Whom does Vaclav Klaus serve?

When does a president’s personal opinion become public policy?

By Martin Jan Stransky

May , 2005

President Vaclav Klaus has embarked on a war of words with European parliamentarians regarding his negative views on the European Union and on the adoption of the EU constitution. The current conflict began when Klaus’ increasingly pointed statements met with an equally pointed reply from EU Deputy Prime Minister Vidal Quadras and the chair of the EU Constitutional Committee, Jo Leinen, who stated that Klaus’ “shortsighted vision is leading citizens astray.”

The president was furious, claiming that the statements represented an “attack” on a head of state, and demanded an explanation and an apology from the head of the EU Parliament, Josep Borell Fontelles. Instead, Borelli replied that the parliamentarians were merely expressing their opinions with the same candor that Klaus was. Critical reactions to Klaus’ statements have come not just from EU MPs but also from Czech politicians such as Josef Zieleniec (Czech MP in the EU) and the speaker of the Czech Parliament, Lubomir Zaoralek, who recently challenged Klaus to a formal constructive debate on the pros and cons of EU membership.

Klaus refused.

All the while, Klaus continues to claim that his anti-EU position, including his belief that the European constitution would be a “dangerous step” and an “encroachment on our national interest,” represents his “personal” and not “official” point of view. As the highest public official in the land, Klaus has therefore decided to propagate his “personal” opinion, despite the fact that it goes against the public’s position, as well as against the position of the minister and Cabinet, who in this case, respect, reflect and represent the public’s wishes.

As regards positions of responsibility such as the professions as well as public office, “private opinion” exists only in those areas devoid of public influence or responsibility. As a physician, for example, I cannot tell a patient that although modern medicine has shown that his ailment is easily treatable, my “private” opinion is that it will kill him.

At the very least, such an approach creates confusion and is a disservice. In the case of the president, his influence is essentially profound when it comes to him opining on issues that affect the psychology of a nation and life at the everyday level. Vaclav Klaus did not offer his opinions over coffee and a muffin at his own breakfast table but rather on numerous stages and to numerous media around the world.

In the Czech Republic, EU membership, and with it the acknowledgement of the benefits as well as the responsibilities of membership, has been debated and decided by its citizens not once but twice. First, Czechs overwhelmingly voted, via public referendum, to become members of the EU. Second, in the most recent elections, Czechs overwhelmingly voted for the three out of four political parties that favor EU membership and integration.

Additionally, most Czechs are also aware of the fact that, in direct contrast to Klaus’ stated threats about the dangers of EU membership, there is the simple reality that not one EU member state, old or new, has even voiced the notion of leaving the EU on grounds that membership has somehow hurt or weakened it.

Klaus’ stated concerns about the EU have always been vaguely and populistically framed, while those that have been more specific have been systematically refuted by political analysts and constitutional experts.

By acting the way he is, Klaus is directly undermining the presidency and, in doing so, hindering the further democratization of the Czech Republic. First, when he juggles the role of president and private citizen based on his momentary needs, Klaus’ actions blur the distinction between a responsible statesman who represents those whom he serves and a private citizen who furthers his own agenda.

This contributes to the current schizophrenic mindset and disrespect with which the Czech public views its politicians, since the voter is again witness to the fact that those whom he elects do not reflect his interests.

Second is the problem of not just what the president says but how he says it. In his sparring with EU officials, Klaus has ignored the dictum “democracy is dialogue,” which Borrelli alluded to in his reply to Klaus. Instead of accepting Borrelli’s reply and engaging in constructive dialogue, Klaus fired off an ironic insult, stating that Borelli must have signed something other than what he thought he was signing. Surely such tantrums cannot create a positive impression in Brussels.

Why then, is Klaus behaving this way? First, Klaus understands the mindset of the Czech public. It is a public that tends to back down to authority, even if misguided, and that at the same time tends to view all politicians and politics as distant and thus irrelevant.

Further evidence of this mindset is seen in the fact that to date virtually all commentators have approached the current battle between Klaus and the EU from the point of view of debating Klaus’ specific positions, oblivious to the fact that Klaus is stating them in direct conflict with the views of his government and the public.

Second is the psychological profile of Klaus himself, which in this case is the deciding factor. Unfortunately, Klaus is hampered by an overactive ego that is the beacon of his underlying narcissism. As such, he does (and must do) everything in his power to remain at the center of power and attention, since a narcissist always furthers his own ego, even at the expense of others.
While exhibiting marked self-confidence, Klaus relies on populist psychology and destructive methods such as division and confrontation to achieve his means. For example, as regards the EU, Klaus polarizes the issue via dividing it into two camps, one of us good Czechs, the other filled with menacing EU outsiders, without once explaining how or why our interests are different from those of the rest of Europe.

For Klaus, EU membership and adoption of the constitution mean only one thing â a dilution of his position as the main political architect at home. The ongoing result is that we have a president who is falling increasingly prey to his own ego and narcissistic tendencies, who ignores his public mandate, who is weakening the position of the presidential office at home, and who is hurting the position and reputation of the Czech Republic abroad.

Even though Klaus’ popularity ratings remain high, it seems that the Czech public may be waking up to him. In a Czech TV public Internet poll taken May 4, Klaus came in third behind former communist Prime Minister Klement Gottwald and recent Prime Minister Stanislav Gross in the category of “greatest scoundrel.”

Klaus’ actions continue to prove that any further progress that the Czech Republic makes regarding EU integration and democratization will occur not because of him, but rather in spite of him.

Martin Jan Stransky is a physician and publisher of The New Presence and Pritomnost magazines.


The Prague Postkvěten 2005

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