The Czechs and elections: Looking for leaders, surprised at what they find

With Petr Kratochvíl, director of the Czech Institute of International Relations, we discussed the recent Czech elections as well as the good foreigners and the bad foreigners, failed mechanisms of political representation, the Czech visions of Europe and the paradoxes of national interest.

Foto: An artist sends a message to Prague castle shortly before elections, R.Murray


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The Czech Social Democratic Party, technically the winner of the parliamentary elections, is falling apart right now.

You have two very different wings in the party. Perhaps I am simplifying this a bit, but there is definitely a struggle over the essence of what Social Democracy is and what it should be. On the one hand there is the traditional, conservative leftist party that defends the status quo. On the other a progressive Social Democratic wing that stands for change. They have different positions, different agendas and different electorates. And the president is interfering on behalf of the conservatives.

In a column before the elections you predicted that the election results might make the president weaker. Do you still think this is the case?

Yes, I still hope so. And even though he does not like losing, he was clearly beaten both in the elections and in their aftermath. In the elections, his party’s results [the Citizens’ Rights Party – Zemanovci] showed that the President´s preferences are not the decisive factor for  Czech voters, not even those with a leftist orientation. Now he is trying to disavow that party and gain control of the Social Democratic Party instead. And this is where the struggle will be fought in the weeks and months to come. I still hope he will be defeated. Yet even if he doesn’t win in the SD, he will still have significant influence on the shape of the future because the Czech parliament is so fragmented.

When Mr. Zeman won the presidential race earlier this year, many welcomed it because, unlike his predecessor Mr. Klaus, he is not against EU integration. Domestically, however, he has adopted quite a few controversial steps.

His domestic policies are clearly so detrimental to Czech democracy that it seems that without any exaggeration he is trying to catch up with the previous president on that account and he has been quite successful so far. The basic problem lies in the paradoxical situation that we always complain about: the lack of a charismatic leader. Once there is one, he usually turns out to be an egoist with strong views and one who is quite skilled tactically. Mr. Zeman is a strong leader, he is charismatic, he is a skilled speaker and that is why he is trying to bend even the constitution to his own benefit. Let us take for example his remark that constitutional customs are idiotic. It’s not that he has in any way violated the letter of the constitution but he is certainly acting contrary to its spirit. Meddling in party politics is another example of this – before the elections he specified some coalitions which he would not tolerate after the elections. Not even a president in a presidential system should be allowed to act like that and here we are talking about a parliamentary republic.

Andrej Babiš, considered to be the real winner of elections with almost 20 % for his ANO party, is of Slovak origin. He speaks a mix of Czecho-Slovak. In Slovakia, a Czecho-Slovak candidate could hardly get so many votes. In the mainstream, there is no criticism of his lacking command of the national language.

Well, even the marginal discourses – the racist ones – make distinctions between the good foreigners and the bad foreigners. They often point to the Czech Roma and claim that they are not ‘ours’. But Slovaks are cast as good foreigners; they are not problematic; we understand them and they understand us. It also depends on the particular party one is talking about because some of them would include the Vietnamese and Ukrainians among the “bad” ones whereas others would argue that the Vietnamese are well integrated into society, and only the Roma or Muslim migrants should count as “bad”. While in the xenophobic/racist rhetoric there is a shifting border between the good ones and the bad ones, the Slovaks almost always fit in the good category. This I think explains why the topic of Mr. Babiš´s origin never came up in the election campaign.

According to the files of the Slovak Institute of National Memory, Mr Babiš also served as an agent of the secret service in the pre-1989 regime, an allegation he is trying to disprove in a pending trial. About one-fifth of voters did not mind.

Perhaps this is a sign of something positive in the sense that we are slowly moving beyond this very simple anti-communism, people are moving on to other topics. I’m not saying that we should be indifferent towards our politicians being former communist secret agents, but at the same time I think that the simple link between being a right wing voter and being anti-communist is weakening. And it simply disappeared in this election. The votes for Babiš came mainly from right wingers; if you have a look at the political map of the CR and the districts where Babiš won, those are right wing districts, not left wing. And these right wingers voted for a former Communist and according to some even a Communist secret agent. What right wing voters care about is that he is a very successful entrepreneur and his past connections don’t figure in their decision which I don’t think is necessarily a good thing in the current situation. But it does show that there is a shift away from the firm connection between the right wing and anti-communism.

At the time of speaking it seems that the most probable government would be one composed of the Social Democrats, Babiš’s party and the centrist KDU-CSL. Or, we’ll head towards early elections in May. Which do you find more likely?

Those are the only two options we have. Everything depends on the results of the infighting in the Social Democratic Party. If, in the worst case, the party falls apart or is paralyzed by the ongoing struggle, neither side will decisively win. Seeing your opponents within the same party as your greatest enemies, instead of the politicians on the other side of the political spectrum is the key problem here. If the Social Democrats survive and elect a new strong leadership, which I very much doubt, then the coalition of these three parties is basically the only viable option for a relatively stable government. If that does not happen then of course an early election seems to be the only way left.

One of the surprise results was the almost 8 percent for Tomio Okamura. In Czech politics we have seen several racist and xenophobic party agendas but this is the first time that such a party has gained 14 seats in parliament. What should we expect from Okamura and the other elected parties? Do you think that anybody is ready to bring him into the government?

Relying from time to time on his legislative support – the deputies from the Dawn party voting for a particular law – is one thing, but bringing them into the government is out of the question. There is though a broader question – what is the rise of Okamura a sign of? We might simply say it is a result of the economic crisis and people losing their jobs. But he did not get votes only in the poorer regions – his support is quite evenly distributed around the country. Even in Prague he received more than 3%, hardly a negligible number. The traditional parties are simply not capable of representing the views of the public. All the representation mechanisms they have offered have failed. People are now looking for other means of being represented and this is exactly what he is offering. Of course, Okamura’s ‘direct democracy’ has become a kind of empty mantra, but it at least offers a glimpse of an alternative. And people are still interested in alternatives, which is a good thing.  Of course, I am quite skeptical of Okamura, but the greater involvement of people in politics by means of deliberative democracy seems to me as the only way out of this quagmire.

In this, the Czech Republic is not that different from the rest of the world. We have seen the Occupy movements, the Gezi protests in Turkey, the demonstrations in Brazil and the Gorilla protests in Slovakia. So on the one hand traditional parties are failing to represent voters while on the other hand the street movements and alternative parties have not come up with sophisticated solutions to overcome this. What do you think will happen?

We are in the phase of experimentation. We simply don’t know. We clearly see that the old system and I am not talking about democracy or parliamentary democracy in general, but I am talking about that type of misrepresentation that we have, not only in the Czech Republic, this is something that has clearly failed and people understand this is not the way forward. We are in a phase of experimentation and looking for other options. What is ‘direct democracy’? Is it policy-making by referendum or is it the direct accountability of the deputies to the people? There are many ideas flying around and of course I don’t have the right answer. But I think a hybrid form must arise between the narrowly defined party politics and the seemingly apolitical grassroots movements, of which populism is only a warped expression.

Some analysts have dubbed the rise of the new parties and the protests as ‘disillusion with democracy’ or ‘democracy fatigue’. I do not find these terms appropriate – what do you think?

Such labeling is wrong in that it confuses democracy as a system with the type of politicking we have in the country. Most people do not really complain about democratic principles as such, but about the terrible shape of democratic parties in the country. If you look at the opinion polls a clear majority of people prefer democracy to any alternative model but that does not mean they are not critical towards traditional parties.

One of the earlier experiments in bringing more democracy to the Czech Republic was the EU process. Earlier this year you wrote an article in which you argued that the Czechs have no vision of EU integration. The EU, as a model to emulate, is a view that is already waning, leaving us with two counter perspectives. One is that it is a ‘bad socialist project’, the other that it is a ‘bad neo-liberal project’.

We have problems stemming from the fact that we are different from the EU and then we have problems stemming from being similar to the EU. The problem of difference can be redressed by our EU membership. The level of corruption is higher than in the old member states and by adopting some measures that are already in place elsewhere in the EU we can decrease the level of corruption. This is a very simple thing. As with democratization, the transfer of some experience and the adoption of other countries’ best practices and good governance principles would work. This is something in which the EU can be helpful by helping to remove some obstacles that do not exist in the West as they exist here, in Slovakia, Romania or the Ukraine. Here the EU has been very helpful.

But then there is a much more fundamental problem – the protest movements and dissatisfaction with the current shape of politics. This is not limited to the post-communist world. It is even stronger in the US, Spain, Italy, Greece, even the UK, in fact almost everywhere. In most mature democracies you have growing signs of dissatisfaction with the practical functioning of representative democracy. Here, following the example of other EU countries clearly cannot be the solution. Just because people in Spain lack confidence in their politicians as we do here in the CR doesn’t mean that we should do exactly the same thing that the Spanish have been doing. The EU as a model can’t counsel us in how to deal with these problems.

So, can there be a Czech vision of the future of European integration? Can the Czechs lead in some aspects?

Well the problem is evident in all new member states. While a number of them have specific policy niches, they are rarely capable of doing something for the EU that is not in their narrowly defined national interests. Our administrative capacities are growing, but if we ask whether we are willing at a certain point to offer something in return, the response is very utilitarian. The Czech debate on the EU is whether we will get more than we give. I don’t know what would happen if in the next years the CR would become a net contributor to the EU budget, as unlikely as it is. Euroscepticism in the country would surge because we always want to be on the receiving end. Of course, it is alright to promote a country´s interests, but from time to time you have to go beyond this, and admit that there are other principles that should guide your behavior. One example is the migrants arriving in the Mediterranean member states. There are ways in which we could help that would not be costly but we are simply unwilling.

On the other hand, Czech diplomats will tell you that the Czech Republic is doing its part – for example, by sharing the lessons of the post-1989 transition with countries in the Western Balkans or Eastern Europe.

Yes, there are activities that we have initiated. But then there are other areas where we could contribute to the policies of others, simply because it is important and for the sake of solidarity. It is quite depressing how often I hear about the clichéd national interest. But should we not also ask a second question:  how will we contribute to the wellbeing of the community to which we belong? But this narrow, self-interested type of thinking is unfortunately becoming ever more widespread in the EU.

The Central Europeans might be too small to lead, but it is perplexing that they do not join forces more often. The post-2011 Middle East is a good example – we have seen four individual ‘transition promotion’ projects, although our national interests in the region are almost identical.

Well, of course, one of the things is that cooperation is clearly hampered by the domestic situation in each country. For example, it is becoming harder and harder for Czech diplomats to cooperate with Orbán’s Hungary. But then, a second factor is that we lack the ability to think in a broader framework. It seems to me that we are simply shutting ourselves in our national settings and that applies both to the V4 and to the EU as a whole.

It sounds paradoxical but this growing nationalism is actually counter to our national interests.

One of the most important rationales for European integration today is exactly our interdependence. We are part of globalization, the very flexible movement of not only capital but capital in the first place, that freely crosses national borders. There is an increasing demand for global or at least regional political governance. Put simply, politics needs to catch up with the economy. We have to take concerted action on the regional and in the future on the global level. But, if you look at what is happening in many EU member states, the trend seems to be the opposite.

Petr Kratochvíl

Petr Kratochvíl

is the Director of the Institute for International Relations.

Lucia Najšlová

Lucia Najšlová

is the editor in chief of the V4 Revue. She is a lecturer at the Charles University in Prague and at UPCES CERGE-EI and associate fellow at the IIR in Prague.