Sunday, 9 December 2007

Guido stakes his ground

"The CDU, and the CDU alone, bears the entire responsibility for" the current leftwards drift of Germany's political Zeitgeist, FDP leader Guido Westerwelle has told the Finacial Times. Plans to introduce a minimum wage to the postal industry are a "disaster", destroying jobs and infecting future electoral debate. This minimum wage is perhaps particularly pernicious. But the prospects of pro-market politics in Germany, pace Westerwelle's criticism of the CDU's current popularlism, are far from dimmed, not least thanks to the successes of Westerwelle's own party, the FDP. Painting the CDU as close to the SDP as possible is all part of the FDP's strategy of carving out for itself as much space on the political spectrum as possible. Even Westerwelle acknoleges that "The SPD is vacating the centre much faster than the CDU", and that the latter therefore represent his prefered coalition partner. The trick will be breaking past its post-war high of 12.8% of the vote; opinion polls currently give it 9-10%. If it can manage that, Germany's political Zeitgeist will be firmly back on the right.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

In praise of pluralism

In British politics, it is nothing new to note the rush to the centre of the country's major factions. Labour flanks to the 'right' of the Tories, the Tories flank to the 'left' of Labour, while proposals to scrap taxes are borrowed with abandon. This is obviously far from ideal from the perspective of voter choice. The most votes might well be found in the 'centre', but with seemingly only two (at times three) electable parties fighting over the same political ground, those whose opinions fall beyond this 'centre' find themselves without a realistic chance of representation. In Britain the situation is compounded by the fact that this 'centre' is not even defined by the electorate as a whole, but by those 'swing' voters in 90 or so marginal seats whose choice ultimately determines who governs the country; it is this narrow section of the electorate to which the biggest parties must pander if they are to have any hope of power.

So far so standard in the argument against first-past-the-post electoral systems. But even systems governed under proportional representation (PR) are not immune from the 'magpie' politics practiced in Britain. Take Spain, for example, whose government have just announced 'wealth' tax reforms 'borrowed' from the opposition. Yet the Congreso de los Diputados of the Cortes Generales in Spain, unlike Britain’s House of Commons, is proportionally elected. It makes no sense, therefore, to blame both first-past-the-post and PR for policy convergence in both Britain and Spain. A common explanation must lie beyond their quite different electoral mechanisms.

The crucial shared trait is bi-polarity; the hold which a mere two parties have on the system. Taking 81.6% of the vote and 312 of the 350 seats between them, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and the People's Party (PP) dominate Spanish politics, and they are heirs to dominant movements of the left and right which have been the essence of Spain since before the Civil War. Under current conditions, the only real options for voters at election time are a PSOE or a PP government. With no substantial factions on their respective outer flanks, votes are to be won in the 'centre', from each other, and this is where Zapatero has gone to find them with his promise of reform. In Britain, meanwhile, its ‘third’ party, the Liberal Democrats, serves as no check on this phenomenon, since the Lib Dems are widely considered to sit in the 'centre' between the two major parties. Fighting over the ‘centre’ ground thus has the added attraction for the big two of potentially enticing Lib Dem voters as well.

Contrast this with the situation in Germany. There, alongside the two main parties, the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SDP), sit the Greens, the Left Party and the Free Democrats (as well as the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union), each of whom are significant enough to be a threat to the voting base of the big two, and thus serve as a check on their policy platforms. Witness the recent speeches of Angela Merkel and Kurt Beck, leader of the CDU and SDP respectively, who deliberately put clear blue water between their two parties. The seeming paradox is, of course, that despite the greater distance on many issues between the SPD and the CDU, than between Labour and the Conservatives or the PSOE and the PP, a ‘grand’ coalition in Britain or Spain is almost inconceivable. Greater plurality might serve to force parties to mark out their territories, but it also makes compromise necessary, obliging a dilution of the hostility and bitterness which a bi-polar system seems to engender.

But would greater plurality serve to give voters greater choice even under first-past-the-post? It arguably does to some extent in Canada, with four parties represented at the federal level. Yet against this, Duverger's law suggests that in most cases plurality in a first-past-the-post system is a temporary phenomenon. First-past-the-post helps prevent the emergence of fresh political forces, famously hamstringing the Alliance in the 1983 general election, and today stops the Liberal Democrats from becoming a true alternative by forcing them too to contest much the same 'centre ground'. Recent developments in Spain suggest that PR might not be enough on its own to give voters a real choice at election time. But, from the perspective of Britain, it certainly would be a start.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

No change - for now

"The fight back is just beginning" reports the Economist, after Hugo Chavez's proposed amendments to the Venezuelan Constitution were defeated in a national referendum on Sunday.

"Defeat means he is unable to stand again, legally, for the presidency. His aura of invincibility is forever damaged, and the battle for the succession seems bound to begin soon. Survival strategies no longer necessarily involve unquestioning loyalty to the 'comandante'. Fractures may begin to appear in important institutions like the supreme court and parliament."

"For the first time", we are told, "it is possible to envisage life after Mr Chávez." Really? With a mandate until 2013, the outlines of post-Chavez Venezuela are far from settled - and it remains naïve to believe that Chavez will not take another tilt at the constitution before he is obliged to stand down. The idea that we are now witnessing the beginnings of a succession struggle is to take Chavez's own rhetoric at face value. True, the referendum campaign saw the emergence of a reinvigorated opposition and the first signs of popular disillusionment among his Bolivarian base, but Chavez easily retains the upper hand over his rivals. He need but gather in the alienated arms of his movement, and we are no nearer a world without him than we were last week.

It is quite clear by the letter of the law that Chavez is unable to stand again for the presidency. Yet it is also quite clear that this was not his last attempt at constitutional reform: he echoed the combative tenacity of his defeated 1992 coup when he cast the outcome of the referendum as only "for now". He retains a pliant National Assembly, and has the time to re-introduce his proposals at an opportune moment of his own choosing. It would not take much to overturn the result in a future plebiscite; the margin of his defeat was tiny, fewer than 200000 votes out of a registered pool of 16 million, and its explanation lies in the high rates of abstention among his supporters, not a decrease in that support. Venezuelans are still largely in support of the president, but were alarmed at the extent of the power he was trying to amass. A few peripheral concessions tempering the excesses of the proposed reform, say by abandoning proposals which would allow presidents to declare an unlimited state of emergency or to choose provincial and municipal leaders, and there is no reason why in a future referendum he would not secure widespread support for his central objective: the dismantling of term limits and the opportunity to be president for life. Buttressed by extensive exposure on television, he remains a charismatic and popular leader who many Venezuelans genuinely want to remain in power after 2013.

There is thus little reason why a less blatant power grab would not succeed where his current proposals foundered. If it does, the optimistic conclusions of the Economist are to naught. The one undoubted positive to have emerged from the referendum is that Venezuela clearly remains a functioning democracy; a functioning democracy moreover, with an enlivened opposition, rooted in student protest. Having secured their first electoral victory in nine years, we can at least hope that the opposition now has faith in the system, and will not attempt another electoral boycott in the near future (as they did at the last parliamentary poll, which handed Chavez the National Assembly). They might even try and force a presidential recall referendum after 2010 (the mid-point of Chavez’s mandate beyond which such recalls are allowed) as they were able to in 2004. Yet as things stand, Chavez would almost certainly again be returned triumphant, with fervent grass roots support pitted against an opposition which remains divided and discredited by its past. Can it find a coherent platform around which to unite, beyond hostility to the 'comandante'? It might not need to, for it might well be fighting him for a long while yet.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

The PiS and the PO: subtle shifts in Polish politics

Here's a full (and, exclusive to Constitutional Lore, hyperlinked) copy of an article penned for this month's DA International News Review:

In a general election on October 21 Poland voted the free-market Civic Platform (PO) into office, ending a turbulent two year period of government led by the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS). The outcome was widely welcomed across Europe, with hopes for a fresh, constructive approach to foreign relations and domestic reform. The aftermath sees an altered political landscape in Poland, with the PiS forced into opposition and its old coalition partners annihilated after failing to reach the 5% threshold required to secure representation in the Sejm, the Polish lower house. Yet this election was no earthquake. The new government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk, sworn into office on November 16, will seek to distance itself from the PiS in terms of style, but much practical policy is set to remain the same. Both parties were born of the rightwing then-governing Solidarity Electoral Action coalition in 2001, and have been tussling ever since to emerge as the dominant party on the Polish centre-right. The PO may have won this electoral battle, but the PiS are still a powerful player on the political scene, and the wider struggle between them remains unresolved.

The PiS-led government was dominated by two men, the twins Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński. As President and Prime Minister respectively, they were inspired by a staunch Catholicism, leading a government which was socially conservative and committed to a relatively generous system of welfare. They focused abroad on a pugnacious defense of Poland’s national interest, and at home on rooting out corruption and the remnants of the old Communist order. Both prongs begat more acrimony than success. The PiS succeeded in alienating many European partners, through crass stunts such as invoking Poland’s war dead as justification for obstructing EU voting reform, and attempting to humiliate Denmark by enumerating its abortions at a ministerial working lunch. Domestic reform and privatization were stalled as the PiS tried to hold its shaky coalition together and focused instead on lustration laws forcing disclosure of communist-era collaboration.

Under the PO the emphasis will shift from righting historical wrongs to achieving concrete improvements in the present. The government has plans to press ahead with privatisation, tax reform and cuts to social spending and direct taxation, and hopes to speed up Poland’s entry to the euro. In Europe, Tusk will benefit from widespread goodwill for simply not being a Kaczyński. He has been busily mending ties with Russia, with a spat over Polish meat imports drawing to a close and greater skepticism over American plans to build missile interceptors on its soil. At a time of growing suspicion between Russia and the EU, Poland might pull off the feat of simultaneously improving relations with both. This is related to a weakening of Poland’s transatlantic relationship, with Tusk hoping to pull Polish troops out of Iraq in 2008.

Yet while it may do so with a little more grace and sophistication than the PiS, a PO-led government will continue to mount a vigorous defense of Polish interests, even when these run counter to those of larger EU powers. It will fight its corner in forthcoming EU debates over measures to counteract climate change and reform agricultural subsidies. With the US missile defense shield still not shelved, and Poles still angry at a gas pipeline from Russia to Germany bypassing eastern Baltic countries, Poland will not lift its veto over an EU-Russia trade agreement just yet. At home, the PO’s reforming zeal will be tempered by slowing rates of economic growth, restrained by their centrist coalition partners, the Polish Peasants Party (which in a previous incarnation sent deputies to the 19th Century Reichsrat in Vienna, no less), and hamstrung by the need to secure the support of the centre-left Democrats and Left party if they are to overcome a presidential veto, which will lie in the hands of Lech Kaczyński until at least 2010. Poland remains a deeply Catholic country led by a pious Prime Minister who took the time to pray with the Archbishop of Gdansk, Tadeusz Gocłowski, in the aftermath of victory.

This election has not, of itself, ushered in a new era in Poland’s politics and closed the door on the PiS’s vision of the centre-right. The Kaczyńskis have proven themselves formidable election winners in the past. They capitalised on Lech’s undoubted popularity as Justice Minister in the outgoing government to secure 44 seats for their new party in the elections of 2001, and the following year Lech was voted President of Warsaw. PiS twice came from behind in opinion polls to best the PO first in general and then presidential elections in 2005, and led going into the final week of campaigning this time around. They only lost after a bumbling performance by Jarosław in televised debate with Tusk, and a hike in turnout among the expatriate community and young professionals, galvanised by the referendum on PiS’s rule which the general election essentially became. The Kaczyńskis will not make the same mistake with a televised debate again, and the PO cannot rely on future high turnouts among their base of support, once anger against the PiS is dimmed by the passage of time and the limitations of the PO’s own programme.

Polish voters are notoriously fickle; since the fall of communism in 1989, no Polish government has ever been re-elected. The current PO-led government faces poor odds to be the first, especially if the economy begins to falter as it now forecasted. Enthusiasm for extensive economic reform might well recede rapidly, and Poland could witness a resurgence of the left, in the doldrums since the Democratic Left Alliance was routed from office in 2005. With Lech still in the presidency, however, able to pose as the protector of the Polish people by picking and choosing which of the PO’s initiatives to veto or allow, it is the PiS, with its own programme of social welfare, who are arguably best placed to capitalise on any increasing hardship.

Donald Tusk and the PO may have only just won a convincing electoral victory, but they face a difficult task if they are to win a second term, or if Tusk is to fulfill his own personal ambitions and become Polish president in 2010. The PO must repair damaged ties with EU partners without giving PiS a pulpit to decry relinquished Polish interests. It must either press ahead with domestic reform and risk a backlash in favor of the stronger social safety-nets which it is committed to dismantle, or vacillate and risk the disillusionment of its own supporters who believed they had voted for change.

When the PiS and the PO emerged as the largest parties in the Sejm in 2005, most pundits expected them to work together in government; now they are all but sworn enemies. While there still remains space on the Polish political spectrum for two big parties on the centre-right, Poland would be unique in Europe if it maintained such a situation for long, particularly as the memory of communism fades further and Polish society opens up under the influence of her prosperous EU partners. The PO, holding the reigns of government, currently has the edge over their more socially conservative brethren. But the governments of Europe, for now relieved at the Kaczyński’s diminished influence on Polish policy, may well in the not too distant future have to deal with a PiS-led government again.