By Dr Sean Hanley
This post originally appeared on Sean’s blog, reproduced with kind permission of the author
The Czech Republic has been in the news recently because of its politicians’ somewhat quixotic campaign to rebrand the country to the world as ‘Czechia’. But among political scientists and businesspeople the country’s name has long suffered worst damage than this.
Widely seen in the first decade after 1989 a leading democratiser with high standards of governance overseen by a well-established set of West European-style political parties, the country has since acquired a reputation for engrained political graft and high level corruption, which blemished its record of reform and modernisation.
In successive elections in 2010 and 2013, the established Czech party system collapsed like a house of cards as – as elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe – voters turned to a diverse array of protest parties promising to address the country’s ills by killing off political dinosaurs, fighting corruption and promoting the direct democracy. Political scientists quickly clocked thiselectoral turbulence and the unusual new parties it gave rise to, but few stopped to wonder why and how earlier judgements of the Czech party system as an ersatz, but basically functional, equivalent of West European party politics had been off the mark.
Michal Klíma’s new book Od totality k defektní demokracii: Privatizace a kolonizace politických stran netransparentním byznysem [From totalitarianism to defective democracy: the privatisation and colonisation of parties by non-transparent business] tackles this issue head-on, suggesting that rather than being a normal party system distorted by elements of corruption, the Czech Republic’s post-1989 party-political settlement was a deeply corrupt system overlaid with a facade of left – right competition. His book sets out to chronicle and explore how and why this evolved, drawing on the rich seam of Czech investigative journalism and focusing on the two principal pillars of post-1989 party system: the centre-right Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and the Czech Social Democrats (ČSSD ).
By far the book’s most impressive achievement is its careful reconstruction of the subversion and takeover of parties and party organisations at the regional level by ‘godfathers’ (kmotři). Far from providing an impetus for political and economic development, EU-mandated regionalisation and the coming on stream of structural funds, managed by regional agencies and spent by regional authorities, triggered the takeover of party organisations by corrupt vested interests. Their usual modus operandi was the recruitment of fake or paid for party members (in Czech political parlance so-called ‘dead souls’) which allowed the capture of first local local and then regional party organisations and often opened up the way to national influence.