Czech Politics Senate Sends Back Church Restitution Bill

Previous entries: Part One, Part Two

In 1990, more than 100,000 Czechs turned out to celebrate the overthrow of Communism with Vaclav Havel and the Rolling Stones. “The Rolling Stones roll in, Soviet tanks roll out,” posters blared. Last April, the Communist Party helped bus nearly 100,000 Czechs to Wenceslas Square to demonstrate against the ruling coalition.

Soviet tanks aren’t rolling back in, but there’s a red tide rising.

Sympathy for the Devil

Czech Communism dwindled but never disappeared after the 1989 Velvet Revolution.  KSČM, the Communist Party, has averaged 12.7% of the vote in the five legislative elections since the Czech Republic and Slovakia split. Its base is old, undereducated and loyal (see part two). Demographics alone suggest the Party will shrivel in coming decades.

Yet support for the Communist party spiked above 16% in May, June and July. Current projections call for a 40% increase over its share of the 2010 vote. Despite its post-Revolution status as a political third rail, KSČM is now positioning itself as a power broker when the next government is formed.

What’s driving its reemergence as a political force?

Can’t Get No Satisfaction

Throughout the history of Czech elections, voters have supported the Communist Party in greater numbers during times of economic pessimism.

Under the ruling, center-right coalition the Czech economy has underperformed its neighbors. The chart below compares the GDP growth rate of the Czech Republic and bordering countries over the last seven quarters:

In only one calendar quarter has a neighboring country posted a lower growth rate than the Czech Republic (Germany, Q3 2010). The Central Bank forecasts continued economic struggles, projecting the economy will contract by 0.9% this year.

Although the Czech Republic is not on the Euro, it has been unable to insulate itself from the greater European financial crisis. The majority of Czech exports find their way to countries in the Euro Zone. With economic activity flagging across the continent, Czech industrial production contracted 2.4% year-to-year in May and 2.2% in June.

The macroeconomic stagnation has translated into tangible troubles for the average citizen. In 2011, the net income of Czech households dropped for the first time since 1993. Domestic consumption is down, and Czechs are gloomy about their economic prospects. Communists stand to benefit from the prevailing pessimism.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

The Communist Party has been at the forefront of fighting the austerity measures implemented by the ruling government, which campaigned on a platform of cost-cutting. Its commitment to keeping the deficit below 3% of GDP has led to a series of unpopular spending cuts. Perhaps most controversial are reductions in public wages, child subsidies and sick pay.

Recent austerity proposals prompted the country’s largest demonstration since the Revolution when nearly 100,000 dissenters filled the city’s historic Wenceslas Square. Communist leaders were instrumental in organizing that public backlash.

From Ceske Pozice:

Among the austerity measures approved by the center-right government in April is an increase in VAT from 15 to 21 percent, the abolishment of health insurance caps, the reduction of flat expense write-offs for the self-employed, and the lowering of the indexation of pensions.

The government became more aggressive in its plans to reduce spending as consumption flagged and the economic outlook worsened. Attempts to curb pension costs are at the heart of the latest reforms. Pensions will now be indexed at one-third the increase of real wages and prices instead of at the full rate of inflation.

Unsurprisingly, Communist support surged to its highest in years directly following the new wave of austerity. The reality of lower monthly checks seems to be driving outraged older voters to a party they view as fiercely protective of their interests. The threat to pensions compounds the tendency for voters to lurch left in financial crises.

Increased support for radical platforms in times of budget-slashing is not unique to the Czech Republic. France, Greece and the Netherlands have all seen an uptick in support for extreme parties in the face of austerity.  But is there another factor at play here?

Sticky Fingers

Rampant corruption has deepened disillusionment and cynicism toward politicians. Recent polls show 81% of citizens are dissatisfied with the country’s political culture. Last year, the figure was 68%. Traditionally powerful parties are less popular than ever.

ODS (Civic Democrats), the main party of the right, and ČSSD (Social Democrats), the main party of the left, have dominated the political scene throughout the 22-year history of the Czech Republic. The 2010 legislative elections marked the first time the two parties did not combine for at least 50% of the vote. Disgusted by perceived incompetence and corruption, voters backed new parties promising cleaner government. Two of the three parties comprising the new government (TOP 09 and Public Affairs) sent representatives to the House of Deputies for the first time.

But Czech voters feel little has changed. The new parties spent little time disappointing the Czech electorate’s hope for cleaner government. Public Affairs, a new party founded by investigative journalist Radek John, ran a campaign centered around eliminating graft and dishonesty in politics. It quickly fell into a rash of corruption scandals and was torn apart by an internal power-struggle. Top 09′s Deputy Chairman, Miroslav Kalousek, has seen his image tarnished as allegations swirl about his alleged involvement in covering up unsavory business deals through intimidation.

ODS and ČSSD  have continued to give voters ammunition for criticism. Leaked wiretaps chronicled the conversations of Prague Mayor Pavel Bem (ODS) with notorious businessman Roman Janoušek, confirming voter concern that the powerful lobbyist exercised inappropriate influence on the capital’s business dealings. David Rath, a regional governor for ČSSD, was caught last May with a wine box containing 7-million Czech crowns ($337,000). Rath is suspected of secretly diverting funds away from EU projects. Charged with misallocation of E.U. funds, the ruling government only narrowly avoided the loss of billions of Czech Crowns of capital infusion from Brussels.

The main parties have confirmed the voters’ suspicions. The new parties have wasted no time sullying their own reputations.

The most recent poll shows mainstays ODS and CSSD combining for just 40% of potential votes, a figure that would represent a record low in Czech elections. TOP 09′s support has decreased and Public Affairs’ implosion has taken it well below the 5% threshold into political irrelevance.

To many Czechs, the system feels broken. The traditional parties are broken. The new parties are broken. Older voters, disillusioned by the graft and feeling left behind by a complex modern economy, become more likely to seek the workmanlike wrench of the Communist Party.

Let’s Spend the Night Together?

Communist support is on the rise, but is KSČM a viable member of a governing coalition?

Forming a coalition with the far-left party has long been considered unthinkable. Yet new reports show the Social Democrats have been polling to gauge public opinion on a potential coalition with the party that has been an outcast of the modern political scene. In the fourth and final part of this series, we’ll look at the potential ramifications of the rise in Communist support.