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We need a Comprehensive change of the system

A talk with Jiří Pehe, a foremost Czech political analyst and Director of New York University in Prague.

“People need to get used to the fact that the government cannot be thrown out each two years just because there were 101 votes against it.

 Jiří Pehe - is a political analyst and author of several books. From September 1997 to May 1999 Pehe was Director of the Political Department of Czech President Václav Havel and later served as President Havel’s adviser. He was a member of the Program Committee of the Forum 2000 Foundation that organizes annual international conferences under Václav Havel's auspices. Jiří Pehe is currently Director of New York University in Prague and the head of NYU's Prague Institute for Democracy, Economy, and Culture (PIDEC).  He teaches at Charles University and New York University in Prague. He also frequently gives public lectures. Jiří Pehe published several books; novels: Na okraji zmizelého; Tři tváře anděla; Mimořádná událost; and political books: Vytunelovaná demokracie; The Prague Spring: A Mixed LegacyDemokracie bez demokratůKlaus: Portrét politika ve dvaceti obrazech

In our post-communist history, there were only two prime-ministers who were able to survive the full term. Thus, the post-election reality has embedded protracted government crisis and political stalemates, characterized by a rather fragile “101 of parliamentary majority” for several years. While the current government coalition has only just formedthe early election has clearly shown that especially those parties that went ahead were clearly fighting against the established order. Can we expect a critical review of the existing political system from them as well? And what can eventually decide on its future features? We spoke to JIŘÍ PEHE, the Czech foremost political analyst.

How do you perceive
the sustainability of the Czech political system?

I don´t think the Czech democracy has been fundamentally compromised in the long run. Rather, I feel that a certain fatigue for democracy in our country has emerged.

In what sense?

Fatigue for how policy has been practiced in our country for 24 years. I am not afraid of a total collapse of the democratic system, as our network of external relations is too strong to allow it. At the same time, if such a thing began to happen, it would be met by considerable economic losses. Hereby, politicians would think twice.

However, taking into account the political system in terms of functionality, in your view should the system itself undergo a considerable change in the foreseeable future? I mean e.g. the revision of the electoral system?

In my opinion, a change of the Czech electoral system wouldn’t contribute to a better working of our political system, in a special way. The functionality of the system is better derived from other things. First of all, we should focus on the strength of civil society and the quality of government. In addition, the Czech Republic is no exception, as the political crisis is concerned. The situation is very similar in many other democratic systems. On the other hand, the truth is that in our country governments have been replaced more often than in other stable democracies in recent years. Hereby, the changes could contribute to a modification in the existing proportional system.

So what might the modifications be like? 

I mean those changes leading to the emergence of stronger majorities or even constitutional amendments requiring the “constructive vote of no confidence to the Government”. If a political opposition expresses confidence to the government, it needs to have prepared a variant, in this case the majority. If it is unable to offer such, the vote cannot take place. People need to get used to the fact that the government cannot be thrown out each two years just because there were 101 votes against it. The main problem, however, I see elsewhere. In one book I call it democracy without democrats. We now find ourselves in a situation where almost after a quarter of a century of building the system, we are facing a democratic deficit, which is seen as the culture.

Can you be more specific?

It is a culture of democratic behavior. We have institutions, a facade, and it all works somehow. If we look beneath the surface, however, we discover a huge deficit of democracy as a culture of behavior.

In your view, what caused it?

First, there is a generation gap. People who spent most of their time in the previous regime have difficulty adapting to a truly democratic behavior. They´ve embraced certain rituals and language. Yet, once you get into any deeper discussion within a family, you immediately encounter barriers to democratic culture. It is especially obvious with the minorities. Another problem is related to the immaturity of the media, which should function as a public voice. The development of civil society is a long term project, at least for one generation. Masaryk even spoke of two generations.

Well, what if we want to achieve immediate improvements?

The fastest way is to improve the quality of the administration. Unfortunately, the politicians in our country keep resisting it. It seems, however, that we are probably at a turning point. The EU seems to be tired of it after nearly a decade of various obstructions and delays in the adoption  of the Civil Service Act. In fact, there is a risk that we won´t be paid our money.

You see the pressure from outside. Nonetheless, what if we focus our efforts on readjusting the rules? Perhaps the introduction of a direct presidential election turned out to be a rather catalyzing process …

I have nothing against the strengthening of the elements of direct democracy, including the introduction of a majoritarian electoral system. However, as a political scientist, I have to distinguish between different types of that system. A single-round majority system eventually leads to the establishment of two political parties. Hereby a political majority government has been established, left or right. Given what I said about the political culture and the weakness of civil society, I am rather opposed to its introduction in the country. Politicians get enormous power from this system, and are not effectively controlled by the opposition, because in a system where you have two political parties, the government is not revocable.

Does it entail that the opposition a priori fulfills its role well within the proportional system?

Obviously, we cannot state it that way either. However, a considerable correction exists within. We could have seen it, after all, relatively recently in the former Prime Minister Nečas coalition. The coalition was quite strong in the very beginning. We may think that it was kind of bad that the government could not rule organically. In fact, it was a defensive element of democracy. The opposition operates here at two levels. It concerns the parliamentary opposition with regard to the government, and then within the coalition. Thus, in case of imbalances, the opposition is established right within the coalition itself. In this case, the TOP 09 Party controlled the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) to a certain extent.

The majority system also has another alternative, a two-round majority system. Might this option better suit our country?

Yes. It leaves pluralism, producing a composition similar to what we see in the proportional system, with the only difference that the MPs are elected directly. Their responsibility is not only to political parties but also to particular voters. This is a fairly strong control element, which can be further strengthened by the fact that voters can hold a referendum in a district and can appeal the MP. I think that this system is not bad. Of course, if the electoral system to the Chamber of Deputies has to be changed, it would require the change of the electoral to the Senate as well, if we are to meet the Czech Constitution.

Do you perceive it to be a rather problematic solution?

No, on the contrary. I´ve already voiced that opinion for some time. In my view, the Senate should be more interconnected with the regions. Moreover, the upper Chamber was established more or less artificially. 81 circuits were formed without inner logic. It would make more sense for senators to be elected within the regions. Each region could have 3-4 senators. Consequently senators could represent the regions as well. Regions should vote at the central level, i.e. would receive additional voices, except for the governors speaking for them. The regions would have their own senators who could directly influence legislation from the position of the regions. They would have to build a coalition of regions when voting on certain laws.

So, the time is ripe for change...

I consider the time ripe for change indeed. However, it must be a complex change. We need to proceed with it. However, this change must be comprehensive. It should be an amendment to the Constitution, specifically some basic provisions. It must be clear how the highest institutions are to interact with each other, i.e. the president, government, parliament, etc. Furthermore, I think it would be good to implement an institute called "constructive vote of no confidence". Finally, it would make sense to generally strengthen the role of government at the expense of the president. Of course, it would have to be accompanied by a change in the electoral law, and also by adoption of a high-quality civil service act. If such a complex change would be completed, it could really help in the stabilization of Czech democracy. I´d like to point out that a number of crises have been caused mainly from uncertainties.

What kind of uncertainties?

Mostly constitutional ambiguity. The president may interpret its powers. It should also be part of the legislative changes that there is not great freedom of legislative initiative for individual MPs. In some democracies, it works so that when a proposal comes from the government, is either accepted or rejected. Yet you cannot change it. Legislative changes may be done only by a group of a particular party. It is not possible to have two hundred MPs and each of them initiatively changing the law.

So is it rather rare that MPs abroad have so much power?

It's rare and it does not make much sense. At the same time, the Czech constitution is inconsistent in its internal logic. On one hand, we have a system based on competition among political parties, and on the other hand, it (the Constitution) gives absolute freedom to MPs. I think this is another thing that should be corrected.

In what way?

I am talking about the “binding mandate”, for instance. If the MP regularly departs from his party's mandate in case of some major approval, his mandate ends. Hereby, the MP will be automatically replaced. An explicit formulation with regard to the MPs nomination on the ballot within a proportional system could be embedded into the Constitution as well, stipulating that the MP cannot in certain major decisions deviate from the decision of a political party.

What is your view with regard to the post-election negotiations? Have you been taken by surprise by the fact that the left hasn´t won the full line?

A major issue of the election wasn´t whether the Social Democratic Party (CSSD) and hence the left was going to win it. What I consider essential is whether CSSD acts as an independent political force or as a "presidential party". This is one of the crucial points also deciding on the future of the Czech political system. So far, unfortunately, it seems that Miloš Zeman remains the dominant player on the Czech political scene. Let's see who can eventually stop him.

Source: Leaders Magazine - - Pavlína Holancová