Nov 162014

Much merriment in the Eastern state of Thuringia: 25 years after the fall of the wall, the Greens and the SPD in the state parliament are poised to form a coalition with the Left (die Linke), which would give the Left its first minister president ever.

What’s the Matter with the Left?

Predictably, this is creating all sorts of backlash. On the surface, it is all about Thuringia, and about the Left’s uneasy relationship with the past. But on another level, it’s about the prospects of triple left (or red/red/green) coalitions in Western states and ultimately on the federal level.

2310190122 0e07743880 m ddr The Math of Post SocialismPhoto by pdxjmorris cc The Math of Post SocialismThe Left is one of the strangest creatures in German politics. It was formed in 2007 by a merger of the WASG – a group of SPD dissidents who rejected the welfare reforms/cuts (delete as appropriate) introduced by the Schröder government from 2002 on – and the PDS. The PDS in turn came about by renaming (twice) East Germany’s Socialist Unity Party (SED), the local equivalent of the Soviet Union’s communist party. Consequentially, the continuing role of the PDS after 1990 has been controversial. Right now, the Greens, the SPD and everybody’s hipster grandmother demand that the Left apologises for four decades of state socialist authoritarianism.

What is Left of the SED in the Left? (sorry, could not resist this one)

The other day, I heard Dietmar Bartsch on the radio, who played an instrumental role as one of the organisers of the WASG/PDS merger. Asked about the Left’s relationship with its state socialist past, Bartsch argued that the media and the Left’s political enemies had overplayed the issue: After all, only one per cent of the SED’s previous members were still enrolled in today’s Left. That sounds like a tiny fraction, right? Right, and this is because the figure (if it is correct) is misleading, to say the least. After all, the relevant question is not what became of the SED members, but rather how important the old guard still is today. So lets do the math.

In 1989, the SED had 2.3 million members, roughly 14 per cent of the GDR’s total population. After the wall came down and unification became a real prospect, they began to leave the sinking ship in their droves. Around the time of unification, less than 10 per cent of the original number remained, and over the ensuing couple of decades, many more left or simply passed away, as it were chiefly the elderly who had been loyal to the party.

2372055396 f498a95bab m DDR The Math of Post SocialismPhoto by pdxjmorris cc The Math of Post Socialism

Against this backdrop, Bartsch’s one per cent figure looks plausible, so let us assume that that many of the old SED stock still remain in the Left. That works out at 23,000. Is that a lot, or not? Over at the FU in Berlin, Oskar Niedermeyer has been compiling party membership figures since the dawn of time. In 2012 (the latest data available), the Left had about 68,000 members. So roughly one third of the current members of the Left were already members of the SED before the Iron Curtain lifted.

Obviously, this is indicative of a strong post-socialist streak within the party. That may or may not be a bad thing, but in my book, the politically relevant fact is that Bartsch built a smokescreen around this simple fact, and that the interviewer – a thoughtful and knowledgeable person – let him get away with it. The bottom line is of course that we need to promote basic statistical literacy: The probability of being a member of the Left, conditional on having been a member of the SED (p(Left|SED)) can be very different from the probability of having been a member of the SED, conditional on being a member of the Left (p(SED)|Left), unless both parties are of equal size. That is Bayes’ Rule for you, Dr Bartsch. Next.


Nov 102014

Google decided some time ago that their algorithms are so good that the old Humanities/Social Sciences/Hard Sciences button on Google Scholar did no longer earn its keep. As a Social Scientist trying to remember the exact title of that dear old Dalton 1984 piece, I could not agree less.

dalton 1984 Google Scholar Fail

Not my Dalton 1984

Nov 072014
  • From the excellent LSE blog: European Parliament staff: who are they and do their backgrounds influence decision-making?
  • @DarthPutinKGB: Russia Today has changed since the Donbass elections. (picture)
  • Book chapter “Estimation techniques: Ordinary least squares and maximum likelihood” — Martin Elff
  • No real surprise is here, as tax-dodging assistance is a business model: Luxembourg tax files: how tiny state rubber-stamped tax avoidance on an industrial scale
  • Short Gordon Tullock  obituary & comments

Nov 032014

Even the Washington Post has woken up to the fact that 25 years after the uprising in the GDR, Germany stubbornly remains divided economically, politically, and socially. In the great scheme of things, this may matter less than you might think: In Western Europe alone, the UK, Spain, Belgium, or Switzerland – countries that have been around as nation states for much longer than Germany’s current iteration – are similarly diverse.

But it keeps the German Politics crowd busy enough. I’m currently working on a piece that looks at the latest federal election in comparative (east vs west) perspective – something that I have done previously for the 1998, 2002, and 2009 elections (2005 was someone else’s turn). The biggest difference is of course in the results of the Left party, which, compared to the West German districts, is about four times as successful in the East (this figure is down from a 20:1 rate in the 1990s). But here is another Bundestagswahl fun fact: The Liberals – not longer represented in the federal parliament for the first time since 1949, because their national result was just below the five per cent electoral threshold – barely scraped beyond this threshold in the old West, where they garnered 5.1 per cent of the valid votes. Based on the western results, the former Christian Democrats/Liberal coalition could have continued. Once more, the Easterners brought about political change.lonesome politician East Germans Killed the FDP


Oct 042014

The rise of Germany’s new far right party AfD has been nothing but meteoric. Founded only months before the 2013 General Election, the party came tantalisingly close to the electoral threshold, delivering the strongest performance of any new party since the 1950s. Eight months later, they made it easily into the European parliament (outperforming the Liberals (FDP)), and this summer, they won representation in three East German state parliaments, further startling the establishment.
The biggest problem for any far-right party in Germany is respectability: Any (open) display of extremist language or symbols, any link to the Nazi past will make a party unelectable for the vast majority of the population and may even lead to prosecution under Germany’s anti-Nazi laws.
In the mid-to-late 1960s, the NPD managed to retain a degree of decorum for some years before jumping the shark in the 1970s. Similarly, the Republicans started out as a CSU breakaway but quickly morphed into yet another extremist group in the eyes of the public. Later attempts of the new leadership to return to a more moderate position came too late to remedy the situation. More interesting was Judge Schill’s attempt to create a modern right-wing populist party in the early 2000s, but they never did well outside Hamburg and quickly collapsed due to Schill’s erratic behaviour.
The AfD leadership, on the other hand, has so far managed to keep well-known extremists out of the party (or at least out of the limelight). But recently, the party’s image has suffered two significant blows. A couple of weeks ago, the AfD in Brandenburg was forced to expel a newly minted state MP who had posted an antisemitic cartoon on Facebook, alongside a link to an extremist propaganda site. This week, it transpired that a party leader in the Eastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern  has been charged with inciting racial hatred over (anonymous) posts on the interwebs.
Whether this is actually true remains to be seen. Either way, both events in isolation will not hurt the party, which is doing very well in the polls. But they will help to strengthen the cordon sanitaire that Merkel has created between her own Christian Democrats and the AfD, and resonate with the extremism frame that the left is deploying against them.

Aug 162014

Very happy: The folks at Sage have kindly signed a contract with Jocelyn Evans, Michael Lewis-Beck, and my own good self to edit a two-volume tome on Electoral Behaviour in their Handbook series. The final product will have some 50 chapters on all aspects of psephology and should come out in 2016. Cat-herding 50+ academics for the next 18 months. What’s not to like?

Jul 262014

I’ve recently discovered Rfacebook, which lets you access public information on Facebook from R. In terms of convenience, no package for R or Python that I have seen so far comes near. Get yourself a long-lived token, store it as a variable, and put all posts on a fanpage you are interested in into one R object with a single function call. Check it out here.

Jul 092014
emp duck 225x300 One, two, three Excellent Online Surveys

An Imperial Duck. Because.

My wonderful PhD students are running a series of short online surveys, two of them with a slightly unusual and rather intriguing format. If you read German, do them a favour and click on the link. You should be done in 10 minutes or less. And while you’re about it, share the link with your networks to make this a bit less of a convenience sample.