Commentary

From the Old, Heralding in the New

A week is a long time in politics,” former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said. For Vaclav Klaus, the newly elected Czech president, the last month must have felt like eternity. But after three tries, his lucky stars were finally in alignment.

Klaus succeeds President Vaclav Havel, his long-time political rival, who led the Czech Republic since the Czecho-Slovak split in 1993. Klaus’s succession of Havel seems fitting, since both men were central figures in Czech post-Communist transformation. But the two are also quite different. Havel was elevated to the presidency by the euphoria of the Velvet Revolution and for over a decade he remained a figure detached from day-to-day politics.

Klaus, on the other hand, is a politician who comes into office with a wealth of experience. As Czechoslovakia’s minister of finance, he oversaw the transformation of the economy from socialism to capitalism. The swiftness of Klaus’s economic reforms gave birth to the phrase “shock therapy.” As prime minister of the Czech Republic, Klaus oversaw the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia and continuation of the Czech economic transformation. After loosing power in 1998, Klaus became the chairman of the Czech parliament and authored a number of books on economic and political subjects. Then, at the end of last year, he relinquished his position as the leader of the Civic Democratic party. He gambled all on winning the presidency and won.

During his long and fruitful political career, Klaus has been guided by libertarian principles of limited governance and free-market economics, which he learned from his intellectual heroes, Friedman and Hayek. An unabashed free-marketer, Klaus once quipped that Tony Blair’s Third Way would lead Britain into the Third World. Though domestic critics sometimes charge him with both doing too little to promote the free markets and doing too much, Klaus is credited with creating a solid basis for a high level of foreign investment and respectable economic growth in the Czech Republic. The Czechs continue to enjoy one of the lowest unemployment rates and one of the freest economies in the post-Communist world.

Another of Klaus’s heroes is former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Klaus introduced some of her reforms in the Czech Republic and the two have become friends and political allies. The two are united by their similar philosophies and their concern for the threat posed to European economic and political freedom by the un-elected bureaucracy in Brussels.

Unlike Thatcher, who left politics over a decade ago, Klaus’s election is likely to land him right in the middle of European politics. At the time of a growing rift between “old” and “new” Europe, many “old” Europeans will find Klaus’s resurgence unpalatable. Arie Oostlander, an influential Dutch member of the European Parliament, already expressed his disappointment. According to Oostlander, “The worst thing that the Czechs could have done was to elect to the presidency a follower of Margaret Thatcher.” But Klaus is not going to go away anytime soon. His election brings into the limelight some uncomfortable disagreements that Brussels has been trying to ignore: Firstly there are legitimate differences among Europeans regarding the future direction of the European integration process. Klaus sees the European Union primarily as a free trade area and not as a federal super-state. Although he is in favor of open trade, he does not believe that Brussels should control or regulate it.

Secondly, Klaus is known as someone who does not accept the extent and excesses of the European welfare states. Unlike many of his counterparts on the continent, Klaus wants to reinvigorate European economic growth through free trade and competition. He abhors the European agricultural protectionism and criticizes the rigidity of the European labor market.

Thirdly, Klaus opposes anti-Americanism as the basis of the future European foreign policy. Both his social and economic attitudes and the Czech historical experience will drive him toward building rather than burning the bridges between Europe and the United States.

Klaus’s election, therefore, is not simply an act of retrospection — a reward that the Czech nation bestowed on an accomplished former leader. It is also an act that will reverberate throughout Europe and reinforce the ranks of those who think seriously about economic and political reform. Bearing his past political career in mind, there is every reason to believe that Klaus will use the bully pulpit of the Czech presidency wisely.

Marian L. Tupy is assistant director of the Project on Global Economic Liberty.