Dual Dimensions of Democratic Development: The Speed with Which Institutional Modernization Set Former Soviet States on a Path towards Democracy as Well as "To Europe" Was Historically Unprecedented

By Pehe, Jiri | The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Dual Dimensions of Democratic Development: The Speed with Which Institutional Modernization Set Former Soviet States on a Path towards Democracy as Well as "To Europe" Was Historically Unprecedented


Pehe, Jiri, The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs


Evaluating the state of liberal democracy in the Czech Republic twenty years after the fall of communism is relative to whether one focuses on institutional or cultural development. Furthermore, the term liberal democracy itself is rather complex. It attempts to combine two contradicting terms: democracy as a collectivist activity (dependent on the regular manifestation of the will of the majority) and liberalism as an individual activity, emphasizing the role of the individual and freedom. In a liberal democracy a certain tension exists between democracy as the rule of the people and liberalism as the rule of the law. Liberal democracy is therefore sometimes referred to as liberal constitutionalism or constitutional democracy.

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Understanding Liberal Democracy

Considering the complexity of the term liberal democracy, it is not surprising that the first generation of Czech politicians and citizens after 1989 adopted a simplified version of democracy. It was predominantly understood as free competition between political parties, which would occasionally compete for power in elections. The citizens would express their will in elections, and the victorious political parties would receive the opportunity to govern the state for a few years. Democracy was thereby reduced to a jousting ring of associated interests.

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In understanding Czech liberal democracy, the term "democracy" has dominated the term "liberal" for quite some time. In this partnership, "liberalism" emphasizes the rules of the game, such as protecting the rights of the individual. In advanced liberal democracies, the rules of the game include constitutionalism (as represented by a respected and not easily amended constitution), but also the protection of human and minority rights, as well as respect for the independent institutions of political majorities empowered by fair democratic elections.

One might further nuance the definition of liberal democracy (beyond the rule of the people by the people) by defining it as the rule of the law of the people. This definition emphasizes civic equality as a basic and defining principle of liberal democracy. And thus, while free competition creates social and economic discrepancies, all citizens remain equal in the eyes of the law. Competing opinions may therefore thrive free from the monopoly of any one idea.

The competition of opinions requires not only certain cultural and political presumptions (known as the democratic spirit, i.e., tolerance and respect of others), but it also requires that certain civic virtues are present in society.

In other words, liberal democracy will only function fully if it is enthused genera with certain values. Good laws and sensible rules of the game are not enough if society neither respects nor abides by them. Members of society may attain these virtues through a common ethical background or through the gradual internalization of certain rules.

Fast Institutional Modernization versus Frame of Mind

Czech society has not yet grasped all these rather obscure conditions for liberal democracy. The fact that the institutional aspect of liberal democracy developed faster than changes in the mentalite has left the cultural conditions for democracy lagging behind, complicating matters further.

The massive transfer of know-how from the EU and other international institutions supporting democratisation to transform politics, economics, and the law, also paradoxically, created uneven development in the Czech Republic and other post-communist states. The speed with which institutional modernization set post-Soviet states on a path towards democracy as well as "to Europe" was historically unprecedented.

In this way, a more or less functioning institutional framework for liberal democracy was created: starting with the necessary constitutional and legal conditions for a functioning democratic system, ending with protection of human rights. …

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