EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

In a recent interview with Hospodarske Noviny, Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said that he is open to cooperation between the Social Democrats (CSSD) and the Communists (KSCM) on government level. Up until now, this has been hindered by the so-called Bohumin resolution of 1995. The resolution was put in place to ensure that the CSSD would not attempt to create a government coalition with the Communist party, which for obvious historical reasons was perceived to be extremist and undemocratic. However, now it seems as if the tides are turning; Sobotka does not wish for the CSSD to abide by the resolution any longer, calling it obsolete and outdated. In the interview with HN, he pointed out that the two parties have already been working successfully together in municipalities and on a regional level for many years. Building on these experiences, there is no reason to believe that the two cannot cooperate equally well in a coalition at the national level. The Czech President, Milos Zeman, has stated that he would have no reservations about appointing a government partly made up of Communists, if the election results would imply a popular wish for such. The deputy head of the KSCM, Jiri Dolejs, welcomes this development, and is glad to see that the parties on the left wing are finally attempting to unite against the right-wing parties. Thus, after the general election in October 2017, the Czech Republic could for the first time since 1989 have Communists in government.

Why is Sobotka suddenly willing to consider the possibility of a government coalition made up of the CSSD and KSCM? Under Sobotka’s leadership, the CSSD’s attitude towards the KSCM has undoubtedly become increasingly amicable, but government level cooperation has until now been out of the question due to the latter’s hostility towards the EU and NATO.

However, it is starting to dawn on Sobotka that he might not be elected for a second term as Prime Minister, and that the key to gaining the votes he desperately needs could be found in cooperation with the KSCM. He has to seriously consider this possibility, because at the moment, the CSSD leader is in a dire position; him and his party are steadily losing popularity, and his chances of winning the upcoming election seem to be diminishing.

Sobotka’s greatest contender is Andrej Babis, the Minister of Finance and leader of the ANO movement, the CSSD’s current government partner. Essentially, the man who helped Sobotka to become Prime Minister in 2014 may also be the one who now takes that position from him.

According to a survey conducted by Stem Polling Institute in November 2016, Babis is the most popular politician in the Czech Republic. Sobotka only ranked third, after the current Minister of Defence Martin Stropnicky, also from ANO. It is not hard to imagine why Babis has become one of the stars on the Czech political scene; he has vowed to fight the country’s endemic corruption, for which he blames the CSSD and other traditional parties, and has done his utmost to get a new anti-corruption legislation act passed. Moreover, he is a successful businessman, who has used his experience and skills to efficiently handle the Czech state budget. Most importantly however, Babis offers something completely different to Czech voters; he is a new and exciting politician, an alternative to the “the establishment” to which Sobotka belongs. The only way in which Sobotka can hope to defeat Babis and ANO in October is to join the “anti-establishment” wave and reach out to an untraditional, and hitherto unexploited, source of votes: the electorate of the Communist party. Although the KSCM has been in opposition since 1989, it has, quite remarkably, been able to secure a stable 10-15 percent of Czech votes in the general elections that have taken place during the last two decades. This makes it a potential gold mine for politicians desperate for new voters, such as Bohuslav Sobotka.

What would it mean to once again have Communists in the Czech government? Is it a cause for worry? Those who fear that the KSCM will herald a return to the pre-Velvet Revolution policies and the yoke of historical Communism can probably relax. There is no doubt that the Czech Communists have toned down their attitudes over the last years, and are currently pursuing much less radical policies than they did back in 1989. However, despite moderation, there are still many troubling and controversial aspects of their political program. Thus, as it stands today, the KSCM would not be a viable partner in a government coalition, not just for the CSSD, but for any serious party on the Czech political scene. The most alarming feature of the KSCM’s present political program is probably the strong opposition to the European Union and NATO. Not only does the KSCM call for the Czech Republic to end its NATO-membership, it also wishes for the organization to dissolve completely. The party is sceptical towards the West, and the United States in particular, and wants the Czech Republic to abandon its commitments to these. Instead, the country should attempt to improve its relations with non-Western countries such as Russia and China. The pro-Russian stance is especially problematic, not simply because of the Czech Republic’s historical experience with Russian domination, but also because the KSCM’s potential government partner is fundamentally pro-European and pro-Western.

If the CSSD decided to cooperate with the KSCM in government, it could not just scare off the party’s more liberal voters, but also potentially cause it to weaken its ties with the West and undermine the legitimacy of the party altogether. More worryingly, such cooperation on government level could create confusion about the Czech Republic’s official stance on important international issues such the war in Ukraine, for which the KSCM incidentally blames the Ukrainians themselves.

Another troubling aspect of bringing the KSCM into a government coalition arises from its reluctance to denounce the totalitarian regime in North Korea. In fact, the head of the KSCM Vojtech Filip, sent his condolences to the regime after the death of Kim-Jong Il. This is highly inappropriate, even for a Communist, and if Sobotka affiliates himself with Filip, he would have a hard time earning the respect of his Western colleagues, and avoid being branded as another “crazy” Central European politician (in the same league as Hungary’s Victor Orban and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski). One can also find controversies in the KSCM domestic politics, such as their idea of introducing a punishment for “workshy” people. Is Sobotka really prepared to overlook these issues to stay in power? Even if he is, it is unlikely that government level cooperation between the CSSD and the KSCM would be easy or even beneficial. Thus, the Prime Minister should think twice before he actually decides to enter a coalition agreement the Communists.

It is important to emphasize that just because the KSCM seems to be an unsuitable partner for the CSSD today does not mean that it has to be tomorrow. On the contrary; with few other alternatives on the left wing, and an increasingly extremist right-wing, the KSCM could be an opportune ally for the CSSD. However, meaningful cooperation in the future is dependent on whether or not the KSCM leadership is willing to revise their politics; as their political program stands today, it would be impossible for a potential CSSD-KSCM coalition to reach a consensus on numerous essential issues. What is more, the two parties want fundamentally different things for the Czech Republic, and only the CSSD’s wishes are anchored in realistic assumptions.

So, what do the Communists need to do in order to become a viable partner for the CSSD? The answer is simple: they have to bury the relics of the past, their most controversial and unrealistic policies and ideas, and use this golden opportunity to mature the party to fit with the realities of the 21st Century.

Only when the KSCM comes to terms with the fact that the Czech Republic must continue to be a Western liberal democracy can it hope to gain any actual political influence in the country. There has never been a better chance for the KSCM to reinvent itself as a viable democratic and parliamentary player and force for meaningful change.

This is in the interest of the KSCM as well due to its demography; the majority of its electorate is over 60 years, and the party has thus far failed to attract a meaningful number of new voters for years. In this respect, both the CSSD and the KSCM would benefit from a reinvention of the Communist party platform. Until that happens, Sobotka needs to ensure that any cooperation is conditional on his demands and political foundation; if not, he risks being dragged down by the extreme, radical hardliners in the KSCM. In this scenario, his electorate would be diminished, rather than expanded, and that is the last thing he needs.

Marianne Gronning

 

 

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