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>Topolánek: Kant go on like this

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

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

>Klaus thinktank ‘uninvited’ from ODS congress

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And, in a sign of the times, Václav Klaus’s thinktank the Centre For Economics and Politics (CEPin) has, it seems, been uninvited from the forthcoming ODS congress because of its director’s intention to found a new eurosceptic party (but not one called Libertas.cz). Slightly odd, as the thinktank is technically not an ODS party body and CEPin director, Petr Mach, as an ODS member should surely be subject to sanction as an individual for such a breach of party discipline. Of course, we only have Mach’s word that CEPin is personna non gratia at the congress – and, as all these tales of second splinter parties do have an air of disinformation about them, a pinch or three of salt may be in order – but the CEPin logo has been purged from the ODS website’s list of loosely affiliated organizations.

>That Klaus interview – an extract

>And -for anyone interested – here is the key section of that Klaus interview with MF Dnes translated. The full interview (in Czech) can be found here.

“In Lidové noviny it was reported in connection with different views in ODS that a new eurosceptics’ party is to be formed, which has your support and in whose formation people working with you are involved. Is this true?

I’m not aware that anyone working with me has founded a party. It’s been rumoured for several months that a party might enter the elections to the European Parliament next year wishing to focus on these elections, but not wishing to enter the left-right conflicts of Czech politics. But whether there has been a shift from rumour to the real formation of such a party, I don’t know.


It’s rumoured that such a party would be very close to you.

Then I would have to found it [To bych ji musel založit já.]

And are you planning to found it?

Certainly not today. It’s not something I can be forbidden from doing as President, but I don’t aspire to it.

In other words, you think such a party will be formed?

You’re forcing me to guess. I don’t know.

Would you support it if it had a programme which you agreed with?

It’s simply essential that there be a party which views the processes being played out in Europe today realistically and which doesn’t kow-tow to powerful forces abroad [která by nepoklonkovala v uctivém předklonu před mocnějšími za našimi hranicemi]. I would consider such a party extremely necessary in the Czech Republic and anywhere else in Europe. I would definitely support something like that. If I took all the emails I’ve received at the Castle in the last few days responding to my speech before the Constitutional Court in Brno, then such a party could have a reasonable number of members.

Would you join such a party?

I don’t know if I am currently nominally in a party today today.

But you are in ODS

Probably for a few more days yet, yes.

A few more days yet, what does that mean.

You’ll see.

Hang on, does that mean you’re going to leave ODS?

That’s something you can speculate about.”



>Prague diary 2

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I fly into Prague in the evening – there aren’t that many people on the flight and the airport too seems strangely unhurried. One of my fellow passengers immediately gets on to his mobile and starts complaining about the crumminess of Gatwick airport and the unheard of and pointlessly draconian checks on the size of his hand luggage s kterým jsem procestoval půlsvěta.
The smaller, newer and modernized Ruzyne airport does indeed compare pretty favourably, but for some reason, I can’t get my battered old mobile to work, so I can’t tell anyone anything.

(…)

The next day I make my way the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. I had expected some kind of grand and imposing structure in keeping with the well rooted social welfare traditions, but it a large, but fairly unremarkable 19th century building tucked away a few streets away from the Rašin Embankment. For some reason, I always expect government ministries to be full of new furniture and sharp suits, but, as ever, both my interviewees are down-to-earth, business-like and friendly.

(….)

Getting off the tram by the National Theatre, I’m tempted to get out of the icy cold and write up some notes in the Slavia Cafe, the historic haunt of the Prague intelligenstia and in 1980s dissidents, which renovated and re-opened about a decade ago as a tourist trap cum upmarket coffee stop. However, as I go in, I notice the restaurant next door has halušky as dish of the day and my stomach quickly wins out over my intellectual prentensions. Halušky, coffee, mineral water set me back a modest 202 crowns. I flit between writing notes and watching the live coverage of the Constitutional Court’s ruling on the Lisabon Treaty on the TV over the bar. No one else is paying any attention to it. Unsurprisingly, the judges rules unanimously that that it is entirely constitutional and parliament can go ahead and approve. A sour looking Václav Klaus appears on screen saying it was a political decision and he expected it all along. We then get cameos from Prime Minister Topolánek and foreign Minister Schwarzenberg saying it’s a good thing and can we get on and ratify it now. Klaus probably still has a few tricks up his sleeve though, not least because he will have to sign it when the two houses of parliament do ratify it and the Constitution allows him to take his time.

(…)
The Chamber of Deputies has newer décor, but less friendly receptionists. Perhaps they don’t like the political complexion of the person I’ve come to speak to. On the other hand, it is eight in the evening and the remade, updated version of the classic 1980s Czech soap Hospital on the Edge of Town is showing and they’ve probably had a long day. A few people working late drift out. Using my brand spanking new Czech mobile, I finally sort out where I am supposed to be. and meet my interviewee. The parliament is a maze of unlit, sometimes unheated, corridors but eventually we get to the right parliamentary club’s offices, where a deputy gives me some thoughtful views about social policy.

>Klaus: Good for Ireland and good for Europe

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No sooner does Václav Klaus turn up in the Irish Republic, hobnobbing undiplomatically with local eurosceptics during a ‘private’ part of his presidential visit then polls appear showing Irish voters may back the Lisbon Treaty. It certainly can’t be because of the ruling party’s ‘Yes’ campaign, whose worthy but soporific efforts can seen by clicking the image above.



So, rather than being the EU’s leading ‘dissident’ as he suggests, a sort of Andrei Sakharov of European integration silenced and held under house arrest in Prague Castle, by totalitarian europhiles, the Czech President, it seems , is be more the Gorbachev of the eurosceptic movement. As soon as he turns up to show a little fraternal encouragement, things go spectacularly belly up Just think Mikhail Sergeyevich’s efforts to promote democratic socialism on visits to China and East Germany in 1989.

>Czech Republic (again): Prague mayor to challenge PM

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Yet more on the Czech Republic, I’m afraid where, perhaps spurred by the general atmosphere of real and impending crisis – things are moving fast. Prague mayor Pavel Bém has told PM Miroslav Topolánek “Come upon punk, make my day” and announced he will challenge him at the forthcoming congress of for the leadership of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS). Well, actually he said “You wanted it, Mirek, so you can have it ” following the PM’s disparaging remarks in a newspaper interview about his leadership potential, but you get the picture. Bém has, it seems, a good chance of winning, but it is apparent from his remarks, some vague waffle about ‘conservative values’ , that he has little in the way of a programme for the main party of Czech right, still less the kind of strategic vision that might keep the Czech Republic’s delicate – but successful – balance of the ‘social’ and liberal.
The nightmare vision being floated by some commentators (such as the Final Word of the one page Czech daily news digest The Fleet Sheet ) is that some kind of re-constructed caretaker government will be put together by President Klaus, which will not only fail to get the Lisbon Treaty ratified by the Czech parliament (the CR is one of the handful of EU states not to have done this), but cause eurosceptic havoc in the EU just as the Czechs get to hold to Union’s Presidency, not so much sweetening Europe as leaving a very bitter taste in the mouth.

The Final Word scenario of a Klaus coup culminating in the CR being slung out of the EU, however, strikes me as a bit fanciful. I can fully believe that President Klaus would love to pull the strings from Prague Castle, intervening in politics in the just the way he also criticized President Havel for doing (I always though the charge about half justified). I wonder, however, whether there are really the votes in the Czech parliament to deliver a government with the ideological stamp of Klaus on it. The anti-Topolánek forces are also a disparate bunch and there is reason to suspect that some of Bém’s business/political dealings make him an accident waiting to happen.

There are also those who think that for all his unsophisticated bluster and lack of intellectual polish Topolánek’s perhaps soon-to-end tenure as leader did sketch out a political model for the Czech right that, if improved and adapted, could serve it give it a continuing voice in Czech politics: co-oridnated reforms off tax, welfare, and public services in a single package, a pragmatic mix pro-market policies with state intervention to support key groups working mothers and young people; an iinherent willingness to compromise with (and co-opt the agendas of) smaller parties like the Greens and the Christian Democrats; and, course, a junking of quixotic Klaus obsessions such as climate change denial, rants against multi-culturalism that does not exist in the Czech Republic, and grandoise fantasy visions of remade, de-integrated EU.

Topolánek, unluckily for him, was outplayed by a better, tougher leader in Jiří Paroubek and caught by circumstances no incumbent could control. If ODS descends into factional conflict, – and junks what passes for ideological debate in the party- as it threatened to do, but didn’t, following Klaus’s semi-forced departure as leader in 2002, then Paroubek may manage to establish the Social Democrats as the natural party of government in the Czech Republic, although global economic conditions and the problem of how to handle the Communists (already painfully evident in difficulties forming coalitions at the regional level) may make this less than straightfoward.

The future may be orange, but it isn’t bright.

>Czech Republic: Klaus ‘anti-Gore’ role underlines marginality

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Transitions Online carries a (for once) interesting report about President Václav Klaus’s links with – and fundraising for – US climate changer deniers for whom he has become (in the absence of a more heavyweight international figure) a kind of figurehead. Hard not to feel ever so slightly sorry for VK, whose political marginality is mercilessly underlined by the report of his links with this declining lobby.
Klaus has, it’s true, has made a rather bathetic mini-comeback in Czech politics trying to rally the Civic Democrat troops for the Senate run-off elections (today and tomorrow) in an echo of his back-against-the-wall fight for his political life ten years ago as his scandal hit and split party seem to be in meltdown. This time though I suspect the Civic Democrat vote will melt away as surely as the ice caps.
The President’s term ends in 2012.

>Who killed Czech politics?

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Czech President Václav Klaus weights in with a what-does-it-all-mean-all mean-for-us interpretation of the farcical ‘scandal’ in the CR’s governing centre-right Civic Democrat Party (ODS), which saw Prime Minister Topolánek’s rival Vlastimil Tlustý commission some ‘compromising’ photos of himself in order to catch Topolánek out. (Unfortunately, only a very minor ODS deputy, Jan Morava, snapped at the bait, although the opposition claims – with no real evidence – that he was working at Topolánek’s behest). Tlustý and his small band of supporters are currently waging (and losing) a destructive faction fight with Topolánek in ODS, although at least one pro-Topolánek deputy has resigned the ODS parliamentary whip and, given the government’s wafer thin parliamentary majority, we can look forward to nail biting votes of no confidence after the November regional and Senate elections have given a clearer indication of the Czech political weather.

So, what does it all mean? Klaus claims it shows that Czech politics has been emptied of real ideological content and, we are given to understand, descended into a crude and dirty struggle for power. Topolánek retorts that, if Czech politics, lacks content it is a legacy of the powersharing ‘Opposition Agreement’ deal Klaus himself negotiated with the centre-left in late 1990s to run a minority government. He (Topolánek) was barely able to stomach it, apparantly, but (surprise, surprise) kept stumm at the time, despite a leaked, disparing text message Klaus wrote about him after his suprise election as ODS leader in 2002. Tlustý, one of the few ex-Communist Party members left in a senior position in ODS (although like millions of other Czechs he was simply an opportunistic/pragmatic Party card holder, I should add) is, Topolánek say, is typical, cynical product of the Opposition Agreement era.

Although being a little precious – Czech politics has had its seamy side pretty much since the fall of the communism in November1989 – both PM and President are, I think, right and wrong at the same time. Tlustý had previously identified himself as standard bearer of those in ODS disillusioned with the compromises the party made after 2006 to hold power, especially the dilution of its radical flat-tax agenda it developed in opposition. As well as posing for mocked-up photos with blondes in swimming pools, he has a lot of techncial background on fiscal and tax issues. Regardless of Tlustý’s sincerity, there is clearly an ideological debate rumbling about the direction of the Czech under the surface. Unsurprisingly, neither PM nor President really want to acknowledge that.

Klaus is right, however, in seeing Topolánek as taking ODS in a more flexible, pragmatic direction, filtering its ideological agenda of liberal market reform – as welll as umpteen dodgy sectional and personal interests – through the realities of Czech politics and Czech society and coming up with a political programme and strategy defined by the need to keep the Greens/liberal-centrist on board and the deep rooted disinclination of many Czechs for any kind of red-blooded Thatcherism. The art of the possible. The 64,000 crown question is whether without the charisma and ideological hot gospelling of Klaus, he can hold together party and coalition together. The right are doing better in the polls and Green leader and market friendly eco-liberalMartin Bursík has, for the moment, crushed internal opposition , but watch this space.

>Czech Republic: Green Card law opens left-right split on immigration

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One of the more interesting developments in recent Czech politics has been the recent passing of a law creating a new system of ‘Green cards’ for non-EU nationals, skilled or unskilled, to fill job vacancies that cannot be filled within 30 days by Czech or EU citizens. The measure will streamline bureaucratic processes as the cards are to serve as combined work and residence permits, but, seemingly, seem to represents a reversal of earlier Czech policies of creaming off educated migrants from outside the EU to boost the country’s human capital. Instead, it seems Czechs (and other EU-ers) will gain the qualifications and do the high-end stuff, while migrants, as old Western Europe may do the dirty and unpleasant work. This all fits with market principles – the current government is broadly centre-right – and World Bank recommendations to addressing the CR’s ageing population and already high levels of older people working.

Most interesting, however, is the political divisions that the debate opened up, which tended to reverse the left-right splits more commonly seen in Western Europe: the Czech left, in the form of the main opposition Czech Social Democrats, is opposed not on the usual grounds of maintaining wages and labour standards, but also on the somewhat populist (not to say racist) grounds that non-European migrants will bring crime, disease and social disorder. Controversial ex-Health Minister (and doctor) David Rath evoked a nightmare scenario of rising unemployment (among Czechs) and hospital wards full of AIDS and TB ridden immigrants. “Do we want to focus recruitment on regions where AIDS rates are around 50-60% of the active population?” he asked in a perhaps less than subtle headline-grabbing attempt to warn Czechs that migrants might be black Africans. Always a bête noire for the right, Rath was then lambasted by the centre-right deputies as Czech Jean- Marie Le Pen in the making or a reincarnation of the former Republican leader Dr Miroslav Sládek whose far-right party crashed out of the Czech parliament in 1998.

There is perhaps a rational argument somewhere below the surface here: there would be social and policy consequences of migration in a small rather mono-ethnic society, which would a strategy and some serious public policy thinking. But what is striking is the Social Democrats’ immediate instinctive – and politically acute – response tuning in to chauvinist and populist positions which will play well with much of their electorate. Will this, I wonder, in the longer term open the door to the far-right, whose main preoccupation is still fulminating about the Roma minority? A distinct possibility as the Communist party sinks for demographic reasons into slow decline – especially the Social Democrats eventually emerge as the stronger of the two main parties and hold office for 2-3 terms.

Rath, I should perhaps add, is probably best known for fisticuffs it with equally controversial dentist-turned-politician Miroslav Macek, who walked up to him thumped him at health conference for suggesting that Macek had married his second wife for her money – click on picture above for the incident – but this display of cojones (“You’re a coward Dr Macek – why didn’t you face up to me like a man?”) probably did him no harm in eyes of the voters. Rath for my money is a shrewd and effective politician, who came to prominence – in somewhat more centrist political persona – in the 1990s as leader of junior doctor’s trade union and later headed up the Czech Medical Association.

It will be interesting to see what stance President Klaus takes on the Green Cards issue. His previous statements about multi-culturalism would suggest that – as on some other issues – his view may overlap in key respects with those of the left.

>Slovakia: In a right mess

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The woes of Slovakia’s centre-right Christian Democratic parties continue apace. Three deputies of the Christian Democrat Movement (KDH) have quit to found a Conservative Democratic Party (KDS), which, they say, will be more resolutely committed supporting traditional values and targeting financial support to (traditional) families. Meanwhile dissident members of the more liberal Slovak Christian and Democratic Union (SDKÚ) of ex-Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda (itself originally a breakaway from KDH) have been kicked out of the party for allegedly breaking resolutions not to air internal disputes in public. Their platform is a vaguer one of ‘generational change’ and renewal, outlined in a platform called Time for Change. The key generational change seems to be getting rid of Dzurinda, recently re-elected but seen as an electoral liability. Those expelled include several deputies and important elements of SDKÚ’s Bratislava organisation, where the party is strongest. Who know perhaps they will found a new party too? To complete the picture, we should perhaps add that Slovakia also has a further mainstream centre-right party – the electorally weak, but intellectually more influential Civic Conservative Party (OKS), which has never one parliamententary representation, who espouse a kind of Czech-style neo-con/neo-liberal fusion. The Slovak centre-right is clearly paying the price in opposition for its fragmented structure. This seem to provide cracks along which it fractures in the face of underlying strategic dilemmas: how to manage in a country with an electorate seemingly more inclined to the centre-left than centre-right; and what does being on the Christian Democratic right actually means in Slovak. The Czech right faced a rather similar situation in 2002, but with the crucial difference that the right is basically united in a single party, ODS, and that its long servingbut discredited leader Václav Klaus (finally) decided to step down.

Meanwhile, in the Slovak governing coalition things seem to have got rather jolly again. Vladimír Mečiar even recommends Prime Minister Robert Fico as Slovakia’s next president. Presumably, given the relative weakness of the Slovak presidency, Fico will resist this flattering offer. I suppose the idea of semi-presidential regime might distantly take his fancy, but he does not have the votes to change the constitution.