Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 6, 2 August 1999

I Undertake to Be Your Loyal Enemy
Czech Politics: The hidden charms of Byzantine democracy

Tomas Pecina

It is hard for any tourist visiting Prague or Budapest to describe exactly what makes these cities unique. Central European feelings are not easy to convey. What makes public life in Central Europe unique is, perhaps, its wonderful imitable quality. There is nothing completely unfamiliar; everything looks like its counterpart in the West. However, "looking like" in no way implies "working like." From the first customs officer you meet at the airport, to the bureaucrat who turns down your application, because it had a folded corner and then sends you back to the end of line, to the leisurely policeman who tells you he is too busy to be bothered by your stolen camera (or car), all the people are masters of deception through appearance.

The Czech Republic has a Parliament, a democratically elected body that looks exactly like its Western counterparts; however, the concept of democracy adopted and practiced behind the walls of the building on Prague's Snemovni (Parliament) Street seems to be of a rather special variety.

If a survey were carried out among ordinary Czechs on what democracy means, the most common response would be that it is a system in which a majority rules over minorities. This simplified concept of democracy is nothing new, just a slightly modified version of the Marxist teaching on class struggle: a majority, the proletariat, represented by its avant-garde, the Marxist party, is expected to suppress the minorities, mainly the bourgeoisie, and establish the ultimate and most just system of government, called people's democracy.

A strange idea? Not at all, I am afraid. As recent events have shown, a class struggle of a new type is alive and well in the Czech Republic. Believe it or not, the two largest parties - the Social Democrats (CSSD) and the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) - are preparing a new electoral law with only one purpose in mind: to give the two parties more mandates and reduce the number of deputies of the three smaller parties (smaller meaning with returns of around 10% of the votes in the last general election) or, optimally, eliminate them from Parliament altogether. It is not a simple switch from a proportional to a majority system, although it may prove to be logical and beneficial to the country. The Senate by-elections last fall showed that CSSD and ODS candidates could lose to a coalition of Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL) and the Freedom Union (US) in such a system. Therefore, the number of electoral districts and methods of allocating votes in the second round are being fine-tuned, and elaborate calculations are being carried out in order to find the optimal model, that is, the one which best suits the "large" parties and deals a heavy blow to the "small" ones. Yes, of course, the small parties do object, but the two-party coalition has enough votes to pass the bill or even amend the Constitution. After all, minorities ought to be suppressed...

This special relationship between CSSD and ODS is a relatively recent phenomenon. Prior to last June's general elections, the parties campaigned aggressively against each other, trying to win votes by presenting the opponent as the Devil himself. "A vote for CSSD is a vote for the Communist past," warned placards posted on lampposts by the ODS at the very end of the pre-election campaign. CSSD Chairman Milos Zeman made it clear, with all the subtlety he could muster, that ODS is a party of thieves and prostitutes, and when he wins, he will not hesitate to send all his opponents to jail (where they obviously belong). When this charming post-Communist pageantry was over, a hangover ensued. The election results showed that it would be extremely difficult to put together a majority government.

Post-election negotiations resulted in an arrangement between CSSD and ODS which is not easy to describe using the traditional terminology of political science. The deal between the parties is entitled "Agreement on the Stability of the Political Environment" - colloquially called the "opposition agreement." Practically, it is an arrangement similar to that of a silent partnership in the world of business. The two parties entered into a permanent coalition on the condition that the winner of the election would form a government either alone or with coalition partners the other party approved of, while the losing party would assume a position of preferred opposition. In exchange for a promise not to initiate or support a no-confidence vote in Parliament, the preferred opposition would be granted certain posts which might otherwise be occupied by the smaller parties, such as the chairmanship of both parliamentary chambers and the post of Comptroller General.

The effect of this arrangement on the Czech political scene was instantaneous and radical. The new minority government of Milos Zeman, despite its scandalously inappropriate and incompetent performance in numerous areas, has been under no real pressure from the Parliament. The popular and respected Chairman of the Senate Petr Pithart (KDU-CSL) was replaced by an utterly non-charismatic and mediocre ODS politician, Libuse Benesova; representatives of smaller parties were not re-elected vice-chairmen of the Chamber of Deputies - the Lower House of the Czech Parliament.

The opposition agreement also works like magic outside the scope of its actual text. The CSSD's much advertised "Clean Hands" campaign, inspired by the Italian model and aimed at corrupt politicians of the previous governments, has produced absolutely no results, and persons connected with ODS (including Livia Klausova, the wife of the former premier) were allowed to retain their lucrative positions on supervisory boards of enterprises with state interests. The political situation is about as stable as it was under the Communist regime in the 70s and 80s.

The next logical targets of the silent coalition are media and the President, both relatively powerful and both publicly voicing their dissatisfaction with the entente cordiale.

While it was not much of a challenge to tame the public television station, Czech TV, with its wimpish, new 28-year-old manager Jakub Puchalsky or the private station, TV Nova, which is effectively controllable through a threat of license withdrawal, the greatest resistance has been coming from the printed media. However, if the current bill for a new Press Law - which allows politicians to silence newspapers by imposing heavy fines or suspending the publication - is adopted, this obstacle will also be history, along with freedom of speech.

And what about the "excessive" presidential powers both CSSD and ODS have often been complaining about? The brave new world of two parties in one will be free from such concerns: a law amending the Constitution and cutting such presidential powers as selecting the prime minister is already being prepared by the joint committee of the two parties.

Is there no other option for the Czech voters? There is, and recent opinion polls - which show support for the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia approaching 20% - reveal that the voters are well aware of the other choices they do have. In the meantime, the Czech population can enjoy living in a country where "the Government and its opposition" has a double meaning.

Tomas Pecina, 15 July 1999




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