Time for a change

By Martin Jan Stránský

January 16th, 2008

It is a time of presidential elections across the world.

For the first time, there will be voters of the former Soviet bloc who never experienced communism or the fall of the Iron Curtain.

That event brought with it not just freedom, but the possibility of European Union expansion. Almost 20 years later, that peaceful expansion is the singular historical success story of Europe in her entire history.

In the Czech Republic, the upcoming February presidential election is turning into a rather sensational affair. For the first time, there is palpable political tension in that the political status quo is under attack.

For an increasing number of Czechs, democracy is not so much about being able to create something new as it is about being able to get rid of post-Velvet Revolution transformational elements such as cronyism and politicians behaving as “strongmen” advancing their own personal agendas, instead of as representatives of public dialogue and consensus.

For the first time, incumbent President Václav Klaus has a real challenger in the way of Jan Švejnar, an internationally acclaimed economics professor.

Though Švejnar emigrated to the United States, he was an adviser to former President Václav Havel and he remains active here as both chairman of CERGE-EI, the Czech Republic’s most prestigious economics institute, and chairman of the supervisory board of ČSOB, one of the country’s largest banks. He also continues to advise most major local political leaders.

Švejnar is running on a platform of EU integration, economic reform and open dialogue.

Klaus is not running on a platform based on anything, but instead claims that we should all be “familiar with his positions” based on his “previous statements and actions.”

Those statements consist of a mélange of vague populist jargon, such as “protecting our national interests” (without once stating what those are), strengthening national xenophobia by labeling the European Union a “threat” (without once stating just what type of threat), and on the international stage, making statements that openly decry global warming.

Klaus appeals to the base instincts of many citizens, who, like most Russians, prefer a “strong leader.”

Though he prides himself on his background of economics, Klaus has been called to task by those who really understand economic theory, including Švejnar. However, thus far, Klaus refuses to debate any intellectual opponent, including Švejnar, stating that “it is not in my best interests,” and turning his back on the words of Czechoslovakia’s founding President T.G. Masaryk, who stated that “democracy is dialogue.”

Though the next president will be elected by the Parliament and the Senate, there is hope that lawmakers will be sensitive to public opinion, which, at time of this writing, is swaying in Švejnar’s favor, largely due to Klaus’ refusal to debate him.

For the Czech Republic, the upcoming election is indeed a moment of historical magnitude. Will the country find the wherewithal to accept — albeit warily — a new president who wants to engage in open dialogue? This would lay out the path that will lead to a return to our natural state and to a resurrection of national identity, something history has not afforded us?

As Havel once told me, “Every 20 years or so, we Czechs get up enough courage to aspire to do something politically good.”

If my math is correct, that time is now.

In other countries, too, the pendulum of change has continued to oscillate in its invariable way over those same 20 years.

For some countries, it continues to swing out, for others it has swung back, and, for some, its direction still remains to be decided.

In Russia, President Vladimír Putin, through systematic suppression of the free press and opposition, engineered a rigged election to guarantee the continuation of his autocratic rule and the oligarchic structure that goes with it.

Though Westerners criticized the election, viewing them as a step “backward,” for Russia, it was anything but. Putin enjoys enormous popularity among Russians, from peasants to respected scientists, some of whom have banded together to create a national cult called Our Leader.

Sound familiar? In its entire history, Russia has never known democracy — it may have established democratic institutions, such as the courts or parliament, but none of them functions democratically.

Just as for the Iraqis, the Chinese and for most of the world’s other voters, for the average Russian, democracy is at best a vague concept, the introduction of which has little practical value (something that the United States, especially under George W. Bush, has difficulty understanding).

Instead, awash in petrodollars, and with a well-organized oligarchy around a figurehead, Russian society is back to its natural state — one of inherent inequality. Russia is in a different mindset, one that identifies far more with hundreds of years of czarist oppression than with a few years of pseudo-democracy.

Ask most Europeans, and any Czechs, whether they consider Russians to be “Europeans,” and you will get a resounding “no.”

In France, the recent presidential election produced a different result.

At stake was the battle between the proponents of the long-established laissez-faire socialist state with its status quo, and reformers pointing to declining economic production and rising racial and societal disharmony (to this day, France still refuses to carry out a census to determine the number and type of ethnic backgrounds of its citizens, instead classifying all its inhabitants into “French” and “noncitizens”).

Unlike the election in Russia, the election of Nicolas Sarkozy was a break with the past, a step “forward.”

Sarkozy no doubt understands the natural French mindset. But, just as Gorbachev did with communism in the late 1980s, Sarkozy also recognizes that the current French welfare state will not hold. He feels it must be modified, as evidenced by his defeating a national strike organized by the unions just after he entered office.

In the United States, there is much at stake and there are many precedents, including the first-ever female and African-American candidates. With less than a year to go, no clear front-runners have emerged in either party, which is something rather unheard of. In many states where primaries are to take place, as many as three or four contenders are still running in a dead heat.

This reflects a certain crisis that the United States is now facing. Issues such as the war in Iraq, national security, the economy and faith are all part of the candidates’ platforms, but this time no two candidates have the same opinions on all major issues. Even in such a diverse field, the candidates can still be divided into two groups: those who represent true change, such as Barack Obama, who is calling for a “new way of thinking,” a return to the fundamental values of America, and those who represent a continuation of the status quo, such as most of the Republicans along with Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton, who, like it or not, as a “professional” politician represents the status quo of the cronyism and corrupt intercourse that characterizes Washington, D.C.

Under Bush, the United States has indeed been going through a crisis, having inexorably drifted away from the basic tenets and precepts as defined by its founding fathers and its Constitution. Next November, the eyes of the world will indeed be on the United States to see if the country will lift itself out from the weight of its consumerism, self-aggrandizement and siege mentality. Will the United States take the needed “step forward” that has characterized its resourcefulness and ability to confront crises to date?

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


The Prague Post16.1.2008

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