Democratic Deficits: Prague Slides into Central European Trap
The Czech Republic has a new government. But the way it got there, following a sordid scandal involving the country's prime minister and a power grab by the president, has raised concerns that democracy in Prague is beginning to emulate that of its neighbors.
Scandal is as much a part of the Czech political calendar as elections or cabinet meetings. But even jaded observers note that more than patience is being tested these days as the country's parliamentary system and democratic credentials are drawn into question. Even worse, it marks the continuation of a trend that has developed elsewhere in Central Europe.
The Czech saga starts with former Prime Minister Petr Nečas. He met with police on Friday as part of investigation into Jana Nagyová, a one-time top advisor who doubled as Nečas' mistress. In a sordid series of events that ultimately brought down the center-right Nečas government, Nagyová is alleged to have used state intelligence services to spy on opponents and on Nečas' own wife. Nagoya was arrested on June 12 and, along with other key players, remains incarcerated awaiting her day in court. The day after the arrests, police seized 150 million Czech crowns (5.8 million, $7.5 million) in cash and a trove of gold in a series of raids across the country tied to the case.
But that's not all. In a parallel case, prosecutors are asking parliament to strip Nečas, who remains a parliamentarian, of his immunity from prosecution. He would then face charges for awarding two troublesome lawmakers from his own party cushy bureaucratic jobs in exchange for dropping opposition to a piece of legislation.
The Nečas scandal is deep and racy, yet far deeper issues have been raised in its aftermath. On Wednesday, President Milo Zeman opted to bypass the will of parliament and appoint Jiří Rusnok, a former ally from Zeman's own days as prime minister, to lead a caretaker government. The heavy-handed move prompted cries that Zeman is usurping power and that his disregard for protocol represents a deviation from the parliamentary system.
Zeman was undeterred. During the swearing-in ceremony on Wednesday, he advised his new government to ignore "the media criticism of envious idiots who have never done anything proper in their lives."
The moves have sent the entire political spectrum scrambling as even Zeman's purported ideological allies on the left would prefer early elections they would almost certainly win. One parliamentary insider, a member of the Social Democrats -- the party likely to win an election and one originally brought to prominence by Zeman himself -- admits they are "in a bit of a pickle."
Given the squalid details, it is tempting to see Nečas fall as merely a Berlusconi-esque drama playing out in Central Europe. But it has revealed the kind of democratic shortcomings that its neighbors Poland, Slovakia and Hungary have also suffered from. The so-called Visegrad Four all saw communism end in 1989, joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004. And today, they are all faced with concerns that genuine pluralism is at risk in their respective political systems.
"In recent years, the trends have not been good," said Lubomír Kopeček, a political scientist at Masaryk University in Brno. "All four countries function, but some liberal democratic aspects are under threat."
The manner and degree of the trend varies, but it is notable nonetheless. Crisis-addled Hungary saw Viktor Orbán's Fidesz party take a two-thirds majority in parliament and begin molding state institutions in their favor. In Poland, there is a lack of political alternatives on the left and questions remain as to whether the two dominant right-of-center parties can even survive once leadership is passed from their powerful chairmen. Slovakia has seen the reverse, with a cohesive left under the sway of charismatic Prime Minister Robert Fico splintering and obliterating a disorganized and scandal-ridden right.
'Zero Sum Game'
"A high level of corruption and patronage," remains a problem in such systems, said Fernando Casal Bértoa, an expert on party systems at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands. "When you get into government and you are not sure you will get back into government, you take advantage of the state. Political competition becomes a zero sum game."
Corruption, of course, has long posed a challenge in Central Europe. But recent signs that pluralism is at risk may indicate that democratic roots in the region remain shallow. Oversized personalities and populism increasingly dominate political discourse, whether the rhetoric be anti-Russia, anti-Germany, anti-EU or anti-banker.
Poland's Kaczynski brothers, for example, proved exceedingly adept at instrumentalizing history. Today, Poland's ruling Civic Platform is a party "based on the individual popularity of (Prime Minister) Donald Tusk," says Lukasz Lipiski, deputy director of Polityka Insight in Warsaw. The personalization of politics is even more strongly embodied in the figures of Orbán, Fico and Zeman and their vague blends of anti-elitist nationalism.
"We have some experience with semi-democratic management in Slovakia, with (1990s-era Prime Minister Vladimír) Mečiar," says Mikulá Dzurinda, a two-time Slovak prime minister. "And now we are seeing it in some neighboring countries."
Dzurinda himself is no stranger to the shadier sides of democracy. While among Fico's biggest critics, scandals in his own party -- including alleged mass bribery of state officials by a leading Bratislava investment group -- led the country's political right into oblivion. Still, the 11-faction coalition government Dzurinda strapped together from 1998 to 2002 would represent a paragon of pluralism in the region today.
Greater Presidential Power
In his recent power play, Zeman argues he has a mandate to break constitutional and cultural precedence. While previous Czech presidents Václav Havel and Václav Klaus were chosen via convoluted wheeling and dealing in the halls of parliament, Zeman was the first to become head of state through a public vote earlier this year. He contends this gives him a free hand to intervene and he has repeatedly asserted that the roughly 3 million votes he received in the presidential runoff represent far more support than any single parliamentary party has received.
Given the intractability of Czech politics in recent years, there are some who would welcome a tectonic shift toward greater presidential power.
"Such a transition occurred in France near the end of the 1950s and democracy survived," Kopeček said. "I am not comparing Zeman to DeGaulle, but pointing to possible change underway."
Among Central Europe's uneasy electorate and unstable party systems, counteracting pluralism's drift toward personalized politics almost certainly requires alliances of smaller players in the face of the dominant individual personalities now holding sway. But in a region reputed for zero sum politics, such collaboration is rare. "In the blood, it is not natural to share power," Dzurinda admitted.
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