As of the beginning of May, Czech political parties to the left of the political spectrum must be in seventh heaven (the David Rath case aside). The results of the latest opinion polls conducted by the agencies STEM, SANEP, Median and CVVM into the likely outcome were an election to be held to the Chamber of Deputies right now all put the Social Democrats (ČSSD) in front.
Party leader Bohuslav Sobotka’s ČSSD would receive up to 35 percent of the vote and at last have a realistic hope of entering the Strakova Academy [the seat of the Czech parliament] by the main entrance. And if those at Lidový dům, their party headquarters, was intent on forming a genuinely left-wing government capable of implementing a radical program, they shouldn’t have any problems.
Why? With the exception of Median, all the polling agencies named above recorded a sharp increase in the popularity of the Communist Party (KSČM), which has overtaken the Civic Democrats (ODS) and is now in second place in the opinion polls on 19.5 percent according to SANEP, and 21.5 percent according to CVVM. However, Marta Semelová, leader of the KSČM on Prague City Council and a Communist MP known for her radicalism, along with several other delegates to the 8th party congress held during the weekend of May 19–20, admitted that the high voter preference was largely down to protest votes rather than the inherent appeal of the KSČM.
However, this is unimportant in terms of the results of an election. A vote is a vote, whatever the reason it was cast. If the next big elections were to pan out as the opinion polls suggest, the ČSSD — with the assistance of the KSČM acting either in the improbable role of coalition partner or in the more likely role of constructive opposition — could form a constitutional majority in the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of parliament). And if they repeated their performance in this year’s elections to the upper house, the Senate, the two parties would be capable of going a lot further than simply emasculating the rightwing reforms of Prime Minister Petr Nečas’ (ODS) coalition government. Though whether they would is another question.
A drop in the membership base
In the past, when the Czech comrades held a monopoly over government, unlike their Polish counterparts, they were relatively thrifty and prudent — reluctant to burden the country with debt. However, they compensated by creating internal debt. The large-scale redistribution of state resources resulted in chronic “disproportion” and the long-term under-capitalization of several sectors, which after the November 1989 revolution resembled museums, as well as neglect of the tertiary sphere.
The manifesto “Socialism for the 21st Century,” debated by the 8th congress of the KSČM in Liberec, unfortunately confirms that the Communist Party remains loyal to the ideal of an equitable society and still promotes wholesale redistribution as well as market regulation. However, the fact that a regulated market ceases to be a market and “disproportion” would again be the inevitable result (a note for younger readers: for instance, a lack of toilet paper or vinegar) is not dealt with in this document. Furthermore, it is so theoretical and abstract it would be difficult to understand for a party the average age of whose members is 75 years.
In 2008, when the last congress of the KSČM was held, the average age of its membership was five years younger. As the party ages sharply, so its membership dwindles dramatically. From 71,823 in 2009, at the end of last year it had 56,763 members, i.e. around 5,000 fewer year by year. Notwithstanding this fact, it has around twice as many active members as doe the Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL), second in sequence, and the KSČM remains that with the largest grass-roots following on the Czech political scene. The question is how long it will remain so.
There are far fewer members joining the party than those leaving it because of age. The new arrivals include young people, some with a university education. However, the both radical yet entrenched ground-root organizations often quickly expel them. And while several members previously expelled from the old Communist Party of Czechoslovakia are returning to the KSČM, these tend not to be young people, and their arrival will not see the average age of the party fall.
As Communist MEP Miloslav Ransdorf and Jiří Dolejš, vice-chairman of the Central Committee of the party predicted, the KSČM is being transformed into an electoral-type party, i.e. a party whose members, families and friends can no longer ensure good election results but one which has to mobilize allies on an election-by-election basis. In the case of the KSČM, this means mainly among left-wing civic initiatives and trade unionists.
However, such a clientele isn’t drawn to an uncompromisingly communist program calling for dictatorship of the proletariat, common ownership of the means of production, a leading role for the Communist Party in a socialist society, and other Marxist-Leninist sacred cows, leaving aside the question of whether such objectives are permitted by the Constitution and law of the Czech Republic. In other words, it is only amongst themselves that the comrades can speak openly and dream of the old days of real Socialism. At a party congress open to guests and journalists such dreams have to be held in check.