>The Czech right: culture, folk roots and a bit of fusion


Public engagement is flavour of the month just now, so when asked out of the ether to contribute something about Czech politics to the launch issue of cultural-political monthly intended to fill the gap left by the winding up of the long-established Czech intelligenstia Literární noviny I agreed. The venture is, rather unusually, being undertaken by a newly formed cultural and publishing co-operative (an institutional form rarely seen in the CR outside the housing sector)

Clearly, I should have asked for some CDs in payment as well as a small donation to charity because, as I later discovered, the moving spirit behind the project who contacted me, Jiří Plocek is a musician and sometime member of famed folk/jazz/bluegrass fusionists Teagrass. Still, readers who you want to improve their reading experience might want to click in to one of the group’s performances with Hungarian singer Irén Lovász here

The topic they asked me to write on, framed in an interestingly Czech terms (since when did anyone in the UK care about the authenticty of anything? ) was:

“Is there an authentic political right in the Czech Republic?

When observers question the authenticity of the right in the Czech Republic, they generally have one three things in mind: 1) that the Czech right’s largely pro-market orientation makes it an alien import ill suited to Czechs’ Central European traditions; 2) that on a European level the Czech right is an isolated and odd phenomenon with few real partners beyond the British Tories; or 3) that right-wing parties and ideologies in the Czech Republic have, wittingly or unwittingly, been little more than a cover for corrupt and self-interested networks of politicians, businesspeople and officials. All three contain elements of truth but also strong elements of caricature.

The emergence of strong liberal-conservative right wing in the Czech Republic after was one of the early political surprises in post-communist Central Europe. Many observers assumed that Czechoslovak politics would be shaped the country’s ‘social democratic tradition’ or cultural and geographical proximity to the social market economies of Austria and Germany. A Czech centre-right, if it emerged at all, was expected to be Christian Democrat in outlook. The rise of Václav Klaus in 1990-1 backed by a coalition of Civic Forum anti-communist grassroots activists and the formation of ODS quickly put paid to such illusions – as did the early electoral marginalization of KDU-ČSL.

However, that the civic right that coalesced around Klaus did have social and intellectual roots extending back the normalization period and back to 1960s followed: the penetration of Western neo-conservative and neo-liberal ideas into Czechoslovakia during the brief window opened by the Prague Spring; the discrediting of the once strong Czech democratic-socialist tradition after the 1968 invasion; the frustration of a generation of well educated people stifled by the rigidity of the Husák regime; the isolation of dissent from the bulk of Czech society; the parallel formation of ‘grey zone’ of technocrats including Klaus and other liberal economists, who were left by the regime with little to do but read and bide their time. In hindsight, it is clear such phenomena set the scene for the emergence of a powerful civic right in early 1990s.

However, the Czech right arguably has some deeper historical roots. Despite an Anglo-Saxon Thatcherite veneer in many ways ODS was more national-liberal Contemporary Czech right-wing eurosceptic concerns with ‘national interests’ or the Czech place in an emerging federal Europe would have been immediately recognisable in Czech political debates 90 or 100 years ago. Viewed in this perspective, the unlikely phenomenon of ‘Czech Thatcherism’ is simply the latest assertion of a liberal Czech national identity in a region dominated by Austro-German traditions of corporatism and state paternalism.

Such independence can, however, breed isolation. While KDU-ČSL seamlessly integrated into broader West European family of Christian Democratic parties, Czech right-wing commentators have often agonized about whether ODS is in European terms truly a ‘standard’ authentic party. This issue has been starkly illustrated by formation in the European Parliament by ODS and the UK Tories of the new European Conservatives and Reformers group (ECR). While the Tories and ODS are well matched in their enthusiasm for free markets and dislike of the Lisbon Treaty, the remainder of the ECR is an uncomfortable mix of Latvian and Polish nationalists, Belgian populists and Dutch Christian fundamentalists. Such concerns about the inauthenticity of Czech right are, however, probably misplaced. Right-wing forces across Europe form an uneven patchwork of beliefs and traditions that defies easy categorisation. The Civic Democrats’ political pas de deux with the British Tories and lack of other major European allies suggest political weakness, not political abnormality.

A more lingering doubt is raised by the relationship between business and politics on the Czech right and the suspicion that right-wing parties’ ideological commitment to competition with the left is in reality skin deep and always set aside when money, power or political office are at stake. For many the sight of Miroslav Topolánek and other leading right-wing politicians sunning themselves on an Italian yacht in the company of a ČEZ lobbyist and a leading member of ČSSD graphically illustrated this. Those with longer memories may recall how cut throat electoral ODS- ČSSD competition in 1998 was succeeded by the Opposition Agreement, or how Václav Klaus successfully sought the support of Communist deputies in his bid to become President in 2003.

However, although shot through with an unedifying sleaze and graft – and an often brutal, pragmatism – in many respects Czech party politics is a highly conventional contest of left and right. As much political scientist have found Czech right-wing politicians and voters consistent and clear of ideological pro-market views and – quite often, at least – vote and act accordingly. The Czech right is also consistent in its social and electoral constituency: a distinct younger, better educated, better off urban electorate worked disproportionately in the private sector and tending to live in Bohemia rather than Moravia. Such a base has proved too narrow to deliver the right convincing parliamentary majorities, but is a common profile for conservative parties inclining towards market liberalism across Europe.

Over the past decade, political deadlock between left and right has repeatedly forced the Czech Republic’s major political parties of right and left, against their own inclinations, into ad hoc political co-operation. The current Fischer government is simply the latest instalment in this pattern. Pragmatic deal making or overarching left-right co-operation pacts such as the Opposition Agreement do not, however, make Czech parties of the right less authentically right-wing (or parties of the left less authentically left-wing). Indeed, co-operation across ideological and party divides has been a recognisable pattern in many European democracies, including interwar Czechoslovakia, and has often been a successful model for national development.

Taken together, this suggests that two decades after the fall of communism the Czech Republic does indeed possess a distinct and authentic right-wing rooted in the country’s culture, history and society. Authenticity is, however, in itself not a lodestone for good politics, effective government or political success. Indeed for critics of the Czech right such as Jiří Pehe the problem is precisely that it draws all too authentically on nationalistic and provincial reflexes of Czech society. Such judgements are probably too harsh, understating the liberal and modernizing impulses that have animated Czech right-wing politics.

One thing, however, does seem certain. When Czechs look their country’s right-wing they will, to some extent, see themselves reflected back. Whether that is a pleasant sight is, of course, a matter that they themselves must decide.”

Update: The free launch issue of Kulturní noviny did indeed appear and can downloaded in PDF format here

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