How power makes and breaks political parties: Czech politics since 1998

Jan Čulík

1. Anticommunism handicapped the Social Democrats

It was not easy for the current Czech social democratic government to get to power. Unlike the social democratic parties in Poland and Hungary, the Czech Social Democratic Party is not a "successor party", it is not a reconstructed, former totalitarian communist party. The Communist Party which ruled Czechoslovakia until 1989 still exists as an entirely separate organisation (The Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, KSČM), surviving basically in an unreconstructed form. After the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia, the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) was created on the fundament of its interwar historical tradition as a political party and on the tradition of a small emigré Czech Social Democratic Party, active in the West in the 1980s.

After 1989, it took the Social Democrats nine years before they managed to win the elections and to find themselves in a position to form a government: even so, their election win in June 1998 was undecisive and has led to a number of problems.

Using some observations by the Czech sociologist Jiří Kabele, Simon Smith has pointed out that myth making plays an important role in the politics of post-communist countries. Due to developments in Czechoslovakia after the suppression of the 1968 Prague Spring, anticommunism became an important political instrument which was effectively used by the ruling politicians in Czechoslovakia throughout most of the 1990s. For a long time, the Social Democrats were seen as "bolsheviks" by the ruling politicians and by most journalists in the Czech Republic; without having the experience of a democratic country, where right-of-centre and left-of-centre political parties take turns in government, many people in the Czech Republic genuinely feared that if the Social Democrats win the elections, the country would return to communist rule. The Czech media on the whole uncritically supported the right-of-centre government, and painted the Social Democrats as the devils incarnate.

For instance, for more than six years, the Czech media hounded Jan Kavan, formerly an emigré who ran Palach Press, a small news agency in London in the 1970s and 1980s, disseminating texts by Czech dissidents in the West. Primarily on the basis of a misquotation in an article, published in a newsmagazine in 1992, and also on the basis of various unclear episodes in Kavan´s life, the Czech media systematically scandalised him without concrete evidence, asserting that he had worked for the communist secret police. When Kavan was appointed Czech Foreign Secretary in Miloš Zeman´s social democratic government in the summer of 1998, the Czech media again tried to discredit him. Another campaign, waged against the Social Democrats in 1998 pre-election period mostly by public service Czech Television, was for instance the "Bamberg scandal". Czech TV published allegations that Miloš Zeman and some other leaders of the Social Democratic Party had met a group of Czech emigrés in Switzerland and promised them, in return for possible funding, some influence in their future social democratic government.

As can be seen from the above, the Czech political discourse had degenerated to a certain shrillness throughout the 1990s. The shrillness certainly intensified during the 1998 election campaign, when the two main rivals, Zeman´s Social Democrats and Klaus´s Civic Democrats, fought each other rather intensely. Zeman accused Klaus of conducting a "scorched-earth" policy, Klaus accused Zeman of unreconstructed socialism, reinforcing his image as a "left wing bogey".

2. An "opposition agreement" – the result of an undecisive election outcome

However, as a result of an undecisive election victory, Zeman´s Social Democrats could not carry out left-wing policies even if they had wanted to. Due to political intransigence of the leaders of the smaller parties, especially Jan Ruml of the Freedom Union, Klaus and Zeman did not manage to form a coalition government in which their party (the Civic Democrats and the Social Democrats respectively) would be the main force. Thus, unexpectedly, in spite of the hatred they had expressed for each other during the election campaign, soon after the election, Klaus and Zeman agreed to join hands – in effect in order to form a social-democratic – civic-democratic coalition. In an attempt to lessen the role of smaller parties in Czech politics, they concluded what they called an "opposition agreement" – Klaus´s Civic Democrats allowed the Social Democrats to form a minority government which has been running the country ever since.

This Agreement on the creation of a stable political environment in the Czech Republic was a reaction to the refusal of most Czech Christian Democrats and Jan Ruml, the leader of the Freedom Union (US) to create a government coalition with the "postcommunist" Social Democratic Party, in spite of the fact that Miloš Zeman, head of the Social Democrats, even offered the post of Prime Minister to Josef Lux, the then leader of the Christian Democrats. The failed negotiations produced a deadlock. It was deemed impossible to re-run the election, both for political and for financial reasons. This is why an "administrative" agreement was concluded between the Social Democrats and the Civic Democrats. The agreement did not really deal with political issues, but it did define the political limits to which Klaus´s Civic Democrats were willing to tolerate a minority government, made up of Social Democrats. The "opposition agreement" also defined the division of power between the Social Democrats and the Civic Democrats within both chambers of the Czech parliament and other institutions of the state, it stated who in Parliament should have access to confidential information and who should be represented on various parliamentary inspection bodies. Later adjustments to the state budget by the Social Democratic government made the Civic Democrats draw up a more precise economic and budgetary policy which the Social Democrats must respect. This has resulted in the conclusion of a subsequent Toleration Decree (Toleranční patent) a few months later.

The Civic Democratic Party knew that the Czech Republic must undergo considerable changes in its legal system, to privatise its exhausted banks, emburdened with huge debts, and that it would gradually have to liberalise prices, so that price levels would reach 80 per cent of avarerage EU prices before the country can join the European Union. These considerable price rises will be unpopular because they will devalue the savings of the poorest sections of the population. If these changes were to be implemented by a mere caretaker government or by a government threatened by losing its mandate prematurely, this could produce chaos, running inflation and political extremism. Economic and political analysts close to both the Social Democrats and the Civic Democrats came to be fully aware of these dangers. This is what led to the conclusion of the "opposition agreement". And indeed – the Czech political scene has gained a certain amount of stability, which has also led to the arrival of non-speculative foreign direct investment at as yet unprecedented levels.

Václav Žák is one of the few Czech political commentators who have argued that the creation of the opposition agreement has had a beneficial impact on Czech politics. Žák points to the fact that as a result of the opposition agreement, Czech politics has been able to move away from black-and-white, ideologically motivated confrontation to a new stage of cooperation and compromise between two diametrically opposed political parties; after all, it is the principle of compromise that governs contemporary West-European politics. However, the majority of the Czech public, which was used to ideological confrontation, reacted to the creation of the opposition agreement with disappointment. Many people came to regard the opposition agreement as an act of betrayal, both by the Social Democrats and the Civic Democrats.

As a result of the creation of the "opposition agreement", the Social Democrats implemented cautious, moderate policies, thus disappointing their left-wing supporters. As Štěpán Kotrba writes:

"What the voters expected after the electoral and media triumph of the previously often mocked and humiliated plebeian Zeman never happened. The civil service did not begin behaving in a more efficient and a more polite manner towards the citizen. Thousands of previous, shady privatisation deals were not energetically investigated. Networks of racketeers operating at markets up and down the country were not smashed. The construction of affordable housing for young people did not get off the ground. The privatisation of hospitals was not stopped. The monopoly of Czech Telecom was not broken. The new aristocracy in the Social Democratic Party just formed a government and assumed their ministerial posts."

The creation of the opposition agreement backfired also on Václav Klaus´s Civic Democrats. They were accused of betraying their right wing principles by aligning themselves with the Social Democrats against the small right-of-centre parties. The media in Prague on the whole shifted its allegiance from Klaus´s ODS to the Freedom Union (US), a party whose ideology differed from the ideology of Klaus´s ODS in effect only by the Freedom Union´s hatred of Klaus.

3. Media manipulation

One of the curious results of the fall of communism in the Czech Republic is the rise of the culture of intense media manipulation. Czech society is now extremely factional. A number of political and economic vested interests are continually fighting one another for influence. They are using strongly manipulative techniques. In this they often collaborate with corrupt journalists. The principle of objective, impartial journalism has not really taken root in the Czech Republic since the fall of communism. The media, often in alliance with various politicians, are on the whole engaged in raising pseudoproblems and creating a virtual reality.

There are many instances where the Czech media have artificially created the image of an important "political personality" from a person who did not merit so much media attention (the social democratic politician Petra Buzková is a case in point. Petra Buzková was the vice-chairman of the Social Democratic Party but her influence on the politics of the Social Democrats has always been negligible. From the beginning of her political career, Petra Buzková has played the role of a "media mascot", a "sex symbol". Before Miloš Zeman acquired his current, young wife Ivanka, Petra Buzková played the role of his Zeman´s political "wife" as the "first lady" of the Czech Left. Czech left-wing political parties do not have very many female activists and so, for ten years, this "media role" as a token woman that Petra Buzková played was never threatened. – Similarly superficial role was originally played by Stanislav Gross, who entered politics, shortly after the fall of communism, as a very young man. Gross has curly fair hair and thus he started playing the role of a "growing up son" of the Social Democratic Party. However, lately, Gross has managed to break out of this superficial media image, seriously strengthening his position in the Central Bohemian regional organisation of the Social Democrats and acquiring the post of Home Secretary.)

Often, the Czech media have joined hands in creating an artificial image, diametrically opposed to what has actually happened in reality. Thus, for instance, in September 2000, during the antiglobalisation demonstrations against the Prague meeting of the IMF and the World Bank, the Czech media went into a xenophobic spin about "foreign left-wing weirdos", "hostile international marauders" who had "destroyed our beautiful national capital city". (In fact, violent acts were committed only by several dozen demonstrators; some ten thousand other activists present in Prague behaved peaceably.)

In the autumn of 1999, the Czech media gave a large amount of publicity to the "Thank you, Leave now!" declaration issued by some former 1989 student leaders, which was directed against the government. In December 2000 – January 2001, most of the Czech media created the false impression that an internal labour dispute within Czech television was in fact a "struggle for democracy and freedom of speech". It is common practice that large advertisers expect the periodicals in which they place their adverts to assume a generally positive attitude towards them even in what is supposed to be objective, editorial copy. In some Czech daily newspapers there exist lists of banned topics as well as lists of major advertisers which the newspaper is never allowed to criticise. Generally speaking, the levels of media manipulation in the Czech Republic seem to be much higher than in the West.

4. Social democratic government policy seen in terms of scandals

Even after the Social Democrats had formed a government in the summer of 1998, the Czech media on the whole continued its negative coverage of the Social Democratic Party and primarily dealt with its time in government in terms of superficial scandals rather than in terms of serious analysis.

Thus, for instance, in June, 1999, the weekly newsmagazine Respekt again tried to discredit Foreign Secretary Jan Kavan by publishing incorrect allegations, this time asserting that Kavan once tried to smuggle hard drugs across a European frontier. A scandal that ran for many months, concerned Prime Minister Zeman: in June 1999, Zeman said in public that former Civic Democratic Party Foreign Secretary Zieleniec had concluded a number of agreements with journalists and PR agencies and that he had paid them for positive coverage. Zeman has never been able to substantiate this accusation. According to internal sources, after Zeman went public on this, someone stole the relevant information at the Foreign Ministry in Prague and erased the relevant data from the computer network. Zeman rashly decided to go public on a piece of confidential information, given to him by intelligence services. By going public on this piece of information too soon he made it impossible for it to be substantiated by reliable evidence. The Zeman-Zieleniec scandal was revived with renewed vigor in September 1999 when Václav Hrubý, the manager of a castle owned by the Czech Foreign Ministry and used as a conference centre, accused a Zeman adviser of allegedly blackmailing him to manufacture anti-Zieleniec evidence. Hrubý had been sacked from the conference centre by the Foreign Secretary a few days before for alleged gross financial irregularities.

In August 1999 it transpired that Vice-Premier Egon Lánský received the sum of 290 000 US dollars from the Finance Ministry some years previously as a remuneration from a Western firm owned by one of his friends. Lánský transferred the money to his bank account abroad without disclosing this to the Czech banking authorities. Under law, Czech citizens are not allowed to have bank accounts abroad. After a sustained media campaign, Lánský was forced to leave the government in October 1999. His departure could have been accelerated by the publicaton of a European Union report which sharply criticised the Czech Republic for not preparing itself properly for EU entry.

Yet the Social Democrats in government have behaved relatively rationally, although they have often been clumsy, especially when dealing with journalists. While it is true that since the installation of the Social Democratic government in July 1998, almost a half of the originally appointed ministers have been replaced, the overall work of the Social Democratic government has been relatively successful. On assuming power in July 1998, the Social Democrats had no one with direct experience of government, so the turnover of ministers under conditions of cut-throat competition has been faster than it could have been expected.

In a way, the Czech media is still struggling with the legacy of its communist past, especially from the post-1968 period of the 1970s and 1980s. After a glorious, although shortlived era of free, pluralist media at the end of the 1960s, after the 1968 Warsaw Pact-led invasion, there came purges and a serious clampdown. Journalists were sacked and were replaced by unscrupulous propagandists. It is important to bear in mind that there was practicaly no change in the shrillness of communist propaganda from 1970 onwards until the fall of communism in November 1989. There were no liberal, humanist intellectuals working in the Czech media prior to 1989. No independent, pluralist, journalistic culture existed in Czechoslovakia in the 1980s.

The shrill, anti-pluralist, manipulative techniques of the Czech media have often survived throughout the 1990s, often the only change being that the journalists switched sides and while they used to be ardent communists, they became ardent anticommunists. Young journalists, entering the profession throughout the 1990s, modified the ethics of the profession only to a relatively small degree. On the whole, they have preferred to conform to the prevaling journalistic practice rather than attempting it to change it.

The Czech media has not dealt in any depth with the fact that the Social Democratic government has been trying to bring the Czech Republic closer to the European Union, to crack down on corruption and to create more efficient civil service structures, a task which had been throughly neglected by the previous right of centre governments.

In March 1999, the Social Democratic government brought the Czech Republic into NATO: the move turned out to be controversial: there had been no proper public debate about what this meant for the country and the peace-loving Czechs were generally shocked to find themselves in a state of war with Yugoslavia within a matter of weeks of joining the North Atlantic Alliance.

In May 1999, the government approved a Freedom of Information Act, which enables Czech citizens to acquire information from state institutions. The act came into effect on 1 January 2000 and even though institutions still implement its provisions reluctantly, the introduction of this Act is an important step forward in the direction of transparency and accountability of the structures of the state.

In June 1999, the government approved a "state information policy" on the basis of which modern technologies and the internet should be used intensively for communication between the government and the public. The government intends to empower the population by further propagating use of the internet. In July 1999, the government ratified the European Union social chapter. In August 1999, the government placed on the internet a free nationwide public register of basic data on all businesses. A land register will also be published. In September 1999, the government approved a draft law on the protection of personal data.

The Social Democratic government has also continued privatising key enterprises, and has been trying to implement schemes for the rejuvenating of the stagnating Czech economy, to date with varying degrees success. Considerable foreign investment has been attracted to the Czech Republic and the economy, which was in the doldrums in the final years of Václav Klaus´s right-of-centre coalition government, is expected to grow modestly at some 3 per cent per year in 2001. The success in attracting foreign investment is partially due to the fact that unlike the government of Václav Klaus, the Social Democratic government of Miloš Zeman has actually implemented various schemes for attracting foreign capital. According to information from within the Social Democratic government, an important role is apparently also played by the contacts of the ruling Czech Social Democrats with the West European Social Democratic Parties and their enterpreneurial sympathisers.

5. The policies of the Social Democratic government have not been flawless

But the Social Democrats have been also been committing some quite serious mistakes:

Zeman and his team grossly underestimated the importance of communication of the government with the public. Zeman concluded, not without some justification, that most Czech journalists are illiterate "idiots", and on several occasions said in public that he despised Czech journalists. He placed his belief in the intelligence of the Czech population who, in his view, is quite capable of judging the record of his government not on the basis of artificially created slander campaigns in the media, but on hard facts. This was a miscalculation because it has turned out that the Czech public generally trusts journalists more than politicians. The Social Democrats have failed to present their policies to the public and to explain why they believe that these policies are beneficial to the public. Zeman many times discredited himself in the eyes of the public by making rash and arrogant remarks.

The Social Democrats in government have often taken decisions which are in conflict with their political programme, without being ready to resign their government posts due to the unacceptability of political compromises, forced upon them.

Many energetic initiatives of the Social Democratic government (the proposed introduction of compulsory "declaration of property" owned by individual citizens, which was supposed to reveal who stole what during privatisation, a proposed reform of the courts, the "Clean hands" campaign) failed to take off; many problems (housing, the reform of the civil service) have been tackled half-heartedly. The voters were disappointed by the loss of energy of the Social Democrats after they had entered government. Many members of the public feel that politicians are only interested in cultivating their own careers, without bothering about the welfare of the citizen.

Due to a changing political situation both within the Czech Republic and abroad, the Social Democrats have changed their policies in many respects (rather than keeping Czech businesses in Czech hands they decided to go for foreign investment, rather than supporting protectionism, they opened the country economically to the European Union), but failed to explain to the voters why these policy changes have been necessary.

6. Serious rifts within the Social Democratic Party

The leadership of the Social Democratic Party ignores the views of the rank and file. There is little internal party debate, the rank and file membership is passive. At the same time, Prime Minister Zeman has failed to introduce discipline amongst ministers in his government and among the members of the party leadership. As a result of this, several factions have appeared in the Social Democratic Party which now fight for power within the internal structures of the organisation. The Social Democratic Party has become an unstable coalition of several incompatible political groups. The most important of these are:

  1. The right-of-centre, "liberal", anti-Zeman faction. The faction consists of Zeman´s long-term ideological opponents, the supporters of Tony Blair´s New Labour and Gerhard Schroeder´s Neue Mitte. These people are loyal to NATO, the IMF, the World Bank and other international structures of the Western world. They mostly include officials and activists from the Central Bohemian organisation of the Social Democratic Party, including Petra Buzková, the Brno political scientist Jan Šabata and the Czech emigré Jiří Horák. This faction is openly anticommunist, sees politics in pragmatic terms and is associated with the Czech business circles. The faction is politically close to the small right-of-centre parties which were in effect excluded from Czech politics by the 1998 opposition agreement, ie. the Freedom Union (US) and the People´s Party (KDU-ČSL). This faction is also supported by President Václav Havel, who supports the Freedom Union and the so-called "FourCoalition".
  2. The centrist "social democratic" faction, the "government" faction is the current platform of most ministers in Zeman´s government and of Prime Minister Miloš Zeman himself . This group is also supported by Vladimír Špidla, Zeman´s recently appointed successor for the leadership of the party, although Špidla also has contacts with the right wing, "liberal" faction. Politically, the group is trying to reflect upon current social and political problems in connection with current technological developments and the issues of globalisation. This faction is closer to the traditional Social Democratic ideology than the "anti-Zeman" group, although it accepts some of the ideas of New Labour. The attempt to reconcile the traditional Social Democratic views (philosophy of the New Deal) with some of the views of New Labour is not particlarly successful.
  3. Many members of the Social Democratic Party form a silent, passive, majority, who expect decisions from above. Some members of the Social Democratic party move between both the above-described hostile factions, depending on the prevailing wind, in an attempt to survive in their posts.
  4. The left wing, "post-communist", socialist faction is made up mostly by economists supporting the New Deal philosophy, and by political scientists, lawyers, sociologists, philosophers, former civil servants and diplomats, supporters of Dubček´s "socialism with a human face" and former members of the Communist Party who joined the Social Democrats in 1992 – 1996. This faction is now lead by the Czech Foreign Secretary Jan Kavan, who has been forced to this position primarily by the strong hatred directed against him by the right wing Czech media rather than his own political views.

These irreconcilable and incompatible groups make up the Social Democratic Party on the basis of unwritten "toleration" agreements. The Social Democratic Party is not a coalition, led by a common goal. It is an incongruous conglomerate of factions with differing aims.

The interparty "toleration agreements" between the factions have paralysed the work of most ministries. This is because the individual party factions are often represented equally in government: if a minister is a member of one faction, his deputy must be a member of the opposing faction, so there is deadlock in decisionmaking.

Since the Social Democratic Party consists of an incongruous coalition of incompatible political groups, it has been practically impossible to start a public debate about the basic concepts on which social democratic policy should be based. It is impossible to start a debate between socialists on the one hand and the free-market liberals on the other. Thus the future of the Social Democrats as a successful and a unified party is in doubt.

7. How can small right-of-centre parties get back into power?

As we have said, the 1998 opposition agreement between the Social Democrats and the Civic Democrats, as a result of which the Social Democrats have beeen able to govern in the Czech Republic with a tacit support of the Civic Democrats, came into being primarily due to political intransigence of Jan Ruml, the then leader of the Freedom Union, who refused to enter a coalition either with Zeman´s "bolsheviks" or with Klaus´s Civic Democrats, as a result of his personal antipathy towards the leader of the Civic Democratic Party. As a result, the smaller Czech right-of-centre parties in effect shut themselves out of Czech politics for quite some considerable time. Over the past three years, political life in government has been dominated by cooperation between the Social and Civic Democrats, who have also tried, unsuccesfully to date, to adjust the voting system, based on proportional representation, towards majority rule.

Out of frustration, the smaller political parties, especially the Freedom Union, have tried to break into mainstream politics by the back door, often by somewhat unusual means. Rather than honestly competing in the political arena using a well-argued and convincing political programme, the Freedom Union and its adherents and supporters have tried to organise various ad hoc "civic initiatives", the purpose of which is, ostensibly, to provide a counterbalance to "established party politics", but in fact, these civic initiatives are only an instrument for the smaller Czech political parties to gain media publicity for themselves.

In this, they have used the political philosophy of the Czech President Václav Havel, who has always been close to the Freedom Union in general and Jan Ruml in particular. Although this behaviour seems somewhat removed from traditional political activity, as practiced in the West, it is I suppose legitimate since it is up to the voters to decide whether or not to support a political grouping which rather than fighting for votes by offering voters a concrete political programme does so by various roundabout ways.

Cas Mudde has analysed Central European "intellectual populism"of Václav Havel in the Czech Republic and Gyorgy Konrád in Hungary. In his view, "intellectual populism" has developed from the concept of "non-political politics" which people like Havel and Konrád supported as dissidents during the communist era. The current proponents of intellectual populism tend to argue that the political class as a whole is corrupt in the postcommunist countries and that power must be taken away from politicians by the morally pure nation.

Mudde argues that the populist dichotomy morally pure citizens corrupt rulers originated under communism, when dissidents cultivated a vision of a moral civic society which was supposed to rise against the corrupt structures of the state. Václav Havel created the concept of antipolitical politics, which in his view is morally superior to the everyday struggle of political parties. After the fall of communism, opportunists and antidemocrats used the concept of antipolitical politics to their own ends, removing its naive elements and retaining its negative features. Thus the concept of a "stolen revolution" has come into being: "Corrupt politicians have appropriated our democratic revolution and created a new authoritarian regime. We, the proponents of antipolitical politics are highly moral. Václav Klaus is evil."

Since the creation of the opposition agreement between the Social Democrats and the Civic Democrats, the smaller Czech right-of-centre parties, especially the Freedom Union, supported by President Václav Havel and his allies, have used the concept of intellectual populism in repeated, increasingly more sophisticated attempts to discredit the ruling "opposition agreement" political establishment.

8. Rebellions by "populist intelectuals"

The proponents of intellectual populism have repeatedly launched "civic initiatives", the purpose of which it has been to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the political parties in power. Activists close to the smaller political parties, especially the Freedom Union, have been organising various public petitions calling for a return to "ethics in politics" and demanding the "departure of all top politicians". President Václav Havel, who does not like the opposition agreement, has supported these initiatives.

At the end of July 1999, a group of pro Freedom Union activists published a manifesto called Impulse 99, demanding a return to ethical politics. Impulse 99 became an important running theme for the media in the second half of 1999, but in November 1999, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the fall of communism, it was superseded by another, similar petition written by former student leaders from the 1989 revolution: "Thank you, Leave Now". These initiatives were basically attempts to destroy the current Czech government by unconstitutional means, trying to whip up a wave of popular discontent.

Each subsequent attempt by the populist activists was more sophisticated in its manipulation of the public, culminating most recently in a highly effective performance of a rebellion at public service Czech Television, which took place in December 2000 – January 2001. A fossilised, not very professional Department of News and Current Affairs at Czech Television rebelled against the appointment of a new Chief Executive, a broadcaster with eleven years´ experience working for the BBC. (This was a fourth failed attempt to professionalise News and Current Affairs at Czech Television since 1998 and a fourth rebellion by Czech TV employees against reform.) The new appointee, Jiří Hodač, intended to professionalise the News and Current Affairs Department and to open up oblique financial flows within Czech Television to public scrutiny. The post-communist collossus of Czech Television, which often works on the basis of informal decision-making by networks of "friends" who are not accountable to anyone, rebelled against this appointment. The News and Current Affairs Department hijacked Czech TV´s news and current affairs programmes for their own propaganda, broadcasting emotional and sometimes quite vulgar attacks against the new Chief Executive, whom it accused, without reliable evidence, of being a puppet of Václav Klaus´s Civic Democratic Party.

The spectacle of the television rebellion turned an internal labour dispute within Czech Television into a nationwide political crisis, drawing heavily on intellectual populism, as defined by Cas Mudde. The television rebels used Czech national symbols and symbols of a struggle for freedom. They used popular television entertainers, whose incomes could be threatened by opening up Czech TV´s finances to public scrutiny. They drew heavily on the public´s disenchantment with the opposition agreement and tried to create the impression that since the 1989 democratic revolution had been stolen by "corrupt politicians", a new revolution was now needed. The TV rebellion was given support by politicians from the Freedom Union party and from the right wing of the Social Democratic Party. These politicians took their sleeping bags and demonstratively spent the night at the Television Centre, supporting the rebelling journalists. The TV rebellion quickly developed into a political struggle between the Freedom Union and its associates in the so-called "FourCoalition" on the one hand and the parties of the opposition agreement on the other. It simple terms, it became a struggle between Václav Havel and Václav Klaus. In an attempt to gain public exposure at all costs, politicians from the Freedom Union and the right wing of the Social Democratic Party did not mind embracing the Trotskyite principle of permanent revolution, casting doubt on the appointment of a new Czech TV Chief Executive, which was perfectly legal. The TV rebels won, after they had used their broadcasts to organise two demonstrations at Prague´s Wenceslas Square which were attended by tens of thousands of people. Jiří Hodač ended up in hospital and resigned his post from hospital bed on 11th January 2001.

9. Realignment in Czech politics

The Social Democratic Party had been thoroughly demoralised by its defeat in the Regional and Senat elections which took place in the autumn 2000. As a result, they buckled in face of the TV rebellion and the power of the TV screen to bring tens of thousands of people into the streets. During a secret meeting of Social Democratic parliamentary deputies, which took place on 5th January, 2001, the right wing faction of the party advocated that the Social Democrats should "bow to the will of the people" and work together with, if not join, the "FourCoalition" and the Freedom Union. Social Democratic Home Secretary Stanislav Gross argued openly for conforming to the virtual reality, created by the TV rebels: "It does not matter in politics what things are really like. What matters is what they appeared to be. And that is under the control of the media." Václav Klaus´s Civic Democratic Party refused to yield to the rebels as much as the Social Democrats and so it bore the brunt of vilification by the Czech TV rebels in their broadcasts.

Thus, as a result of the Christmas 2000 TV rebellion, a certain amount of re-alignment took place on the Czech political scene. Václav Klaus´s Civic Democratic Party seems to have been pushed further towards the margins of Czech politics. The incongruous conglomerate of interests, which goes under the name of the Social Democratic Party, is now threatening to split. The right wing, media orientated faction of the Social Democratic Party openly courts the Freedom Union and the FourCoalition. After Miloš Zeman resigned as Chairman of the Social Democratic Party in April 2001, his successor, Vladimír Špidla, announced that the Social Democrats are willing to form a government coalition with the FourCoalition. The Freedom Union and the FourCoalition are apparently in the ascendant, in spite of the fact that they have not as yet sorted out their political programme nor the internal relations within the individual parties that make up the FourCoalition.

Thus there are currently three distinct forces within the political arena in the Czech Republic. The FourCoalition, with the support of the right wing of the Social Democratic Party, appears to be the strongest; it certainly has strong support by the most influential media. The FourCoalition has a major problem: in order to became an effective force in Czech politics, its individual components should merge within a single party. This however, may be impossible: the FourCoalition is in effect little more than a ad hoc, strategic alliance of four incompatible organisations, created for the purpose of winning in the autumn 2000 Senate elections. If the individual elements of the FourCoalition created a single party, its popular support would decrease because many people support one or the other of its individual elements, not the whole FourCoalition. In the spring of 2001, the FourCoalition had serious problems in selecting its leader.


Václav Klaus´s Civic Democratic Party is currently on the defensive and trying to fight back, using a different populist concept, that of cultivating isolated, Eurosceptic "national capitalism". The third force is the unreconstructed Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, which has been boycotted and ostracised by Czech parliamentary politicians, in spite of the fact that its popularity is not negligible - it is now around thirteen per cent. It seems likely that the Communists will win even more support, if the Social Democratic Party turns out to be incapable of acting as a left wing force on the Czech political scene and if the economic situation of the Czech Republic worsens.

Thus it can be seen that the Czech political scene is still rather immature: political parties and the public tend to react not to real issues but to virtual reality, created by the media, which are sometimes delberately assisted by politicians in this. Since the problems of the country are remaining untackled, without being subjected to serious analysis and public debate, there is a serious danger that the frustration of the public might continue to rise and the public will be reacting even more unpredictably and emotionally in future, being even more dependent on manipulative virtual reality campaigns, created by the media.


Jan Čulík teaches Czech Studies at Glasgow University and edits a Czech-language internet cultural and political daily Britské listy (