Through different eyes. By Jiří Weigl
In early December, a global online summit on democracy was organised by US President Biden. In the face of China's overwhelming economic and power ascendancy, the developed West wants to use this and similar events to give itself confidence and convince the rest of the non-Western world that our example is still the best and worthy of emulation.
Democracy, i.e. rule by the people, is the means of ensuring good governance, which is a condition for the prosperity of a country and its people. Based on long historical experience, we in the West have come to say that it is a necessary condition for such development. Today, however, we are often surprised to find that other countries, which do not have a tradition of democratic governance and are not even trying to adopt it, are developing faster, reducing the historical lead that we have gained in past eras and very often overtaking us in key development parameters.
The main systemic advantage of democracy over authoritarian regimes is undoubtedly that it allows for regular changes of government according to clear and respected rules. Another advantage up to now has been the principle that the existence of opposition is guaranteed, and that in the confrontation of different political concepts, opinions and visions, a political programme emerges which is implemented on the basis of the voters' decision. Permanent legal political opposition is supposed to guarantee the prevention of mistakes and abuse of power. All this is ensured by a system of rule of law guaranteeing the rights of the individual and the citizen. All of this is founded, described and elaborated in a plethora of works by thinkers, scientists and politicians, and documented by the unprecedented rise of Western civilization over the past three centuries.
But today, despite the loud hymns of democracy, lived reality often convinces us that the king is or is beginning to be naked. Let us discuss this in our (Czech) example, even though in many other places, including the U.S. itself, the existing democratic system is being badly shaken. Let us ask why our democratic system, rather than competent and responsible governance, is producing chaos, dilettantism and unaccountability. Let us seek answers to the question of the cause of growing public dissatisfaction with the political situation and general disillusionment. Let us try to suggest at least some possible causes.
Representative democracy, as we practise it here, is based on free competition between political parties, which are supposed to express and represent the different political interests existing in society. They should therefore have a clear ideology and a structure capable of identifying, disseminating and aggregating similar views and attitudes among the population. A democratic political party should also have democratic internal mechanisms through which it generates personalities capable of representing its programme externally in the organs of public power. All this can only work well if the party has a relatively large membership base.
This was the case in the past, during the monarchy and the first (interwar) Czechoslovak Republic, when the political parties represented in parliament had hundreds of thousands of members. In the neighbouring countries – Austria, Germany – this is more or less still the case. In such cases, it can be assumed that democratic mechanisms can function properly and allow a competitive environment to emerge, ensuring that capable and competent personalities can take the lead. A strong and large party is able to have the appropriate political structures, apparatus and experts with whose help it can implement its own programme and, in the event of electoral victory, actually run the state bureaucracy.
In our country, however, political partisanship is undergoing a fatal decline, the roots of which can be traced back to its discrediting in the communist era. Today's political parties are more like clubs with a few thousand or even hundreds of members. Such weak structures lack almost everything for successful governance – personalities, experts, apparatus, finances, etc. Rightly, they are often called political projects rather than parties, whose existence and functioning hide the partial interests of specific domestic or foreign movers and shakers.
Their electoral battles are increasingly losing the character of open democratic competition and turning into a contest of manipulative media campaigns, where tabloid marketing, not programmes, let alone ideology, is decisive. Politics ceases to cover the divisions of opinion and interest in society, ceases to have the ability and interest to solve real problems, and increasingly serves its sponsors or external interests rather than its own voters and fellow citizens.
Executive positions are filled by unprepared, random people without the qualifications and experience needed to run ministries or conduct international negotiations. The personnel weakness and professional emptiness of virtually all our political parties means that their unqualified political appointees are totally dependent on the expertise of the ministerial apparatus, which, if successful, they are placed at the head of.
It is symptomatic that virtually all our political parties are unable to say anything more concrete about their future policies until the machinery of ministries starts working for them after they enter government. This leads, in practical terms, to bureaucrats ruling the roost. At government meetings, unqualified politicians who happen to find themselves in ministerial positions usually only read out to each other the positions written by officials in their ministries, and are usually only able to discuss the material they themselves present. It is characteristic for a practice that has become widespread under the last few governments that much of the material submitted to the government is not discussed at all and is approved en bloc without debate.
Under such circumstances, democratic mechanisms are beginning to lose their meaning and are becoming an expensive luxury. The country is ruled by unaccountable officials who are entrenched in their positions by the Civil Service Act. The power of the lowest clerk in the ministry is almost absolute. What he writes in the file is very, very difficult to remove. All the superiors merely sign off on the file, and so, like a knife through butter, terrible things can pass through the legislative process that are extremely difficult to correct. Anyone could cite plenty of examples of legislative blunders and nonsense. The political parties are unable to prevent this, because they do not have their own expert apparatus capable of analysing emerging legislation, opposing it politically and ensuring that it is in line with the party or government programme. Members then very often vote mechanically according to instructions.
There is an insurmountable departmentalism in the executive, which is facilitated by the coalition nature of governance, whereby the various parties in government create their own encapsulated allowances out of the ministries they have won, whose sanctity they protect from others, especially the Prime Minister.
Another problem is the fragmentation of public power through the emergence of self-governing territorial democracy. The existence of self-governing regions has created largely autonomous regional power centres, further weakening the national leadership of the main political parties. They cease to be a unified organism and become a conglomerate of regional interest groups, further fragmenting national politics and limiting the agency of the leadership. Creating a unified political line is also very difficult at the intra-party level.
The proliferation of more and more so-called independent, i.e. unaccountable to anyone, regulatory bodies widens the field for the exercise of bureaucratic arbitrariness, as does the encapsulated judiciary which is out of any public control and which is intruding into the executive.
Basic democratic principles are then negated by current practice within the EU, where the Brussels bureaucracy, without any democratic legitimacy, creates rules and regulations that national authorities can only adopt and apply. Here, any democratic link and accountability of those who govern to the electorate and citizens is completely absent.
Politicians' interest becomes only re-election, their thinking horizons are completely subordinated to this objective, anything that goes beyond the length of a term of office hardly gets priority. The result is irresponsibility, expediency, wastefulness and ineffectiveness. The electoral cycle totally distorts and almost precludes responsible governance. This is to say nothing of the threat to the legitimacy and fairness of the electoral process and the political democracy based on it posed by such 'innovations' as the proliferation of postal and internet voting, which enable electoral fraud and manipulation.
The result of these general conditions, only some of which have been mentioned above and which are not even specifically Czech in most cases, is unfortunately a system in which the citizen is increasingly alienated from the government and his or her opinion is very often completely ignored. Practical politics is dominated by empty promises, irresponsibility, alibis, incompetence and conformism.
We should therefore abandon a dismissive attitude towards other countries that do not meet the criteria that we ourselves have set for their political systems. The defects of our system, which are leading to an apparent crisis, require serious evaluation and a search for a remedy. This should be our main focus, so that we can set a real and convincing example to others. This is not yet the case and cannot be the case.
Jiří Weigl, Lidové Noviny, 8 January 2022
Translated with DeepL.com (free version). The title is a parody of a quote from Vladislav Vančura's "Summer of Caprice"