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Presidential elections hold up a mirror to Czech democracy

Sean L Hanley11 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

Sean L Hanley21 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…)

Romania’s Elections: Politics Can’t Be Different?

Sean L Hanley20 December 2012

2012-01-15-Romanian-protests-in-Bucgarest

Photo: Adriatikus

Romania’s recent parliamentary elections have done little to bring about the change needed to address the country’s ongoing political and economic crisis, argues Daniel Brett.

The Romanian elections of 9 December, which took place against a backdrop of economic crisis, austerity, political gamesmanship, polarisation, highly personalised politics, have produced a parliament with four main blocs:

  • The Social Liberal Union (USL), principally made up of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the National Liberals (PNL) but also includes the Conservative Party (PC) of businessman Dan Voiculescu and the UNPR, a small social democratic group. The Union won a two-thirds majority in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, with its seats divided 60/40 in favour of the PSD;
  • The main opposition Right Romania Alliance (ARD), which was dominated by President Traian Băsescu’s Party of Democratic Liberals (PDL) but also included Civic Force, the party of former Prime Minister Mihai Răzvan Ungureanu and a faction of National Peasant Party (PNŢ).  Following the election the ARD dissolved itself, although many believe that some form of new opposition coalition will emerge before the next.
  • The People’s Party of Dan Diaconescu (PPDD), owner of the OTV television channel.
  • The Union of Democratic Hungarians (UMDR), the long established party of Romania’s Hungarian minority.

 The outcome of the election will do little to address Romania’s chronic economic and political crisis, which has stretched back almost two years. Despite the economic crisis, the elections were not dominated by discussions about what should be done about the economy. The USL promises – primarily increasing pensions and wages, while at the same time securing an IMF loan – remain impossible to fulfil. The whole crisis has been marked by a failure to develop an alternative strategy. The ARD programme was very loose, saying little about economic policies but choosing instead to focus on corruption and threats to democracy to set itself in opposition to the USL. The Alliance also emphasized its closeness to the European Union and the USA and attempted in some senses to de-politicise itself by focussing upon links with NGOs and civil society. (more…)

Does the eurozone crisis threaten liberal reforms in Eastern Europe?

Sean L Hanley15 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…)

How bad were the Ukrainian elections?

Sean L Hanley6 November 2012

photo 1

Photo: osepa (Neil Simom. Creative Commons license via Flickr

In a follow up to his earlier post, Andrew Wilson considers just how clean last week’s Ukrainian elections really were,

The Ukrainian authorities expected a relatively clean bill of health for the parliamentary elections held on 28 October. Voting day itself was fairly peaceful; there were 3,800 international observers and over 100,000 domestic observers; and the results apparently reflected the exit polls.

There was even a trend, in October at least, towards slightly more balanced media coverage. A media monitoring project in which I was myself involved judged that 32% of news in the final week showed a balance of points of view – which is still not a lot, but an improvement from a low base, though the main official First National channel hardly changed.

But the critical tone of the preliminary report by OSCE Office for Democracy and Human Rights (ODHIR) caught the authorities off guard. In large part, this was because ODIHR reports have cottoned on to the fact that the damage is usually done long before voting day itself, when the authorities build their various advantages into the structure of the campaign. So ODIHR front-loaded its report by criticising the ‘lack of a level playing field, caused primarily by the abuse of administrative resources, lack of transparency of campaign and party financing, and [overall] lack of balanced media coverage’, and referring directly to the cases of Yuliia Tymoshenko and Yurii Lutsenko, stating clearly that ‘the fact that they were not able to run as candidates negatively affected the election process’. (more…)

Ukraine’s double-edged elections

Sean L Hanley5 November 2012

IMG_9965

Photo: oscepa (Neil Simon) via Flikr  Creative Commons license

Ukraine’s ruling Party of Regions comfortably won flawed parliamentary elections on 28 October, but opposition groupings too polled well. The result leaves the EU with a dilemma. Andrew Wilson gives two cheers for Ukrainian democracy.

There aren’t many elections where all sides come out happy, but this arguably just happened in Ukraine this Sunday. The authorities were already happy a month or two before the elections, because they were confident of victory by fair means and (mainly) foul. So they could afford to ease off in the final weeks of the campaign. On the one hand, the ruling Party of Regions didn’t get many of the results it wanted – most notably failing to win a single seat in Kiev. In one suburban capital seat the far right Freedom party was able to declare victory over the acting millionairess mayor Halyna Hereha after a three-day struggle over the count. Other surprises included the victory for the candidate backed by the ‘semi-detached’ oligarch Viktor Pinchuk against a real regime insider in Dnipropetrovsk. The Party of Regions didn’t sweep the board in the territorial constituencies, where it once talked of winning 150 seats.

On the other hand, the Party of Regions still won 114 constituencies out of 225, making 187 out of 450 overall, with the 73 the party won in the PR vote. Most of the 44 ‘independents’ are expected to join their ranks, plus seven MPs from smaller parties. If Regions splits or corrupts the opposition, it’s potentially therefore not that far short of a two-thirds’ majority of 300 out of 450 seats.

The one area where the ruling party didn’t get what it wanted was the harsh initial judgement of the OSCE-ODIHR election monitoring mission.  In this respect President Yanukovych is like the Liverpool striker Luis Suárez. Having gained a reputation for diving, Suárez has started to complain that referees don’t give him the free kicks and/or penalties he actually deserves. But it’s his own fault – the men in black have adjusted to his past behaviour. The men and women from the OSCE are doing the same with Yanukovych. But this may make it more difficult to revive the EU-Ukraine agreements that are currently on hold.

The three prongs of the opposition ‘trident’ all did well, although this may not be such good news, as it decreases their incentive to cooperate. Most opinion polls put the ‘United Opposition’ Fatherland and UDAR (‘Punch’, because led by the boxer Vitaliy Klichko) neck and neck, but Fatherland ended up with 103 seats to UDAR’s forty.

Yuliya Tymoshenko was of course not allowed to stand, and it is impossible to judge the size of her sympathy vote, but it seems to have been a factor. Unless she gets out of prison, however, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the leader of the Front for Change, the other main part of the not-particularly-united ‘United Opposition’ coalition, is now the assumed front runner to challenge Yanukovych in the 2015 presidential election – assuming it goes ahead. No doubt alongside Klichko, and both men are all too obviously already planning ahead. UDAR’s campaign this time seemed to peak too early. It was also unable to shake off the suspicion that it might ultimately ally with Regions. Nevertheless, UDAR did well because it is new. (more…)

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

Sean L Hanley20 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…)

Who can save the left in Hungary?

Sean L Hanley6 January 2012

Two new, very different parties hope to rebuild Hungary’s badly damaged opposition writes Erin Marie Saltman 

DK 2012-09-11 14.31

Photo: Norden 1990 via Wikicommons

Hungary’s opposition made a rare show of unity on 2 January, when it organized tens of thousands of people (some claim as many as 100,000) to protest a new constitution pushed through parliament by the ruling, conservative-populist Fidesz party.

 Like the protests in Russia, they were a departure from Hungarians’ usual apathy. But also like those protests, they could still fail to translate into real political change. The left in Hungary is badly fractured and parts of it remain widely discredited.

 That means that however draconian Fidesz’s legislative maneuvers – which have been pushed through thanks to a supermajority and include clamping down on press freedom; reining in the judiciary and central bank; nationalizing private pensions; and changing the labor, tax, religious, electoral, and education laws – opposition parties still face long odds in the 2014 parliamentary elections. The governing coalition continues to poll far ahead of other parties.

 Undeterred, two new parties, the Democratic Coalition and the Fourth Republic, have stepped into the fray, with very different approaches to reconstructing Hungary’s liberal-left. (more…)