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After the elections: Communism in the Czech Republic

After a devastating loss of support that saw one of the most successful Communist parties in Europe fail to enter parliament, international head JAROSLAV ROMAN speaks to Conrad Landin about how the nation's left can recover

SINCE the fall of the Warsaw Pact, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) has been among the most electorally successful of Europe’s Communist parties — consistently finishing in the top five slots in the Czech Republic’s legislative elections.

All that changed last month — when for the first time since the Nazi-aligned protectorate of 1939 to 1945, the territory which makes up the modern-day Czech Republic found itself with no Communists in Parliament. In the October elections, both the KSCM and the Czech Social Democatic Party (CSSD) finished below the threshold required to enter the Chamber of Deputies.

“It was not only a setback: it’s generally accepted within the party that it was a historical debacle,” says Jaroslav Roman, the head of the KSCM’s international department. “Frankly speaking, people are shocked. We had not expected such a heavy defeat.”

Roman is speaking to the Morning Star shortly after an extraordinary party congress, at which MEP and former party vice-chair Katerina Konecna was elected the party’s new leader.

In the party’s impressive office block in Prague, which it shares with the Communist newspaper Halo noviny, Roman does not mince his words as to the scale of the challenge the party now faces. “In these elections we had 193,000 voters. But in [2013] we had 750,000… So in these elections, only the strong base of the party voted for the Communists.”

The KSCM’s loss has been widely credited to its decision to support the previous Czech government. That was a coalition led by Andrej Babis’s ANO 2011 party, a populist force with syncretic but ultimately conservative politics. Roman accepts that this was a decision that angered many. “It was a topic of the congress as well, whether it was the correct thing to support the Babis government,” he says. “Because evidently it cost us votes.

“We have been aware in the first instance that if you go into the past, when the French Communists went into the government, the Italian Communists, it cost them — very expensively.”

As for the Czech Republic’s Social Democrats, who unlike the Communists entered into a formal coalition with Babis, Roman says they ended up losing all their seats because they “lost the confidence of the people.” He says they only “behaved like a left political force two months before the elections” and were ultimately “opportunists.”

He cautions: “I’m not negative, the Social Democratic party is the oldest party in the Czech Republic, they have a place on the political map here and I’m sure they will restart their activities — but it must be with new people and with new policies.”

But Roman suggests his own party was stuck between a rock and a hard place when it came to deciding whether to give parliamentary support to Babis’s government. “From our point of view, it’s well to remember, there was a problem to form the government. It took seven months. We had to decide, [so] first we insisted the Czech Republic needed a government. We had a choice between the bad and the worse. So we chose the better from the worse.”

How can the KSCM come to terms with the unpopularity of this decision? Roman believes that the generational — and factional — change that took place at the extraordinary congress is part of the answer. “I have to admit that in the Communist Party there are different fractions,” he says. “Although the expression of fractions is forbidden by the statutes of the party, it’s a matter of fact.

“There are two fractions — one is widely called like, ‘conservatives,’ led by [former party vice-chair Josef] Skala and let’s say ‘the progressivists,’ led by Konecna, the MEP. This question has been solved because she overwhelmingly won the election.

“And frankly speaking, we respect it. I don’t want to judge if it will be successful or not, but she’s the only one with a team of people around her — it’s mid-generation, young generation and it’s without any dispute [that] the party needs rejuvenative change, rejuvenation of its membership, its leadership.”

In his 60s himself, Roman does not want to discount the input of the party’s older generation — but he says the KSCD desperately needs to attract younger voters and activists. “In Prague the median age of the members is 80 years. And [across] the Czech Republic it’s 70 years. And we have lost — not lost, but we have not been successful in attracting young people as sympathisers of the party.

It is also crucial that the Communists represent younger voters, he says, “because frankly speaking this generation is being [impacted by] decisions on their future.”

The electoral defeat has stark implications for the KSCM’s finances, which Roman stresses “will not only concern the centre here, the leadership, but mainly the districts, which are the base of the party.”

But the international chief is hopeful that the new leadership can attract younger voters. “In my opinion, Konecna is a very talented politician. She has the gift of giving straightforward answers and that is what young people want to hear.”

In the mean time, Roman is concerned that the left’s lack of representation in the House of Deputies will leave a chunk of the Czech population disenfranchised.

“1,000,000 votes fell under the table. All the parties that have not reached the threshold — and mainly they are the voters that under normal conditions would support the left. And now their opinions are not represented in the parliament.”

That will make it harder for KSCM to advance its programme. “It’s not a revolutionary situation here,” he says, suggesting talk of implementing communism leaves many people nonplussed. “What we promote and advocate and try and explain to the people, is that all the structures, the branches of the economy should be under the control of the state.

“Now you see it’s the energy. The main major state-owned company can be influenced by the regulatory intervention of the state. All of our water supplying systems [are in] the hands of the French or Spanish, under very, very bad conditions.”

Another fear is that anti-communist forces will now seek to crack down on the party, as well as on supporters of its predecessor, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. In other Eastern European countries, Roman notes, Communist parties have been banned.

“The question is, will we hold,” he says. “Even shortly before the elections there was a proposal in the parliament to include in the law the legislative proposal to decrease pensions to the exponents of the former regime — like the members who worked in the central committee of the Communist Party, who worked with security. And this can come on the agenda now, now the right wing has an absolute majority not only in the parliament, but in the senate as well.”

Roman is determined that the KSCM does not now experience the splits that have plagued other European left parties following heavy defeats. The KSCM now faces competition from a new party, Levice (“the Left”), which was formed last year from a merger of the the Real Left Initiative and the Party of Democratic Socialism — which previously ran candidates under the KSCM ticket.

Levice is perceived to be modelled on Die Linke in Germany, but recorded mere hundreds of votes in the October elections. “It’s a very minor party,” Roman says. “But we are open to co-operation. There is no will for the time being to change the label of the party from the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, but… we have communal elections next year, [we] may go as like, ‘United Left.’ We might not go as like, only the Communist Party, but it’s a question of negotiation.”

Roman is also concerned about the impact of identity politics on fracturing the left across Europe. He is critical of other European left parties for “pushing forward” such issues and stresses that the KSCM is “the party that are trying to advocate the interests of the majority of the people.”

Does he not think it is possible to support the liberation of oppressed groups while still maintaining a class-based agenda? Roman’s response suggests the party is still struggling to accommodate causes that the left in many parts of Europe has placed firmly within its programme. “Although we respect the rights of minorities, we do not like and do not support this public show-off,” he says.

Instead, he says, Communists should focus on “globalisation and how it impacts on the lives of ordinary people.” He adds: “We have very big problems with the energy increase here, etc and other problems to come with inflation at 5 or 6 per cent here now. The left forces should unite around the major issues that unite us.”

The Czech-language newspaper Haló noviny can be found at www.halonoviny.cz.

Follow Conrad on Twitter @conradlandin.

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