This article examines the Czechoslovak way of parliamentary democracy as it confronts the World Depression, specifically during its first phase from the outbreak of economic crisis until 1932.
Three features were characteristic of political structure in Czechoslovakia. First of all, there were more than 15 parties reflecting the ethnic and socio-economic diversity of the Republic. Political parties were widely spread on the two dimensional space. The first dimension was ethnical, setting the Czechs in the centre and the Slovaks, the Germans and other smaller ethnic groups on the sides. The second dimension was socio-economic, namely, labour, agricultural, catholic and industrial. From more than these 15 parties, at least five were necessary to form a majority coalition for government.
The second feature was the predominance of the Agrarian Party, which became the mass political party of the Czech organized agricultural interest. Largely due to the support from the agricultural Slovakia, the Agrarian Party became the biggest party in Czechoslovakia and used its power to enforce policies for the benefit of agriculture. Its interest-oriented political style influenced the entire Czechoslovak political scene between the wars.
The last feature was the multiplicity of parties representing the working class. In addition to the multiethnic Communists, there were socialist workers, who were first ethnically divided, and then further split along dogmatic lines, such that the Czechoslovaks and the Germans had two socialist parties each - the Social Democrats and the National Socialists.
These socialist parties, especially the Czechoslovak Social Democrats, had a positive attitude toward participating in the Government. While most social democrats in other European countries remained in opposition, Czechoslovak Social Democrats had kept an affirmative stance to the Republic and reentered into a governing coalition in 1929, after 3 years as an opposition party. The working class had its representative right within the coalition government during the hard years of the World Depression.
On October 1929, the parliamentary election was held in Czechoslovakia and as a result a new coalition government was formed under the premiership of agrarian Frantisek Udrzal. It was a broad coalition government, which consisted of more than eight parties representing various socio-economic interests. Although the Communists and three German and Slovak nationalist parties remained in opposition, the coalition enabled the large majority of the population to be represented in the political decision making process.
Concurrent with the coalition formation in late 1929, the World Depression broke out across the seas, which ultimately exerted considerable pressure on the political system in every country. In Czechoslovakia the representation of agricultural interests through both Czechoslovak and German Agrarian parties, workers' interests through two Czechoslovak and German Social Democratic parties, as well as the Czechoslovak National Socialists, helped to canalise their demands into the political arena and secured the stability of the political system during the economic crisis.
Due to the diverse and sometimes conflicting interests within the coalition, it was inherently difficult for the coalition government to form agreements. In particular, the Agrarians attempted to use their vantage position as the largest and pivotal party in the coalition to demand subsidies and protective tariffs to ameliorate the disastrous consequences of the agricultural crisis, without any regard for the interests of city consumers or industries. Conflicts within the coalition became intensified and coalition negotiation dragged on. Important measures, which were urgently needed to cope with the effects of depression, were postponed and forestalled.
It was necessary to conceive of some means to negotiate, and to find solutions, which would be acceptable to all member parties of the coalition. The coexistence of various organised interests in a coalition had been the perennial problem for the Czechoslovak parliamentary democracy from its inception. In the 1920s, they worked out a special meeting of five people, the Pětka (the Five), who represented at that time the five coalition parties, to negotiate and make compromise. However, under the new broader coalition government, Socialists criticised the Pětka for being unconstitutional and unparliamentary, and asked for alternatives in intra-coalition decision making.
One proposal was "the political committee of ministers", with representatives from each party of the coalition. While the Pětka, which was an institution outside the government, and its members were not always government officials, but sometimes merely influential persons in each party, "the political committee of ministers" was a committee inside the cabinet, within which ministers negotiated with one another as representatives of coalition parties. Although they could find compromises on discrete problems, they left the cabinet with the responsibility of making final decisions.
The other means of intra-coalition negotiation was the organisation of coalition committees in the parliament. With each emergent problem, an ad hoc committee was set up to address the issue, such as sugar production, housing or social policy. Coalition committees were asked to find practical settlement of conflicts among coalition parties to pave the way for the government decision making.
In spite of these devices, as the Prime Minister Udrzal lost support from his own Agrarian Party, it became harder and harder for the wheel of coalition politics to turn forward. Furthermore, as a result of deflation policies, the state budget could afford smaller subsidies or supports, thus making compromise between conflicting interests even more difficult. In this phase of the economic crisis, since the Agrarians, and the Social Democrats as well, presented their demands without an overall blueprint for the national economy, which would have helped to direct the choice of policies, compromise between coalition parties became the only measure for political decision making. However, the opposition within the agrarian party intensified, and the coalition compromise failed completely in July 1932.
With the change of the Prime Minister's seat to Malypetr, who was a skilful parliamentarian, the same coalition was revitalised. Malypetr made it the absolute condition for his acceptance of the premiership that all the coalition parties agree on balancing the budget for 1933. Under this agreement, a budget committee comprised of seven coalition parties in the parliament was established to help Malypetr to solve the budget impasse.
In the process of this analysis, this article demonstrates that the Czechoslovak way of parliamentary democracy was still viable even under the pressure from the World Depression. Compromise and logrolling were always the last resort to resolving some conflicting issues, but the arena of decision making shifted from the informal Petka to the Government or the Parliament, reflective of a degree of maturity in Czechoslovak parliamentary democracy.
However, it also became clear that this way of coalition politics became difficult when each interest group demanded the state for help, even though the resources, especially the financial means, of the state were limited. At the end of this article, the author indicates that socialists began to see one solution to this problem in the Agrarians' demand for state regulation in agricultural sectors. The socialists hoped that the Agrarians would understand the necessity of overall state planning and regulation of the national economy.
Moreover, after the Nazi seizure of power, the Czechoslovak way of parliamentary democracy was challenged by the requirement for efficacy in decision making and consideration of national interests. The response to that requisite by the coalition parties will be examined in the next work of the author.