Czech Communists as populists

SUN JOURNAL

Role: As the country makes its final step into the West, the party is gaining in appeal to voters as an alternative to the current government.

May 04, 2004|By Andy Markowitz | Andy Markowitz,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PRAGUE, Czech Republic - The headquarters of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia could use a good scrubbing. It's on Political Prisoners Street - an irony no doubt appreciated in a country that selected an absurdist playwright (and sometime political prisoner) as its first post-communist president - and the building's imposing neoclassical facade bristles with columns and arches and statuary, all caked in soot.

The soot would seem an apt image for a party seemingly consigned, along with its peers across Central and Eastern Europe, to the "ash heap of history," in Ronald Reagan's famous phrase.

But as the Czech Republic takes the final symbolic step from behind the Iron Curtain and into the West - it joined the European Union on Saturday and entered the European Parliament yesterday - its Communist Party isn't collecting dust. It's collecting voters.

While much of this country once led by dissident writer Vaclav Havel views communism through the prism of 40 years of totalitarian rule, the party appeals increasingly to voters as a populist alternative to an unpopular government dealing with tough economic times.

Soon, some political analysts say, the country's leaders will have to consider the once-unthinkable: inviting the Communists into a prominent role in government. "I think that this resolution [not to cooperate with the Communists] will be, after the next election, finished," says Milan Znoj, head of the political science department at Prague's Charles University, referring to the national parliamentary voting in 2006.

In the 2002 election, the Communists won 18.5 percent of the vote and 41 of 200 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Czech Parliament, up from 11 percent and 24 seats four years earlier.

The bloc was instrumental in Parliament's election of Vaclav Klaus as president last year, delivering votes to the rightist former prime minister to undermine its chief rivals on the left, the Social Democrats. (Klaus rewarded them by reversing Havel's longstanding ban on including Communists in presidential meetings with parliamentary leaders.)

The party consistently draws about 20 percent in public-opinion polls, behind Klaus' Civic Democrats but ahead of the ruling Social Democrats, who have slashed spending and raised taxes amid record deficits and unemployment. They have seen their numbers plummet accordingly.

Many observers expect the Communists to outdo the Social Democrats when Czechs elect their first representatives to the EU Parliament in June.

"In some sense it's a traditional protest vote," says Vladimira Dvorakova, political science chair at the Prague School of Economics. "The people are not satisfied with the politics of the [government] right now, with the social impacts of [economic] reform and the unemployment. People in European elections are voting in some sense more radically, sending more protest votes, mostly from the extreme right. But we have no extreme right here, so this protest vote can be concentrated on the Communists."

Here, where Stalin was worshipped in the 1950s and Soviet tanks crushed a reform movement in the 1960s, a vote for the Communists carries more than symbolic weight. The legacy of that past stirs passions in this country of 10 million.

Prominent politicians are routinely called on to explain what they did before the Velvet Revolution. Reruns of communist-era television series prompt outcries about propaganda. (They also are often hits.)

Communist Party Chairman Miroslav Grebenicek, the son of a notorious former secret-police agent, routinely registered as the country's most unpopular politician in polls - until last fall, when he was overtaken by a Social Democrat who had been running the country's nearly insolvent health-care system.

The Communists were pushed aside in 1989 and therefore unscathed by corruption scandals that accompanied the transformation to a market economy in the 1990s. They retained a large core of mostly older supporters who recall the low prices and full employment of communist-era Czechoslovakia with nostalgia.

"It has for 15 years been in the very comfortable position of being a parliamentary party, very visible, that can criticize and kibitz and do all kinds of things that it doesn't have to take responsibility for," says Jiri Pehe, a longtime Havel adviser and a columnist for the Prague daily Lidove noviny.

Even Miloslav Ransdorf, Communist Party vice chairman and a member of Parliament, acknowledges that the Communists' recent gains are not entirely of their own making.

"Mainly it is dissatisfaction with the policy of Social Democracy, and the so-called protest vote," he says. "Our main task now is to change the protest vote into a positive vote."

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