Standing at the helm of the European Union, the Czech Republic has faced its fair share of hurdles, from the gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine to a snowballing economic crisis to a sudden collapse of its government. And then there's President Vaclav Klaus, who never hesitates to air his grievances against the political and economic bloc. The most prominent and vocal Euroskeptic on the continent, the fiery 68-year old has been a constant critic of the EU, and the Czech presidency has failed to derail his stream of inflammatory rhetoric. While Klaus has long been the voice of Czech Euroskepticism, his former party, the center-right Civic Democrats (ODS), has inched towards a more pro-European stance. The evolution of the ODS platform has led Petr Mach, Klaus' protege, to establish the Party of Free Citizens (SSO) in hopes of matching Euroskeptic rhetoric with real political power.
The ODS's Identity Problem
The "corruption of ideas" within the ODS prompted Mach to band together with those as dissatisfied as he and announce the creation of the SSO on the 12th of January 2009. "Originally, the ODS was against the Lisbon Treaty and promised a referendum," says Mach in an interview in Prague. The treaty, which would reform EU institutions and further European integration, is accused by its opponents of awarding the EU too much power while chipping away at national sovereignty. But "when the ODS entered the government, they simply changed their mind, probably to continue in the government and to have friends abroad in France and Germany," continued Mach. "They simply betrayed their basic principles or maybe forgot them."
Mach was not alone in his frustration with the ODS's failure to uphold its original Euroskeptic platform. A former ODS member of parliament and current SSO member, Jiri Payne, adds that the ODS has been unchallenged for too long. "The ODS has declared its intention to become the catch-all party to address centrist voters," says Payne in an e-mail interview. "The absence of dialogue and free discussion and the inability to influence party politics with any binding decision led us to found a new party."
The ODS has an "identity problem," believes Jiri Pehe, a political analyst and former advisor to President Vaclav Havel. "It is a party split basically between the followers of Klaus who support him no matter what he stands for and the followers of a liberal-conservative program," which is represented by the former Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek. Klaus resigned as honorary chairman of ODS last December, parting ways with the party he founded in 1991.
The SSO, on the other hand, has received some media attention for its anti-Lisbon stance as the Czech Republic, along with Ireland, remain the only two EU nations who have yet to approve the treaty. While Topolanek supports ratification, Klaus has referred to himself as a "EU dissident" and remains a steadfast opponent of further European integration.
"Klaus is throwing little bombs by saying horrible things," says Monika MacDonagh-Pajerova, the chairperson of the pro-European organization YES for Europe in Prague. "We need the Lisbon Treaty because suddenly, we have 27 [EU member-states]. The EU is huge and we need new rules of governing it."
In a poll conducted by STEM in January, 64 percent of Czechs stood with Topolanek in supporting Lisbon, a 19 percent increase from last October. STEM analysts believe that the numbers are swollen due to a fear that should the treaty fail to pass, the Czech Republic could lose prestige. Most believe, however, that its eventual ratification is likely and that Czechs are more pro-Europe than it would seem. "The majority are happy with EU membership," says Pehe. "The Euroskeptic image has been created by some top, very vocal politicians, especially Klaus."
The process began to move forward in recent weeks and the treaty was approved by the upper house of Parliament on the 6th of May, leaving only one more step. Klaus must now sign the Lisbon Treaty before ratification is complete, but it remains unclear when that will happen.
The SSO's Challenge
Mach believes, however, that there is an anti-Lisbon void to be filled. "Most Czechs are supportive of EU membership, but at the same time, I think that many people believe that we must defend our national interests within the EU." That, for Mach, means abstaining from further integration as outlined by Lisbon. "We believe that for some countries, the EU is just a tool, a framework for pushing their own national interests. Since some countries are bigger, they have a better chance of pushing their wishes through than others." Mach is especially concerned with the switch from unanimous to qualified majority voting in certain policy areas, which would give more weight to countries with larger populations. He fears that the Lisbon Treaty will allow the EU to be dominated by large member states like France and Germany, which have populations of 65 million and 80 million, respectively. The Czech population, on the other hand, lies around 10 million.
The upcoming European Parliament elections in June present the first challenge to the SSO and will test whether Mach's message has resonated with voters. The goal is to pass the five percent threshold needed to elect one representative. While one MEP may sound insignificant in the 785-member parliament, it will indicate a considerable step forward for the small party at home. "In national elections, rational voters don't want to lose their vote so they are not willing to vote for a party whose chances of getting into parliament are low," explains Mach. "But in the EP elections, people will be willing to experiment. If we gain five percent or more, people will see that we are electable, and they will give us a chance later on in the Czech parliamentary elections."
Anticipating a wave of political influence, Payne reveals even greater expectations for the SSO, which as of now still remains relatively unknown. "I am one of the founding members of the ODS. I know how to start a successful political project," says Payne. The criticism does not faze him, as the ODS faced far harsher and louder opposition at its beginning. Confident that the SSO will blossom into a formidable political party, Payne discloses that their goal is to "replace the ODS in the future."
Work on promoting the SSO platform has already begun as Mach and other members campaign around Prague and the Czech Republic's 13 regions. Mach's younger brother also helped build a website, www.svobdoni.cz, through which members can vote for their desired candidates in primary-style elections. Despite these promotional measures, media interest in the SSO has greatly subsided. Since their popularity remains unmeasured by elections or polls, it is imperative that they succeed in the up-coming EP election.
An Uphill Battle
"I do not see a big future for them," says Pehe. "They focus too much on the EU, and almost nothing is known about them in regard to other issues." Mach's position as executive director at Klaus' think-tank the Centre for Economics and Politics (CEP), as well as the parallels between the party platform and Klaus' own perspectives, has also created speculation that the SSO is merely a platform for Klaus to undermine the establishment of a tighter European community. Pehe continues, "His party may succeed in meeting their goal, but I am not sure how much of that should be attributed to the party's Euroskeptic views and how much to the fact that it is viewed as Klaus' party."
Not immune to the criticisms of the public, Mach maintains that the SSO is not connected to Klaus, despite converging on similar party platforms. "What he says about European integration is also what we think, about 90 percent probably. We share most of his attitudes." But in regards to the whispers that Klaus is the brains behind the party, Mach firmly replies, "It is simply not true. I cannot do anything but say that it is not true."
Mach may need to continue denying Klaus' alleged role as the puppet-master since recent developments will surely fuel rumors and inject some media attention into the SSO's lifeline. The Czech magazine Tyden reported on the 28th of March that the SSO plans on nominating Klaus' sons Vaclav and Jan as party candidates for the early parliamentary elections following the dissolution of Topolanek's government. The collapse was brought on by a no-confidence vote in which a few ODS members voted alongside the opposition. The event garnered international attention as it came during the middle of the EU presidency and two weeks before Obama's visit to Prague for an EU-US summit. It also followed a war of words between Paris and Prague, seemingly fulfilling French President Nicolas Sarkozy's barely lukewarm expectations of the Czech's ability to handle the prestigious position. Currently, no official date has been set for the early elections but they are likely to take place in October.
Mach maintains that his connections with Klaus' sons are rather coincidental: Vaclav is the director of a private high school where he used to teach economics, and Jan was a schoolmate at the Prague School of Economics. Mach emphasizes, "We know each other and we feel similarly" towards the ODS.
Mach and the SSO have faced an uphill battle since its conception as Klaus' rhetoric has overshadowed the party platform and media interest has been difficult to sustain. While recent developments seem to have granted the party a bit more publicity and promise, whether they will be able to take advantage of a divided ODS and find their elusive core remains to be seen. With the EP elections in June, however, their first real test is fast approaching. The SSO's future in Czech politics depends on their ability to pull a respectable outcome and prove themselves resilient.
If the SSO is unable to make their mark on the EU as a Euroskeptic and anti-Lisbon party, then it seems that any hope to become a formidable force in Czech politics requires a quick injection of reality. Like Mach himself pointed out, the EP elections are one of the few instances where voters can afford to be daring and experimental. If the SSO cannot prove its critics wrong and fail to snatch a pleasantly surprising result in June, can they expect to perform otherwise in the upcoming Czech parliamentary elections?
Griller, Stefan, ed. The Lisbon Treaty: EU Constitutionalism Without a Constitutional Treaty? (Springer, 2008).
Hanley, Sean. The New Right in the New Europe: Czech Transformation and Right-Wing Politics, 1989-2006. (Routledge, 2008).
Harmsen, Robert and Menno Spiering. Euroscepticism: Party Politics, National Identity, and European Integration. (Rodopi, 2005).
The SSO party statement: http://www. svobodni.cz/files/docs/eng-pressrelease. pdf
Linda Witters studies International Politics and Media Studies at New York University in the United States.…