Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 37
7 June 1999

Andrew Stroehlein C Z E C H  R E P U B L I C :
A Grand Coalition of
Politics and the Media

Andrew Stroehlein

In the first weeks of May, the Czech political world was fascinated by a potential "grand coalition" between the two largest parties in the Czech Parliament. It was, of course, a non-story: the two parties in question have essentially been in coalition since last year's general election. Side-stepping politicians and the docile Czech media kept this non-story on the shelf long past its sell-by date. In fact, this case shows everything that is unhealthy in the relationship between politics and the media in the Czech Republic today.

In an interview for one of the national dailies on 5 May, Deputy Chairman of the ODS Miroslav Macek spoke of a possible grand coalition between the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and the Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD). Macek proposed this idea, saying it offered the best option for a stable government. A two-week media frenzy was the result.

Following their depressingly typical approach, the Czech media played along with the politicians' game. Rather than analyze the statement and put its rather limited meaning into context in the back pages, the dailies ran it as a shocking revelation on the front page. Again according to normal procedure, the media then did the rounds, asking every politician and would-be politician what they thought of Macek's statement.

Thus, we learned that ODS Chairman Vaclav Klaus was quick to distance himself from Macek's comments and stressed that he saw a grand coalition only as an "extreme solution." The news consumer could read that Jan Ruml, leader of the Freedom Union party, and Miroslav Grebenicek, leader of the Communists, rejected the idea out of hand (surprise, surprise). Bohuslav Sobotka, deputy chairman of the Social Democratic Parliamentary Caucus, said the idea had little support among his MPs.

And out came the regular conspiracy theories. Václav Krasa, an MP for the Freedom Union, saw a grand plot behind the statement: Macek could not have said it "just by chance." Jan Kasal, acting chairman of the Christian Democrats, declared that Macek's word represented one step in a carefully planned political maneuver by the ODS.

Well, this is Central Europe, after all, where events are commonly seen to be orchestrated by omnipotent and omniscient politicians. Chance, error and human frailty are not considered part of the political fabric.

No one could believe that Macek's statement was just a bit of thinking out loud or shooting off at the mouth. No one thought that it might simply be a cheap way to get himself some clout because he knows all to well that the media will just eat up this kind of talk and that he will be the center of attention for weeks. Everyone in politics and the media slavishly played the game.

In Prague, politicians prefer to talk about themselves and each other much more than they do about the serious problems facing the country. Certainly this is true in all countries, but in the Czech Republic, this type of obfuscation through overemphasizing petty personal rivalries has so much support in the Czech mass-media, that it is often difficult for the interested citizen to ever learn anything beyond "who said what about whom," "who's meeting with whom" and, of course, the ever-popular, "who refuses to meet with whom."

The grand coalition debate was a perfect example of this. Although nothing anyone said was new, each politician's statements were spun off into mini- media frenzies. First, the media sampled reactions to Macek's remark. Then they sought reactions to the reactions, and reactions to the reactions to the reactions - with all statements filling many more column inches and much more air time than anyone could ever imagine elsewhere.

Even up to two weeks later, Czech Radio (Cesky rozhlas) was asking Prime Minister Miloš Zeman about a possible grand coalition (Zeman, too, rejected it). What's more, major daily newspapers, such as Mlada fronta DNES and Lidove noviny as well as Radio Prague (all on 20 May) found this part of Czech Radio's interview with Zeman interesting enough to reprint and repeat.

But even that is giving the Czech media too much credit, because the decision regarding the story's importance was not made by the editors of the above-mentioned sources. As usual for the Czech media, these three sources mindlessly pulled the story directly from the Czech News Agency (CTK), not even bothering to change CTK's headline: "Zeman Casts Doubt on Coalition with the ODS" (Zeman zpochybnil realnost koalice s ODS).

It is actually quite disturbing: a predictably uninteresting answer to a dull question in one media outlet was picked up by the dominant news agency, presented as news and republished verbatim by other media outlets.

Thus, even when everyone worth asking (and many who were not) said the idea of a grand coalition was a non-starter, the political class, aided and abetted by the supine Czech media was able to draw the idea out into a few weeks worth of pointless drivel.

More importantly, few seemed to notice that the very idea of a grand coalition was an absurdity, since, following the conclusion of their "Opposition Agreement" after last year's general elections, the two largest parties, the ODS and CSSD, have been in coalition in all but name for nearly one year. The "Opposition Agreement" guarantees key state posts to the ODS in exchange for the ODS's tolerance of a minority, Social Democratic government which ludicrously holds only 74 of 200 seats in the all-important Lower House of Parliament.

The "Opposition Agreement" also prepares the ground for a change in the electoral system - something that Zeman actually mentioned in the radio interview but that CTK, the newspapers and Radio Prague, all felt was not the key issue worthy of a headline.

The proposed change in the electoral system - which could effectively eliminate all but the two largest parties from the next Parliament - is the real story, and only at the end of the month did the Czech media begin to wake up to its importance.

The grand coalition debate should never have been considered a story. Only the fact that it was turned into a media event makes it a story at all. Macek's over-discussed dud of an idea kept the real story sidelined for weeks.

Maybe the conspiracy theorists are right: maybe there was a plan behind Macek's statement after all.

Andrew Stroehlein, 7 June 1999


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