>Jan Ruml on the demise of the Freedom Union and ‘blue totalitarianism’

>Founder and former leader of the liberal Freedom Union Jan Ruml (Lidové noviny 8 April 2006) shares the near universal view – confirmed by polling – that the Union is doomed to electoral oblivion. Having failed to form a coalition with the various other small liberal groups, the Union was in fact not undertaking any campaign. Ruml attributes the failure of the Freedom Union to a mix of factors, some more convincing than others – the characteristic inability of liberal politicians to observe party discipline; the Union’s weak political identity, essentially negatively defined against Klaus’s ODS and later the 1998-2002 ‘Opposition Agreement’ between ODS the Social Democrats – its passive and marginal position in the Social Democrat-led government formed after and the internal splits generated by the need to accommodate itself to the Social Democrats’ looser fiscal policies – graphically illustrated in the failure of then party Chairwomen Hana Marvanová to support addition taxation to pay for flood clearing operation in 2002 and her subsequent departure from the party.

Ruml’s initial political culture explanation seems a little exaggerated. As most of US leaders were defectors from Klaus’s ultra-disciplined ODS, it is surprising that some basic degree of party discipline couldn’t be maintained, although the desire for an ‘open’ media-friendly party may have undermined it somewhat The difficulties of finding a positive identity is more plausible argument, although as ODS (and a quick reading of some discourse theory shows) itself demonstrates all positive political identity is also negatively defined vis-a vis-an enemy. The problem was perhaps the passing of ODS and the Opposition Agreement and the loss of an enemy, rather than a lack of positive themes – the Union was initially a vehicle for a range of rather innovative reformist ideas, perhaps too many. The final point on right and left touches the issues at the heart of Czech party competition concerning the nature and relationship of left and right, although once again ODS’s co-operation with the left – including the Communists – since 1998 was more extensive and no one is writing the Civic Democrats’ obituary yet.

Ultimately, Ruml says, his party became an elite dominated formation whose early grassroots and social support fell oriented only to maintaining its three ministerial portfolios and other posts in ministries and public bodies. A perhaps familiar story with small, top heavy liberal parties across the region. Finally, Ruml argues , despite the clientelism and corruption of both major parties – especially at regional level (where he claimed public contracts were virtually impossible to obtain with paying kickbacks to politicians), he felt a Social Democrat government would be marginally preferable to the ‘Blue totalitarianism’ of an ODS-led administration given the Civic Democrats’ dominance of the Czech Senate and regional government and control of the Presidency.

Indeed. A challenge perhaps to currently fashionable political science theories of ‘robust competition’ and left-right alternation as a simple recipe for good quality democracy.

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