Who should we vote for?

As parliamentary elections draw near, it’s time to take a long look at Czech society to uncover hints as to its future

By Martin J. Stránský

March 29, 2006

More than in any other nation in Europe, the history of the Czech people is marked by defeat. From the battle of White Mountain (Prague’s Bílá hora) in 1620 until today, the Czechs have suffered systematic defeat at the hands of both friends and foes. In 1938, standing behind barricades and ready to oppose Hitler, they were betrayed by their Western allies for a false peace. In 1968 they rose up again, but again the West turned its back.

As regards religion, the picture is no better. First, the Czechs were forced into Catholicism; then they were subject to the strain of the Reformation, then Protestantism, then back to Catholicism. Finally, under the Bolsheviks, religion was outlawed altogether.

Such a history has dire consequences, in that it stifles the development of (national) character. Whenever the Czechs started to believe in something, the rules suddenly changed and persecution began. When this happens repeatedly to a nation, the firm expression of stated beliefs and the desire to fight for them is eventually replaced by something entirely different: an absence of opinion and belief as a way to ensure conformity and hence survival.

Today, the Czech national trait is alibism. This explains why Czechs are the most atheistic nation in Europe, why they don’t go to vote, and why they view institutions as well as any sort of political process with inherent cynicism.

At the same time, it explains why Czechs have a hugely disproportionate share of superb athletes, cultural icons and individual talent, not to mention supermodels. By retreating from the nation into the private self, where institutions or regimes cannot reach, Czechs have found the quiet corners in which they can excel.

The aforementioned alibism means that someone else is always to blame; in today’s post-1989 era, the offenders du jour are the communists and their “communist norms.”

Various commentators trumpet warnings that a vote for the left-wing Social Democrats (ČSSD) or for their allies, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM), means a “return to old structures.”

What return? They never left. After World War II, Czechs were the only nation to elect the occupying Communists to power. During the subsequent years, it was we Czechs, not Russian soldiers, who shot our brothers in the back as they tried to escape across the Iron Curtain.

Today, we lead all democratic nations in the number of registered communists per capita. Without the communist vote, Václav Klaus would not have been elected president. Without the support of the communists, most of the resolutions of the conservative opposition party (ODS) would not pass in Parliament. True, our parliamentarians did pass a resolution “condemning the communist past,” but as far as today’s communists are concerned, not a word.

In the alibistic world of the Czechs, there are many bedfellows.

When 1989 came, we were faced with a situation we know too well â yet another change, with all its inherent uncertainties. Sixteen years later, although we have learned some basics, our traumatic past and absence of role models keep us from going forward.

We still don’t value that which we don’t understand, and we are reluctant to accept that which is the truth. And so, we continue to cling to false truths. For example, the country’s most adored politician is its president, Václav Klaus, who enjoys a 65 percent popularity rating. Those who support him laud his “strength” as well as his “upholding our nation’s interests” (the same can be heard from supporters of the late Slobodan Miloševiç and Alexsander Lukashenka).

Societies that are immature tend to gravitate to strongmen, be they good or bad. Because institutions and rule of law are lacking, such societies believe that if you cower before power, it will be kind to you. This may ensure survival, but not democracy.

However, light bulbs are turning on. The country’s most respected paper, Lidové noviny, recently ran a full-page op-ed article titled “The Biggest Blunders of Václav Klaus.” One day Klaus will indeed be rated as one of the worst presidents the Czechs have ever had. This is because of his consistent division of citizens and issues into “good” and “bad.”

Instead of serving as a positive role model and unifying society, Klaus continues to present arrogant self-confidence and protectionism as desirable qualities. As a person breastfed under communism, his limited understanding of democracy means that he has confined himself to embracing Thatcherite economic capitalism as the sole antidote to a communist past. The day that Klaus’ true reckoning does come will be the day historians will use to mark the end of the “post-1989 transformation period.”

For us to reach that point, we need to proceed in steps. Right now, the task at hand is not just in getting out and voting, but in voting correctly. So who should Czechs vote for? If we look for hope to the political parties, which most of us view as beyond hope, we can expect only disappointment. Our political parties reflect the present state of the state – immature at best, corrupt at worst.

But not so regarding individual citizen politicians. There are now a number of points of light, some new to the scene, such as Chairman Martin Bursík of the Green Party. Just as Václav Klaus can stifle a nation, so too can Václav Havel move it forward.

The success of our transformation at this point lies not in immature systems or oligarchic political parties, but rather in individuals who are positive role models and who have our interests at heart. It is they who must get our vote, irrespective of their party affiliation.

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


The Prague Post29.3.2006

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