Czechoslovakia: Social Democrats to gain from political shake-up?

June 12, 1991

By Peter Annear

PRAGUE — A hardening political differentiation among Czechoslovakia's parliamentary parties has turned the popular coalition that emerged in November 1989 and won elections the following June into a thing of the past.

"Civic Forum is a dead body" members of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS — parliamentary followers of monetarist finance minister Vaclav Klaus), told me here recently.

Parliamentarians elected under the umbrella of Civic Forum are now proclaiming allegiance to a variety of mostly rightist political groups, while the new parties are jockeying for position within the government apparatus and beginning preparations for the June 1992 federal elections.

One party which thinks it will do well in next year's election did not field candidates last June. Ceskoslovenske Socialni Demokracie (CSD — the Czechoslovak Social Democratic Party), which recently won six parliamentarians away from the disintegrating Civic Forum, hopes to emerge as the third strongest force in a new parliament and as the acknowledged voice of the left.

"We have pretty good prospects, at least judged by the most recent opinion polls, which suggest we are the third most popular group in the Czech republic", Dr Jiri Horak told Green Left in an interview on May 8. "Before the next parliamentary election, we plan to be in a coalition with the peasant party, which would make us second in the polls, ahead of the Communist Party and after Civic Forum".

Horak is a former exile who lived in the United States for 40 years and returned after the fall of the Communist Party in 1989, when he became Social Democratic party chairman, a position to which he was re-elected at the party's March conference.

Party deputy chairman Richard Falbr told the May 12 Rude Pravo the Social Democrats have all the prerequisites to become Czechoslovakia's legitimate left wing. Falbr is chairperson of the service union and was until recently vice president of Czechoslovakia's largest union federation.

He said it is fashionable in today's Czechoslovakia only to maintain right or centre positions: "If somebody shifts to the right, nothing happens. A shift to the left is followed by our enlightened right wing with annoyance."

While most workers in the last election voted for Civic Forum (OF), Horak does not believe the new right-wing parties, including the ODS, the Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA) and the liberal-right Civic Movement (OH) will win their support, which he hopes will fall to the Social Democrats.

Communists

But the Social Democrats will not contemplate any cooperation with the Communist Party, which ran a surprising second to Civic Forum in last year's election, winning 14% of the vote. In recent council elections, the Communist Party vote increased to 17%. Horak says how much support the communists get in the future will depend on the strength of Social Democracy.

"The Communist Party right now is relatively strong. The next election will be fought in a period, in my opinion, of high social tension caused by unemployment, inflation and so on, and people will vote with their pockets. The government will be under pressure and in my judgment, looking at the results in similar situations in the democratic countries, the parties of the left should benefit.

"The question is whether we benefit or the more radical Communists attract the votes of those who are discontented. Therefore, we hope that our constructive policies would help to attract the vote of those who are critical of the government, and we are ready to play a responsible role in the next government issuing from the election."

Coalition likely

Because no party is overwhelmingly popular, the next government is likely to be a coalition. The new political spectrum could include a Thatcherist conservative party headed by Klaus, a centre liberal-democratic party in the mould of Germany's Free Democrats led by the Civic Movement's Pavel Rychetsky and Jiri Dienstbier and a Social Democratic left. "This is how the political system should develop", Horak told me.

The CSD's parliamentary group is organised as the "club of centre-left deputies" headed by Ivan Fisera, a former OF ideologue who joined the Social Democrats in April. It aims at attracting other like-minded parliamentarians. The party also continues to join members from the Obroda group of 1968 expelled reform communists.

Horak says Social Democracy and the trade unions were always very strong in Czechoslovakia and is modestly optimistic about the country's economic future.

"Theoretically, Czechoslovak trade unions are probably the strongest in the world, as roughly half of the population belongs to the trade unions. Show me any other country — America, Great Britain, France — with such a high percentage.

"But this membership is nominal, of course. The real question is whether the members feel absolute loyalty to their movement rather than just belong as an inheritance of the past, when it was mandated by the state that every working individual had to be in the unions. We are supporting the demands of the unions and hope to have union support in the next election."

At its recent congress, the 1.6 million strong metal workers' union, one of the strong unions, decided it would remain non-partisan but would not support the politics of the right. Leaders of several important unions are officials of the Social Democratic Party, including the miners' union chair.

Market economy

Horak says Czechoslovakia was the 10th most economically advanced country in the world during the inter-war period. Czechoslovak workers, technicians and managers all had a high reputation. "I believe we could return to that situation", he said. "It is up to us."

Like other liberal parties in Eastern Europe, the Social Democrats favour radical economic reform towards market economy: "We use the adjective 'social' market economy, suggesting, as in other democratic countries in the West, the government must intervene in the economic and social sphere to help those who cannot help themselves.

"Here we differ with Klaus, who seems to advocate a capitalist system of the Dickensian era. We want to continue the reform, even speed it up, but we differ in some areas with the government because the scenario originally presented has not been followed. It is impossible to turn the clock back on the reform; the only thing we can do is come up with alternatives to the government plan."

January's liberalisation of prices should have followed the break-up of the government monopolies, according to Horak; tax reform to be enacted in 1993 should have been carried out at the start; employees should have been given free or low-interest loans to buy small businesses they worked for instead of the small privatisation being carried out through auctions.

Small privatisation, he claims, has encouraged the laundering of dirty money, because only two groups would have the sort of money needed to succeed at auction: black marketeers and the members of the old Communist structures. "You have a phenomenon that old bolsheviks who devastated this country now turn capitalist. They are the chairmen of joint stock companies and they run the economic show, which is nonsense."

As a party which believes its primary obligation is to defend the weakest, the CSD favours a genuine social welfare safety net. "Currently, the holes in the net are such that most would fall through", says Horak. "Given the pretty bad condition of our economy, it would be irresponsible for us to promise everything and then not to deliver after the election, but we do feel there are certain areas where the government simply has to provide support. We will have to make tough decisions."

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