Baby Steps

By Martin Jan Stránský

January 31, 2007

Eight months after the general elections, in a lengthy process that confused many and upset virtually everyone, the Czech Parliament finally approved a functioning government, by a margin of 100 to 97. Why did it take so long?

Ever since the 1600’s, Czechs have been subject to multiple political and religious changes. The country’s first president T.G.Masaryk stated that for democracy to take root, it would take 50 undisturbed years. After the birth of Czechoslovakia, the so-called “First Republic” experienced thirteen different governments in its short twenty-years of existence. Seventeen years after securing freedom from communism, Czech political culture, along with negotiating and compromise, is still in the developmental stage, particularly when it comes to difficult tasks such as forming coalitions. This chiefly European phenomenon forces multiple political parties to band together in the event that no single party secures more than 50% of the popular vote. Many argue that this ensures a thorough representation of various (and minority) interests “at the top,” while others (myself included) view coalitions as the bane of democracy. To form a coalition government, the winning party must recruit enough partners to gain the majority of seats in parliament. The smaller parties, which now hold the key “sway seats,” suddenly become the ugly bride that everyone wants. This gives them much more political power and deforms voter preferences.

Should negotiations fail, the unthinkable can happen, with the election winner teaming up with the opposition winner to create a so-called “opposition agreement.” This happened in 1998, when the Social Democrats (ČSSD) and their opponents the Civic Democrats (ODS) teamed up to create a majority political mafia that stunted democratic growth in the Czech Republic in key areas such as media and banking. This time, it was only the unprecedented personal animosity between the current party leaders Jiří Paroubek (ČSSD) and Mirek Topolánek (ODS) that kept the scenario from reoccurring.

Coalitions also blur party responsibility, since individual parties take credit for success while blaming failures on others. Finally, coalition governments are subject to permanent internal stress, since any partner can withdraw support at any time, leading to a crisis of confidence and to government dissolution.

The 2006 elections resulted in a mathematical deadlock in the allocation of the 200 parliamentary seats, with the then-ruling ČSSD and their Communist (KSČM) allies receiving 100 seats and the ODS, Christian Democrats (KDU) and Greens receiving 100 seats. To break the deadlock, only two scenarios were possible: a coalition with less than 100 seats, one which would be fully dependent on continued “tolerance” from the opposition (a permanent peptic ulcer scenario), or the defection of an entire party or some of its MPs from its voter base and platform to the “other side.”

Enter six key players, whose conduct decided the outcome. First is the duo of Jiří Paroubek and Czech president Václav Klaus, both of whom receive the “Bad Character” award. Paroubek’s negotiating tactics were limited to temper tantrums during setbacks, insulting his opponents, and blocking any option which would not make him premier, thus earning him the nickname “Jája,” a Czech parody meaning “me-me.” As a result, ČSSD post-election voter preferences plummeted, eventually leading to a split within the party and to two MPs “defecting,” which cost Paroubek everything. In the case of Klaus, who as president was supposed to act as a neutral overseer, his blatant attempts of supporting only those scenarios which would further his own re-election chances (the president is elected by parliament and the senate, not by popular vote) created a troubling picture. Klaus was also unable to keep his xenophobia in check when he commented that the nobleman Karel Schwarzenberg was “too Austrian” to deserve the nomination for Foreign Minister. Klaus apparently forgot that Schwarzenberg served as Head of president Havel’s office, is fluent in four languages and has international experience too extensive to detail here. The Head of Vienna’s Diplomatic Academy Jiří Grůša wryly noted that Klaus is also an Austrian name, and that “the head of diplomacy needs a diplomatic head of state.” Just as did Paroubek, Klaus severely damaged his chances for re-election by being unable to negotiate his “deal” while upsetting many members of his former (read present) political party, the ODS.

The next two players, “The Outcast Saviors,” emerged as a direct result of Paroubek’s conduct. Pointing to Paroubek’s power-hungry ego and the need to finally settle the lengthy negotiations, MPs Michal Pohánka and Miloš Melčák broke ranks with the ČSSD and left the voting so as not to be counted. Despite accusations of bribery and despite direct threats from Paroubek that he will “go after the traitors to the end of their lives,” the two MPs allowed for the creation of a government which reflected the popular vote, which is what the voters wanted and deserved.

Our final two players are Mirek Topolánek and former ÄSSD chair and former Premier Miloš Zeman, both of whom receive the “Endurance” award. Topolánek had to endure months of political bickering as well as a constant stream of street-level barbs from Paroubek. To make matters worse, Topolánek ignored a favorite Czech saying which loosely translates into “don’t mess with that which is under your own roof” and decided to bed one of his own MPs. Perhaps taking inspiration from Mrs. Clinton, Topolánek´s wife decided to “forgive him,” at the same time criticizing her husband’s political chances and embarking on her own political campaign for the Senate which, unlike Hillary’s, ended in swift defeat. In the end though, Topolánek hung on and emerged as not only premier, but still in command of his own party. In Zeman’s case, though he has officially “retired”, his importance within ĆSSD grew as the party foundered. In the end, it was his recommendation that ČSSD should elect a new leader and go into the opposition, coupled with his refusing to criticize the defector MPs, which allowed the government to take shape and thus confirmed his role as the chief guru of the ČSSD.

Though the process was long and difficult, five positive results deserve attention. First, democracy is about change. After eight years, the opposition ODS has exchanged roles with the ČSSD. The country has taken the news well and all indicators have remained stable.

Second, democracy is about respecting the vote. In the end, election preferences were realized precisely – ODS won the elections by the narrowest of margins and shall govern by the narrowest of margins.

Third, democracy is about dialogue. Though the new government is dependent on two opposition supporters, it has made its relationship with the two men clear via an agreement that views joint cooperation as the top priority, laying out key areas to be addressed. Instead of being left to speculation, the agreement was signed by all parties and made public. The narrow margin means that the government will have to negotiate extensively in order to function. Topolánek has said that his cabinet will resign if it does not succeed in implementing crucial tax and pension reforms. Though the country is saddled with corruption, a top-heavy bureaucracy and a population that relies on the state, practically everyone is leery of another stalemate leading to premature elections. This dynamic should lead to further dialogue and compromise.

Fourth, for the first time as long as anyone can remember, a member of Czech nobility was named to high office. This has consequences for not just Austria and for foreign policy, but more importantly, for the Czechs, many of whom, like Klaus, remain mired in the post-communist mind set which ostracizes nobility and the elites in general. Schwarzenberg’s performance will surely contribute to breaking these negative perceptions.

Finally, it is now clear to everyone that the electoral process must be reformed. Increasing the number of seats in parliament to 201 has already been proposed (I would have preferred lowering them to 199, but such are the roots of the past). This will eliminate mathematical gridlock. It has become clear that the role of the president needs to be better defined, particularly regarding specific deadlines and pre-conditions for resolving stalemates. At the same time, never has the argument been stronger that the president should be elected by popular vote so as to be able to act as a true neutral moderator.

The path to Masaryk’s 50 year mark is not a smooth or even one. It sometimes takes eight months to take a single step. But just as with any child learning to walk, each step leads to another.

– The author is a physician and publisher of The New Presence.


The Prague Post31.1.2007

My priority is that patients recieve
and have access to the best care possible.