>Seeing in the New Year with Václav Klaus: cold coffee and “cold civil war”

>I see in the New Year watching President Klaus online delivering his New Year message to the citizens of the Czech Republic, drinking cold decaffeinated coffee and then watching a Columbo video.

Klaus’s speech comes at a time when the Czech Republic politicians are still – yes still – to put together a government seven months after deadlocked elections this June. After many twists and turns, the main parliamentary parties before Christmas had seemed on course to negotiate Grand Coalition of Civic Democrats, Social Democrats and Christian Democrats – the first formal left-right coalition government since the post-war period (if you exclude the all-embracing Civic Forum movement in 1990-2). Such coalition would have had some rather minimal reformist programme and some kind of vague brief to reform the electoral system to try to engineer out the kind of stalemate seen after the June 2006 elections.

Suddenly, however, at meeting of the Civic Democrats’ executive expected to rubber stamp the process rejected the Social Democrats’ conditions and walked away from the whole process, putting government formation – yes, you guessed it – back to square one, much to the fury of President Klaus, who would have carpeted ODS leader Topolánek had he not been away in Brussels. It is unclear whether the sudden move was a result of pressure from the regions (strongly represented in the party executive) unhappy at the compromise nature of such a government and the prospect of working with the hated socdemáci at a time when the Civic Democrats have sky high poll ratings (projected 35 – 40 % in an election) and the Social Democrats have slumped to a projected 20-25%, or – as Topolánek’s aide had suggested in leaked remarks – part of a deliberate strategy to disorient the left and pave the way for early elections.

ODS instead announced that it would return to the plan for a three-party coalition with the Christian Democrats and Greens. Despite the signature of a coalition agreement, the first such coalition fell apart in August to lack of a majority and the Social Democrats playing very effective hardball. The three party variant has now become slightly more viable because two Social Democrat deputies have fallen out with their party and left its parliamentary group, thus raising the prospect that a minority Green/right-wing government with 100 or 200 seats might squeak through a vote of confidence.

Despite reservations, the Christian Democrats and Greens eventually signed up to the project in exchange for eye watering concessions on the part of Topolánek, who conceded three key ministries: Finance and Local Development (which distributes EU largesse) to the Christian Democrats and Foreign Affairs to Green nominee, Havel confidant and aristocrat Karel Schwarzenberg. This has enraged both ODS regional organizations, who know a bad deal when they see one and President Klaus, whose opposition to minority government was ignored and for Schwarzenberg’s pro-EU views and Austrian aristo background were, predictably, a red rag. As Topolánek observed in an text message published in the press (not sure if it was leaked), protests by regional organizations such the Prague ODS organization may be motivated more by ‘economic interests’ (desire for office and patronage) in a Grand Coalition than right-wing reformist principles. Their template, he suggested, was the municipal Grand Coalition in Prague, where power and resources were for a long time divvied up between Civic and Social Democrats. And, of course, Social Democrat leader and ex-PM Jiří Paroubek was for a long time a leading player in the hardbitten and often murky world of Prague politics.

President Klaus – another Grand Coalition advocate – then got his revenge by suggesting une xpectedly at a live joint press conference with Topolánek that – consistent with his earlier statements about only backing a strong majority government – he would not appoint a government based on the tacit support of a couple of Social Democrat defectors. This made for great TV, but was – as was quickly pointed out – unconstitutional as the President must appoint the government presented by his chosen Prime Minister designate (Topolánek). The Constitution does not, however, say when the President must appoint a government, so Klaus seems to be using the hiatus to extract further political leverage.

So as ambitious anti-EU and regional politicians in ODS such as Jan Zahradil and Mayor of Prague Pavel Bém sharpen their knives for Topolánek, we seem to face the prospect of another knife edge (but probably failed) vote of confidence. Neither of the two Social Democrat defectors seems have much ideological sympathy with the right and one has now reportedly returned to the Social Democrat parliamentary fold. ODS’s deputies loyalty to Topolánek also seems less solid that it once was, although a meeting of the Prague party executive promised to back – and to urge ODS’s Prague deputies to vote for – the mark II Green/right coalition. They did, however, issue a statement stating that the coalition agreement was a bad deal for their party. Less than ringing support for Topolánek. The Christian Democrats are also more divided and unpredictable under the new leadership of Čunek than they were.

Klaus’s New Year message was short and phrased in suitably neutral sounding presidential tones. He wass disappointed at the lack of reform in 2006 and the post-election imbroglio and reminded viewers that the Czech President his is ‘not a monarch’, has to deal with the country’s warring politicos and not responsible for the current political hiatus. The Czech political system was after, he noted, all based on the agreement of political parties and – consistent with his well established views – he strikes a classically liberal and very un-Havelian note by saying that the uncompromising competition between rival ideologies and visions is vital to democracy. Moreover, the election result reflects the fact the country is evenly divided between right and left: “half of us wish for more fundamental changes, while the other half fear them”. However, he is concerned that political and social divisions “should not growth into a ‘cold, civil war’ which the situation in this country to some extent resembles. The Czech state had, he said, “often and repeatedly had difficulties with internal unity and has a paid a price for these. If we – metaphorically speaking – do not lay down these weapons of mass destruction national community, we will achieve nothing”.

This concern for social and national unity has a more Havelian ring to I, although the President’s concerns over degeneration into a polarized politics of Hungarian style bloc seems overstated and are almost unrecognisable as a description of Czech society as it recovers from festive season. As Lidove noviny pointed out there is more of a weary disengagement with politics and consumerist ethic in Czech society distantly reminiscent of the Christmas of 1976 just before Charter 77 burst onto the scene. Neither does it seem a good description of elite politics. As the past six or seven months have shown Czech politicians have shown an almost unprincipled flexibility in trying to get into bed with each other – metaphorically speaking – which is hard to imagine in Hungary or Poland, or indeed Slovakia.

The President’s concern is, of course, less with civil community a la Havel – although he does mention the need for family and generational solidarity (borrowing from the socially conservative rhetoric favoured by a minority of ODS politicians – Petr Nečas comes to mind) than with national unity with Czech policy in the EU where he is concerned to promote free markets, defend national vetoes and watch out for dastardly plans from the incoming German presidency to revive the EU Constitution. To some extent, however, I think we can take Klaus’s concerns with national community as heartfelt. As Topolánek – for once rather aptly noted – notes Klaus has a something of “Revivalist obsession” – that his his political frames of references reflect the classic traditional nationalist assumptions created during the C19th Czech National Revival.

Put differently, although stressing economic and political competition as motors of progress, Klaus’s assumption right from the early 1990s always seems to have one to a more or less consensual rallying of a liberal nation behind the right in which electoral and political markets would co-ordinate individual interests and ward off the influence of those perpetual Hayekian baddies “left-wing intellectuals”, not the Tolkienesque battle royal for the soul of the nation against the dark forces of post-communism envisaged by the Hungarian or Polish right.

The Czech President also retains his striking taste in ties, which I sneakingly admire and occasionally try to emulate. Athough admittedly – as maverick writers of student feedback questionnaires have sometimes noted – my dress sense and penchant for unfashionable rainwear is alas more Columbo than Klaus.

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