Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 20
8 February 1999

Andrew Stroehlein C Z E C H   R E P U B L I C :
The Second Possibility

Andrew Stroehlein

Last week, I wrote an article stating that, due to the Czech Republic's ever-deteriorating economic situation and ever-worrying xenophobia, the Czech political scene was possibly headed for a rise in radical right activity. But this is certainly not the only possibility for the future. Another, more encouraging opportunity exists - for the political party ready to seize it.

(last week's article on the radical right HERE)

Start with the basics: public opinion poll after public opinion poll shows that citizens are losing faith in all the institutions of national power: the government, the Parliament and the President. Fewer and fewer people are satisfied with the political situation. Just about any anecdotal evidence gathered in the street, pubs and workplaces across the country confirms these polls.

But listen carefully to some of the specific complaints of Czech citizens, and you will hear several key ideas repeated. Society's utter antipathy toward all national institutions is complete enough at this point to be labelled a dissatisfaction with the national administrative centre in general.

Against Prague

Anti-Prague sentiment has always been untapped political potential in the Czech Republic - the farther from Prague, the stronger the sentiment. But lately, this feeling has grown to the point at which it is now a source of real power that could shake up the Czech political landscape.

The 88% of the population that lives outside of Prague are fully sick and tired of the capital - of watching everything be decided in the capital. Their frustration with today's sorry state of politics is only heightened by Pragocentrism: they feel they have little control over events in their country.

Actually, this has much to do with Havel's recent drop in popularity. It's not just the mistakes he and his office have recently made, nor is it just his unpopular wife: there is something deeper. Deserved or not, Havel is a potent symbol of the Praguer in its stereotyped worse sense: snobbish, holier-than- thou and always chastising others for their lack of culture and their small-town, provincial mentality.

But, of course, the current backlash against Havel is only part of whole anti-elite, anti-centre feeling that is taking hold in the country. Talk to people around you: they are fed up with just about everyone on the national political scene, and they are fed up with the national political scene in general.

From this public mood, it is evident that a political moment exists in Czech society, a moment that is ready to be felt in the political world. A successful strategy for the Czech political party seeking a vision is to make use of this anti-Prague feeling.

Historically, this centre/regional cleavage has had some political value. Recall that, during the First Czechoslovak Republic, the Agrarian Party was the party receiving the largest number of Czech votes in two of the four interwar parliamentary elections in both Bohemia and Moravia.

Of course, these victories came only after the split of Social Democracy, but still the Agrarian Party was also the only party to take part in every interwar government, and it held the premiership in 10 of 13 governments. (not including the two governments of non-party experts)

The reader might now be saying, "Ah, yes, all true, but that was long ago, before collectivisation ruined the farming community as a voting block.

But the interwar Agrarian Party did not simply represent the small holders who disappeared with Communist collectivisation, the Agrarian Party reflected a wide variety of interests in the countryside and smaller towns. It functioned, in the words of one scholar, as a "supra-class, rural political organisation" that united rural interests to create "the strongest and most consistent single political force in the First Republic." [David W. Paul, The Cultural Limits of Revolutionary Politics: Change and Continuity in Socialist Czechoslovakia (New York, 1979)]

The precedent for a politically strong countryside exists and is still waiting to be manipulated today.

More recently in the Czech Republic, the ODS split and the survival of Klaus showed the importance of the regions. I wrote about this once before (see Britske listy article).

One other interesting lesson for Czech politicians comes from Hungary today. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has actually been making inroads in the direction of the countryside and the cities and towns outside of Budapest. As recent funding rows over the National Theatre and Metro Line 4 projects between Orbán and the mayor of Budapest, Gabor Demszky, clearly show, a Central European politician can win applause by saying, as Orbán has: "The capital does not have a country; the country has a capital." (see two-part article in CER by Gusztav Kosztolanyi HERE and HERE)

Critics say Orbán divides the country by pitting the capital against the countryside, but his strategy has been quite successful thus far. Hungarians outside of Budapest are convinced that the capital has been receiving too many benefits and a disproportionate share of tax money for too long. Orbán uses rhetoric proposing to remedy this, and many members of the public are captivated.

Could the party divide between the dominant force in the Prague City Council and the ruling party in the national government be just the spark that starts the capital-versus- regions fire as it did with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (Fidesz party) and Mayor Gabor Demszky (Free Democrat party) in Hungary?

Of course, any successful movement will have to go deeper than a simple negative feeling toward the capital. A party aiming to make points in this way would have to promote a general vision of greater regional autonomy, including real powers delegated from the centre to the regions and towns.

Vision, no vision and ideology

It is fascinating that in the last two weeks, two friends I have who are rather close to the leaderships of two different Czech parliamentary parties have been saying roughly the same thing to me:

"The leaders in our party are realising that they have run out of ideas," they both told me. "Events of the last decade seem to have run their course, and now, our party is actively seeking a new vision."

It was more than just amusing to hear this repeated from two different parties in the span of a fortnight. After having read all the party programs in the run-up to the last general election, I was quite amazed that not a one of them seemed to be inspired, so what these friends were now telling me was, perhaps late, but a staggering admission none-the-less.

Between bitter personal rivalries and rapid political and economic change, these parties are now admitting that they have somehow lost the plot. They admit to losing touch with their constituents and not providing them with the necessary leadership and vision which people are seeking.

A vision does not mean an ideology. An ideology is rock-hard, unbending. It muddies the waters of practical decision-making. Success or failure of a particular plan is less important than the plan itself.

A political vision, by contrast, is an expression of hope, an idea that things can improve if certain practical steps are taken. The practical steps are incremental and rational, not irreversible mega-projects. Underlying these steps is the vision, something inspirational, not meglomaniacal.

An explanation of the difference between the two can be seen in recent Czech history.

What Vaclav Klaus offered in 1991, whether one likes it or not, was a vision. He said, in essence, here is the goal (a flourishing, free-market economy), and these are the steps I intend to use to get there (privatisation, more freedom for currency convertibility, tight monetary policy, etc.).

What happened to that vision along the way is another story. The point here is that Klaus then had a vision and people signed on to it with enthusiasm by casting their votes for him in 1992.

What Klaus offered in 1998, on the other hand, (a billboard with his picture on it, one or two slogans) was ideological: obedience to the leader took precedence over ideas and plans of action. Look at the slogans ODS used last year for a moment:

"We think differently" (myslime jinak)

"Just say no to socialist experiments" (Ne, socialitickym experimentum)

These are negations of ideas, not ideas in them selves. These present an idea of where society should NOT be going and not where it should be going. Rather ironically, Klaus seemed to have forgotten the lesson of the immediate post-Revolutionary events: a political grouping based upon the negation of something (at that time the Communist Party) only lasts for a short period of time.

The new vision

But enough of the past. What should the new political vision look like? Given the untapped political potential of the regions, what should a party present to people to encourage them to vote for the party?

For a movement based upon empowering the regions to be successful, it would have to make it's message loud and clear. It is not a vision to simply be anti-Prague or anti-elite. As mentioned above, negation politics is only ever temporary.

In addition to saying "take back decision-making power from Prague," the movement would need to be founded upon a "power to the regions" agenda, both within the political party and in the state itself. One could call it a "national renewal from the ground up."

Politicians would have to openly say that their former political advisors have led them astray, sack a few and go out to the towns and listen.

Well-known politicians would have to spend quality media time outside Prague. They would have to go to the smallest communities, meet with people, hold town meetings and - above all - be seen to actually listen to people. Get local politicians seen on national media (yes, national politicians should stand next to them to draw the TV cameras in - the media is not ready for this, less visionary than the politicians, Iím afraid).

Note, this does not mean a whistle- stop bus tour just before general elections. This activity has to be constant and continuous.

Note, too, that this does not mean the local party group tries to get a big audience for a special appearance by the party leader or deputy leader. It means open meetings - town meetings and meetings with party leaders in pubic and private. Politicians will have to say openly and specifically what particular concerns and good ideas you've heard from the locals of town X.

A party wanting to succeed with this vision will necessarily need to encourage new political blood to come up from those towns. Interregional bodies within the party could foster debate on real problems that affect people on the local level.

Some two more concrete ideas that could be included in the partyís overall vision:

1) The current law on the regions, due to go into effect in less than eleven months, is hopelessly flawed and would have to be changed as part of the overall political vision. There are several reasons why the law is flawed: the regions are too small for purposes of receiving EU structural funds and the new borders are upsetting to many people (see my Reply to Mr Kouba in BL, for example). In addition, as Zdenek Koudela (CSSD), member of the Constitutional Law Committee in Parliament (snemovni ustavne-pravni vybor), has stated, the funds for such a massive project have simply not been planned into he current state budget. (direct quote: "Brani tomu [zavedeni novych kraju, AS] legislativni, ale zejmena financni problemy. Vzhledem k tomu, ze ministerstvo vnitra nedostalo ze statniho rozpoctu ani korunu na vytvoreni kraju, mohou vzniknout nejdrive v roce 2001." (CTK, in MFD 26.1.99) The widespread dissatisfaction with this law could be a primary pillar of support for the new movement.

2) A new tourism action plan that encourages foreign tourists to visit places outside Prague. Ten or twenty locations should be chosen across the Republic, brochures made and local proprietors encouraged to take part. Most of this would not cost much money. The new "spread the wealth" tourism plan should be based upon encouraging local citizens to become active in local tourist councils that discuss promotional efforts and co-ordinate these efforts with a national body. At this point, so many foreigners have seen Prague, anyway: the job of these co-ordinating councils would be to convince them to come back and see some other part of the country.

So, who then?

Which party is likely to act first and seize the political potential of a regional revival? Of the established parties, only KSCM and ODS have the extensive membership base necessary to make a local and regional revival a reality at the moment. US, which in its early days seemed to be edging in this direction, seems to have cooled to the idea of building itself from the ground up, preferring instead to rely on one or two personalities. KDU-CSL would be a good candidate as its support in the rural areas of the country is quite strong, but its reputation a party with a religious connection will continue to keep its number of votes consistently where it is. CSSD, as mentioned before, could play itself off Prague rather well, especially with its strong support in Moravia, a bastion of anti-Prague sentiment if ever there was one.

Of course, the real movement may actually come from a new, grass-roots political force.

Regardless of who makes the first move, the public is likely to be highly sceptical at first. The people are very much turned off politics at the moment.

Eventually, however, such a course of action will win respect from the population, and that will eventually translate into success at the ballot box. At this point, perhaps it is the only course of action that can reverse the falling reputation of politics, politicians and government which citizens now have.

Andrew Stroehlein, 8 February 1999


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