Central European Review – April 2013 (Part 2)

Czech Republic: Political and Personal

The Czech political life is currently dominated by the conflict between the recently elected President, Miloš Zeman, and the Foreign Minister, Karel Schwarzenberg. The dispute seems to be about the appointment of new ambassadors to Slovakia and Russia, but it points to some of the particularities of politics in the Czech Republic.

As recently as January of this year, Zeman and Schwarzenberg in competition for the position of president of the republic. In the first round of voting, they obtained similar results, receiving the support of 24.21%, and of 23.4% of the voters, respectively – with Zeman enjoying a 1% lead. But who are these two people, and why is the position of president relevant at all?

The Czech Republic, perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, has a semi-presidential political system. It has a bicameral parliament, with a Chamber of Deputies elected every four years, and a Senate elected for 6 years, with 1/3 of the mandates renewed every 2 years. Until 2012, the president of the republic was elected by the parliament, which is a typical feature of parliamentary political systems (in which the president is only head of state, with limited, mostly ceremonial and representative functions). This is not the case with the Czech Republic, however. Although in 1990 the Republic (actually Czechoslovakia) started – as its features demonstrate – from a model leaning strongly toward a parliamentary system of government, because of the towering figure of Vaclav Havel the roles and powers of the president were designed so that they were certainly greater than in the usual parliamentary model, making it look and function more like a semi-presidential system. For example, the president can veto laws, although the parliament can override that veto; he appoints persons to key offices of the republic, such as the Constitutional Court and the Board of the Czech National Bank; he can dissolve the Chamber of Deputies and call for new elections; finally, he has an important role to play in foreign affairs, representing the country and partaking in the shaping of the foreign policy (just like in France, which has a strong semi-presidential regime). Although some of these powers can be exercised only with the countersignature of the prime minister, they do make him a relatively strong president, while the features of parliamentarism remain strong as well. In 2012, however, another step was taken toward what looks more like a semi-presidential model, by switching from the indirect election of the president (by the parliament), to direct popular elections for this office.

In the run-up to the first direct elections for the presidency, most parliamentary parties, some extra-parliamentary ones, as well as some independents, were represented among the candidates for the position. In the end, the two persons that stood out, Zeman and Schwartzenberg, represented neither of the two main Czech parties. But let us take a look at the political landscape of the Czech Republic.

The last parliamentary elections (for the lower house)  took place in 2010. Although the main center-left party, the Czech Social Democratic Party, obtained a plurality of votes (22.08%) and of seats, it could not form a government, as it did not had the necessary allies in the parliament (official results; reference). Instead, the  main center-right party, which came in second (Civic Democratic Party, with 20.22%) was able to form a governing coalition with other parties of similar right-leaning orientation – TOP 09 (Tradition Responsibility Prosperity 09, a breakaway from the Civic Democrats, which brought 16.79%), and Public Affairs (with 10.88%). These are four of the only five parties that have obtained seats in the lower house – the fifth one being the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, which, for the first time since 1990, did not come in 3rd, but obtained “only” 11.27%.

This was the situation, then, at the end of 2012, as the Czechs were preparing to go to the voting booth to elect a president: the country was under a not-too-popular center-right coalition government, and none of the leading candidates for the presidency came from the largest parties. Instead, Miloš Zeman, although a former leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party, and the one who actually lead the party to prominence in the ’90s, had formed his own party in 2009 (a party that did not manage to get into the parliament). Karel Schwarzenberg, his rival, used to be a prominent member of the main center-right group  – the Civic Democratic Party, but had also broken from them, forming his own party, TOP 09, which is currently the junior partner in the center-right governing coalition.

How come, then, that Zeman and Schwarzenberg ended up being the two main candidates for the presidency? What lies behind this? Miloš Zeman is part of the “old guard” of Czech politics – the old guard of the 1990s-2000s, represented by the two main parties, Social-Democrats and Civic Democrats. Reflecting this, one of Zeman’s main allies in the campaign turned out to be his former rival of the center-right, the outgoing President of the Republic, Vaclav Klaus. How could this be, one may ask, that the former leaders of the main opposing parties, one of the center-left and the other of the center-right, were supporting each other? Well, there is actually a history of cooperation between them –  take for example the agreement between them that allowed the center-left to stay in  government between 1998-2002, with parliamentary support from the center-right. According to Schwarzenberg and others, the collusion between politics and business that led to the current, stagnating state of affairs has its roots in that period. Furthermore, Schwartzenberg has had his own feud with Vaclav Klaus, during the time when they were both in the Civic Democratic Party, as Klaus represented the more Euro-skeptic, neo-liberal direction, while Schwarzenberg stood for a pro-European, classical conservative orientation (as does his current party, TOP 09).

Accordingly, in the presidential elections Zeman was mostly supported by those areas of the Czech Republic and by those parts of the society that are more intent on keeping the status quo: that are less developed, less cosmopolitan. Schwarzenberg, on the other hand, dominated the new media, as well as the urban and more developed areas of the country. These socio-cultural divisions were accentuated during a campaign that can only be characterized as aggressive, with nasty overtones, especially on Zeman’s part; among other things, he resorted to using the nationalistic card, calling Schwarzenberg (an aristocrat who lived in exile during communism, and who is married to an Austrian woman) a “sudetak” – a reference to the ethnic German minority, a large part of which was forcefully expelled at the end of WWII. Furthermore, Zeman received the vocal support of the outgoing president, Vaclav Klaus, who, together with his Slovak wife Livia, joined in these attacks against Schwarzenberg.

Although in the first round both Miloš Zeman and Karel Schwarzenberg obtain about similar scores, in the second, run-off round of the elections, Zeman won 54.80% of the Czech citizens’ votes, against his opponent’s 45.19% (official; reference). At the end of that bruising campaign, therefore, Miloš Zeman won the presidency of the republic. Let us not forget, however, that the parliamentary and the presidential elections do not happen at the same time; thus, this center-left new president came into office with a government (legislature and executive) dominated by the center-right coalition, and a government in which Karel Schwarzenberg was – and continues to be – the Foreign Minister.

The conflict between the President and the Foreign Minister, therefore, reflects both personal animosity as well as deeper-lying divisions in Czech politics. This is evidenced by the fact that the name the President proposed for the position of ambassador to Slovakia is Livia Klausova – indeed. the same wife of Vaclav Klaus who actively participated in the campaign against Schwarzenberg. In these conditions, the latter’s reluctance to go along with this proposal is perhaps understandable.

What does the future hold? Currently, the Czech Republic has a center-right coalition government, in which the positions of Prime Minister and of Foreign Minister belong to two different parties (Civic Democrats and TOP 09); it also has a divided government, in which the President is of a different political orientation than the governing coalition (center-left vs. center-right); and it also has a public that is a quite sick of the old-style politics and of the politicians that represent it, while also being unhappy with the currently ruling center-right coalition. What next, then? Which of these tensions will prevail, and what do they foretell about the next elections (due in 2014)? Well, at this point the opinion polls show the Social Democrats in pole position in the race towards winning the legislative elections next year.

How about governing? Given the fact that power is distributed quite evenly between presidency, PM and cabinet, and parliament, how will this work? Referring to the appointment of said ambassadors, Mr. Schwarzenberg recently stated that he foresees the dispute going on for the next year or so – basically until the next elections.

Hungary: A Re-Constitution?

This year has so far been characterized by a continuation of the spicy exchanges between the various institutions of the European Union, and the Hungarian government. The reason for this, somewhat tense relationship, lies partially with the incongruity between the new government’s plans of socio-political reform, and the Western European expectations about how a liberal democracy should look and behave. The currently governing coalition, consisting of Viktor Orbán‘s Fidesz – Hungarian Civic Union (about) and the much smaller Christian Democratic People’s Party (about), came to power in 2010, following the disastrous governance and complete self-destruction of the Hungarian Socialist Party (about). So great was the disappointment – nay, anger! – with the previous center-left government, and with the general state of affairs (economy, public life, the country overall), that the center-right received an astonishing 52% of the votes cast in that election – which, in the conditions of a majoritarian-leaning mixed-member proportional representation system, translated into acquiring over 2/3 of the seats in the Parliament.

Orban Viktor

Viktor Orbán

Hungary has a parliamentary system of government, in which the bulk of the power rests with the (unicameral) legislature, which delegates it to the head of the executive – the Prime Minister. In consequence, whoever has the majority in Parliament, has also the control of the executive (just like in the UK or Germany). In addition, after the fall of Communism, the new democratic parties agreed to a system in which the most important decisions – from the election of the president, to the modification of the Constitution – would require the assent of 2/3 of the members of Parliament. At that point, and until recently, that seemed like a very high threshold, and it did indeed help  push the parties towards finding consensus agreements.

But not since 2010. Following the legislative elections, a center-right force came to power, which intended to address  not only the deep economic crisis in which the country found itself, but also the general demoralization of the population regarding the direction of the country, and the very meaning of the post-1989 political and economic settlement. In other words, Fidesz came to power at a juncture when several crises met – economic, at national and international level; socio-cultural, with a post-1989 malaise; and political, with the complete demise of the center-left. Accordingly, they came with a bold plan to address and reform all these aspects – from the cultural to the social, from the economic to the political. And they had both the popular legitimacy (over 52% of votes, extremely rare in multiparty elections) and the institutional tools needed to achieve that (over 2/3 of the seats in the Parliament).

The clash, then – or at least a part of it – comes from the difference between how many of the Western partners and their EU representatives understand liberal democracy (or the Western status quo about it), and the specifically Hungarian conservatism/traditionalism manifested in Fidesz’s programs and actions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the new constitution (or Fundamental Law) promulgated by the Hungarian Parliament in 2011. From its preamble, a number of “strange” occurrences have raised eyebrows in many European chancelleries: the references to the historical roots of the Hungarian state, the inclusion of a detailed description of the flag and coat of arms,  the listing of the national holidays, the mentioning the national anthem – all these made little sense, unless one understood the connection with the Communist history, during which these symbols had been confiscated and manipulated; and with an agrarian, strong-state, nationalist tradition of conservative politics in Hungary. In other words, unless one understood that this is part of a longer-term plan of reshaping Hungary, a post-1989 re-settlement based on a cultural self-understanding that is traditional (even traditionalist), national (even nationalist), and conservative (in a specific way); and that is directed against both the recent history of Communism (1946-1989), and that of a center-left governance (2002-2010) that was economically neo-liberal (markets over national interest) and socially left-wing (individualistic, cosmopolitan).

Hungary's Coat of Arms

National Coat of Arms

Indeed, this is not the conservatism of the typical Western European center-right parties – notwithstanding the fact that the Gaullist, statist center-right of France is not the same with the Christian-Democratic right of Germany, or with the market-driven, socially liberal Tories of the UK. There seems to be, however, a qualitative difference between some of the conservative parties of Central-Europe, and their Western counterparts. As always, there is no such thing as “one” conservatism, in any of these countries – but among the hodgepodge of influences (see Vaclav Klaus’ combination of economic libertarianism, social traditionalism and nationalism), one can see a few traits that would relate Hungary’s Fidesz to, say, Poland’s Law and Justice party of the Kaczynski brothers (although Fidesz is by no means Euro-skeptic – to the contrary). One could say that both these parties are (at least in part) representatives of a specific, central-European tradition of conservatism, with roots in the interwar period and the 19th century – when the national identity was being developed alongside the modern state, being defined around language, culture and an agrarian tradition, under the strong guidance of a powerful central government.

Unlike other parties in the region, however, Fidesz possesses both the initial popular impetus and the institutional means to actually implement these programmatic ideas. No wonder, then, that a good few of their policies, from the de facto re-nationalization of the pensions system, to the new media law, from the reform of the electoral system, to the tax on banks and on financial transactions, have been met with international criticism (Freedom House report on Hungary).

Besides the cultural-ideological differences pointed out above, there are of course other interpretations of Fidesz’s  conflicts with the opposition (parliamentary and extra-parliamentary), and with some of its European counterparts. There are many critics who accuse the current government of manipulating the entire framework of the state so that it can install itself in power – lawfully, according to these changes – for a long time to come. There is however no doubt that this is Fidesz’s intention, to be and remain in power – something of a necessity, given the long-term socio-political shift that they are pursuing. And there is also the accusation that the governing coalition is simply involved in an activity of state-capture, from which those around them are meant to profit economically (see the recent law regulating the sale of tobacco) – in other words, organized corruption.

The most recent international disputes have revolved around a set of amendments to the Fundamental Law (the  constitution). These amendments include laws which have already been passed by the Parliament, but had been struck down by the Constitutional Court. However, since the Court does not have jurisdiction over the text of the Constitution  itself, and since the coalition government has the 66% of seats needed to amend the Constitution, this was thought to be a good and safe alternate way of introducing those policies.

{Addendum: the new constitution, including the preamble; the proposed amendments.]

Slovakia: Scandals and Prosecutors

Slovakia has been without an appointed General Prosecutor for two years now. The reason for this is that the General Prosecutor elected by parliament two years ago, has never actually been appointed by the President to that position. Since 2011, this has been the object of a tug of war between the GP-elect, Jozef Čentéš, and the President of the Slovak Republic, Ivan Gašparovič; and, by extension, between the center-right forces, and the main main center-left party, Smer. Right in the middle of this dispute falls the Constitutional Court, which has decided once that the President must either appoint Čentéš, or refuse to appoint him, while providing clear justifications; a Constitutional Court that has been appealed to, and has been attacked by, both sides in the dispute.

This conflict looks like a typical manifestation of what happens during times of divided government, in a semi-presidential political system, if the political actors and the institutions of the state have not developed a working modus operandi for such situations (as they have in France, for example). Indeed, Slovakia has a semi-presidential political system, in which the president is directly elected by the population (every five years), and, although possessing mainly head of state attributions, also has some important powers, such as: nominating and appointing the PM (upon parliamentary approval), dismissing the PM and the cabinet (unilaterally), appointing three members of the Constitutional Court and other positions in the state, and having a suspensive veto on bills passed by the parliament.

bratislava 2

Bratislava – the capital of Slovakia

The parliament? Slovakia has a unicameral legislature – the 150-seat National Council, which is formally the most powerful body politic in the republic.  It is directly elected every four years through proportional representation (national party lists, with the possibility of preferential option for four candidates). The Parliament elects and removes the executive (Prime Minister and cabinet), executive whose composition is  a reflection of the coalition that has the majority in the Parliament. Thus, just like in other weak semi-presidential systems, most power belongs to the legislature, but the decision-making in the state is “nicely” distributed between a very powerful PM (especially if he has solid support in the Parliament), the National Council, and the President. This can work fine and well when both the PM/cabinet (and the Parliament that supports them) and the President come from to the same side of the political spectrum. However, when they belong to opposing political forces, the division in the executive functions and the overlap in the powers of nomination and appointment, between the President, the PM and the National Council, can lead to problematic situations.

This is what happened in 2011. At the end of the mandate of the previous General Prosecutor, the center-right coalition that had the majority in the parliament elected Jozef Čentéš as the new GP. The follow-up appointment of Čentéš by the President should have been a simple formality; however, the wiggle room created by the fact that the powers of election and of appointment are separated, combined with the sheer weight of the office of the president in a semi-presidential system, made it possible for President Gašparovič to refuse to do so. This being a sort of a constitutional crisis (a moment when the institutions of the state can not function well together, based on the prescriptions of the constitution), the Constitutional Court was appealed to, and it asked the President to remove the stalemate by either appointing Čentéš, or by giving serious reasons for not doing so. President Gašparovič did give a number of reasons – yet these did not really amount to a constitutionally-grounded motivation for not appointing him.

To understand the President’s stubbornness, one has to look at the political background. In 2010, a center-right coalition government won the elections for the legislature, under the leadership of Iveta Radičová (who became PM), removing the Robert Fico-led Smer (Direction – Social Democracy), which had been in power during the previous eight years. The new government did not last long, however, and in 2012 it was removed through a vote of no confidence (as a result of the internal crumbling of the coalition); advanced elections were called, which were won again – and decisively (with over 44% of the vote and  more than 55% of the seats) by Robert Fico’s Smer-SD.

The current conflict, therefore, started during those two years of center-right government – when the Parliament and the executive were run by a frail center-right coalition, while the presidency belonged to a center-left politician, Gašparovič (president of Slovakia since 2004). According to the then-PM Iveta Radičová, the President did his best to play into the center-left opposition’s plans of sabotaging the policies of the governing coalition.   

But the same center-left forces, i.e. Robert Fico’s Smer-SD, came to power soon afterward, and now the conflict has been extended into their own mandate. There is a crisis in Slovakia, but it does look like it will find a solution within the Slovak political system. The very organism that should be able to cut this Gordian knot, and decisively rule on the limits and competences of the other institutions – namely, the Constitutional Court – is itself contested by all sides; both the President and the General Prosecutor-elect have contested the individual members of the CC who were to sit on the panels that would judge the various aspects of this situation. The latest development is that Prime Minister Fico (whose interest is, obviously, not to appoint this GP) has just pushed a law through parliament that would allow for any CC judge to sit on such panels, no matter if they have been removed previously, as a result of being contested. On his part, GP-elect Čentéš made it clear that he does not intend to abandon this fight, and, if all national means are exhausted, is planning to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

Besides the political aspects of the conflict, in the background there are also serious matters regarding who controls, and how, the judiciary. Robert Fico’s previous terms in office had been characterized by cronyism and accusations of corruption; Radičová’s government was dedicated to cleaning up the situation, hence their appointment of Mr. Čentéš as GP; however, the center-right coalition itself, which supported Radičová, lost the elections in good part due to the major corruption scandals that hit several of its politicians.  The irony of the situation is that the politicians that came to power afterward, including Robert Fico, have a solid reputation of putting obstacles in front of such corruption investigations – and many of them, including Fico, feature prominently in the documents of those  scandals.

In other news, Slovakia is determined to continue developing its nuclear energy capacities, building on the existing, Communist-era infrastructure at Jaslovske Bohunice, and negotiating with potential partners for the new development. It is also interesting that, unlike in other countries nearby, there is little public controversy about these projects, as they are seen beneficial both macro-economically and for the population of the region.

Poland: Polish Identities

Is Poland becoming a country of immigration, besides being one of emigration? There are signs that point to the fact that Poland’s relative economic success in the 2000s, while the rest of Europe – and of the world, in fact – was stagnating, has made it a magnet both for people from neighboring countries, as well as for immigrants from places as remote as Vietnam or Nigeria. From the Belorussians who cross the border to make some money and then return home, to the Vietnamese who come in the footsteps of their parents who studied in Poland before 1989 (by virtue of the “Communist international”), but who do not intend to go back, Poland shows signs of moving away from the status of being the “most” monocultural country in the European Union.

At the same time, the emigration from Poland to Western Europe is not ceasing either, even if it has slowed down. Currently, there are over 2 million Polish nationals who have settled, either temporarily or definitively, in other European countries, especially the UK (about 600,000), Ireland (where their number has overtaken that of those coming from Britain – between 120,000 and 200,000), Germany (some 400,00o) – but also The Netherlands, Italy etc.

John Abraham Godson

John Abraham Godson – first black member of the Sejm

But now the challenges of being a foreigner, who arrives to a new country driven by necessity or just by the desire to have a better life, and who has to cope with obstacles cultural, social and administrative, are experienced by Poles from the other side as well. Part of any process of receiving workers from other countries, is the phenomenon of “illegal immigration” – or, rather, of immigrants who, at some point or other, find themselves with less than the complete set of papers needed to live and work legally in the given country. As the number of immigrants grew, Poland had to take this into account; thus, in 2012 the government offered an amnesty to those who were in the country illegally – their number was estimated at around 40,000, although some talked of much higher numbers. After six months, about 8,500 immigrants had regularized their status, to the satisfaction of both the government officials, as well as of the many people who, no matter their country of origin, have embraced their new Polish identity and homeland. A good sign of how these people from Vietnam, Belarus, Ukraine, Pakistan, Georgia, Armenia, Russia, China, Moldova, Bulgaria, Turkey, Nigeria etc. have become a part of the Polish cultural and political landscape is the election of the first black person to the Polish Parliament, in 2010. Although the numeric rapport between the immigrants and emigrants still leans towards the latter, the tide might be shifting; with over 200,000 people coming to Poland to work, only in 2012 (mainly from neighboring Ukraine), the Polish government will have to continue to develop and adapt its emigration and integration policies, as a matter of both social and economic necessity.

In 2010, Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform (OP) was the first political party to win re-election in the two decades since the fall of Communism. Their success was due in good part to the continued superior economic performance of the country, while the rest of the world was undergoing an economic crisis. On the other hand, the choices on the political scene were not too varied. To the right was the  Law and Justice (PiS) party of Jarosław Kaczyński, who, after a brief period in government, remained with the image of party that has a propensity for rhetoric over (economic) performance.  To the left, the group that has traditionally occupied that space on the political spectrum, the Democratic Left Alliance, has been in disarray for about 10 years; leaving a space that, to everyone’s surprise, was grabbed and occupied by a newly-formed (breakaway from OP) group, Palikot’s Movement (RP). Thus, after the elections, the two largest parties were the Civic Platform – OP (39% of the vote) and Law and Justice – PiS (29% of the vote) – both of the center-right;  as these parties never got along well, it was fortunate for OP that they could form a governing alliance with a third center-right party with seats in the parliament, the agrarian Polish People’s Party (PSL), which had received 9% of the votes.

It is pretty clear from this picture that the Polish voter is a “center-right voter” – with about 80% of the electorate choosing parties on this side of the generic political spectrum. Given the relatively crowded scene on the right, the major question for PM Donald Tusk is how to navigate his party, so that its social market, pro-Europe, and socially moderate orientation continues to reflect the Polish people’s preferences, not allowing for the Law and Justice party (which is, so to speak, “further to the right”) to get ahead. The challenges inherent in this proposition are well-reflected by the recent conflict between Prime Minister Tusk and one of the prominent members of his party (and Justice Minister in his cabinet), Jarosław Gowin.

While the tussle between them ended eventually with Gowin losing his ministerial position, the conflict is reflective of a deeper tension within the Civic Platform party itself. The fact is that Gowin’s positions coincide with those of a good portion of the party members and leaders – as evidenced by the recent failure of a Tusk initiative to pass  a law on civil unions, because his own parliamentarians rebelled against it; and also by the fact that he chose as a Gowin replacement Marek Biernacki, who belongs to the same, socially-conservative direction in the party.

As said, the Polish voter is a center-right voter. In other words, Polish political culture reflects the fact that for the regular Polish citizen nationality (expressed through historical consciousness and cultural self-awareness) and Christianity (whether or not he is a practicing Christian) represent fundamental pillars of his/her identity. The variations are about the economy (the role of the state), the relationship with Europe (between national pride and the European identity), and the intensity of the various particular convictions.

Of course, the make it or break it test is, as always, the economy. If a government fails to perform in that sense, it matters little how ardent its discourse is – an opening will arise on the political scene, and there will not be a scarcity of political actors willing to grab that spot. Accordingly, the recently laid off Justice Minister made it a point to specify that the dispute between him and the PM is in fact about economic visions – and not about social or moral ones. However, as currently the Civic Platform is polling relatively equally with the more socially-conservative Law and Justice, there is no incentive for the Gowin/Biernacki wing to do anything but keep strong on their positions.


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