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>Drowning in Berlin


The last few days have found me at a workshop on populism and democracy in Europe and Latin American at the Wissenschaftzentrum in Berlin, trying to see what the (politically) late and unlamented Dr Sládek and his far right Republican Party can contribute to debate about comparative populisms. It’s been a mixed experience from the outset: a smooth train journey to Luton is followed but a hellish two hour Easyjet check in queue and stressful sprint across the airport to get to the departure gate; Berlin’s Schonefeld seems to be the Luton airport of Germany, but after a long trek to the station all is redeemed by a fantastic Wurst with lashing of mustard at a down at heel kiosk and a soothing Russian fairy story my Ukrainian fellow passengers on the train into town are reading their small son.

The academic side is similarly mixed: I take my hat off to Kevin Deegan-Krause’s superb discussion of populism and democracy, which somehow slipped into his paper on Slovakia, and watch him editing his powerpoints only to discover that he is, in fact, doing an on the spot analysis elegantly integrating the diverse mix of cases. If I still had a metaphorical hat , I would need need to take it off again.

Dr Sládek and his party, however, seems to be a less than useful addition to proceedings: too small to have much influence on Czech democracy and too defunct to be very interesting. My discussant helpfully suggests there might be some kind of legacy stemming from Dr S, but the contemporary Czech far-right is so marginal – and so varied – that it must at best be a micro-legacy and More generally, it is hard to avoid the impression that European and Latin American cases, as too often with inter-regional studies, are passing like ships in the nights: superficially united, like the city itself, but with a host of underlying differences. I am dog tired.

Early the next day I get a yellow double decker and watch an odd mix of 19th century, state socialist and ultra-modern buildings drift by until we pass the Bundestag and get to the Hauptbahnhof. Right platform, right carriage, right seat and go sleep. When I wake up we are Dečin. There is no border control now, but the train has broken down. and a locomotive needs to be rep[laced (it is, 20 minutes later) There is torrential rain. Outside the river Labe looks fit to burst its banks (it does two days later).

Despite the dire weather and the black skies, as sometimes happens, I really am glad to be in the Czech Republic.

>2010: For whom the bell TOLs?


The BBC’s annual Correspondents Look Foward programme has, characteristically, nothing to say about Central and Eastern Europe. It is now a backwater of global politics, seemingly. Even Russia barely gets a mention and the programme peters out with a self-indulgent discussion of the World Cup.

Transitions Online (TOL), does however, does carry a look ahead feature on CEE in 2010 but, unfortunately, it is scarely better than the BBC’s non-discussion of the region. A translation of a commentary in the Czech economic daily Hospodářské noviny, it manages to serve up every cliche in the book about Central and Eastern Europe being rocked by a wave of nationalism and populism driven by economic crisis, which will hit harder in the region in the coming year.

Interestingly, the concrete developments that are flagged offer, as so often, a mixed picture: the Czech communists indeed may gain greater leverage after the Czech election, but they are hardly putting on the votes and this will depend on the electoral arithmetic and the decisions of the Social Democrats if they win (hardly evidence of a ‘wave of extremism’) . A Grand Coalition is frankly just as likely.

Hungary’s election is likely to produce a sweeping win for the right putting paid for would-be reformist, centre left government led by a beleagued centre-left PM called Gordon B. – which sounds disconcertingly familiar, although in this case the wretched incumbernt is Gordon Bajnai and the third party is likely to be the far-right Jobbik. At last some genuine extremists on the up to give all that fire and brimstone some reality… However, although on 12% in the latest poll Jobbik seems unlikely to match the 14% it took in the Euro-elections. A historically good score of 10%, I should think, but the far-right has had electoral presence of around 5% previously and sat in parliament, so we are not in totally new territory here.

Robert Fico, perhaps the one sure thing in Central and East European politics these days, also seems set to romp home in the Slovak elections – and it seems that this bad boy of the European Socialist Group will indeed play the nationalist card and here too there is a far-right competitor of sorts in the Slovak National Party (SNS).

The game plan for anyone inclined to a favourable view of RF is that it’s all in the good cause of dumping the Slovak Nationalists as a coalition partner and possibly out of parliament by incorporating some of their electorate into the political elephant that is SMER. Along with the seemingly unstoppable electoral juggernaut of Fidesz, Poland’s Civic Platform, Bulgaria’s GERB – a kind of centre-right parallel to Fico’s interesting mix of mainstream respectability and edgy populism – SMER is now one of biggests and the highest polling party in the region, althoughs its 40%-ish ratings , which have actually been dipping a bit recently, pale before the 2/3 of the vote Viktor Orbán and his merry men (and women) seem set to pull in.

In any case, the real story seems to be one of big parties sweeping up votes by whatever means works, although yes, there is populism and nationalism about, this year as every year in the same way that there is grass in your garden. It is sometimes under control, n, occasionally grows and gets a big unruly and out of control, changes colour across the seasons and then gets cut again. It’s not very lovely, and everything out there doesn’t always look that rosy, but its part of the landscape and, of course, you don’t have the option of paving it over and replacing the populace with a handpicked citizenry composed of liberal-minded financial journalists and economics PhDs

Happy New Year.

>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.

>BNP on Question Time: Kilroy wasn’t here


I sat in the front of the TV with one eye on a sheaf of article from the Czech press and one eye on BBC TV’s widely billed, controversial edition of Question Time, it flagship panel discussion programme featuring British National Party leader Nick Griffin: the first time the far-right has been accorded the accolade of such recognition, although the BNP has had relatively easy access to the airwaves with its representatives regularly being interviewed on the radio. And, of course, British far-right parties have regularly been exposed and infiltrated by TV documentary makers since 1970s.

To make up for the howls of protest, the programme makers decided to make Nick Griffin’s appearence on their programme the central issue, so the format largely shifted from multiple current affairs questions and familiar party ding-dong to a series of critical uestions about the BNP and its leader: specifically were its views whacky, extreme and racist and its leader someone who cannot explain away his earlier public record as neo-fascist and Holocaust denier.

The answer, of course, is that they were and he couldn’t. All in all, it was reassuringly unimpressive performance by the BNP leaders, lacking not only any credible answers but also professionalism, poise or personal charm. I remember once watching Jean Marie Le Pen comprehensively outmanoeuvre a left-wing opponent on TV discussion with a mixture of sure footing cunning and avuncular bluster on French TV in the 1980s. Happily, the BNP leader clearly wasn’t in this league.

I was just about to turn back to Prague municipal politics, however, when suddenly I caught flash of the kind of leader the British radical populist far-right probably does need and the kind of politician we probably should fear: it was Chris Huhne, Liberal Democrats’ spokesperson for home affairs – up to that point a grey and totally forgettable presence on the panel, – launching into an eloquent tirade about how Britain should have closed its borders to citizens of new (that is predominantly, East European) EU member states for as long as possible and wasn’t it awful that the government that the government didn’t do this and lots of them came over here… Open borders in an opern liberal Europe. What a disaster.

For a fleeting moment, I though Mr Huhne, an unsuccessful contender for his party’s leadership in 2007, was making a pitch for the BNP leadership, which to judge from his poor performance Nick Griffin might soon be vacating. Then I realised, of course, that, having slipped out of anti-fascist mode, he was simply illustrating the well established truth that immigrant-bashing and playing up to the public xenophobia is OK provided you are a respectable person from a resepctable mainstream party. And, Mr Huhne, – public school, Oxford, the City, economist and financial journalist, long-serving MEP, policy expert – is certainly that.

And then it struck me that, here – not necessarily in the person of Mr Huhne – but some of some ambitious, well educated, well spoken, reasonably well known figure public figure gone maverick that the real threat of more articulate, credible and dangerous far-right lies. No of burden of neo-fascist pedigree or a penchant for anti-semitism tor seeing the positive side of Hitler that, fortunately for us, encumbers Nick Griffin (and later held back Le Pen and Joerg Haider). Political or media skills already honed. Stock of political respectability already laid in.

Such figures seem to be media personalities with a certain political-cum-academic commentators (Pym Fortyn, Robert Kilroy-Silk) or frustrated members of existing parties, who turn maverick or decide to air views on race, minorities or immigration they have previously kept to themselves. Interestingly, Liberal parties, typically often under electtoral pressure from bigger competitors of left and right, whose identity is often a rather unstable mix of anti-establishment, pro-market, pro-market and pro-little person/geographical periphery appeals, seem especially vulnerable to such occasionally odd mutations: Haider’s Austrian Freedom Party was originally a liberal grouping, controversial anti-Islamic politician Geert Wilders was once an MP for Holland’s Liberals the VVD; Germany’s FDP was hit by accusations of anti-semitism in 2002-3 because of statements of one its then rising stars, the late Jurgen Molleman; in the mid-1990s factions in the FDP associated with the nationalist Neue Rechte intellectual (unsuccessfully) sought a Haider-style transformation of the party.

I don’t, of course, expect to see Mr Huhne leading the BNP or indeed some populist confection (although I’m sure he’d do an excellent job if he did), but as the comedian Alan Davies pointedly pnoted on the This Week programme that followed Question Time‘s BNP-fest, Griffin’s party are not a hugely successful or professional outfit and don’t deserve high profile controverst treatment and still less the back-handed compliment of being banned from Question Time.

The real threats lie elsewhere. We clearly had a lucky escape when ex-Labour MP and chat show host Robert Kilroy-Silk proved too maladroit and egomaniacal to take over the UK Independence Party in 2004. Celebrity populists and mavericks peeling away from already opportunistic mainstream seem a potentially far more potent force than the wafer thin veneer of respectability and normality of a welfare chauvinist niche party that can’t escape its neo-fascist roots like the BNP.

>Lithuania: Who wants to be… Prime Minister?


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 trademark.

>Israelis seek winning formula for interest parties


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

>If I only had a brain…


In the wake of a not too well received panto last year, this year he theatre Royal Brighton has the Wizard of Oz as its big festive show . For copyright reasons, they stick closely to the film script with only a few panto-ish touches supplied by producer (the Good Witch of the North looked suspiciously like a Good Fairy) and audience (the Wicked Witch of the East got roundly boo-ed on every appearance).
“You’ll be blown away” the poster said. Well, not quite. But it was a good time was had by all. My daughter and my niece knew the story and liked the songs, munchkins, flying monkeys, melting witches and other fairytale stuff. I liked it, of course, Wizard of Oz is actually a political allegory. A populist parable about the advance of financial and industrial capitalism in the late 19th/early 20th century US and a covert pre-Keynesian appeal for economic reflation by issuing currency backed by silver (as well as gold). As Hugh Rockoff of Rutgers University explains in The Journal of Political Economy (98: 739-60, 1990) Dorothy represents traditional rural American values, Toto the Teetotalers, an influential compoenent in the US Populist movement, the Scarecrow the farmers; the Tin Man the industrial workers; the Cowardly is Lion William Jennings Bryan the Populist Democratic and unsuccessful four time presidentiial candidate; the Munchkins are the citizens of the East Coast the Wicked Witch of the East is Democrat Grover Cleveland; the Wicked Witch of the West is Republican politician and later US President William McKinley; the Wizard Marcus Alonzo Hanna, chairman of the Republican Party; the Yellow Brick Road is the gold standard; Oz is, of course, the abbreviation for an ounce of gold (or anything else).

Others see the 1939 film, a Depression era musical concoction with multiple writers which drew on various of the many Wizard of Oz books written by L. Frank Baum earlier in the century, as a a satire on the New Deal and the technocratic Keynesian fixes it (the fraudulent Wizard adulated by the people being FDR, whose magic is less effective than good ol’ family and rural values that finally will Dorothy back to Kansas). And, of course, there are more recent parallels. Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s devasting reportage of the inadequacies and self-delusion of US occupation administrators cocooned in Iraq’s Green Zone, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, also has a WoOZ allusion (Is George W. the Scarecrow or the Wizard, though?).

For anyone interested, there’s an excellent overview of economic, political and religious allegories in the WoOZ by Quentin P. Taylor of Rogers State University, as well as a Wikipedia article on the same subject, and useful hub site with links to various critics’ essays here. And, if you’re really interested there’s also an academic book on the subject: Ranjit S. Dighe (ed.) The Historian’s Wizard of Oz — Reading L. Frank Baum’s Classic as a Political and Monetary Allegory, (Praeger Publishers, 2002). Wow.

In truth, however I was most taken with bit of social satire at the end when the Wiz tells the Scarecrow not to too worry about his lack of brain:

“Why anybody can have a brain – a very mediocre commodity. ( … ) Back where I come from we have universities – seats of great learning – where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts, and with no more brains than you have. But – they have one thing you haven’t got – a diploma!’. “

He then awards the Scarecrow a Th.D., Dr. of Thinkology (Mind you, only an honorary one. – nothing too unethical here). Not sure if this is promoting wider participation in higher education drawing attention to the problem of degree inflation or just a good of populism anti-intellectual smack in the face. Still, I laughed anyway and was still smiling when forked out for some very overpriced magic wands on the way out…

Update: And, for anyone, who doesn’t like political and social allegory, there is a more or less politics-free radio essay on the Wizard of Oz, by Salman Rushdie for next week here on the BBC Radio 4 website.

>Of parties, populism and partocracy


Slovak political scientist Miroslav Kusý writes a commentary about ‘partocracy’ in Slovakia in the liberal daily Sme. This theme, once a favourite uniting ex-dissidents, liberals and anti-political populists with a more rough hewn character, has receded from academic and intellectual debate in the past few years in favour of a slightly different take on the problem of (supposedly) defective and sub-standard democracy in CEE: populism a.k.a. ‘the populist backlash’.

Kusý’s definition of ‘partocracy’ is a fairly straightforward one: party government carried out for not the people but for parties- i.e. parties failing in their tasks of representing and aggregating the popular will (or some portion of it). A principal-agent problem, as we call it in the trade. Then, however, we descend into partisanship. The current coalition led by Robert Fico’s populist-cum-social democrat party Smer Kusý says is an example of partocracy because it lacks ideologically common position with its smaller nationalist coalition allies and is united with them by a thirst for office, as (supposedly) proved by various scandals.

Kusy also cites a recent article in the Czech intellectual weekly Literární noviny by Czech political scientist and ex-Havel advisor Jiří Pehe who regrets that parties have given up on ‘their traditional role of forces in society’ (and, yes, the language original Czech really does have that odd echo of the Communist Party’s ‘leading role’) but are instead (shock horror!) reacting to public opinion ‘to appeal to the largest possible number of people’. (Pehe’s piece is a rather dull piece retreading the Czech ‘party versus civil society’ Klaus-Havel debate of the 1990s, arguing that social modernization makes parties less necessary and a political role for NGOs, citizens and intellectuals more necessary).

Kusý himself laments the ‘vulgar vocabulary, party polemics instead of civilized dialogue, and insults instead of substantive argument’. Alas, as argument about democracy or explanation of developments in either contemporary Slovak (or Czech) politics none of this really washes. It’s hard to think of any concept of party competition by big parties that doesn’t involve appealing to large numbers of voters or many established democracies, where party political communication takes place at the level of an academic seminar without a dose of knockabout polemics. Pehe’s assertion that Western political parties have opened themselves up to civil society seems fairly questionable- who can he have in mind? Possibly Greens in a very early stage of development? And political polarization – contrary to what he seems to think – as often or not tends to increase political participation and the increase in turnout at the last Czech elections showed.

The argument in Sme about ‘partocracy’ is also pretty lame. Ad hoc, unprincipled coalitions do not add up to ‘partocracy’. The term was widely applied to clientelistic party systems with an element of cosy consensus between governing parties say as those of post-war Italy or Austria, but has an intellectual heritage going back the early 20th century. In a CEE context one of thinks of critiques of interwar Czechoslovak democracy, both in 1920s and 30s and in more exaggerated form after 1945 (Evard Beneš’s Democracy Today and Tomorrow – Beneš being one of the few political scientists ever to become head of state. He wrote a thesis about political parties in 1913. Woodrow Wilson comes to mind as another President-politolog). Havel’s writings both as dissident and President take up this tradition: his elegantly written fulmination against party government in his 1991 set of essays Summer Meditations, although not unprescient, was striking for the fact that it came when Czech parties had barely formed.

As conventionally used ‘partocracy’ refers not just to a vaguely defined lack of principle in coalition-making but to politicization of the state and/or party penetration of civil society by client-patron networks and a failure of representation. Both (especially the first) are problems in contemporary CEE, but the Sme article entirely bypasses these issues. More to the point, however, love it or hate, Fico’s rationale for forming a coalition with nationalist parties does have a pretty clear programmatic logic: the nationalist HZDS and SNS did after all his more statist (ahem, ‘social-democratic’) economic policies. A pragmatic power seeking logic of the kind the Kusý piece envisages probably would have led to the politically less costly option of a coalition of Smer with some outgoing parties of the right or centre. As for a failure of representation, Smer’s high opinion poll ratings suggests that such principal-agent problems are not bugging the median Slovak voter, whom seems to feel represented rather well.

All in the all, the problem seems to be that Slovak liberal commentators don’t like Smer and their Czech equivalents dislike both major parties of left and right. I think I share these dislikes, But they would probably do well to set out why, rather than dressing things up as a unique crisis of post-communist democracy complete with ill fitting notions of ‘partocracy’.

>Slovakia 15 Years On – or how we learned to stop worrying and love populism


Somehow without quite realising I agreed to co-organise a one day conference at SSEES on Slovakia 15 Years On. However, with the help of the British Czech and Slovak Association, the Slovak Embassy and colleagues from SSEES and elsewhere, this turns out to be a whole lot less onerous that I had feared and on the day the event itself both interesting and successful and we are even lucky enough to get a keynote address from the current Slovak Ambassador to the UK, Juraj Zervan.
The ambassador, suffering (like me) from hay fever, reviews Slovakia’s development as a small Central European nation bringing it up to date with a discussion of the current ‘dynamic and stable’ government, which he says is building upon earlier reforms while developing a less passive foreign policy than the previous government and not losing sight of the social side of economic development. My scribbled notes also say that he stressed the importance of using state monopolies to forward the development of the economy, but it is not clear (at least from my notes whether this means using existing state holdings, or actively developing them.

Over lunch I hear less sanguine views about the current government from others: it has no real interest in foreign policy and is mainly interested consolidating its domestic position (very successfully so far) in controlling the finances of ministries and doing advantageous deals with the Russians over gas without much of an eye to longer term energy security. On the other hand, Tomáš Valášek of the Centre for European Reform reminds us the afternoon session, Slovakia has an excellent corps of EU-minded diplomats and previous Slovak governments’ focus in democracy promotion in SE Europe (while successful) overlooked the question of Ukraine, whose future Slovakia a more direct interest in as far as its own security is concerned.

The rest of the politics session centres on the question of populism in Slovak politics. As Tim Haughton notes, this is less related to the EU, whose influence on domestic politics is somewhat tangential and ad hoc than the general trend of democratic politics across Europe to ‘go populist’. As Kevin Deegan-Krause explains in a presentation that is theoretical, accessible and witty, populists appeal tend to move around the political landscape depending on who is in power (and part of the establishment) and who is not and can use various bits of kit from the toolbox of populists appeals (there are many). Holding government office tends to wear down populist lustre and new parties therefore do best as populist insurgents. The big exception to this rule, is of course, Fico’s Smer, which has bucked the trend and remained popular and populist in office. The reason, as Karen Henderson highlighted, in her presentation on the disarray of the Slovak opposition, is that populist parties reflect social and electoral demand. It matters little that the opposition can depict Fico as a semi-democratic ‘Mečiar lite’ (my phrase, not hers) and win international support, when they lack any coherent unifying political project – either for themselves or society – and Slovak voters are elsewhere. Interestingly, although some Slovak officials and politicians can rather sensitive about discussion of the current government – seemingly fearing an outbreak of Fico bashing as soon as any Western political scientist takes the floor – intellectual undercurrents seem to be shifting towards taking Smer much more seriously.

The day it should be said also included a morning session on culture: presentations on the refraction of Slovakia’s transformation to a consumer capitalist society through fiction with an outwardly trashy and sensational edge; a clever and interesting sounding novel with a mentally handicapped narrator, which, again, offers a skewed, satirical perspective on Slovak society and reveals much more going on than first meets the eye; and the work of the Slovak composer Eugen Suchoň, the centenary of whose birth is rapidly approaching.

In the margins of the conference I also learn that Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico ate a lot of kangaroo steaks whilst a visiting scholar at SSEES in 1999; that a Slovak designed the dollar bill; that (allegedly) a fifth of Slovaks are of aristocratic descent and that some Slovaks may be allergic to the metals in the new Euro coins and will need to watch out for skins complaints when the single currency is introduced in Slovakia in 2009 (now a source of predictable anguish in parts of the Czech press – the fact that the Slovaks are ahead in European integration, that is, not the skin allergies). And for anyone who can’t work out the puzzles of Slovak politics or culture, there is always the rather neat (and rather cheap) Slovak-themed puzzle I came across from Puck Puzzles, which illustrates this post.

>The European dog that doesn’t bark


Yesterday sees me acting as discussant at a workshop on the Europeanization of parties in Eastern Europe at SSEES sponsored by the CEELBAS consortium, although as quickly transpires the story is actually one of non- or minimal Europeanization. The EU and ‘EU-related issues’ ) have not demonstrably changed party politics in CEE in the way that the EU has leveraged and shaped the region’s public administration and public policy.

The EU as an issue in domestic party politics in CEE has, however, been non-existent or at best a here-today-gone-tomorrow controversy which surfaces then quickly disappears around the time of accession. In many CEE countries, smallness and the consensus carried over from getting in to the EU couple with the public’s standard lack of interest in the EU on the part of voters combine to make the EU a total non-issue, whose main impact is provide an occasional reference point for politicians berating each other’s performance and an career option for politicians with an eye on the European Parliament or the European Commission.

As Agnes Batory’s excellent paper put it, as far as parties are concerned it Europeanization is, bluntly put, ‘the dog that didn’t bark. They haven’t changed very much or changed in obviously EU-related ways and the ‘anti-EU’ populist backlash that various academics and journalists have detected in various recent electoral upheavals can, looked at through different spectacles, be perfectly adequately explained by domestic factors – something I suspect that is also true of the coalition deals struck in 2005-6 with various dodgy minor parties in Poland and Slovakia most often cited as an EU-related, although as one paper rightly noted this seemed to fit in more to a process of the ‘de-Europeanization’ of party competition. I also Agnes Batory’s paper for tracking the ‘dog that doesn’t bark’ tag back to Sherlock Holmes story Silver Blaze – political scientists really should read more detective stories. I’ve heard there is one academic the US who bases his entire research methods course on episodes of Columbo- plenty of different modes of deduction and induction to study from the good Lieutenant

Back at the seminar, however, the €64,000 question is, of course, ‘so what’? What if Europe isn’t reshaping party politics in CEE, why should we care? I put both questions and got an excellent several-party answer from Stephen Whitefield: there may be implications for democratic governance in CEE; there is a puzzle to solve because we would expect the EU to be picked up and politicized by political entrepreneurs and emerge (but then disappear) as a political issue amid the electoral churning of the more volatile party systems of the region such as Slovakia, Poland or Estonia. The EU in CEE Stephen suggested – at least, as far as my illegible notes suggest (please correct me if you read this) was more part of a politics of democratic deficits and populism, whereas in Western Europe politics (and the way the EU played in domestic politics) centred on economic performance

Having exceeded my discussant’s brief and added to the mood of ‘Europeanization scepticism’, I had coffee and sandwiches courtesy of CEELBAS before leaving for the tropical heat of the fifth floor and a meeting of the SSEES post-graduate teaching committee.