The rise of the left
Communist Party's record election success remolds the political landscape
Posted: October 17, 2012
He was clearly on edge, excited but firm. The Oct. 12-13 local and Senate election was a big day for Alexander Dubský, deputy mayor of the town of Krupka in north Bohemia. "See, this is what a nervous communist looks like," he said with a laugh as he sat in an office furnished with timeworn cabinets from the era before 1989, when his party still reigned over virtually every aspect of life in Czechoslovakia.
For 23 years since the Velvet Revolution, the rejected and oft-ridiculed communists have existed on the fringe of domestic politics, dependent solely on a devoted constituency of former members and sympathizers. Expecting a big change, Dubský hoped the race for seats in regional assemblies as well as a third of the Senate - he ran for offices in both bodies - would be a milestone for him and his comrades. And he was right.
Receiving 20.44 percent of all votes in the regions, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM) placed second in the elections just behind the Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) with 23.58 percent. The communists are also the only major party that marked an improvement in the number of mandates. It seized 182 seats in regional assemblies, or 68 more than in the previous election four years ago.
Twelve KSČM candidates also advanced to the second round of Senate elections. "It's a huge success, simply huge," Dubský said after the votes were finally counted. The party's success was by far the highest in his home base in the Ústí nad Labem region, nicknamed the "Red North" for its reputation as a communist stronghold as well an area fazed by heavy industry and coal-mining. There, the KSČM will hold 20 mandates in the 55-seat assembly and, for the first time since 1989, have the ability to dictate its own political terms.
By party and percentage of votes
With its 14,000 inhabitants, Dubský's town of Krupka is emblematic of the long-term problems plaguing the north of the country: high unemployment, crime, social disparity and problems with a poorly integrated Roma community. Compounded with the nationwide frustration with widespread public sector corruption, the inefficiency of the current right-wing government and the low turnout of right-leaning voters, the setting provided an ideal political opening for the return of the far left.
"I doubt most of the people who helped the KSČM succeed have even tried to find out what the left truly represents," says Alexander Mitrofanov, a political commentator for the leftist daily Právo. "Many of the party's newfound supporters consider the country's post-1989 political and economic development unacceptable. They think the same about the work of the current Petr Nečas government. People yearn for egalitarianism."
A majority of modern KSČM members have abandoned the party's former Stalinist ideology and now call themselves pragmatists.
"Do you know why I entered the party in the first place? My father told me to join. Otherwise, I wouldn't have gotten a well-paid job in the '80s. You have to remember it's all about people - nothing else," Dubský said.
Ready to turn up their sleeves and get to work, local cadres say they have a detailed plan of what to do next.
"For a long time, I waited for this moment. I really wanted to leave something remarkable behind me," said Dubský in his humble office at City Hall, a small red-starred flag sitting on his desk. He emphasized his party "doesn't smell of geriatric breath and moth-balled clothes," as some critics have told him.
Using his experience from management jobs at a local steel factory and vocational school, he plans to fight corruption and lobby for new employment programs.
According to Mitrofanov, the KSČM stands and falls with people like Dubský. "They could be described as cadres with the virtues of local party officials so typical of the 1980s. In general, they tend to live in an ideological vacuum. I would also differentiate between ordinary idealists or bitter party members and pragmatists from the top echelon."
Dubský's rhetoric is indeed at times reminiscent of that of the 1960s and 1970s.
"I don't care about ideology. I just have strong social feelings. The third way, the politics in the midst of right and left, that's the key," said the 62-year-old, elaborating on his planned solution to unemployment. "We need to open more coal mines - that's for sure. Destroying villages and towns? That's the inevitable price."
Dubský's boss Oldřich Bubeníček, leader of the party's candidacy list and a favorite for the governor's post, outlines the KSČM's future plans with more subtlety. His biggest concerns, he says, are health care, education, public transportation and the finalization of local infrastructure projects, as well as fighting unemployment.
"It's the year 2012. We have let nostalgia overtake us. Our program overlaps with those of the center-right [ODS] and center-left [ČSSD]. We don't want to scare people with something that happened here 30, 40 years ago," he said.
"Yes, I have reservations about the European Union. I would restrict its influence over our country, but we can live with it. Membership in NATO, on the other hand, I find unacceptable."
The next four years are considered a trial run for the KSČM, and some voices in the political sphere suggest the party's success may actually help consolidate Czech democracy. The overt loser in the election, the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), has already announced plans to overhaul its platform.
"Current political matadors will realize their seats aren't permanent and that they finally have to try to become a government of the people," political scientists Ondřej Císař and Kateřina Vráblíková wrote in an editorial for the online news site Ihned.cz. "For a long time, there has been a lack of competition in Czech politics."
Others fear the communists' success could prove expedient for the country's unchanging political elite.
"A rise of authoritarianism and a democratic clamp-down could take place if the KSČM joins together with the power cartel of President Václav Klaus as the leader of the whole right bloc and [former PM] Miloš Zeman as the leader of the noncommunist left. The January presidential elections will determine this," Mitrofanov said.
Back in Krupka, Dubský remained apprehensive as he prepared for a television debate with Jaroslav Kubera (ODS), his main rival for the Senate seat in the town of Teplice.
"Talking on camera wasn't that common in the '80s, and we don't have much experience with it. During the past 20 years, not that many journalists or members of the public cared much about what we thought. But that has all changed now."
Tomáš Rákos can be reached at
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