All entries for July 2010

July 30, 2010

Birthday presents: water, Fini and beer

3 presents in the news for today's birthday.

First, the UN General Assembly approved the Bolivian motion to declare access to drinking water a human right (in 1948 they were not so thirsty and didn't think about it). 122 countries voted Yes; let's name and shame the 41 countries that did not (from the UN website):

USA;

From the EU (18/27): Austria; Bulgaria; Cyprus; Czech Republic; Denmark; Estonia; Greece; Ireland; Latvia; Lithuania; Luxembourg; Malta, Netherlands; Poland; Romania; Slovakia; Sweden; UK;

Others: Armenia; Australia; Bosnia; Botswana; Canada; Croatia; Ethiopia; Guyana; Iceland; Israel [and then what, water for Gaza? you must be joking]; Japan; Kazakhstan; Kenya; Lesotho; New Zealand; South Korea; Moldova; Trinidad&Tobago; Turkey; Ukraine; Tanzania; Zambia.

Easy to notice: they closely correspond to the 'coalition of the willing', those who care about oil rather than water.

Second, the Italian government, technically, no longer controls a majority in the two chambers (but don't get too excited: it is unlikely it will fall), following the expulsion of Fini's group from the Popolo delle Libertà's party. This present has a bitter aftertaste for somebody born anti-fascist, as it comes as courtesy of post-fascist Gianfranco Fini (speaker of the lower chamber). I have long rejected the idea that one can honestly jump the ideological divide between fascism and democracy overnight as Fini did in the Autumn 1993, when a new election system and the Mani Pulite crisis unexpectedly opened to him the opportunity to become mayor of Rome (narrowly missed - but taken by his camerata Alemanno 15 years later) and to enter the government (taken, con gusto). I also consider him an old-school 'professional politician': he can communicate, he knows the rules (and how to play with them), but he is no specialist of anything. Actually, he is completly ignorant. At least, Berlusconi knows something about business and trash - Fini not even that. On the economy, I remember him not understanding the basic question of whether higher interest rates may damage the economy. On international affairs, I can't forget his performance on live tv on the evening of the 12th November 1998, when the news broke that Öcalan had landed in Rome and requested asylum: Fini had no clue who Öcalan was. A few years later, he was foreign minister, and admittedly even quite a good one: knowledge in politics is clearly redundant. I only started to somehow forgive him when seeing him on a visit to Warsaw and Auschwitz in February 1999: he looked genuinly embarrassed by the primitive bigotry he had to listen to from his hosts, the (then in government) Polish Catholic nationalists of the ZChN, and looked clearly more democratic then them. So, the jury is still out on who actually Fini is.Budweiser

Third present: the European Court of Justice has ruled that the EU trademark Budweiser does not belong to the dull American imitation, made by multinational Anheuser-Busch in-Bev, but to the real thing, the divine pils still made by a rare (for long?) state-owned company, Budějovický Budvar from České Budějovice (pretty baroque little town, and the first place in Czechoslovakia where I got off the train back in 1990: you never forget your first Czech beer). So this is the drink to celebrate with today, and start holidays tomorrow: na zdraví!


July 28, 2010

Polacchizzati? On Fiat & globalisation

m8185050c.jpgToday's Gazeta Wyborcza (left) opens with a new Italian word, which I did not know yet myself: Polacchizzati, or Polonized, or zpolonizowani. It's an article about the ongoing protests in Italy against Fiat's threats to transfer production to Poland [background: Fiat made investment in the Italian plant, and apparently its survival, conditional on accepting a much worse working time regime, plus a sort of "no-strike" agreement; in a referendum, 63% of employees accepted this "deal", labelled as blackmail by the FIOM-CGIL union - but FIAT expected and wanted near-unanimity]. The Polish journalist, after describing with some amusement Italians' attachment to siesta, collects the voices of Italian workers in the Southern Italian plant of Pomigliano condemning Polonization as imposition of not just ever worsening working conditions, but also a mentality of self-exploitation: "why you Poles want to work that hard? what's wrong with you?". Which may remind of English voices such as "those fucking Poles, all coming over here, with their fucking work ethic", but has a point - as many Polish commentators on Wyborcza's website admit.

20100723primapagina.gifMedia love turning issues of global work restructuring into national jokes - last year's strike at Lindsley refinery "against the Italians" was a spectacular case I described in a union magazine( iur.pdf). Maybe this is a good thing: at least issues are raised and noticed, even if in a distorted way. Mainstream media are unlikely to put collective bargaining, restructuring plans, working time systems or supply chains in the main news - or they would condemn themselves to audiences as narrows as this blog's. But things are always much more complicated. I can't resist the temptation of moaning 'I had said it...'. My thesis comparing Italian and Polish Fiat factories in 1999 (and later book) and pointing that Poland was not the cheap crap place Italians imagined, but a laboratory for the future, and that Italian and Polish unions should start speak to each other, was read by about five people and - also because in the meanwhile I was sent to Coventry - I did not manage to disseminate much to it to the people concerned.

I stopped following Fiat time ago - I tried, with some colleagues and friends such as Valeria Pulignano, to suggest a book on Fiat and globalisation in 2004, but all Italian publishers I contacted were sure that nobody, ever, would be interested in reading about Fiat's foreign factories - how foreward-looking from them. So I can't say much about the recent developments, but I have two impressions. First, what's happening at Fiat is a massive speed change in the aggressive use of relocation threats that multinational companies have been making for about two decades (Hoover swapping France for Scotland in 1993 is usually mentioned as the first case). This is the first case where 'coercive comparisons' have become 'total': everybody against everybody, at all times, in all directions. Southern Italy against Poland, Poland against Turkey, Northern Italy against Serbia... Only last year the Polish workers of Bielsko-Biala were still being threatened with relocations to Italy, unless they accepted different working time arrangements - no interest from Italy then. A permanent 'liquidity' of employment relations is imposed, whereby there are no guarantees and offers are made and withdrawn "a capriccio". Second, in no major car company is international union response as weak as in Fiat, which is therefore free to direct the dances at its own will: Fiat's European Works Council is said to be made inoperational by internal conflicts amongst Italian trade unions, and to an extent amongst Polish trade unions. Marchionne (FIAT's CEO) must have fun, sitting and watching the unions fight each other to exhaustion.

And Marchionne himself is often in the front pages, with his famous sweaters even in the middle of the Italian summer. In last Friday's Il Manifesto, in relation to relocations from Turin to Kragujevac, he is turned into another national stereotype, il cecchino Sergio (the Sergio sniper, playing on words with il cecchino serbo, the Serbian sniper).

So if this is the only game in town I'll add my contribution: isn't Sergio Marchionne (who spent most of his life in Northern America) just a typical yankee, as demonstrated by the fact that he didn't even let workers watch the football (soccer) World Cup?

PS: In its own way, the "Polacchizzati" article was still an enjoyable piece of journalism. Two days later Gazeta Wyborcza (the former Solidarity daily paper, still the best East of Berlin, and amongst the best in the world, for both journalism and commentary) reached much lower standards with a reportage on the Polish Fiat workers in Tychy. This was mostly based on the story of a happy family where both mum and dad work for Fiat and are ever so grateful to their magnanimous employer, who has made all their dreams true. Its style would have fit well in 1970s' Trybuna Ludu (the official organ of the United Polish Worker Party), when Tychy workers were reported to be equally grateful for their opportunity to contribute to the radiant communist dream.


July 21, 2010

Final meditations on Göteborg

Gothenburg, as a post-industrial harbour city, tells a similar story of gentrification, tourism, private services to East London, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Barcelona - and one that Gdanks, Napoli or Genova would like to tell too. It's a glossy, triumphalistic story of getting ever cleaner - but which has its dark side of exclusion and removal. The Haga ex-working class district, for instance, is an Islington in miniature and a near-pure ideal type of post-industrial gentrification + tourism.gentrified Haga

The book "(re)searching Gothenburg", written by 37 Gothenburg sociologists (edited by H Holgersson, C Thörn, H. Thörn and M. Wahlström) for the World Sociological Congress to challenge the dominant narrative, tells this story very well, and adds some interesting idiosyncratic specificities.

The 'Gothenburg's spirit' of trade, business and private donation for culture and philantropy has combined for a while with Swedish social democracy, into a particularly pragmatic, and outward looking, version of it. The ambitious public housing programs of the 1960s, in particular, destroyed the long-existing working class solidarities by dis- and re-placing the population.

Volvo, with its large factory in the North of the city, is one important influence, sponsoring for instance the film festival. The 'strong man of Gothenburg' Göran Johansson, socialdemocrat former unionist at SKF and for four decades mayor or otherwise prominent politician, is another one. Together, they have combined in a particularly moderate version of the Saltsjöbad spirit (the 1938 'founding' compromise between unions and employers). 'Budget dinners' between socialdemocrats administrators and business people in expensive restaurants exemplified this local version of 'corporatism'.

Also, Gothenburg is particular in its particularly ruthless revision of the Saltsjöbad spirit since the 1990s. The success of Gothenburg as an 'entrepreneurial city', 'event area' and 'knowledge centre' has also involved increased segregation and inequality - particularly visible in the case of ethnic minorities, but with also an increasingly visible class dimension. Gothenburg is not just the place of big sport events, concerts and congresses. It is also where, on the 30th of October 1998, 63 young people from the suburbs and mostly with immigrant background died in a fire during a party in an immigration association's venue. In 2009, for the first time, there have been ethnic riots - if incomparably smaller than the French ones. Also the apparently consensual environment issue actually has a deepening conflictual side, with acts of resistance and mobilisation including sabotage of SUV (nice idea if you ask me, but I imagine the difficulty of building alliances with Volvo workers).

So Gothenburg is very Swedish and socialdemocratic - but more so, for good and evil. Scandinavian countries are actually those, in Europe, with the biggest social relative disadvantage for immigrants, youth, disabled (although, in absolute terms, these groups are better off in Scandinavia than in most other EU countries - but then, they are more likely to compare themselves to the locals, than to their peers somewhere else). The frequently mentioned reason is skills (or lack thereof), ever more important in the knowledge economy. Yet skills don't fall from the sky and are themselves the product of a social system, which can include and exclude.

Gothenburg now attracts business, trade and Ryanair tourists. And Sweden is now referred to as a model not by the Left, but by the Right: the Tories keep referring to Sweden with regard to how to cut the deficit fast (Sweden did it rather safely in the 1990s, but starting from a much richer welfare state and therefore without so much pain: it had the luxury to ring-fence expenditure on higher education and research, instead of health), and to the free schools (but even in Sweden, these increased segregation, without overall improvement in standards, according to research by Susanne Wilborg of the Institute of Education).

Kitchen Stories

Everlasting Moments

Let's finish with movie images of Sweden. With regard to society and social history, two movies taught me a lot about Sweden (OK, I have not watched many more, even if Nordic cinema is among the very best). "Kitchen Stories" is actually a Norwegian movie (Salmer Fra Kjokkenet, by Bent Hamer, 2003), but it describes an amazing research program of the Swedish Home Research Institute's scientists in the 1950s: introducing ergonomy into private kitchens, starting from sending dozen of observers into a sample of bachelors' houses, to sit on high chairs in the corner of their kitchen to collect statistics on their physical movements - on the assumption that men must be more efficient than housewives. In the name of positivist science, the observers were forbidden to interact or even speak to the observed, while staying in their kitchen for weeks on. On this 'objectively' exhilarating base, Hamer builds a comedy drama at typically Nordic slow pace, which offers lots of reflection material not just on state control, but also on researcher-researched relations. Btw, IKEA is the side effect of that very research program.

The second movie is "Everlasting Moments" (Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick, by Jan Troell, 2008), a biopic of Swedish female photographer Maria Larssons in the 1910s-20s. In its structure, the movie is just a traditional linear historical movie, rather didascalic. But it adds original insights on the power of photography and of choosing images through a lens (it reminds at times Kieslowski's masterpiece Camera Buff [Amator]), as well as reflection on the Swedish working class, Swedish women and Swedish religious morality before socialdemocratic emancipation - which with all its limits, let's admit it, was still a pretty good thing.


July 20, 2010

On sociopedia.isa's hack: how bad are publishing houses?

Follow-up to Göteborg & the remains of the Swedish model from Around Europe 2010-12

On the evening of the 13th of July I was, as from the blog entry, at Eddie Webster's reception and therefore not at the concomitant reception for the inauguration of sociopedia.isa, the on-line sociological encyclopedia. That reception was disrupted by a protest against publisher SAGE and the fact that sociopedia, an initiative of the International Sociological Association, will not be free for all, as sociological knowledge arguably should. The protest is described and explained in other blogs, e.g. by a Gothenburg's doctoral researcher.

Now, it happens that I like protests, don't particularly like publishers, but I am also the author of a sociopedia entry, who signed off the copyright to SAGE, and even a member of its editorial board. So I have a duty to explain what I think about it.

I was invited to join sociopedia, still an underground clandestine idea, by Michel Wieviorka (ISA president) in a private conversation in September 2007 in Zielona Gora, Poland, at the margins of the Polish Sociological Congress. I liked the idea of something in the wide gulf between wikipedia and a paper encyclopedia (a gulf where students tend to get lost) and accepted. The proposal had to be kept secret until confirmed that viable, in order to avoid burning it, and the aim was inaugurating at Gothenburg 2010. The idea proceeded quite slowly, as one can imagine given the size of the undertaking: we academics take years to write little articles, how can we write an encyclopedia in a few months? I can imagine that the technical difficulties pushed the ISA, towards the end, to turn to SAGE (who already publishes the ISA journal's Current Sociology) for help. Eventually the 13th July deadline was met, but with just 18 entries (the target was 50), including mine.

There is no doubt that this is a collective failure: ISA, who does not need SAGE for recognition, has not managed the job on time with its own resources. Michel Wieviorka, the promoter of the thing, did not attend the reception himself so I can only deduct that he was not so enthusiastic himself. But I have also to admit that if I had been asked to do the editing job SAGE did, I would not have done it. I don't have the time to edit this blog, imagine sociopedia entries. Editorial work is something that, within division of labour, we have grown used to leave to private companies. So if we criticise sociopedia for being restricted-access, then we should do the same for Current Sociology, or Work, Employment and Society (also a SAGE journal, of which I am on the editorial board but I have never seen protests that it isn't for free - although I heard complaints on specific publisher's policies), or any other journal, given that nowadays the print copies are rather redundant and we could do it all for free on the internet.

In the specific case, the protest is therefore a little unfair: not just sociopedia, but most academic publications come from public bodies but are 'sold out' to the devil publishers. Yet the broader issue it raised, about copyright and commodification of (publicly-funded) knowledge in the internet era is a real one. So any attempt at opening spaces for decommodified knowledge is welcome, even if we can't burn publishers down (yet). Some little heroes are already starting the work of free-access on-line journals - and let me mention as example, again, Eddie Webster thanks to his new Global Labour Journal.


Big Switzerland, anybody?

Grande Suisse

Small countries can actually be interesting - and may even try to become big.

The rightwing populist SVP or Swiss People's Party, which happens to be the largest Swiss party, has submitted a parliamentary motion to introduce such constitutional changes, that would allow neighbouring regions to join Switzerland as new cantoons. They mentioned, as potential candidates, a number of regions for a total of 17m people (as against 8m inhabitants of the current 'small' Switzerland). Look at the map to see the cancer-like shape of the future country.

Canton Como, with Canton Ticino on the horizon

This happened last month and don't worry: nothing to fear. But what is interesting is that having had a look at dicussion fora from the neighbouring countries, the self-selected population commenting is overwhelmingly in favour of the idea and seems to long to swap Roma/Wien/Berlin/Paris for Bern. Vorarbelg, after all, had actually tried to join Switzerland in 1919, Südtirol's identity is most definitely not Italian, Alsace's not-so-French. And, from a SVP point of view, the candidate regions, while differing in the federal language they speak, share a strong inclination for the populist Right, whether the Lega Nord, die FPÖ, die Republikaner or Le Front National. In prospective Canton Como some look confused, though (picture).

In 1866, the First Workingmen's (sic) International Association held its first Congress in Geneva. Now in the same country internationalism is promoted by bankers and somebody shouts Populisten aller Länder, vereinigt euch...


July 19, 2010

Post–election

Follow-up to Pyrrhus victory for a colourless president in Poland (and Germany) from Around Europe 2010-12

The 'decency' stemming from the Smolensk tragedy had a clear expire date: the elections themselves. Once over, the knives have come out, with both sides addressing each other with delicate words such as "killers" and "criminals". Kaczynski says his brother died because of the government's refusal to buy new planes, and the liberals say it was because of his own's pressure on the pilote to land despite the fog. The issue won't disappear, even physically: at the gate of the presidential palace there's still a big cross remembering Kaczynski, there since that tragic 10th of April, and now a pilgrmage point for the fundamentalist Right: should Komorowski remove it (and cause a religious war) or accept to live under its shadow? This cross may prove as troublesome as the pope's one in Auschwitz/Oswiecim I reported in 1998 for il Manifesto.

But I'd stand by my qualified defence of Kaczynskis. Even on gender. After all, with Joanna Kuzik-Rostkowska in charge of them, the Law and Justice's government of 2005-07 started more equal opportunities programs than the previous "socialdemocratic", or the subsequent liberal governments. And if it is true that Lech Kaczynski had banned the gay pride in 2005, the liberals have only just tolerated the Europride that took place in Warsaw last Saturday: the differences in this regard are, again, more visible in caricatures than in reality.


July 14, 2010

Göteborg & the remains of the Swedish model

I am at the World Sociological Congress in Göteborg but I won't bore with sociology here. Contentwise, I'll only mention a non sociologist: the Nobel-Prize for Chemistry Yuan-Thseh-Lee, who gave the key note speach on the future of the environment: a much more briliant presentation than Al Gore's movie, with the striking message was that the situation with global warming is not as bad as we believed: it is quite worse.

Humanly, it was nice to celebrate the achivements of the outgoing International Sociological Association's president Michel Wieviorka, famous for having been my co-supervisor in Paris. And it was moving as well as joyful to participate in an unusual very-official+very-informal reception for the retirement of Eddie Webster, held by His Excellency the South Africal Ambassador to Sweden "comrade" Mr S R Makgetla. Eddie has been not just a leading labour sociologist, but has been a prominent intellectual in the South African anti-apartheid movement - having been even jailed in 1985 and taking the opportunity of the trial to deliver a sociological lecture on the importance of free trade unions. Sweden - whose East India Company had narrowly missed colonising South Africa ahead of the Dutch - had been quite important in the international movement against apartheid, too.

What about Sweden today? Sometimes it is still mentioned as a "model", with a series of myths, whether positive (the perfect welfare state) or negative (the high suicide rate: this myth drives Espin Andersen mad). I don't like the ideas of models, whether they are the Soviet Union, America, or Sweden: in this case, you can't imitate a country that missed both world wars and made a fortune by avoiding them, and which has just 9 million people on a huge surface (which is why I limit myself to "large" countries in my 2 years).

But above all, Sweden is no model anymore, starting from itself. In the 2006 elections, it shifted to the Right and the Socialdemocracts fell to 35%, the worst result since 1921. And right now, after a long period in which the Left was well ahead, the opinion polls ahead of the September elections suggest that the Right will win again, with the socialdemocrats down to 30% and even a growing extreme right in the possible role of kingmaker. It would be the first time since the 1930s that the socialdemocrats are out of government for more than one term. Amongst the reasons, the usual suspects: fiscal crisis [but the deficit is v small], immigration, fear for the recession [Sweden has actually benefited from its welfare state and benefits to keep demand up, but more recently, with perfect electoral timing, the government has introduced some vote-boosting stimulus]. What survives is the gender model, with very high female employment (although largely segregated in the public sector), 85% of fathers taking paternity leave, ban on buying sex. But even on the gender dimension voters (the male ones?) are turning their backs to the more radical proposals of the socialdemocrats and the Left Party.

Before the start of the congress, labour sociologists organised an informal meeting, in a culture club in Haga, with Swedish trade unionists. Quite a lot of complaints about the Socialdemocrats shifting to the right, and about the unions themselves. Some - but opinions diverged - contrasted this with Norway, where the unions are more assertive and the socialdemocrats resist in power and do not privatise/liberalise schools and welfare state like in Sweden. Yet, the Norwegian unions are the only ones among the Nordic ones not to have 80%-plus membership (they have "only" about 50%), because they do not have the so-called Ghent system whereby the unions co-manage unemployment insurance, so that workers join them believing that could miss out if they don't. Without wanting to be sectarian, it seems to me that sometimes it may be better to have not so many members, but a bit more committed ones.

Göteborg is still a pretty place, as lively as any port city but without the social decadence: so the remains of socialdemocracy are still visible everywhere. Even if the weather is tropically hot and humid, and the population is all sunbathing on the archipelago: Yuan-Thseh-Lee must be right.

PS1: I'll bow to some populist pressure to write about football, following the South African theme of this entry. I watched Spain-Holland in Italo-Anglo-Dutch company in a dark Göteborg pub. The locals were all for Holland, and asked why, they explained it was because they like "certain Dutch laws". With regard to the Cup, just like in politics and economics, arguments about the decline of Europe (widespread during the first round) were premature, and European countries occupied the first three places, only a slight decline from the four of 2006. The proof of their hegemony is that Brazil - tu quoque - adopted a European, utilitaristic style of play (and left Ronaldinho at home just because he is chubby and enjoys life! On these frankly outlandish criteria, Maradona would not have been selected for Argentina in '86).

PS2: for more in-depth accounts of the 'dark' side of Sweden, especially with regard to gender, I recommend the article in the Observer on the case of Goran Lindberg, the chief of the Swedish police and hero of women right who turned out to be at the centre of a child prostitution ring - the case and its sleazy details were all over the frontpages while I was in Sweden, but I overlooked it as without understanding the text I preferred not to base my judgment on the pictures.


July 07, 2010

A Sud di Lampedusa (Italy 2006)

Movie image
Title:
A Sud di Lampedusa
Rating:
5 out of 5 stars

This blog is about Europe but Europe does not exist in a vacuum and it can be seen from different external angles - for instance, from the South. Yesterday's projection of "A Sud di Lampedusa" at Coventry University (organised by mafia expert Rino Coluccello) was a welcome opportunity.

It's an Italian documentary, by Andrea Segre in collaboration with journalists Stefano Liberti (present in the after-film debate yesterday) and Ferruccio Segre, filmed in 2006 entirely in Africa, on the roads that migrants from Western Africa follow before arriving to the Mediterranean coasts and, possibly, try to cross to Europe (e.g. to the little island of Lampedusa). The message is clear: 9 out of 10 migrants in Western Africa are not directed to Europe but travel within Africa, as they have done for centuries and have done especially in the last 25 years, first to Ivory Coast and Nigeria, and then, due to war there, to destinations like Libya. But the Italian government's request to Ghaddafi to stop people leaving the Libyan shores, and to repatriate/lock up foreigners (at the cost of Italy), has made life impossible for all migrants within Africa, including those who had been to Libya for 20 years and had never bothered going to Europe.

The film is sober, not overdone: you don't need special effects to get great images in the Sahara, and you don't need professional actors when people are as willing to narrate, and skilled in it, as western Africans are during their long journeys. There are no images from the internation camps or prisons, there's no horror-movie soundtrack. Some travel scenes reminded me of my own (much shorter and safer but still very long for me!) journeys on overcrowded local buses along the poor roads of Morocco, Peru, Nicaragua, Borneo or Nepal. The music (Goeffry Oryema, Fela and Femi Kuti) is particularly good and appropriate. Some telling shots, such as a big sign in the middle of nowhere "PAS UN PAS SANS LE VISA", and some great lines (in nice African-accented English or French). After telling about the long difficult itinerary through the Sahara, a lorry driver, asked increduly if this is the only way to Libya, answers "no, there are two ways; if you have money, you can take the plane". And asked if travelling for days on on overcrowded lorries is hard, he says that you get used to it [reflection pause], "yet lorries are for carrying things, not human beings".

The trend of rich countries to ask third countries to do, for them, the dirty job of stopping migrants, is global, and is making life hell within the Thirld World without really stopping immigration anyway. Italy and the EU are also funding Libya to build a wall on the desert border with Niger (surprise surprise, the contract went to a big Italian company, Finmeccanica). Yet the worst of all ideas in this trend has come recently from the new UK government: to repatriate child refugees from Afghanistan, and care for them in one big orphanage to be built in... Kabul. Nota bene: this is all meant "for their own good" (not because it is cheaper and takes votes away from the BNP).

"A Sud di Lampedusa" is not the only or first movie on this topic. It is a very good one though. An 8' extract can be seen on the (recommended) Fortress Europe blog.


July 05, 2010

Pyrrhus victory for a colourless president in Poland (and Germany)

I am still in Coventry but livestreaming and mediatisation mean I have followed the Polish presidential elections - and the German ones - more or less as if I had been there. I had followed some past Polish elections much more closely, and indeed I had reported the last presidential ones (in 2005) for il Manifesto (this was for instance my article on Lech Kaczynski's victory: kaczor.pdf).

The Polish election night started with the exit polls and if one had looked at the images without sound, would have came to the wrong conclusions. On one side, the liberal Bronislaw Komorowski looked as colourless as ever, the little crowds looked bitter, and when two heroes of the Polish transformation joined on stage (Tadeusz Mazowiecki, first democratic prime minister in eastern europe, who by the way I have the honour to have taught how to eat langoustines in a restaurant of Transtevere in 2003, and Wladislaw Bartoszewski, first non-communist foreign affair minister), they all looked tearful. On the other side, Jaroslaw Kaczynski looked bright and determined, surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd making victory signs. But the winner was the former. Why such inverted emotions? Because Kaczynski, even losing, had received twice as many votes as the opinion polls had predicted a few weeks ago, or had predicted for his twin brother when he was the candidate. Komorowski, by contrast, had hoped to obtain a landslide in the first round two weeks ago, but eventually needed a second round and prevailed by just 6 percentage point. At midnight, just for the sake of adding some artificial drama, the official results from half of the polling stations even put Kaczynski ahead, but only because the first stations to declare are the small ones from the countryside, where Kaczynski is much more popular than in the cities.

The Polish campaign was quite surreal as it was a snap election following the Smolensk catastrophe in April, when Lech Kaczynski, his wife, the President of the Central Bank, the highest military chiefs and a dozen prominent politicians of all political parties (including the Left's presidential candidate) died in the same place where 20,000 Polish officers were murdered by Stalin in 1940. Nobody loves martirology as much as the Poles, and all sides were therefore extremely careful to show dignified behaviour - which was a decent thing, but came at the cost of frank debates. In line with global trends, the main events were the two TV debates: in my livestreaming-informed opinion, the first was a narrow Kaczynski's victory and the second a clear Kaczynski's victory: Komorowski was just too technical. A curious paradox: in the April prime ministerial debates in the UK, Clegg and Brown had attacked Cameron for being allied, in the European Parliament, with the homophobic party of Jaroslaw Kaczynski. In the Polish debate, guess what Komorowski attacked Kaczynski for? Yes, for being allied with David Cameron, the nasty selfish Englishman who wants to cut European subsidies for the poor Polish peasants and for building Polish roads. Given how they mutually damage each other, the European Conservative and Reformists group of MEP should be renamed Embarrassing Company of Rejects (it also includes Czech climate-change deniers and some Latvians who can't help celebrating their SS division). This also demonstrates that national politics continue to idealise and demonise politcs from other countries, better if from far away (e.g. a mythical Obama and a horror Italy), in a game of distorting mirrors that says a lot about today's democracy - I will get back to this point often as my transnational travel makes me spot more of such mutual distortions.

Although I had written extensively about Kaczynskis' faults, I must say that even before the Smolensk catastrophe I had an instinctive stronger sympathy for them (for Lech rather than Jaroslaw though) than for the annoyingly arrogant and aristocratic Komorowski. This is also because in my field - labour -, the Kaczynskis are more leftwing than the liberals, and not suprisingly were supported by the union Solidarity, while the liberals are proposing a drastic attack on union rights (and Polish unions are already so weak that none can blame them for damaging the employers). This time, Kaczynski went as far as to try to attract leftwing votes, stressing his social side and even expressing appreciation for the former communist leader Gierek (who is still remember positively by many in his home region Silesia). So on election night I had the best impression from two uncommon women. First, Kinga Dunin, feminist writer, who cleverly said that a Kaczynski's victory would have been the best thing to get Poland rid of both the conservative liberals, and Kaczynski himself (given his incapacity to rule, once president he would become as unpopular as he was when shortly prime minister in 2006-07). Second, Joanna Kuzik-Rostkowska, journalist and former Labour and Social Affairs minister, chief of Kaczynski's electoral committee. A really brilliant woman, with independent ideas (for instance, she supports the right to IVF, which Kaczynski wants to ban), she is one big reason of the surprisingly good result of Kaczynski among the youngest voters (although his main electorate remains the grey one).

One footnote: the candidate of the Left obtained 13% in the first round, well above expectations. He is even very happy about it, which says it all. In a few months, the Left has been beaten in Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland (+UK). In the EU, it remains in power only in Greece, Portugal and Spain (+ the odd Slovenia), probably just because the Right prefers not to have to rule those countries. Yet they are still happy....

If Komorowski is colourless and boring, the Germans have done even better in their own snap election (but an indirect one) last wednesday, electing the stiffy christian democrat Christian Wulff, whose only merit is being disliked by Angela Merkel, who thus found the way to remove him from party diatribes (imagine if Blair had been allowed to make Brown king). But like in Poland, it was the process, not the winner, to be interesting. Wednesday was a long day that needed three votes, while Wulff should in theory have won easily in the first round. When finally elected, Wulff (and Merkel) looked funereal. Much speculation went on during the day about the behaviour of die Linke: if in the first round it had voted for the candidate of the socialdemocrats/greens (the popular former eastern dissident Gauck), this would have won, and bye bye Wulff and Merkel. This is absurd speculation, because had die Linke voted for Gauck, surely fewer conservative delegates would have voted for him. But there was a better reason for die Linke to vote Gauck: removing the image that they are still tied to their communist past and therefore cannot forgive dissidents such as Gauck. Constrained by internal divisions as their are, they missed this opportunity. Paradoxically, when post-communism seems to have become quite irrelevant in Poland, it is still a huge burden for German politics.

[PS: I already hate the fact that Warwick's blog facility does not include Polish fonts - or at least I can't find them]


July 2010

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