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On political culture

The main objective of the package of measures recently adopted by the government was to correct negative economic developments. However, in announcing the package, coalition leadersmissed a chance to deal with another serious problem that is partly responsible for the publicŐs growing dissatisfaction with the current coalition government; namely, a very low level of political culture.

In the package, the ruling three-party coalition admitted serious shortcomings in its economic and law-enforcement policies, promising remedies. However, not only the coalition parties but also the government, as well as individual ministers, failed--like so many times in the past--to accept personal responsibility for the shortcomings. The failure to do so not only significantly weakens the impact of the package; it also means that the notion of political responsibility--and, ultimately, of political culture--has remained as vague as it was before announcing the package.

The inability of the coalition to connect various failures--such as financial scandals or the problems-ridden health care system--to concrete names will make it difficult for people to regain confidence in the government. It comes as no surprise that several opposition leaders have already asked how the coalition can hope to regain lost trust if it admited serious failures in some areas (some of which should and could have been solved several years ago), but at the same time refused to replace those government members who, in some cases, have been responsible for such areas since 1992. Ordinary people will be asking the same question.

It was exactly this lack of political culture that in the second half of 1996 led to the publicŐs growing apathy and disenchantment with politics. Following the coalitionŐs narrow defeat in the general elections last June, political discourse in the country degenerated into mindless confrontation between the coalition parties and the opposition led by the Social Democrats (CSSD). The coalition parties were not only unable to admit past failures but, despite their weakened position, also unwilling to search for compromises. The CSSD, on the other hand, was unable to be a constructive opposition force. It allowed the right-of-center coalition to form a minority government. But, afterwards, it put its particular political interests above the interests of the state--in effect, not allowing the coalition government to govern.

As a result, the government became paralyzed. Moreover, since Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus and CSSD Chairman Milos Zeman dislike each other intensely, political conflicts between the coalition and the CSSD became highly personalized. By November politics in the country degenerated into intense battles over trivial issues.

The coalition had a chance to regain some of the lost trust by admitting responsibility for some of the financial scandals that began to surface under the pressure from the opposition in the second half of 1996. For example, it could have said openly it had partly neglected the rule of law, supervision of the banking sector, or ensuring that capital markets be governed by transparent rules. But, instead, the government and individual ministers were unwilling to be seen as bearing direct, or even indirect, responsibility for the growing list of problems.

The CSSD, on the other hand, engaged in manufacturing several scandals that later proved to be without real foundations. Zeman, for example, called the country a police state, claiming that he had documents proving that the intelligence service had shadowed political parties. When the parliamentary commission supervising the intelligence services concluded that Zeman charges were unfounded, the CSSD leader refused to admit political responsibility.

Given such a state of affairs, many Czechs resigned on politics. Only thirty percent of eligible voters participated in the Senate elections in November. Opinion polls later indicated that one reason was the public´s growing disgust with politics and politicians. Many people felt that the level of political culture among Czech political leaders was abysmally low.

Political culture in the Czech Republic has never been able to develop properly for a variety of reasons. In the first year, or so, after the "velvet" revolution, various groups that joined forces under the umbrella of the Civic Forum, a broad coalition of anti-communist forces, were temporarily able to put aside their ideological differences. The groups were able to search for joint strategies and compromises in the name of an ultimate common objective; namely, doing away with the vestiges of Communism.

However, the situation began to change in 1991 and 1992 after the Civic Forum disintegrated. The elections in 1992 marked a clear victory for right-of-center forces led by Klaus´s Civic Democratic Party. The three-party coalition ruled virtually unopposed for four years. The powerless opposition was confrontational and, at times, hysterical. Coalition politicians never learned how to listen to the opposition and, in fact, to voters. There was little or no political dialogue between 1992 and 1996. The coalition was able to govern but it never learned how to communicate and (lacking pressure from the opposition) to look at its own policies in a critical way.

The package of measures adopted two weeks ago was a step in the right direction in that it admitted past failures. But in failing to address the question of personal responsibility, it left political culture in the country where it was before the package. Leaving the question of responsibility unattended, or vague at best, means that that the government is not likely to win back the lost trust. And without a degree of trust, some of the measures outlined in the package have little chance of succeeding.

Reuters - 28. 4. 1997