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Another Velvet revolution in Prague

The rebellion of Czech TV journalists against a newly appointed director of Czech TV is the culmination of a battle between two basic concepts of democracy that the Czechs have been engaged in for almost ten years. The first of the concepts is represented by former prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, the second by President Vaclav Havel.

Klaus has insisted on a rather technocratic understanding of democracy, claiming that political parties are the backbone of a democratic system, in which there is no place for a civil society. He has called the proponents of civil society “elitists,” who refuse to be tested in free elections and, rather, try to influence political developments through non-standard mechanisms.

Havel has argued that a democracy based only on political parties and basic democratic mechanisms is crippled. In his view, political parties, while necessary in any democracy, need to be kept in check by a robust civil society. If the civil society is too weak to do so, parties will attempt to dominate various institutions that should remain independent. He has repeatedly asked the Czechs over the past ten years to be more active and not let politicians control their lives.

Klaus’s vision of democracy was for a long time victorious. It was easily understandable and conformed to some basic stereotypes that most Czechs had acquired during the late communist era during which public and private spheres of life were strictly separated. True, the fall of communism was brought about by a strong civic movement called the Civic Forum, but that movement disintegrated once it had achieved its goal of disposing of the communist regime. People became passive again.

Klaus and his followers rightly put much emphasis on the creation of well-functioning, standard political parties. Unfortunately, in the absence of a strong civil society, those parties slowly began to monopolize public space, pushing civic activists to the sidelines. Havel was the first important Czech politician to start criticizing this development. He warned against excessive partisanship, arguing that political parties would start internally whither away without drawing inspiration from a vibrant civil society.

However, Havel’s vision of democracy has been rather complicated in comparison with that of Klaus. His regular statements on the need for active civic engagement and his moralistic view of the world have left average Czechs cold, while irritating his political opponents, who have accused him of promoting nonpolitical politics. Prompted by civic passivity, political parties not only came to dominate every aspect of life in the country but gradually engaged in a number of doubtful practices that alienated average Czechs from politics. At the end of 1997, the Klaus second government collapsed under the weight of a financial scandal surrounding the party.

Rather than learning from this fiasco, Klaus went on a political offensive, claiming that he had become a victim of a political conspiracy backed by Havel. His party lost the June 1998 elections to the Social Democrats (CSSD), whom Klaus had vilified before the elections as a danger to democracy, but soon after the elections the ODS and the CSSD signed the so-called opposition agreement, under which Klaus’s Civic Democrats (ODS) gained important posts and other advantages in exchange for allowing the CSSD to form a minority government. The ODS and the CSSD further agreed to work together on changing the Constitution, to limit the powers of the president and the independence of the Central Bank, as well as changing the electoral law to their advantage.

Protests by smaller parties that eventually allied themselves in a four-party coalition (4K) were ignored. Various civic protests against this political arrangement were vilified by the two parties as attempts by intellectuals and political opponents to undermine what the ODS and the CSSD claimed to be their attempt to ensure political stability. Despite the fact that the opposition agreement helped to boost the popularity of the unreformed Czech Communists, the two parties’ determination to keep the opposition agreement alive and keep dividing the spoils of power was not shaken.

In the fall of 2000, Czech voters delivered an important message to both parties during the regional and Senate elections. The CSDD suffered dramatic defeats in both elections. Together, the two parties lost their joint majority in the Senate. Since the Czech Parliament’s upper house has an absolute veto over constitutional amendments, the hopes of the ODS and the CSSD to amend the Constitution were effectively buried. The loss of the Senate majority also meant that Klaus’s hopes to replace Havel as the country’s next president seriously diminished. He attempted to woo the 4K into cooperating more closely with the ODS, but without much success.

The heavy political defeats apparently prompted the ODS and the CSSD to attempt gaining control over Czech TV. They had earlier recalled the Czech TV Council that appoints the director of Czech TV and replaced it with a council controlled by sympathizers of the ODS and the CSSD. Shortly before Christmas, the new council moved to recall Czech TV Director Dusan Chmelicek, who had resisted political pressures, and replaced him with Jiri Hodac, who has close ties to the ODS. TV journalists rebelled against this flagrant politicization of Czech TV, refusing to vacate Czech TV’s newsroom. Protests by top artists, intellectuals and opposition politicians followed, bringing the country to the brink of the biggest political upheaval since 1989.

The CSSD has eventually realized that the battle for Hodac cannot be won. Moreover, Hodac started filling top posts in Czech TV with people who are, one way or the other, tied with the ODS, prompting the CSSD to eventually join forces with 4K against the ODS. In a resolution approved by the CSSD and the 4K, the Czech parliament on 5 January demanded Hodac’s resolution. The parliament also began working on a new TV law that would in the future prevent political parties from politicizing the TV Council.

The most important news coming from the turmoil is not the political realignment, though. Rather, it is the awakening of civil society that has, for the first time since 1989, stood up to political parties. Czech civil society has reclaimed the public space it ten years ago relinquished in favor of politicians. Equally important is the fact that for the first time since 1989, civil society has found its own voice, rising this time without President Havel as its main reference point. Czech society has thus moved beyond Havel and Klaus. It has surpassed Klaus’s truncated version of democracy and, while fulfilling to some extent Havel’s vision of democracy, it no longer needs Havel as its chief spokesman.

Project Syndicate - 8. 1. 2001