Czech elections: Communists advance but protest candidates steal the show

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On October 25 and 26, the Czech Republic held elections for the 200 seats in the lower house of parliament. Turnout was 59 percent. Contrary to what polls had predicted, the Social Democratic Party lost ground, though the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia scored a substantial gain. But a brand new protest party scored the largest gains, at the expense of the parties of the former ruling coalition and the Social Democrats.

The snap election was made necessary when the existing three-party conservative ruling coalition became unglued in stages. First, a humdrum corruption scandal hit the Public Affairs (VV) party last year. Then the Prime Minister, Petr Nečas, found himself personally enmeshed in a messier scandal. This forced Nečas to resign, and the leftish president, Miloš Zeman, appointed Jiři Rusnok as a caretaker prime minister. On August 7 of this year, Mr. Rusnok's government lost a vote of confidence, leading to the snap election.

Initially, it looked as if both the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) and the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM) would make gains at the expense of the right-wing coalition parties, the Civil Democratic Party (ODS) of disgraced former prime minister Nečas, TOP 09, the Party of the "Punk Prince" Karl Schwarzenberg, and the Liberal Democrats (LIDEM) who are a break off from the old VV.

There was even a thought that the left overall would make such an advance that the Social Democrats would drop their policy of not working with the Communists, and would form at least a minority government with Communist support.

The Communist Party indeed advanced: Its total of the vote jumped from 11.27 percent of the vote and 26 seats in parliament in the 2010 elections, to 14.91 percent of the vote and 33 seats after last week's election. Also, the conservative coalition parties suffered severe losses: TOP 09 dropped from 16.7 percent of the vote last time to 11.99 percent, and from 41 seats to 26. ODS dropped from 20.22 percent and 53 seats to 7.72 percent and 16 seats. The VV did not contest the election.

The big surprise was the poor showing of the Social Democrats, who dropped from 22.08 percent of the vote in the last election to 20.45 percent this time, going from 56 to 50 seats. Some had thought that the Social Democrats might get as many as 33 percent of the vote, and that the Communists might get up to 18 percent. It would appear that the Social Democrats' leader, Bohuslav Subotka, will now be replaced.

The seats lost by the coalition parties and the Social Democrats mostly went to a new party, ANO 2011, which is the personal vehicle of a wealthy entrepreneur, Andrej Babiš. It recieved 18.7 percent of the vote. A former member of the old Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, Babiš has made a fortune in agriculture and other fields. He positions himself and his party as a populist "throw the bums out" outfit dedicated to bringing "honest government" to a country sick of corruption scandals.

His post-election remarks suggest that he is really on the right. The Social Democrats and Communists had called for a more steeply progressive tax regime and the protection of social welfare programs against the wave of "austerity" that has been imposed on European countries by their own ruling classes as well as the International Monetary Fund, the Central Bank of Europe, and the European Union leadership.

Babiš opposes this on the ground that it will kill off entrepreneurial initiative. He has also said he will not agree to a coalition government with the Social Democrats.

Two smaller parties on the right, the Christian Democrats and the Dawn of Direct Democracy, each got 14 seats-14 more than either had held before.

The party that got the largest number of seats in parliament has the right to make the first attempt to put together a coalition government. So the Social Democrats get the first crack at it. Babiš is now being seen as a "kingmaker," because of the big bloc of parliamentary seats he now controls. But what Babiš and his party actually stand for, other than the fact that they don't like Social Democrats, Communists, and taxes, is by no means clear.

The phenomenon of anti-government, "throw the bums out" populist parties coming from behind to capture big votes has now become common in Europe. So far, the historical social democratic parties have not been able to stop this, and in some cases, as now in the Czech Republic, have lost ground. The communist parties have, with exceptions, held and sometimes expanded their support bases against the fool's gold of right-wing populism, but so far have not been able to expand sufficiently to channel the massive dissatisfaction in the whole continent against the current crisis.

For the left to become able to surmount this difficulty is vitally important; there is a real danger of fascists winning elections otherwise.

Photo: Andrej Babiš. AP

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