Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 10
30 November 1998

Andrew Stroehlein C Z E C H   R E P U B L I C :
Klaus, One Year after the Fall

Andrew Stroehlein

In November 1997, the Czech political world went through its greatest upheaval since the break-up of Czechoslovakia. Now, one year after the failed party coup within the ODS, Vaclav Klaus is still riding high - to the detriment of his country.

(cesky preklad v Britskych listech)

One year ago, Vaclav Klaus was disgraced as party leader and prime minister in a financial scandal which forced him out of his leading roles. His top generals within the ODS had risen against Klaus in an effort to wrestle the party leadership from his grasp. The rebels' objective was to turn the ODS into a modern party that did not rely so heavily on one man. For a moment in late November 1997, it almost seemed they would be successful.

But the rebels grossly underestimated their foe and his popularity among the Party rank-and-file. The powerful and well-disciplined local party organizations were firmly behind Klaus. The ODS's local Party discipline is second only to the Communists, and the locals trusted their long-time leader over the seemingly ungrateful putschists.

Unable to replace its first and only Party chairman, the ODS thus failed its test of institutionalization and drifted towards becoming a cult of personality. The ODS's efforts over the past year to push new people into the limelight has been rather a failure. The truth is, someone like Deputy Chairman Ivan Langer is simply not as impressive a politician as someone like co-founder of the ODS and ex-Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec. No young upstart can hope to steal the headlines from Kim Il Klaus.

Plan B: The Freedom Union

By the middle of December 1997, the rebels' attempted coup had failed, and they were stuck for a plan. They never wanted to create a separate party, and they are still not really sure what they want to do with their Freedom Union. Like the ODS, the Freedom Union is a party that revolves around Vaclav Klaus: of course, based on a negation of Klaus, the Freedom Union revolves counter-clockwise instead of clockwise like the ODS, but Klaus remains the center point.

For a few months, it looked as if the Freedom Union would eclipse the ODS, and if the early elections had been called for March instead of June, the ODS may well have been sunk. Instead, the establishment gave Klaus six and a half months to recover from his humiliation, and he used the time to attack with every weapon known to him. The ODS trounced the ill-defined Freedom Union in the June elections.

Political obituaries for Klaus were written prematurely - including my own (see Britske listy, 1 December 1998 in Czech) - but it is clear that Klaus has lost the plot. As someone noted to me the other day: "ODS has gone from being the party of society's winners to the party of society's losers."

Klaus the Definer

Klaus was the man at the forefront in the early 1990s, a man who defined nearly all the rules of the game in today's Czech politics: in fact, he defined the game itself. He institutionalized a party system and successfully argued that the country should not resort to any "experiment" or "Third Way." He was the man behind the Second Revolution in late 1990 and early 1991 that declared private ownership and a market economy to be the standard (never mind the lack of a legal framework).

Klaus was also the key figure in deciding that the new polity would be ten million Czechs in a new, independent republic that had never before existed. Even after his first major fall one year ago, Klaus soon returned to sign the "opposition agreement" with the Social Democrats half a year later, thus bringing the country inexorably towards a two-party, first-past-the-post electoral system. He has defined, and been allowed to define, a political spectrum of Right and Left in the Czech Republic, which is generally seen as outdated elsewhere in the world.

Losing the plot

But Klaus has recently been showing his inability to stay at the forefront of defining Czech society and politics. The "opposition agreement" lost Klaus the confidence of his self-declared Right. ODS's recent election results were not spectacular, and losses in the ODS stronghold of Prague must have been a real shock even to Klaus's own sense of superiority. The megalomaniac campaign billboard on the site of the old Stalin monument can only be seen as an error in political judgement.

Perhaps most interestingly, of all the aspects of Czech society that Klaus has been able to create and define from scratch, there is one element of current social development that eludes his masterful powers of social definition: information technology. Klaus has always been behind the times and unwilling to catch up when it comes to understanding the possibilities offered by personal computers and the Internet.

Klaus's early statements on the subject were laughable, especially for a man who so often presented himself as "more Western than thou" to Czechs and foreigners alike. Despite his attachment to every latest trend in the field of economics in the early 1990s, Klaus never seemed to read those IT supplements in The Financial Times or The Economist that discussed the possibilities and challenges posed by the new technology. The Czech Republic was slow to get into the IT race because of Klaus's attitude, and it now has quite a bit of catching-up to do.

Klaus tried to ignore the public protests against Telecom two weeks ago. He had his henchmen write disparaging remarks in the daily newspapers (Martin Riman in Lidove noviny on 18 November 1998, for example, in Czech), which curiously tried to make it seem that the Internet was for the elite, whereas ODS was for the common man. The obedient henchmen failed to point out that phone rates were rising for everyone (not just Internet users) and that they were rising due to a policy enacted under Klaus's government.

Klaus's refusal to consider IT's possibilities is certainly a chink in his political armor. Any politician wanting to make a few points on Klaus should promote computers and the Internet. State programs to put more on-line computers in schools and to reduce the price of Internet connections for home users may not be the most exciting election promises, but they are popular enough. The Czech public is generally aware of the importance of providing their children with a modern education that prepares them for jobs in the next century. Klaus's continued denial looks backward, so here, finally, is something that another political leader can define for the young Czech Republic.

One year after Klaus's fall, the master's weaknesses are finally evident to most, but that does not mean Klaus is a dinosaur. He is down but not out. With a disciplined organization behind him, he will, like the Communists, keep getting the Party faithful to the ballot boxes at the key elections. Klaus may not be able to define every rule in the game anymore, but there are precious few rules left to define.

Andrew Stroehlein, 30 November 1998


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