Czech democracy: the wheel turns full circle

In the immediate aftermath of the fall of communism many Western analysts feared that, far from ‘returning to Europe’, Central and Eastern Europe would slip into a spiral of Latin-American style instability and authoritarianism.

Stanford professor Ken Jowitt predicted that ‘demagogues, priests and colonels more than democrats’ would shape the region’s future, while Polish-American political scientist Adam Przeworski famously wrote that the ‘East has become the South’.

Even as astute an observer of the region as Timothy Garton Ash was moved to conclude in mid-1990 that ‘Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia are the countries where the fate of democracy hangs in the balance today’.

But the region quickly confounded the doomsayers. Central Europe emerged as one the most successful newly democratizing regions in the post-Cold War world. Many states including the Czech Republic made smooth and rapid progress to OECD and EU membership and were soon marked down by Western political scientists as consolidated, if flawed democracies. In the Czech case, the flaws were readily apparent. The democracy that emerged was, for example, far from the optimistic vision of a prosperous, settled Central European state sketched out by Václav Havel when he looked into the country’s future in his 1991 Summer Meditations.

As well as failing to sustain the common state with the Slovaks, Czechs saw overblown claims of a post-communist ‘economic miracle’ disintegrate amid corruption scandals that ended the Klaus government in 1997. And, while the Czech Republic did generate a stable system of ‘standard’ parties of left and right recognizable to West European eyes, Havel’s warnings that party politics would become the preserve of a caste of career politicians seemed, in hindsight, prophetic.

The strong locally-rooted civil society and political decentralization Havel envisaged as the bedrock of Czech democracy were present only in fragments. Local democracy was too often expressed in the murky world of municipal politics and a system of belatedly implemented regional government that become a still greater byword for corruption. Non-ideological consensus politics that Havel and others hoped would be a defining feature of Czech democracy have existed only in bastardised form of Grand Coalitions and power-sharing deals that had more to do with dividing the spoils of office than agreeing inclusive, balanced policies.

To most outside observers, however, the Czech Republic remained one of a belt of successful, stable Central European democracies, scoring well on most indices of governance, reform, and democracy, albeit with a clear lag behind West European democracies. Most would have agreed with the assessment of the Hungarian economist and political scientist Béla Greskovits that CEE states, including the Czech Republic, had created poor quality, but essentially ‘crisis-proof’ democracies where market economics co-existed in ‘low equilibrium’ with democratic politics.

However, following the enlargement of European Union in 2004 and, particularly, the onset of the global economic downturn and the Eurozone crisis, many commentators have started to view the future of Central Europe in much darker terms seeing the onset of ‘democratic backsliding’ or a ‘democratic recession’. Hungary has been at the centre of such concerns. The metamorphosis of Viktor Orbán from pro-Western Christian Democrat to authoritarian populist exploiting an electoral landslide to impose an illiberal constitution, rein in the media and emasculate the judiciary, was particularly shocking.

In 2012 Romania’s Prime Minister Victor Ponta tried similarly to exploit a landslide election victory to overturn of established procedures and strip away constitutional checks and balances to unseat his country’s president Trajan Basescu. Elsewhere voters across CEE have turned not to establishment strongmen but to a range of to protest parties ranging from Poland’s ultra-liberal Palikot Movement to neo-fascists of Jobbik in Hungary.  Where does the Czech Republic fit into this picture?

‘Zemanocracy’

Domestic critics saw the newly elected president Miloš Zeman as initiating a ‘Putinization’ of Czech politics akin to developments in Hungary and elsewhere. Some foreign journalists agreed. Ian Traynor of The Guardian, saw Zeman as one of a new breed ‘democratically elected populist strongmen … deploying the power of the state … to crush dissent, demonise opposition, tame the media and tailor the system to their ends’.

But there is no Czech Viktor Orbán. If Zeman’s appointment of the government of Jiří Rusnok over the heads of the country’s political parties in July 2013 was an attempt to bend the Czech constitution into a semi-presidential system, it was a notably unsuccessful one. The experiment in ‘Zemanocracy’ as Lidové noviny termed it, once again underlined the weakness of Czech presidency, even a directly elected presidency, as a vehicle for consolidating power. If this was ‘Putinization,’ it was Putinization-lite.

The Czech Republic’s political institutions – a parliamentary system; proportional electoral system; a two-chamber parliament; and array of squabbling political parties – may function imperfectly and generate deadlock. But they have so far made it difficult for any one group to concentrate sufficient power to re-write constitutional rules overnight. Indeed, even the country’s structures of informal power – the ‘regional godfathers’ or the politico-business clans described by Erik Best as the ‘Five Families’ – are relatively decentralized compared to some other Central and Eastern European states.

Nor is there a Czech Jobbik. Despite tapping into eruption of local anti-Roma protests in 2011, the Czech far right continues to be politically marginal. Research by the Ministry of the Interior and the Budapest-based DEREX think-tank put the core electoral support of a Czech far-right party a modest 8 per cent, roughly the level by Miroslav Sládek’s Republicans in 1990s and slightly above the vote for Tomio Okamura’s Dawn in 2013.

The Czech Republic does, it is true, have Central Europe’s most electorally successful unreconstructed Communist Party. The Czech Communists can be (and has been) interpreted by some political scientists as an extremist ‘anti-system’ party. But, even if we accept this characterisation, the Czech Communists are an extremist party of distinctly undynamic sort, whose electoral appeal sharply confined to particular generations and social groups.

Corruption and distrust

But Czech democracy appears more prone to ‘backsliding’ in other ways. The Czech Republic has for many years performed surprisingly poorly on measures such Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) and corruption has to gradually emerge as a political issue. This has fuelled rising levels of public distrust in the integrity of political institutions and politicians, triggering a slow-burning crisis of democratic representation in the Czech political system.

This crisis has centred on the system of ‘standard’ parties established in the in 1990s. Parties are pivotal institutions in any democracy. But they are particularly central in the Czech Republic, whose Constitution spells out that parties are the cornerstone of democratic competition and whose laws embed a very particular model of parties as organisations.

As recently as 2011, the Czech Constitutional Court set out in detail that parties had a special role in the Czech constitutional system formulating programmes, representing citizens and opening up a channel for political participation.

By 2009-10 the slow bubbling up of corruption as a political issue, the two main parties’ abdication of power during the technocratic caretaker government of Jan Fischer in 2009-10 seem to have finally convinced that the really existing model of ‘standard’ parties was not merely flawed, but bankrupt.

A tipping point had been reached. Parties could no longer to be seen as bearers of ideological programmes and principles, but as merely brokers of clientelistic deals. Grassroots party membership was not merely under-developed, but was a façade of ‘dead souls’ and paid foot soldiers manipulated by shadowy elites to control the democratic process.

Such views may be exaggerated. However, they are have sufficient truth to resonate, leading to a haemorrhage of voters and members from established parties. The space opened up was filled ill-defined, new parties with platforms of anti-corruption and reform. There are obvious consequences for democracy. As the experience of Public Affairs showed, such parties are often founded by the very vested interests they claim to be fighting.

They are usually short-term, top-down personality-driven projects, whose vague politics, makes coalition formation a hit-and-miss affair and leaves whatever coalitions they do join unreadable and unstable. The net effect is to stoke public discontent which simply prepare the ground for new anti-establishment parties. All too quickly democratic choices are reduced to a (sometimes bogus) distinction between old and new, or establishment and outsider.

‘Earthquake elections’ in 2010 and 2013 suggest that Czech democracy might be entering just such a cycle of protest and weak governance. However, in the rise and rise of ANO we see not just the flowering of the latest business-backed protest party, but a challenge the erstwhile model of party-based democracy.

ANO’s claims to be a grassroots movement must be regarded with scepticism and its original (2011) ambitions to be a new Civic Forum now seem mildly ridiculous. Andrej Babiš is clearly no Václav Havel. But in the loose alliance of technocrats and personalities who present themselves as ‘doers not politicians’ (Nejsme politici. Makáme) and offer a vague centrist programme of reform, it is difficult not to see it as a distant (if now privately-owned) relative of Civic Forum.

In this sense, 25 years on, democratic politics in the Czech Republic has turned full circle, returning to an era when voters must again to choose if they want to be represented by new ad hoc movements or ideological political parties; professional politicians or competent amateurs; by programmes of left and right or policies converging in the political centre.

This commentary was first published in Czech in Literární noviny on 11 November 2014 and is reproduced here by kind permission.

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