The drama this week in the Czech Republic, as the smallest coalition partner looks alternately close to implosion and/or bringing down the government, has led to a good deal of hand-wringing and reflection on the Czech political system as a whole. This is, after all, Public Affairs (Veci verejne or VV), a party purportedly led by a popular investigative journalist, which captured the attention of tens of thousands of Czechs before the elections in 2010. Led by a group of charismatic newcomers, VV featured a compelling anti-corruption program and media-friendly calls to get rid of the country’s political dinosaurs.
Early on a few people saw the party for what it was (notably Jiri Pehe, a Czech political analyst and TOL board member, in this TOL panel discussion a few months after the vote): a Trojan horse for business interests to gain political influence and, well, more business. A year ago, in April 2011, the daily Mlada fronta DNES published documents that strongly suggested that Vit Barta, the transport minister and de facto leader of VV, had hatched a cynical plan years earlier to gain political power so his security company would gain access to lucrative state contracts. Around the same time, two VV parliamentary deputies accused Barta of trying to buy their loyalty with large handouts of cash; VV subsequently expelled the two and after an investigation the police recommended to the state prosecutor that Barta stand trial for bribery. That trial has been entertaining the public for the past few weeks and could spell the practical end of VV, which polls show would not gain enough votes to enter parliament again.
In the midst of this mess, as well as public protests to change the political system, two of my favorite Czech commentators have both come up with a similar solution for changing things for the better.
Milos Cermak, writing in the weekly Reflex, saw things this way:
Personally, I don’t see any solution in dismantling the whole regime or in the unending launch of new, “hopeful” political parties. We have here a few relatively strong political parties, but with compromised leaderships and weak membership bases. If all those capable and smart, angry people get involved in the existing parties, it would be the best form of political renewal.
I know that such a phrase “getting involved in a party” already sounds stupid. But I found in a book of old columns by (songwriter and journalist Karel Kryl) a very cogent quotation from the Greek philosopher Plato: “Those who are too smart to get involved in politics will be punished by being ruled by those more stupid”. Isn’t it stupid to just reconcile oneself with that?
I don’t know if Milos got the translation exactly right (I could only find the quote: “The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men”), but his point in the same.
Jan Machacek, in his daily commentary for Respekt, arrived at essentially the same conclusion:
It still seems to me that the system of Czech political parties needs some basic reform not through legislation but really at their roots. Either the parties open up and call on people to join en masse and help to change them, or these parties actually call it quits … (possibly replaced by something very unpleasant).
Austria clearly isn’t a model of political culture, but the parties there have hundreds of thousands of members (the biggest Czech parties represented in parliament have around 20,000 members), and that’s why they can’t be so easily privatized by a handful of dubious individuals on all levels. So those who are more of less on the right would be invited to join ODS [the Civic Democrats] or TOP 09 in order to help those parties open up and change, and those who are more or less on the left, let them join CSSD [the Social Democrats].
Jan underestimated the numbers a bit (ODS says it has 28,000 members and CSSD around 25,000), and forgot about the Communists (at around 53,000 members), but he’s obviously right that these figures are miniscule in a country of over 10 million people. He also points out that TOP 09, which has 41 seats in parliament and few members (only 4,300), might hold the world record for seats per members.
These membership figures are also dropping, quickly in some cases.
According to the weekly Respekt, party members have been fleeing in large numbers, with ODS losing 3,000 members over the past year and hundreds leaving ČSSD. The decline in numbers has also been a large-term trend for the Communists and (non-parliamentary) Christian Democrats, whose ranks have tended to be filled with members of the older generation. Respekt also quoted research conducted several years ago by Masaryk University that found a relatively large number of people that wanted to express themselves to the political situation but only around 5 percent that would consider joining a political party. A recent poll by the Center for Public Opinion explained part of the reason: Respondents found political parties the most corrupt of all public institutions with 81 percent characterizing them as either above-average or highly corrupt. Such attitudes about the parties and citizens’ willingness to join them have been consistent for many years.
And that makes it exceedingly difficult to see how those commentators’ call for joining the traditional parties and reforming them from within has any real hope for success. Yes, that would be a better bet than getting excited again about the next VV on the horizon. But this would appear to be a classic chicken-and-egg type of scenario. In order to be able to recruit people en masse, the parties need to reform themselves, through things like quickly promoting uncompromised newcomers, ridding themselves of special interests, and so on.
Yet they appear very unlikely to do that without fresh blood.
Plato photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen through Wikimedia Commons.