Post-Communist Welfare Attitudes: Was Czech Exceptionalism a Myth?

By Saxonberg, Steven | East European Quarterly, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Post-Communist Welfare Attitudes: Was Czech Exceptionalism a Myth?


Saxonberg, Steven, East European Quarterly


This article fills an important gap in the literature on the post-communist transition, by analyzing welfare attitudes. It tests hypotheses about welfare attitudes that were developed for highly industrialized Western democracies, to see how well they fair in the case of a post-communist country, the Czech Republic.

The Czech Republic represents a "critical case" for the debates on the transition from communist dictatorships to democratic rule and a market economy. Studies of post-communist politics have generally agreed that among post-communist countries, party competition is not based on socioeconomic issues and voting is not based on class cleavages. Instead, certain aspects of the communist legacy and the dynamics of the transformation have prevented such outcomes from arising. However, a large number of studies have also claimed that the Czech Republic represents an exception to this general pattern, which makes it worthwhile to investigate the Czech case more closely. (1) If these arguments are correct, then the Czech Republic prevents us from generalizing our theories about post-communist development. This result would force us in further studies to examine more closely the causes of Czech exceptionalism. (2)

On the other hand, if this study shows that party competition is not based on socioeconomic issues, such as welfare, and that class is not important for determining attitudes, that would imply that a large body of literature on the Czech Republic is incorrect. This would also lend support to the theories about the importance of transition and communist legacy. If it turns out that even the country that was supposed to deviate most from the general post-communist pattern actually follows this pattern, then this critical case can give the theories of post-communism greater validity.

This article tests theories of post-communism and Czech exceptionalism by examining welfare attitudes.

The Importance of Welfare Policies and Welfare Attitudes

Several theorists of welfare policies have maintained that the traditional class struggles that once dealt with control of the means of production have moved over to the arena of welfare policies. (3) As one scholar notes, "contemporary class conflicts are most often fought on the terrain of the welfare state, involving 'attitudes and behaviour towards state intervention in economic and social life with the effect of overriding the distribution of resources via market mechanisms, especially the labour market'." (4) This statement can expected to be even more valid in the post-1989 era, as the collapse of the communist regimes has fatally discredited arguments for state-ownership and planned economies. Now a consensus has emerged in both the West and East on the need for a market economy based on a private ownership of the means of production. Under such circumstances, social policy should become even more clearly the main focus of contention among socioeconomic classes.

One could argue that welfare issues were not important for most voters during the early phase of the transition. In many countries, including what was then Czechoslovakia, the first elections have been called plebiscites on communism. (5) Thus, the broad anti-communist coalition Civic Forum successfully defeated the communists in the 1990 elections. (See table 1).

Such anti-communist electoral coalitions never lasted more than a couple of years in the post-communist countries. In the next elections in 1992 a pluralist political system emerged that included market-liberal parties (ODS and ODA), Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, Christian Democrats and Communists. The charismatic economist, Vaclav Klaus, who founded ODS, led a center-right coalition government including the ODS, ODA and Christian Democrats. Shortly after the elections he negotiated the division Czechoslovakia into two independent countries.

Despite the dominance of Western-styled political parties, one could claim that special transitional issues still dominated, such as how to privatize industry, rather than the usual types of welfare issues that play a major role in Western politics.

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