Deputies get off scot-free for breach of good manners

Is giving the finger to a fellow member of Parliament or calling him an idiot acceptable? It is in the Czech Republic, at least according to MPs themselves. The mandate and immunity committee of the lower house this week dismissed two such cases, saying they would only resort to punishment if the situation worsened. Radio Prague spoke to political analyst Karel Müller from Prague’s University of Economics, and asked him whether we should we come to accept such coarse behaviour.

“I think there is no reason to think that the political culture of the elites should be somehow different from that of the public. We can see this kind of behaviour and social patterns in the society as well, and I would not say this is something specific of political culture.

“Naturally, political elites are there to resolve problems and disputes and they are more influential as well as more visible when they engage in such behaviour.”

Do you think that’s the reason why such theatrics are considered acceptable in the Czech Republic precisely because they are common in public life?

“The question is what “acceptable” means. I just looked at some polls and over 80 percent of people condemn such behaviour so I think the public does not react to it very positively. I don’t think it’s acceptable from a normative point of view; it seems to be fairly common but people don’t seem to sign up for it.”

Is this something unique for the post-communist world, do you think? Some commentators have noted that Czech politicians consider politics a struggle between good and evil which in their eyes justifies whatever means are necessary…

Karel Müller
“That’s a good point. I think that the notion of politics as a struggle between good and evil can be found in some more established liberal democracies as well but I do think there is some post-communist aspect to it.

“Political conflicts were during communism seen as dangerous and threatening, often with bad consequences for their actors, and I think this has survived to a certain extent.

Also, political power is being abused more in post-communist countries than in established Western democracies. When we see the struggle between liberal culture and clientelist culture, this somewhat resembles the conflict of good and evil. But I think the problem is that there is not enough space for real politics and reasonable and rational politics. Sometimes in the Czech Republic and other post-communist countries there is indeed very little space for problem-based politics.”

You follow British politics which is the cradle of parliamentarism. How has Czech political culture changed over the last 20 years? Have we come closer to the UK in this respect?

“I think the situation has changed a little. Political culture is often parallel to political developments; in the 1990s, for example, the Czech public had certain expectations that were later failed, and I think the major difference is still what I would call the ritualization of political conflicts.

Czech Parliament,  photo: archive of the Czech Government
“British politics is sometimes seen as very hostile and even vicious but there is always some basic loyalty to the system and values of liberal democracy. I remember I was once struck when I heard a British MP reacting to a speech by his opponent; he said, ‘it was a very good speech except there were some ideas I don’t agree with’. So I think it’s crucial to follow and develop these elementary loyalties towards the political system.”