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East European Perspectives: August 21, 2002

21 August 2002, Volume 4, Number 17


By Jiri Pehe

The Czech parliamentary elections, held on 14-15 June, will have important consequences for the country. First, an unsuccessful comeback of former conservative Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus together with a long-advertised departure from politics of outgoing Socialist Prime Minister Milos Zeman, mark the end of an era of the first generation of postcommunist politicians. Although Klaus or Zeman may return to high political posts in the future, the new government consists mainly of people who became politicians in the mid-1990s. The symbolic departure of the first generation of postcommunist politicians will be completed in January 2003, when President Vaclav Havel steps down.

Second, the election also resulted in a defeat, albeit slim, of anti-European forces. In fact, common pro-European stances represent the glue that holds the new governing coalition together; the coalition otherwise consists of ideologically disparate parties.

Third, the elections significantly diminished the possibility that Klaus could replace Havel as the country's next president. The race for the presidency is now wide open, and its outcome is difficult to predict.

Shift To The Left?
On the surface, the most obvious result of the Czech parliamentary elections seems to be a radical shift to the left. Although winning two percentage points of popular support less than in 1998, the Social Democratic Party (CSSD), which gained 30 percent of the popular vote this time, was able to defend its electoral victory from 1998. The unreformed Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM), with 18 percent of the popular vote -- a 6 percent gain over the last elections in 1998 -- finished third, gaining 41 seats. That is 17 more than in 1998. With the 70 seats won by the CSSD, those two parties together could have a comfortable majority of 111 in the 200-seat lower chamber of parliament, should they want to cooperate.

The right-of-center parties gained a combined 89 seats. The Civic Democratic Party (ODS) of former Prime Minister Klaus won 24 percent of the popular vote, four percentage points less than in 1998. Translated into parliamentary representation, the ODS won 58 seats, six less than in 1998. The coalition of the centrist Christian Democratic Union-People's Party (KDU-CSL) and the liberal Freedom Union-Democratic Union (US-DEU) won only 14 percent of the popular vote, losing some four percentage points, or seven seats, in comparison with 1998. No other party won parliamentary representation. (See "Lidove noviny," "Mlada fronta Dnes," and "Hospodarske noviny," 16 June, 2002)

In reality, the right-left arithmetic is deceiving in the Czech context. First, the CSSD, just like all the other democratic parties represented in the parliament, is unwilling to cooperate with the unreformed KSCM on the government level. An official ban on forming a coalition with the Communists on the national level, issued in 1995 by a CSSD congress, is still in force. More important, the purported leftist identity of the KSCM is questionable.

The program of the Czech Communist Party is a strange blend of extreme-left and extreme-right ideas. In fact, it is, above all, an extremist party that uses some leftist ideas to lure voters who do not see even the CSSD as being socialist enough. Otherwise, the party is strongly nationalist, Euro-skeptic, and xenophobic. In the last four years, it has been able to lure many voters who previously supported the extreme-right Republicans.

The right-left prism is deceiving also because political notions of the left and the right do not yet have the same meaning as in Western democracies. First, many people who describe themselves as "rightist" oppose, for example, the termination of state subsidies for energy and rents. Second, the nature of the transformation process is such that so-called leftist parties often have to pursue policies, such as privatization schemes, that in the West are associated with the political right. Third, in countries that aspire to European Union membership, many policies are dictated by EU requirements. Many voters thus do not prefer a particular political party because it represents a particular political ideology but because they see a particular party as being more competent than others in dealing with reforms and the EU agenda.

Political Apathy And Cynicism
The KSCM's success cannot be explained entirely by its ability to attract fringe voters. It has also become a protest party that benefits from many voters' intense dissatisfaction with the performance of all democratic parties represented in the parliament. In the last four years, opinion polls have repeatedly indicated that as many as 70 percent of Czechs are unhappy with politics as practiced by mainstream democratic politicians (see various polls by the Center for Empirical Research, STEM, as reported in the Czech media. The last poll, surveying the reasons for voters' apathy, was published in Czech newspapers on 16 July 2002.)

The most important reason for this disappointment was the so-called "opposition agreement" of 1998, under which Vaclav Klaus's Civic Democrats agreed to support the minority government of the CSSD in exchange for high-level parliamentary positions and promises of joint work on constitutional amendments and electoral-law changes advantageous to those two parties. Many Czechs saw the agreement as a cynical power-sharing deal promoting corruption.

Center-right voters, in particular, were unhappy about the fact that ODS Chairman Klaus had in 1998 mobilized against "a leftist danger" during the campaign only to ally himself with the CSSD after the elections. The ODS agreed not to initiate a vote of no confidence in the government or support a vote of no confidence initiated by other parties during the entire four-year term of the minority CSSD government.

The agreement indeed stabilized the political situation in the country, as it prevented opposition parties from recalling the government. But, at the same time, it created a degree of political schizophrenia.

Ordinary citizens were confused by the blurring of lines between the opposition and the government. They also witnessed a total shift from the very ideological language that preceded the elections in 1998 to a language of political superpragmatism. Moreover, they witnessed cynical attempts of the ODS and the CSSD to change the Czech Constitution and the electoral law to the two parties' advantage. In the end, those attempts failed only because a coalition of four smaller opposition parties was able to score major victories in the Senate elections in the years 1998 and 2000, causing the ODS and the CSSD to lose their majority. The Constitutional Court also played a role in blocking some of those changes.

Unfortunately, the atmosphere of political cynicism eventually affected also the opposition, which was unable to offer any real alternatives as a result. One of the most commonly heard grievances of voters before the elections was that there was no party one could vote for because the opposition was allegedly no better that the two opposition-agreement parties.

The electoral campaigns of individual parties before the June elections were populist, devoid of any real issues. On top of that, party leaders repeatedly declared that they were prepared to form coalitions with any other democratic party, regardless of compatibility or incompatibility of party programs. In other words, the opposition agreement helped to transform Czech politics into a mere technology of power. Politicians were basically telling the voters: You cast your vote in our favor, we will do with it what we want.

One of the most popular billboards before the elections, sponsored by an unknown organization, read: "Vote for either the CSSD or the ODS, it doesn't matter. We'll find a way to work together anyway." Actually, the billboard was not entirely accurate: It also should have mentioned the Coalition of the opposition KDU-CSL and the US-DEU, who were also unwilling to tell the public whether they preferred to work with the ODS or the CSSD.

Not surprisingly, many voters decided to punish the democratic parties. Some voters did so by casting their votes for the KSCM; many more did not bother to vote at all. The voter turnout, 58 percent, was the lowest since the fall of communism in 1989. This, too, helped the Communists, who have by far the most disciplined voters.

Of course, the low voter turnout could also be explained as a sign of democratic stabilization, showing that many Czechs believe that democracy in the country is safe. After all, the Czech Republic is a member of NATO, and even a strong Communist showing does not represent a threat to democracy and a market economy.

Unfortunately, opinion polls strongly indicate that the main reason for the voters' apathy was disappointment with democratic politics, accompanied by the belief that "my vote cannot change anything." This poses a serious problem for the legitimacy of the democratic system in the Czech Republic, and the new government thus faces a huge task in restoring people's confidence in democracy.

The Electoral Campaign
The electoral campaign was dominated by empty nationalism. Unlike in Western Europe, however, the burning issue was not immigration but the so-called Benes Decrees under which in 1945 and 1946 Germans and Hungarians living in Czechoslovakia were stripped of citizenship and had their property confiscated. Some 3 million "Sudeten" Germans and thousands of Hungarians were eventually expelled from the country, becoming victims of one of the biggest acts of ethnic cleansing in modern European history. Even after the fall of communism, Czech leaders maintained the expulsions were a just response to Nazi atrocities.

This painful historical issue came back earlier this year, when Austrian populist Joerg Haider threatened to block the Czech Republic's accession to the EU unless Prague abolished the Benes Decrees. Hungarian candidates took up the issue in their electoral campaign, as have the two leading candidates for German chancellor.

Then-Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman seized on Haider's early comments by calling Sudeten Germans "a Fifth Column" and claiming they were lucky they were not executed as traitors. Zeman's undiplomatic words caused uproar in Germany and Austria. To Germans especially, Zeman appeared to have breached a 1997 joint declaration in which Germany and the Czech Republic agreed to set aside painful questions from the past. Following those remarks, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder canceled his visit to the Czech Republic.

Zeman was playing electoral politics. Other Czech politicians quickly realized they could not stay far behind him in a country where some 80 percent of voters still think that expelling the Sudeten Germans was the right thing to do. An unprecedented wave of nationalist passions that engulfed the Czech Republic did not pass without response in Germany and Austria, which are also gearing for elections.

Some Czech politicians even accused Germany, Austria, and Hungary of forming "an axis of evil" and putting Czech EU hopes in jeopardy. Klaus even demanded that the EU guarantee the Benes Decrees will not be revised, threatening that unless his demands were met, his party will oppose membership. In April, the Czech parliament unanimously declared that the Benes Decrees were untouchable -- even if, as parliament also acknowledged, the decrees are legally "extinct" (Pehe, 2002a).

The Communists
The fact that the unreformed Communist Party continues to exist and is able to play an important role is unique in postcommunist Central Europe to the Czech Republic. Explanations can be found as long ago as 1968, when the Soviet-led invasion crushed the Prague Spring reforms. The Communist Party was subsequently turned into a neo-Stalinist monolith in which no reforms were possible until the fall of Communism. While the Hungarian and the Polish Communist parties were able to liberalize in the 1980s and eventually smoothly transform into Social Democratic groupings, the Czechoslovak Communist Party shrank but remained intact. The Czech Social Democratic Party was thus created as a formation totally separate from the Communists (see Stone, 2000, pp. 35-55).

Although politicians repeatedly discussed the possibility of banning the unreformed Communists, political will was lacking. The KSCM, therefore, remained part of the political spectrum, attracting many people who were connected with the Communists in the so-called "normalization" era (1970-89). Since no democratic party would form a coalition with the Communists, the KSCM has not participated in any government since 1989 and cannot be associated with any of the many financial and other scandals that tainted the government parties over the years. As a result, it is seen by an increasing number of young people, who do not remember the communist regime, as a "clean party" (Pehe, 1999).

The KSCM's profile has allowed the party to attract a wide variety of constituencies: unemployed people from economically depressed regions, old people afraid of reforms, workers afraid of European integration and globalization, nationalists afraid of a "German threat," young antiglobalization protesters, and people who want to punish the establishment.

Unfortunately for the KSCM, it seems that many voters, in particular new KSCM voters, did not vote for the party because they identify with its program. They did so because they wanted to punish the democratic parties. Seen from that point of view, it is possible to argue that the 18 percent of the popular vote the Communists got in the June election probably represents the peak of their current potential. Unless that party reforms itself, making itself more appealing to moderate left voters, it is not likely to gain new voters. It will also remain isolated.

At the same time, the KSCM is clearly what Giovanni Sartori describes as "a relevant party" (Sartori, 2000, p. 45). Sartori says a party is not relevant if it continuously has no coalition potential and, at the same time, what could be described as "extortion potential." The KSCM does not have coalition potential, but it is now strong enough to achieve some of its goals by extorting other parties. In other words, certain bills may not be passed unless the 41 Communist deputies help the government coalition.

The Civic Democrats
In the 2002 electoral campaign, the Communists were greatly helped by Klaus's nationalist campaign that focused on the Benes Decrees. Of all politicians, Klaus was most active in repeatedly warning against alleged plans by Austria and Germany to use the Czech Republic's admission to the EU to press for large-scale revisions of postwar territorial and property arrangements. Although the EU has repeatedly said the Benes Decrees and the Czech Republic's prospective membership in the EU are two separate issues, Klaus tied them together.

Klaus was, of course, trying to stir nationalist sentiments to win a few more electoral points. He focused not only on the Benes Decrees but, just like the Communists, explored anti-immigrant feelings and other populist issues. Originally a liberal party, the ODS has since 1998 gradually moved toward a mix of conservative, nationalist, and populist ideas. Klaus himself has become increasingly hostile to the project of European integration (Pehe, 2002b).

The gradual intensification of Klaus's anti-EU rhetoric has posed a serious problem for the ODS, as its voters represent the most pro-EU segment of the Czech electorate. Knowing this, Klaus has tried to perform a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, he continued to assure his voters that there is no alternative to the Czech Republic's membership in the EU. On the other hand, he would never forget to tick off a long list of the EU's real or alleged problems. In the electoral campaign, he finally said openly that unless his demands are met he will campaign against membership. He knows, of course, that the EU cannot provide any guarantees on an issue that is by nature legal and not political.

As the election results show, most of those voters whom Klaus frightened with his Benes Decree scare cast their votes for the Communists, who are a genuine strong-arm party with a long history of fighting the "Sudeten German threat." By turning openly against the EU, Klaus also managed to scare away even more of his traditional voters. They were forced to decide whether they preferred Klaus or the European Union.

Klaus then sealed his electoral defeat by trying to undermine the CSSD by mobilizing yet again against socialism. It was the ODS, after all, that kept the socialist government in power for four years with the help of the cynical opposition agreement. Klaus's appeals reminded many voters that he mobilized against the CSSD before the elections in 1998, only to ally himself with Zeman after the ballots were cast.

The electoral campaign of the ODS was disastrous. It focused heavily on Klaus himself, betraying a lack of other personalities in the party. It started with presenting populist ideas, such as a 15 percent flat tax for both corporations and individuals, but quickly moved to nationalist rhetoric. When it became obvious that nationalism may not work for the ODS, an anti-socialist mobilization was employed. Posters declaring "The Nation votes for Klaus" were counterproductive. Telephone calls to 2.5 million households with a recorded message from Klaus, in which he warned of "a socialist danger," angered many voters.

European Against Anti-European Forces
In the end, the elections produced a very fragile majority of pro-EU forces. The CSSD and the Coalition, which after difficult negotiations formed a coalition government in July, have between them only 101 votes in the 200-seat parliament. The anti-EU forces represented by the ODS and the KSCM are not only openly Euro-skeptic, but now also openly support policies that only three years ago Austrian populist leader Joerg Haider was vilified from all corners of Europe for advocating. Haider's participation in the Austrian government and electoral successes of extreme-right parties in other European countries has since "legitimized" some of those stances.

The clearly pro-EU forces will be in a difficult position. Klaus and the Communists can continue to explore the Benes Decree controversy and keep insisting that the EU may not be able to protect the Czechs from Germany's and Austria's pressure to revise the decrees. Opinion polls show that anti-EU propaganda has already significantly reduced the level of support for EU membership. Only about 45 percent of Czechs currently actively support membership, while 30 percent are undecided and 25 percent are against.

On the other hand, it is clear that a government led by the CSSD will not only push to complete negotiations with the EU but will actively campaign in favor of membership. If those policies are effective, a majority of Czechs are likely to vote in support of membership.

CSSD Dilemmas
The electoral results did not amount to a huge victory for the left, as is often claimed. The Communists will not play a role in shaping government policies. Most policies, as practiced by the CSSD government in the last four years, are not likely to change significantly. The government will put emphasis on building what the CSSD calls "a modern social-welfare state." It will also continue luring foreign investors with a number of investment incentives and is likely to maintain the Czech Republic's current position as the country with the highest foreign direct investment in the region.

The government will, however, need to reduce its appetite for deficit spending. The fact that it will not be granted carte blanche again in the form of an opposition agreement, and will have to find compromises between both the views of the CSSD and those of the center-right parties, should help.

The new prime minister, Vladimir Spidla, who replaced Zeman as chairman of the CSSD last year, is much less prone than Zeman to getting embroiled in power-sharing deals and pursuing nontransparent projects that raise questions about possible corruption.

ODS Dilemmas
Following the electoral defeat, the ODS faces serious problems. First, over the years it has become a one-man party. Its entire election campaign was centered around Klaus. The ODS's defeat is thus Klaus's defeat, but the ODS does not have anyone with whom to replace Klaus. Second, by embracing some issues that are generally advocated by extremist parties, the ODS has lost a number of moderate, pro-EU voters. To regain those votes, the party will have to move back toward the political center. That, however, will not be easy unless Klaus "reinvents" himself or is replaced by someone else.

Klaus's continued presence at the helm of his party most likely means a further movement toward anti-EU attitudes. That may drive away even the party's most loyal supporters.

Klaus may follow two main strategies now. First, he may try to solve ODS's leadership problem by attempting to run for president, as the Czech Republic will hold presidential elections in February.

Since the election results significantly decreased his chances of being elected by parliament, Klaus may stop opposing the idea of direct election of the president and his party may support a constitutional amendment that would make the popular vote possible. Klaus is a charismatic but also a polarizing figure, and even massive support from his friends in show business may not be enough to get him elected to replace Havel. Following the elections, the presidential odds of Senate Chairman Petr Pithart or Ombudsman Otakar Motejl are greater than those of Klaus.

Second, Klaus may simply bet everything on the anti-EU card. In the opposition, he may dispense with the pretenses about there being "no alternative" to EU membership and campaign openly against membership before the accession referendum next year. Should he be able to persuade a majority of Czechs to vote against membership, the pro-EU government would have to step down and Klaus could return with a significantly strengthened mandate as well as a less schizophrenic agenda than he used in the electoral campaign.

(Jiri Pehe, formerly director of Czech President Vaclav Havel's Political Cabinet, is a political analyst and director of New York University in Prague.)


"Hospodarske noviny" (Prague), 2002.

"Lidove noviny" (Prague), 2002.

"Mlada fronta Dnes" (Prague), 2002.

Pehe, J., 1999, "The Czech Republic" in Smith, J, Teague, L. (eds.), Democracy in the New Europe (The Politics of Post-Communism), (London: The Greycoat Press), pp. 25-47.

Pehe, J., 2002a, "Benes's Electoral Second Coming," in "The Wall Street Journal Europe," 11 June.

Pehe, J., 2002b, "Nationalist Platform Could Be Klaus's Last Resort," in "Prague Business Journal," 24 June.

Sartori, G., 2000, Ustavni inzenyrstvi [Constitutional Engineering] (Prague: Academia).

Stone, L. (ed.), 2000, "Ten Years After," (Prague; EastWest Institute), pp. 35-55.