• East of the West – The Visegrad Four

  • By Jiří Málek | 17 Nov 14 | Posted under: Central and Eastern Europe , Czech Republic , Elections
  • The Karlovy Vary Film Festival always presents a series called ‘East of the West’. The survey that follows will likewise look at the area east of the West, though in the slightly narrower sense of that part of Central Europe otherwise known as the Visegrad Four – the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland (total 106 European Parliament seats – 14.1 per cent).

    What happened in this area in the recent elections to the European Parliament (EP)?

    Other European countries must certainly have noted the score this area achieved in terms of voter participation in these elections. In the Czech Republic 82 per cent of eligible voters failed to cast a ballot. In this we were overtaken by the state closest to us – Slovakia – which took the prize Europe-wide with 88 per cent non-participation. But the other countries performed similarly: Poland with 77 per cent and Hungary with 71 per cent non-participants. Slovenia and Croatia were also at a similar level. All of the post-communist countries fell below the European average of 43 per cent voter turnout, with only Lithuania slightly above it.

    The four states have much in common in their recent history and as a result share very similar social structures. Communist-type parties had governed here; the countries were members of the Comecon and the Warsaw Pact. One could then well expect the political behaviour of their citizens to be similar, and in some ways this is the case – all states that share a communist or, to put it more accurately, socialist past, had below-average voter turnout in the EP elections.

    It is interesting though that this voter abstentionism involved all social sectors of the population equally. The proportions between social sectors when turnout is higher in national elections are essentially the same.


    Graph 1:Czech Republic: 2009-2014 %

    For an explanation of the EP groups, eg. ECR, S&D, EPP, see the article by Thilo Janssen in this volume.

    Graph 2:
    Slovakia: 2009-2014 %

    Graph 3:
    Hungary: 2009-2014 %

    Graph 4: Poland: 2009-2014 %

    Graph 5: Democracy in the Czech Republic (2013)


    There is nothing to support the thesis that non-participation in European elections is equivalent to a condemnation of Europe, an expression of our being closed off within a national, nationalistic context. Citizens distinguish between Europe and its citizens, on the one hand, and the political-economic structures of Europe, on the other. While they identify with the former, many have at least a number of doubts about, or indeed some objection to, the latter. They feel they are Europeans but not content with the contemporary neoliberal European capitalist system, a system that vaunts its democratic character, but skilfully uses every means of manipulating the citizenry to its own advantage in disregard of demos kratos (people power). The message sent by non-voters – at least a part of them – can be read that way, too. And why is this more easily perceptible to the east of the West? Perhaps because citizens of the neglected East see certain features more clearly. Just after the fall of communism the slogan ‘back to Europe’ appeared. These nations went over ‘to Europe’, but in the meanwhile Europe itself was undergoing a transformation. A large part of the population wanted to be a part of Europe, but did not know what it was they were becoming a part of. And the contradiction between the expectation of brighter tomorrows and the grey reality fed the scepticism and disillusionment of a part of the citizenry. It is important to avoid the easy and erroneous interpretations that are sometimes heard on the left. This is not about a majority becoming disillusioned with capitalism as such but with contemporary neoliberal Central European capitalism.


    The actual results of the EP election in central Eastern Europe

    While parliamentary elections do enjoy two to three times greater voter turnout in the countries mentioned (CZ 59.5 per cent, SK 59.1 per cent, PL 48.9 per cent, HU 61.7 per cent), none of these countries saw a result in the EP election fundamentally different from their national election results in terms of the political parties’ spread. Not even lower voter turnout caused any significant qualitative shift in the distribution of political representation. Representation in EP elections ‘copies’ the national level in all four countries. No relevant political force either gained or lost ground on account of low voter turnout. It is as if citizens said, ‘we won’t go to the polls, but we’ll maintain the basic proportion’.

    It is interesting to compare the situation in the individual Visegrad countries. What differs is how the opinions manifest themselves outwardly, how they are reflected in the political structures resulting from elections.

    Let us look at the composition of the legislatures elected in national ballots. It would seem that the four countries could not be more different. In three of them there is no politically relevant entity that could be said to represent the radical left. In two of them (Slovakia and Hungary) there are parties that belong to the Party of the European Left (EL), but these are, with all due respect, marginal parties. In Poland there is not even one party, however small, that is compatible with the EL. And then there is the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (CPBM – KSČM), an EL observer, with its consistent election results of between 11 and 15 per cent. How is it possible? The answer would require a separate analysis, and there is no guarantee that we would reach any shared fundamental conclusions.

    We have to go back a quarter of a century. In all of these countries there were communist state parties (with differing appellations). In each country there was massive membership in these parties – the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ) had as a whole 1,700,000 members, with around 1.2 million members on the Czech side and a half million in Slovakia. The political changes in 1989 confronted the communist parties and their members with an existential dilemma. While Poland and Hungary ‘set things in motion’ in at least the second half of the 1980s, in Czechoslovakia – in the joint state of Czechs and Slovaks – there were no such visible changes. Even Gorbachev’s perestroika received a much more ambiguous reception here. On the other hand, the socio-economic situation of Czechoslovakia’s citizens was better and more stable than that of Poland and Hungary. In each of these countries the parties and their members sought to set their own course, and in each of them the parties went through a greater or lesser transformation. The transformation consisted of the countries’ denying their own governing parties certain monopoly rights, such as a ‘leadership role’ in society, the absolute dominance of party ideology, or the privileged rights of the cadre. It was also about taking back their own history. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia this also included ways of dealing with people’s relationship to the Prague Spring and the half-million KSČ members who had to leave the party in the early days of so-called normalisation. The wave of change and the end of Soviet hegemony at the end of the 1980s had three fundamental consequences for the Central European area: re-orientation to the West, the transformation from a command economy to market capitalism, and the transformation of the system of one-party government to one of free political competition. These constants constituted a basic ‘post-communist’ political consensus both within the democratic political forces and within the spectrum of public opinion (see Daniel Kunštát, Za rudou oponou [Behind the Red Curtain], Institute of Sociology, Academy of Sciences, CR, Prague 2013 – the data presented here rely heavily on this study).


    Shared experiences

    In Poland and Hungary the post-communist parties accepted the policies of their reform wings. They transformed themselves into ‘catch-all parties’ closer to the social democratic parties of Western Europe. At the same time, individual bodies of opinion split off. Some of these survive to the present day, but their political impact is quite marginal. Transformed parties came to power in the 1990s as social democratic or socialist parties. Both entered into crises and are now in opposition. It is generally true that the successful transformation of the Czech Communist Party – that is, its cleansing itself of its communist burden, in the understanding of the political mainstream – means its social-democratisation and reformation and the consequent reduction of its membership base.

    The process was similar in Slovakia as well. The original Communist party gave rise to the post-communist Party of the Democratic Left (SDL), which shared power in the 1990s. A crisis followed, however, as is typical for the ‘reformed’ communist parties of the post-Soviet bloc, as did a loss of political positions and voter confidence. Its core moved on to what is now called the Smer-SD (‘Direction – Social Democrats’) party, which now presents itself as a ‘pure’ social democratic party. With that, the restructuring of the original Communist Party was complete. In addition to this movement, there were also other post-communist formations, the most distinct of which today appears to be the Communist Party of Slovakia (KSS), which, however, only has about a one per cent electoral following. It is a member party of the EL, although it has lately been almost inactive there. This does not mean, however, that there are no radical left voters in Slovakia; but Smer has absorbed all leftist elements, including those voters. It remains to be seen how long Smer can continue to operate in this way, dependent as it is on its charismatic leader. In the most recent parliamentary elections (2012) Smer received 44.4 per cent of the vote while the KSS won 0.7 per cent. The spring 2014 presidential election, however, saw the Smer chairman and his government defeated; while in the European elections Smer received 24.1 per cent and the KSS 1.5 per cent.


    The Czech Communist Party – an exception

    The KSČM is a rarity in the Central European area. In none of the other post-communist countries does a communist and little-transformed party play an analogous role in the party system. In none of them does such a party enjoy large and stable voter support. The KSČM never lost the position of a significant and fully relevant political force or the potential that allows it to put pressure on other parliamentary parties.

    This ‘miracle’ has a number of causes. That communists continue to constitute a danger to the state and society, as some pundits from the anticommunist camp maintain, is certainly not true. This line of argument holds that we are seeing a manifestation of ‘friends of the old communist systems’, who are only interested in regaining their power. A far more accurate view is that in its 25-year development, the KSČM has gone through several phases. In the first period it looked for a new path to the future. There were partial reforms and adaptations to new conditions. The membership base changed too, with part of the original members, including several members of Parliament, leaving and creating new left entities, some members landing in social democratic or even in right-wing organisations. Many of these later vanished, with only the tiny SDS (Party of Democratic Socialism) – an EL member party – operating in the long term. The Czech communists and their party have been subjected to the pressure of the anti-communist section of Czech society and the new political elites since the early 1990s.

    The party’s journey started in a ghetto, as it steered an orthodox communist course through a period of stabilisation to the position of sought­after political partner – though it was a party whose partners often had an aversion to it. It was thanks to the fact that its reformation was only partial and to the heavy anti-communist pressure it faced from the outset that it was able to maintain its political position and unity with relative success. The ‘centrist’ policy that the KSČM leadership has adopted – perhaps more intuitively than deliberately – has proven to be successful in the long term. We must also bear in mind that in the Czech Republic there was no space for a ‘new’ social democratic party consisting of post-communists (as in Slovakia or Hungary), as the Czech Social Democracy (ČSSD) already existed and had been operating in exile since 1948. At the beginning of the 1990s it returned home where it gradually built up its organisational and core structure until its victory in parliamentary elections (1998). Since the mid-1990s the Czech left has thus hosted a stable structure of moderate and radical leftists represented in practice by ČSSD and KSČM. In Czech society there are of course radical left forces of a non-communist (and sometimes even anti-communist) kind. However, they have never put together a political force of any consequence.

    This issue is surrounded by various myths and would-be scholarly opinions rather than relevant facts. Daniel Kunštát’s study at the Sociological Institute of the Academy of Sciences presents a relatively detailed analysis of the position of the Communist Party and of its members and voters in contemporary Czech society. Many important, interesting, and, to some, even surprising points emerge from this analysis. Very briefly:

    • From the point of view of political science, the Communist Party is understood as an anti-systemic party; even the public sees it as a party that at the very least has reservations about the current system and does not envision merely repairing it. Its policy goal (even in KSČM documents) is modern socialism, albeit very vaguely defined. In terms of policy, the KSČM is seen by the study as a left-wing alternative to Czech Social Democracy. Importantly, it is perceived as such by a large portion of the public, to say nothing of its own voters. The cornerstone of the party’s political support are those who were among the defeated in the post-revolution transformation. It is interesting to note that there has yet to be a document compiled by the party that describes a vision for the future – socialism for the twenty-first century. Internal party discussions about such a document are still under way. In any case, the party’s supporters neither discuss the concept nor mourn its absence. ‘In terms of the political position of voters, the KSČM appears to them to be a collectively organised alternative to the (current) democratic order …’ Nevertheless, the KSČM does not endorse anything other than democratic ways and means towards social transformation. The KSČM is not a ‘revolutionary’ party outside of the democratic framework.

    • Anti-communism is gradually becoming stale, and continues to be entrenched only amongst a continuously narrowing group of citizens.

    • Communist ideas were never implemented in Czech society as an import from the ‘barbarous East’, but are a very powerful integral part of our domestic tradition.

    • The constituency of communist candidates is neither exclusively nor mostly the ‘former communists’, as certain commentators are fond of saying. In fact, in 2010 the majority of pre-revolution communists supported political entities other than the KSČM, most of them probably backing the social democrats. The majority of the party’s current electorate has nothing to do with the previous Communist Party of Czechoslovakia – the KSČ. The KSČM’s constituency is older – 58.6 years on average in 2010 (44.3 is the average for other parties). However, it is civically active – 40 per cent of KSČM voters are involved in various organisations (interest-group, sports, fire brigades, unions, etc.). One third of its electorate are even unwilling to accept the return of ‘communism’ or any other personal dictatorship. They look favourably on socialism, followed by communism, and least favourably on capitalism and dictatorship. Democracy on this scale is roughly in the middle. At the same time, many of them do not see socialism (communism) and democracy as mutually exclusive systems. They both were received positively.

    • The perception of the KSČM by non-KSČM voters is gradually changing. A slight majority of non-communist voters consider the party to be ‘totalitarian’, but three-fifths of them acknowledge the party has the same rights and obligations as others. There are still two-fifths of non-KSČM voters who think that the party should be outlawed or otherwise restricted in its activities. More than one-third, however, believe that the Communist Party has been transformed into a modern political party, and that it is the only political entity that has not discredited itself. A third of non-KSČM voters also believe that the party is basically in line with the Czech Republic’s foreign policy orientation. Half of them consider the KSČM to represent the poor, and two-fifths believe that ‘communists’ respect private business.

    We are concentrating on the Communist Party because there are not many other left groups worthy of mention. The other radical left forces on the Czech political scene are fragmented and in many ways marginal. They have no significant support even amongst sections of the public that are left­oriented, partly because they do not present themselves adequately and do not offer the citizens a credible vision. On the other hand, there are many left-wing activists doing much praiseworthy and valuable work ‘down there’ at the municipal level, in non-profit organisations, and as environmentalist or social work activists. Unfortunately, these endeavours have not translated to the higher political levels where they could and should be influencing the processes of decision making. 

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