A culture of non-resignation

Television serie The Prisoner

“A lot of people are curious about what lies behind your resignation. You had a brilliant career; your record is impeccable – they want to know why you suddenly left.” “What people?” “Now personally I do believe your story that it was a matter of principle, but what I think doesn’t really count, does it?” “...I will not make any deals with you. I’ve resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own!” That was a segment from the iconic British television series The Prisoner, in which the character of Number Six is forced to live his life in a place called The Village after resigning on principle from a government position. It is difficult to imagine a situation like that in the Czech Republic. Indeed, quite the opposite has repeatedly been the case – with politicians dragging their feet and refusing to resign even in the face of mounting scandals. So, in this week’s Talking Point, I’ll be asking - why don’t Czech politicians ever resign?

Jiří Čunek
Perhaps the most famous recent example of a politician refusing to resign is that of Deputy Prime Minister Jiří Čunek. For months, if not years, accusations have been made about alleged corruption during his term as mayor of the town of Vsetín – something Mr Čunek has strenuously denied. But far more crucially, he has also made some very controversial statements about the Roma minority in the country – something that would almost certainly have led to him being forced from his position in many other countries. David Ondráčka is the director of the Czech division of Transparency International. I asked him how often misconduct – perceived or real – leads to resignations of Czech politicians:

“It only happens very rarely and there are only a very few examples. A few at the municipal level, and I recall one case of the former Minister of Justice Jan Kalvoda who resigned because there was a suspicion that he used an academic title that he was not entitled to and he resigned as a result of the scandal. But in terms of financial scandals, many politicians have not been able to explain how they got the money to buy their own properties.”

Perhaps the most notable case is that of former Prime Minister Stanislav Gross. The youngest Prime Minister this county has ever had – this young blood soon became mired in one scandal after another. Like so many Czech politicians, he couldn’t explain how he paid for his expensive flat. Months went by as he dragged his feet. But in a very rare example, the media stuck with the story and soon the pressure became overwhelming – Mr Gross resigned. Political commentator and former advisor to President Václav Havel Jiří Pehe recalls the other example mentioned by Transparency’s David Ondráčka, that of former Justice Minister Jan Kalvoda who resigned in 1997:

“I have to say that till this day, I admire his courage and his decision simply because in comparison with other politicians who committed much bigger offences against good morals, this was certainly an unusual step.”

So why are resignations of politicians so rare in the Czech Republic? Jiří Pehe again:

“Civil society in the Czech Republic, although developing and getting stronger is still relatively weak. And it is certainly not used to putting pressure on politicians for issues of this nature. In any western country where it is more common for politicians to resign because of serious offences, it is often that way because the public puts pressure on the politicians - it is not because the politicians would be prepared to resign.”

David Ondráčka also believes that the Czech media plays a key role:

“On the one hand, it seems that the media here are not persistent enough to keep the pressure up for a long time and to make the lives of politicians very difficult – basically punish them for their mistakes and incorrect practices. On the other hand, the media has been successful in some cases. There was former Prime Minister Stanislav Gross, who resigned after serious media pressure. I’m not very happy with the performance of the media. But the same criticism can be applied to NGOs, which I represent, for instance, or to any other sector which is not competent of persistent enough to promote and enforce accountability.”

It is clear that systems of accountability stem as much from working systems as from the cultures which enforce them. And undoubtedly, following forty years of communist rule, such cultures – there isn’t even a Czech word for accountability – will take time to develop. David Ondráčka again:

“During the communist era, accountability was not mentioned as a value that should be considered. Today, we have an emerging democracy which is building institutions, building patters of behaviour and this takes years – and it took years everywhere. Of course, we can be unhappy about the pace. There is still not enough pressure from the public to make politicians and public officials more accountable and I think that this is clearly our fault as citizens, who fail to define the rules of the game.”

Perhaps one of the greatest tricks the communists used to stay in power was to make a large part of the populace complicit in their rule. Thus, if everyone was guilty, the perception went, it was best to just remain silent. Jiří Pehe agrees that the communist past is much to blame for creating an all pervasive climate of apathy amongst the public:

“A lot of what we see in Czech politics is definitely a legacy of the communist system. I think that the entire notion of public service in the Czech Republic is still pretty much communist: ‘My own interests come first and the interests of the public are secondary.’ There was a very popular slogan: ‘Who doesn’t steal from the state steals from his own family’ and I think that Czech politicians are very well versed in developing various schemes in which they try to get as much as possible from the state to the detriment of the public.”

Of course, none of this was official communist mantra – quite the opposite. Yet the enforced ideology of brotherhood, in fact had the opposite effect. People became more self-reliant, ignoring party mantra about a better society and the betterment of all and instead focusing on their own small patch. Even today, Czech politicians avoid making the kind of bright sounding promises heard in many western political campaigns and fresh blood is extremely rare. David Ondráčka again:

“There are very few people who are involved in political parties, so the pool for selecting the candidates and the party leaders for public offices is very limited. And those people tend to form a kind of cartel and keep newcomers outside or they only accept people who accept their rules and their qualities and keep their positions. Their main motivation is to keep their position which is financially rewarding, gives them status and they have influence. That is a very important reason why newcomers very rarely enter politics in those established parties.”

With power-games so prevalent in Czech politics, resignations are often viewed as a sign of weakness over the opposing party. Even media exposures of wrongdoings are often viewed as politically motivated. Jiří Pehe is even more blunt:

“Well, I think that politicians view politics as a means of livelihood – they think that politics is primarily a source of income and influence and so on and only in the second place do they understand politics as public service. And I think that if you have this order of values in your mind, then you will probably think ‘perhaps if I somehow manage to fend off the attacks and stay in power, I will be able to keep at least part of my influence.’”

So is it really all just about power, status and self-enrichment. Ask most Czechs and they will probably share this view of Czech politicians. But, as David Ondráčka says, there is certainly cause to be optimistic about the future:

“Czech politics is not the worst in the region and we should not be totally disillusioned. It is a newly-born democracy - it takes years, it requires our involvement and our activities. In many, many municipalities there are a lot of active people who watchdog their own municipalities, who are getting involved in local politics and those people will soon have ambitions to go into national politics and do the same thing there. So I’m quite optimistic in this sense.”

Undoubtedly, more resignations would be welcome simply to bring fresh blood into the Czech political sphere and hasten the pace of change. But, as to when and if the next resignation will occur – I wouldn’t hold you breath…