Why the Czech Communists are here to stay

Despite all predictions, the Czech Communists have maintained their position as one of the top parties in the country since the Velvet Revolution. According to a unique survey done by the author, this is because people are voting for them for rational reasons that are unlikely to change any time soon.

Foto: CreativeCommons/ LD nahoru


One of the features that has differentiated the post-Velvet Revolution Czech political system from the political systems of its neighbours has been the continued presence and strength of the communist successor party, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM). Instead of banning the party, which happened in several other countries, the founders of democratic Czechoslovakia chose instead to allow it to exist as a way of demonstrating their commitment to liberal democracy. Now, almost 25 years later, through several attempted bans and a constant barrage of anticommunism from the media and the other parties, the KSČM has managed to remain one of the top three parties in Czech politics.

The KSČM was formed in early 1990 from the remains of the Czech portion of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ), which had been the ruling party since the communist coup in 1948. After having transferred their power to the new democratic government in the Velvet Revolution, the party’s new iteration had to modify itself to exist within a pluralistic system, without one-party rule or a nationally controlled economy. Far from completely renouncing the values inherent to their name, however, they merely shifted their long-term goal from communism to a new version of socialism which could exist within the democratic system. They aim to retain the aspects of the previous regime that helped people – ample support for pensioners and full employment, for example – while distancing themselves from the more oppressive features of the government run by their predecessors.

The initial expectation for the party was that, as the older generations were replaced in the voting population, support for the KSČM would decline. The transition from the pre-1989 regime lowered many people’s quality of life, so nostalgia would spur them to vote for the party that once took better care of them. Older generations remember the failure of democracy that led to Nazi control during WWII and the optimism brought about by Alexander Dubček’s “socialism with a human face” during the Prague Spring in 1968, and these memories perhaps led them to support the KSČM. In the 1990s, the party’s declining membership seemed to point to the fulfilment of that expectation, but today the KSČM still has more members than any other party in the country, and their decline in membership has not translated into fewer votes.

Taking the last two election cycles into account (the senatorial, regional, and local election in 2012 and the pre-term election to the Chamber of Deputies in 2013 in the wake of the scandal that brought down the ODS-led government), the KSČM is currently in an interesting position. Regional governments in nine of the 14 regions of the Czech Republic ended up with the KSČM in their governing coalitions in 2012, including one region, the Ústecký region in Northwest Bohemia, which elected the first communist governor since 1989. The 2013 parliamentary election saw the KSČM come in third behind ČSSD and ANO 2011, with 14.91% of the vote and 33 mandates. In a process that took several months, however, the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) was only able to form a governing coalition with the centre-right ANO 2011 and the centrist Christian and Democratic Union – Czechoslovak People’s Party (KDU-ČSL), which had only received 14 mandates. Once again, the KSČM found itself in the opposition, this time as the lone left-leaning party in that position. Despite their consistent popularity, then, anticommunism still holds the trump card when it comes to forming coalitions in the Czech parliament.

It seems, however, that anticommunism from the right actually has a less rational foundation than the reasons that people have for voting for the KSČM. Far from being a completely unreformed Marxist-Leninist party, as numerous academic studies have asserted and as the Czech political right still contends, the aim of the party is actually to be a functioning part of the democratic system. Even its politicians, however, are not sure how this version of socialism existing in the 21st century within a pluralistic system would look. Their name, which remains unchanged since the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia broke up into its respective parts directly after the Velvet Revolution, is part of a larger aim to maintain continuity with the parts of the communist government that they and their constituency view as having worked. They have also tried to emphasise discontinuity with the overall nature of the past regime, particularly by rejecting the features of the state that were once its hallmarks: single-party rule and a state-controlled economy. This effort, however, has often gone unnoticed in the face of the anticommunist rhetoric coming from the right, perhaps at least in part because they have not completely denounced several infamous events and figures from their past, particularly from the Stalinist period in the 1950s. While the party cannot be said to have completely reformed itself into a social democratic party (the way, for example, the Hungarian Socialist Party has), the fears that their presence in a governing coalition would return the country to the way it was in the 1980s are utterly unfounded.

New reasoning

As the lone left-wing party with any potential for getting into parliament, the KSČM occupies a unique position on the Czech political spectrum, and this is one of the reasons why they have been able to gain over 10% of the vote in every parliamentary election since 1989. As part of the research for a masters thesis investigating the KSČM’s continued strength, the author conducted an online survey in March 2014 through the Czech online media outlet Britské listy that asked participants about their voting history. 5,095 people completed the survey in its entirety, of whom 46.4% had voted for the KSČM at least once. It was open to all voting Czechs, but due to the self-selecting nature of an online survey and Britské listy’s generally left-leaning character, the respondents were generally more left-wing than the Czech population as a whole. The aim was to gain insight into why people vote for the KSČM, and to that end it included questions about why they had chosen the party and what their perceptions of the pre-1989 regime were, among others. The survey’s focus on people’s reasoning for choosing the party offered a new take on the question of why the KSČM has remained so strong, in contrast to many previous studies focusing on, for example, the age of the party’s support base and how that affects their voting decisions.

Based on information from the survey, it was possible to break the reasons people gave for voting for the KSČM into four broad groups, ignoring those who chose not to answer the question about why they had chosen the party: those who vote for the KSČM out of nostalgia, those who choose the party because of a specific candidate, the ideological supporters, and the protest voters, plus a few notable outlying responses. Despite the prevalence of the idea that the party exists solely on nostalgia for the communist period, the group of people who actually cited nostalgia as their main reason for choosing the KSČM was the smallest one, consisting of only 1.8% of  KSČM voters. This was at least partly due to the nature of the question, though, as large majorities of KSČM supporters rated their lives as having been better during the communist era in almost every category given. People are unlikely to point to nostalgia as the reason for their vote, even if they do feel that way. Still, the other reasons that turned up offer yet more support for the idea that the end of the KSČM will not come with the replacement of the older generations.

The second smallest group identified, consisting of 4.2% of KSČM voters, was those who chose the KSČM for a specific candidate, and the specific candidates named offer some insight into how voters feel about the party’s current direction. The first politician who received more than one specific mention was Vojtěch Filip, the current party chairman who took over from the more orthodox Miroslav Grebeníček in 2005. Filip’s ascension to the position, due to his less traditional outlook on the aims of his party and its commitment to the ideals of communism, signalled that the party could be more open to cooperation with other parties in the future. The other notable candidate, who received by far the most mentions, was Jiří Dolejš, a reformist deputy party chairman and Member of Parliament representing Prague. Given that Prague is consistently far more right-leaning than the rest of the country, Dolejš’ personal popularity has perhaps played a greater role in his electoral victories than his politics have. The support for these two men specifically, however, indicates that the reformist wing of the party has gained some followers from people who might not have considered the KSČM as an option before.

The main supporters

The second biggest group, at 27.0%, was made up of the ideological supporters, or the people who choose the party because of their left-wing views, their support for communism as an idea, or the party’s program. The KSČM has a very loyal support base, and these are the people whom it primarily consists of. As they expressed political views very strongly oriented to the left, the ČSSD is the only other viable party they could vote for in the Czech system; however, the ČSSD’s tendency to cooperate with right-of-centre parties makes them a less attractive option. As expected, this group was primarily made up of older people, but it was by no means bereft of younger voters; the political left, apparently, still has some traction even amongst younger people. Interestingly, a large percentage of this group said that they voted for the same party as their parents, which is a factor that several KSČM politicians also mentioned in the author’s field interviews as being key to their support base – those raised in a family that values communist ideals will often retain those ideals even into adulthood.

The most frequent reason given for voting for the KSČM, though, was as a protest, with 35.5% of voters. This group included people who specifically said that their votes were protest votes, people who expressed disappointment with the other parties or the new democratic system, people who cited corruption in other parties as their main reason, and people who said that the KSČM was the least of all evils. According to these lines of reasoning, these people voted for the KSČM not because of the party’s own merits, but because of the actions of the other parties or the status of the system or Czech politics in general. This group was also strongly oriented to the left, but they were less loyal to the KSČM than the ideological supporters were.

This group of protest voters will be an important thing for the KSČM to consider, should they ever find themselves as a governing party. They have never had responsibility for any of either the successes or failures of the government, and as this group’s reasoning shows, they have that to thank for some of their success. It is reasonable to expect that if the KSČM became involved in a scandal or something negative happened during their time in government, it would cause many of these voters to switch their vote to other parties. Much of the KSČM’s identity as a party, although they do not mean for this to be the case, is tied in with their ostracisation at the hands of the other major parties, and the proliferation of protest votes that they receive in every election is testament to this.

There were also other reasons that, though mentioned by fewer people, were also telling. Several people said they voted for the KSČM because they wanted to compel the ČSSD to form a left-wing coalition with the KSČM. A few others said that they chose the party in order to strengthen the functioning of democracy, either by strengthening the opposition or by combating anticommunism as a factor in Czech politics. They felt that the level of negative campaigning against the KSČM by the parties on the right that view the KSČM’s presence as a threat to the system was unmerited, and that an undue number of votes had been cast elsewhere because of that. Negative campaigning is of course a part of any democratic system, but to be universally vilified as the KSČM has been is slightly more unique, and apparently some voters feel that this is a reason to give them their support.

Conclusions

Whatever the specific reason, though, the important thing is that people are choosing to vote for the KSČM not simply because of emotional connections they have to the past, but instead for largely rational reasons. People with rational reasons to support the KSČM include people whose political views fall on the left wing of the political spectrum, because they have no other viable options in the Czech system; people who remember their lives as being materially better during the socialist period, which proves to them that the pre-1989 regime helped them more than the current one; and people who believe that the other political parties have caused the problems that they see in the country today, which means they cannot rationally vote for another party. Under this description, even nostalgia could be a rational reason to choose the party, if the voter’s life actually got worse in the transition to democracy.

The party, then, will remain relevant as long as people support their ideology, find solutions to their problems in the party’s program, or are disappointed in the other parties. The communist period will forever shape their image in some people’s eyes, be it for better or worse, but it is clear that favourable memories of the previous communist government are not the only reason that people are choosing to vote for the party now.

Lani Seelinger

Lani Seelinger

holds a double masters degree in Russian, Central, and East European Studies and Political Science from the University of Glasgow and Corvinus University of Budapest, and she currently works in the Department of Education at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in Prague.