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Why the Czechs have finally turned their back on communism

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By David Hutt
Chairman of the Communist Party (KSCM) Vojtech Filip talks to the media after the parliamentary election in Prague, Czech Republic, Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021
Chairman of the Communist Party (KSCM) Vojtech Filip talks to the media after the parliamentary election in Prague, Czech Republic, Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021   -   Copyright  Credit: AP
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“Uz nebudou!”

So proclaimed a celebratory, claret-soaked poster that appeared on Sunday night at a Prague monument to the Velvet Revolution, which in 1989 overthrew four decades of communist rule.

The slogan -- meaning “there is no more” -- is taken from a recent satirical video by the decommunisation initiative called “Dekomunizace”, which has campaigned for voters to turn away from the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM).

It worked. More than 30 years on from the fall of communism in the Czech Republic, the KSCM failed to win any seats in parliament for the first time in its history at last weekend’s general election.

The KSCM, which had informally supported the outgoing coalition government of Prime Minister Andrej Babis since 2018, won just 3.6% of the vote, below the 5% threshold needed to enter parliament.

“It is a highly symbolic moment for Czech democracy since the KSCM has never rejected the legacy of the Czechoslovak communist dictatorship and never apologised for the communist regime’s crimes,” said Filip Kostelka, a lecturer at the University of Essex.

Not long after the election results were announced on Saturday evening, the party’s chairman of 16 years, Vojtech Filip, announced his resignation. He also said that the entire party executive committee will also resign when they hold an extraordinary congress later this month.

“We will see how the liberal-conservative solution that emerged from the elections will work for the benefit of citizens and how long people will [miss] the lack of left-wing proposals,” Filip was quoted as saying during a tearful resignation speech after the election results were finalised.

The KSCM, the direct successor of the ousted communist party that ruled Czechoslovakia for four decades, has typically come third at most elections since the Czech Republic was created in 1993. Its vote tally peaked in 2008 at 18.5%.

The legislative election held last weekend also saw the collapse of the centre-left Social Democrats (CSSD), which for the first time since Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918 failed to win a seat in parliament.

The defeat of the country’s two leftist parties and oldest political entities came on the back of victory for centrism, with the centre-right SPOLU alliance surprisingly beating the ruling ANO party in the popular vote.

Post-election capers may drag on for several months, but most analysts reckon that Babis will fail in his bid to hang onto the prime ministership and the next government will be formed by SPOLU in cooperation with another alliance.

What's the history of Czech communism?

Except for the six years of Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia between 1939 and 1945, communists MPs have always sat in Czech parliaments.

The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSC) was founded in 1921 after far-left delegates split from the Czechoslovak Social Democratic Workers' Party over the question of whether to join the Soviet Union’s newly-created Comintern, the Moscow-led socialist international organisation.

The KSC, taking its cues from its communist patron in Moscow, went on to take second place at the 1925 general election, picking up nearly 13% of the popular vote.

Between the 1925 and 1935 elections, the communists never won less than 10% of the vote.

Czechoslovakia was occupied by Nazi Germany in 1939, with Slovakia splitting to create its own Nazi puppet-state under the clerical fascist Josef Tiso. The Czech lands were subsumed into the Nazi-run Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.

Having been banned and its members repressed, the KSC was one of the few Czech parties not to be tainted by the accusation of collaboration with the Nazi rulers. And its fortunes were greatly aided as Czechoslovakia was liberated by Soviet forces, who rushed to put KSC politicians into positions of power.

At the 1946 election, the first after the war, the communists finished first with 31% of the vote, the highest share of the vote that any party had received in a Czechoslovak election.

David W Cerny/REUTERS
A child lights a candle at Narodni street in Prague's city centre November 17, 2014. Czech Republic marks the anniversary of the 1989 Velvet RevolutionDavid W Cerny/REUTERS

And it is generally thought to have been the highest return for any European communist party in a free and fair election.

As part of a grand coalition, KSC leader Klement Gottwald served as Czech prime minister from 1946 until the communists’ February 1948 coup, when with Moscow’s support they ousted their power-sharing partners to centralize power completely. That began more than four decades of totalitarian rule by the communist regime, which came crashing down in November 1989.

But the end of communism in Czechoslovakia -- and the collapse of its Soviet benefactor two years later -- didn’t mean the end of the communist party. At the 1990 Czechoslovak elections, the KSC finished in second place, with 13.6% of the vote.

After the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993, the Czech communist contingent was reformed as the KSCM, which has maintained a healthy level of support afterwards. Before last weekend, it tended to win more than 10% of votes at general elections.

According to a Pew Research survey conducted in 2019, the 30th anniversary of the end of communism in Central and Eastern Europe, some 16% of Czech respondents said they disapproved of the shift to a market economy after 1989, a higher share than in Poland and former East Germany. Some 11% of Czechs said they disapproved of the change to a multiparty democracy.

In the run-up to this month’s legislative election, the majority of opinion polls suggested that the social-democratic CSSD, the junior partner in Prime Minister Babis’ outgoing government, would fail to cross the 5% vote threshold needed to enter parliament.

But most pollsters thought the KSCM would still win seats, even if it was predicted to drop votes.

The centre-right SPOLU alliance narrowly beat Babis’ ANO party by fewer than 30,000 votes, although the latter claimed one extra seat in parliament. SPOLU has agreed to work in government with the third-place alliance that was formed this year by the liberation Pirate Party and the Mayors and Independents party (STAN).

President Milos Zeman, who on Sunday was taken to hospital and is reportedly now in intensive care, is expected to still name Babis as the next prime minister but he is almost certain to lose a vote of confidence in parliament. Analysts reckon there could be several months of politicking before the formation of a coalition government between SPOLU and PIR-STAN.

Extremes lose out as Czechs move back to centre

As well as a defeat for Babis, this weekend’s election was also grim for the country’s non-centrist parties. Support for the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) dropped a percentage point and it lost two of its seats in parliament. The libertarian Pirates Party, the third-largest party going into the ballot, only picked up four seats as part of its alliance with STAN.

The reasons for the KSCM’s defeat are numerous. One is the result of structural changes in Czech politics, said Kostelka. Since the early 2010s, Czech politics have seen the rise of new, populist parties that have quickly replaced the older parties, like the KSCM and CSSD.

Younger voters have been attracted to the Greens or the libertarian Pirates Party. There has also been a rise of extremist parties, including the far-right SPD, which have attracted protest voters that used to support the communists.

“The electorate of the party has mostly been older people, and it did not manage to become relevant for new voters,” said Filip Sebok, of the Association for International Affairs, a Prague-based think tank.

Indeed, the KSCM is hardly a 21st-century party. Its official Twitter account has just 3,237 followers, and its Facebook page has around 15,000.

The KSCM received a great deal of criticism from its core voters after agreeing in 2018 to informally back the minority government of Babis, the country’s second-richest man who has been dogged by corruption allegations for years.

The communists had been a resolute anti-establishment party, unreconstructed in their opposition to capitalism and the free market. But after going into an information alliance with the billionaire Babis in 2018, KSCM politicians were critiqued for accepting sinecures and becoming too close to power.

Filip, the outgoing party chairman, was made deputy speaker of parliament’s lower chamber. Miloslava Vostra, the party’s former deputy leader, became chair of the parliament’s budget committee. Every law passed by Babis’ government since 2018 depended on the KSCM backing it in parliament, where its support informally gave his minority government a majority in the lower chamber.

Filip was also viewed as a problem. The head of the party’s election campaign, Roman Roun, blamed the chairman for not participating in campaigning sessions. “He probably felt that he could do it alone without any training,” Roun told local media after the election results were announced.

The KSCM has supported the far-right SPD in calling for a referendum on EU and NATO membership. And its foreign policy agenda, which wants the Czech Republic to ally with Russia and China, is also out of step with most Czech voters. A Pew Research survey in 2019 found that 57% of Czechs had a negative view of China, one of the highest in Europe.

Whether this is the end of communism in Czech politics waits to be seen. “There is reason to expect that the party will never return to parliament,” said Kostelka.

According to Sebok, there are now suggestions that KSCM might reform itself to be more in line with the Western European leftist parties, or might even try to cooperate with social-democratic CSSD, which also failed to enter parliament for the first time in its history.

“Some kind of cooperation with other leftist parties is probably the only viable path for the future. However, the party would most likely need to get rid of the communist label,” he added.

Making matters worse, its low share of votes means the party is going to be cash-strapped since the state provides funds to political parties depending on the number of votes they receive.

According to a report by Novinky, a newspaper, the KSCM will receive around €1.9m between 2021 and 2024, compared with the €5.2m it received after the 2017 election.

It is widely believed that Katerina Konecna, an MEP, will become the new KSCM chairperson when the party meets later this month for a special congress.

“I am ready to work immediately with my team to ensure that this terrible result is a stepping stone upwards,” she said after the election results were announced, according to local media.

According to Konecna, this election result hasn’t consigned the Czech communist party to the “abyss of history.”

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