“What was crucial was the hidden conflict with Havel” – Civic Forum’s Jan Urban on 30th anniversary of 1990 elections

Photo: Jakub Benda, Czech Radio

Exactly 30 years ago, on June 8 and 9, 1990, the first free elections to Czechoslovakia’s Federal Assembly in over four decades were held. Following extremely high turnout, the Civic Forum, which had led the Velvet Revolution, received 53 percent of the vote. Trailing far behind was the Communist Party, on 15 percent. Jan Urban was the leader of the Civic Forum’s candidate list at that time. I asked him if it was a result he had expected.

Photo: Jakub Benda, Czech Radio
Jan Urban, photo: Jindřich Nosek, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

“Definitely. At that time we saw it more as a plebiscite, a continuation of the rebellion against Communist rule, so it was clear that the Civic Forum would win.

“The number of votes showed that over 95 percent [of eligible voters] participated [in the election].”

The Civic Forum was quite a large platform. It featured many candidates who would go on to form or seek membership in different parties. Was this diversity in opinion something that hindered or helped the campaign?

“What was crucial was the hidden conflict with Václav Havel, the president.

“His group did not want a strong or united parliament. Within the Civic Forum we had a project of creating a so-called artificial left and artificial right, two new-born parties that would emerge from this elected parliament.

“However, no one really wanted it in the end and no one really wanted to fulfil the promise that this was a constitutional assembly tasked for two years to come up with a new constitution.

“This was forgotten the day after the election.”

Photo: Infofila

Why was Havel’s faction against the Civic Forum being one large group?

“He was not a politician in the classical parliamentary sense of the word.

“He made it very clear from the beginning in many public speeches that he disliked parliament and that he does not understand why discussions take so long there.

“On occasions, he even insulted parliament, which is the worst any politician in a democratic society can do.

“He did not understand the importance of working in parliament preparing coalitions creating support for his initiatives. That is the one and only reason why he lost everything he came with to parliament including constitutional proposals and so on.”

“It was a very difficult relationship and his misunderstanding of the value of institutions and of parliament was just shooting him and change altogether in the foot.”

Election poster of the Civic Forum, photo: Archive of the National Museum in Prague, CC BY-NC 4.0

You were the leader of the candidate list of the Civic Forum and also the spokesman. What was it like to run for the Civic Forum in this sort of environment?

“I was young and dumb, let’s put it that way.

“I disagreed from early-December and only on the insistence of my colleagues and friends did I promise to stay until the elections, which was very unwise. The same way you cannot be halfway pregnant you cannot be halfway in politics.

“I had firmly decided that I would leave the day after the elections, which was something that no one else believed.

“I just kept my word and wasted those seven months and probably blocked the place for someone who wanted to stay in politics.”

1990 elections, photo: Czech TV

I read that you chose to leave after the Communist Party came in second in the elections. Is this information false, since you say it had already been pre-planned?

“Definitely. It was my firm pledge since December 10, if I remember correctly.

“I really wanted to weaken the communist party and see it disappearing, but we had completely different proposals than just simply to ban the party.

“We wanted to weaken it economically. We wanted those who were sacked from their jobs after the 1968 Soviet occupation to be compensated. We wanted to pass legislation that would use funds of the Communist Party to compensate all of the victims of the regime.

Josef Bartončík, photo: Svobodat, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

“None of this went through and 30 years later we still have a Communist Party even stronger in political positions, with more influence than ever before.”

The election campaign was marked by the fact that the People’s Party candidate Josef Bartončík was charged with having worked with the Communist regime’s State Security service. Today such a past seems to be less of an issue in Czech politics. How do you feel about that?

“I do not regard what we see and call Czech politics the real politics.

“It is just pretending to be a national political scene, but there is no value behind it. It is just balancing the personal influence of people in a club.

“Definitely, 30 years later, we as a society are much less sensitive to these issues than we were at that time.”

In retrospect do you think anything in that election should have been done differently, or do you see those elections largely as a success?

“Again, I do not see it as real elections.

1990 elections, source: ČT24

“However, if we had been wiser we should have forced Václav Havel much more to support the Civic Forum during the election campaign.

“He jumped in only for the last few weeks. Before that he had crazy dreams of creating a cordon sanitaire between Russia and Europe, wasting time flying around the globe instead of visiting Slovakia and working at home.

“Let’s be happy about the outcome. We have stabilised the change, but the picture is not altogether bright.”

Are you pointing there to the eventual dissolution of Czechoslovakia?

“Definitely, yes.”

So do you think that would not have happened, had it been done differently?

“We will never know, but we should have tried. Czechoslovakia was a real homeland and we have just wasted it irresponsibly.”