Governing – Don’t Disturb!

When I started following Czech politics maybe a decade or so ago, a lot of people were talking about the opoziční smlouva – the opposition agreement. At the time I never really figured out what the big deal was, but I remember that everytime the term was mentioned it was in a negative context – people mostly talked about it in a mocking tone, but also ominously. I did not get it. I also did not understand what was going on with the Děkujeme, Odejďete (Thanks, Please Leave) movement. What was their problem?

More recently, I learned a bit more about it, as I was prepping for my trip to the Czech Republic – and I owe it all to the documentary ‘Vládneme, nerušit‘ – We’re governing – Do not disturb (ČT link | Časopis Respekt link). This documentary showcases the work of journalist Erik Tabery, who has written extensively on Czech Politics and uses his comments to tell the story of the Opposition Agreement.

Basically, at some point in 1997, ODS (the Civic Democratic Party, led at the time by Klaus) was in a bad way, facing a major party funding scandal. While Klaus, then the Czech Prime Minister, was visiting Sarajevo, his party members Jan Ruml and Ivan Pilip called for his resignation – an act known as the (second) Sarajevo assassination.  Unlike the first one, however, the victim did not die – Ruml and Pilip’s gambit did not unseat Klaus, and they left the party to start up a new one: Unie Svobody (Freedom Union)(Unie Svobody is a great party because I can type its full name without having to switch keyboards from English to Czech). It did succeed in bringing down the government, however, as ODS junior coalition partners KDU-ČSL and ODA withdrew their support.

Ruml and Pilip 'murdering'  Klaus. Pilip (on the right) looks like he's going to be sick.

Ruml and Pilip ‘murdering’ Klaus. Pilip (on the right) looks like he’s going to be sick.

New elections followed and the social democrats (ČSSD) won, becoming the largest party. There was no obvious coalition that would include them, given their refusal to work with KSČM and the fact that ODS were ideological antagonists as well as election losers, now in disgrace after the party funding scandals. An alternative would have been for some of the parties on the right (including the newly formed Freedom Union, now represented in parliament with 19 seats) to work with ODS to form a government which could have relied on a 102 seat majority in the 200-seat Sněmovna. However, the parties on the right refused to work with ODS any longer, and the solution that was found eventually was a minority ČSSD government with tacit ODS support – support which they commited themselves to by signing the opoziční smlouva.

Klaus, still with a 'stache, and some funky glasses that he bought for a song sometime in the early 1980s

Klaus, still with a ‘stache, and some funky glasses that he bought for a song sometime in the early 1980s

 

What ensued is a four year long period of aloof ČSSD government, virtually unchecked by serious opposition as ODS refused to punish the social democrats for any of their aberrations by withdrawing support and voiding the smlouva – presumably because many of the scandals that involved the social democrats would have hurt ODS as well. Vládneme, nerušit documents this period well and is well worth a watch. Having watched it, I know understand why it was all such a big deal back around 2000 when I started becoming interested in the Czech Republic. It is also interesting to see how consolidated a democracy the Czech Republic was at the time, and how such academic concepts as democratization and consolidation work out in practice. On the one hand, the two large mainstream parties in a democracy working together to govern, reaching across the aisle, seems laudable and desirable, and while many have their misgivings over this period in Czech post-communist democracy, at first glance there doesn’t seem to be anything undemocratic about it. On the other hand, the documentary shows how democratic norms suffered in the absence of a strong opposition, which was unavailable since the largest opposition party was in cahoots with the government (and the second largest party was the communist KSČM, shunned by everyone else). It makes more understandable why the Děkujeme, odejďete movement gained such strength, and also why people are now so disenchanted with the current political elites and why many feel that not much was achieved after 1989.

All of that to say that Vládneme, nerušit is well worth a watch – hopefully someone will get up some subtitles, though.

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