The Election through Foreign Eyes
Four foreign correspondents based in Prague - a German, a Pole, a Frenchman, and a Canadian -- recently expressed their viewpoints on the election campaign in the CR for Lidove noviny.
In his piece "In the Country of Intrigue," Victor Gomez (born in Czechoslovakia to a Czech mother and Cuban father, but brought up and educated in Canada and now the editor of Transitions online www.tol.cz) argues that the entire Czech political scene is now behaving in the same way as the People's Party (the KDU-CSL) did throughout the 1990s. The CSL was the only party -- other than the Communist Party -- that was allowed to operate under the Communist regime, albeit with only nominal independence. In the early 1990s, the CSL, always strong in rural and traditional areas, merged with the Christian Democratic Union (KDU). Gomez recalls that when he arrived in the CR in 1993, he was often told by his friends and read in the newspapers that the KDU-CSL was not to be trusted. At best it was perceived as permanently looking to balance the scales in its own favour and at worst it had the reputation of a loose woman prepared to make an alliance with anyone.
In the current election, all parties have taken over the KDU-CSL tactic of claiming that they are willing to ally with any of the other parties, except the Communists. They even make a virtue of not saying in advance who they will ally with, arguing that they can only decide after the voters have dealt out the hands of cards to the parties. The process began after the indecisive election four years ago when Vaclav Klaus's ODS, in spite of its election campaign that called for a "mobilization against the left-wing menace" constituted by the Social Democrats (CSSD), made a pact with the CSSD enabling a minority CSSD cabinet to govern. The CSSD and the ODS proved that pragmatic interests in the division of power were more important for them than ideological slogans. Four years later, the CSSD and the ODS no longer even try to explain that the pact was a one-off solution and admit that further right wing-left wing cooperation is possible.
Instead of debates about concrete and important issues facing the CR, the campaign is dominated by media speculation about who may ally with whom after the election. Even though the parties declare their adherence to certain principles, Gomez says, that voters have no way of knowing which of these principles parties are willing to compromise on to gain a share of power. The three competing forces -- the ODS, the CSSD, and the Coalition of the KDU-CSL and the Freedom Union - are in the position of the well-known paradox, the prisoner's dilemma, since they can only guess what the other two parties will do. According to Gomez, Czech voters deserve better. A party should say openly with whom it is willing to ally with and with whom it is not. This requires courage. However, it would give the voter a clear choice to vote for, and voters might reward the party that shows this courage, says Gomez. Czech politicians have bet on populism, opines Alexandra Klausmann, a correspondent for German weekly Focus. If it were not for Austrian Haider, German Stoiber, and Hungarian Urban, who have all criticized the post-war "Benes decrees" on the basis of which Germans and Hungarians were expelled from Czechoslovakia, the campaign might have been different. These foreign politicians have enabled Czech politicians to raise the chimera of the potential return of Sudeten Germans and thereby avoid the really serious issues facing the CR -- corruption, embezzlement of companies by their management, and entry to the EU. According to Klausmann, the appeal of "ludicrous nationalistic slogans" to the electorate is partly because Czechs continue to suffer from a sense of inferiority. Czechs have also yet to come to terms with their Communist past, she argues. The consequence is that many aspects of the Communist mentality will continue to exist for many years to come. Only when ordinary Czechs face up to this past will they be able to shake off the habit of relying on "those up above" and play a more active role in civic and political life.
Most Germans look on the CR with goodwill, since they associate the CR with its respected president, renowned music and literary works, excellent beer, and Czech-made children's animated TV programs popular in Germany. However, the CR is too close and not exotic enough to interest Germans much, says Klausmann. The failure to deal with corruption, despite the fact that this was a central plank of the CSSD's campaign at the last election, has not affected the goodwill felt by the average German towards the CR. However, it has made some foreign investors more wary. The most important issue for the CR is its entry to the EU, argues Klausmann. The threat that the CR could become a second-class member of the EU is not merely an election slogan of the ODS but a real danger. The economic dependence of the CR on foreign investors is just a much a weakness as the Czech lack of self-confidence, Klausmann concludes.
The Social Democrat government has been on balance successful, says the correspondent of French paper Le Monde Fabrice Martin-Plichta in his contribution `Direction Klausoland'. It has renewed economic growth, improved the image of the CR in the eyes of foreign investors, and cleansed the banking sector. It is difficult, he says, to take seriously the criticisms of those who rejoice that "the socialist experiment" is coming to an end, when it was those criticizing (the ODS) who placed the CSSD in power. Around a quarter of the population -- those who apparently do not regard it as a contradiction to rage against socialism and subsequently enable the socialists to rule - has succumbed to a kind of schizophrenia, he argues, attributing this to the Czech habit of dividing their lives into private and public spheres over 40 years of communist rule.
The government's biggest weakness is its failure to persuade Czechs of the merits of joining the EU, he opines, noting that research shows only around 50% in favour of joining. Czechs punish themselves by their lack of enthusiasm for the EU. They were in a position to profit from joining and Plichta argues that though the EU is not perfect, it can only be improved from the inside and by a constructive approach. The ODS's "euro-realism" invents problems where none exist, says Plichta, who implicitly compares Vaclav Klaus's stance on the EU to those of Jorg Haider and Jean Marie Le Pen. On the level of political marketing the other parties have much to learn from the ODS, which by presenting its program gradually has ensured thorough media coverage of its campaign. Why should anyone talk about people who simply repeat vacuous slogans such as "We are on the same side as you" and "We will sort things out", asks Plichta.
In Plichta's opinion, the turnout at the coming elections will show how much the current generation of politicians has succeeded in disillusioning Czechs with politics, while the level of support for the Communists and for the ODS will show how many want a regime with a rule by a firm hand and a closed society.
No one can deny that the Social Democrat government has been successful in leading the CR out of the economic crisis it was in four years ago, opines Barbora Sierszula-Pilousova, the correspondent of Polish Rzeczpospolita. It has renewed economic growth and attracted foreign investment, thus keeping unemployment at a far lower level than in Poland. The economic upturn is reflected in the living standard and mood of society. This can be seen and felt, she says. Czechs are willing to spend and do not fear going into debt. The "opposition pact" with the ODS enabled the CSSD to concentrate on government and has brought the average Czech on the whole a contented life. Government has not been afflicted by the tension and quarrelling that was the blight of previous coalition governments. However, the negative side of the pact is that it has put a brake on the development of democracy. The absence of the real control of power, in which the government feels that it can be dismissed at any moment, leads to moral and material corruption. The feeling that the ODS and the CSSD have carved up power for themselves is in contradiction of the Kantian ideal of justice and the situation must have been painful for those people who wish to live their lives consciously and responsibly, argues Pilousova.
The government has successfully negotiated with the EU and brought the CR to the verge of admission. However, it has still not convinced the majority of its citizens of the desirability of this step. This should be a priority for the new government, she argues. However, the ODS's decision to base its campaign on the defence of "national interests" and criticism of the EU is populist and has moved the party dangerously in the direction of Haider and Le Pen, she says.
Pilousova is pleased that the CSSD has placed greater emphasis on the co-operation of the Visegrad states (Poland, CR, Slovakia, Hungary). Relations with Poland are excellent both on the official and unofficial levels. However, relations with Austria and Germany are not so good. Pilousova, commenting that she will occur the wrath of many readers, writes that the government has not dealt well with the question of the "Benes decrees". Czech politicians are stuck in the same view towards Sudeten Germans as during the Communist era and none of them have the courage to step out of line. The aversion to dialogue with Sudeten Germans, and the attacks on the Bishop of Olomouc, who attended and conducted mass at a meeting of Sudeten Germans in Nuremburg, are evidence that the Czech way of thinking is far from that of modern Europe, opines Pilousova.
Ian Finlay Stone
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