Remember Klement Gottwald? The Czechoslovak Communist Party leader’s grim visage adorned banknotes until 1989. Folded the right way, the Kremlin henchman could be made to look like ET. But his rule was no laughing matter, with execution and hard labor in the uranium mines awaiting those who resisted the regime’s unloving embrace.
There are many reasons to celebrate this weekend’s parliamentary election result in the Czech Republic. But from a historical perspective, the departure (probably final) from the political scene of Gottwald’s political descendants, the “Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia”, to give it its full title, is noteworthy. A process that started with the Soviet NKVD’s arrival in eastern Europe in 1944-5 is now over.
Communism is not quite dead. Communist parties survive in Greece, where the KKE polls around 5%; and in Cyprus (AKEL—22%), Spain (in assorted coalitions), Portugal (6.3%) and France (2.5%). But the leftists of Germany’s Die Linke, with 4.9% in this month’s election, are the last substantial trace of parties that once enforced Soviet rule across half the continent. To support Communist ideas, it really helps never to have experienced them in practice.
The Czech comrades’ demise has taken more than thirty years, and defied expectations. Not only was the party’s record of lies and murder revolting. Its leadership was deeply uninspiring. After 1989 it was riven with internal feuds. But it retained lingering sympathies among older voters, particularly in regions hit by the collapse of heavy industry.
That highlighted the failure of post-revolutionary Czech politicians to connect with voters who had not benefited from the return to freedom. This failure is easily misunderstood. A hackneyed narrative maintains that “post-communist politics” (a nonsensical category stretching from Estonia to Tajikistan) has specific problems involving the interaction of gullible, angry voters and nasty crowd-pleasing politicians of a kind not seen in less benighted countries.
The truth is that voters east of the old Iron Curtain are broadly similar to those on the western side of it. The Western political and economic system has had numerous failings over the past decades. Voters are justifiably cross about these flaws, all the more so because the political class seems unwilling to acknowledge them. Obnoxious politicians who exploit these discontents come and go everywhere. Even in the United States.
In the Czech cases, these alienated voters were easy pickings for Andrej Babiš, the prime minister whose offshore property empire was exposed in the recent “Pandora Papers” leak. That proved the final straw: voters this weekend rejected his “competent-but-kleptocratic” rule gave a narrow victory to an opposition coalition. That means that anti-sleaze parties have notched up another win following the toppling of Slovakia’s Robert Fico in 2018 and the election of President Zuzana Čaputová a year later. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán will be watching the Czech result nervously. So too will Poland’s embattled Law and Justice government, which is pushing that country into a headlong clash with the European Union.
Questions abound. One is the role of the ailing and mischievous Czech president Miloš Zeman, notorious for his unhealthy lifestyle and backstage intrigues, usually involving Russia and China. He liked Babiš and detests the putative opposition coalition. He may delay its arrival in office, but it is hard to see him stopping it.
A bigger question is whether the new government can deal with the country’s problems. False dawns in Czech politics are too numerous to count. Again and again, since 1989, grassroots anti-corruption campaigns have tried to challenge the patronage networks that infest its politics. Although inspiring politicians have been elected, they have failed to deliver the hoped-for results. Maybe this time?