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  • Eastern Europe a Decade LaterA New Phase in Czech Politics
  • Steven Saxonberg (bio)

Recent developments in the Czech Republic have led some Czechs to fear that their young democracy is in danger. This contrasts sharply with the atmosphere during the first half of the 1990s, when Czechs were proud to live in the country that was considered the region’s model for transformation to democracy and a market economy.

During the “velvet revolution” of 1989, Václav Havel successfully negotiated the peaceful transfer of power to a coalition government that included members of the Czech opposition group Civic Forum, the Slovak opposition group Public Against Violence, the Communists, and members of the parties formerly allied with the Communists (the Socialist Party and People’s Party). When Havel became president, he wielded tremendous moral authority as a man who had been sent to prison and forced to work at various menial jobs because of his unrelenting opposition to the communist regime.

In addition to having the leader with the highest moral authority, Czechoslovakia had several other advantages over its neighbors during the initial phase of transformation. 1 It was the only country in the region to have enjoyed democratic rule for the entire period between the two World Wars. Its economy was also in better shape than its neighbors. With the exception of the former East Germany, it was the most industrially advanced country in the region and had the highest portion of capital-goods exports to the industrialized capitalist countries. Moreover, the Czechoslovak economy did not suffer from high inflation and a foreign debt crisis (as in Hungary or Poland). [End Page 96]

Unlike in Poland, the first Czechoslovak elections in 1990 led to a stable government that lasted its full term until 1992. By the 1992 elections, both Civic Forum and Public Against Violence had split into several competing parties. Former federal finance minister Václav Klaus and Slovak prime minister Vladimír Meciar were the winners of the 1992 elections. These two leaders, who had sharply contrasting views on policy issues, were not able to agree on a constitutional reform that would clarify the powers of the Czech and Slovak republics within the federation. Instead, they agreed on the peaceful separation of the country (known as the “velvet divorce”).

Afterwards, Klaus, as prime minister of the Czech Republic, presided over a center-right coalition government that served out its entire four-year term. He introduced a voucher-privatization scheme that led to the fastest denationalization of state property in the region, and managed to keep unemployment down to about 3 percent in a region where double-digit unemployment abounded. The budget was in balance and inflation was the lowest in the region. Klaus’ center-right coalition returned to power in the 1996 elections, although it fell one seat short of an absolute majority. It was the first postcommunist government in Central Europe to win reelection.

Consolidating a Stable Party System

Until 1997, political party development in the Czech Republic also seemed to be the most stable and “Western-like” in the region. Jacek Bielasiak asserts that party systems in the former communist countries have gone through three stages of development. 2 First, a polarized party system forms, in which the main political cleavage is between the old regime and society. Second, after the communists are defeated, the anticommunist ruling coalitions split up into competing groups with differing ideas on how to carry out the transformation. At this stage, no clear economic interests have developed among the electorate, as voters are not yet sure how their situation will change after economic reforms are carried out, or even what the reforms will be. During this period, voters have not yet developed loyalties to existing parties, so there is fragmentation and no party system can crystallize. Finally, as voters become more aware of their interests and as the electoral system filters out weak parties, a pluralist party system emerges.

On the whole, the development of Czech political parties followed this model. In the initial phase, Civic Forum and Public Against Violence became the dominant anticommunist groups. But shortly after the first free elections in 1990, the political scene became more...