When the Czech Republic began its transition to a democratic government with a capitalist economy in 1989, many Czechs were idealistic about the future of the nation. Initially, former dissents played the pivotal role in the construction of a new representative parliament for the young democracy. 25 years later, the question of whether the Czech parliament is truly representative remains unanswered.
Czech citizens have certainly been given good reason to be suspicious of their political leaders. As recently as 2013, a raid against organized crime in the Czech Republic was found to involve several high-ranking state officials, as well as lobbyists. Understandably, Czechs do not want to involve themselves in a political process that ignores the needs of most citizens, while rigging the system to benefit those in power.
But there is also reason to believe that the decline in political involvement is not a trend that is unique to Czech citizens. In reference to the chart below, when comparing voter turnout in the Czech Republic to neighboring countries, it appears election participation in the Czech Republic is fairly average. The two countries with slightly above average citizen engagement are also the two countries that are the most westernized: Germany and Austria. Those countries most traumatized by communism have the least amount of political participation.
Interestingly, despite the hatred harbored towards the Communist Party during the previous regime, the Communist Party consistently wins seats in the Czech Republic’s parliamentary elections. In the 2013 elections, the Communist party garnered 14.9% of votes, securing 33 of the 200 seats in parliament. It is unlikely that membership in the Czech Republic’s Communist Party will decline unless issues of education, unemployment, and wealth-gap are addressed.
Though Czech citizens living in cities like Prague may have a comparable standard of living to the most developed Western cities, much of the Czech Republic lives below the EU’s average standard of living. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the top 20% of the population in the Czech Republic earns nearly four times as much as the bottom 20%. This leaves Czech citizens who are at the bottom 20% with feelings of resentment towards the government, which they feel should being doing more to provide opportunities for economic advancement.
With deep-seated distrust of politicians, a lack of strategic political programs, and glaring disparities in the quality of life of Czech citizens, it is difficult to predict the future of Czech politics.
Today’s Czech political scene consists of two opposing streams, which reflect the ideological differences of the country’s first two significant post-communist leaders and presidents: Václav Havel and Václav Klaus. Havel stood for liberal and socially oriented initiatives, while Klaus was far more conservative in his policies. Though initial ideological divisions remain, the enthusiasm for democracy has worn off, along with voter participation. Since 1990, voter turnout for Parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic has fallen by 37%, though it now remains relatively stable.
To help get a better handle on where the Czech Republic is headed, we spoke with Dr. Tomáš Klvaňa, a noted teacher, author, advisor and political analyst in the Czech Republic.
Why did Czech citizens fight so long to establish a democratic government if most people are not interested in exercising their most basic democratic right?
The major reason is the alienation of voters from politics. The reason they are alienated is because parties have become more and more focused on the management of interests, rather than pushing through programs and ideas that are supposed to be a part of politics. There’s also a lot of corruption. Since the ‘90s, political parties have been connected to all sorts of behind-the-scenes deals that have turned out to be corrupt and sometimes even criminal. There is now enough evidence to show that throughout the ‘90s, and even up until recently, some politicians and political parties have even been intertwined with organized crime. That really turns people off.
There’s an example of a new political party –ANO- which actually calls itself a movement. ANO recently scored a really good result in the Prague municipal elections to secure the position of mayor, even though they had no political program. People didn’t mind, because people don’t believe what politicians write or put forth in political campaigns. That’s part of the alienation.
There is a general lack of political participation on the part of Czech citizens. How does that effect how parliament and other facets of government operate, when they know that citizens aren’t going to participate?
One of the effects is that you now have people in political parties whose sole reason for going into politics is to become rich. They don’t really have to be personalities, people who know something, or who were successful somewhere. They just have to work their way through political parties to the top. And they even become Prime minister, without really being strong personalities.
Many of the politicians who are now ministers never achieved anything in life outside of politics. So they don’t really enjoy a great reputation among citizens. One of the effects is also the very poor quality of present political leaders.
What can be done to get Czech involved?
Well, I think it’s not about political parities. The overall cure is the establishment of a clear rule of law. That has actually been brewing in the last two or three years, slowly but surely. Now, there’s an array of independent prosecutors who even go after the big fish politicians, some of whom will end up in jail. That will help eventually, but it’s a slow process.
Can educators help facilitate this change?
There are people like me and others, who are trying to defend civil society. Right now, we’re pushing for free media, because there is a danger there – we have oligarchs, people with lots of money, buying the newspapers. Some of them are even in politics, so that’s an unhealthy development for a society. Some intellectuals are trying hard to drum up support against this trend. There is no lack of people involved in civil society, in the media, in general. But again, the process is unfortunately slow.
A lot of Czechs disapprove of and are even embarrassed by the current president Miloš Zeman. Does this influence the opinion of politics in general?
Zeman is a terrible example to people, not just to young people. The way he speaks, the way he frequently slanders people, the way he uses all kinds of really inappropriate language in public, the way he gets drunk in public. People believe this is normal – that this is a norm, because after all, he is one of us. This gives a terrible example for the future. I think it really devalues and degrades the political discourse and general political behavior. Politicians aren’t saints anywhere, right? They don’t have to be saints. But there are certain standards that should be adhered to.
Today, there are seven parties that hold seats in parliament in the Czech Republic. How do you believe having more parties in parliament impacts the politics of the nation?
It’s a European continental tradition to have more parties in parliament, as opposed to the UK or the United States, where you have clear divisions between the left and right. There’s a more complex situation in the UK, which now has more political parties in parliament than before, though their political system remains divided into a clear right and a clear left. Here on the continent, in countries like Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, to some extant France, you have more political parties. It’s not a clear-cut situation.
One of the reasons for this is, that we have proportional representation politics. So it’s not about clear personalities winning in their districts. It’s about political parties having teams in various regions, and you vote for that team. There’s not much change to this system, and it’s going to continue.
There has been an attempt to make Czech politics more of a majority type, more towards winner-takes-all in the districts, but it was done 14 years ago during the time of the so-called Opposition Agreement between the Social Democrats held power in a minority government. They wanted to eliminate their small political party competitors. They changed the political system to introduce more majoritarian elements, meaning you would have a clear division between the left and the right, but the initiative was y struck down by the Czech constitutional court, which upheld the current representational system. Unless we change the constitution, which is difficult, we will continue to end up with these broad coalitions.
The Czech Republic has only been a democratic country for the last 25 years. Have you seen evidence of a generational divide between people who were born before the end of communism and those born after?
Certainly those who are younger, let’s say in their thirties and younger, are more experienced and traveled. But they are only a fairly thin sliver of the population, because the number of educated people here, and especially university graduates, is less than in most Western countries. So even though college students travel quite a lot and know more about the world, it doesn’t really translate into the overall population. The Czech Republic is still very much provincial, self-contained, and not really interested in what’s going on elsewhere. There hasn’t really been much of a drastic change. I was hoping this would happen with our EU entry, but things didn’t really change that much.
Is there a difference in the way that the younger generation approaches politics?
I don’t think so. There is a cultural divide between people who are educated and those who are not. Between people in big cities, and those in small towns and villages. There is a cultural divide between people in Western Bohemia and Moravia, which is more eastern and more left-leaning. But I don’t think this applies to the younger generation as opposed to the older one.
Would you say that this is the reason why there are still so many young people involved in the Communist Party in the Czech Republic, although they never even experienced the communist regime?
You know, that’s a big disappointment. Many people believed that the Communist Party would actually die out, but that’s not happening. They pretty much have the same representation today as they did in 1990. That means that they are getting new voters. They are getting them from mostly disaffected areas with high unemployment and poor enough economic activity, and from people who don’t have much of an education. You do have some young, educated, radical left-wingers, but that is a very tiny part of this party. They are visible, but they are not the core constituency of the party. The Communist Party is still about communist ideology, at least on the surface, but mostly it serves as a reservoir of the protest vote against the establishment.
Where do you see Czech politics five years down the line?
At present, we have a leftist coalition, which cannot be pinpointed ideologically. You have a left-wing Social Democratic party in charge, but the strongest party according to opinion polls is ANO, this new anti-corruption movement. They’re not really anti-corruption. They just took advantage of corruption issues to become established. But it depends on how this new movement under its oligarch Andrej Babiš, does in the next elections and after that. I expect that they will be in decline five years from now, that people will be able to see through their promises. It may also happen, that Babiš will be fed up with politics in four or five years, and that ANO will fade out. I strongly believe that this is not a viable political party. It’s just a one-man political project, a one-man show. When Babiš disappears the party will disappear. It also depends on the other political parties, mainly the Social Democrats and the right-wing parties, whether they will be able to restore confidence in voters and rid themselves of the corruption taint that they have acquired. And they must create viable political programs that people can believe in. There are still too many unknowns.
published: 8. 6. 2015