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Czechs Brace For Growing Communist Influence After Elections

Hanged dummies dangle above a Czech Communist Party election poster in Prague. The dummies are an attempt to remind voters of the political opponents executed by the Communists during their  1948-89 reign.
Hanged dummies dangle above a Czech Communist Party election poster in Prague. The dummies are an attempt to remind voters of the political opponents executed by the Communists during their 1948-89 reign.

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PRAGUE -- Pensioner Vladimir Pekny and his wife Hana Pekna sit on a park bench beside a bed of roses near their central Prague apartment talking about the Czech Republic’s upcoming elections.

Scandals that brought down Prime Minister Petr Necas’s center-right coalition government in June still weigh heavily on the minds of voters, giving the Communists a chance to wield more political clout than they have had since 1989.

That pleases Pekny, an 88-year-old retired factory mechanic. He is nostalgic for the Communist-era trade ties that once bound Prague to its Soviet-bloc neighbors, and laments the privatization of the country’s coal fields, which he describes as the plundering of national treasures.

The couple say they are fed up trying to make ends meet on the fixed income of their pensions while corrupt politicians abuse their positions to fill their own pockets.

“I will go to vote with my wife. We will vote for the Communists,” Pekny says. His wife adds that they were doing best during Communist times.

'Better Under The Communists'

A number of Czechs broadly share the Peknys' sentiment -- a poll earlier this year found that one-third of respondents said life was better under the Communist regime. In addition, expected low turnout this year due to disillusionment on the part of center-right voters is thought likely to give the left a boost.

The center-left Social Democrats -- with around 22 percent support in the polls -- are expected to win the most votes, though not enough to form a majority government on their own.

That raises the potential negotiating clout of the Communists, who most polls show in second place at around 17 percent.

Social Democrat leader Bohuslav Sobotka has ruled out bringing the Communists into a governing coalition, in line with his party's ban on teaming up with extremist parties at a national level. But he has said his party is open to forming a minority government that relies on support from Communist lawmakers during key votes in parliament.

Czech Rockers Take The Stage Against Communismi
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October 23, 2013
With just days to go before the Czech Republic's parliamentary elections, popular rock bands played a free concert in Prague with a political message: get out and vote. The organizers gave the event a Russian name -- "Nikagda Nezabudem," or Never Forget -- as a warning that voter apathy could mean a disproportionately strong showing for the country's Communist Party, driven from power in 1989. Produced by Margot Buff, RFE/RL
(WATCH: Czech musicians urge people to get out and vote.)

Political analyst Jiri Pehe, the director of New York University’s center in Prague and a former aide to the late President Vaclav Havel, says the left is also gaining some support because of protest votes.

“Unfortunately, I think that the message of political anticommunism has been very much damaged by the performance of the previous government," Pehe says. "The government of Petr Necas was unpopular to the extent that a lot of people who previously had been anticommunist started saying, ‘Well, even a government with the support of the Communists cannot be as bad as this government of Petr Necas.’ This is quite widespread.”

For a country that staged the mass demonstrations known as the Velvet Revolution -- the bloodless overthrow of the Czechoslovak communist regime in 1989 -- the possibility the Communists could end up as power broker after these elections is striking.

Havel -- the Velvet Revolution leader who became the first postcommunist president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic -- warned before his death in 2011 that when people invest hope in a politician, their unfulfilled hopes can turn into resistance.

Vladimir Broz, a Czech rapper known to his fans as Vladimir 518, is worried.

Days before the October 25 and 26 vote, Broz and other Czech musicians drew thousands to Prague’s Old Town Square for a concert aimed at motivating young people to vote.

Plagued By Scandals

Unlike most political rallies, the musicians weren’t endorsing specific candidates or parties. Broz says they just want to boost the anti-Communist vote.

“It seems really crazy that the Communist Party could take over in such a short time period after the change [brought by the 1989 Velvet Revolution]. For me personally, I don’t even like the Social Democrats because they are able to invite the Communist Party to the high level of politics," Broz says. "I don’t care how people vote. It’s up to them. But please don’t vote Communist. That’s all.”

Director Juraj Herz is also unhappy about the political landscape.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Herz’s films were shown at the Cannes Film Festival and nominated for an Oscar but banned in communist Czechoslovakia.

Now, Herz is urging Czechs to vote against any party that supports or allies itself with the Communists. “Of course I’m all fed up with all of this and I don’t like that the Communists are gaining more and more power. I hope this will stop,” Herz says.

The center-right government of Petr Necas was brought down after corruption scandals.The center-right government of Petr Necas was brought down after corruption scandals.
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The center-right government of Petr Necas was brought down after corruption scandals.
The center-right government of Petr Necas was brought down after corruption scandals.
Meanwhile, the political right has been fragmented by the spying and bribery scandals that have plagued Necas's conservative Civic Democratic Party and its right-wing former coalition partners TOP09 and Public Affairs.

“There is a real danger that this election will produce four or five small right-of-center movements and parties, some of them running with the program of antipolitics or antiparty politics," Pehe says. "It will be very difficult for the right to actually put together any kind of working coalition or even effective opposition.”

Those parties include new outfits ANO (Yes), led by Slovak-born billionaire Andrej Babis and currently mostly polling in third place, and Usvit (Dawn), led by Czech-Japanese businessman Tomio Okamura.

Pehe says it remains unclear whether the Social Democrats and Communists can, together, win more than 100 seats in the 200-seat lower chamber.

But Pehe predicts both will win more seats than in the 2010 elections -- 56 seats for the Social Democrats and 26 for the Communists.

That means that even without 100 seats, a deal between the Social Democrats and Communists could bring them close enough to control parliament with the addition of a small, third party or a handful of independent lawmakers.

Katarina Solikova contributed to this report

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