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 :
Battle of the Vaclavs

Andrew Stroehlein

What was clear one year ago is even clearer now: Vaclav Havel should not have run again for President last January. He missed his best chance to respectfully leave the political scene and give his country a secure future.

After the temporary fall of Vaclav Klaus at the end of last year, there was a brief window of opportunity for Havel to leave office with dignity and to openly support a credible, non-Klaus successor. This window only existed in December 1997 and January 1998, when Klaus, shaken by financial scandal and party upheaval, was weakest and was in no position to contest the presidency. Havel and his advisors refused to see this opening, however, and they squandered the chance.

Why did Havel and his advisors refuse to recognize their opportunity one year ago and bow out gracefully? The reasons are several. First, one must recognize natural, human frailties: the vanity of a leader always keeps him in office longer than is best for his country. Additionally, advisors orbiting the leader do not want to threaten their own privileged positions and thus are not wont to advise resignation.

Second, despite the warnings of many commentators in the Czech press, Havel and his advisors probably did not realize just how golden their opportunity was. Everyone thought, and opinion polls at that time seemed to confirm, that Klaus was on the way out. Few realized that winter 97/98 was just a temporary setback for Klaus.

Third, of course, Havel was not nearly as ill at that time as he would become in just a few months, so the need for change was not seen as so urgent.

Now, Havel is more seriously ill than one year ago, but his personal desire to keep Klaus out of the President's seat will force Havel to stay on longer than he might otherwise normally do. Like an old rock star who should have retired long ago, at the pinnacle of his career, Havel limps on lamely, sometimes embarrassingly. At least he is not wearing spandex like Mick Jagger.

But the Czech public and the world must now face the prospect of a President Klaus - a prospect that was unthinkable one year ago. Indeed, one year on, Klaus seems like the only candidate with a serious chance of being the next head of state. Citizens want a President who is well known abroad, and there are only two Czech politicians who are known in the wider world today: the two Vaclavs, Havel and Klaus. No other candidate would command the attention on the world stage as Klaus would; his election seems likely within the next few years.

Today's Czech Republic, with no elected majority government for two and a half years, is in danger of turning into the basket-case of Central Europe. The unhealthy Havel, determinedly holding on to his post for as long as possible to keep Klaus from it, has the potential to become a Central European Yeltsin.

One year ago, an opportunity existed for the Czech Republic to evolve from its early, post-Revolutionary stage into a more stable, democratic system. This process of institutionalization can only ever be accomplished by a passing of leadership from one party to another and from one generation to the next. Havel could have passed on the torch and trumped Klaus at the same time, but he did not. Unfortunately, the Czech political establishment failed to strike while the iron was hot, and the Klaus era, perpetuated by the "opposition agreement," drags on interminably.

Andrew Stroehlein, 30 November 1998


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