After Havel

On February 2 of this year, Václav Havel ended his 13th year as president of the Czech Republic. The fact that we have barely covered this in this issue may seem as a glaring error of omission. Yet, unlike the exit of presidents in established democracies, Havel’s exit has left the nation with more questions than answers. The questions in turn, arise from the contradictions of Havel’s presidency.

The first and most glaring contradiction of Havel’s tenure was that, despite his lifelong anti-Communist stance, as president he did not fully pursue the banishing of the Communist party when it refused to distance itself from its past misdeeds. This left a political and moral sore deep within Czech society, one with consequences at virtually every public and private level. The increasing rise (and lies) of the Communist party today and the continued pervasive corruption of the “old-boy” network in the judiciary and legislative systems are but two examples. Much has been written about this, and much more will be.

Another contradiction was that, as playwright turned president, Havel continually blurred the line between personal and presidential. For example, Havel’s “farewells” to his nation consisted of largely personal theatrics probably never before seen in any democratic state. First, he authorized an artistic project – the placing of a 17 m2 neon heart (resembling the heart he signs under his name) above Prague Castle. The contraption blinked on and off 24 hours a day, giving the Castle a bordello-like effect, and was greeted with an overwhelmingly negative reaction by the public, perhaps because it was also erected on the holiest national landmark. This was followed by a “goodbye to the president tribute” given at the National Theater, organized (and paid for?) by the president’s wife Dagmar, for which virtually every actor and singer and musician of the country was summoned. The nation, watching on TV, gnashed its teeth as good and not-so-good performers, some of them former Communist collaborators and signatories of the Anti Charter 77 declaration, came up to serenade the president, while his wife dutifully gushed with joy as the moment demanded. Nevertheless, it was perhaps this blurring of distinctions that helped endear the President to the Czech people since at home, Havel’s popularity was certainly not due to his domestic policy, which was a series of contradictions in and of itself. On the one hand, Havel’s fighting for citizen’s rights, such as his appeal to the Supreme Court to turn back the attack on the Constitution by the so-called Opposition Agreement parties, virtually prevented the stripping away of a wide variety of citizen’s powers. At the same time, his issuing excessive pardons for sometimes very serious crimes seemed to contradict his strong moral statements, while undermining the concept of a fair justice system to the average Czech. At the international level, Havel’s unparalleled status stood in contrast with his reluctance to engage in dialogue “under the village chestnut tree” with the average citizen, thus creating the impression at home of a detached monarch.

The fourth and final contradiction in Havel’s presidency was that this same fame and influence did not transmit into the office of the presidency itself. In fact, Havel did next to nothing to foster any debate around the office, or to prepare the country for the process of succession – important steps in the democracy-building process of the young nation. Because of this, the parliamentary process of naming the next president has been a total debacle thus far. The parties and their leaders, left to their own devices, have turned to self-serving power-politics, prostituting their own platforms. This has resulted in an absurd circus, with the governing coalition looking for a candidate the same way that – according to Moravian legend – a group of wise men go out into the country “looking for a king,” only to return with the village idiot. The usual public cynicism was quick to follow, with a group of rockers nominating Karel Gott, the Czech equivalent of Elvis Presley, for president. Unfortunately, this huge joke is still lost on Mr. Gott as well as a large part of the public. An ill-defined presidential office means a weakened presidential office, one where even Elvis can get in. 

The net result is that, for Czech politicians and the public, the power of the persona still dominates far and above the institution of the presidency itself. The process around Havel’s successor thus actually marks an important point in time, though a little late, wherein the character of this vital pillar of democracy will start to be set as an institution, one that must one day ultimately be stronger than any man in it.


The New Presencespring 2003

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