How the anti-corruption fight and the debt collection business opened the doors for populists and nationalists
To use the expression “militant democracy” in the Czech political context seems weird. Czechs are first and foremost pragmatists who learned through their political history of the last two centuries that it does not pay to be militant in politics – it is better to find ways around rules or to change the system from within.
Afterall, this is a country and society which was not able to ban the communist party after the 1989 regime change and even allowed communists to continue as an unreformed political force until today.
Therefore, when looking for examples of how the Czech democracy has been developing tools for the radical defence of its liberal democracy – which in case of an illiberal turn might be used against the democracy itself – it is necessary to look at the “usual” toolbox which has been used and interpreted in creative ways through the aforementioned pragmatism.
The unconventional leader
Let’s start with something easy. There is probably a common situation – among countries of Central Europe – that Czech law also prohibits which is to forbid symbols and propaganda of a totalitarian regime. However, only Nazi propaganda is effectively prosecuted, the communist one is tolerated.
The Communist Party is part of the system and was not forced to reform itself; its members’ voices have been espousing, in ever increasing volumes, their old dangerous ideas. In fact, the Communist Party is a “shadow” coalition partner of the present left-centre government of Prime Minister Andrej Babis, and its influence is only growing which is in contrast to its stagnating popular support.
Mr. Babis himself is, in a way, a product of militant democracy when looking back on the short history of his ANO party. In the Czech case, the democratic tool which was misused by illiberal forces is the fight against corruption.
Babis and ANO have risen through the PR machine saying that he is not “traditional” for a politician because those who have taken the more normal route have become corrupted along the way.
The anti-corruption fight has been a notable self-defence measure of the Czech democracy which then turned itself against democracy because the fear of being prosecuted or even being vocally blamed for corruption tied the hands of elected politicians and members of the public administration after the late 1990s and early 2000s when political corruption boomed and a few politicians – though not any big fish – were tried and later imprisoned.
Afterwards came a paralysis of the public sector while the anti-corruption rhetoric effectively put almost all “traditional” parties (those governing after 1989) into one big basket of corruption. In some cases, politicians or state employees spent a considerable amount of time in custody only to be later acquitted.
Ask the recent Czech European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, Vera Jourova, why she was held for more than a month in a pre-trial detention in 2006 when she was Deputy Minister of Regional Development, and what happened to her family before she was acquitted two years later.
On the top of this anti-corruption fight, there was case of former-Prime Minister Petr Necas whose secretary (and lover) misused military intelligence to keep control over his wife. The secretary was detained by police in a huge raid against organised crime in 2013 with some other politicians and suspected criminals – yet, no one has been sentenced in this case even until today.
State prosecutors and the police have unfortunately discredited themselves and destroyed the notion of old political parties (which were corrupt to some extent, no discussion about that).
But this case from 2013 has offered an opening for those wanting to and speaking about cleaning up politics – Mr. Babis leads the pack together with President Milos Zeman, who had left politics for ten years; a move that convinced many voters of his “newcomer” status, even though he was part of the old political class from 1990s.
Losing hope in the courts
Ineffective justice is a common feature of all young democracies in Central Europe. This is the case in Hungary and Poland, but also in the Czech Republic as it contributes to the general feeling of hopelessness when a citizen must deal with the system.
The young Czech democracy has also built a lot of checks inside the judicial system. Based on the previous misuse of courts and prosecution during communist times, the new judicial practice allows for several rounds of appeal while judges are extremely careful when not only dealing with political cases but more run-of-the-mill ones as well.
The result is that the court proceedings take far too long, and present an image of the judicial system as an ineffective tool of democracy. If you add instruments like presidential amnesty which was misused by the former-President Vaclav Klaus when leaving office in January 2013 which de facto legalised many controversial privatisations from the 1990s, many people do not feel they can get justice anywhere.
This is similar to the Polish people’s despair from ineffective justice which resulted in support for justice reform by the conservative government. This fact is not mentioned when the recent Polish government is criticized for its politicising of justice.
An indebted population
Czech specificity in this field might be shown on case of distraints. Nearly 10% of the population (1 million) live in a distressing state because they somehow indebted themselves and were left to the mercy of debt collectors; the source of the problem can be traced to the original conditions of the law which were unproportionally punishing those owing money.
For example, fees for not paying your bus ticket in public transport in Prague which costs around 1.5 euros could go easily into the hundreds of euros when including automatic fees for legal proceedings and the debt-collectors involved. There was no safety net for those who were heavily indebted and almost no available legal assistance, save some NGOs.
The measure which this young democracy had built as a tool against those who do not pay their obligations has turned into machine that impoverishes people and which then produces desperate voters. In the Czech Republic, there is a correlation between people voting for extremist, nationalist and populist parties and the regions most heavily affected by debt.
The politics of journalism
The media has documented that our nationalist and populist president, Milos Zeman, has many ties (financing his electoral campaigning, for example) to the people who enriched themselves in this poverty business while he maintains an anti-elitist rhetoric and presents himself as representing those who were left behind by the system.
A similar institutional weakness which has its variations around the region is in the sector of public media. It might not be as dramatic as it is in Poland or Hungary, but the original idea of a politically nominated body having oversight on the public media has now arrived in Czechia with regards to the fight over Czech TV, Czech Radio and the Czech press agency CTK.
During the 1990s, there was a strong push to privatise everything into foreign hands. When foreigners left during the financial crisis, local owners – popularly called oligarchs – took control of the majority of media. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it was not possible to build a strong, public and financially-sound media group; it would have resembled too closely the old state-owned monopolies.
While in Poland or Czechia there is still a plurality of private media, the stronghold of quality and independent media should be in the public domain. Yes, the Polish or Hungarian examples are the worst-case scenarios. However, in Czechia, public media depends is subject to political oversight, and if they need cash, they have to ask politicians through their supervision boards. Therefore, even public media in Czechia could be misused easily.
Czech democracy has not been militant; it has been rather consensual. Governments have been based on broader coalitions, and its new founding fathers have considered that “we should not be as they were” in terms of militant measures comparing themselves to the previous communist rulers.
Czech democracy is maybe the most liberal in the region, but at the same it is not equipped with strong tools to defend itself directly; therefore, those tools cannot be easily misused for other purposes. It does not mean that Czech democracy is immune to the current trends in European (and especially Central European) politics. Only those trends spread less visibly and, so far, not as radically within Czech political system.