Jan Macháček

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Czech Business Weekly

The ODS: a talent for empty rhetoricand SITTING ON ITS HANDS

23. 07. 2007
Bleak prospects now crowd the horizon for the coalition government’s public finance reform package.

Civic Democrat (ODS) members of Parliament—and not only those backing the “rebel yell” of deputy Vlastimil Tlustý— are pressing for manifold changes, especially even lower taxes. The package has begun to look like a jumbled mess, with things constantly being pulled out and put back in according to the proposals of jostling parliamentary members. Let’s predict that at the end of this confusion, something will finally make it through the Parliament, but will any meaningful content be left? That will depend on the real political fight, something that won’t occur until the crucial budget vote in the fall.

The question is, how did it ever come to this? Why is the ODS slowly dismantling its enthusiasm for reform? Several reasons spring to mind.

• “It” (the reform) doesn’t have a real name. At one point, they even said they carried it around like a “big backpack.” Then they gave up on that. Now Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek has even said on TV he doesn’t like calling the measures a reform. So what are they, then? Well, we don’t want to sound biblical, but how can you stand up for something that doesn’t even have a name?

• While in opposition, the ODS underestimated the need for detailed program discussions. But its time in opposition lasted some eight years. What was it doing? Not much, to be precise. The passionate reform discussions these days raging in the ODS deputies’ club should have taken place while the party was out of government.
• The ODS lacks moral leadership. It hasn’t got a political leader that radiates courage and sounds enthusiastic. In fact, Topolánek doesn’t sound enthusiastic about anything at all.

• Looking at this dismal situation, we should actually see that the ODS is following a tradition. In the 1990s, under Václav Klaus, it was similarly full of very masculine right-wing rhetoric, but in reality its politics were very cowardly. The party was criticized for pedaling banking socialism and a soft market environment. Before Topolánek came to power, he promised to be a real reformer who would be different, but the ODS tradition seems too strong to allow such a thing. It’s provided a simple confirmation that this country will always have two kinds of social democrats, the real Social Democrats (ČSSD) and the social democrats who misleadingly go around calling themselves right wing.

• It’s not possible to implement real reform without pain, at least some social groups have to suffer in the short term. But to propose something that might hurt requires courage. In general in Czech politics, words prove stronger than deeds. It’s as plain as day, the milder the real action, the bigger the talk.

Laidback Dienstbier’s Herculean task

Jiří Dienstbier, the former foreign minister, former dissident, former political prisoner and former journalist, is being introduced by the media as the most visible candidate for challenging current President Václav Klaus’ plan to get re-elected.

Although Klaus is the official candidate of the right-wing ODS, while Dienstbier is close to the Social Democrats (ČSSD), there are surprisingly quite a few similarities between the two men, besides their ages and moustaches. Both opposed NATO’s involvement in Kosovo, both are critical of U.S. involvement in Iraq and both are skeptical about the plans for an U.S. anti-missile radar station, even though Klaus is being pushed very hard not to admit it.
So what are the main differences? Klaus, we can say, is seen as hard working and as
a self-disciplined sportsman, whereas Dienstbier, who might have to make a Herculean effort to dislodge the sitting president, comes across as quite laidback.

Looking at their approach to the European Union, Klaus is opposed, whereas Dienstbier is quite EU friendly. Moreover, the efforts of some observers to project Dienstbier as anti-American are a load of nonsense. As president, he would get along with America’s Democrats very easily. Klaus, on the other hand, likes to present himself as an Amerophile, but at crucial junctures he always has trouble lending support.

Once a Communist, Dienstbier became an active dissident who was imprisoned in the 1970s, whereas Klaus, though never a party member, was an obedient central bank bureaucrat. Klaus detests his critics, surrounding himself with loyalists who get behind his often extreme opinions. Dienstbier is capable of calm debates with political opponents, without any hint of a desire for revenge.

Under Dienstbier we could also expect more colorful, rational nominees for institutions like the central bank and Constitutional Court. But his unenergetic attitude could be his undoing. Klaus’ high popularity is intact and he never stops campaigning. If the public continue to back him, the deputies and senators will send him back to the Castle.

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