The following is a revised version of a dissertation presented in spring 1999 at the School of Humanities, Anglo-American College, Prague, Czech Republic. It will be published in full in the forthcoming Faculty and Student Journal of the Anglo-American College.
Elections in Communist Czechoslovakia were effectively a compulsory event. The installed system of the "politics of fear" ensured that people went to vote in the elections without any form of explicit threat expressed from the side of government or secret StB agents. The vast majority of voters legitimized the Communist regime every four years. Any form of election campaign was unnecessary, as there was no opposing party to that of the ruling one. If there was another party, then it merely performed the role of a puppet collaborator. Campaign advertising had no role in the "egalitarian" Communist society, as the winner was taken for granted long before the elections started.
The senate elections of October 1998 and the early parliamentary elections that took place in June of the same year, however, were different. The representatives of particular political parties, namely the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) realized that the Czech voter was still tired from the previous elections that had occurred only two years earlier [Premier Václav Klaus's government, re-elected for a second term in 1996, fell at the close of 1997
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It is important, however, to first examine the role of the Czech voter at the time. According to the opinion polls conducted by STEM polling agency at election time, 44 percent of the electorate agreed that "Our political system would work better if leading politicians were selected on the basis of an 'expert competition' and not elections." Only 38 percent of those asked wanted to preserve that foundation of democracy commonly referred to as elections.
These findings reflect the unbalanced state of Czech politics. But at the same time they are evidence of the low degree of public awareness about the very principles of democracy. Such results are even more striking ten years after the revolution. Polls show that the majority of society is "disgusted" with politics and tries to avoid it rather then attempting to find ways to improve it.
During the 1998 Senate election campaign, the tactics used by the ODS started to resemble the tactics used by some mass media in Western societies. Other political parties were not mentioned in any detail and became almost invisible in the shadow of the ODS campaign. The campaign nevertheless cannot be taken out of its context. ODS had suffered a rapid decrease in voter preference after their December 1997 debacle [see CER's comprehensive analysis of this period in Czech politics]. When seeking the causes of this decline in support in early 1998, Václav Klaus provided the answer himself in an article for Lidové noviny entitled "Let's recapitulate" in which he characterized the tools used by his antagonists through the following points:
- The emergence of the "media state" full of lies and misinformation.
- The ideological behavior of President Václav Havel, who strives for an elitist system which he calls civic society.
- Disintegration of the right-wing.
- The destructive and destabilizing activity of the Christian Democratic - People's Party (KDU-ČSL)
- The socializing ideology of ČSSD in which party chairman Miloš Zeman prefers a "burnt out" country over a functioning society.
From this summary it would seem that everything was a conspiracy against the ODS. Klaus's influence is still supported by the same underlying black and white logic here: "They are the worst we are the best and only ones." But the question remains: Can a political party lose two-fifths of its voters in a year and a half only due to outside activities? Probably not.
Thus to counter this waning support, Klaus gathered the best professionals from public relations and advertising and entered into another round of elections.
During the June parliamentary elections, it seemed from the very beginning that all political parties, including ODS, wouldn't be as visible as they had gotten accustomed to being in previous elections. They agreed that they wouldn't use billboards (with the exception of the far-right Republican Party). However this agreement was broken on several occasions. As one journalist wrote:
The party representatives knew that the voters did not read their programs, and so they made themselves visible in the mass media in the form of various proclamations and mud-slinging, usually in the connection with not fulfilling this 'gentlemen's agreement.'
The ODS put all of its advertising energy during the June parliamentary elections toward obtaining the support of popular personalities. It turned to people who in most cases do not care about politics and in general have a very shallow awareness of what is going on in the international arena but whom Czechs tend to listen to much more then politicians and thus who can influence public opinion quite significantly.
The first controversy appeared with a billboard of a singer Lucie Bílá in which she invited people to an event entitled "Lucie Bílá and her friends with Václav Klaus." ODS defended itself when attacked by its opponents claiming it had nothing to do with the poster, because it concerned the presentation of a singer not a political party. The same justification was applied for a billboard campaign headed by the popular society magazine Xantypa. Other billboards appeared supporting Václav Klaus in various forms, but the ODS campaign organizers remained silent.
The overall reaction of advertising experts from abroad to the 1998 election campaigns (particularly the Senate election) was that they included a new aspect: aggression. They considered Klaus's "mobilization," in which a poster appeared two days before the end of the June election campaign urging the Czech electorate to "mobilize" against the "red menace" in the same format as a 1948 poster with the same message had done, to be the strongest agitation of the campaign.
This method was further developed with the motto "We think differently" used in the Senate elections later that same year. This latter campaign reached its peak when a billboard was placed in the same space that a humongous statue of Stalin had stood, looking down on all of Prague. Although the ODS violated the laws regulating the placement of such billboard on city property, Czech legal authorities did not pursue the violation, claiming that they would have given even stronger publicity to the ODS.
As Jan Jakl commented in The Prague Post:
According to analysts, easy and striking election slogans are a strong point for ODS. 'To the left or with Klaus' may sound over-simplified but the election campaign was most effective for the undecided voter, who usually had only an elementary education. 
By playing on the "scare of Communism" as embodied by ČSSD chairman Miloš Zeman together with the slogan "ODS = defence of democracy and freedom" Klaus succeeded in turning the elections into a struggle for Czech society as a whole, for its most important pillars: freedom and democracy, as on ODS advertisement claimed.
Since Klaus believed in the power of the press, he let his election team prepare an ODS newspaper ("reading for those who see," it proclaimed, where seeing was equated with understanding) in which Klaus was illustrated as "the right guy for all occasions, always respectable and reliable, somebody you wouldn't find elsewhere on the political scene."
It is important to emphasize here that Václav Klaus was actually not running in the Senate elections and still it was he who represented his party as a party of one man. So in the end, it seemed that no matter what member of ODS people would vote for, they would really be voting for Václav Klaus himself.
A Czech citizen, as mentioned before, feels disgusted, betrayed, tired. But an interesting satirical approach on this public mood and the elections in a documentary produced by Czech Television "The elections are over, forget." A fundamental question was posed at the end of this short film: "Do we deserve better politicians when we look in the mirror every other morning?" Here is the crucial point of the Czech political scene and nation as a whole: politicians are representatives of the people, the region, the nation.
It is interesting to see how the headlines in various newspapers differed when summarizing the June election campaign. Some considered it to be boring, while others saw it as aggressive or hysterical. Overall, it could be said that it was short on content, filled with ideological and populist slogans which differed greatly from the end result enacted by party leaders.
Václav Klaus had absolutely rejected the possibility of a coalition with ODS's arch enemy, the Social Democrats, when it was suggested by an opponent, then leader of the Freedom Union (US) Jan Ruml. Yet in the end, Klaus signed an "opposition agreement" with Zeman and both parties pledged to change the electoral system to favour larger parties and come closer to a first-past-the-post system. This must have left the voter totally confused.
Rah, rah NATO!
Another example of a media campaign that had an extremely strong impact was the NATO membership campaign in October and November 1998. This time, it was important to increase public support for the membership of the Czech Republic in NATO, which stood at less then 50 percent prior to the campaign. At this point, all Czech newspapers, magazines as well as television formed a single front of devoted supporters of NATO and convinced Czech citizens that not being a member of NATO could lead to a disaster similar to the invasion of Warsaw Pact troops on the territory of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.
Such a narrow view of an issue of such importance is almost unprecedented in the rest of Europe. The situation on the international scene has changed so dramatically since the end of the Cold War that whoever points at the end of the millennium to the same danger that existed in the 1960s is clear nothing short of irrational.
Popular personalities were used once again to muster support. Every day, some actor, singer or writer could be seen convincing the Czech nation that "It is essential [that we become a member of NATO] so that we became a part
Such slogans call up another common feature of Czech political culture: the "messianic concept." Soviet influence is over, now we must hide under the umbrella of a strong power, which will help us achieve political stability.
It is striking that the campaign for NATO membership did not include any sort of public meetings or educational lectures. And as for the mass media, their mark of unprofessionalism was displayed in the fact that there hardly ever appeared an article which presented a negative or critical view of Czech membership in NATO. This one-sided approach seemed to indicate that Czech journalists cannot fulfill the role of independent observers.
The mass media, politics and the public are closely interconnected parts of society that influence one another. The mass media should respond to the current needs of the public; society influences what sort of political professionals it produces, and politicians are influenced by the behavioral patterns of that particular society. As Oldřich Zajíc claims: "Media influence the thinking of people and people influence the state of the media."
In the Czech Republic, TV reporting is often seen as passive, unimaginative and lacking independent critical thought. The structure of TV reporting is flawed. News reports hardly ever delve under the surface of any issue. A major problem Czech journalists are faced with is the very limited time they have to devote to individual topics. The result is coverage which is often misleading and confusing. Czech journalists live in a vicious circle of their inability to ideologically separate themselves from a topic and their conviction that mass media do not have much influence on public opinion. In a way they are divesting themselves of the responsibility connected with their profession. Investigative journalism is lacking.
To achieve and adequate level of knowledge and responsibility, it is important that Czech journalists complete some sort of professional training abroad and have the opportunity to compare with what it is like in Western democracies with a long-lasting tradition of investigative reporting. Although the problem of professionalism is one that stretches across many spheres of Czech society, including politics and the public sector.
Similarly, the Czech viewer or a reader must learn to keep his or her distance from information provided and find more comparative sources to form a more objective opinion. The Czech mass media influence public thinking very strongly. This is amplified by the fact that political parties observe carefully and to a certain extent still control what is written in particular newspapers or said in specific TV programs. The links between political parties and journalists should be maintained only on a professional level and not in terms of career recruitment.
The Czech mass media have a long way to go before they become the true checks and balances of the political sector and democracy, and the public has a long way to go before it becomes "the watchman of watchmen." Czechs need to eliminate thinking in black and white terms in all spheres and at the state, regional, and public levels. It is the only way in which a true civil society can be attained.
Darja Zajícová, revised 15 June 2000
- Part I of Czech Media: Demythtified
- Part II of Czech Media: Demythtified
- More articles on Czech media in CER's thematic archive
- The Czech Republic 1992 to 1999: From unintentional political birth to prolonged political crisis
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- A concept first suggested in Plato's Constitution - that the people's representatives should be chosen by a small committee of academic and professional experts, not elected by the people.
- Lidové Noviny , 10 January 1998
- Sabina Kunešová, Elections 98 - billboard show, Strategie, July 1998
- Jan Jakl, "ODS heals from scandals as right rivals fail to thrill," The Prague Post, June 1998
- Slogans promoted by Czech personalities in evening spots of Nova TV