As of the beginning of May, Czech political parties to the left of the political spectrum must be in seventh heaven (the David Rath case aside). The results of the latest opinion polls conducted by the agencies STEM, SANEP, Median and CVVM into the likely outcome were an election to be held to the Chamber of Deputies right now all put the Social Democrats (ČSSD) in front.
Party leader Bohuslav Sobotka’s ČSSD would receive up to 35 percent of the vote and at last have a realistic hope of entering the Strakova Academy [the seat of the Czech parliament] by the main entrance. And if those at Lidový dům, their party headquarters, was intent on forming a genuinely left-wing government capable of implementing a radical program, they shouldn’t have any problems.
Why? With the exception of Median, all the polling agencies named above recorded a sharp increase in the popularity of the Communist Party (KSČM), which has overtaken the Civic Democrats (ODS) and is now in second place in the opinion polls on 19.5 percent according to SANEP, and 21.5 percent according to CVVM. However, Marta Semelová, leader of the KSČM on Prague City Council and a Communist MP known for her radicalism, along with several other delegates to the 8th party congress held during the weekend of May 19–20, admitted that the high voter preference was largely down to protest votes rather than the inherent appeal of the KSČM.
However, this is unimportant in terms of the results of an election. A vote is a vote, whatever the reason it was cast. If the next big elections were to pan out as the opinion polls suggest, the ČSSD — with the assistance of the KSČM acting either in the improbable role of coalition partner or in the more likely role of constructive opposition — could form a constitutional majority in the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of parliament). And if they repeated their performance in this year’s elections to the upper house, the Senate, the two parties would be capable of going a lot further than simply emasculating the rightwing reforms of Prime Minister Petr Nečas’ (ODS) coalition government. Though whether they would is another question.
A drop in the membership base
In the past, when the Czech comrades held a monopoly over government, unlike their Polish counterparts, they were relatively thrifty and prudent — reluctant to burden the country with debt. However, they compensated by creating internal debt. The large-scale redistribution of state resources resulted in chronic “disproportion” and the long-term under-capitalization of several sectors, which after the November 1989 revolution resembled museums, as well as neglect of the tertiary sphere.
The manifesto “Socialism for the 21st Century,” debated by the 8th congress of the KSČM in Liberec, unfortunately confirms that the Communist Party remains loyal to the ideal of an equitable society and still promotes wholesale redistribution as well as market regulation. However, the fact that a regulated market ceases to be a market and “disproportion” would again be the inevitable result (a note for younger readers: for instance, a lack of toilet paper or vinegar) is not dealt with in this document. Furthermore, it is so theoretical and abstract it would be difficult to understand for a party the average age of whose members is 75 years.
In 2008, when the last congress of the KSČM was held, the average age of its membership was five years younger. As the party ages sharply, so its membership dwindles dramatically. From 71,823 in 2009, at the end of last year it had 56,763 members, i.e. around 5,000 fewer year by year. Notwithstanding this fact, it has around twice as many active members as doe the Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL), second in sequence, and the KSČM remains that with the largest grass-roots following on the Czech political scene. The question is how long it will remain so.
There are far fewer members joining the party than those leaving it because of age. The new arrivals include young people, some with a university education. However, the both radical yet entrenched ground-root organizations often quickly expel them. And while several members previously expelled from the old Communist Party of Czechoslovakia are returning to the KSČM, these tend not to be young people, and their arrival will not see the average age of the party fall.
As Communist MEP Miloslav Ransdorf and Jiří Dolejš, vice-chairman of the Central Committee of the party predicted, the KSČM is being transformed into an electoral-type party, i.e. a party whose members, families and friends can no longer ensure good election results but one which has to mobilize allies on an election-by-election basis. In the case of the KSČM, this means mainly among left-wing civic initiatives and trade unionists.
However, such a clientele isn’t drawn to an uncompromisingly communist program calling for dictatorship of the proletariat, common ownership of the means of production, a leading role for the Communist Party in a socialist society, and other Marxist-Leninist sacred cows, leaving aside the question of whether such objectives are permitted by the Constitution and law of the Czech Republic. In other words, it is only amongst themselves that the comrades can speak openly and dream of the old days of real Socialism. At a party congress open to guests and journalists such dreams have to be held in check.
This is why the “tedious grayness”, if not the “gray tediousness” of the Liberec congress of the KSČM took certain commentators anticipating some conspiratorial gathering of radicals preparing for the overthrow of capitalism by surprise. The current slimmed-down party of Vojtěch Filip is in no position to be as radical as Miroslav Grebeníček’s KSČM (which in 2005, when Grebeníček relinquished leadership of the party, had more than 88,000 members). At least not in the current climate, in which the general public, though largely disappointed by Nečas’ government and rightwing parties in general, has yet to experience the full weight of reforms. ‘But I’m well aware that every party is like an oceangoing liner: a sharp turn will capsize the ship and a slow passage is always criticized.’
However, the full weight will be felt, and if the KSČM is joined by the ranks of the disgruntled, Vojtěch Filip will find himself being pressurized by radicals such as Marta Semelová or Stanislav Grospič, until recently the party’s vice-chairman. However, so far the experienced Filip is holding firm against internal pressures and has sent the radicals the following message in the pages of Právo: “I’m not a reckless adventurer, I admit. I’m neither jumping the gun, nor do I think I’m simply treading water. Some people are disappointed that things are going slowly. But I’m well aware that every party is like an oceangoing liner: a sharp turn will capsize the ship and a slow passage is always criticized.”
Prior to the election of chairman of the Central Committee of the KSČM, a leaflet was distributed amongst delegates published by the Marxist-Leninist Specialist Association and the Initiative for the Renewal of the Marxist-Leninist Character of the KSČM, which warned against the re-election of most of the current leadership with Filip at its head. The leaflet claims that “the group will be a destructive element within the party, leading it from loss to loss in the elections, in parliamentary work, in its activities amongst people, and in economic life.”
Dissatisfaction with the leadership
The fact that Filip was only elected chairman in the second round of the election with 60.9 percent of votes, with Grospič picking up the rest, indicates that the radical wing of the KSČM is by no means insignificant. Of course, officially the party claims that it has no warring factions and that its main task is to reinforce its unity. However, the change made to its regulations so that both the chairman and first vice-chairman, and two other vice-chairmen, are elected directly by the party congress, clearly reflects a certain dissatisfaction amongst rank-and-file members.
Up until now, the Central Committee elected ordinary vice-chairs (of which there used to be four) and the congress simply rubber stamped the decision. This allowed a strong chairman to fill the posts of vice-chair with his own people. However, word has it that Filip, who apparently does not want to be a candidate at the next congress, does not have an heir-apparent in the new slimmed-down leadership. It is unlikely that either the first vice-chairman, Petr Šimůnek, or the re-elected vice-chairmen, Miloslav Vostrá and the reformist Dolejš, reflect Filip’s vision of the party’s future. ‘This leads me to believe that humanity can expect profound social changes in the very near future.’
Though somewhat weakened, Filip is still leader of the KSČM and it would be inadvisable to treat his words lightly. “We agree with those economic experts and analysts who say that the world economy, after the completion of globalization, finds itself facing catastrophe,” he told the congress. “Only a radical change to the global economic system itself or at the very least its thorough regulation provides a starting point for remedying the current situation. This leads me to believe that humanity can expect profound social changes in the very near future,” he added.
If Filip includes the people of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia in the term “humanity” and if the aim of the communists remains the establishment of an equitable society, which they take to be first socialism followed by communism, then we can conclude that following the historically first attempt at socialism in the years from 1948 to 1989, which was unsuccessful, the KSČM anticipates another attempt. However, if as Filip implies this is meant to involve a “radical change to the entire system,” then any cooperation with the ČSSD could simply be a screen behind which the communists would conceal their genuine objectives.
After all, more than 90 years ago communist parties split away from social democratic parties, because they did not want to improve the capitalist system through reform, but to destroy it through revolution and replace it with the dictatorship of the proletariat (later by workers’ and peasants’ government). However, times have changed and without recourse to a strong international communist movement headed by something so monstrous as Stalin and the Soviet Union, Filip’s communists would find it hard to “twist the necks of the bourgeoisie,” in the words of Klement Gottwald. And it seems that they have grasped this fact. They realize that for the KSČM right now big objectives are unattainable, that they simply don’t have the strength for such a project.
If this were not the case, then Martin Juroška, who put himself forward unsuccessfully for the post of chairman, would not have said publicly of the KSČM that in the fairytale of Sleeping Beauty the communist party was not the prince but Sleeping Beauty herself, and congress would not have heard so many delegates imploring the party to raise its head high and acquire some self-confidence. A self-confident leftwing party at a congress extensively covered by Czech Television would not have passed over the arrest of David Rath & Co. on suspicion of corruption had not the constructive opposition of the KSČM allowed Rath to monopolize government in the Central Bohemia Region after the elections of 2008.
A lost opportunity
A party with at least some self-confidence could also not have ignored the imminent direct election of president and the opportunity to select a candidate to put forward or to support. Filip’s comment at Saturday’s midnight briefing that the ODS and ČSSD were unfortunately thinking too much along party lines was no substitute for a discussion by congress of this eminently topical subject. Especially given that 456 delegates were present at the congress and more than 99 percent of them displayed the self-discipline to remain to the bitter end.
They would have discussed the KSČM candidate for president. This would have given the leadership space for backroom negotiations, as when they agreed to support Václav Klaus. After all, old habits are hard to break. But the KSČM would not get far using old habits. It wasn’t that their Liberec congress was boring. This is how things tend to be in the case of disciplined parties, when congress simply rubber stamps decisions basically taken in advance.
The KSČM did not avail itself of the opportunity to offer a constructive image to the general public. The fact there wasn’t much on offer is illustrated by the reaction of the media. While it is not unusual for more than a hundred accredited journalists to be present at the conferences of important parties, at the Liberec “cathedral to consumption”, where the communists somewhat incongruously met, there were only around 40 journalists present on Saturday and even fewer on Sunday. And these had not received the basic materials, specifically the Draft Documents and Detailed Conclusions of the 7th Congress of the KSČM and Content Documents (2000–2012), allegedly in order to cut down on costs.
And yet the Report of the Central Committee of the KSČM in the first document referred to, for instance, had been perfectly drafted and the communists could have done themselves a favor by making it available to the media. In the end journalists got hold of a lot of interesting information by resorting to personal contacts and underhand methods.
It is no wonder that the Monday edition of Právo devoted less than a third of a page, including photos, to the congress. Other papers featured even less coverage. Even the communist newspaper Hullo, which usually covers the party congress over several issues, basically summed everything up this time in its first post-congress edition.
The KSČM gives the impression that it is uninterested in publicity. But this would mean that come the elections it is counting mainly on protest votes, on people who are not interested in the KSČM’s ideology per se, but in its uncompromisingly anti-regime position. One could imagine how an electoral-type party sui genesis would simply seek parliamentary and other mandates for a few of its officials, the last authentic communist having long departed this life.
Consequences of the Rath case
But let’s go back to the beginning, i.e. the electorate’s preference for the left wing. The research methods used by SANEP combine internet questionnaires with statistical procedures. Not much is known about the method. This leads many experts not to take SANEP results too seriously. Nevertheless, they are worth looking at, since the latest SANEP survey was held from 17 to 20 May and is the only poll to offer a picture of public opinion in the aftermath of the arrest of now former Central Bohemia governor David Rath (ČSSD) and seven others on suspicion of corruption.
Rath and another two persons, Kateřina Pancová, director of Kladno Hospital, and Petr Kott, her partner and a former MP, were important members of the regional Social Democrats’ branch at the time of their arrest. The ČSSD leaders immediately characterized the case as one involving the failure of individuals, distanced themselves from the trio, and made every effort to muscle them quickly out of the ČSSD in order to minimize collateral damage to the party, which has been pillorying Nečas’ government from the opposition benches for corrupt dealings.
However, according to the latest opinion poll by SANEP this tactic has not been too successful and the public’s reaction to the case of Rath and Co. is devastating (at least in the very shot term). Although the ČSSD still leads in the polls, SANEP now puts it on only 21.3 percent, a drop of 4.6 percentage points on the last poll. At the same time, the second-placed KSČM (on 19.8 percent) is only 2.5 percentage points behind the first-placed ČSSD. Both the ODS and TOP 09 have lost support, while the KDU-ČSL and Zeman’s SPOZ have picked up potential voters. If the SANEP results are confirmed by an agency working on a face-to-face basis, we will have our work cut out anticipating the grouping of forces on the political scene.
In other words, the fear of the Social Democrats is that in the wake of the Rath affair they will lose a significant number of their protest votes and will not be able to form the next government, as happened in 2006. If some of these floating voters were to decide for the communists and this trend continued, who knows whether Filip’s party would end up in only second position come the elections. A strong communist presence with say 40 mandates could not be overlooked in the Chamber of Deputies, especially if the once dominant parties suffered significant losses. However, there is still time enough until the elections and the trajectory of voter preferences could change directions several times.
This depends to a significant extent, however, on the social democrats. The Rath case is not just about the failure individuals, if everything in the Central Bohemia Region took place under the nose of the administration, as is being claimed. In addition, it seems that corruption is hanging like the Sword of Damocles over the heads of the regions of North Bohemia, Ústí nad labem and České Budějovice. If suspicion arises of corruption in connection with European grants, several questions will logically arise:
- Firstly, does this really involve only individuals or is it a model which the ČSSD has employed in most or all of the thirteen regions which it has governed since the autumn elections of 2008?
- Secondly, did everything begin only after the 2008 elections, or earlier, when the regions were largely dominated by the ODS?
- And thirdly, if someone was creaming off millions from European programs, were they acting purely in their own interests or in order to supplement their own election expenses and those of their party? It is an open secret that since the elections to the Chamber of Deputies in 2010 many parties are burdened with debt at a time when three elections are coming up which will require costly campaigns.
An affirmative answer to the first two questions would see the red light go on in Brussels and the deficit of the CR increase to as much as six percent. An affirmative answer to the third question would mean the discrediting of the post-Velvet Revolution democratic system and possibly the complete collapse of the established parties and the rise of miscellaneous radical movements.
Worryingly, there are signs that the answer is “yes” to the third question. Why otherwise have the ODS, TOP 09 and the communists basically held their tongues regarding the Rath case? Of course, they don’t want to influence the investigation. But might it also be that they are slightly nervous that their own people are not completely spotless in this regard and are concerned about what would happen if this were to come to light?