• The Czech Republic Before Elections

  • By Jirí Málek | 26 Aug 13
  • The phrase “cherchez la femme” does not apply, but the unobtrusive yet powerful, intimate girlfriend of the prime minister and also manager of his office was simply the last straw that broke the camel’s back. Her use of military intelligence for the private monitoring of the premier’s wife was something new for the entire EU. 

    This was not an actual reason for the fall of the government alone, but also for the entire Czech concept of governance. For almost a quarter of a century the process gradually saw the construction of a structure that quite effectively ensured the implementation of the political and economic will of the neoliberal elite beneath a democratic façade. Linking the flow of cash (corruption, leeching off the state), informal influence (powerful lobbying), and suppressing the kind of rules that served their strategic goals, helped create a relatively workable system, which did not depend on whether the Right or so-called democratic Left was in power. The Czech Republic accepted this state of affairs for quite a long time. 

    The turning point came with the onset of the economic crisis. By applying “fiscal responsibility” (austerity policy) regardless of the needs of the majority of society, the right-wing neoliberal government managed to get bogged down in a lingering recession whilst giving rise to a national front of opponents, ranging from businessmen and entrepreneurs to ordinary people and to those most affected. This front defined itself in opposition to the government of Petr Nečas and the minister of finance Miroslav Kalousek. And consequently the government no longer had any significant ally and had the lowest level of popularity in the entire history of Czech society with the support of less than one quarter of the population.

    It was simply a matter of time before this government caved in and failed to survive until scheduled elections in May 2014. The first direct election of a president enabled the entire system to be affected by new momentums and Miloš Zeman very quickly exploited this. All of this also meant that the bolt binding the civic anti-government union is very fragile and will not last too long. Various group and class interests will win out. The anticipated winning bloc, inaccurately described as “left-wing” by the media, does not have any firm contours and is not monolithic either. Criticism of the government is also not criticism of the Right per se and it does not comprise a united resistance against neoliberal capitalism.

    Even in recent years, when we faltered in a crisis, no sufficiently convincing left-wing vision for Czech society was formulated that could have been considered realistic and realisable – a vision that would in itself incorporate both a radical outlook, building on systemic change as the basis for social progress, and also embrace a concept that would be acceptable to those who simply “want to improve capitalism” and yet could still be felt by members of the Left while also respecting solidarity and equality. The conditions for greater systemic change do not exist today, not only in the Czech Republic but also in Europe. The most recent surveys show the expectations of citizens. Thus 95 percent of them would like “some kind of change” from the elections. Among other things, this leads one to the conclusion that some new political entities will once again emerge despite the bad experiences of previous elections.

    Consequently, the ANO 2011 (YES 2011) party (describing itself as centre-right), which is backed by a food and chemicals billionaire who recently bought one of the most popular daily newspapers, could be a new force in parliament. For the time being, the Social Democrats are leading the popularity stakes (with around 34 % of seats) followed by the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia and TOP 09 (a liberal right-wing party chaired by Karel Schwarzenberg) who have a similar rating of around 15-17 %. The existing right-wing hegemon, the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), has slumped to one-third of the popularity of the Social Democrats. A party close to the president – SPOZ (a centre-left party with greater emphasis on elements of direct democracy) – and the aforementioned ANO enjoy popularity almost comparable to that of the ODS. Christian Democrats remain outside of parliament.

    Because the elections must be held within 60 days, there is little time for both an elaborate campaign and more concept-based personal politics. This could be tricky for the dominant left-wing parties – the Social Democrats and the Communists. They could find themselves having so-called protest votes being taken from them by new entities. The future stance of the Social Democrats toward the Communists is also unclear. A 17-year-old resolution precludes them from governing in cooperation with the Communists. Even the president has been suggesting the concept of a minority Social Democrat government supported by the Communists or his own SPOZ grouping.

    Last year, thousands of people gathered on Prague Wenceslas Square. They listened to lots of good speeches by various orators from civic initiatives. It is significant that (for the time being) they are talking about only one of those speakers, trade unionists, who could go into the election campaign leading the line for the Left (on behalf of social democracy). Thus far, the parties have not expressed much interest and even the representatives of various civic movements and initiatives have not shown any desire to take their political beliefs to the market. One objective barrier preventing the creation of the widest possible left-wing front is a lack of time. Concerns have also been voiced by some people about party structures (mainly the Communist Party) in that, behind the backs of modest party members, various initiatives will leap to the fore that they had not worked out, so to speak. It will most probably play out along old lines – party nominations and “betting on certainty” – both in terms of candidates and slogans.

    These elections will not be about manifestos or their quality and sophistication. It is most likely that emotions, which will frequently be whipped up by media manipulation, will triumph. The anti-Communist card will undoubtedly be played even if its efficacy is constantly declining. What kind of European hues will be seen in the campaign is a question that remains to be answered. They will most probably be “national” ones. Today, it seems most probable that, despite the “expected changes”, the elections will not yet bring about any fundamental transformation of Czech politics. But they could be a start.

    Prague, 26 August 2013