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East European Perspectives: February 9, 2000

9 February 2000, Volume 2, Number 3

Part IV A: Radical Politics In Post Communist East Central Europe

By Michael Shafir

The Radical Left
A) The Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary

Most of the candidates about to be taxonomized and the reasons for placing them in this "box" or the other should have emerged from the discussion in Parts I-III (see "RFE/RL's East European Prespectives," nos. 1-6). Let us, however, recapitulate the criteria. Successor parties that have opted for civic strategies have also opted out of our taxonomy. Those formations have nothing in common with radical politics. Successor parties that opted for ethnic strategies, on the other hand, transformed themselves into parties of radical continuity, where continuity comes to signal their linkage with, and exacerbation of, national communism. Whether such parties are sole inheritors of their communist predecessors under the same or a new denomination matters little. New political formations may also belong to the category of radical continuity inasmuch as they are clear exponents of the national communist postures. Political parties that trace their doctrinal postures to interwar radicalism, and hence reject civism despite a display of anti-communist postures, are considered to be parties of radical return.

At this point the need arises to introduce two additional categories: one obvious, the other obviously embarrassing. The obvious one is "radical left," with which this chapter will briefly deal. The species was nearly declared to be extinguished soon after 1989. The news of its demise was (paraphrasing Mark Twain), somewhat exaggerated. A comparative survey conducted by three of the most respectable opinion research institutes in late 1999 showed that 67 percent of Poles, 55 percent of Czechs, and 46 percent of Hungarians are generally supportive of the outcome of the "transition." Yet 40 percent of Hungarians, 32 percent of Czechs, and 22 percent of Poles have what has been termed as a "certain nostalgia" about the communist past (Adevarul, 18 November 1999). The Romanian daily that published these figures noted with a tone of satisfaction that Romanians "are not alone in their communist nostalgia." Indeed, in November 1999, a poll conducted on behalf of the Soros Foundation by the Bucharest-based center for Urban and Rural Sociology found that 51 percent of Romanians considered life under Ceausescu to have been "better." The same proportion of Romanians had given this answer one year earlier, and in June 1999 a staggering 63 percent had been of this opinion (Mediafax, 26 November 1998, 8 June and 18 November 1999). The Romanians may, however, be the most divided about that past: the November 1999 survey showed that while 22 percent considered Ceausescu to be the politician who "has harmed Romania most," precisely the same proportion of respondents consider the former Conducator to be the statesman who "has done the greatest good" for the country (Adevarul, 17 November 1999).

Polls were naturally en vogue as the decade of "transition" was closing on the former communist countries. According to yet another comparative survey, commissioned by the European Commission and conducted by the Fessel GfK polling institute in May, less than one Czech or Slovak in five (17 and 18 percent, respectively) were of the opinion that the change of regime has "met their expectations." The figures were not significantly different elsewhere: 26 percent in Poland, 24 percent in Bulgaria, 23 in Hungary, 22 in Romania, and 20 in Russia. A staggering 72 percent of Czechs, 67 percent of Slovaks, 66 percent of Hungarians, 65 percent of Bulgarians, 61 percent of Poles and 76 percent of Russians said they were either "fairly" or "very disappointed" in their expectations of the 1989 political change ( MTI, 23 July 1999). Ten years after the crumbling of the Berlin wall, disaffection was written on each country's "wailing wall." Back in 1995, 40 percent of the Czechs were still satisfied with the change of the system; four years later, those satisfied were less than half of that figure (CTK, 1 November 1999). Similarly, a survey conducted by the USIA in the "decade year" attested to the same involution: in 1993, 70 percent of Romanians had been of the opinion that democracy was a better system than communism; in 1999, only 50 percent held to that opinion and one Romanian in five (20 percent) showed a preference for communism. Only in Poland and in the Czech Republic were majorities (i.e. more than 50 percent) favoring the post-communist system, and in the latter case the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) was leading in opinion polls in October and November!

What is one to make of these figures? To conclude from them that a "return of communism" (this time around with no Soviet tanks) is imminent, or even likely, would have the same "prophetic value" as that of the "return of history" approach. Instead of climbing high on the cliffs of sweeping generalizations, one would be well advised to examine each poll within its immediate context. After all, public opinion specialists repeatedly warn that polls are a reflection of an immediate situation. The same Romanian poll that produced a schizophrenic Ceausescu image had incumbent President Emil Constantinescu in second place (18 percent) among politicians who did the most harm to the country! Nobody can take that at face value, regardless of one's positioning vis-a-vis Constantinescu. In other words, respondents were replying having in mind immediate "performance criteria," and those are likely to change as the subjective impact of daily life difficulties will make room for other "villains." It is, again, on the basis of "performance criteria" within the immediate political context that one should judge the popularity of the KSCM. The party surged to its height in opinion polls at a time when the so-called "opposition agreement" between the ruling minority Social Democratic (CSSD) government headed by Milos Zeman and its main parliamentary alternative, former Premier Vaclav Klaus' Civic Democratic Party, had practically left the electorate with no other formation ready to build political capital on the "government-cum-opposition" performance failure but the KSCM, since the far-right Republican Party had been eliminated from the legislature by the 1998 elections.

The KSCM is, in fact, the strongest post-communist, unreformed successor party (except the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, or KPRF) and the only one in East Central Europe to conserve the "communist" denomination (Henderson and Robinson, 1997, p. 356), which speaks miles about its character. The PDS in the former East Germany must not be placed in the same "box," as this party is in the process of undergoing apparently irreversible transformations, the more so as it is now attempting to build a constituency not only in its former GDR stronghold, but also in the western parts of the country (Rueschemeyer and Wolchik, 1999). The KSCM was set up in March 1990, ending the "asymmetry" of Czech domination of a formation in which a Slovak Communist Party existed separately, but was under the domination of the joint Czechoslovak Communist Party (KSCS). The KSCS still ran under its old name in the 1990 elections to the federal and the bicameral parliaments, gaining a respectable 14 percent nationwide (Pehe, 1991). It emerged as the second-strongest party in the Czech Federal Assembly and in the National Council (13 percent), and fourth strongest in Slovakia (14 and 13 percent, respectively) (Henderson and Robinson, 1997, p. 137). This reflected the rather strong roots and tradition of the KSCS dating back to pre-war times. Although that party lost a significant number of members after 1989, one could hardly speak of a "debacle" of the kind registered by the communists in Poland or in Hungary. While the Slovak party soon stepped onto the road of transformation that would lead it to abandon its old denomination and transform itself into the Party of the Democratic Left (SDL), the KSCS remained a communist conservative stronghold. It is telling that while reformists in the KSCS were pushed outside the party's ranks, in Slovakia conservatives ended up leaving the SDL. Two unreformed wings of the Slovak Communist Party, one sticking to the old denomination, the other calling itself the Union of Slovak Communists, left it by 1991 and ended in electoral oblivion (Pehe, 1991).

In the 1992 elections, called in the shadow of the "velvet divorce," the KSCM ran in a coalition which it dominated, under the label of the Left Bloc. It scored the same 14 percent as in 1990 and soon thereafter it suffered a split, with those who had hoped to see the KSCM emulate successor parties that chose the reform path being forced outside its ranks (Obrman, 1992, p. 12; Henderson and Robinson, 1997, pp. 237, 356; Olson, 1997, p. 187). Yet the party had seemed at one point to be on the verge of genuine transformation. At the first congress held soon after its ouster from power, in December 1989, the KSCM apologized to people for "events after 1968" and declared that it no longer abided by the principle of the dictatorship of the proletariat and was consequently renouncing a monopoly on power in case it returned to rule (Vachudova, 1993, p. 28). Change seemed to be also heralded by the election of a new chairman in the person of Jiri Svoboda, who advocated expelling from the party officials linked to the repressive system, relinquishing all KSCM assets to the state and, eventually, changing the party's name to eliminate its designation as "communist." Already in November 1989, the party had dismissed from all positions Miroslav Stepan, the longtime party-boss of Prague whose name had been linked with oppression of dissidents and brutal action against demonstrators on the eve of the "Velvet Revolution." But Stepan, who became the first leading communist official to spend time in jail for abuse of power in November 1989, had argued after his liberation from jail that his ouster had been an infringement of party statutes and refused to recognize it as valid. He was re-admitted to the KSCM Prague local organization in September 1992, whereupon it became clear that the next KSCM congress would have to make a choice between his or Svoboda's way. At the end of the day the congress did neither (Vachudova, 1993, pp. 30-31).

In January 1993, Stepan set up a neo-Stalinist platform within the party, calling itself "For Socialism," and Svoboda saw this as an opportunity to finally get rid of him. It is against this background that the rather dull figure of Miroslav Grebenicek, at that time Svoboda's deputy, began to emerge as a possible compromise-solution between the two streams. Grebenicek criticized Stepan's platform, but at the same time he was opposed to Svoboda's advocacy of transforming the KSCM into a social-democratic formation. In March 1993, the KSCM Central Committee rejected Svoboda's proposal to rename the party as the Party of Democratic Socialism. Svoboda resigned in protest, but withdrew his resignation after the Executive Committee refused to accept it. Yet he predicted that at the next congress, scheduled for June, he would nonetheless be compelled to resign in view of the party leadership's refusal to follow his line.

And this is precisely what happened, with Svoboda being replaced by Grebenicek. Meanwhile, the Central Committee in March also expelled the Stepan faction, though its leaders, once more, refused to accept the validity of the step. But the congress that elected Grebenicek ended this statutory limbo by approving the expulsion (Vachudova, 1993, p. 32). In 1995, Stepan set up a rival Party of Czechoslovak Communists and in early December 1999, at that party's 19th congress (counting went back to pre-communist times to emphasize continuity), Stepan's formation decided to restore the KSCS denomination to the party. Stepan's formation was in danger of being outlawed in 1996, when Interior Minister Jan Ruml argued that its program, advocating "the renewal of socialism in the Czechoslovak [sic!] state," contravened the 1993 law on the illegality of the former communist system. But the Vaclav Klaus cabinet decided that the party posed no realistic threat to democracy and its outlawing would be more damaging, as it would infringe on the constitutional provisions of freedom of organization and expression (OMRI Daily Digest, 16 March, 24 April 1995, 11 April 1996; CTK, 5 December 1999).

The 1996 elections brought a decline in the KSCM parliamentary representation, it having scored only 10 percent in the vote to the Chamber of Deputies; its performance in the single-constituency elections for the Senate first held in November that year was even poorer, the KSCM managing to elect only two senators out of a total of 81 (Henderson and Robinson, 1997, pp. 357-58). The upsurge in its popularity in the polls in 1999 is thus clearly not so much due to the KSCM itself, as it is to the Czech electorate's harsh sentence on the main parties represented in the legislature. In fact, KSCM leader Miroslav Grebenicek obliquely admitted this when, in a speech to the party's national congress in December 1999, he said that the party's new program is but "a sharper version" of what the ruling CSSD promised to implement before the elections and is geared at criticizing the CSSD's performance" (emphasis added).

This, however, is an understatement. The program is geared at "the renewal of socialism" and that of a "socially juster system." It is an obvious etatist document envisaging, among other things, defining which property is "indispensable" for the state. Such assets are to be bought out or regained through court proceedings in those cases of privatized state property that has not been fully paid for yet. Vojtech Filip, leader of the KSCM parliamentary group in the Chamber of Deputies, was more frank than the esoteric language used by the document: "You can call it nationalization, if you want," he told the daily Mlada fronta Dnes on 3 December 1999.

Hand in hand with these half-hidden objectives, the KSCM is obviously counting on attracting the vote of the socially-weak and most affected by the "transition." It promises to restore comprehensive welfare provisions, increase pensions and job security, supervise prices of basic foodstuffs, a.s.o. The party's appeal has been hitherto largely confined to regions with significant portions of the population employed in heavy industry and in underdeveloped Moravia, with its high ratio of unemployment (Rueschemeyer and Wolchik, 1999, p. 125). An even larger proportion of this electorate has in the past voted for the CSSD. Indeed, in-depth analysis of polls shows that most of the recent support for the KSCM comes from voters disaffected by the CSSD's unfulfilled social promises. Whether this electoral segment will increase by 2002--when the next elections are due--is difficult to predict, but the likelihood is not remote. In these circumstances, whether the protest vote will be captured by the radical left or the radical right, whose criticism of the "sellout" to foreigners is basically similar to that of the KSCM, is for prophets, rather than political scientists, to predict.

In Slovakia, Jan Luptak, a deputy in the SDL opposed to what he regarded as an exaggerated drifting away of his party from left-wing policies, set up the Association of Slovak Workers (ZRS) on 26 April 1994. In the early parliamentary elections of 30 September-1 October that year, the ZRS did surprisingly well, capturing 7.3 percent of the vote and 13 seats in the National Council, as the Slovak parliament is called. Although this made the ZRS only the sixth (out of seven) largest parliamentary group, the party nonetheless emerged as a broker, since neither Vladimir Meciar (whose Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, or HZDS, had run in alignment with the tiny Peasant Party), nor his opponents (outgoing Premier Jozef Moravcik, formerly a HZDS member, being the most likely candidate to head the cabinet) could master a majority without ZRS support. As he was launching his new party, Luptak, in the summer of 1994, had led a drive for a referendum calling for legislation that would have obliged individuals participating in the privatization process to disclose the source of their funds. The referendum, however, failed due to the low turnout (Fisher, 1995b, p. 49). In the elections themselves the ZRS ran on a platform of "defending workers' interests" and opposing privatization. It presented itself as being a "socialist party" whose main purpose was that of creating new jobs, reducing unemployment, and preventing the "further demoralization of society." At the same time, it claimed it would pursue integration into "European political, economic, and security structures" (cited in Fisher, 1995a).

Luptak claimed his new party had no intention of joining any cabinet, and right after the ballot he continued to insist that the ZRS will remain in "constructive opposition." Yet the hang-up parliament, with the support of the HZDS, the SNS, and the ZRS, passed several laws that were partly responding to the ZRS platform, among them being one that canceled all direct-sale privatization projects passed by the Moravcik cabinet. The parliament also elected Luptak as one of its deputy chairmen. These apparently were convincing arguments for the ZRS to finally agree to join a cabinet headed by Meciar in early December 1994. The ZRS received four portfolios, one of which was the Ministry of Privatization, which went to ZRS member Peter Bisak, while another member of the party was appointed State Property Fund (FNM) presidium president. That was far from being the only oddity in the cabinet, which was now made up by the far-left and the far-right of the parliamentary political spectrum, since the SNS was the other coalition partner of the HZDS (Fisher, 1995b, pp. 48-49, 1995c, pp. 60-61).

Having joined the coalition, Luptak appeared bent on continuing his crusade against privatization, defining it as "the foundation of a speculative economy" that had brought about the destruction of Slovakia's entire economic base. Voucher-privatization, which had been launched in January 1991 and slowed down considerably by the cabinet headed by Meciar between 1992 and 1994, was now stopped, being replaced in July 1995 (Wolchik, 1997, p. 218) by privatization through bonds. Much as this was in line with the ZRS policies, the move was to a great extent also prompted by Meciar, who preferred either keeping property under state control or transferring it at a nominal price to his cronies. Indeed, before the ZRS had joined the cabinet, an amendment was passed to the privatization law transferring decision-making powers from the government to the FNM. The latter move fit hand in glove with Meciar's policies of favoritism to his supporters, since it did away with transparency, the FNM not having to disclose the price at which assets were being transferred to private hands (Fisher, 1995b, pp. 47-48). The paradise of those whom Katherine Verdery suitably depicted as "entrepratchiks" and others called the emerging "kleptoklatura," was now back in full force (Verdery, 1996, pp. 33, 196-97).

It would have been surprising if the ZRS had resisted the temptation. It did not. In early November 1996, employees from two recently-privatized firms staged a demonstration in Bratislava after the ZRS-controlled FNM had failed to abide by a secret agreement, whereby it should have supported an employee-management buyout scheme, in exchange for a "privatization fee" of 500,000 crowns ($16,000) cashed for the party's coffers (see OMRI Daily Digest, 6 November 1996). It was also around clashing privatization interests that a major coalition crisis developed in 1996, triggered, however, by the HZDS's other coalition partner, the SNS. The SNS objected to the replacement of the pro-SNS management of the state insurance firm Slovenska poistovna with HZDS cronies, apparently in view of the envisaged privatization of the company into the hands of HZDS supporters. The decision was taken by the FNM's executive council, where Meciar's partisans were in an absolute majority. The ZRS rallied to the support of the other minor coalition partner and at one point the two formations seemed to be surprisingly supporting other democratization changes advocated by the opposition. The coalition's future seemed to be placed in doubt. Meciar ironically remarked that the "national pride" of the SNS and the "workers' honor" of the ZRS "ended at Slovenska poistovna," since both formations seemed adamant to make sure that they get something out of the spoils (cited in Fisher, 1996, p. 34). The junior coalition partners' attempt to blackmail Meciar underestimated the premier's political skills. Meciar seemed to come up with a surprising alternative for his coalition, being close to enlisting the support of the SDL, whereupon the two "rebels" hurried back into the fold (Fisher, 1996, pp. 35-36).

In addition to having discredited itself by such obvious departures from its principles, the ZRS also supported foreign policy postures obviously opposed to what its declared platform had advocated. Luptak himself participated in October 1994 in a demonstration in Brussels against the Maastricht Treaty, whereupon he also announced that the ZRS opposed both accession to NATO and the EU. So much for pursuing "European integration." In fact, the party had turned into what Fisher (1995a) fittingly termed "a virtual puppet of the HZDS," the Slovenska poistovna incident notwithstanding. The ZRS also suffered from poor organization and, as often is the case of radical formations (left and right), from splits. Three of its deputies left a congress held in early April 1995, claiming the ZRS was supporting policies contrary to its platform and does "nothing for the people." Headed by Miroslav Kocnar, this group founded the Labor Party of Slovakia but the other two deputies that accompanied Kocnar eventually returned to the ZRS (Fisher, 1995a). In the 1998 elections, Koncar ran on the ticket of the Nase Slovensko formation, which was hardly a left-wing party. Several other ZRS deputies left it before those elections, and three of those ran on the lists of Narodna alternativa Slovenska.Neither those "pocket-parties" nor the ZRS managed to pass the 5 percent threshold in the parliamentary elections held on 25-26 September 1999. The ZRS garnered a poor 1.3 percent of the vote, which was less than even the 2.7 percent garnered by the communists (RFE/RL Newsline, 28 September 1999).

In Hungary the radical left has thus far failed to gain parliamentary representation. The explanation rests in both the remote and the recent past, rather than in the present. Unlike the Czechs, Hungarian experience with communism has been twice traumatic: under the 133-days long Soviet Republic of Bela Kun and under Stalinism, culminating in the 1956 revolution. As a result of the "negotiated revolution" (Toekes, 1996), Hungary emerged from the 1989 upheaval with perhaps the fewest scars of all East-Central European countries. Its former communist leadership had marched on the path of reform long before 1989. The October 1989 congress of the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party (MSZMP) decided to change the party's name into Socialist, but that did not preclude its being swept out of power in the first electoral contest of 1990. However, a minority group in the party, including several prominent former leaders--among them former MSZMP leader Karoly Grosz--objected to the change and the party's new platform. One month later this group revived the MSZMP, declaring itself to be the one and only lawful continuator of the party. To emphasize that point, the gathering was declared to be the 14th congress of the MSZMP, although that congress had just been concluded with the party's re-christening. Gyula Thuermer was elected party chairman (Racz, 1998, pp. 2-3). In January 1991 the party did, however, change its name, becoming the Workers' Party (DP), but it still counts congresses back to communist times. Unlike the KSCM, the DP never made it to the parliament, although it just missed the 5 percent electoral hurdle. Like the KSCM, its constituency is primarily in the eastern and northeastern "rust belt" industrial areas, affected as they are by a high rate of unemployment and rampant poverty (Racz, 1998, pp. 20, 26). Thus far, the greatest success the party can boast of is the gathering of over 180,000 signatures on a petition calling for a referendum on NATO membership--some 40,000 more than required by the law. The parliament, however, rejected the plebiscite (Racz, 1998, pp. 44-45). Not surprising, the other Hungarian political formation opposed to NATO membership was Istvan Csurka's radical return Justice and Life Party. As a matter of fact, a referendum was eventually conducted on NATO membership in November 1997, at the government's initiative, resulting in an over 85 percent endorsement for joining the organization. But the plebiscite was marred by protracted skirmishes between the cabinet--headed at the time by Gyula Horn--and the opposition, which had collected enough signatures to introduce in the plebiscite questions on foreign-ownership of land, which it opposed. The cabinet had its own different version on this issue, which ended by its being altogether withdrawn from inclusion in the plebiscite. In March 1998 the parliament voted against holding a referendum on foreign-ownership of land, for which the opposition has collected over 200,000 signatures (see relevant items in RFE/RL Newsline, August-November 1997 and 4 March 1998).

A public opinion poll conducted in 1996 by the Centrum institute best reveals the DP's main feature--irrelevance. Between 36 and 41 percent of respondents were unable to answer questions that sought to gain insight into the party's image among the electorate. Among those who replied, negative rather than positive answers predominated. The party was deemed to be "incompetent" (19 percent) rather than "competent" (15)--but "neither" one or the other by 25 percent. It was said to be "extremist" (26 percent) rather than "moderate" (14)--but "neither" one or the other by most respondents (19 percent). Its policies were judged to be "passive" (24 percent) rather than "pragmatic" (15)--with 20 percent voting for "neither." The DP was perceived as representing "negative values" (20 percent) rather than "positive values" (16)--with more than one in four respondents (26 percent) opting for "neither." Finally, 30 percent were of the opinion that the party's image was "negative," 14 percent judged it "positive," and 20 percent "neither. There are Thuermers and parties led by Thuermer-like figures all over East-Central Europe.


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