Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 24
6 December 1999

Jan Culik C U L I K ' S  C Z E C H  R E P U B L I C:
A Repeat of November 1989?

Jan Culik

An anti-government demonstration attended by some 50-80,000 people took place in Wenceslas Square in Prague on Friday 3 December. It was called by six former student leaders of the November 1989 revolution, who, on 17 November 1999, on the day of the tenth anniversary of the fall of Communism, published a petition, entitled "Thank you, Now Leave," demanding the departure of all major Czech political figures (with the exception of president Vaclav Havel) from the political scene. (The text of the petition, translated into English by Vaclav Pinkava, is here.)

Mlada fronta Dnes, a right-wing Czech daily newspaper (which, along with other conventional Czech media, strongly supports the student declaration) reported that "tens of thousands of people with banners, flags and bells filled almost the whole of Wenceslas Square on Friday afternoon. People clapped and whistled and demanded that the government should resign, that the leaders of the Social Democratic Party, Milos Zeman, and Civic Democratic Party, Vaclav Klaus, should leave politics, and that the current "opposition agreement" between the Civic Democratic Party and the Social Democratic Party should be abolished. 'We want to show politicians that we are not a mass of robots who once every four years cast a ballot paper into an urn. This is our society of free citizens and this demonstration is a sign of our responsibility," said one of the initiators of the petition, Igor Chaun, whose other claim to fame was a series of television films called "Treatment by Klaus", in which he extolled the virtues of this Czech politician. (As Roman Prorok, a Czech TV interviewer, said in conversation with the student leaders recently, [I quote from memory] 'after all, if you did not change your views, that would mean that you were incapable of development').

But was the Friday demonstration a repeat of November 1989? Somehow, once a totalitarian system has fallen, it can become rather difficult to imbue such demonstrations with meaning. The problem is that the current student protest is quite vague. One observer has remarked that the petition is rather similar to the demands of the now almost defunct "extremist" Czech Republican Party, who throughout the 1990s demanded that "top Czech politicians should be driven out of government and thrown into the river Vltava". Similarly, this petition also seems to pander to general popular discontent without any real rational foundation.

Nobody has seriously and objectively analysed what the current social democratic government is actually doing and whether it is harming the Czech Republic or helping it. Fair enough: there are many people in the Czech Republic who are discontented with social democratic rule because they simply hate social democrats as such. There is some suspicion that this student initiative is an attempt to undermine the current social democratic government by unconstitutional means.

Many people in the Czech Republic do not like the "opposition agreement", which was concluded shortly after the last general election in June 1998 between the two main opposing contestants in Czech polics, Klaus's Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and Zeman's Social Democratic Party (CSSD). After it became impossible to create a coalition government with smaller Czech parties, especially due to the irrational intransigence of one of them, Klaus and Zeman concluded an agreement on the basis of which the Social Democratic party is able to govern with a tacit agreement of the Civic Democratic deputies in Parliament.

People in the Czech Republic do not like the fact that the two parties have practically abandoned conflict and ideology and joined hands in order to be able to exercise power. However, if politics is the art of compromise, maybe this agreement is not such a bad thing. Some Czechs, however, regret the passing of adversarial politics from the Czech Republic (the remnants of it only survive in the media, which again and again start artificial, emotional, more or less unfounded campaigns against selected members of the government in an attempt to discredit them one by one). The smaller political parties support these expressions of discontent because they feel excluded from politics (although they have only their own intransigence to blame) and hope that if an early elections takes place, some crumbs from the political table will fall their way.

A certain amount of suspicion is also raised by the fact that the organisers of the Friday demonstration asked all "Communists and other extremists" to stay away. As a result of the rather difficult economic situation and fairly high levels of unemployment in the Czech Republic, political support for the communists currently runs into double figures. By excluding "Communists and other extremists", the aging student leaders have probably excluded a fifth, if not a quarter of the nation from their demonstration.

Some critics feel that this may be yet another attempt by President Vaclav Havel to interfere with constitutional politics and to resuscitate his concept of "unpolitical politics". Jaroslav Sebek wrote in Britske listy last week:

This government is not doing too badly. The economic indicators, which are the only trustworthy criterion of the work of the government are improving. Yet the atmosphere of crisis, created by the media, does not reflect these improvements... The government will not abandon its work uncompleted only because six individuals happen to say that top politicians are unworthy people and should leave... It is absurd that the Czech President supports a declaration which demands the resignation of two of three highest political figures in the land, ie the premier and the speaker of parliament, in a situation when Czech democracy is functioning well and there is no crisis.

Predictably, top politicians on the whole rejected the petition. The lawyer and ice premier, Pavel Rychetsky, basically called the petition a remnant of Stalinism. "It is a sign of political immaturity to try to change the political system by demonstrations," said Rychetsky. The Civic Democratic Party and the Social Democratic Party are against calling an early election, the smaller parties outside government - the People's Party, the Freedom Union and the Communists - would probably support an early election, or so they say. The Social Democrats warned that in a situation when electoral support for the Communists is growing, an early election would be very dangerous.

If we discount the possibility that the source of the current anti-government campaign is party political manipulation and that the motives of the tens of thousands of demonstrators are honest and that they are genuinely frustrated by what they see as insufficiencies in the Czech political system, it may well be that a possible removal of the current Czech political leaders will solve nothing.

Vit Novotny wrote in Britske listy last week that the problem in Czech politics is not personalities, the problem is structural:

Ten years after the fall of Communism, political power in the Czech Republic is concentrated in the hands of an oligarchy of political professionals. This is why people are disgusted with politics. But the problem will not be solved by new politicians appearing on the scene. It is much more important to force the current politicians to set up rules which which will limit their owen power. That would make sure that no future government, even were it to be made up of immoral people, would be able to overstep certain limits given by law.

The Czech Republic urgently needs an Act regulating the appointments to and workings of the civil service; the adoption of such a law would limit the power of politicians. A political system would be created which would be much more stable and much more in line with public interest.

The Czech Republic still lacks this check on the power of politicians. Czech political parties are rather small and they live in a world of their own. Decisions are made by top party politicians who are elected by only a handful of their party colleagues. The political party chooses candidates for elections, and so only a very small group of people in the Czech Republic decides who will rule the country for the next four years after any election.

Since 1993, Czech politicians have, as a rule, successfully defied the need to introduce more checks on their power. At the beginning of the 1990s, the Czech government made it impossible for Czech citizens to contest their privatisation decisions in court. Throughout the 1990s, the government of Vaclav Klaus installed its own people in most state-owned and semi-state-owned companies, including banks and insurance companies. Members of parliament have extensive immunity from prosecution, under which they are protected for life.

Since there is no civil service law in the Czech Republic (and Slovakia, for that matter) governments can appoint civil servants not according to their qualifications, but according to their political loyalty. Many other post-Communist countries have adopted civil service laws, and it is high time that the Czech Republic do the same. Paradoxically, it is the current social democratic government that has made the first steps towards this.

Jan Culik, 5 December 1999

The author is the publisher of the Czech Internet daily Britske listy.

Archive of Jan Culik's articles in CER



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