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Václav Klaus: A political phenomenon without political power

By Blog Admin, on 7 March 2013

Vaclav-Klaus-01 cropped

Photo: DerHuti  Wikimedia Commons   CC BY-SA 3.0

Václav Klaus ends his second and final term as Czech president today. He has been a blisteringly controversial head of state. But his high profile and confrontational style masked underlying political weakness, argues Seán Hanley.

 In many ways a medium-sized Central European country like the Czech Republic could hardly have wished for a better president: an experienced, energetic and erudite politician of international standing able to engage both with the big European issues and handle the domestic problems thrown up by fractious politicians and crumbling coalition governments.

 A president tough-minded enough to periodically remind its citizens that they were living not in an impoverished mafia state, but in a tolerably well-administered, reasonably prosperous, if inevitably flawed, European democracy.

 As president during the last ten years Václav Klaus has been all of these things.

 But he has also been a blisteringly controversial head of state, whose views have often been sharply at odds with most of his fellow politicians or fellow citizens. Provocative and unignorable, Klaus has been loved and (more often) loathed both at home and abroad. He leaves office facing an indictment for treason brought by opponents  for alleged constitutional violations. He is, as Czech political scientist Lubomír Kopeček rightly terms him in a recent biography, a political phenomenon.

 But what lasting impacts does Klaus’s ten year period in office really leave? (more…)

Presidential elections hold up a mirror to Czech democracy

By Blog Admin, on 11 February 2013

Prezidentské volby 2013, volba prezidenta

Photo: Juandaev via Wikimedia Commons

 Left-wing former Prime Minister Miloš Zeman will be the Czech Republic’s next president after defeating aristocratic foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg in a run-off  election on 25-26 January. However, the presidential poll also tells us something more about Czech democracy says Seán Hanley.

The first direct elections of the Czech president offered a refreshing contrast to the back room manoeuvring and political horse-trading that accompanied the election in parliament of presidents Havel and (especially) Klaus. Despite the nastiness of the Zeman campaign and vacuousness of the political marketing around Karel Schwarzenberg, voters were offered a clear choice between personalities and priorities and turned out in large numbers to make it.

 Television pictures of voters ranging from ski-suited holiday-makers to prisoners choosing the new head of state send quiet but clear message of a country that takes its democracy seriously and knows how to use it.

 But the elections also hold up a more subtle mirror to Czech democracy, showing a political system still defined by patterns laid down in 1990s, which may nevertheless be on the cusp of change.

 Some of the lessons of the presidential elections are familiar ones. (more…)

Czech presidential elections: Surge in support for Schwarzenberg sets up close second round

By Blog Admin, on 21 January 2013

The Czech Republic held first-round presidential elections on 11-12 January. Seán Hanley assesses the results and how the two remaining candidates – Miloš Zeman and Karel Schwarzenberg – are likely to fare when the country goes back to the polls for the second-round run off later this month.

Karel Schwarzenberg

Karel Schwarzenberg Photo: Pastorius

 Few observers, even a matter of weeks beforehand, would have predicted the success of the two candidates who will be contesting the second round run-off to choose the Czech Republic’s first directly elected president, which takes place on 25-26 January.

 Miloš Zeman, who topped the poll in the first round on 11-12 January with 24.2 per cent, is a former Prime Minister who led the Czech Social Democratic Party between 1993 and 2001. However, he acrimoniously split with the party he once led and his return from political retirement in 2009 to lead his own Citizens’ Rights Party (SPOZ) was regarded by many as a vanity project. SPOZ failed to enter parliament in the May 2010 parliamentary elections and Zeman’s presidential bid, announced in June last year, seemed set to be similarly unsuccessful.

 Karel Schwarzenberg, the aristocratic Czech foreign minister, who ran Zeman a close second with 23.4 per cent of the vote, was perhaps always a more plausible contender. A scion of the Austro-Hungarian nobility, diplomat and former chief of staff to Václav Havel, Schwarzenberg was one of the Czech Republic’s most popular politicians.  The electoral success in 2010 of TOP09, the newly formed party he led, owed much to Schwarzenberg’s appeal as retro anti-politician. However, although one of the first to announce his candidacy, Schwarzenberg‘s campaign soon flagged badly, damaged by TOP09’s role in the governing centre-right coalition and unwavering commitment to austerity. At 75, Schwarzenberg was the oldest candidate and had not always appeared in robust good health. By December 2012 polls still put his support at under 10 per cent. (more…)

Does the eurozone crisis threaten liberal reforms in Eastern Europe?

By Blog Admin, on 15 November 2012

Uncertainties about the EU’s future are undermining mainstream parties throughout Europe. In Central and Castern Europe politicians can no longer sell the European model of liberal reforms when that model is itself in crisis, argues Sean Hanley

OccupyFrankfurt October 2011 EZB

Photo: Blogotron via Wikicommons

Although only three EU members in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), Estonia, Slovakia and Slovenia, have adopted the Euro, the knock-on  effects of stagnation in the Eurozone has pushed governments across CEE towards unpopular austerity programmes, exacerbating social tensions and collapsing support for incumbent parties. The uncertainties about the EU’s future are also undermining mainstream parties in the region. Politicians can no longer sell liberal reforms as part of a successful, tried and tested european model as they once did, when that model is itself in crisis. For many this seems to point darkly towards a turning away from liberal politics in CEE and a growth in euroscepticism, populism and nationalism. (more…)

Angry mainstream: Eastern Europe’s new ‘centrist populists’

By Blog Admin, on 20 January 2012

Allan Sikk and Sean Hanley detect a new breed of anti-establishment party emerging centre-stage in Eastern Europe.

Magyarországi választás 2010 Jobbik vadplakát Fidesz óriásplakát

Photo: Beroesz via Wikicommons

In both Western and Eastern Europe extremist populism and illiberal movements, we are told, are strong, politically influential and relentlessly on the rise.  In countries such Austria, Slovakia and Poland radical right parties have already held government office. Elsewhere they have sufficient parliamentary representation to influence government formation and help make the political weather. Recent electoral breakthroughs in countries without strong illiberal populist traditions by parties such the True Finns (2011), the Sweden Democrats (2010) or Hungary’s Jobbik (2010) seem to highlight the accelerated growth of such parties.

Given the greater impact of recession and reduced EU leverage in the region, the new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) would seem to be especially vulnerable to such tendencies. However, notwithstanding the spectacular rise of far-right in Hungary, recent elections in key CEE states suggest that voters in the region are turning to new parties, which combine familiar anti-elite, anti-establishment populist rhetoric with mainstream pro-market policies, a liberal stance on social issues and calls for political reform.

 Poland’s October 2011 elections, for example, saw the wholly unexpected emergence as the country’s third force of a grouping led by maverick and political showman, Janusz Palikot, on a platform combining anti-clericalism and social liberalism with flat taxation and a slimmed down, citizen-friendly state. In May 2010 a new pro-market anti-corruption party, Public Affairs (VV), campaigning to kill off the ‘dinosaurs’ of the political establishment enjoyed a similarly meteoric rise in the Czech Republic, winning 10% of the vote. In Slovakia in elections a few weeks later the Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) party formed in 2009 by the economist and businessman Richard Sulík entered parliament with a similar vote share on a programme of fiscal conservatism and socially liberal reforms such as the introduction of gay marriage and decriminalisation of soft drugs. Hungary’s Green-ish  Politics Can Be Different Party (LMP) can, with some qualifications, be regarded in a similar light.

 Such centrist or (neo-) liberal populists, or as we prefer to call them anti-establishment reform parties (AERPs), are we believe, a growing and important phenomenon in Central and Eastern Europe and, perhaps Europe more generally.  A more careful and wider look at the CEE region over the last 10-15 years suggests that such AERPs are a widespread and common phenomenon which can, in some contexts, enjoy landslide electoral success: the Simeon II National Movement in Bulgaria (2001), New Era in Latvia (2002) and Res Publica in Estonia (2003) were all new, anti-establishment reformers, which topped – or came close to topping – the poll at their first attempt and headed new coalition governments. (more…)

Václav Havel today

By Blog Admin, on 21 December 2011

Václav Havel

Photo: Martin Kozák via Wikicommons

The challenge, suggests Tim Beasley-Murray, is to make the death of Václav Havel not only the cause of sadness and commemoration, but a new(s) story of ‘the art of the impossible’

Václav Havel’s essay of 1987, The Story and Totalitarianism’, opens with the following anecdote:

‘A friend of mine, who had serious problems with asthma, was sentenced for political reasons to several years in prison.  In prison he suffered greatly because his cellmates were smokers and he could not breathe properly.  All his requests to be transferred to a cell of non-smokers fell on deaf ears.  His health was seriously in danger, indeed his life was at risk.  An American woman, who found out about the situation, wanted to help and telephoned an acquaintance, the editor of an influential newspaper, asking if he might be able to write an article about the situation.  The editor replied, “Ring me when he’s dead.”’

Czechoslovak asthma isn’t enough of a story for the Western editor.  ‘We are not worthy of attention because we don’t have stories and we don’t have death.  We just have asthma.  And who wants to hear our stereotypical coughing?’ Totalitarianism, Havel argues, neutralizes the drama of stories and it makes everyday suffering into something normal and unexceptional.

Now that Havel is dead, it is worth asking what sort of story his death makes.  Havel’s death is the cause of great sadness, in Prague and around the world. And yet, long expected and undramatic, it does not appear to be much of a news story, rather one of the final melancholy pages of a certain chapter of history. (In addition to Havel, this year has seen the death of a number of his comrades in dissidence and power, including Jiří Dienstbier and Jiří Gruša.  That is to say: a generation is passing.) That mortality is kind to no one and has no respect for goodness and reputation is shown by the swift and unceremonious way that Havel’s death was replaced on the front pages by the death of another, very different sort of political leader. (more…)

Remembering Václav Havel

By Blog Admin, on 21 December 2011

Czech flag Sedlcany

Photo: Ben Hall

How does one respond to a life so obviously admirable in a way that avoids both sentiment and  scepticism, asks Peter Zusi

The spectre haunting those who write in response to the death of Václav Havel is banality: what might one write about someone whose accomplishments are so obvious, so widely recognized, and so sincerely admirable?  The papers have been full of platitudes.  Most of them true.

In recent days commentators have, quite rightly, focused on praise; but there have been other times when criticism of Havel has seemed to come far too easily.  For many, the shortcomings of his presidency are clear, the naïveté of various positions demonstrated.  Indeed Havel has himself often been accused of banality and oversimplification.  Early in his presidency Havel returned to an idea dating from his dissident days: the ‘third way’, which would involve a complete rejection of the Communist past, to be sure, yet something less, or more, than uncritical acceptance of trans-Atlantic capitalist society.  Few ideas earned him more derision during his transition to the rigours of ‘regular’ politics.

(more…)