Jan Hartl: In the early ‘90s even politicians felt they needed to learn from public opinion

Jan Hartl, photo: Ian Willoughby

Sociologist Jan Hartl set up Czechoslovakia’s first modern-day polling agency, STEM, in 1990 and has been closely monitoring domestic politics and society ever since. When we spoke, the conversation took in Czech politicians’ shifting attitude to opinion surveys, Václav Havel’s private discussion circle and the “cautious nature” of the country’s voters. But I first asked Mr. Hartl for his standout memories of the Velvet Revolution.

Jan Hartl | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International
“To a sociologist, it was a fascinating situation.

“We like to cherish the sweet memories of how the general public was very courageous and how they expressed, in a great majority, their protest against the existing regime.

“But in fact, this is partially different than the reality was at that time.

“Just remember that the Czechs were the last country of Central Europe which kind of activised.

“During November the Berlin Wall was already in pieces, people from East Germany were throwing the keys from their Trabi cars on the pavement and running to the [West] German Embassy.

“And here everything was very calm, serious – people were afraid of doing something.

“It was kind of depressing, the general passivity of the people.

“But in the November days it suddenly changed. People finally found the courage which was missing weeks before.

“It was all full of energy and euphoria.

“But it was not energy and euphoria expressed because the Communists were at the end of their rule.

“To me, it was a kind of a feeling of liberation from my own personal fear.

“Therefore people were so euphoric, the mass rallies were full of humour.

“I’ve never experienced that, where someone invented a slogan on one part of Wenceslas Square and it went spread to the other part and came back – it was a kind of a reply and people were happy.

“But clearly it was the liberation of myself: ‘Finally, I’m not afraid anymore and I feel great about it.’”

You set up the STEM polling agency in 1990. How long was it before people began to appreciate the value of opinion polls and take much interest in them?

“Havel was a good listener about things which he didn’t understand himself.”

“I think it was a success story.

“The Czechoslovak Institute for Public Opinion was founded in 1946 – among the first such institutions in Europe.

“So in a way the familiarity with public opinion surveys existed and in the first years it was obvious that we have to do things similarly as they are being done in the West for decades.

“There was a sort of eagerness to receive reliable data.

“But the state and state institutions, including the Academy of Sciences, were very slow, very rigid, so they were not able to catch up with the pace of progress in society.

“So the only way to monitor the unprecedented process of democraticisation and transformation of society was to run it as a private activity.

“And this is how STEM was founded in 1990.”

Did you have much interaction with politicians in those days?

“At that time, in the early ‘90s, we did, yes.

Illustrative photo: Gerd Altmann,  Pixabay,  CC0 1.0 DEED
“Then even the politicians thought that they would have to cope with public opinion and would have to learn from public opinion.

“They did not know how to and they were open to counselling in strategic political issues.

“But more or less that ended around 1996.

“Since 1996, with the minority government and so on, it was clear that the new political class was being formed and they were not interested very much in learning about the state of society and about the state of public opinion.

“They were more and more taking surveys as a means of testing political marketing steps.

“So less and less strategic surveys were used by the politicians. Just from time to time.

“To sum it up, in the first half of the ‘90s it was an active, dynamic period when only active people were able to catch up with the pace of events – including the politicians.

“With the so-called Opposition Agreement from 1998 it became a bit obscure, because the political parties were not mass political parties as they had been in the first half of the 20th century.

“In the Czech Republic they were very small, more or less closed, political clubs.

“And the need for good, reliable feedback was very rare.”

Rewinding a little bit, did you have much interaction with Václav Havel? And if you did, what impression did he make on you?

“We had a good connection to the office of President Havel and we ran regular surveys for him.

“People were saying that when you have such a tremendous transformation task, there are transactional costs. But the question is whether transactional costs have to look like that.”

“He was very interested in our results and we talked together on various issues.

“He was a good listener about things which he didn’t understand himself.

“He even had a kind of institute, which was meetings of a closer circle of friends…”

Was that held at some kind of house in a building in his garden?

“Sometimes it was the building in the garden and sometimes it was a hunter’s cottage in the woods.

“We would stay for several hours discussing various issues.

“That institute was called the Amálie Discussions and during them he did not talk at all.

“He just listened to what the others said and he always summed it up.

“It made a great impression on me that he, as an author, made a summary which could be printed immediately, without any mistake.

“In this way he was excellent.

“That open-mindedness of Václav Havel was admirable at that time.”

The ‘90s is often referred to as the Wild East period in this country, when almost anything was possible, good and bad. Is that a fair way to look at that period, do you think?

Václav Havel,  photo: Czech Television
“It’s fair, to a certain extent.

“But that Wild East scheme applied to a very small group of people.

“It was quite surprising to a lot of people that there was a limited group of people who were not only privatising companies and institutions – they were in a way indirectly privatising money.

“It was perceived as a kind of a privilege to a very small group of people.

“At that time people were saying that when you have such a tremendous transformation task, there are transactional costs.

“But the question is whether transactional costs have to look like that.”

You’ve been observing Czech voters closely for 30 years. What would you say is the main thing you have learned about Czech voters?

“Czech voters are very cautious. They don’t run to easy conclusions.

“Just to give an example, whenever there is a big scandal it has a very low reflection in public opinion polls.

“Because people are sceptical: ‘Who knows what it all means? We are not persuaded that this is a fair description of the situation. We would prefer to wait a few months to find out what this is all about’.

“It’s only in the last three, four, five perhaps years when Czech society has been described in terms of contrasts, of black and white, and strong divisional lines in the society.

“But it’s far from the truth.

“Whenever there is a big scandal it has a very low reflection in public opinion polls.”

“Czech society is a plurality of various, I don’t want to say various shades of grey… It’s not grey, in the sense of being boring, but it’s kind of half-tones, which is the reflection of the reality.

“When we are remembering November ’89, it’s usually described as the victory of the majority of people over the Communist nomenclature.

“In our surveys it’s more complicated.

“Strong opponents of the Communist regime in 1990 were about 20 percent of the population.

“Supporters of the Communist regime were, similarly, around 20 percent.

“In society around 15 percent of people don’t care about anything and the remaining 45 percent is people who support the new regime situationally, conditionally on what happens.

“So it’s kind of lukewarm support.

Illustrative photo: Martina Schneibergová
“In fact, this is something that was realised later on in 1996 with the minority government and is also what you can sense in electoral results up to the present.

“So it’s the 40 or 45 percent lukewarm ‘who knows what my opinion is?’ people who decide about the future of the country, as elsewhere in the West.

“We can speak of a situation in which the future of the country is decided by people who don’t care.”

My final question is, looking back over 30 years of development in the Czech Republic, previously Czechoslovakia, overall how do you view how things have gone for the country?

“To sum it up, I think that those 30 years can be perceived as good.

“The development was in general satisfactory.

“I don’t feel there’s any important tension in society, up to now.

“But the general feeling is, and it’s fair to say, that there were opportunities which we lost.

“The general public is very passive.

“People were sitting in front of their TVs watching the news and expecting that someone is going to serve them a better future – and now they feel disenchanted.”

But that doesn’t tell me so much how you feel about how the country has gone. Are you satisfied with the development?

“It’s the 40 or 45 percent lukewarm ‘who knows what my opinion is?’ people who decide about the future of the country.”

“In a way, yes.

“To me as a sociologist it’s a fascinating period, because the more difficult things are for a citizen, the more fascinating the field of study is for the professional.

“The problem is how to distinguish professional interest from existential feeling as a citizen.

“But generally speaking it’s a tremendous, good feeling that we have freedom.

“We have some kind of democracy which might have been better.

“But let’s see whether the young generation will be able to do better than we did as the older generation.”