikileaks and looked through to see if anyone I knew was listed (no) and how many BNP members there were in our town (ten – of whom five seemed to using an accomodation address). More interesting politically is the geographical mapping of the party’s membership, which show a large concentration of members not only in London and major conurbations in the North and Midlands, but also in more prosperous and monoethnic suburban and retirement towns along the South Coast.

>Sofia Weekly on Bulgarian reform debate

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The excellent online Sofia Weekly of 12 July carries the following pot pourri of news items about Bulgaria’s on-off debate about party and electoral reform.

“Bulgaria President Hosts Forum on Electoral Reform

The Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov opened Monday a forum to discuss the proposed reform of the country’s political model and election system, especially the introduction of majority representation that he himself had promoted over the recent months.

The public discussion is attended by a total of eighty persons, including the Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev, the Sofia Mayor and informal leader of the GERB party Boyko Borisov, all leaders of major political parties, as well as a number of leading Bulgarian sociologists, political scientists, and journalists.

At the opening of the forum the President expressed his doubts that the leading political parties would manage to achieve a consensus for the political reform.

Yet, Parvanov put forth his position that the introduction of majority representation elements, i.e. the adopting of a mixed representation system would turn into an antidote against the people’s indifference to politics and parties.

“None of us believes that the introduction of majority representation is the universal cure”, the President said.

He added, however, that the adding of majority elements to the proportional representation, the voters would have the opportunity to select from two “menus” – one of political parties, and another of personalities.

Parvanov rejected the allegation that the majority representation would make the buying of votes easier with the words: “It is easier to purchase a small, neat party.”

In his opening statement, the President declared himself against the introduction of a preferential proportional system, in which the voters would be able to rearrange the party tickets by pointing out that the experiment with this system had failed at the last elections for Members of the European Parliament in the spring of 2007.

He also said the preferential system would cause quarrels within the parties and coalitions, and push out of the ticket the smaller coalition partners.

The President called for the establishing of clear rules for the founding and registration of political parties. He pointed out the fact there were as many as 380 political parties in Bulgaria meant many of them were used to cover corporate interests.

Parvanov was positive that the political campaigns were the main corruption factors in Bulgaria because during them a lot more hidden party funds were spent. He suggested that a public register of the donors, advertising, PR, and lobbyist groups be set up.

According to the President and former leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, Monday’s discussion was unprecedented because of the goodwill to debate and tackle important issues.

Bulgaria President: Obligatory Voting Might Give Birth to Political Monsters

Bulgaria’s President Georgi Parvanov said at the end of Monday’s discussion of the proposed electoral system reform that he himself initiated that he was firmly against the introduction of obligatory voting.

In his words, such a measure could lead to the creation of “political monsters” as the voters would try to find ways to protest against being force to vote.

“At this point we need to win people with policies, not through forcible and administrative action”, the President said warning the politicians would not be able to tackle the consequences of such a measure for decades to come.

Parvanov pointed out the point of the whole debate was to find a solution for the curing of the parties and political system in Bulgaria, because in the last parliamentary elections the winner received only about 450 000 votes.

He stressed the negativity of this trend, and made it clear that the parties should seek a way up from the bottom that they had reached.

After the five-hour long debates, however, the President discovered the support for the introduction of greater majority representation in the political system was waning. He admitted that even the Bulgarian Socialist Party, whose leader he was before becoming President, had stepped back from its former position on electoral reform.

Parvanov also concluded that the political parties and the other participants in Monday’s forum were unable to reach a consensus on the introduction of majority representation. In his words, the idea had many proponents but no one was willing to step in and assume the political responsibility for its realization.

Bulgaria Nationalist Leader: Electoral System Debate Is Fake

The leader of the extreme right and nationalist Ataka party Volen Siderov stated Monday that the discussion forum organized by the President Parvanov for reforms in the electoral system was insincere and fake.

According to the Ataka leader, the debate was a simulation because at the end the governing majority was going to adopt whatever changes it wanted without listening to the opposition.

“It is neither honest, nor moral to achieve a victory by default through changing the rules of the game”, he stated.

“We here are present at an advertising campaign of the President for a new political model”, Siderov said adding, “What other type of model do you want, Mr. President, autocracy or a military junta?”

The nationalist leader announced that there were two members of the Supreme Council of the Bulgarian Socialist Party and one advisor of the PM working in the board of Information Services Jsc, which helped with the counting of the votes.

“It is not important who votes but who counts the votes”, Siderov concluded.

He compared Monday’s forum to the round table of 1990, which in his words the former Communist Party, whose successor the BSP is, used to make a PR campaign.

The President Parvanov retorted to Siderov that it was really bad when there were people who fell asleep in 1990 and woke up today.

Sofia Mayor Borisov: Party Leaders Should Be Allowed to Be Mayors

The Sofia Mayor and informal leader of the GERB party Boyko Borisov demanded Monday that the reforms in the electoral system allow party leaders to hold positions such as his.

During the roundtable on the proposed electoral reforms organized by the President Parvanov, Borisov stated he could not see the point of banning party leaders from being mayors, while the Prime Minister could hold their position and still remain chair of their party.

The provisions prohibiting party leaders from holding mayor’s office has forced Borisov to hand over the leadership of his party GERB to Tzvetan Tzvetanov, and to assume the title of “informal leader”.

During his statement at the forum, the Sofia Mayor also demanded that the electoral lists be finally updated in order to prevent abuses with the votes of dead persons, and those living no longer at their permanent address.

Instead, Borisov insisted that all Bulgarian citizens vote at their current address. He also declared himself in favor of abolishing the state subsidy for political parties, and against the renting of municipal property for party headquarters.

The Sofia Mayor also suggested that the Interior Ministry should inspect the minority-populated regions in order to check whether the persons were actually there, or whether somebody else voted instead of them by using their IDs.

Borisov meant primarily the thousands of Bulgarian expatriates of Turkish origin living in Turkey, whose coming back to Bulgaria by bus in order to vote has turned into a problematic phenomenon.

The MP Lutvi Mestan from the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms party retorted it would be too bad for the elections reform discussion if it was centered only around the minority-populated regions.

Earlier, the Prime Minister Stanishev said the electoral system changes would most likely be voted in November. He replied to the demands for a referendum on obligatory voting made by the National Movement for Stability that the politicians should be careful with referendums because they could turn into a populist tool. ”

>Bulgarian President pushes for electoral and party reform referendum

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The Sofia Echo reports that, having come up with a package of proposed political reforms aimed at introducing some a new of Mixed Member Proportional electoral system and tougher registration requirements for parties, Bulgarian President Georgi Purvanov is pushing for a Romanian (New Zealand?) style referendum to enact the proposals, although, unfortunately for him, referenda are not binding on legislators. Post-1989, the Bulgarians have never had a national referendum, however, so who knows what may happen, if the other politicos do accede to his wish.
The President is, of course, also consulting with party leaders and reportedly won the support of the Socialist Party (BSP), his former political home, but right-wing parties seem rather more leery. The proposals, which specify that to be legally registered parties must have branches in 2/3 of municipalities, seem directed at culling small, local grouping that have done increasingly well at local level in the last couple of years, prompting allegations of vote buying and other dubious practices. These seem to have been borne out by a series of court decisions annulling municipal elections. Critics suggest, however, that established parties, including big powerful groups like the BSP, have simply been caught napping, letting their grassroots organization wither, as attention shifted to elite-level politics in Sofia and the formulation of party lists central to the current system of PR. Rising political force, GERB, a sort of centre-right populist concoction riding very high in the national polls is, more understandably, also rather short of local organization.

The electoral reform element of sketchy overview of the presidential proposals are expertly dissected by Matthew Shugart at Fruits and Votes. Seems, however, that they are more about corralling powerful local politicians into established (big) parties than eliminating corrupt practices.

And as postscript I should note that a presidentially sponsored Round Table to seek consensus on changing the electoral system and party regulation regime is due to held on 7 July. Watch this space