Blog | Erik Tabery

What Spidla Holds

The new Government have got closer to their mandate again with the just elapsed week. Day after day, negotiators of the Coalition and Social Democrats (ČSSD) keep on sitting over the documents and writing the government coalition Programme. The talks lasted even past midnight, that is until half past, on Saturday. On the overall, the Programme has been finalised, except for eleven controversial items.
For the first time since the Civil Democrats (ODS) origination, it looks like ODS will remain separated from the executive power - and therefore concern has began to spread that things will not work without the party and the cabinet may fall apart even before it ever comes into being. So far, everything seems to be suggesting the opposite. Representatives of the Coalition and Social Democrats have been showing signs of responsible politicians.

Peace, patience and self-confidence

The politics has been undergoing a change. While three utterly different
political parties have been preparing formation of the Government, they have
been also making efforts to come to an agreement. If this is successful, the
absence of ODS in the Government will automatically cut away the tentacles of
connections and favours such as necessarily develop during a long time of
control over the executive. Even this itself is quite a contribution.
The narrow majority of ČSSD and Coalition makes both of the groupings think
twice. Nobody can afford being hot-headed, therefore offences and humiliations
of other parties' politicians have been slowly ceasing as a result. Even Ivan
Pilip, who has been quite bad-mouthed recently, does not deviate from this
practice. Scheming has been disappearing from the lobbies, hardness and
disputes are reserved for negotiations where they belong. As it seems, the
"non-political politics" that used to be based on the personal
advantage and connections has been vacating the scene these days .
Indeed, also this is a task for the future Government. Establish the politics
under which government contracts will be granted truly publicly and
transparently, under which regulatory bodies, such as media councils, will be
controlled not by the party secretariats but by professionals (both of the
above items are likely to appear in the joint coalition declaration). The
politics under which the Government will communicate with the journalists, or,
the public, without offences. The possibility it could come out like that was
foreshadowed by the briefing after the first round of talks between the
Coalition and ČSSD at Lidový dům (the ČSSD seat) a fortnight ago. Many
journalists initially failed to work their way through to the politicians and
so could not hear what they said. Afterwards then, the journalists kept on
coming up one by one to the representatives of both groupings who were
willingly answering the same questions all the time.
Nobody expects a utopia but the above was a robust beginning on which to build
a cultured society that will enter the European Union with self-confidence.
That, of course, is the most important task of the new Government. To put it
most simply, if the Government succeeds in that it will have its place in the
history secured. Before that, however, the Government will need to persuade the
public that they should want to join the Union. This, however, can only succeed
if a simple definition can be found of a Czech in Europe. The campaign for the
Beneš Decrees and on would-be "dissolving" within the EU has cost our
citizens a lot of self-confidence. It is therefore a task for the new cabinet
to bring back the notion of an educated, tolerant and diligent Czech who will
hold out even within the Union.

Twelve per cent from agreement

It seemed on the outset that joint expert committees would finalise the
Programme for the upcoming Government on Saturday already. Things went smoothly
for agriculture, environment and defence. The Parties agreed, for example, that
preserved areas would be expanded and all of us would follow the sustainable
development path. An agreement was reached about the professional army, however
the Gripen fighters originally required by ČSSD would be left out of the
programme. The search of balanced definitions of the exterior policy was harder
but three piers were erected in the end: perform our commitments to NATO,
accede to the European Union and build the best possible relationships with all
neighbour countries. In education, agreement was reached only on the general definition
level, such as more money and more higher education opportunities for the
secondary school leavers. The sector of culture would also have to abide by an
indefinite "more money" promise.
Finally, the Coalition and ČSSD did not find an agreement on eleven items. The
Social Democrats are requiring children allowances, children trustee fund,
schedules of assets for the rich, cash registers and registered partnerships
for people of the same sex. The last item has been opposed only by the People's
Party (KDU-ČSL, a Coalition member) who have been refusing even a compromise:
"The Parties acknowledge that ČSSD will make a motion for legalising
cohabitation of individuals of the same sex." The Coalition wants to push
through higher tax deductions for children, deregulation of rents,
privatisation of the power engineering sector, a "safety catch"
against a repeal of the Query Law and lower taxes for legal persons (the
Coalition has already managed to press their pre-election promise of the joint
taxation of married couples).
The most acute problem is represented by the Coalition requirement that a
promise be made that the public finance deficit will be only up to 3 per cent
of GDP, as required by the European Monetary Union. The Social Democrats have
been trying to persuade the Coalition that the deficit simply cannot be reduced
as quickly as that, given the huge expenses to cover recapitalisation of the
bankrupt IPB bank. ČSSD has been expecting a loss of some CZK 150 billion in
the following year and some CZK 200 billion in the subsequent year (i.e. about
15 % GDP).
Politicians are reserved in their forecasts on when and how the talks will
close. In the meantime, Špidla's words of Saturday half past midnight may be
trusted: "The Czech Republic needs its Government comparatively soon, and
it needs the pro-European Government, clearly democratic by its style, that
will attempt to apply something I would describe as an extended democracy
principle, meaning not a narrowly grasped democracy that would be reduced to a
procedure focused on the Parliament and the few chosen."

Masaryk, a bugbear

The Social Democracts and Coalition claim in unison that Vladimír Špidla is the
guarantee of the talks quality. He has been keeping a tight rein on his
party-men and their departmental ambitions. His colleagues claim that Špidla
perceives the Government formation exercise as the mission of his life,
following the bequest of Tomáš G. Masaryk who wished, as early as in the
beginning of the last century, that the social issue be addressed through
everybody's pursuit of learning. "Let's not ask what our home country will
give to us but what we can do for our country," was he preaching
patriotically at the Říp Mountain rally already this April. Unlike Zeman and
Klaus, Špidla does not wish to be the focus of attention. Rather, he resembles
another Czech politician of the pre-WWII Czechoslovakia, Antonín Švehla, who
stated in the congress of his Agrarian Party in 1932: "You have showered
me with abundant praise and flattered me so generously that it seems to get
close to a personality cult. A mortal man is prone to easily succumb to
flattering… Yet, each extreme brings about a reaction and then the other
extreme comes – dispraise, disgrace and derision. I would not like to live to
meet such a fate."
What is surprising in Špidla is his sense of unclinching the negotiations with
a relaxed remark at the right moment. Last Tuesday, when representatives of the
Coalition and ČSSD were continuing discussions in Lidový dům, the social
democratic leader remarked at one stage that an agreement had to be reached,
never mind the morganatic relationship. The rest of those present were caught
somewhat off-guard with the learned word and Špidla did not hesitate to deliver
a short lecture in history, explaining that the word was coming from the
medieval times and denoted an unequal marriage between two persons of rather
disparate social ranks. The situation relaxed and talks went on.
At the same time, Vladimír Špidla is used also as a bugbear whom the right-wing
politicians somehow cannot outwit. They still seem to believe that the left and
Špidla specifically have been born to suppress the core freedoms. It is not so.
Špidla is a true socialist, who believes in regulation and reallocation but is
opposed to any limitations on freedom of choice. We rather witnessed more of
that during the times of untransparent decision making by ODS and former Prime
Minister Zeman's men. And, what is more, the role of the Coalition within the
Government may in fact curb regulation. The fear of Špidla has been making some
of the Unionists (Union of Freedom, the other member of the Coalition) still
hesitate whether or not they should board Špidla's Government at all.

United way

The Czech Republic has been entering a significant stage during which it will
clearly show how it will manage the new rise of the Communists and find its
place in Europe. And frankly, no one can rebuke the Coalition for joining the
Government with ČSSD. Obviously, there is no other option. The Czech year 1998
which was offering multiple options of forming a majority government has not
been repeated. Another difference is that ODS signed the famed "Opposition
Agreement" at that time, under which it exchanged positions of power for
an obligation to tolerate such an enormous increase in the country's debt that
can hardly be any worse. Any other option than "The 101 Government"
(denoting the ČSSD and Coalition majority in the Parliament) would particularly
suit the Communists who would then got in the game one way or another. And no
democrat may wish anything like that.