Vol 1, No 16
11 October 1999
T E N Y E A R S A F T E R:
Democracy's Disappointment - part 2
Can the Czech style of democracy survive?
In my recent article on democracy in crisis, I argued that democracy is facing a global challenge - or at least a European and North American-wide one. In this article, I would like to focus more on the Czech style of democracy, or rather the current shortcomings of the existing democratic regime in the Czech Republic. Although one cannot speak of a "national democracy" in terms of a democracy based on the "national character" that defines the basic institutional democratic network, there is a certain style of public debate, a way in which politicians communicate with the public and a manner in which the public administration assists citizens. The institutional network of democracy can be established in weeks or months, but to create effective patterns of behaviour which give life to these institutions takes years. How far has the Czech Republic progressed in this process and where does it stand at this very moment?
The current situation is influenced by a mixture of traditions stretching from the 19th century to the present. One of them is the central role of bureaucracy in public life. The old Austro-Hungarian monarchy and especially its Austrian part sought to resolve the problems of its multinational character by establishing a bureaucratic system, which enabled the monarchy to be ruled in more or less a smooth manner. Self-governing bodies were in most cases based on national affiliation and the central state did not trust them, as it suspected them of not being loyal. Thus, it did not encourage the creation of a self-governed society. The same could be said of the school system, which aimed at homogenising the population and teaching citizens to be loyal subjects.
This tradition is still present in the Czech Republic today. Citizens and their associations are not trusted; the state administration does not trust in their sense and competence. In this respect, it is more than absurd that the very same politicians who do not trust their citizens criticise the "European bureaucracy" in Brussels. For a long time, Czech society has been shaped by a fear of standing up in public with a clear view on issues and arguing for this view. This passivity or resignation is manifested in the conviction that "small," common people cannot change things and that there is no need to waste time and energy on meaningless efforts. Add to this a general mistrust, and it is understandable why people do not create interest groups and associations as often as they do, for example, in the United States.
This is not to say that such a state of affairs will remain unchanged forever. It is surely changing, and there are a variety of civic associations and local and regional interest groups of citizens with well-defined agendas and effective tools for their implementation. Still, there are not many who proudly display an Amnesty International sticker, say, on their entrance door. Passivity is a common problem mentioned by many of the foreigners coming to the Czech Republic to teach at universities or engage in public or business activities.
Despite the liberal rhetoric of the past decade, current Czech society is to a very large extent a clientelistic and corporate one. Groups of friends, acquaintances and relatives dominate most of the public sector, including administration, media as well as public schools and academia. Society is not mobile; on the contrary, it is blocked and "conserved" to an extent that almost prevents any development and dynamics. This seems to me to be the main cause of the stagnation that the country is facing nowadays. It also has an impact on current political life in the Czech Republic, as most politicians do not care about their political agenda but spend most of their time on petty deals, which can benefit them as individuals or the parties they represent. There is a considerable lack of issue-oriented politicians in Czech politics.
The first signs that this may be changing can be seen in the effort to create a coalition of Freedom Union, Christian Democrats, Democracy Union and Civic Democratic Alliance, which wants to pursue issues of wide public relevance such as preparation for European Union enlargement, improvement of the legal system and the fight against corruption. It still remains to be seen whether this political coalition of four will be successful, as there are various interests within each of the parties that could tear the coalition apart. The Christian Democrats in particular are torn between their traditional stronghold in Moravia - consisting of mostly religious, agrarian regions - and modern, urban and secular voters.
It is not quite clear yet whether there is space within the Czech political spectrum for a new political party that could raise significant political support among voters; just as it is not obvious yet whether there is a charismatic leader who could make such a party a success. However, it seems to me that there is a need and support for a political party which could stand between the Communists and the Social Democrats on the left and the Civic Democratic Party on the right. If the new alliance fails to play such a role and does not meet voters expectations, there will be attempts to fill this space.
Yet another important dimension of democracy - civic interest groups and associations - has a long way to go before it can be said to be truly established in the country. In spite of the relatively high number of NGOs, there is still a lack of critical and reform-minded ones. Czech politicians would like to see NGOs act as service providers which fill the gaps of the public social and health care system and substitutes for non-existent or under-funded public institutions. They do not, however, want to recognize the role of NGOs as advocates and lobbyists.
There are several good examples of relatively well-organized and powerful environmental groups, which have not only challenged but actually reversed some decisions. These provide a good precedent for average citizens and their efforts to play a role in public life.
To conclude, current Czech democracy suffers from a variety of shortcomings, such as weak civic society, lack of tradition of involvement in public life and clientelism. Nevertheless, there are some relevant civic initiatives and political actions which give hope.
Pavel Tychtl, 11 October, 1999
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