Pundit: trade unions tap into public discontent with state of Czech politics

Thursday’s trade union transport strike was the biggest anti-government protest since the fall of communism. The prime minister argues that the cabinet’s flagging popularity with the public is the price for pushing through painful reforms. But are the government’s far-reaching reforms the only reason for the growing public discontent? And what –if anything – will this strike bring? In this edition of Panorama Daniela Lazarová asked political analyst Vladimíra Dvořáková for her take on developments.

“I think it is a very important signal for the cabinet and it would be very good if our politicians started thinking about the problems and tried to analyze why people are so dissatisfied. It is not just a question of reforms and the social impact of those reforms –it is mainly a very deep public dissatisfaction with the behavior of the cabinet, with its ability to solve citizens’ problems, even to govern, to administer the state. Because the state is in a way paralyzed by “clientelist” networks by deep-rooted corruption and this has an impact on how the cabinet functions. So I think that this deep dissatisfaction is not only to do with the character of the mentioned reforms. I think that some people would agree even with costly (painful) reforms but people are very dissatisfied with the way that politics is conducted in the Czech Republic.”

Do you feel that the government mishandled even this situation – the strike?

“Well, I think that in a sense they did, because they were unable to debate the reforms or show readiness to hear the voice of the public. I don’t think a government needs to accept all the demands made on it – that they should govern according to the wish of the trade unions, but on the other hand it would be good if there was some empathy towards the public. Some statements by our politicians and in some cases their behavior is radicalizing the situation, such as when they asked a court to decide whether the strike was legal and they have sent out messages that are unacceptable not just for the trade unions but in many cases also for people who would normally support right-oriented reforms. The cabinet’s behavior and its inability to think about the common people is really a problem.”

Petr Nečas,  photo: Archive of the Czech Government
Do you feel that the government has made the mistake of being overly confident because it has a comfortable majority in the lower house and failing to communicate the need for reform?

“You know, it is often said that the problem is because of poor communication –I even heard that the cabinet wants to get a PR agency to “sell” the reforms to the public and I think that is nonsense. Of course, you should explain the reforms to the public, but mainly people see how you are behaving. When a year ago the centre-right coalition parties gained a 118 vote majority in the lower house everyone expected it to be a very efficient government. And what we have witnessed in the past year is an absurd theatre – blackmailing, secretly taped conversations –it is one scandal after another and all the problems that the cabinet is addressing are problems of their own making. These are not problems made by the opposition or trade unions or protesters- all the conflicts we have seen were born inside the cabinet. And of course citizens and taxpayers ask themselves –what kind of cabinet is this? Why does it work like this? I have spoken to a lot of entrepreneurs who were willing to support right-wing reforms and who realize the need to cut the budget deficit – but they are so dissatisfied with the situation here –the corruption, the clientelism and all that – that some of them are now supporting the trade union protests. So I think the big problem here is not social demands –trade unions around the world are critical of reforms – but a very deep dissatisfaction with the behavior of the political elite and of the cabinet.”

Trade unions' strike,  June 16,  2011,  photo: CTK
So what happens now? When the strike is over and it’s back to business as usual? Is there any way to diffuse the social tension? What should the government do at this point and how do you see its future?

“It is very difficult to predict the result. There will be more negotiations with trade unions, but even if they reach some sort of compromise the fact is that there are pending negotiations within the cabinet that will decide its fate. These negotiations which are to last until June 30th will try to bring internal agreement on the composition of the cabinet and will decide whether the coalition government can continue to exist in its present form. Moreover these negotiations are not public – there is no information for the public – so it is hard to predict the future if we do not know whether at the end of the month we will have a cabinet or not. Again this is a problem relating to the instability of the governing coalition which has not been provoked from outside but is deeply rooted within the coalition itself. So predicting the future is hard – all we can say is that people are frustrated and that a lot of people who were happy with the election result a year ago are now saying they could never have imagined what would happen here in this country.”

Would early elections be a solution or is there any other way of diffusing social tension?

Photo: Barbora Kmentová
“It is a very difficult and complicated situation and I do not think that early elections would help solve the problem, because our main problem in the Czech Republic is corruption and clientelist networks. I think it is important to put pressure on the cabinet to modernize the state apparatus – that is the civil service – and give us a non-political state administration. It is still possible to have advisers and advisers of advisers under the patronage of political parties who send their own people to high posts in state administration and these people are fulfilling the demands of others in the private economic sphere. If nothing is done to sever these ties the country has no chance. And since everyone is now taking about Greece I would like to say that the problem of Greece is not strong social welfare –Greece’s problems started with clientelist networks and corruption that made the institutions of the state totally ineffective. You can have a big state or small state but the institutions must function and this is a problem here.”

If you look ahead now what do you see – are we looking at three more years of a drawn-out crisis?

“To be frank – I don’t know. It is very difficult to say whether this is really necessary. In fact this country has a very good potential. There is no dire poverty, no really serious social problems as we can see in other countries, we have a high level of education –there are a lot of positive things that can help this country – a lot to build on. And to finish on a more optimistic note – I spoke in the last few weeks to people who have stopped to think about this situation and who are starting to be active. They are trying to go against people who are corrupt. We are organizing conferences and seminars in the academic sphere and there are now all kinds of initiatives to fight corruption. A lot of people in local politics have come out against corruption –some successfully, others less so – but the effort is there. So from this point of view I am optimistic because it seems to me that the public is really sending a message to the government and saying –no, we do not want this. And I do believe that among the politicians there are people who are honest and who would like to address the problem – so maybe if politicians built on these initiatives they may be able to break this vicious circle. I do not believe that everything can be done immediately and some level of corruption is present everywhere and people are not angels, but I hope that the growing public pressure can help to resolve the situation. “

Photo: Štěpánka Budková
Finally has all this hurt the Czech Republic in terms of foreign investment?

“The Czech Republic has not been hurt so much, but again when I speak to investors –mainly from the Nordic states – they say that corruption and clientelism makes investors think twice about whether to come here or not. And obviously we are losing a lot of investments. There would be a much higher potential for investment if there was greater transparency in the working of the state. There was an interesting financial forum two days ago at which corruption was analyzed as an economic phenomenon and experts said yes, this is a big problem for the Czech Republic. But how do you find a solution? So I would say the impact on the economy has not been so negative for many reasons, but in order to boost the economy we need to change the working of the state.”