“Potato Soup” or “Kaleidoscope”? Occupy or Monitor?

15. 3. 2017

In the wake of last October‘s early parliamentary election, few things are clear and definite in the Czech Republic. One thing that is clear though is that the Left has not won a victory that would enable two parties (Social Democrats and Communists) to form a majority government. This was to be expected.

The other thing that is clear is that the two-decade long domination by two large parties (a left-wing and a right-wing one) is over.

This is because the Czech Social Democratic Party’s victory was far from a landslide. The election triggered an immediate leadership struggle within the party. It is now trying to put together a coalition government.

ANO, the runner-up, is not a party but a movement. Its leader, the businessman Andrej Babiš, would like to run the country as a business. Nobody, least of all the leader himself—a food processing and chemical industry magnate with ties to StB (Státní bezpečnost—State Security, the communist secret service)—knows what his constituents want except that they are fed up with absolutely everything: political parties, the parliament, the electoral system…

The third party that might join the coalition is the almost century-old Christian Democratic party, KDU-ČSL. Following the 2010 election, which cost them all their seats in the parliament for the first time in history, the party has changed its leadership, rejuvenated itself, started to pay off its debts and may now be the only healthy and normal party in the country.

The Right suffered a heavy defeat. Václav Klaus’s former party, the ODS, seems to be on the brink of extinction while Karel Schwarzenberg’s urban right-wing but non-nationalist and pro-European party TOP 09 is licking its wounds but will most likely survive.

From the eastern part of the country comes the light of salvation—Tomio Okamura’s Dawn of Direct Democracy—a party of one man and one idée fixe: a general referendum on anything and anytime, to dismiss anyone at once. It is a party of cheerfully chaotic minds.

The respectable Greens did not pass the five per cent hurdle and the rather unpleasant anti-European and nationalist Hlavu vzhůru (Head Up) proved a complete flop.

The worrying thing is that over a third of the voters supported populist or non-mainstream parties. On the other hand, it is quite reassuring that both „presidential“ parties—Václav Klaus’s Head Up and Miloš Zeman’s Party of the Citizen’s Rights—have bombed completely. In a country that has a long tradition of revering presidents as a royalty, they mustered fewer votes between them than the marginal Pirates party did!

To complete the picture, Czech Communist Party—the only party in the post-communist world that has not dropped the word “communist” from its title—has maintained a steady 15 per cent for nearly quarter of a century. In this period, no other party was prepared to form a coalition with them, certainly not at the national level.

* * *

Is there some logic or a tendency to be divined from all this? The question on everyone’s lips is whether what we have here is a kind of local “potato soup,” the result of some traditional Czech malaise, or something springing from a general confusion shared by all globalization processes, which are said to have distorted the classical leftright (lib-lab) axis all over the world, replacing it with an intangible, unpredictable “kaleidoscope.” So either we are still haunted by the nationalist 19th century or we have become a plaything in a post-modern game.

If the latter is the case, there is not much to discuss. It would mean that the bizarre patterns of non-political flowers that have bloomed in this election—ANO and Dawn—are just the random outcomes of the broken axis.

I believe, though, that it is more likely that what we are seeing are the ramifications of a prolonged illness. The population of this country has never clearly defined itself in terms of ideology or values (conservative vs. liberal) but neither has it been defined in terms of interests (since we have traditionally lacked an upper class). For a long time the country has had a flat social structure and the entire political scene has gradually shifted to the left.

Right from the start of political life in this part of the world, dating back to the 1860s, political parties have been primarily defined by opposition to the local Germans and Vienna. Politics was not so much about ideas, values and interests as an arm-wrestling exercise, a competition to be the first to open a school in a town in the border region. Between the two world wars maintaining a Czech majority in parliament at all costs was a priority. Any change in the upper echelons of power was regarded a “luxury” we could ill afford as the opposition challenged the very existence of the state. Political parties were reduced to playing the trade unionist role and defending the interests of various professional groups. During the Munich conference parliament was not even convened. Czechoslovakia’s representatives in exile—in London, and especially in Moscow—agreed under the influence of President Edvard Beneš that only four parties would exist thenceforth: the ones that had agreed to recognize one another. Due to this “closed pluralism,” subsequently blessed by the nation (i.e. the “National Front’’), by May 1945 Czechoslovakia was well on the way to the communist takeover of February 1948.

In November 1989 the celebrated Civic Forum triumphed with its apolitical slogan, Parties are for politicians, Civic Forum is for everyone!, which back then appealed not only to Havel but also to Klaus. But soon afterwards, after the Civic Forum split up, it was Klaus’s grouping, which was well organized along party lines, that went on to win a resounding victory. Václav Havel’s defeated supporters were mockingly dubbed “truth lovers” (a term based on Havel’s casual declaration, from a balcony in the heady days of the Velvet Revolution, that Truth and love will prevail over hatreds and lies…). However, Klaus’s dogmatic neo-liberalism led the country into an economic slump that continues to this day.

Nowadays both the honorable though impractical supporters of Havel and the overly practical supporters of Klaus have become spectators rather than actors. It is tempting to say that it serves them right. Meanwhile the only major party that has kept its own house in order are the communists! So is this potato soup or a kaleidoscope?

* * *

In the early 1990s, Ralf Dahrendorf estimated that under favorable conditions the former communist countries could change their political system within six months; economic transition could bear fruit within six years; but the most vital thing, civil society, would take sixty years to mature.

However, it is only the thick, entangled and thus indestructible fabric of civil society that provides a fertile ground for healthy and relatively stable political parties based on value preferences and interests, without systemic corruption, cronyism, election fraud and the dominance of party machines.

Even back in the 19th century Czech civil society was not really up to doing its real job, i.e. being a counterweight to government. Instead, like the political parties, it focused mainly on opposing the local German civil society. For decades both party politics (i.e. parties competing for power) as well as its prerequisite (civil society that is independent of government) were reduced to nationalist squabbling.

As we have seen, the “potato soup” in Czechoslovak society evolved in a distorted way—both in terms of party politics and non-political public affairs—galvanized as it was by nationalist and, later, ideological notions. The period from 1925 to 1929 was the only time between the wars when both German parties and Slovaks were part of the government.

In the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s what was left of civil society fell under the control of the totalitarian regime. Since November 1989 it has not managed to recover. There have been several waves of heated protest movements, mainly involving students, intellectuals and dissidents, but they were all short-lived and ended in exhaustion and general disillusionment.

Having said that, only just over a third of Dahrendorf’s sixty years have passed so far. It is too soon to despair: civil society may not have grown in terms of quantity but the quality of its leadership has definitely begun to change. Several initiatives, organized as civic associations or foundations and focusing on targeted monitoring and factual critique of (party) political life in this country, have been operational for quite some time now. They have come up with very specific suggestions, often with solid legislative underpinning. An example is Rekonstrukce státu (State Reconstruction), a platform uniting some twenty initiatives, including Veřejnost proti korupci (The Public Against Corruption) Vraťte nám stat (We Want Our Country Back), Oživení (Revival), Ekologický právní servis (Environmental Legal Service), Inventura demokracie (Democracy Stocktaking), and others.

The coalition that is being formed at the time of writing of this article has been ticking off individual points of the coalition agreement based on nine appeals. These are anti-corruption draft bills tabled by the “largest lobby in the country,” as State Reconstruction calls itself—which propose very specific changes in legislation. The majority of newly elected members of parliament have signed a pledge to support these changes. A list of MPs who do not support the appeal is available on the State Reconstruction website, through the page featuring its campaign “Blah blah I’m not voting.”

This is something entirely new. It turns out that political life, political parties and parliament are influenced not so much by constituents or by organizations that resemble the thrilling and spectacular yet short-lived movements such as Occupy or Indignez vous but by professional international organizations like Transparency International, Greenpeace, Amnesty International or, in the Czech Republic, NGOs such as State Reconstruction or We Want Our Country Back.

What is needed now are well trained, committed younger people with stamina, some of whom have jobs elsewhere while others are working for non-governmental organizations. They do not expect immediate results. They realize they are in for the long haul and that the prerequisite of success is a roof over their head and funding for basics and activities.

Instead of starting or sponsoring political parties or movements, people who are concerned about the present state of politics in the Czech Republic should extend every possible support, including financial, to this “new generation” of civil society. They should support those who are likely never to join political parties yet understand how parties work and are capable of setting them realistic tasks, monitoring their work and attracting the attention of parties as well as the media.

They should support those who—instead of showing their commitment by living for weeks in tents in city squares and parks—will persistently and expertly step on legislators’ toes.

This politically committed part of civil society could gradually bring about change in present-day politics, which still does not know whether it is a regional potato soup or a random pattern in a cylinder filled with beads. They are likely to have more impact than pseudo-parties that take ad hoc action based on opinion polls, or their disoriented voters. The impact could be amplified if their activities crossed country divides.

Quite a few bright younger people now seem to have what it takes. All they need is some help. Including donations to their bank accounts.

Petr Pithart

Czech politician, political scientist and essayist, signatory of Charter 77. Prime Minister of the Czech Republic between 1990 and 1992. Member of the senate of the Czech Republic in years 1996–2012, being chairman thereof in periods of 1996–1998 and 2000–2004.

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