Browsing the archives for the Politics tag.

Regional elections in France and the National Front scare: After the run-off

European Politics, International Politics, Politics

It’s a great relief for any democrat that Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN) failed to win any region, after having led in six after the first round, and after Le Pen herself had prognosticated that the FN could win “four or five regions”. That would have been disastrous, not just in terms of policy but as signal of a new stage of far-right penetration, at a time when the politics of xenophobia is on the rise across Europe.

Record number of votes for the Front National

The Front National received a record number of votes in the second round of the regional elections

But the party still booked an all-time record result in this weekend’s second round, in terms of raw votes (see chart to the right, from here). 6.8 million votes went to the National Front’s candidates. That’s not just over 800,000 more than in the first round, but also more than voted for Marine Le Pen in the first round of the 2012 presidential elections. Which is all the more striking considering that there were 36.6 million votes in total in those, and just 26.5 million now. In the PACA region (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur), for example, Marion Maréchal Le Pen  led the FN list and received a whopping 45% more votes in this second round than Marine Le Pen had gotten in her presidential bid.

So Le Pen is still very well-placed to improve significantly on her 2012 result, when she received 17.9% of the vote in the first round, in the next presidential elections.  A new opinion poll illustrates this.  If Sarkozy runs for the right, Le Pen would get 27% in the first round, with Sarkozy and incumbent President Hollande both getting 21%, centrist candidate Bayrou 12% and leftist candidate Mélenchon 10%. If, instead, the more moderate Alain Juppé runs for the right (in which case Bayrou would drop out), he would get 29% of the first round vote, Le Pen 27%, and Hollande 22%.

In practical terms, the FN tripled its number of councilors. (See the charts in the right column here for the share of councilors it won in each region.) Due to France’s electoral system, the FN has always had trouble building a good bench of local and regional politicians, and this will help it expand that bench significantly.

Libération, meanwhile, highlighted the ground the FN has won in terms of the political discourse. It pointed to the mainstream right’s winning candidate in the Rhône-Alpes-Auvergne region, Laurent Wauquiez, as example; he recently published a piece which proclaimed “Immigration, Hollande, Brussels: ça suffit” (“that’s enough”). Marion Maréchal Le Pen had already announced before the first round: “we have won the battle of ideas, not that of the parties”.

In her concession speech, Marine Le Pen gave a taste of what her presidential campaign will sound like. She argued that the withdrawal of the Socialist Party candidates in two crucial regions proved that the left-wing and right-wing parties are all the same, and triumphantly announced that there is now a new new kind of “bipartisme” – not between left and right, but between “patriots” and “mondialistes”.

Along similar lines, Marion Maréchal Le Pen denounced “the cynical profiteers” of the traditional parties, against which the Front National likes to contrast itself so much as clean alternative and authentic voice of the people. “Our love of France has never been as exalted,” she told her supporters. The Front National mayor of Hénin-Beaumont, Steeve Briois,  instead engaged in some projection, accusing “the republican front” of having “played on people’s fears and pursued a campaign of hate”.

Why the Front National failed to win any regions in the second round

Front National victories were prevented by a combination of three issues. One was that turnout increased significantly compared with the first round. As a result, the FN may have gained an additional 800,000 votes, but the other parties added a much higher number of 2,7 million voters to their tallies. It proved that there is still, for now, a “republican” majority for whom the FN is beyond the pale. A recent poll showed that 60% of the French think that the FN is “a dangerous party for democracy” and only 31% believes the FN is “capable of governing the country”.

The second reason the FN candidates fell short, surprisingly clearly in the case of Marine Le Pen herself in the Nord-Pas de Calais-Picardie (NPDCP) region, was that the Socialist Party withdrew its candidates in crucial regions. In the NPDCP and PACA regions, Marine and Marion Maréchal Le Pen had received over 40% of the vote in the first round, with the candidates for the traditional right-wing lists behind by over 14 points and the left’s candidates in third place. In both regions the left’s candidates retreated in order to block the Le Pens. In the northeastern region Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine, the Socialist Party withdrew its support from the Socialist candidate there who insisted on proceeding to the second round against its advice.

In Nord-Pas de Calais-Picardie, Socialist activists went as far as leafleting for the right-wing candidate to help stop Le Pen. While the Socialist withdrawals lead to “an explosion of blank votes” in those two regions, as some left-wingers went to the polls but refused to vote for either candidate, the mobilization of a “republican front” was nevertheless impressive. In the left-wing first ‘arrondissement’ of Marseille, for example, the left’s withdrawal and support boosted the traditional right-wing candidate’s results from 17,7% in the first round to 80,1% in the second round.

France regional elections: vote transfers

France regional elections: vote transfers between the first and second round in the two regions where the socialist candidate withdrew

The chart to the right, showing the pooled voter flows in the PACA and NPDCP regions, shows it nicely as well. The increase in turnout in the second round benefited both the traditional right and the far right, but the former more so than the latter. Most importantly, however, it looks like almost a third of the vote for the victorious traditional right’s candidates came from left-wing voters. The picture was much more straightforward in the other regions, which had three-way run-offs with left-wing, right-wing and far-right candidates, though again it’s noteworthy how the increased turnout benefited the former two much more than the FN.

The Socialists paid a heavy price for this exercise in civic spirit though. Nord-Pas de Calais had been one of the left’s traditional strongholds; the Socialists came first in every regional election there since the region was created in the mid-1980s. Now, the Socialist Party will not have any representatives in the regional assembly, nor in PACA.

Third, the FN leads in the first round were partly deceptive because of the role smaller parties played. The Socialist Party may have received just 23% of the vote in the first round, but various green and leftist candidates received an additional 13%, and those formed a natural reserve of additional second-round votes for Socialists who made the run-off. The traditional right could at least to some extent fall back on voters from the Gaullist, Eurosceptic “Arise France!”. But there are no smaller far-right parties of note which the FN can draw on in run-offs.

For example, the Socialist Party candidate in Bourgogne-Franche-Comté placed third in the first round, with 23% of the vote against 24% for the traditional right’s candidate and 31% for the FN candidate. But in that same first round, 12% voted for other left-wing candidates, who collectively put the left at 35%; and 8.5% of them voted for Arise France! and the center-right MoDem, which would put the traditional right at a total of 32.5%. There were no minor party candidates which provided a pool the FN candidate could draw from. From this perspective, the second round result was no surprise at all, since it almost exactly reflected the proportions of each “camp” (as wide-ranging and eclectic as those are) in the first round: 35% for the left’s candidate, 33% for the traditional right, and 32% for the FN.

The results and challenges for the left and (traditional) right

The end result, in which the left won five regions against seven regions for the right, was a better than expected result for the left. “At the beginning of the campaign,” the conservative Figaro wrote, the socialists “had hoped to hold three regions at most”. But Le Monde published a chart which emphasizes an important distinction: the regions the right won have twice as many inhabitants as the ones the left won. This is in no small measure due to the right winning “Île-de-France” (Greater Paris), which Libération called the country’s “mammoth region of 12 million inhabitants”. The loss of Île-de-France smarts all the more because the left had held it for the past sixteen years.

By ways of symbolic comfort, @Taniel pointed out, the Front National was very weak in the two Paris arrondissements where last month’s terrorist attacks occurred, getting just 5% of the vote there while the left romped home.

Map: results of the run-off, by commune

Regional elections in France: results of the run-off, by commune. Source: Le Monde.

The less-disastrous-than-expected result is still likely to reignite a long-standing fight within the Socialist Party. What should the strategy be, ahead of the next presidential elections? As Le Figaro wrote: “In a landscape where three political parties compete in the first round, with an advantage for the Front National, the crucial objective is to make it into the second round. But how? By achieving, foremost, unity on the left, or by trying to quickly search for voters in the centre? It’s this question the socialists will now struggle to answer, knowing that it divides them deeply.”

Sarkozy’s supporters on the right and center-right face similar, perhaps even more combustive internal arguments, however. Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the vice-president of Sarkozy’s party who had already earlier openly dissented from his line, pointedly remarked last night that if the left had applied the same “neither-nor” line which Sarkozy imposed on the right, obliging its candidates to refrain from any kind of alliance with the left against the FN, the right “would have lost”. The right’s candidates in the PACA and NPDCP regions seemed well aware of this, making sure to thank the left’s voters. But Sarkozy’s line has strong allies too, like the above-mentioned Laurent Wauquiez. [Edit: One day after I wrote this post, Sarkozy had Kosciusko-Morizet fired and replaced by noone else but Wauquiez.]

What will complicate this fight is that there will likely be an additional argument over when the right’s presidential primaries should be held. If the right’s contenders, like Sarkozy and Juppé, are waging a bitter fight until shortly before the presidential elections themselves, this could harm them and create opportunities for a Left vs FN run-off. But aspiring contenders who are currently further back in the primary polls, like former PM François Fillon, want the extra time, Le Figaro explained. To add to the complications, Sarkozy seems like the front-runner, but the polls show Juppé doing much better in a run-off against Le Pen.

Education, income and partisan preference, France & Netherlands edition

A French polling outfit called OpinionWay did a survey for Le Point about who voted what in the second round of the regional elections, and the breakdowns by education and income are stark. They also happen to echo findings by Maurice de Hond’s polling outfit this weekend in the Netherlands.

Map: Run-off results by "département”

Another way of visualizing the run-off map: leading party/candidate by “département”. Source: Liberation

Breaking down results by three educational levels, OpinionWay found that a whopping 44% of lower-education voters voted for the Front National, while just 16% of higher-education voters did. Both the left and the traditional right did better among higher-education voters, and both — perhaps surprisingly — by roughly the same margins.

Among professional categories, workers (“ouvriers”) went for the Front National by a stunning 54% to 26% for the traditional right and just 20% (!) for the left. The unemployed, however, spread their votes evenly among the three camps. But another set of data from the survey shows that turnout among them was a bitterly low 36%.

The Front National also easily led among those with the lowest incomes (less than 1,000 euro/month), attracting 43% of them to 34% for the traditional right and just 23% for the left. The left came closest to leading among the upper middle income category of 2,000-3,500 Eu/m, getting 34% of their votes to 38% for the traditional right and 28% for the FN. The traditional right did best among the uppermost income category, getting 47% of its vote.

The Dutch poll had shown the far right with similar, dominant leads among lower-education voters. According to de Hond (also using three education-level categories), Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party are getting 37% of the lower-education vote, and just 14% of the higher-education vote. Almost half (46%) of lower-education voters would consider voting for the Freedom Party, vs just 20% of higher-education voters. The only other party whose support is slanted towards the lower-educated is on the opposite end of the political spectrum: the Socialist Party gets 13% of the lower-education and 7% of the higher-education vote. (“Would consider” voting for the Socialists: 28% vs 17%.)

Conversely, the liberal and conservative center-right parties (VVD, CDA and D66) are pooling a strong 48% of the vote among higher-education voters, but just 22% of the lower-education vote. It’s a serious cleavage, which has shown up in surveys in the Netherlands for years now, and seems much more pronounced than class-based cleavages in earlier decades. It’s a serious cleavage, which has shown up for years now, but seems so much more pronounced than class-based cleavages in earlier decades.

It’s also an arguably much more damaging cleavage. In the post-WW2 era, the Dutch working class disproportionally voted for the Labour Party (though the christian parties also always received a substantive chunk of the working class vote), and the Labour Party regularly got to govern, ensuring that working class interests would at least sometimes be met. As a result, working-class voters had some reason to retain an extent of confidence in the political system. However, neither the Freedom Party nor the Socialists in the Netherlands, nor the Front National in France, are likely to gain entry to government (and in the case of the far right parties wouldn’t do much constructive on behalf of working class voters even if they did). Meanwhile, the Dutch parties that are most amenable to coalition governments, like the VVD, CDA and D66 as well as the Labour Party, have less reason than ever to prioritize working class interests, since that’s not where their electorate lies (anymore). The political cleavage therefore threatens to lock working class voters in an anti-systemic camp, as that’s where the only parties are which appeal to their interests and sentiments, but those parties won’t be able to represent their interests in governmental policy and the other ones will have less reason to do so; all of which in turn will only erode any confidence working class voters have left in the system. It could be a real vicious cycle.

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Elections for “Supreme Burgomaster” in Dresden: Ready for round 2

European Politics, International Politics, Politics

Last weekend the citizens of Dresden went to the polls for the first round of elections for Oberbürgermeister, an office which Wikipedia translates as Supreme Burgomaster. That sounds funny. Let’s just say mayor.

The incumbent Helma Orosz, from Angela Merkel’s Christian-Democratic Union (CDU), had resigned in February – she suffers from breast cancer. The liberal FDP’s Dirk Hilbert took over her tasks for the few months since, and he ran in these elections as an independent candidate. His main opponent was (and remains) Eva-Maria Stange, a politician from the social-democratic SPD who is running as independent with the support of the SPD, Left Party and Greens. Hilbert’s bid was complicated by the CDU running its own candidate, and there were also two candidates from the populist (far) right. In comparison, Stange had little competition on the left – nobody but Lars Stosch, alias Lara Liqueur, from the satirical party The PARTY, who promised free beer and equal representation for lazy people.

Although Merkel’s CDU dominates the national party landscape, getting 41.5% of the vote in the 2013 parliamentary elections against the SPD’s 25.7%, Dresden was actually the last German city with over 400,000 inhabitants to still have a CDU mayor. But as capital city of the eastern state of Saxony it was a good place for it, since Saxony is a bit of a Christian-Democratic bulwark. The CDU actually used to get absolute majorities in state elections in the 1990s, and in last year’s state elections got 39% to the Left Party’s 19%.

Dresden itself has in the past been more politically balanced. In the municipal elections of 2014, the Left Party, Greens, SPD and Pirates pooled 52.7% of the vote (and yes, that was their ranking order), while the CDU and FDP pooled just 32.6% and the populist and far right (AfD and NPD) got almost 10%. But in the previous elections, in 2009, the left-of-center parties got just 44%, the CDU, FDP and DSU also pooled 44%, and the extreme right got 4%. Moreover, in the last mayoral elections – which took place all the way back in 2008 (seven-year terms!) – Helma Orosz almost got the 50% of the vote required to be elected in the first round, and eventually defeated the Left Party’s candidate by a massive 64% to 31% margin in the second round.

Orosz remained a popular mayor, but there was confusion on the right after she resigned. Her own party nominated Saxony’s Interior Minister Markus Ulbig, but he proved to be a weak candidate. Dresden was at the center of the mass rallies by the anti-Islam movement Pegida (as illogical as that might seem, considering that the city has very few muslim residents and just one mosque, and 80% of the population is secular), and Ulbig’s vacillating response managed to piss off both Pegida supporters and their left-wing opponents.

Instead, Hilbert became the center-right’s de facto main candidate. But on the far right, Pegida had its own candidate, the independent Tatjana Festerling, who likes to tell her supporters that the “professional politicians”, and especially those of the left, are just “alcoholics, communists and childfuckers,” and that a “flood” of asylum-seekers will increase crime. Festerling is too radical even for the upstart populist right-wing Alliance for Germany party (AfD), which sent its own candidate into the contest: Stefan Vogel.

The polls had foreseen a first round advantage for Stange, with Hilbert right behind and Ulbig merely in third place. That all turned out to be true, and with just 15% of the vote the CDU candidate was even further behind Stange (36%) and Hilbert (32%) than the polls has suggested. This means that, however the second round ends, the CDU will no longer have a mayor in any of Germany’s largest cities.

What the polls got all wrong was the far right’s appeal. Festerling did not merely get 1-3% of the vote, as they had indicated. She got 9.6%. And Vogel got another 4.8%.

Festerling did especially well in the city’s communist-era high-rise suburbs, like Gorbitz, which were partly torn down when they emptied out in the 1990s (Gorbitz itself used to have a population of well over 35,000; now it’s 21,000, though trending up again). Those neighbourhoods generally are a source of strength for the Left Party as well, but in this election the left/right divide mostly ran parallel to the divide between inner Dresden and the suburbs.

Saxony is an odd case in the sense that second round elections are not run-offs. They’re more of a re-run. Nobody gets eliminated after the first run; in principle, all the candidates are allowed to run again. (Baden-Wurtemberg has an even stranger system; there, even new candidates can still enter the race.) In practice though, it doesn’t work like that. Ulbig announced immediately after the first round that he would not stand in the second round and wanted to talk with Hilbert about an agreement. Perhaps more surprisingly, Festerling later withdrew as well and went further, quite stridently appealing to her supporters to vote for Hilbert. The state AfD joined in as well: the party’s primary aim should now be “to prevent a victory for the leftredgreen candidate and former SED member Stange”.

All of this suggests that Hilbert, rather than Stange, has the advantage going into the second round, which will take place on July 5. After all, when you add up the results for all the right-of-center parties, that’s 61.5% of the first round vote. No wonder that Stange has promised to “mobilize non-voters”. And that’s easier said than done too; in fact, the turnout in the first round was already unusually high, at 51% compared to the previous mayoral election’s 42%. Presumably that was thanks in large part to Festerling success in mobilizing protest voters who would normally not bother to show.

Yet things might not be quite as straightforward, as at least one local political scientist argues. Most of Festerling’s voters will probably stay home, he says. There’s certainly no organic link between Hilbert and Festerling’s voters: he did badly or very badly in many of the neighbourhoods she did best in. The supporters attending the rally where she made her endorsement certainly didn’t seem happy about it.

Moreover, Hilbert has so far done his best in his campaign to present himself as a moderate, almost neutral candidate who stands above party politics, and distances himself from both left and right. But now Ulbig and the CDU, and Festerling in her own way, are pushing him to wage more of a “Lagerwahlkampf” – an election campaign between two camps, left and right. How else is he going to rally their voters in a low-turnout election? But he doesn’t seem eager. He’s rejected the concept of a “Lagerwahlkampf” outright; refused to meet with Festerling, even as he also refused to repudiate her support; and surprised the CDU by ruling out a written pre-election agreement with any party.

Is he being smart, or shooting himself in the foot? Maybe Stange still stands a good chance after all.

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Provincial elections in the Netherlands: The left is losing (its) face

European Politics, International Politics, Politics
Election map, the Netherlands, provincial elections 2015

The Netherlands, provincial elections 2015: winning party by municipality

Unprecedented fragmentation, a weakened government that will have to go in search for further allies to keep functioning, and a new record low for the Labour Party. Those were the main features of the outcome of last month’s provincial elections, on March 18, which determined not just the make-up of provincial legislatures but also the Dutch Senate.

Because of the continuing collapse of the Labour Party, the results also constituted the worst performance for the left overall in provincial elections since 1994, while centrist parties — the Democrats ’66, a party for the elderly and various regional lists — did well.

I contributed a rather exhaustive analysis of the election results, with plenty of maps and charts, as guest post to the World Elections blog. Maybe see you there!

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Hungary: the far right Jobbik wins its first ever constituency seat

European Politics, International Politics, Politics

There was a parliamentary by-election today in Hungary, in the seat of Tapolca, which encompasses a swath of the Balaton lakeshore and some of its hinterland, including the towns of Ajka (pop. 29,000), Tapolca (pop. 16,000) and Sümeg (pop. 6,000).

Viktor Orban’s governing, rightwing-populist Fidesz party already lost its two-thirds majority in parliament in February, when it lost a byelection in the neighbouring constituency of Veszprém. That seat was improbably picked up by a libertarian independent with the support of the left-wing opposition parties. A two-thirds majority is important because it allows the government to pass hard-to-repeal, so-called cardinal laws. But if I’ve understood things correctly, it only needs to be two-thirds of present MPs, not two-thirds of the total of elected MPs. So being only one seat short would still leave the government party with some leeway, as long as it’s disciplined enough.

This new by-election provided another chance to make that harder, so it was hard fought. The good news: Fidesz lost the seat. The bad news: it was won by the far-right Jobbik party instead.

Despite cumulative efforts to soften the party’s image, which have sped up recently, Jobbik remains on the hardcore end of European far-right parties, to the point where France’s Marine Le Pen and the Dutch firebrand Geert Wilders refuse to collaborate with them. But with the Fidesz government hemorrhaging support and the left/liberal opposition in perpetual disarray, it’s Jobbik that’s picking up floating voters.

In last year’s general elections, Jobbik won 20.3% of the vote, an even stronger result than the 17% it had won in 2010, when it came from zero. Over the last month or so, three pollsters have pegged its support at 24%; a third one put it at 30%. Meanwhile, they had Fidesz at 35-45%, the left/liberal opposition parties at 11-20%, and the greens at 5-8%.

In that light, the Tapolca result isn’t entirely unexpected, though the party had still been in third place in the constituency in last year’s general elections. This is how the results compare:

Party Result 2015 Gain/loss
Jobbik 35.3% +11.8%
Fidesz 34.4% -8.7%
Socialists/Democratic Coalition 26.3% -1.0%
LMP (Greens) 2.1% -0.9%
Others 2.0% -1.2%

Turnout was some 42%, which is brisk for a by-election, especially in a traditionally low-turnout country like this; in last year’s general elections turnout in this constituency had only been 60%.

The left/liberal candidate only came first in Ajka; the rest of the constituency went for Jobbik (especially Tapolca and surroundings) or Fidesz.

Jobbik leader Gabor Vona called the result a defeat of “arrogance and corruption” and “a historic victory”. He’s right with the historic victory part. Hungary has a mixed electoral system: over half the MPs are elected in districts, through a winner-takes-all system (and Fidesz won 96 of the 106 such seats last year), and under half the seats are elected through a national party list vote. While Jobbik won 23 of the latter kind of seats last year, this is the first time it’s ever won a constituency seat. And it’s not even in the party’s north-eastern heartlands, but in the west of the country. It’s sure to scare Fidesz (which might move even further right in response) and leave the left feeling ambivalent at best.

Vona will presumably continue to try to “de-demonize” Jobbik, following Marine Le Pen’s electorally successful example. He’ll have a hard slog at it, because many Jobbik politicians are more Golden Dawn material. When he punishes a Jobbik MP who photographed himself spitting into a Holocaust monument by forcing him to lay a flower there, or punishes a local Jobbik councillor who posted on Facebook about buying guns to execute Roma by forcing him to live with a Roma member of the party for three days, it doesn’t exactly distract attention from the extremism of the party’s rank and file.

That holds true even if he does more Facebook contests asking his fans to send pictures of themselves posing with their pets; even if he’s suddenly talking about a “Western opening,” after the party steered a Russia (and Iran!)-friendly course for years; even if he now talks about the need of “sharing the sorrow of everybody, including the Jews.” And the Fidesz machine will do its part; it’s perhaps not a coincidence that the public prosecutor just started an investigation into a Jobbik MP describing the Holocaust as a fraud.

The question is whether voters will care. The Jobbik candidate in Tapolca won despite apparently having posted, and then deleted, a Facebook post calling the Roma a “biological weapon of the Jews”. But the Fidesz government really is arrogant and corrupt (and worse things, too). If voters want to punish Orban, and Jobbik’s the only opposition party that seems capable both of getting its act together, organizationally, and addressing rural, small-town and working class voters in a way they can relate to, that’s where ever more voters will go. Especially if, on the one hand, Jobbik keeps pushing out a “softer” image and, on the other hand, anti-semitic and xenophobic notions keep becoming more normalized in public discourse.

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Hungary: polling update and by-election preview (updated with results)

European Politics, International Politics, Politics

The Hungarian pollsters have been disagreeing about how much the grip which Viktor Orban’s governing party Fidesz has on the Hungarian electorate has been slipping. Things surely aren’t looking as favourable for them as, say, half a year ago, for a number of reasons. One has to keep in mind, however, that Fidesz enjoyed quite a boost after its national election victory last April, when it went on to win big in European and municipal elections later in the year as well. So to some extent we’re merely seeing a return to the already impressive level of support it enjoyed in those April elections.

Chart: Hungarian polls, late January/early February 2015

Chart: Hungarian polls, late January/early February 2015 (click to enlarge)

Chart: Hungarian polls, late January/early February 2015

Chart: Hungarian polls; grouping together the left-liberal parties that ran a joint "Unity" list in last year's national elections (click to enlarge)

Fidesz’s current two-thirds parliamentary majority is in question with by-elections taking place in Veszprém two days from now. The district includes both Veszprém itself, a relatively prosperous town in Western Hungary, and some surrounding countryside, and outgoing MP Tibor Navracsics (now European Commissioner) won the seat easily last year, so it’s not the easiest place for the opposition to launch a challenge. If it does win the seat, however, Fidesz could theoretically be prevented from adopting further, hard-to-overturn “cardinal laws,” which require a two-thirds majority – though that presumes that the MPs from the center-left parties and the far-right Jobbik are able of voting in unison against the government. Even if Fidesz will hold on in Veszprém (and it’s still favoured to do so), it will face the same challenge all over again in parliamentary by-elections in a district centred on nearby Tapolca in April.

In its infinite wisdom, the left-liberal opposition parties are supporting a “free-market evangelist” as their joint candidate, Zoltán Kész. The hard-right Hír TV station has dug up not all that old blog posts and social media comments in which Kész advocated privatizing health care and primary education and even making voting rights conditional on tax payments. That’s the Hungarian “left” — the same left which hurried to distance itself from Alexis Tsipras in the aftermath of Syriza’s election victory in Greece — proving once again that it is anything but. It did, after all, also eventually embrace Lajos Bokros, known best for the 1990s “Bokros package” of massive budget cuts, in the Budapest mayoral elections. The Green LMP is the only party on the left which is refusing to support Kész, whom András Schiffer called the candidate of the “pseudo-Left”.

Having said that, the government does seem somewhat worried, jumping in late last year to quickly direct a special, 2.5 million Euro grant toward Veszprém. Although Fidesz easily dispatched all opposition forces in last October’s local elections, at least outside Budapest, it hasn’t been lucky in local by-elections since. Eva S. Balogh summarizes the story on those, with left-liberal opposition voters apparently even showing some readiness to swing behind candidates of the far-right Jobbik if that’s what it took to oust a Fidesz councillor. The seemingly only opinion poll to be held in the Veszprém district saw a close race, with Fidesz candidate Lajos Némedi only narrowly leading Kész by 43% to 37%, and even that only thanks to the rural parts of the district, while Kész led in the city itself.

Despite his libertarian views, I hope Kész wins, and Veszprém might be a liberal enough town for him to stand a chance. This is no way for the opposition to rebuild a national election-winning force though. Hungarians have arguably voted out the parties most associated with budget cuts, privatizations and market-friendly reforms almost every single time since 1994, ever again believing the then-opposition’s (deceptive) promises that they would govern more socially. They brought back the socialists from the dead in 1994, then voted in Fidesz in 1998 when those socialists turned out to be more neoliberal than even the previous conservative government. They kicked Fidesz out again in 2002 in favour of the newly-populist Socialists, and reelected those in 2006 after they’d gone on a rather irresponsible spending spree. In 2010, after four years of Gyurcsany and Bajnai pursuing austerity, they dealt the Socialists a massive defeat in favour of Fidesz, and last year they reaffirmed their support for Fidesz and its national-populist rhetoric of resistance against the EU’s and IMF’s economic prescriptions. And yet the left-liberal parties that aim to bring Fidesz down now seem to be going out of their way to look like the local representative of Brussels, business and banks. In the process, they are leaving the far-right Jobbik to sweep up the votes of the increasing numbers of disgruntled middle- and lower-income voters who are disappointed with the arrogance and corruption of Orban-ocracy but poor enough to have faced the wrong end of the free market.

The center-left opposition should perhaps instead take heed of a recent poll which revealed that Jobbik is now the largest party among those younger than 30. That’s scary. To fight that trend, it’s time for the left, such as it is, to show that its primary concern is with the struggle many poor, working class and lower-middle class Hungarians are waging to get by. I’m not sure that identifying itself with the likes of Kész and Bokros is going to help with that.

Update: Opposition candidate Zoltán Kész won, and with a surprisingly comfortable margin, 42,6% against the Fidesz candidate’s 33.8%, the Jobbik candidate’s 14.1%, and the LMP’s 4.6% (the remainder went mostly to independent candidates). That’s a striking contrast with last year’s results, when Navracsics got 47.2%, the center-left’s joint candidate 27.6%, the Jobbik candidate 16.5% and the LMP candidate 6.2%. Turnout was 45%, which is lower than last year’s 64% but high for a by-election. Christopher Adam at Hungarian Free Press has more info. Worth noting: somebody on Twitter mentioned that the 8 o’clock news broadcast on national public TV mentioned nothing about the election result, even though some 80% of the votes had by then already been counted, and it was clear that Fidesz was losing.

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Of sideshows, curiosities and structural changes: Everything you ever wanted to know about this year’s local elections in the Netherlands (and probably quite a bit more)

European Politics, International Politics, Politics

It’s not easy for local elections in a country the size of The Netherlands to make the international news. But if there’s anyone who can make it happen, it’s the peroxide-blonde leader of the Dutch far right Freedom Party, Geert Wilders. And that’s what he did, on March 19, when the municipal election results were being tallied.

2014 Municipal election results, the Netherlands

Click to enlarge: 2014 municipal election results

Orating to a Freedom Party rally in The Hague, Wilders asked his supporters to give “a clear answer” to three questions that he was going to ask them; three questions that “defined our party”. “Do you want more or less European Union?”, he started off. Less, less, his supporters chanted enthusiastically. Second question: “Do you want more or less Labour Party?” Again, the crowd clapped and chanted: “less, less!”. So Wilders moved on to the third question. “I’m really not allowed to say this,” he started, but “freedom of expression is a great value … so I ask you, do you want more or fewer Moroccans, in this city and in the Netherlands?” The crowd, elated, chanted back: “Fewer, fewer, fewer!”, and with a sly little smile Wilders remarked, “then we’ll go and arrange that”.

Which got the Dutch election night headline space from the BBC to The Guardian, from the Times of Israel to Al-Jazeera, and from Fox News to the Huffington Post.

All of which was pretty unfair, considering that Wilders’ Freedom Party (or the PVV, as the Dutch call it) had been something of a non-entity in the whole local elections campaign. The party had refrained from taking part in the elections altogether in all but two municipalities: The Hague, the seat of the Dutch government, and Almere, a large town in Amsterdam’s commuter belt. Moreover, as was mentioned in almost none of these stories, it actually lost votes in both cities.

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If Facebook ‘likes’ were votes, the far-right Jobbik would be the largest Hungarian party

European Politics, International Politics, Politics

Which Hungarian political parties use Facebook most successfully to create and engage with a significant online following? A comprehensive effort to find out reveals two things: the balance of forces between the Hungarian parties on Facebook is very different from what the actual results of the elections in April will be like – and despite what is basically a three-party system in real terms, there are a lot of Hungarian political parties with a Facebook presence.

Facebook likes vs current polling for Hungarian parties

Facebook likes vs current polling for Hungarian parties

The chart on the right (click to enlarge etc., and yes, it’s a pie chart – but if that makes you twitch, there’s a bar chart further down this post) specifies the 22 parties with the largest numbers of fans. For comparison’s sake there’s a chart representing current opinion polling data underneath.

I’ve taken the concept of  “parties” in a light spirit and included the satirical Two-Tailed Dog Party (which once again has been denied registration, so it can’t take part in the elections this year), and it happens to blow many of the regular parties out of the water. (On that note, the Fourth Republic party 4K! probably also enjoys an unfair advantage, since it might now be seriously campaigning as an alternative left-wing party, but it used to be better known on Facebook for organizing things like an annual pillow-fight event.)

So who wins the Facebook races?

That would be the populist, far-right Jobbik party, best known for its rhetorics against “Gypsy crime” and recurrent bouts of anti-semitism. It is ‘liked’ by a whopping 188 thousand people on Facebook. Jobbik is especially strong among young voters, so its prominent showing on Facebook is no surprise, though the fact that it beats out all the other parties may be more of a shock. In the 2010 elections, Jobbik received 17% of the vote, and right now it’s polling at about 13%, so it’s a significant force in the real elections as well, but will remain deep in the shadows of the governing Fidesz-KDNP alliance in the elections.

Right behind Jobbik is Together 2014, the movement launched around former Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai, which for some time from late 2012 on roused the hopes of a center-left, liberal, pro-EU electorate for a strong new opposition force. The movement largely fizzled out though, and is now taking part as the largest junior partner in the five-party, left-of-center “Unity” opposition alliance under the leadership of the Socialist Party’s Attila Mesterházy. Together 2014 does almost as well as Jobbik on Facebook, which surprised me – but only in quantity of likes, not in actual engagement, as I’ll show below.

Third place is for Fidesz. All-powerful as it may be in the Hungarian state, government and, dare one say, economy (as well as current election polling), it doesn’t even get to play second fiddle on Facebook. Or does it? Fidesz may have ‘only’ 116 thousand or so likes, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has 219 thousand. Bajnai, in comparison, only has 103 thousand, and Jobbik’s Gábor Vona 155 thousand.

Coming in fourth is … no, still not the Socialist Party. It’s the Two-Tailed Dog Party, which promised such goodies as free beer, eternal life and “more of everything, less of nothing” in its previous abortive attempt at joining electoral politics. The Socialists only have 89 thousand likes – an unsurprisingly weak performance for a party best known for its legacy support among stubborn pensioners. Though Mesterházy himself does significantly better, with 152 thousand likes.

Chart: All Hungarian parties with more than 250 likes on Facebook

All Hungarian parties with more than 250 likes on Facebook

The rest of the parties follow at a respectful distance. The most popular of the lot include former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Democratic Coalition, with 34 thousand likes (though his own page does much better, clocking in at almost 89 thousand) and the green party Politics Can Be Different (LMP), with 24 thousand.

The latter is outdone by two others though. The LMP broke up acrimoniously last year, and the break-away fraction formed “Dialogue for Hungary” (PM), which swiftly joined Together 2014 and, now, Unity. And on Facebook, PM easily surpasses LMP with 31 thousand likes. Even more surprisingly, both have fewer Facebook likes than the Welfare and Freedom Democratic Community (JESZ), which was founded upon the ashes of the once-important Hungarian Democratic Forum.

Honourable mentions go, not just to Fourth Republic, but also Lajos Bokros’s Modern Hungary Movement (16 thousand likes) and … the Independent Smallholders Party. They still exist! “Újra erősek vagyunk!”, We Are Strong Again, their posters exclaim somewhat optimistically, and hey – they do have more likes than any of the three liberal parties that emerged from the wreckage of the Alliance of Free Democrats. (Which reminds me: does Hungary really need six different green parties?)

The largest party, on Facebook at least, that I had never heard of is the Elégedetlenek Pártja, i.e. the Party of the Discontented. Which seems fitting. And if you think that the parties at the bottom of this second chart, which are mostly of the far-right, far-left, ecological and Romani varieties, are doing rather pathetically with just a couple of hundred likes, trust me – it can be much worse. After doing Facebook searches for every party I came across trawling through the Hungarian Wikipedia’s list of parties, the list of parties that registered a willingness to take part in the last elections and, last but not least, the decisions handed down by the National Elections Commission so far this year, I’ve found a total of 60, and the smallest one has just 13 likes. There are actually 15 different parties with fewer than 100 likes – don’t these people have friends and families to rope in? Here’s the full list – with URLs.

UPDATE: Active followers vs. disengagement and ‘fake’ likes

There are of course a lot of ways to artificially boost the numbers of likes for your page. Paying Facebook for ads is the simplest way. If you want to break the rules, you can also pay clickfarms for thousands of extra likes, though many of them might then come from South- or East-Asia. A friend pointed me to some evidence that a couple of Jobbik politicians took a more convoluted road. At least that’s what a blogger appeared to find out, when he followed a link to some clickbait story on a Hungarian site called DailyStory, was asked to ‘like’ the site to see the content, clicked ‘like’, and afterwards went back to his Facebook profile to erase the ‘like’ again. Turned out he hadn’t just liked anything from DailyStory, but instead the Facebook page of a Jobbik MP. A look at the page source of the DailyStory item confirmed that they’d actually pointed the ‘like’ to Mr. Lajos Kepli’s page, and some further digging revealed that the owners of DailyStory also own a site called “LikeMarket”. Looks like Mr. Kepli, and at least one other Jobbik politician, used that site’s services …

Does that mean that none of the numbers in this blog post can be trusted? Or that the Jobbik page’s numbers are probably bogus? I don’t think so, and not just because the revelations were only about a couple of individual politicians.

Of course it’s always good to be skeptical about page likes as stand-alone metric.  If you want to review an entity’s success in engaging supporters on Facebook more properly, you should look beyond those, for example at how many likes, shares and comments individual posts get, or how many people click on the links on the page. Since people who were tricked in liking a page or got paid for it by a clickfarm aren’t likely to start actively commenting on it, that also helps to weed out the fake “likes”. Of course all of that goes far beyond the scope of a blog post, but Facebook does provide a straightforward alternative metric: “Talking about this”.

Likes versus 'Talking about it': engagement of Facebook followers

Likes versus 'Talking about it': how engaged are the FB followers of the different parties?

This metric measures how many people have, in the past week, commented on, shared or liked a post, joined an event, mentioned or checked in at a page, etc. Since it still includes new page likes too, it doesn’t wholly do away with the problem, but it helps. So how do the Hungarian political parties do when comparing total page likes and “people talking about this”? The chart’s on the right!

Turns out, Jobbik still rules the roost. Both in page likes and people ‘talking’ about their page. Their conversion rate of likes into actual engagement is actually better than most of the other parties are doing – suggesting no evidence of massive numbers of ‘fake’ likes distorting their top line number.

Instead, it’s Together 2014 which has a very low conversion rate, which is why it’s drooping towards the bottom right of the chart. Evidence that Together 2014 has fake likes? Not hardly, because many other things can explain such disengagement on the part of the ‘likers’ too. A feeling of resignation, for example, or disappointment. Together 2014 roused a fair bit of hope among center-left and liberal opposition supporters when it was launched – but a lot of those people are presumably not particularly enthusiastic by the new “Unity” alliance which Together 2014 has joined, led as it is by the Socialist Party and burdened by its inclusion of the very divisive politician Ferenc Gyurcsany and his Democratic Coalition.

Wholly anecdotically, I can say that 17 of my friends turn out to ‘like’ the Together 2014 page, more than any other party except the Two-Tailed Dog Party (which I guess tells you something about my friends) – and I know that many of them don’t trust Gyurcsany and/or the Socialists (who have a solid base but are perceived as corrupt, inept ex-communists even by many liberals and greens). There really doesn’t seem to be any enthusiasm about these elections – it’s all resignation about the inevitability of a Fidesz victory and the unattractiveness of the opposition.

It’s therefore interesting to see which other parties are showing higher or lower engagement rates among their Facebook followers. Higher than most? The Democratic Coalition and, to a lesser extent (roughly at a par with Jobbik), the Socialist Party. A sign that the old-fashioned polarization of the election campaign is rallying the base of the traditional left, at the same time (and for the same reasons) as it is depressing engagement among those who feel alienated from the old politics? Just like Together 2014, the green Politics Can Be Different party is doing weakly as well, burdened by last year’s split and its gloomy prospects of making it back into parliament.

Among the small parties, followers of Fodor’s Liberálisok do seem very engaged, and to some extent those of the KTI are too. Those of 4K!, many of whom probably came for pillow fights rather than politics, are not. The center-right JESZ, belying its relatively high number of page likes, is getting hardly any interaction at all – over 33 thousand likes, but just 205 people ‘talking about it’, that’s a horrible engagement rate. Then again I don’t think they’re taking part in the elections. Among the tiny parties, two itty-bitty green parties, the Zöldek Pártja and Élőlánc Magyarországért, have proportionally high ‘Talking About This’ numbers.

Age appeal

Finally, one thing is true for most of the political parties: people who ‘like’ a party are old, especially in the context of Facebook. As in: between 55 and 65 years of age. The notable exceptions are Jobbik, LMP, 4K! and, surprisingly, the KTI and Jesz. (Really? In combination with the horrible engagement rate, you’d almost think it’s JESZ which bought some likes …). Here are the numbers, according to Facebook, right now:

.

Party

Most pop. age group

.

Jobbik

18-24

.

Together 2014

55-64

.

Fidesz

35-44 / 55-64

.

Two-Tailed Dog Party

18-24

.

Socialist Party

55-64

.

Democratic Coalition

55-64

.

JESZ

18-24

.

PM

55-64

.

LMP

25-34

.

4K!

18-24

.

Modern Hungary Movement

55-64

.

Independent Smallholders

35-44 / 55-64

.

Liberals

55-64

.

SZEMA

55-64

.

KTI

18-24
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Ukraine: Did the protest movement transcend historical borders?

Culture, European culture(s), European Politics, International Politics, Politics

“Even in the president’s heartlands, in Eastern Ukraine, protesters have come out in strong support of ‘Euromaidan’,” two British academics argued last week on the Washington Post’s political science blog The Monkey Cage, and they drew a far-reaching conclusion: “In effect, Russophones and Ukrainophones, the East and West of the country, young and old, ethnic Russians and Ukrainians [have] united against – what they increasingly regard as – the illegitimate rule of the president and his party”.

A similar note was struck in a slideshare that’s circulating on Facebook, called What is really happening in Ukraine, which has been viewed over 650.000 times. Citing “massive protests” arising in the East and the South on January 26, the creators chide the Western press for a tendency to continue portraying the protests “in cold war terms,” as “fundamentally based on ‘ethnic/language’ splitting in Ukraine”.

Ukraine, 26 January 2014: occupations, seizures and protests

Map of the situation in Ukraine, 26 January 2014, Sergii Gorbachov

Both arguments came with maps. The Monkey Cage contributors,  Kataryna Wolczuk and Roman Wolczuk,  presented a map from the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, which colours most of the country orange (“occupied state administration buildings”) or brown (“mass protests”). The slideshare used three of Sergii Gorbachov’s detailed maps, presenting the situation on January 25-27. On his map from January 26, 21:00, just two of the country’s provinces remained Yanukovych-blue: Donetsk and the Crimea. The rest of the country was in the grip of the revolution: local state administrations were “occupied by [the] people” or the object of “attempted seizures” or “mass protests”.

Ukraine, 29 January 2014: occupations and protests

Map of the situation in Ukraine, 29 January 2014, Centre for Eastern Studies

Those maps look very different from the one posted by Max Fischer in the Washington Post just a couple of days earlier, under the title “This is the one map you need to understand Ukraine’s crisis”. Fischer’s map of the regional divide running down the centre of Ukraine between the protesting North and West of the country and the non-protesting South and East neatly overlapped with those of various post-independence election results — and moreover, as I wrote and mapped out last week, with ancient and more recent historical borders as well. So did something fundamentally change, in the last two weeks?

Kataryna Wolczuk and Roman Wolczuk seem to believe so, when they go beyond describing the protests in the South and East as “unprecedented and until recently inconceivable” to describe “the East and West of the country” uniting against Yanukovych. The slideshare authors obviously also believe that analyses that still focus on ethnic/language divides are out of touch with the changing environment.

There are two questions about this argument: To what extent were they right, concerning the developments as they unfolded in the last days of January? And to what extent do any such changes last today?

Protesters in the East: How much of a force?

Poland’s Centre for Eastern Studies, which created the map used in the Monkey Cage blog post, summarized the state of the Ukrainian protests on January 29 in a detailed briefing, covering events across the country. When it came to developments in the South and East, it reported that “demonstrations numbering several thousand and blockades of offices also took place in Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporozhye, Odessa, Cherkassy and Lugansk.”

Map of Ukraine with main cities

Cities of Ukraine (Wikimedia)

By then the Centre had already published more detailed write-ups of ongoing events in the previous few days. Its briefing of the 27th cited “massive numbers of participants” in “protests in the largest cities of southern and eastern Ukraine”, which “reached unprecedented proportions”. Detailing the specifics, however, the briefing reported that “several thousand people” took part in an anti-government demonstration in Dnipropetrovsk, a “four-thousand-strong rally” was held in Sumy, a “demonstration of several hundred people” was dispersed in Zaporizhia, “2–3 thousand people” took to the streets in Odessa, “more than one thousand” people demonstrated in Kirovohrad, and so on. Reuters reported “up to 5,000 anti-government protesters” picketing the regional government  headquarters in Zaporizhia. The Centre for Eastern Studies’ briefing from a day later added a few details: “a one-thousand strong demonstration” was held in Luhansk, “which may be viewed as another sign of a civil ‘awakening’ of people in eastern Ukraine”; but meanwhile, in Kharkiv, Luhansk, Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhia “attempts at occupying administration buildings have been effectively and brutally countered by the police and groups of “titushky”‘.

Even if only a few thousand people took part in those various protests, that may indeed have been unprecedented; after all, in Luhansk for example, Yanukovych received over 80% of the vote in the last presidential elections. The local, Yanukovych-friendly administrations and oligarchs usually keep these cities on a tight reign. But does “several thousand” really equate with “massive,” let alone indicating that the East and the West are finally uniting against the current government? Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk and Odessa have a million inhabitants each; Zaporizhia has over 800,000. The same Reuters story reporting on the protest in Zaporizhia also interviewed an opposition journalist admitting that the local protests only attracted the educated middle class: “Unfortunately, Euromaidan’s appeal is very limited here”.

Not all these places are the same either. Sumy and Kirovohrad went for Tymoshenko over Yanukovych in the last elections, so it isn’t all that surprising that opposition protests would break out there. In fact, for two cities with 250,000-300,000 inhabitants which voted for Tymoshenko, a few thousand protesters doesn’t immediately impress, although Sumy protesters did occupy the city’s council building. The size of protests is also sometimes overstated – by both sides, for different reasons. A reporter from the Putin-critical Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta observed a peaceful protest rally in Kharkiv where no attempts were made to storm the regional government building: “Most of the participants were students,” she said, “just half a thousand very young and unprepared kids who did not prepare for an assault at all”. Yet afterwards she saw on TV that an opposition politician was telling a Kyiv rally that “at this very moment protestors are blocking regional state administrations” in Kharkiv – and that the mayor of Kharkiv, from Yanukovych’s party, was threatening protesters that they shouldn’t involve themselves in a “war,” as they would be assured to lose it.

Violence and loathing on the streets

No doubt, the threat of violence and intimidation will have kept many away. Police used tear gas and smoke grenades, and “young men armed with baseball bats” attacked anti-government protesters in Kharkiv. In Zaporizhia,  men “with white ribbons on their shoulders were walking around the city and beating people”, a local journalist reported. The BBC linked to videos showing vigilante titushki, armed with seemingly identical batons, gathering inside a Dnipropetrovsk government building and then rushing out to viciously beat up demonstrators. The local Governor later called these men “representatives of the region’s public organisations”, calling “everything … perfectly legal.”

Vice versa, eighteen policemen were injured in Dnipropetrovsk alone, according to regional authorities. A blogger in Donetsk described “hired thugs” being transported in on buses to stage mock street riots and “imitate assaults at official buildings,” presumably “to frighten people here and … mobilize their voters,” but it’s not as if actual attacks on administrative buildings by anti-Yanukovych protesters have been lacking in graphical violence of their own, as this disturbing footage from a Central-Ukrainian city illustrated.

Anti-government protesters in Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk talked to France24 about their motivations on January 27th. “[I]n Kharkiv we’ve been having protests every day since November 22,” said Natalka Zubar – but it’s tough going. “Here in eastern Ukraine, [..] Russian TV is even more popular than Ukrainian TV, and every day its anchors talk about LGBT people controlling all of Europe, spreading sodomy, things like this. They claim all protesters are hooligans. But I think that more and more people have stopped listening.”

Protesters from Donetsk at Euromaidan

Protesters from Donetsk at Euromaidan in Kyiv (Photo by spoilt.exile, creative commons)

Protests in Dnipropetrovsk started two months ago, added Pavlo Khazan, and “there had been no major incidents [..] until Sunday”. That day, however, “some protesters decided that we should go to the regional administration building. [..] When we arrived, we were shocked to see that, behind a line of police officers guarding the building stood hooligans armed with sticks and baseball bats. The police let them attack us, and then dispersed the crowd [..] and began making arrests.”

The slideshare touting the protests’ strength makes mention of football fans several times. There’s a long history of politics and football mixing, and Ukraine offers a new episode. Local fans of Metalist Kharkiv and Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk protected demonstrators from attacks by aggressive pro-government groups, AFP reported on the 31st, along with even fans of Shakhtar Donetsk, in Yanukovych’s own hometown. “We came to support our people in fighting for their rights,” explained some of a group of about 60 Shakhtar fans in central Donetsk.

Already back in mid-January, professor Alexander J. Motyl wrote a piece extolling the bravery of anti-government protesters in Donetsk: “at first, it was only a small group of about 20 to 30 demonstrators who repeatedly assembled at the Shevchenko monument [..]. Then, a few weeks ago, several hundred brave protesters [..] carried pro-democracy, pro-Europe, and anti-Yanukovych banners in a march through downtown”. Motyl argued that even these small numbers had the local establishment spooked, and compared the demonstrations with Martin Luther King’s civil rights marches through Alabama: “For 500 marchers to assemble in Donetsk is the equivalent of 50,000 in Lviv or 500,000 in Kyiv.”

Is it? In symbolic terms, maybe. But not necessarily in terms of measuring the balance of public opinion across the regions.

Fathoming public opinion

The Ukrainian Center for Social and Marketing Research SOCIS last week released the results of a poll it conducted between 17 and 26 January. They don’t include any regional breakdown, but the overall results are instructive. The opposition is definitely on an upswing: Klitschko ‘s UDAR, the pro-Tymoshenko Fatherland party, Solidarity, and the far-right Freedom party are pooling some 58-60% of the vote among them in both parliamentary and presidential match-ups. That’s about 10% more than these parties received in the 2012 parliamentary elections. (The parties now rallying in the streets already actually received a narrow majority of the vote back then, but lost out big in seats because of their divisions.)

Support for Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions, however, has barely lessened. The party would get 29% of the vote in parliamentary elections, and he himself is polling at 29-30% in presidential match-ups. In 2012, the Party of the Regions received almost exactly the same share of the vote: 30%. Instead, it’s the Communist Party which lost some of its vote, polling at 8% when it received 13% in 2012, and the largest shifts are actually taking place within the opposition camp, with Fatherland (down to 20%) and Freedom (down to 7%) losing out to UDAR (up to 24%) and Solidarity (9%). In addition, some 30% of the full, initial sample answered that they wouldn’t know who to vote for.

Yanukovych’s party won the 2012 elections by racking up 65% of the vote in the Donetsk region, over 50% of the vote in Lugansk and the Crimea, and some 40% of the vote in the regions of Kharkiv, Zaporizhia, Odessa and Mykolaiv. And the Communists hauled in 18-25% of the vote in those same regions. If the Party of the Regions remains at strength and the Communists hold on to at least half of their vote, as this new poll suggests, then a majority of those who have an opinion in these regions are likely still in their camp. In the Dnipropetrovsk region, the Party of the Regions and the Communist Party pooled 55% of the vote in 2012 while Fatherland, UDAR and Freedom added up to 38%, so if shifts are taking place roughly proportionally around the country, that region too would at best be evenly divided now.

In the same poll, respondents were given a straight choice between entry into the EU and entry into a Customs Union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. A plurality of 43% chose for the EU, but 32% preferred the Customs Union (with the rest offering no answer), and that latter number will be proportionally higher in the East and South. These numbers suggest that little has actually changed. In openDemocracy, Valery Kalnysh recapped polling data from late December, when the Euromaidan protests were already ongoing but hadn’t yet escalated, and they showed that 50% of Ukrainians then supported Euromaidan while 42% did not, and that opponents were far in the majority in the East, by 65% to 30%. Tellingly, that poll had also shown support for not just the opposition leaders, but also Yanukovych going up since October, from 19% to 29% – suggesting that far from Yanukovych’s south-eastern base suffering erosion, the increasing polarization of the country was shoring it up. A whole series of polls by different pollsters between May and November 2013 had showed a similar balance of opinion, with support for EU access consistently at 41-47% and, with the one exception of a November poll, support for the Customs Union at 31-40%.

Rallying the counterforces: local authorities and the “titushki”

A view of Donetsk

A view of Donetsk (Photo by Vladimir Yaitskiy, creative commons)

In some regions, the mere prospect of increasing protest did seem to change some of the political dynamics. In Odessa, the Kyiv Post reported, the local administration and opposition struck a truce of sorts, a “non-aggression, mutual supportiveness deal”. But elsewhere  in the South and East, any challenge to the grip of Yanukovych loyalists seems to have been beaten back. On February 1, the Kyiv Post reported that local authorities in Dnipropetrovsk had detained two opposition party members for allegedly “plotting a terrorist attack at a national energy system facility”. In the Crimea, the regional parliament banned the Freedom party, though it was forced to reverse its decision on February 7. As January ended, one reporter found no more protests in Donetsk, just a middle-aged local scoffing: “Euromaidan? To hell with that!”. Organizers of a protest picket had cancelled it out of fear of further violence. Two local activists of the nationalist Freedom party had left Donetsk on the 27th, explaining that “we feared that emergency rule would be imposed so that nobody can leave the region”.

The regional deputy head of UDAR said that party activists throughout Donbass have been receiving threatening text messages on their mobile phones, and dismissed local pro-Yanukovych protesters as titushki, “hired thugs” and “former inmates”. An in-depth portrait of the “titushki” phenomenon for Foreign Policy describes these roaming groups of violent youths as an actually well-organized, 20,000-strong national force, complete with internal hierarchies, materially supported by riot police, and motivated by daily government pay-offs, Soviet and military-inspired loyalties to the state, ties to powerful organized crime groups with a vested interest in corrupt ruling politicians, and plain old criminal tempers.

Anton Davydchenko, the leader of a group called National Unity in Odessa which claims to have rallied over 1,000 volunteers, all ready to take up arms against anti-government protesters if necessary, would presumably recognize some of these descriptions and take issue with others. “We will never give them our cheek to be slapped. If they come to us with weapons, we will meet them with weapons,” he told RFE/RL. Like local authorities in Donetsk and Lugansk did with similar groups (described as including “Cossacks and Afghanistan war veterans”), local authorities are supporting the group.

Night over Kharkiv

Night over Kharkiv (Photo by Aleksandr Osipov, creative commons)

In Kharkiv, a conference of provincial Party of the Regions officials called for establishing a new organization called the “Ukrainian Front” – after the Soviet Army campaign that drove Nazi Germany out of Ukraine in WWII – at the suggestion of an Afghanistan veterans group. “‘The Front will purge and cleanse the Ukrainian land from anyone who has come here as an occupier,” orated the governor of Kharkiv: its participants “will follow their fathers’ and grandfathers’ example in freeing our lands, like in the 1940s”. (If that sounds alarming, it doesn’t help that many protesters in Kyiv have actually embraced the imagery of Stepan Bandera, who declared an independent Ukrainian State during WWII, and the  Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which committed war crimes and at times collaborated with Nazi Germany during its battle for independence.) Kharkiv’s eccentric mayor, Hennady Kernes, riffed on the same theme when approving of the local pro-Yankovych martial arts club Oplot, which has been accused of ties with the kidnapping and torture of Auto-Maidan leader Dmytro Bulatov: “I know these sportsmen,” he has said: “they are against allowing ‘Banderovtsy’ to come to Kharkiv and I support this”.

Protests in Ukraine - situation by region, February 4

Map of the situation in Ukraine, 4 February 2014, Sergii Gorbachov

All in all, the authorities in the South and East seem to have succeeded in beating back any challenge which local protesters posed to their position in late January. The last time Sergii Gorbachov posted an updated map was on February 4, and all the South and East had reverted back to Yanukovych-blue, with added icons indicating the appearance of pro-Yanukovych demonstrators, Party of Regions brigades and violent “titushki” as well as local protesters.

Change: up to moguls or mobs?

In the end, if the protest movement is to crack the South and East in a meaningful way, it may not be up to the protesters themselves. It will have to be up to elements in the political class itself — “and no one within that class is more powerful than Ukraine’s oligarchs, the billionaire business tycoons who together own a vastly disproportionate share of the country’s wealth,” as Sergii Leshchenko wrote in Foreign Policy. They won’t be motivated by political idealism, but by self-interest, needing the doors to the EU to stay open, stability to return to the country, and themselves not to be targeted by financial and visa sanctions to protect their wealth. Leshchenko recounts how a second oligarch, Viktor Pinchuk, switched to supporting the opposition in December – and he’s from Dnipropetrovsk.

The others, however, are still hedging their bets, at best – and it would have to be someone like Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man and still powerful in his native Donetsk, to really overturn the dynamics. Lesser moguls will not do, as two of the richest businessmen in Dnipropetrovsk found out after January 25. That day, Hennadiy Korban and Borys Filatov decided to air live broadcasts of the antigovernment protests in Kyiv on a large outdoor screen at a shopping mall they owned, and hoist the flags of the EU and Ukraine at their local properties. Hours later, the New York Times recounted, the electricity was suddenly cut to all their three shopping malls. Four days later, a local judge ordered “that Mr. Korban be detained and interrogated as a witness in connection with a previously dormant investigation of a 2012 murder”. Then, state security officers raided the premises of the businessmen’s accountant for “bombs or other evidence of terrorism”. The two men have now relocated to Israel.

Enduring divisions

With the iron grip of local authorities from Yanukovych’s camp in the South and East seemingly barely letting up, for now, and indications that a majority of the population there is still on the opposite side from Euromaidan’s activists (who themselves are hardly unified), the question arises how much future there is for a unitary state so bitterly divided. The dividing lines today are, after all, not very different from the borders of previous eras – could they become real borders of one kind of another again? The Ukrainian Communist Party has floated a trial balloon: Ukraine as federal state. Dividing Ukraine up into seven large states, each with its own parliament, would pull the country back from the brink of civil war and prevent the country from falling apart, the communists argue. But the opposition, not altogether without reason, is likely to see this as a mere Russian strategy to break up the state and seize the South and East.

Despite the initial enthusiasm about unprecedented demonstrations in the East illustrated by the Monkey Cage blog post, it seems in fact unlikely that “Russophones and Ukrainophones, the East and West of the country, [..] ethnic Russians and Ukrainians” will really unite against the political forces represented by Yanukovych any time soon. On February 4, a week after the small protests in the South and East crested, an AP report concluded that “two months into Ukraine’s anti-government protests, the two sides are only moving further apart. [The protesters] appear unable to significantly broaden their movement into parts of the country where the opposition is weak, as some of the protesters use nationalist rhetoric that alienates even liberal eastern Ukrainians.” As David Stern wrote in The Atlantic, even if Yanukovych does steps down, peacefully, and the opposition assumes power, “it too would not resolve Ukraine’s crisis. Political divisions, both within the country and the protest camp itself, will remain, and possibly become more pronounced” over time.

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The geographical (and historical?) divisions underlying Ukraine’s political strife

European Politics, History, International Politics, Politics

As Washington Post blogger Max Fischer illustrated with what he called “the one map you need to understand Ukraine’s crisis”, the current protests and revolts in Ukraine are fierce, but largely limited to the north and west of the country, which is right in line with the pattern revealed in the 2010 election outcomes. It’s no secret that the same broad geographic divide appeared, time and again, in most of the elections since 1991, when Ukraine gained independence.

Ukrainian election maps, 1991-2012

Ukraine: Election maps for all the main elections since 1991

For convenience’s sake, I gathered electoral maps for all the presidential and parliamentary elections in those twenty years (as well as the 1991 independence referendum), in one big overview file. All of those maps are from Wikimedia/Wikipedia.

(One contestable editorial decision I made for the 2012 parliamentary elections was in choosing the map that showed the leaders in multi-member districts by constituency, rather than the one showing the leaders in single-mandate constituencies, which includes a lot of independents and is therefore less clear. I also couldn’t find a map of the results for Gorbachev’s All-Union referendum in 1991.)

Oddly, the candidates actually running for presidential office sometimes seemed irrelevant to the geographic divide itself. In 1991, the former dissident Viacheslav Chornovil was the worthy but politically weak candidate who won only in the Galician northwest of the country, while former apparatchik Leonid Kravchuk based his landslide victory on wide support in the south and east. But in 1995, the roles were reversed: Kravchuk won constituencies across the north and west when he lost his reelection bid against Leonid Kuchma, who swept the vote in the south and east. Those elections marked the first real time that the electoral map showed a dividing line right down the middle of the country that would start marking election maps again in every major election after 2002. But it gets stranger still: move on to 1999, when Kuchma faced a Communist Party candidate as opponent in his reelection bid — and it was Kuchma who won almost all of the north and west, while support for the communist candidate was based mostly in the south and east.

Considering Chornovil’s, Kravchuk’s and Tymoshenko’s losses, and the gritted teeth with which many voters in Kiev and the northeast must have voted for Kravchuk in ’94 and Kuchma in ’99, it’s hard to elide the thought that this pattern illustrates how the real political power in the country has lain in the south/east. The voters in the north/west have had to choose between voting for the lesser evil or rebelling in the streets. Yushchenko’s victory would be the only exception, and that took a revolution. I doubt that Viktor Yanukovich will ever switch to being the northwest’s candidate, though …

There is one further geographic wrinkle of note in these maps, and that is how the Transcarpathian/Ruthenian region constitutes a bit of an outlier within the northwestern half of the country. That’s the region midway on the left side, where the country’s borders take a turn east to curve around Romania, which is often coloured differently from all the surrounding territories. It can’t be a coincidence that the historical background of that region is wholly separate. Whereas the rest of northwestern Ukraine used to belong to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and much of it to interbellum Poland as well, this region was belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire until WW1, and to Czechoslovakia between the two world wars.

When it comes to elections, history can be destiny. A map overlaying the borders between Imperial Russia and Imperial Germany on the Polish election results of 2007 has done the rounds online among map geeks for a few years because of the striking correspondence it reveals. And on a Reddit thread about these Ukrainian election maps, commenter Martin Keegan pointed out that “the boundary is where the old Polish-Lithuanian – Russian border used to be,” an idea he previously proposed on his blog. That piqued my curiosity, so I ventured on an effort to do a similar overlay to the Polish one: how do the old Polish and Lithuanian borders with Russia overlap with Ukraine’s current political polarization?

It was more of an effort than I’d have thought. But here is the result, overlaying different historical borders on the 2010 Presidential election results. It turns out that Keegan wasn’t entirely correct about the old Polish-Lithuanian – Russian border – but he definitely had a good point about the continuing salience of historical borders. Check out how the territory that still belonged to Poland in between the two world wars overlaps with the most overwhelming support for Tymoshenko (click the map to enlarge).

 

Historical borders and the 2010 Ukrainian election map

History as destiny? Historical borders superimposed on the 2010 Ukrainian election map

Moreover, Keegan’s point appears more vindicated when looking at the 1991 referendum results, though the division there was merely one between a large versus a near-unanimous majority in favour of idependence, or, especially, the 1994 presidential elections. Here is what the historical overlay looks like for the latter:

 

Historical borders and the 1994 Ukrainian election map

History as destiny, Pt. II? Historical borders superimposed on the 1994 Ukrainian election map

 

There are, however, also ways in which history is conspicuously not destiny. Or at least not in ways that are immediately obvious or make sense intuitively. Check out this map of the Holodomor – the genocidal, man-made famine that struck large parts of Ukraine, which is often blamed on indifference or outright malice on the part of Stalin and his regime. Compare it with the post-independence electoral maps, and any overlap is … hard to see. If anything, the Holodomor was most devastating in areas that now habitually side with Russia-friendly politicians like Yanukovich. Which doesn’t immediately make instinctive sense.

Methodological note:

The historical borders are approximate, though I did my best to be precise. As source material I used a map of Northeastern Europe around 1700; a Wikimedia map of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth anno 1789; a Wikimedia map of Poland after the Second Partition of 1793; the detailed 1794 Laurie and Whittle map of the Kingdom of Poland; and an administrative map of Interbellum Poland in 1930. In addition, I used the Wikipedia page and subpages on the administrative raions of Ukraine,  and a detailed Ukrainian Wikimedia map of the electoral multimandate raions of the country. Delineating the far eastern border of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a bit difficult since some settlements like the erstwhile Krylov that were right on the border back then have long been submerged in the Kremenchuk dam reservoir. In the south, the problem in defining how the historical border overlaps with current territories, lacking more detailed maps, lies with the transfer of Transnistria to Moldova.

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Failure or success for the regime? The constitutional referendum results in comparison and the political geography of Egypt

International Politics, Politics
Map: Egypt 2014 constitutional referendum - Turnout by governorate

Egypt 2014 constitutional referendum - Turnout by governorate

Last Sunday, Egypt’s Supreme Electoral Committee announced the results of the referendum on the new constitution: no less than 98.1% of Egyptian voters had cast a vote in favour of the new text. That Eastern Block-style result should, however, be placed in the context of a turnout of just 38.6% — surely a less resounding affirmation of the new regime than the army would have hoped. Turnout reached up to 51-53% in the governorates of Menofiya and Gharbiya, in the Nile Delta, and Port Said; but it stayed under 24% in the governorates of Matrouh, Fayoum, and upriver in Sohag and Qena.

How does this result compare with the turnout and “Yes” vote in 2012, when it was the Muslim Brotherhood government that was pushing through a constitutional referendum? In addition, what does the turnout map reveal about the political geography of Egypt? The current referendum was of course boycotted by the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as by the most radical of the revolutionary groups, the April 6 Movement. The April 6 Movement is relatively small, however, and the constitution was supported by many other liberal and radical groups (and the extent of popular support for the liberal and leftist groups is in any case in doubt). So were the areas of low turnout correlated to areas of high support for the Muslim Brotherhood?

The trick in comparing the results of this year’s referendum with the one two years ago is that you’re dealing with two separate elements: the turnout, affected as it might be by boycotts and apathy, and the percentage of actual “Yes” voters. This year, turnout was low, at least by international standards, but almost everyone who went out to vote, voted “Yes”. (Considering the current climate of repression, opponents might also not have dared to come out to vote “No”). However, in the 2012 referendum turnout was even lower, at 32.9%, and in addition, there was a substantive number of people who came out only to vote against the Muslim Brotherhood’s constitution.

To take account of both elements, in the table below (click for full size), I’ve taken the turnout and “Yes” vote percentages in each referendum and calculated the number of “Yes” voters as percent of all eligible voters. I also did the same for the results of the second round of the 2012 presidential election, when Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi faced off against Ahmed Shafik, widely associated with the ancien regime, army and “felool”.

Table: Egypt constitutional "Yes" votes of 2012 and 2014 in comparison

The constitutional "Yes" votes of 2012 and 2014 and the 2012 presidential election results (second round) in comparison, taking into account turnout rates

In short, especially when you take turnout into account, the army’s referendum this year fared much better than the Brotherhood’s proposal two years ago. Then again, context is important. The army inundated the airwaves and streets with propaganda, whereas even just carrying flyers against the constitution could get you harassed or arrested. Morsi’s government was repressive in its own ways, but the campaign back then wasn’t anywhere as one-sided, with the opposition holding public rallies in Tahrir Square and elsewhere. The direct comparison in this table shouldn’t therefore be taken simply at face value. One thing it can be useful for, I think, is to identify local and regional electoral patterns.

In the table above, I added two extra columns at the right end, based on formulae that I freely made up on the spot. I rather crudely labelled the first one the “Army/felool vs MB score”, which I know overly simplifies things. The formula is very straightforward:

Yes vote 2014 as percent of eligible voters + Shafik vote as percent of eligible voters - Yes vote 2012 as percent of eligible voters - Morsi vote as percent of eligible voters.

Egypt: "regime vs MB" score by governorate [Map]

"Regime vs MB" score: The Yes vote in the 2014 constitutional referendum and the Shafik vote in the 2010 presidential elections, minus the Yes vote in the 2012 constitutional referendum and the Morsi vote in the 2010 presidential elections (all as percent of all eligible voters)

By this calculation, the Faiyum and Matruh governorates are the only real Muslim Brotherhood strongholds, where Morsi and the 2012 referendum fared much better than nationally, and Shafik and the 2014 referendum fared much worse. Beni Suef and Minya follow at some distance. Those are also the only four governorates where a higher percentage of all eligible voters turned out to vote “Yes” in the 2012 constitutional referendum than in the 2014 one, though the difference in Beni Suef and Minya was small. (It might be worth noting, though, that Morsi didn’t win Matruh in the firstround of the 2012 presidential elections; it went for Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Brotherhood leader who built his campaign on a hybrid coalition of moderates and Salafis).

On the other hand, by this calculation, Monufia and Gharbia are by far the strongest army/establishment bulwarks, but Dakahlia, Port Said, Qalyubia, Cairo and Sharqia all rank highly here too.

There is another, less obvious dimension of these results though, which interested me when I noticed that the people of Aswan, Qena, Sohag and Luxor appear to not have particularly liked any of the choices. In these governorates, both the “Yes” vote in 2012 and that of 2014 (as percentage of all eligible voters) stayed below the national average. And turnout in the second round of the presidential elections there was low enough that both Morsi and Shafik failed to reach their national average score, as percentage of all eligible voters. That’s why I added that last column in the above table. I dubbed it the “engagement score”, but it’s really nothing more than just the average turnout in the three elections.

Egypt: "Engagement score" [Map]

Average turnout in the second round of the 2012 presidential elections, the 2012 constitutional referendum, and the 2014 constitutional referendum

Interesting to me is that Cairo and Alexandria actually rank somewhat highly on this score. All of the options on these ballots (the two draft constitutions and the candidates in the second round of the presidential elections) were disliked by some or all of the liberal and left-wing groups — which you’d expect to be be overrepresented in the two main cities. But if their supporters took part in the boycotts, it didn’t have a marked additional effect: turnout in the two cities was actually around or a little above average at each of these three times. Which is a lot more than can be said about the upstream and some of the out-country governorates. So this might further underscore the relative impotence of these groups. The call from some radical groups, like the Road of the Revolution Front, to take part in the 2014 referendum but vote “No” also obviously achieved little.

The correlation between the two above maps also suggests a strategic problem for the Muslim Brotherhood (though it is obviously more concerned with more immediate threats at the moment). Most of the governorates where the army/regime appeals least, judging on the 2014 results and Shafik’s 2012 result, also seem to be among the lesser-energized governorates overall, which weren’t particularly motivated to turn out by either of the two sides in these elections/referenda.

After all, Faiyum, Matruh and Minya didn’t just massively boycott the 2014 referendum; in 2012 turnout there was barely over the national average, and in the 2012 presidentials Morsi can’t have inspired them too much either, because turnout was either just around the national average or, in the case of Matruh, much below it. (Beni Suef is the exception, with an above-average ‘engagement score’).

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Budapest riots: not what they used to be anymore

European Politics, Politics

— Crossposted from Cogitamus —
It’s March 15, a national holiday, and police was duly out in massive numbers to guard the some twenty different, mostly oppositional, manifestations that took place. March 15, on which Hungarians commemorate the 1848 uprising against their Habsburgian overlords, is one of the two or three most volatile days in this country. There’s always a great number of protest manifestations (especially if there is a leftwing government), and the last couple of years there was widespread rioting.

Which is why today was a bit of a disappointment, really.

I was sort of ready to ignore the festivities already, since after two and a half years and a dozen iterations, the demo-cum-riot scene has jumped the shark. It’s always the same anyway: angry grannies and families with Hungarian flags in the afternoon, hooded and balaclavad youths in the evening, when the mainstream conservative politicians sternly intoning their dire warnings make way for younger rabble-rousers, who shout about PM Gyurcsany, the commies, the police and the Jews. Demonstrators who look like the kind of mix of students and squatters you’d get in a far-left demo in Western Europe. Much posturing, waiting around, exchanging of tall tales, waving flags and shouting slogans; not to mention trying to impress the far-right girls, who are surprisingly cute. Marching this way and that, avoiding the police, building barricades, and then the inevitable show-down; teargas, batons, the crowd tearing back with scarves over their mouths. A lengthy cat-and-mouse game, as the rioters taunt the cops and pelt them with stones, until the dull thuds of tear gas grenades being shot into the crowd set everyone running again. Only for the game to start over twenty minutes later once the dust is settled. Rinse and repeat.

Nevertheless, I did keep an eye on the website of the Magyar Nemzet, a national-conservative newspaper which at every new iteration publishes a breathless minute-by-minute account of goings-on in the city. Very practical if you want to know where the riots are at any given moment. Not saying they actively incite the rioters, but … OK, who am I kidding, they do.

But it was thin gruel today. No large street battles, no kidnapped tank being driven around by demonstrators. A year ago, and two years ago, rioters would control sections of major thoroughfares downtown a mile long, rocks would rain down on the police shields. Barricades would be built, phonebooths felled and used as material, Molotov cocktails hurled. This time there was basically one violent clash of sorts, in the late afternoon near the Saint Stephen’s Basilica, around the corner from my work. Which was quickly smothered by an overwhelming police presence, with the riot cops easily outnumbering the rioters. (They’ve been recruiting).
By the time I bothered to haul myself over to the area, it was kind of sad really. Clumps of protestors, hanging around in small groups. Barely a flag among them, though there was a guy or two in a Hungarian Guard uniform. No chants of “Gyurcsany, bugger off”. Just waiting, cracking the odd joke but generally sharing a desultory mood. Warily watching the columns of riot police, clad in black, that blocked off the sidestreets. Sometimes a unit, upon barked commands, rattled off in a lockstep run, or moved into place. The whole street lined with police cars, vans, a whole bus arriving with fresh manpower.

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Blurry images from the 2006 riots

Some grannies, the national tricolor pinned on their chest, heckled the cops; a drunk in camouflage slurred insults. We pay you, our taxes, now look at you. But mostly, the status quo was complete. A far right teen, in the practical combat-ready outfit of boots, thigh-highs and skirt, posing for the photo with her girl friend; a guy in near-folkloric nationalist outfit jollying around in mock-poses when I turn my camera his way. On the other side, the helmeted cops are painstakingly polite to anyone with a camera or otherwise visibly not part of the scene. Hard to imagine these were the troops who two years ago were condemned by Amnesty International for violent abuse of demonstrators they had carted off in their vans: they allegedly handcuffed and lined up rows of suspects on their knees, and beat them with truncheons. Though they do still look the part, and at one point wrestled someone from the crowd and violently pushed and shoved him into one of the waiting vans.

Generally though, the police seem to have learnt a lot, these past two years. In the first round of rioting, when protestors briefly occupied the building of Hungarian Television, more cops were injured than protestors. Night after night, they were hunting after bands of rioters running amock, unable to do more than chase them off to ever new places. Now, they seem in full control. What are they doing differently now? Lesson one: overwhelming numbers. Have a disproportionate presence vis-a-vis the rioters. Outnumber them in such proportions, they’re intimidated before they even start. Lesson two: preempt their moves. Smother even the slightest rioting before it escalates. Block off entire neighbourhoods if need be. Lesson three, and this may seem paradoxical: mingle. Well, mingle is perhaps not the right word. But again and again, a point arrived where a phalanx of riot cops crossed the street or jumped out of a bus — not, in old school style, to form a big line of shields and then push the protesting youths into a pack and then backward — but to mix into the crowd. With one cop for every protestor, noone even thinks of resistance as the cops scatter and demand ID from every youth, and frisk many of them.

Of course that’s only possible thanks to their force of numbers. And how this fits with your various civil rights, I don’t know. I’ve never been asked to ID myself just for gathering in protest when taking part in demonstrations back home – and that’s all these kids were doing, by the time I arrived.

Hear me, I’m defending fascists now. And there is genuine reason to worry about the flourishing far right movements, with the Hungarian Guard ceremonially inducting 650 new members today. Just two days ago, a right wing group called the Hungarian Arrows Liberation Army (named in reference to the WW2-era Arrow Cross regime) claimed responsibility for a bus explosion in Bács county. The group said it had wanted to punish a local coach company that had transported a group of Roma “marching against Hungarians” to a demonstration in Ózd, in order to “avenge the anti-Hungarian sentiment”. In all, four people have been killed in seven recent attacks against Roma.

The silent majority, meanwhile, is just disgusted with it all. A Eurobarometer poll published last month showed that just 16% of Hungarians trust their national government – compared to 45% who trusted local and regional authorities and 51% who trusted the EU. More damningly, a national pollconducted last month showed that “all Hungary’s politicians [..] have negative ratings”. Neither the President, a conservative, nor the Prime Minister, a socialist (albeit, as is the case with many ex-communists in the region, one who has embraced the market reform with a passion), was evaluated positively. Nor was the Speaker of the Parliament – or any of the main opposition leaders.

Nor does it seem to be a particularly ideological matter. While the conservative opposition party Fidesz “towers above all the other parties” in the poll, the least impopular politician is actually a Socialist. Moreover, it’s Katalin Szili, the parliamentary speaker who often criticizes PM Gyurscany … from the left. So the Hungarians don’t agree whether the answer lies to the left or to the right, they just know they’re fed up with what they have now. Which neatly summarises the political history of postcommunist Hungary, come to think of it.

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Fear the Vlad

Culture, European Politics, Politics

(Yes, I know everyone else already tried out Obamacon.me a month or two ago…)

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