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Czech Democracy needs viable Parties

The victory of independent candidate Vaclav Fischer in a senate race in central Prague has triggered a discussion among Czech commentators and politicians about the role of independent politicians. Some of them have argued that Czech politics needs, most of all, more people like Fischer—that is politicians independent of political parties. Fischer himself has said he hopes his victory will prompt other independent candidates to enter politics.

Having more non-partisans in, for example, the Senate, could indeed help to offset strong partisanship that exists in the parliament’s lower chamber. On the other hand, the main ill of Czech politics is not a lack of independent candidates. On the municipal level, for example, about 60 percent of all politicians are independents. The main problem of Czech politics is the fact that political parties are small and underdeveloped and, at the same time, have huge influence.

Fischer’s victory shows that more than anything else Czech politics needs a renaissance of political parties. For example, the Social Democrats (CSSD) and the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) , the two strongest parties, have each less than 20,000 active members. The Communist Party, which had more than 1.5 million members before the fall of communism, now has over 100,000 members.

It is clear that the Czech democracy will not become a standard Western democracy unless Czech political parties are capable of transforming themselves from political clubs, each controlled by a handful of politicians, into large and internally pluralistic political groupings that can cope with complex problems. Most parties currently hide their inability to deal matter-of-factly and professionally with important problems behind various ideological facades.

Several major obstacles, however, stand in the way of making Czech political parties more viable. Most important, all parliamentary parties are controlled by the same politicians who emerged as leading political figures shortly after the collapse of communism. The chairmen of the democratic parliamentary parties repeatedly focus more on various power games than on moving the country forward. Mutual dislikes play an important role not only in inter-party communication but also within individual parties. Any changes in various parties will be effectively blocked until the veterans of the first ten years of the postcommunist era depart.

Another problem is a lack of contacts that major parties have with a civil society. Although the civil society has become more robust in recent years, Czech politicians very rarely seek the expertise or opinions of various civic groups. Often, politicians reject various civic initiatives as attempts to interfere with politics. When several hundred Czech intellectuals recently signed a manifesto called Impuls 99, in which they offered to initiate public discussions on important issues, leaders of the ODS and the CSSD reacted with anger and criticism. According to some of them, signatories should found a political party of their own or become members of the existing parties if they want to influence politics.

If Czech political parties do not manage to become more open and internally pluralistic they will grow increasingly isolated from the public. According to opinion polls, eighty percent of Czechs are unhappy with the way political parties work. About the same number of Czechs are disgusted with politics. That is clearly a worrisome signal that politicians should heed. Unfortunately, it seems that Czech political parties have become closed to any signals from the public; they may not be capable of an internal revival, unless a major political earthquake occurs.

Fischer’s victory was just a first warning, indicating that there is a market not only for independent politicians but also for a new political subject in the country. Such a new political party would hopefully be a pro-European, democratic grouping. However, given the intensity of the public’s disillusionment with “democratic” politics in recent years, there may also be a space for new populist leaders. That is the biggest danger stemming from the weakness of the existing party system.

Reuters - 15. 9. 1999