• Between Postsocialist Normalisation and Political Crisis?

  • By Jirí Málek | 06 Dec 13 | Posted under: Central and Eastern Europe , Czech Republic
  • The evolution of Czech society over nearly 25 years in the transformation from socialism to capitalism has not been a simple process, and in many respects it has produced new impulses and neoliberal experiments.

    Developments in the economic sphere have been described in great detail by Ilona Švihlíková (‘Reforms in the Czech Republic: Towards Social Darwinism’, transform! 09/2011).

    It has not been easy to write about the political situation in the Czech Republic over the past few days. Until recently, the political landscape was clearer. It appeared that certain tangible political blocs were taking shape and a convincing electoral victory for social democracy was anticipated.  

    But let’s return to Czech political history. What we are seeing in the Czech Republic is not a sudden political crisis, but a mostly logical culmination of long term developments, which are reflected in:

    • the historical context of the evolution of Czech (Czechoslovak) society and its real socialist past;
    • the implementation of a “strictly” neoliberal conception of the transition from socialism to capitalism – the application of the theoretical theses of  Friedrich Hayek and the Chicago School;
    • the chaotic disintegration of traditional socialist relationships and structures justified by the need to overcome the “communist legacy,” emerging ruthless individualism ;
    • the impact of the economic crisis compounded by the unfeeling “austerity” of the last right-wing government;
    • the “inertia” of Czech society as a society that is largely egalitarian and rather plebeian;
    • manifestations of globalisation appearing as structural rifts between “central political power” and the power of the periphery – the rupture between the universalism of the centre and the particularism of the periphery.” [1]

    And now to look at things in a little more detail. The evolution of Czech society over nearly 25 years in the transformation from socialism to capitalism has not been simple and in many respects it has brought new impulses and neoliberal experiments. Developments in the economic sphere have been described precisely in very great detail by Ilona Švihlíková in her article in Transform Journal 09/2011.

    In the course of the 20th century, Czech, or more precisely Czechoslovak, society was known for the fact that the country’s left strived – more successfully in some respects than others – to navigate its own “national” path. It is worth mentioning here the personality of Bohumír Šmeral (one of the key founders of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in 1921) and the policy of the Communist Party in the period after 1945 up to the seizure of power and its manoeuvrings between its own “national” concept and Soviet pressure or the so-called Prague Spring and its conception of the rebirth of socialism.

    Throughout history since 1989, Czech society has been divided roughly into two equal halves – one has been characterised by its prevalent left-wing leanings; the other has gravitated more to the right (but not completely toward neoliberalism) – and this has been commensurate with election results.

    Concepts that have their roots in the communist vision and which are, at the very least, extremely critical of, if not directly opposed to, contemporary neoliberalism, have their political representation in the transformed Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia  (KSČM). In this respect, the situation is different to the other former socialist countries, including Slovakia.  In its documents, the party has distanced itself legally and diverged from the Communist Party as a state party from the real socialist era, but the vast majority of its members still came to it from the original party. Throughout its existence, the KSČM has been consistently characterised by the political mainstream as a post-communist party and all the phenomena associated with the traditional understanding of communist ideology and political practices have been emphasised for propaganda purposes.  All the indicators that differentiate the KSČM from the past have been deliberately ignored and suppressed. Despite the effect of the propaganda, this party became the only political force that was perceived as representing (at the very least) systemic large-scale objections to current political practices. 

    Besides the KSČM, a non-communist radical left has always existed.  This left-wing grouping, however, has been a lot weaker than the so-called communist left wing and it has been quite divided internally. Despite various attempts to unite it and to establish it as a relevant nationwide political entity, it has not yet ever played a significant role. It has occasionally given a good account of itself in municipal elections and has done well at the regional level on a few rare occasions. But it has never asserted itself nationally. Nonetheless, this left-wing current is a significant element of the Czech political scene.  At the very least, it brings together more people who for various reasons like to keep their distance from the communist left. It usually concerns young or middle-aged people.  The vast majority of them vote for the left and they are prepared to collaborate.  In this group, there have been intense discussions about such approaches as participatory budgeting, the concept of direct democracy, the inspiration of ideas from South America, and supporting the concept of sustainable development and ecological left-wing visions.

    After the social changes in 1989, the Czech elite, as it were, which was the hegemon of the anti-communist takeover, duplicated its effort to go its own way.  The strict implementation of neoliberal theories was the route that was chosen. Two decades have undoubtedly brought many valuable insights into neoliberal economic theories and their conflict with economic reality. Unfortunately, a broad swathe of the civil populace has suffered for many of these experiments, not just economically, but also politically and psychologically.  For a long time, and even now in many respects, a simple discourse has prevailed – communism is the source of all “evil” and it is the cause of all problems. To ensure the creation of this new ideological concept, the necessary instruments were also developed at the governmental level. An Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes was established. One of its main goals (or at least one of the activities that it has devoted itself up to now) is to retell the history of Czech society so that it fits in with the required ideological framework of the neoliberal elites. The configuration of Czech opinion stands in opposition to these efforts to create a new Czech history and this has been substantiated by sociological surveys. These studies illustrate the populace’s sceptical and critical view of the political reality and its outlook.

     

    Developments since 1989 have not particularly strengthened the feeling in citizens that democracy is a system that ensures the best possible means of fulfilling ideas about life. This is also documented by the following graph showing the level of satisfaction with the way democracy is working.

    Sceptical opinions regarding the democratic organisation of society according to political orientation are distributed as follows.

     

    Perhaps it’s possible to deduce from this data that “communists” are and always have been undemocratic, that the left does not appreciate democracy, etc. But it is far closer to the truth to say that a certain segment of society has been outside the “main current” of social changes, that it did not view these changes as positive, and that, even though it has been living under the auspices of democratic slogans, it has been unable or has not managed to influence developments using the instruments of democracy.  Consequently, it has given up on democracy, at least partly.  But after the last elections, which led to fragmentation, an even stronger tendency towards an authoritarian system has revealed itself among many citizens (on both the left and on the right).  President Miloš Zeman, who is striving for greater political power at parliament’s expense, has the support of many citizens. Once again, we are hearing voices saying that a majoritarian electoral system would lead to political stability.

    The opinion of citizens reflects their economic situation and their socioeconomic expectations. The economic transformation has been described in detail by Ilona Švihlíková. Here are just a few economic indicators. The current average wage amounts to  924 € (brutto) , the average pension is  400 € (netto, 2012).

     

    All: M.Fassmann, ČKMOS, 2013; Governments – Left/Right-wing, „Tos“ and „Fis“- Mr.Tošovský´s  and Mr.Fischer´s– so-called caretaker governments. Year 2013 – Estimate-Czech Ministry of Finance

    The Czech transformation of the economy together with the strict application of neoliberal theories led to society largely becoming disillusioned about the fairness of social mobility and the organisation of political and social relationships.  Before 1989, people naively imagined capitalism to be a society of relative material affluence for practically everyone and they did not realise that the social security provided by the socialist system was not indefinite and that much of it would disappear within a very short time. Czech citizens were not prepared for the new reality after 1989. A critical approach to the present situation, however, does not mean a greater adoration of the previous system.  The majority of the population does not believe (contrary to official propaganda) that the former system only had its downsides and defects. It is also aware of that system’s positive aspects and successes. But these people are also not calling for its reestablishment.

    A certain “plebeianism” and egalitarianism are part of the longstanding traditions of Czech society. Nonetheless, that does not signify that society as a whole would be pro-socialist (pro-communist). The following graph offers an overview of how opinions are oriented.

    This confirms how stable the basic distribution of opinions is, which is then reflected in elections. The so-called radical left, which primarily gets the support of voters with a “socialist” and “communist” stance, supplemented by “protest” votes, has for a long time been represented in parliament by the KSČM, which is practically the only relevant exponent of these opinions among the candidate entities.  For 23 years now, its election results have oscillated between 10 and 15 percent (with one exception) and the number of people who have voted for it has always been at least ten times higher than the number of party members:  1990 – 13.24 %; 1992 – 14.05 %; 1996 – 10.33 % + 1.4 % (Left Bloc – a former part of the KSČM); 1998 – 11.03 %; 2002 – 18.51 % (Social Democrats – 30.2 %, they, however, refused to collaborate with the KSČM);  2006 – 12.81 %; 2010 – 11.27 %; 2013 – 14.91 %.  Insofar as other parties with radical left leanings have stood in elections, their results have always been negligible (including the Party of Democratic Socialism (SDS), an EL member). Since the middle of the last decade, the KSČM has sporadically “put forward” individual members of these left-wing parties and groupings on their ballot list. However, none of their representatives have got into parliament.  

    It transpires that the real electoral potential of the left (social democrats and communists) has for a long time been around 50 percent. New electoral parties have become a new phenomenon in recent years.  These parties have formed a relatively short time ahead of elections. They have fiercely contested elections with slogans condemning traditional political parties and political practices while promising to “fundamentally change” things.  These parties offer solutions drawing from both the left and the right. They therefore win votes from both sides of the political spectrum. As recently as 2006, five “traditional” parties were elected to parliament – the Social Democrats, the Communists, the right-wing hegemon (the ODS (Civic Democrats)), the Christian Democrats, and the Greens (who have actually presented themselves as a right-wing party in the Czech milieu).  In the next elections (2010) some “new” parties entered the political fray. The Public Affairs (Věci veřejné) party, which was subsequently viewed as the business plan of one entrepreneur, gained 10.88 percent of the vote. Together with the Christian Democrats, the right partly fissured and transformed itself into a second right-wing party – TOP 09 headed by Karel Schwarzenberg. It became the third-strongest party with 16.7 percent of the vote.  A party (SPOZ) that was very close to the current president Miloš  Zeman and which siphoned off a portion of those who normally voted for Social Democrats and the Communists just missed out on reaching the parliamentary threshold (4.33 percent in 2010). A new parliamentary party (Public Affairs) then became a destabilising element of the parliament’s structure. It disintegrated and endangered the governing right-wing coalition. Nonetheless, the definitive premature end of the right-wing government was the result of growing conflicts between individual groupings in the governing elite represented by right-wing parties (TOP 09 and ODS). At the same time, an internal conflict over the role of the hegemon also came to a head in these parties. In the run-up to the election this year, it appeared that citizens had lost confidence in the new political entities. Even the mass media was against them. Nonetheless, the election results[2] once again showed that a significant portion of people expect new parties to represent the rebirth of society. This brought two new parties into parliament – ANO (meaning “Yes” in English) and Úsvit přímé demokracie (Dawn of Direct Democracy). The concepts on which these parties built their image comprised a mix of right-wing and left-wing slogans. The first of the aforementioned parties announced its three priorities: “we’ll give people work; the same rules for everyone; and ensuring that our children will also want to live here”. It characterises itself as a party that follows the line of the European ALDE Party and it defines itself by neither being on the right nor the left whilst simultaneously criticising traditional parties.  Some see it as being similar to the Berlusconi concept. The other entity – Úsvit is based on the concept of “direct democracy” and it defines itself as being in the political centre. It has made it clear that it is not interested in government posts and that it only wants to “correct the defects.” Both new entities were previously underpinned primarily by supporters whose small membership base did not begin to grow until the election campaign was under way and they became visible in the media. The Czech Republic is still looking for new political groupings whose supporters don’t merely have a vague idea about their policy objectives and with even less of a grasp of the political and economic interests that these entities represent.  This situation could also reflect an increase in the number of citizens who do not identify with any traditional ideological orientation (see the graph above). It’s a positive thing that entities which have policy and ideological links with European parties and movements that adhere to the radical right and new forms of neofascism, etc. have (thus far) had relatively little support in elections, polling around 1 percent of the vote.  Nonetheless, there are places where they obtain a much higher percentage, particularly in local elections.  

    The Communist Party still provokes debate. For most people, this party represents the visible embodiment of radical left-wing tendencies in society. Its electoral base is relatively stable. On the whole, this gives it a firm foundation, but also limits it at the same time. To date, the party has never strived to “straddle the middle ground.” It has been aware of the big risks connected with this and the membership base has consistently rejected any kind of “social-democratisation” of the party. Calls for “modernisation” inside and outside the party have been viewed with great caution. On the other hand, the party leadership understands that it must pursue realistic policies that allow it to at least partly implement its concepts and not just negate reality.  This leads to a certain ambivalence, but, at the same time, in the past decade, the party has mostly managed to successfully marry its critical national role with participation in local authorities, where it is a coalition partner of the Social Democrats in most regions (9 out 14).  These coalitions have been successfully tested in previous regional (district) elections. Voters appreciate them and have facilitated the expansion of such coalitions. Of course, anti-communism is still one of the most important tools used against the left. Nonetheless, the last election campaign showed that it is no longer a very effective weapon.  The branding of “Stalinists,” nostalgia for the past, reformist communists, etc. are topics that are attractive for the media. In fact, the Stalinist, or neo-Stalinist, current is only one internal party segment (which is also declining somewhat thanks to the aging membership base) and, but for its presentation in the media, it would not be noticed outside the party and it actually has a negligible influence on political decision-making. The KSČM has declared socialism as its long-term goal, which it has described as a democratic society of free and equal citizens, a society of political and economic plurality based on the maximum level of civic self-government. Emphasis is placed on social justice and on preserving and improving the environment. Its conception is anti-militaristic. The party has taken practical steps focused on specific social problems and left-wing solutions for them. Socialism is now hardly ever mentioned in this respect. One specific feature of the party is that it is quite inactive when it comes to foreign affairs. It has observer status with the Party of the European Left, but very strong Eurosceptic tendencies prevail among its membership base, in particular, and the emphasis is on so-called national interests. However, in view of the fact that it is a party with a very significant long-term electoral mandate among similar European parties, it not only has a national responsibility but also an international one, and relations with European structures, European integration, the EU, and the European radical left cannot remain on the margins insofar as it concerns the attention of the KSČM’s members, supporters, and political bodies. The KSČM also cannot renounce responsibility for left-wing politics in the sensitive Central European region and its political position puts it in a leadership role in this respect.

    The last reflection concerns the global causes of local political crises. There is a fissure in the European system along the axis of the centre and the "periphery." The interweaving of local, national, and European interests of power, often consolidated by EU policies, is also creating new impulses for the creation and operation of non-traditional parties and movements. In tandem with the weakening of the state and the strengthening of unelected, yet more powerful, transnational economic structures, new channels are being created to make a profit and line pockets with public money.  In some places, they involve corrupt, clientelist structures; elsewhere, they are more "soft" in nature, and away from the public gaze.  From the outset in the Czech Republic, these structures have grown and spread in parallel with the formation of a new political order, both at the central and regional level. And this has become ever more tightly entwined with the state in terms of personnel, the funding of political entities, lobbying, etc. The war against corruption and the declaration of this war as an election slogan has won favour with Czech voters. It actually concerns the grievances of traditional structures that have been separated from their resources and where new rivals have been making unjust profits/rents. In Czech society, the financing of political parties is now dependent on this system and it therefore reflects and articulates the economic interests of the governing elites and their efforts to occupy as many positions of power as possible. The right-wing Slovak politician Iveta Radičová has described contemporary Slovak and Czech democracy as "nomenklatura democracy," which can be understood in the historical context of the communist past as a democracy that is only for the ruling elites. There is not much of a difference here if right-wing parties or Czech Social Democrats are in power.

    There is also a distinctive crisis among the Social Democrats. Their rift and internal strain is not the result of personal animosities (even though that's how the media is interpreting it), but a manifestation of major conflicts between individual interest groups.  Other things that have played a significant role in this respect are conflicts between the regions and the centre and diverging ideas as to what should be done about Czech neoliberal capitalism.

    If we use Marxist methodology, it is possible to say in summary that, although Czech society is not in crisis, social conflicts are on the rise, both in terms of their number as well is in terms of their intensity and destructiveness. Consequently, society is heading toward a social, systemic crisis. At the same time, no real concepts have emerged as to how to avoid this crisis or how to use it for a radical transformation of society. The Czech left has also absented itself in this respect, as have those whom we have become accustomed to labelling as radical.


    Notes 

     

    [1] Václav Bělohradský, a left-wing philosopher

    [2] Results of parliamentary elections, October 2013:

    Social Democrats:   20,45 %
    ANO 2011:              18,65 %
    KSČM:                     14,91 %
    TOP 09:                   11,00 %
    ODS:                         7,72 %
    Christian Democrats: 6,88 %
    Úsvit:                        6,78 %
    Green Party:             3,19 %
    Pirate Party:             2,66 %
    SPOZ (Party of citizens' rights):      1,51 %

    Turnout:                  59,48 %


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