The state of political culture in Central European countries before the fall of Communism has had a rather significant impact on the sources of political legitimacy in these countries since 1990. The relative openness of the Communist regimes in Poland and in Hungary in the 1970s and especially in the 1980s has meant that, in the 1990s, both these countries were relatively successful in getting rid of the idea that an ideology can legitimise a course of politics. It would appear that economic and political pragmatism has become the main source of political legitimacy in these two countries.
At the beginning of the 1990s, ideological anti-Communism and the reputation of the trade union movement Solidarity became the main source of political legitimacy in Poland. But there were also reform Communists in Poland, and they had a relatively good reputation among the public. Throughout the 1990s, the Polish electorate voted for, in turn, the Solidarity movement and its supporters and the technocratic reformed Communists. Supporters of Solidarity lost an election and had to hand over power to the reformed Communists as early as 1993. This is when the Poles had the fundamental democratic experience that the departure of an anti-Communist political party from government did not mean a return of Communism.
The Czechs, by contrast, did not have such an experience until 1998, and even then, it was only partial, as the Czech Social Democrats are not the successors of the Communist Party.
While the supporters of Solidarity won the election again in 1997, their popularity is currently very low, and it is expected that the reform Communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) will win a major victory in the forthcoming elections in 2001. Legendary Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa lost the presidential election as early as 1995, and his attempt to stand for the presidency in 2000 was a fiasco.
Thus the "glorious anti-totalitarian tradition" of the Solidarity movement, the memories of the 1980 strikes, and the strong, nationalist, anti-Communist role of the Catholic Church in Poland all seem to lose their power as sources of political legitimacy relatively quickly.
As Professor George Blazyca of Paisley University points out, the most important change in Poland over the past few years has been the realisation that "a politician should be able to do his or her work relatively well and without too much corruption." This realisation has become the new source of political legitimacy in Poland. It can be said, then, that the political legitimacy, which began emerging in Poland around the mid-1990s, is of an economic and administrative character.
A similar situation seems to prevail in Hungary, where it was the reform Communists who began carrying out radical economic reform still in the Communist era. In Hungary the victory of the right wing after the fall of Communism was also short-lived; as early as 1994, the Hungarian Socialists scored a major victory in elections when they won 209 of 386 parliamentary seats.
Just as in Poland this victory of the reformed Communists in Hungary did not mean a "return to Communism" as it was interpreted by the Czech commentators at the time. Socialist Prime Minister Gyula Horn successfully managed to stimulate the economy and prepare the country for entering NATO and the European Union.
While in 1998, the Hungarian Socialists were defeated by the FIDESZ political party, which subsequently formed a right-wing government coalition, the country did not return to ideological anti-Communism as a source of political legitimacy—Hungarian politics still remained based on the pragmatic awareness of economic and administrative effectiveness and absence of corruption.
Unlike in Poland, the traumatic defeat of the 1956 Hungarian revolution (during which some 3000 people died and many more were subsequently persecuted) is still felt. This means that the youngest Hungarian politicians, the thirty-year-olds from today's liberal-conservative grouping, the Young Democrats, can still use anti-Communism in appealing to the voters, arguing that unlike the older generation, the reformed Communists, they, the young liberal-conservatives have not been morally and politically compromised by Communism.
Still, this does not detract from the fundamental basis of political legitimacy in Hungary: economic and administrative ability and avoiding corruption.
The relatively fast move of Poland and Hungary towards these "Western" sources of political legitimacy was undoubtedly caused by the fact that a strong, liberal, pragmatic reform-Communist movement existed in these two countries before the fall of the Soviet empire. Thus the expression "a Communist" did not evoke such dark hatred and could not become a long-term instrument of ideological manipulation as it has been the case in the Czech Republic, where developments in the 1990s were considerably more complicated than in Poland and in Hungary.
It is an interesting question whether the quick emergence of economic and administrative effectiveness as a source of political legitimacy in Poland and Hungary is the reason why the media in the Czech Republic, which are still struggling with ideologisation of politics in their country, hardly ever report on developments in these two neighbouring countries.
The curse of the Prague Spring
It seems that the situation of Czech society is more complicated than the situation of Poland and Hungary. An important role is played by the "curse of the Prague Spring." Czechoslovak society tried to liberalise the Communist regime in the middle of the 1960s, at a time when hardline, anti-liberal tendencies started emerging in the centre of the empire, in the Soviet Union, after a period of the "thaw" which followed Stalin's death. The Czechoslovak liberalisation movement behaved so clumsily in the second half of the 1960s that it was eventually destroyed by the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968.
Revenge followed the invasion: it was the aim of the occupying forces to destroy the cultural and the intellectual life of the Czech and the Slovak nations and to annihilate its independent cultural, intellectual and political identity. This assault was deliberate, and from the cultural point of view, its consequences were probably even more destructive than direct political oppression at the time of high Stalinism in the 1950s.
In the 1950s, at least a part of the nation supported Communism, and so the Soviet colonisers could then use to their own ends at least a part of the Czech cultural heritage with which the Czechoslovak Communist sympathisers identified themselves.
But the Czechoslovak liberalising and democratising Marxism of the 1960s was dangerous for Brezhnev's authoritarian Russia, and so it was the only solution for the occupiers to turn Czechoslovakia into an enslaved colony after 1968, whose independent cultural and political manifestations were suppressed, often with the help of indigenous collborators.
For reasons which have not been sufficiently researched—the history of Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and the 1980s is not an era about which the Czechs now particularly desire to start a public debate—Czechs and Slovaks conformed to the destructive way of life imposed upon them by the occupiers. Even though many people perfunctorily complained about the Communists, on the whole, citizens who did not fight the regime and who participated in its compulsory rituals (thus manifesting their willingness to do whatever the regime wanted of them) lived relatively well in the timeless existence of the Czechoslovak colony.
It is true that the regime demanded they give up courage, individuality, maturity, the ability to tackle problems and to form their own, independent political attitudes, but their jobs and their subsistence and a relatively high standard of living were assured.
In more well-established democratic societies, the basic cultural values are often determined through open and critical debate, in which independent, critically-thinking intellectuals play—or at least until recently played—a relatively significant role. But the post-1968 Czechoslovak police state managed to isolate Czechoslovak intellectuals from the majority of society—it enclosed them in a ghetto: normal citizens were intimidated by the authorities in order not to even attempt to communicate with independent intellectuals (dissidents). Public debate was impossible; public discourse had been destroyed by the hysterical and aggressive language of ideological propaganda.
The intellectual head of the nation had been cut off from the body of the nation: the headless body of the majority society blindly stalked towards thoughtless subordination and consumerism.
Legitimacy and ritual
The values which gave legitimacy to the post-1968 invasion period of the 1970s and the 1980s imprinted Czechoslovak society with a number of salient features. The most typical feature of people's subservience during these two decades was the fact that they had adopted the position of a child: citizens had given up their rights to independent political and human action and thought.
The 1970s and 1980s in Czechoslovakia were also characterised by widespread collectivism, which was, paradoxically, motivated by the desire for individual profit. Those who were to survive in this enslaved society needed to observe a large number of outward, collectivist rituals. If they outwardly behaved in the way which the authorities expected them to, they were able to gain economic advantage for themselves and their families. By formally adhering to collectivist norms, Czechoslovak citizens were able to secure individual economic benefits for themselves.
Those who attempted to cast doubt on these ritualistic collectivist norms or even disrupt them came to be regarded as society's enemies because, by doing so, they could threaten the individual benefits of citizens, which were the only area of personal realisation in the period of the subjugation of Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 1980s.
In spite of obvious and radical changes in the structure of the Soviet empire at least from the middle of the 1980s onwards, most Czechoslovak citizens did not expect the fall of Communism, not even its possible liberalisation. The disintegration of the Communist empire was an unpleasant surprise for many Czech and Slovak citizens. Even the small Czech dissident community was caught on the hop by the fall of Communism.
The regime which came into being in Czechoslovakia after the fall of Communism temporarily created the impression that it had much in common with Western values and that the dissidents were the bearers of these values in the Czechoslovak society—it was mostly the dissidents who temporarily stood at the helm after the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia.
However, it soon turned out that this was not the case. Not even the Czech dissidents could have had experience from a more mature democratic society. For instance, they could not know how the economy operates in an open society: nobody knew this in Czechoslovakia. The new political space was unfamiliar to the dissidents, and they soon lost their way within it.
For the majority of society, used to the ways of life in the subjugated Czechoslovakia of the 1970s and the 1980s, the dissidents quickly became unaccceptable because of their "impractical heroism" under Communism, as well as for their mistakes after the fall of Communism. Those dissidents who, after to fall of Communism, failed to conform to the surviving ethos of subjugated Czechoslovakia during the Communist era (it was now eveyone's duty to become an ardent anti-Communist) had to leave positions of influence. The short-lived legitimacy of the new regime, based on human rights, freedom and democracy, ended.
The sensitive populism of Václav Klaus
The economist and a banking bureaucrat Václav Klaus was able to react to the mood of the population which now found itself in a new, insecure and chaotic situation. Klaus was an unimaginative technocrat, but he was the product of the majority Czechoslovak society of the 1970s and the 1980s. Klaus could understand rather well what worked in Czech society and knew how to behave so that a large number of citizens would start regarding him as their main political representative and the bearer of state legitimacy.
Klaus's rivals in the Civic Movement (Občanské hnutí, a loose grouping of individuals in the very early 1990s who stressed the importance of civic society) knew what Czech society required (a reliable system of law and an effective civil service) and tried to convince Czech citizens during public debates that it was necessary to create good laws and to reform the civil service.
In the mature Western democracies, party political programmes usually become a source of political legitimacy. But society must be capable of at least a minimal level of political discourse, within which politicians communicate their vision to the citizens. At the beginning of the 1990s, Czech society and the Czech media were not capable of a rational public debate. Apart from that, the Civic Movement failed to communicate its message clearly and effectively.
By contrast, Václav Klaus decided to reflect public mood passively. He did not wish to persuade the public to follow any radical political programme; he started to push through what he felt that Czech people themselves wanted. From 1992 onwards, several basic populist prejudices became the source of legitimacy of Klaus's ruling Civic Democratic Party (ODS).
Klaus was not an anti-Communist, but when he realised that the Czech public needed to react to the twenty years during which they did not dare to fight the Communist regime by abusing it now, by "kicking the Communist corpse," he started using anti-Communism as a main plank of his policies. Anti-Communism became the main source of legitimacy for Klaus's governments from 1992 onwards.
As a result of the mortification of Czech society in the 1970s and 1980s, Klaus could use anti-Communism as a potent source of legitimacy until as late as 1997—the longest lived government in Central Europe in the 1990s. Klaus was willing to sacrifice his rational principles to populist moods because he knew that what was the most important was the seizure of power. Everything else receded into the background. Populism became the source of government legitimacy in Czech society in the first half of the 1990s.
At the same time, Klaus manouevred himself into a rather advantageous position: in the Czech context, it was he who was free to decide what was the genuine, anti-Communist right-wing faith and who was a "Communist" and hence an "enemy."
At first, Klaus did not support the Lustration Law (the law whereby anyone who had been part of the previous Communist ruling structures had to leave politics and the civil service), but after the law was adopted, he praised it and began implementing it.
Under Klaus's rule, it became impossible to criticise the Lustration Law and to point out that its implementation would have serious long term negative consequences for the Czech civil service. Nobody believed it, and nobody understood it.
It was not possible to persuade the Czech population that the best privatisation method might be to find foreign investment and foreign owners for Czech businesses. People in Czechoslovakia did not believe that their economy was in a serious mess, and they were afraid of economic dependence on foreign countries. From the beginning, nationalism was thus another source of legitimacy for Klaus's government.
Klaus attempted to protect Czech national interests. At the end of the 1990s, after Klaus's party had lost the loyalty of majority Czech society, it began relying on nationalism even more strongly than before.
Klaus's populism was based on the slogan of "coming to terms with the Communist past." Klaus based his legitimacy on applying the principle of collective guilt to members of the civil service (lustration)—he ignored the people around the Civic Movement who wished to punish Communist collaborators on the basis of individual responsibility—and on a vision of a fast economic reform, which rejected all economic planning.
Klaus promised Czech society that it would get rich quick and used the slogan "freedom and prosperity."
At the same time, atavistic anti-Communist fear in Czech society was put to use: it was argued that Communism could return if the state economy was not broken down quickly and irrevocably. This atavistic anti-Communism was artificially fanned by the pro-Klaus media. The Czech media had a complex of guilt for having collaborated with the Communist regime, so they uncritically and unquestioningly supported Klaus until at least the mid-1990s.
Václav Havel also temporarily succumbed to the anti-Communism wave of summer 1990, when he came to believe that in a democracy the politician must simply listen attentively to what people want and fulfill their wishes. In normal democratic politics, of course, policies are the result of negotiation and compromise between interests.
But after the fall of Communism, there were no clearly articulated political interests. Just as before the revolution, ideology was supreme. An ideological fight against the previous ideology became a source of political legitimacy.
In 1992—1997, the following decisions, made on the basis of anti-Communism, became the basic sources of legitimacy for Klaus's regime.
- Klaus decided to subject all employees in the civil service to anti-Communist purges (lustration).
- Klaus decided to break up Czechoslovakia, in essence saying "We will not talk to the Slovaks, they would only keep us back, they are primitives and Communists." Even the break up of Czechoslovakia became a part of "coming to terms with the Communist past: the "conservative" Klaus had a "Communist" counterpart in the Slovak leader Vladimír Mečiar.
- Klaus was against the arrival of foreign capital in the Czech Republic. For populist-nationalist reasons he also refused to talk to the Sudeten Germans.
- For nationalist reasons, Klaus was also reluctant to cooperate within other Central European countries within the Visegrád agreement. Klaus could not turn away from the European Union, but he was certainly Euro-sceptic, and he did manage to create internal obstacles to integration so that the European Union was not particulary enthusiastic in accepting the Czech Republic as a member quickly.
Playing on insecurity
General insecurity after the fall of Communism also became an important source of legitimacy for Václav Klaus. People found themselves in a situation which was confusing for them, so they looked for a strong leader. This is why they supported Lech Wałęsa in Poland, Vladimír Mečiar in Slovakia and Václav Klaus in the Czech Republic at the beginning of the 1990s.
Klaus managed to persuade a large number of Czechs that he was the embodiment of the post-Communist transformation. Klaus would not have forced his populist themes on the nation without being himself convinced of their validity. Klaus was the product of the same ethos as the subjugated masses, formed in the crucible of the repressive 1970s and 1980s. His authentic views fully reflected the views of Czech society.
In this vein, Klaus rejected "elitism," which included any concrete, intellectual political programme. Klaus has always been convinced that what the nation wants must be the sole source of a politician's democratic legitimacy.
A disintegration of legitimacy, based on ideology
But eventually, people's loyalty towards Klaus started to wane: it became obvious that it was not possible to sacrifice the state in the interest of populism. Much later than in Poland or in Hungary, economic and administrative principles of political legitimacy at least partially manifested themselves even in the Czech Republic.
Citizens stopped supporting Klaus when it became apparent that the state was not functioning properly—no reform of the civil service had taken place—and that corruption was seriously affecting the affairs of state.
It was not until 1997 that Klaus lost most of its political legitimacy: his government was forced to admit that the economic reform had been done incompetently and that Klaus's policies had landed the country in a blind alley. This lead to a re-distribution of legitimacy on the Czech political scene and to a narrow victory of the Social Democrats in the June 1998 election.
It is interesting how extraordinarily successful Klaus was in maintaining political legitimacy until 1996. On the basis of a handful of populist principles, Klaus enjoyed a population showing high levels of satisfaction.
However, when it turned out that Klaus's reforms were a failure, there was a radical change in people's attitudes: until mid-1996, more than 40 per cent of Czech voters were "very satisfied" with political and economic developments in the Czech Republic, and more than 30 per cent were "satisfied" (46 and 36 percent respectively in July 1996). In July 1997, it was only 12 and 8 per cent respectively.
These figures have improved since but not substantially. According to the Institute for Research of Public Opinion (IVVM) in October 2000, 30 per cent of people are now happy with political developments in the Czech Republic, 66 per cent are unhappy.
After Klaus, a vacuum: emotional manipulation as a source of political legitimacy
Since the fall of Václav Klaus from power, open and rational debate about the state of Czech society has not become a basis of political legitimacy. Czech political parties are now trying to obtain citizens' loyalty and political legitimacy by using stop-gap, emotional issues. They mostly squabble about the "Opposition Agreement."
As a result of only a narrow victory by the Social Democrats in June 1998 and as a result of obstinacy of Jan Ruml, the then leader of Unie svobody (Freedom Union), the small right-wing party that refused to form a coalition with either the Social Democrats or the Civic Democrats, the archrivals at the June 1998 election, the Civic Democrats and the Social Democrats, joined hands and basically formed a coalition government: the Social Democrats have since been in power with the tacit support of Klaus's Civic Democrats under the terms of this Opposition Agreement.
For the Czech media, many of which openly sympatise with the Freedom Union, and for many Czech citizens, the creation of this relatively viable political compromise was a serious disappointment. Many people could not admit that the ability to reach a compromise was the basis of matter-of-fact political work. But the conclusion of the Opposition Agreement has had also considerable negative impact. The most influential positions in society have been taken over by the representatives of the two strongest ruling parties.
Citizens' frustration over the Opposition Agreement and the marginal role of Czech intellectuals
For a large number of Czechs, the creation of the Opposition Agreement was a heavy blow dealt to their faith in democracy. The fact that the two strongest political parties divided the most influential positions in the country amongst themselves and even changed the election law to their advantage, has alienated many Czech citizens from the current Czech political system. These feelings of alienation from politics equal, in some people, their disillusionment of the 1970s and 1980s.
Many people now feel that since they are not members of the Opposition Agreement grouping, they cannot take part in running public affairs in their country. Thus, they either withdraw into private life, or they have a tendency to reject the whole contemporary Czech political system.
As a result of party political deadlock, the Czech civil service still remains very poor. There are no attempts to depoliticise the civil service. The new politicians of the Opposition Agreement concentrate on creating a good image in the media rather then doing any real political work.
In this situation, various initiatives by Czech intellectuals play only a rather marginal role. Czech intellectuals mostly do not understand the current situation of Czech society; they have become known not as educated, perceptive individuals who understand what bothers their fellow citizens, but only as a narrow interest group.
As a result of the strong dumbing-down of Czech society after 1989, most Czech citizens do not take intellectuals seriously. Society does not regard them as relevant also because many intellectuals have become discredited first as a result of their collaboration with Communism and then as a result of their uncritical support given to Václav Klaus in the first half of the 1990s. This applies especially to journalists, since society perceives the voice of the intellectuals primarily through the media.
Is economic and administrative pragmatism now emerging in the Czech Republic?
It is, however, indisputable that the Opposition Agreement has brought stability to the Czech Republic over the past two years. The level of political bickering has gone down, and the government has been mildly successful in reviving the economy.
Over the past few months, it seems that the economic features of government policy were finally becoming more salient as a source of political legitimacy, in spite of the fact that the media and the non-government political parties are still trying to force emotional, ideological substitutes to the public as a source of legitimacy.
If the government economic policy were to fail, and if there were an economic crisis, there would be a danger that this might become a source of political legitimacy for the Czech Communist party, whose pre-1989 members are gradually dying out and which is beginning to change into a radical, reform-Communist socialist party. High unemployment in certain areas would probably lead to social unrest and to political instability.
Attempts to manipulate the media
A tradition of independent, analytical, critical and impartial media has not emerged in the Czech Republic yet. The Czech political parties are attempting to use various informal, personal connections in the media in order to increase voter loyalty.
But there are no direct institutional connections between a particular medium—no political party would dare to undergo such a risk. Sometimes, political parties try to gain sympathies with the voters by stylising themselves into the role of a martyr, or they attack journalists and/or sue them. (see last week's article by Jana Altman for more)
Foreign themes remain relatively irrelevant in Czech politics; they are usually not a source of political legitimacy. Not even under the rule of the Social Democrats does the public support Visegrád cooperation particularly intensely.
A relatively large number of Czechs supported the entry of the Czech Republic into NATO; however, a mere fortnight after joining NATO, the Czech Republic found itself in a war with Yugoslavia, which, in spite of sharply pro-Western, uncritical and superficial propaganda disseminated by the Czech media, was condemned by a large majority of the Czech population.
Only some 50 per cent of Czechs welcome the process of integration into the European Union. People are afraid of the unknown; they feel that their fate will be decided elsewhere.
Most recently, the Czech Interior Ministry has used masterfully for its own purposes the latent indigenous Czech nationalism and the servility of the media during the IMF/World Bank anti-globalisation demonstrations of September 2000 in order to create a myth about heroic Czech policemen, who acted against wicked foreign marauders, bent on "destroying Prague." Thus, the Interior Ministry has managed almost completely to hide shocking lack of professionalism and widespread brutality, committed by the Czech police against the demonstrators as well as peaceful passers-by. (more in past CER articles)
What this all means
As a result of a tragic historical development during the so called "normalisation" period of the 1970s and 1980s after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion, Czechoslovakia was cast into apolitical timelessness and turned into a colony, which was denied all rights to make its own decisions. Czechoslovak citizens adapted themselves to the ethos of the subjugated colony, and the fall of Communism was for them an unexpected and harsh shock.
As a result of the degeneration of Czech political culture in the 1970s and 1980s, which was much deeper in Czechoslovakia than in other Central European countries, superficial, ideological anti-Communism could function as a primary source of political legitimacy for most of the 1990s. This anti-Communism delayed more normal economic and political developments in Czechoslovakia at least until 1997.
After the disintegration of this ideological legitimacy, attempts were frequently made to find legitimity for various political parties by other manipulative and substitute means. In 1999—2000, it seemed that even the Czech Republic saw the emergence of an economically administrative, pragmatic principle behind political legitimity, which appears to have prevailed in some other Central European countries, such as Poland and Hungary, which used to be more open during Communism.
The November 2000 Senate elections have unfortunately shown that Czech society is probably not yet quite ready to set out along the way of modern political rationality, using the standards of administrative and managerial effectiveness as a source of political legitimacy. Here, in conclusion, is a quote from an analysis of the election by Tomáš Pecina and Štěpán Kotrba, published in Britské listy recently:
The most successful in these elections seem to have been those individuals who could best use the manipulation of the media to their own ends. Also, irrelevant and emotional themes proved to be the most effective.
As a result of the merging of the two phenomena, as is usually the case in the Czech Republic, politics turned into a virtual media game. When, thus,
politics becomes empty of any authentic content, it becomes alienating and only further deepens social frustration. Social frustration then leads to a low turn-out at the election and to arbitrary voting behaviour by ever larger number of voters. Political programmes, concepts, intelligence and logic applied to state management recede into the background and are all replaced by a bizarre nationwide television soap opera...
Regional differences manifested themselves more strongly in this election than ever before: people in areas of high unemployment voted on the basis of their social stratification; richer regions indulged in the luxury of sentimental voting.
Three conclusions can be drawn from all this:
- The Civic Democratic Party and the Social Democratic Party have paid dearly for underestimating work with voters. They have paid dearly for the Opposition Agreement and will find it difficult to get rid of its burden.
- Political parties will, in future, struggle to control the media even more directly, especially the public service media.
- It is likely that the key to the voter's soul will be sought in ever more infantile stimuli—there is a reason to fear that the current "nice" voting symbol of the Čtyřkoalice (The Coalition of Four), the Koala Bear was an intellectual masterpiece compared to what we may expect in future (an infant's rattle? a dummy?)
Let us hope that Czech politics will take a more mature way than this.
Jan Čulík, 19 November 2000
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