Czech Election Update: Time for the Bigger Picture

A third post on the Czech election. There is a lot to say. I will begin by not quite rejecting the strong temptation to direct criticism to Dnes for celebrating the record high number of women in the new Czech parliament by adorning the article with a drawing of a topless woman and then inviting its readers to vote for “Miss Parliament” based on electoral headshots (I feel compelled to include the link just to prove I’m not making this up, but please don’t go there). It is enough to say, perhaps, that this is sexist even by Central European standards .

Instead I will focus on the question of volatility. In yesterday’s post I plotted Czech volatility over time but did not have time to use the right methods or comparison set. Now that vacation is over, I can fill in the gaps.

First, I can provide references to the articles I cited: the two best recent works I know on volatility:

Because Powell and Tucker provide time series data, I will focus on theirs here, but Mainwaring et al handle the question beautifully as well (particularly their focus on “young” as opposed to strictly “new” parties). My first task was to take the Czech electoral data and use it to distinguish between volatility among existing parties (Mainwaring et al call this intra-system; Powell and Tucker call it Type B) and volatility created by parties entering and leaving the party system (Mainwaring et al call this extra-system; Powell and Tucker call it Type A). Using Powell and Tucker’s method (slightly different from my rough cut yesterday because it excludes parties with less than 2%) produces the following graph which decomposes the red line into its
From this it becomes clear that with the exception of 1992 (when extra-system volatility was huge because of the breakup of Civic Forum and seversl other parties) and 2006 (when extra-system volatility was basically absent), the Czech Republic has had both types of volatility in roughly equal levels.

These levels are low not only with regard to the first electoral period but also with regard to the region as a whole. To convey that point, I steal figures from Powell and Tucker’s 2009 analysis, circle the Czech Republic, and insert the 2010 data. For comparison’s sake, I do the same for Hungary (and in two weeks will do the same for Slovakia). The results are as follows, with the Czech Republic in blue and Hungary in green.

By comparison with the region as a whole, both the Czech Republic and Hungary have exhibited low levels of both types of volatility; indeed in most election years during this period, these two countries have been at or near the lowest overall. On specific kinds of volatility, both Hungary and the Czech Republic have only occasionally been above average on intra-system volatility and never (since 1992 in the Czech Republic) above average on extra-system volatility. In 2010, however, their levels of intra-system volatility rise above the regional average, but so did the previously extra-system volatility, pushing the overall levels from the near the bottom to slightly above the regional trendlines.

In addition to the quantitative resemblance, there are also other similarities.

  • First, both elections show a clear exhaustion with those in power that is clearly motivated by a general disillusionment with large segments of the political elite. Both the Czechs and the Hungarians had, for the most part, avoided this for some time, with large numbers of disillusioned voters holding their noses and voting for old parties anyway or switching to the other big party (accounting for the not insignificant levels of intra-system volatility). The higher levels of extra-system volatility in both countries suggests that these tendencies have diminished and that these two countries have moved closer to the Central European norm of disillusioned voters shifting to new parties.
  • Second, related to the above, both countries saw the emergence of a culturally liberal party attractive to younger, educated voters making extensive use of social networking software: LMP in Hungary, VV in the Czech Republic. (It seems to my uneducated eye that the Hungarian variant is economically more statist, but this seems relatively unimportant to the overall profile.) It is significant that a nearly identical party–SaS in Slovakia–looks set to take a similar share in Slovakia, and that similar parties have done well in the Baltics. There is here something new, not exactly a new party family (though in their cultural liberalism and anti-corruption emphases they share significant elements) and not exactly a new party type (though their methods and organization do not fit fully with any of the currently hypothesized models, even cartel and firm models), but with strong and intersecting elements of both. Nor is it unique to Central Europe alone but elements of it have emerged also in the West. Expect to hear more on this question in this blog. This is something that will need explanation.

Despite these similarities, it is important to emphasize that the election results in these two countries also differ in ways that are quite instructive:

  • First, in Hungary the intra-system volatility represents the evisceration of one major party at the hands of the other–MSZP dropped while Fidesz rose–while in the Czech Republic, all of the established parties lost support compared to the last election.
  • Second, although both countries saw the emergence of new parties, there is a very big difference between the center right TOP09 in the Czech Republic the far more radical right Jobbik in Hungary. This difference is important not only for the political content of the two parliaments (something we see already in the legislative output of the Hungarian parliament) but also for future volatility: a party with a clear programmatic message such as Jobbik may be able, despite its internal factionalization, to survive multiple election cycles whereas the more diffuse TOP09 may have a harder time of it (though because I have just predicted that it will turn out not to be true).
  • Third, there is a significant difference in the role of these new parties: Jobbik will be able to remain outside of government whereas TOP09 and perhaps VV will likely be part of government. Both positions have their risks: Jobbik may be able to avoid responsibility but will also be able to claim few accomplishments and has already had the softer parts of its agenda on national questions pulled from underneath it by the current government. TOP09 and (probably) VV will be able to implement parts of their agenda but will also become responsible for any resulting problems (even those they merely inherit) and will face problems when their new (and relatively inexperienced) cabinet ministers succumb to the same clientelistic temptations as their predecessors. It is interesting to me that VV has openly contemplated staying out of government, suggesting that it has learned the lesson of past Czech “new” parties and those elsewhere in the region. (As Tim Haughton and I have argued elsewhere: new anti-corruption party + government participation = death)

What happens in Hungary and the Czech Republic as the result of these elections will not, I think, have much impact on the broader world (and may not even have much impact on the quality of the daily lives of Hungarians and Czechs) but they are worth this degree of close scrutiny (and more) because what is going on there is indicative, I think, of significant transformations in the relationship between who people are (demographically), what they think (attitudinally) and who they vote for (politically). Demographic patterns and attitudinal patterns still exist but their relationships to political behavior have changed as perceptions of corruption have risen to the top of the list of concerns (and “endurance” becomes shorthand for “corruption”) and as political entrepreneurs take advantage of this change and of new organizational technologies to provide an ever changing menu of new parties (themselves organized primarily for short term gains). For awhile the Czech Republic and Hungary offered some evidence that the trend was not inevitable. With the most recent elections in these countries, it is more difficult to see any alternative.

Finally, from the broader perspective it is interesting that in Hungary and the Czech Republic the election has been regarded as a fundamental shift, a major change in the game of politics despite the fact that the degree of shift was, by regional standards, only about average. Perhaps earthquakes only seem major if you are not used to them, but they still shake buildings. Of course people and institutions figure out ways to survive even where earthquakes are a regular occurance, but their lives are different than they would be in areas with less seismic activity (money is spent differently, personal habits follow different patterns). I hope to spend a good portion of the next few years thinking about how political life is different when every election is an earthquake.


Ben Stanley commented via Facebook: “It’s great being a CEE specialist. Instead of accumulating common wisdoms, we get to throw them all away and make up new ones!”

Cas Mudde comented via Facebook, “Would be interesting to see the same for seats in parliament.”
Here it is, though it is actually rather uninteresting compared to the same calculations with votes.  It suggests, however, that one of the reasons that new parties do not survive is that they never really get started.  US, VV and TOP09 are the only new parties actually to have made it over the threshold since 1992, but this rather technically excludes the Green Party, SZ whose 2006 incarnation is difficult not to describe as a new party despite a certain degree of legal and organizational continuity with the one established shortly after the revolution of 1989.  It will also be interesting to see if, as Sean Hanley wonders, Suverenita manages to use its stronger-than-expected performance to chip away at CSSD in the next election cycle, thus enhancing (or if VV or TOP09 fare badly, maintaining) the red “2010” bar.

Czech Election Update: The (Slightly) Bigger Picture

Another quick and ugly post from vacation (thanks to my family for tolerating my obsession even as we drive from city to city to visit loved ones).  I wanted briefly to put the 2010 Czech election into the context of the Czech party system over time (the next quick and ugly will, I hope, put it into broader regional perspective, if Josh Tucker of the Monkey Cage doesn’t do it first.

For now, all I wanted to do was to post a few pictures about what the most recent elections say in raw quantitative terms about the Czech party system circa 2010.

The big news is that thanks to this election cycle the Czech Republic’s party system looks significantly different today than it did ten years ago (indeed it is closer to 1992 or 1996) and signs are that the current changes will presage more change (or, to put it in a different and more awkward way, a period of stable change as opposed to stable stability)

Let’s start with the number of parties:

While the actual number of parties in parliament (the green line) did not change from last election to this one other measures suggest a substantially increased number of parties.  The red and blue lines show calculations of party system size based on Taagipera and Laakso’s method which show more significant parties in the voting than any time since 1992 and more even distribution of seats in parliament since 1992 as well (and it actually comes quite close to reaching 1992 levels.

The second major difference is in volatility–the number of seats changing hands from one election to the next.  This is actually quite a complicated question because it depends on how we consider succession from one party to the next, but in this election in the Czech Republic the lines of succession are fairly clear (not so in previous elections).  Without going into too much detail, volatility in Czech elections looks like this:

While not approaching 1990-1992 levels (and there is a good argument that even 1990-1992 was not that high), this is the highest volatility the Czech Republic has seen since, with only 61% of seats remaining in the hands of parties that held them before the election.  (As I will try to discuss tomorrow, while this is unusual for the Czech Republic it actually brings it more within the “normal” range for Central and Eastern Europe.)

This shift is even more interesting because of the nature of the volatility.   Both Tucker and Powell and Mainwaring et al have done fantastic work in the past two years distinguishing between types of volatility and suggesting that it makes a difference if the shift is between parties already in parliament or between parties in parliament and new parties.  I do not have time to recreate the calculations of the authors above, but there is another method for displaying it that is perhaps even more provocative.  The graph below shows the share of vote going to parties depending on when they first appeared on the ballot (more or less corresponding to when they were created):

What this graph says to me is two things:

  • Until this election, nearly all of the Czech vote went to parties that were created in the first two years after the fall of communism.
  • New parties appeared, but they almost never survived.  It is remarkable that even though dozens of new parties appeared in the Czech Republic between 1992 and 2006, the combined vote totals for those parties in 2010 was less than 1%.  The Czech Republic’s political scene today contains parties that are (by Czech standards of 20 years of democracy) rather old (60%) or entirely new (39%) and almost none in between.
  • Given that, pattern, the question is what the Czech Republic looks like in 5 or 10 years.  If the current new parties show the same survival patterns as their “new” predecessors, they will not exist in one or two election cycles (this is the pattern elsewhere in the region).  The old parties may recover some of their voters but probably not all of them and the rest will go on to other new parties which will be equally short lived.  The larger this space gets, the larger space it may create for the next election and the more likely the Czech Republic is to find itself with the same patterns as the Baltics and other countries in the region.  The Czech party system dog has stopped not barking.

Populism and Extremism in Foreign Policy

1177_titleI’ve recently prepared some thoughts on foreign policy of populist and extremist parties in postcommunist Europe and have uploaded an annotated presentation–see Populist foreign policy annotated.ppt or Populist foreign policy annotated.pdf–for those who are interested. It contains some thoughts on definitions of extremism and populism, makes reference to the excellent expert surveys by Hooghe and Marks et al and suggests that the two most important dynamics in assessing extremists foreign policy involve the tension between foreign and domestic policy (with domestic political needs usually prevailing) and the tension between extremist parties and their proximate “non-extreme” neighbors (and the more v. less extreme factions within those non-extreme parties).  An excerpt below:

When thinking about the broader patterns and how policy-makers should approach these, it is important to note that there are two important dynamics, areas of competition whose outcome has a critical impact on party positions and government policy. The first dynamic is the give and take between foreign and domestic policy arenas. While it may sometimes be the case that foreign-policy issues are highly salient and come first in the public mind, the evidence here and elsewhere (see Liang, Europe for the Europeans) that it is domestic policy questions—and quite often the quest for electoral advantage—that drives foreign policy positions. It is notable, however that extremism and populism have distinct patterns in this regard. In cases of purely extremism, the desire to exclude is often a genuine party goal, and parties may take foreign policy positions to reward those who dislike the same enemies or punish those who champion those enemies (as in the case of extremists increasing their opposition to the United States in response to US recognition of Kosovo, regarded as hurtful to Serbs and metaphorically as hurtful to those countries with large, regionally settled minority groups (Slovakia, Romania)

The populist dynamic can be the same as the extremist dynamic, though the populists may be more likely to employing the extremist cause for the sake of votes rather than out of genuine (this is an assumption and therefore likely to prove wrong on further investigation). The populist dynamic may also have another aspect, however that is relatively unique to populism: since populist parties (by the definition I have used) depend on attacks on a corrupt elite, they face difficulties once in power since they become elites themselves. Rather than seek alternative bases of support, the populist parties may seek instead to look for other “elites” above themselves toward whom they can allege corruption and against whom they can campaign. This may cause them to turn their attacks to major powers and supra-national organizations (the US, the EU) so that they can say, “yes we were elected, but now we’re fighting the real corrupt elite: them”

There is a second key dynamic at play here: the dance between extremists and those closest to the extremists on the “non-exclusionary” side of the boundary (a boundary whose location varies depending on the perspective of the observer and the context). The extremist parties themselves are rarely strong enough to shape policy directly, but they can do so in coalition or through their influence on vote-sensitive “flirt” parties. Parties such as Slovakia’s Smer and Poland’s PiS have demonstrated a willingness to enter into coalitions with parties with similar but more extreme positions on “exclusion” issues. The question, of course, is in which direction the influence runs, whether it is the extremist parties that shape the more moderate (but often much larger variant) or the other way around. Extremist parties can also shift the positions of moderate counterparts by forcing such parties into more extreme positions to avoid the loss of voters to the extremes, but only if they think they can do so without losing centrist voters. More work on such dynamics can be found in Przeworski and Sprague’s Paper Stones (1986) among many others).

Of course the interaction between extremists and moderates may also occur within individual parties and indeed most of the “flirt” parties and larger non-extremist populists have internal factions that represent a range of opinions from those near (or as extreme as) the extremist parties to those who hold rather moderate views on the same questions. The resulting policy positions depend on the complex interplay of coalition partners, intra-party organization and decision-making and voter preference. These are obviously highly contextual and so deciphering (much less predicting) these developments in particularly countries requires considerable local knowledge, even as broader, big-N research can help to identify relevant variables.

“Ostentatiously New” Parties (in Lithuania)

I have written a bit about new parties and particularly those parties for which being “new” is a feature (as Allan Sikk calls it, “the project of newness”)–and will be writing a lot more about this–but I never imagined that a single party’s advertising campaign could capture almost all of the basic issues involved with newness.  Enter Lithuania’s “National Resurrection Party”(Tautos prisikėlimo partija), a party of political outsiders run by a television performer  and producer Arūnas Valinskas (see him hosting Lithuania’s version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire“).

In addition to its origins outside of politics–and in show business–the party single five slide ad campaign offers a nearly perfect summary of the themes of “ostentatiously new” parties across the region all rolled up into a single package which itself breaks the “establishment” political mold with the kind of daring images that get attention and that most politicians would not risk using (the candidates themselves in drag, straightjackets, prison stripes, vampire-teeth and Viking helmets):

Theme 1: Fighting corruption
Caption: We will force the general prosecutor to work.
Behind bars

Theme 2: Honesty and independence (Along with Theme 1:Corruption)
Caption: We won’t steal from you (We can earn our own money)
We won’t steal from you

Theme 3: Tangible improvements in quality of life
Caption: When we rule, the price of heat won’t go up
Out of the cold

Theme 4: Defense of the people
Caption: We will fight for you tooth and claw
Tooth and claw

 Theme 5: Incapacity of the current political elite and its institutions
Caption: Let us enter this ship of fools (the ship is labeled “parliament”)
Ship of fools

These are really great ads–some of the funniest I’ve seen in a long time–but they offer no evvidence that TPP will break the cycle of brand new media-driven parties scoring big, entering government, losing their lustre and collapsing to leave a space before the next election (we’ve seen it twice now).  To the contrary, this party seems to have refined the process even further.  I have never seen an ad campaign that makes it more difficult to imagine the party’s future ad campaign.  It is hard to know where to go from here and so I can only assume that the party’s futures look like the ship in picture #5.  (Of course that’s what I said about Slovakia’s unprecedentedly popular ruling party Smer just after its election in 2006–see the last sentence in

Hat tip (much belated) to a bit of schadenfreude from The Monkey Cage .  Thanks to Marek Rybar for obtaining the translations. Any errors in retranslation are my own.

Chickens, roosting

I was intrigued to see stories about a recent Fico appearance, particularly one in HNOnline entitled, “Fico: There is an artificially created impression that every politician is a thief.”

Fico: They have artificially created the impression that every politician is a thief

How did that impression get created?  I have a partial theory:

As they stole

The points Fico raises in the article are not at all inappropriate:  Politics is hard work and the “perks” of politics in many cases only amount to an amelioration of difficult working conditions (being a good politician–as Fico is–is probably easier than working in a mine, but the hours are long and the demands and stresses are extremely high).  As a political figure who does not appear to be using the office for personal financial gain, Fico must be particularly incensed.  Yet he did not shy away from such attacks while he was attempting to gain power and he must bear some of the responsibility for his own difficult circumstances.

The broader issue here is the question of corruption in the electoral politics of postcommunist countries (and elsewhere as well).  When corruption levels are high (or are perceived as high), corruption becomes an issue in itself and becomes for ambitious politicians to gain support (especially ambitious politicians who have not engaged in obvious corruption themselves).  This is often a pyrrhic victory, however, since success puts those same leaders in the sights of their own weapons: even if they stay clean, their associates may succumb to the temptation, and even if they do not, it is often difficult to persuade voters that the new boss is any different from the old boss, especially when they ride around in the same dark, powerful sedans.  And it is not suprising that Fico, even at the top of his electoral game, feels pressure from precisely the sense of cynicism toward elected officials that he participated in creating, the same sense that allegedly produced somebody to amend the above-mentioned Fico billboard to read “…and so they will also steal under me”

For more on the famous (in Slovakia) Fico advertisement, see:

For more on the dynamics of anti-corruption campaining, see:

Two-thirds Rule

A brief note here to comment on one specific element of Robert Fico’s press conference remarks here regarding contracts received by those close to Smer: “the government coalition will not allow discrimination against two-thirds of the population only because they sympathize with the government party.” (see below in red).

This is notable for several reasons,

  • first because it is a nice example of the power of the current coalition’s public opinion position as political argument (popularity here becomes a justification for actions) and, within that framework, of a particular interpretation of public opinion.  It is certainly fair to say that 2/3 of Slovakia’s current voters support Smer, HZDS or SNS, but to the extent that in any given poll about 30% of voters do not support any party.  Of course this is ordinary political use of numbers and nothing particularly unusual or scandalous.
  • Second, and I noticed the artfulness only in translating and transcribing, there is the notion of government refusing to permit discrimination.  This is a common argument, but it is distinctive here because the prime minister is arguing that he will not permit discrimination against his own supporters.  The powerful subtext here, and what allows this to work despite the fact that in the same sentence he notes that he and his coalition partners have a clear supermajority in public opinion, is the spectre of dominant forces other than 2/3 the people who seek to do them harm.  I have been noting for some time how well Fico has maintained his anti-establishment position despite having almost sole control of the strongest party (and coalition) in Slovakia’s postcommunist history.  Whether he can keep this up is another question (and I have consistently been wrong in predicting that he couldn’t, but that is a question for another post).  The key appears to be his ability to persuade others (perhaps because he believes it to be true) that others (media, the former opposition, the United States, foreign investors) are the ones shaping Slovakia’s destiny.  Balancing that appeal to weakness with appeals to his own efficacy requires a delicate sense of balance.  So far he has proven himself a master.

Nedovolíme diskrimináciu ľudí len preto, že nás podporujú, odkázal médiám Fico

22. augusta 2008  16:28
Premiér Robert Fico sa znovu zastal ministerky práce Viery Tomanovej, ktorá čelí kritike za sporné štátne dotácie ľuďom blízkym jeho strane Smer-SD. Premiér zdôraznil, že nezákonné postupy alebo predražené tendre bude trestať, zároveň však je podľa neho prirodzené, ak sa predstavitelia vlády snažia v súlade so zákonom podporiť obce a mestá, ktoré vedú zástupcovia vládnych strán.

Predseda vlády Robert Fico počas tlačovej besedy, na ktorej oznámil, že vládna koalícia nedovolí diskrimináciu dvoch tretín obyvateľov len preto, že sympatizujú s vládnymi stranami.
Predseda vlády Robert Fico počas tlačovej besedy, na ktorej oznámil, že vládna koalícia nedovolí diskrimináciu dvoch tretín obyvateľov len preto, že sympatizujú s vládnymi stranami.

(autor: SITA)

Vládna koalícia nedovolí diskrimináciu dvoch tretín obyvateľov len preto, že sympatizujú s vládnymi stranami, vyhlásil premiér na brífingu, po ktorom nepripustil žiadne otázky. Predseda vlády chcel len novinárom ukázať prípady “straníckeho klientelizmu” vo fungovaní americkej demokracie a aj tak ich presvedčiť, že za dotáciami svojim nie je nič nemorálne.

Kritiku za podporu sociálnych podnikov v oblastiach s vysokou nezamestnanosťou považuje za zvrhlú. Zároveň oznámil, že už viac nebude reagovať na mediálne útoky a rôzne pseudokauzy, ako boli sociálne podniky či verejné obstarávania. “Vy nemôžete nahradiť Úrad pre verejné obstarávanie,” povedal médiám.

Fico: Nenecháme sa terorizovať médiami

Zdroj: SITA • 5,14 MB • zaznamenané: 22. 8. 2008

Ministerstvo práce podľa tlače pridelilo spolu asi 500 miliónov korún (16,6 milióna eur) na budovanie takzvaných sociálnych podnikov spoločnostiam, s ktorými sú spojení poslanci a členovia premiérovej strany. Tomanová (Smer-SD) však nedávno odmietla úvahy, že žiadatelia ťažili so svojich kontaktov s najsilnejšou vládnou stranou. Sociálne podniky by mali pomáhať znižovať nezamestnanosť. Určené sú napríklad pre ľudí, ktorí sú bez práce dlhodobo.

“Nebudeme považovať za neprípustné, ak napríklad v prípade dvoch rovnocenných projektov s rovnakou kvalitou a rovnakým výsledným efektom člen vlády uprednostní starostu či primátora za vládnu koalíciu,” vyhlásil Fico. Podmienkou podľa neho však je, aby nebol porušený zákon.

Ministerka Tomanová už v minulosti čelila výhradám za vyplatenie štátnej podpory Centru privátnych sociálnych služieb Privilégium napriek tomu, že na ňu nemalo nárok. Za sporné dotácie z verejných zdrojov nedávno musel na žiadosť premiéra odísť Jaroslav Izák (SNS) z postu ministra životného prostredia. Predražené tendre zas stáli miesto ministra obrany Františka Kašického zo Smeru-SD.

Nedovolíme diskrimináciu ľudí len preto, že nás podporujú, odkázal médiám Fico – – Flock

Reminder: Populism Discussion, Monday 23 June, 15.30 SFPA

Just a reminder about Monday’s discussion, free and open to all who wish to attend. Graphic is here, text is below. Next week I will try to post notes and perhaps audio or video I can arrange it. Thanks to Fulbright Slovakia, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, the Institute for Public Affairs, the Department of Political Science of Comenius University, and the German Marshall Fund for their support in organizing and publicizing the event:

Populism discussion flyer

Beyond Good and Evil? What political scientists have to say about
Populism in Postcommunist Europe

What do we mean when we talk about populism?

How does populism work?

What tools do we have to study it?

Why is populism important for the future,
both in the East
and the West?

What: A panel discussion with regional specialists in political science:

  • Kevin Deegan-Krause, Dept. of Political Science, Wayne State University, USA
  • Ann-Cathrine Jungar, University College, Stockholm, Sweden
  • David Ost, Department of Political Science, Hobart and Smith Colleges, USA
  • Ben Stanley, Department of Government, University of Essex, UK
  • Peter Učeň, Department of Political Science, Comenius University, Slovakia

When: Monday, 23 June 2008 at 15.30
Where: Slovak Foreign Policy Assn., Hviezdoslavovo nám. 14 Bratislava
Csákyho palác, 2nd floor, number 22, tel. +421 2 5443 3151
Who: The discussion is open to all. It will take place in English.

Exit, [Void] and Loyalty

(or why Dr. Sean hits the nail on the head)

Kudos to Sean Hanley for his recent post, Do Slovak and Czech Christian Democrats have a prayer? Dr. Hanley, whose blog (Dr. Sean’s Diary, has long been my model for public, academc discourse on postcommunist Europe, yet again calls attention to precisely the questions I am trying to think about. Not only does he do an an excellent job of covering the dilemmas of the Christian Democrats in the Czech Republic, a realm that nobody knows better than he, but he also offers provocative thoughts about intra-party struggles, coalitions and election results in Slovakia:

And generational renewal? Commentators and politicians in CEE are always harping on about this, but it’s hard to see quite newer or younger will necessarily mean better. Such comments are, usually a disguised call for in political renewal or cleaner, better, more liberal government – amen to that, but even though there is no primaries system there is ample scope for new parties to emerge or young technocrats to parachute themselves into organizationally weak, elite-led parties. The Slovak experience suggests that many voters don’t want renewal of this kind, but stability. Is the Slovak Barack Obama actually Robert Fico?

Though the comparison may not be desirable to some partisans of Obama or of Fico, there are important similarities that must not be overlooked. I continue to wrestle with the concept of “populism” since in its common usage it is both vague and highly normative:

Populism Definition


But if populism does mean anything–and I think it does mean something despite all of the accretions over time–it is a sense that politics is broken. It is a feeling (though not quite an ideology) that those in public office–both those in power and those in opposition–are the cause of the problem. By this standard, of course, nearly every American politician is a populist, but if you compare them to many of their European counterparts, that is actually a fairly accurate characterization. While I have not done the spadework to explain why, I suspect that America’s relative exceptionalism in this regard has a lot to do with its presidential system, the dominant role of media, the relative absence of party organization. Many European countries are moving in this direction, however and postcommunist Europe appears to be in the vanguard. In this sense, both Fico and Obama have become preferred choice for those voters who are tired of “politics as usual” and who seek something different. Those are different kinds of voters compared to their overall electorates, but that is a different story.

Party renewal

There is a lot more to say about the question of populism, and I hope to do so over the coming months. In the meantime, however, I want to point out one very important difference between Obama and Fico and one that goes to the heart of Prof. Hanley’s question: Barack Obama is still a member of the Democratic Party and it is hard to imagine him leaving the party if he loses the nomination; Robert Fico, on the other hand, left his original party and formed a new one.

Fico is not alone in this. Indeed questions of internal-party change and party defection are central to the course of Slovakia’s politics and to the politics of many countries in the region. Dr. Hanley is right to point out that the question is not whether parties can achieve generational change; renewal can easily occur within a single generational cohort. Rather, the question is whether renewal can occur within a single party. Two phenomena mark Slovakia’s political party system: the relative infrequency of institutionalized leadership change and the relative frequency of party splits and splintering.

Loyalty: The Rarity of Party Leadership Change

Parties in Slovakia rarely change leaders and they almost never undergo institutionalized leadership transitions. Among Slovakia’s current parliamentary parties. As the table below shows, the average tenure of the chairmen of Slovakia’s current parliamentary parties is between 8 and 9 years (depending on the method of calculation), and this represents an average of 67%-71% of their parties’ respective lifespans.

Party Founding Date Number of leaders since founding Current leader Date assumed leadership Duration of leadership Length of leadership as % of length of party existence
Party of the Hungarian Coalition (MKP/SMK) 1990 2* Pal Csaky 2007 1 year 6%
Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) 1990 2 Pavol Hrusovsky 2000 7 years 41%
Slovak National Party (SNS) 1990 5 Jan Slota 1994 9 years/13 years** 53%/76%**
Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) 1991 1 Vladimir Meciar 1991 16 years 100%
Smer 1999 1 Robert Fico 1999 8 years 100%
Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU) 2000 1 Mikulas Dzurinda 2000 7 years/9 years*** 100%
Mean scores 1993 2 1999 8-9 67%-71%* Party formed from merger of Hungarian Christian Democratic Party (MKDM) and Coexistence in 1998
**Jan Slota rejected his removal in 1999 and formed the rival “Real” Slovak National Party (PSNS) during his period out of leadership in SNS.
***Mikulas Dzurinda led the Slovak Democratic Coalition before leading the SDKU

Indeed three parties, Smer, SDKU-DS and HZDS (which together hold almost 2/3 of the deputies in parliament), have had the same leader for their entire existence. The same is true in practice for several significant parties that are currently no longer represented in parliament (ZRS, ANO). Other parties have undergone leadership transition by default as founding party leaders became president (SOP, HZD) or withdrew from politics (KDH). Only a handful of parties have enjoyed (though for them, “enjoy” may not have been the right word) contested leadership struggles that actually changed the course of party leadership. The Party of the Hungarian Coalition (MKP/SMK) resolved internal leadership questions when it formed from its component parties in 1998 and underwent a leadership shift again in 2007. The Party of the Democratic Left (SDL) underwent major leadership transitions in 1996 and 2001. The Slovak National Party (SNS) is the closest to demonstrating regular leadership change (1990, 1992, 1994, 1999, 2003) but change in party leadership after 1992 has been fraught with difficulty and appears for the moment, to be at an end.

Exit: The Frequency of Party Splintering

New party leaders in Slovakia are more likely to be leaders of new parties than new leaders of old parties. Whereas the six parties listed above have collectively only experienced seven or eight leadership changes (depending on calcuations), they have collectively experienced at least ten significant splits and splinters of parliamentary deputies or prominent party leaders. Secession is far more common than succession. It is difficult to find struggles between party incumbents and party insurgents that have left a party intact: SDL in 1994 (to the extent that Peter Weiss’s withdrawal was not entirely voluntary), SNS in 1992 and 2003, and MKP/SMK in 2007. Far more common is struggle followed by departure of the loser to form a new party: SNS in 1994 and 1999, SDL in 1999 and 2001 (and, to the extent there was a real struggle, with the departure of Luptak in 1994), KDH in 1991, 2000 (related to the dissolution of the SDK coalition) and 2007 (just last week, in fact), SDKU in 2003 and the seemingly annual HZDS splinters in 1993, 1994, 2002, 2003, (and in miniature formjust recently). In fact the only parties in which party struggles have not led to departure are the Hungarian Coalition (which is limited by the inability of Slovakia’s 11% Hungarian population to support two parties that can overcome the 5% threshold), new parties that have died before a split could occur (SOP, ANO, ZRS) and a variety of smaller parties that never by themselves passed the 5% threshold (indeed Slovakia’s small parties such as the show more robust leadership rotation and a greater ability to survive leadership struggles, perhaps because they are too small to lose any members without disappearing entirely. See The People’s Front of Judea).

Why do Slovakia’s parties splinter so easily? This is a complicated and fascinating question that I am currently working on in greater detail. Institutional barriers to entry for new parties are low, but not much lower than in other parliamentary/proportional-representation systems in Europe. A stronger answer may lie in perceptions of cost and benefit. The perception of departing may be relatively low in Slovakia because certain splinters have demonstrated electoral success (DU and ZRS in 1994, Smer in 2002) and other parties have demonstrated an ability to go from nowhere to election in a matter of months (SOP, ANO). I do not, however, have the evidence to say whether these cost perceptions are lower than in countries with fewer splinters. The second part of the answer may lie in the perceived costs of remaining within a party. This in turn relates to the perceived absence of voice.

Voice: It’s (Not) My Party

My initial observations suggest that Slovakia’s centralized party organizations make it difficult for dissenters to remain. When parties remain in the hands of their founders, as in the case of Smer, HZDS and SDKU, or become tightly bound up with a successive leader, as in the recent case of SNS, those who wish to change the party may have no choice but to go elsewhere, particularly if they openly challenge the leadership. The strength of this conclusion is mitigated somewhat by the fact that even the more collegial SDL and KDH have produced a significant share of Slovakia’s splinters, and even some in the vulnerable Hungarian Coalition appear to have considered departure. Nevertheless, it is hard for me to believe that structures more conducive to internal democracies, structures that took party control out of the hands of the founder, could produce more renewal and fewer departures. I have not read Hirschmann in a long time, but it seems like introducing genuine opportunities for voice could provide an alternative both to frustrated loyalty and to destabilizing departure.

In this regard, recent discussions within the current opposition are a very positive sign. It would appear that the current infighting within parties that are already at a low point in their political fortunes will only make matters worse–and in the short run this is true–but in the long run, the kinds of discussions emerging among second-rank leaders in SDKU, KDH and MKP/SMK are potentially conducive to long-term survival, party renewal (much needed) and electoral success. By this standards the current governing parties have a short-term advantage in internal cohesion, but are at greater risk of long-term difficulties because they include some of the most centralized parties that Slovakia has ever seen. In terms of broader patterns, the news is good because it is potentially quite normal: parties in power put themselves at risk by failing to adapt; parties out of power learn how to renew themselves and eventually rise to the challenge. If Slovakia’s current opposition can manage to find mechanisms for voice and reform from within, Slovakia could experience the novelty (for Slovakia, at least) of an opposition-coalition struggle that is not also the struggle between old parties and new.