Saturday, October 21, 2017

Volby!

The title means, "Election!"

I wrote this post Friday and Saturday, while the voting was going on, but then wasn't able to get it posted until now, when the results are in.

They don't look good. A party with an authoritarian streak came in first with about 30% of the vote, and 39% of the seats in parliament.

The Thatcherite party was second with 11% of the vote and 12.5% of the seats.

The most vigorously anti-foreigner (and anti-EU) party was fourth, with 10.6%. Several parties have understandably said they won't enter a coalition with this SPD party, but that gives more power to the biggest party.

It's a mess.

"Enough already!
We won't back down to the people making a boogieman out of Europe."
A poster for the TOP 09 party on a trolley-stop shelter near our apartment.
They were the only party I saw that made a major point of being pro-E.U. They barely squeaked into parliament.
Parties with a strongly skeptical or outright negative view of the E.U. took over 50% of the votes.

Yesterday and today the Czech Republic is holding parliamentary elections—like many places, they have more than one day of voting, and one of those days is for many people not a work day.

The country is a land-locked nation in the middle of Europe with no particular importance in itself for the U.S., but there are two reasons Americans might want to spare a little attention from the unfolding disaster at home and look this way.

One is that there are implications for the European Union, and that is something that matters for the U.S. But first I want to look at the local political scene for what it suggests about a two-party system vs. a multi-party system, and the role that new parties play. And it’s not clear that we in the U.S. have the worse end of the deal.

A major problem of having only two viable parties is familiar and showed up in the 2016 elections. Progressives complain that Democrats are too corporate, while conservatives castigate Republicans as RINO’s—Republicans In Name Only—when they don’t vote to kill 10’s of thousands of people a year by crashing Obamacare.

And so you hear the refrain, “I have nobody to vote for. We should have more parties.”

In the Czech Republic you’re much more likely to have somebody to vote for. I’m not sure quite how many parties are on offer, but I think I’ve seen ballot numbers as high as 30. Of those parties, roughly 10 have any realistic chance of meeting the 5% threshold for getting seats in parliament. And only four or five of those are polling at levels where they can be reasonably certain of making it.

The ones who don’t make it will, in aggregate, receive something like 12% to 20% of the votes, without translating that into any parliamentary representation.

So in the U.S., where a few percent of voters pull the lever for someone who, with essentially mathematical certainty, will not be president, about 15% of voters in Czechia will vote for parties that are hardly more likely to end up in any position of political power.

Having multiple parties means there’s more likely to be one that is in substantial agreement with you, but by the time you figure in the chance of not making it into parliament, plus the necessary give-and-take that inevitably happens when you’re putting together a multi-party governing coalition, the end result isn’t all that different from the compromises that happen within the Democratic and Republican parties in the U.S.

You can make your deals among parties after the election, or within parties before the election. Arguably, the American system gives you a clearer idea beforehand what it is you’re voting for.

That is, if you’re paying attention.

Which brings us to a related issue, the fecundity of parties on the local political scene.

Just as part of Trump’s support in the U.S. was from people who were fed up with politics as usual, many Czechs nurture a visceral dislike of politicians. And of course, there’s plenty that political leaders have done to earn scorn, but the proposed remedy seems bizarrely divorced from effective solutions.

There’s Andrej Babiš, the guy who leads on polling one of eastern Europe’s richest men, a media magnate, Trump with coherent sentences, Berlusconi without sex parties, a man under credible investigation of fraud involving European Union subsidies, and who may well have worked for the Czechoslovak communist police in the communist era.

And there’s Tomio Okamura, a man who tossed over the “Dawn” party, replaced its government-reform program with an anti-immigrant platform, and rode that into parliament while siphoning off the funds and leaving the party an empty husk. Now he has a new vehicle for an opportunistic anti-Islam message, which he may ride more successfully, while simultaneously again treating it as a cash cow.

Before that, Věci veřejné (Public Affairs) made a big splash in the 2010 elections becoming part of the government formed that year, but split apart in the next two years due to corruption charges. TOP 09 was created in (can you guess?) 2009, when a leading Christian Democratic politician split with his party. Just a year after their founding, they enjoyed success in 2010, and like Public Affairs they became part of the governing coalition, but they have failed to sustain that degree of enthusiasm among the voters. Unlike Public Affairs, they still exist as a political party, but they’re one of the ones that has a shot at making it into parliament, rather than being practically guaranteed. Neither the Christians of the Christian Democratic party nor the economic liberals who hived off to form TOP 09 have prospered from the split.

I’ve long had the impression that “the field of error is infinite”—that is, there are countless ways to be wrong.

Yes, politics since the fall of communism in 1989 has been fairly dispiriting. There are the “big two,” the left-of-center Social Democrats and the Thatcherite Civic Democratic Party, who have mostly run the country in the last 27 years, sometimes taking turns, sometimes together in a grand coalition. And during that time they have covered themselves in something other than glory.

With that record, it’s natural for people to turn elsewhere for political inspiration, but I’m not impressed with how that’s working out. The multiplicity of parties, some of them the stalking horses of businessmen or vanity projects of political prima donnas, give the impression of diverse choices, but the effect ends up being dysfunction.

As for the E.U., it feels like the country is having a referendum on the E.U., without calling it that.

Of the 10 parties with even passing chances of making it into parliament, two are openly hostile to the E.U. Another says it supports continued membership but is not interested in being part of the core that is within the union that is likely moving to greater integration.

The outgoing prime minister is from the Social Democrats, who are officially pro-E.U., but he recently catered to popular anxiety by pushing back against helping other E.U. countries by accepting refugees, so his actions are undermining the common project.

Among the smaller parties there are those who are explicitly calling for Czexit, including one that seems to be not a party but a movement to have a referendum to save the country by leaving the E.U.

Yet another small party says it favors continued membership in the E.U., but its platform says that the Czech constitution should always prevail over E.U. legislation or rulings, so—in effect, they also want out of the E.U.

There are several parties that clearly favor staying in, but from what I’ve seen in advertising on the street, there’s only one that’s really making that position central to their campaign, and that’s TOP 09, with a decent chance of making it into parliament, but certainly no guarantee.

Like any large organization, the E.U. has its downsides, but voting to leave strikes me as a self-inflicted wound on the order of fixing your country by putting it in the hands of an uninformed businessman with six bankruptcies in his past and no access to credit except through the good graces of a hostile power.

Looking at Brexit, it’s clear that nobody on the “Leave” side had really thought through the complications of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, or the financial settling up with the Union, or the status of citizens of other E.U. countries long resident in the U.K.

In the case of Czexit, there’s no touchy border situation comparable to that in Ireland, but the country might have to leave the Schengen Zone that permits free movement of people throughout most of Europe and reinstitute border controls.

And while its border situation is less complicated than Britain’s, in other ways it’s worse off. It’s a country of 10.5 million, rather than 65 million, so it has less room for economies of scale once it pulls out. Instead of being a pair of islands at the edge of the E.U., it is a landlocked country surrounded on all sides by other E.U. states (Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Poland). And it is still a net recipient of “solidarity” funds from the E.U., moneys allocated by the Union to help the less-well-off countries catch up with the more prosperous ones.

The Free party has posters saying “we can be free” (i.e., by leaving the E.U.), but they’ll face the same choice that Britain is up against: either cut yourself off from easy trade with the E.U., or accept a great deal of E.U. legislation without even the small voice you used to have in crafting that legislation.

I read recently an observation about how Czechs have adapted to the post-communist era. Before 1989, it was easy enough to blame all the country’s problems on Moscow: we tried to choose our own, more successful path in 1968, but the Soviets (and most of the other Pact countries) came in and re-imposed a stupid system. Now some Czechs have transferred that resentment to Brussels.

This is convenient, because it allows people to avoid thinking too much about flaws in their own society. Brussels isn’t forcing Czech politicians to be rudderless and corrupt. The E.U. didn’t choose for Czechia the role of being a relatively low-wage assembly shop where education and health care are underfunded. Prague hasn’t done anything about Airbnb soaking up properties in the middle of town, driving up rents for residents, but the E.U, but that’s been their choice, rather than a policy forced on them by their membership in a larger group.

If the Czechs do actually leave, I hope I turn out to have been wrong about the effect it will have on their economy and society. And if I turn out to have been wrong, I hope I’ll have the honesty to admit it and think about why I was wrong—“mark my beliefs to market,” as the phrase goes.

At the same time, if Czexit is followed by disaster, I wouldn’t expect much in the way of critical self-reflection from its supporters. Since they seem to be treating Brussels largely as a scapegoat, I’d say it’s more likely they’ll transfer their ire to some new object.

At least it’s not the Jews—for now.

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