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A Czech Reboot

This weekend’s election results suggest a turn toward the Balkans rather than to the West. by Martin Ehl 29 October 2013

Since the fall of communism, Bulgarians have gone to the polls to elect a new parliament eight times, and the election results show their desperation to find someone to put the country in order. After the 1990s, when the electorate got burned by different groupings of right-wing forces, the ex-communists alternated in power with two right-wing populist parties – the National Movement Simeon II, headed by the former tsar, and Citizens for European Development (GERB), led by a former communist bodyguard and police official.


In the Czech Republic we haven't had any tsars or police chiefs pining for a career in politics. But the results of this weekend’s muddled Czech parliamentary elections – in which established parties took a beating and newer protest parties made their mark – offer parallels with elsewhere in the post-communist space. In other words, the Czechs, in their despair over who should govern them and how, are not alone. And the Bulgarian example is instructive because Bulgaria has found itself the poorest and worst-managed member of the European Union. Since this summer thousands of people have been protesting on the squares of Sofia every day against the political system and the political elite as a whole. They have a justified feeling – one familiar to the Czechs – that politics and the administration of the country have become hostage to organized crime.


Known for its anti-Roma positions, Bulgaria’s Ataka (Attack) party plays the role of the fringe, but still parliamentary party in Bulgaria. In the Czech Republic we have instead the new party, Usvit (Dawn), with its message of direct democracy (though, unlike the Bulgarian party, Usvit does not call for the renationalization of some businesses). Bulgaria also once had in parliament an outright business party. In the Czech Republic we have gone a step further: here individual entrepreneurs create their own parties and pay for them themselves.


But in the fate of the Communist parties, the countries diverge: unlike the Czechs’, Bulgaria’s Communists renamed themselves Socialists and play a stabilizing and pro-European role.


It's not only Bulgaria that can provide the Czech Republic subjects for a comparative study. Extremists can also be found in the Hungarian parliament. The xenophobic and ultra-nationalist Jobbik is such an important force that it pushes Prime Minister Viktor Orban and other representatives of the ruling Fidesz party into "ill-advised" statements, which are sometimes understood in Brussels as Hungarian disdain for prevailing European standards.


For its part, Slovakia has demonstrated that the richest businessmen can have their own party without having to engage directly in the electoral fight or in televised debates, unlike Andrej Babis, the billionaire leader of the new Czech ANO movement, which placed second in the elections. In Slovakia, they hired instead the skilled political manager Robert Fico, who – through his “joint-stock company,” Smer/Social Democracy – became the absolute hegemon of the political scene, leaving his right-wing opponents to cook in their own juices. In the Czech Republic, a political party as a business entity that, essentially with no oversight, divides up state contracts is only the dashed dream of the now-collapsed and wildly misnamed Public Affairs Party.* At least for now.


As for the role of the directly elected president, it's worth a look at Romania. The head of state, Traian Basescu, a former sea captain and member of the Communist Party, certainly doesn't suffer from modesty; he likes to listen to himself and lecture others. In 2004 he won election by less than 3 percent but later acted as if he were an almost unrestricted ruler, which cost him and his party support. In 2009, Basescu was re-elected, in between surviving two impeachment attempts.


He became the target of public anger as a result of belt-tightening during the economic crisis, but he is also a victim of his own style. Basescu has insulted his opponents (he made a racially tinged slander against the ethnic Armenian economy minister that was protested by an Armenian diaspora group); said Romanian schools “produce idiots”; and called some journalists who had criticized him “fags” (loosely translated), one of the greatest insults among Romanian men.


But after a failed presidential recall vote last year and parliamentary elections where his party did poorly, Basescu has reined himself in. He signed a “framework agreement” with his arch-nemesis – Prime Minister Victor Ponta, leader of the Social Democrats – which should ensure smooth cooperation among state institutions.


Not that Czech politics this past weekend shifted direction toward the Balkans. Balkan – or if you want “Oriental” – features have been there since 1989. But until now, it had somehow seemed that we were getting rid of them or at least wanted to. But even a cursory glance at the other post-communist EU countries suggests that instead of improving the roads leading to the political west, we in Central Europe are looking to see if it’s possible to begin again to flounder through the swamps toward the east.

Martin Ehr
Martin Ehl is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny, where this column originally appeared. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.


*This version corrects a reference to the Public Affairs Party.

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