Elections 2013 -- Inside the Outsider's Perspective
25. 10. 2013 / Sam Graeme Beaton
The author is a postgraduate student in Czech Studies at the University of Glasgow.
One of the great frustrations of the British media is both its lack of ability and lack of interest in covering Central and East European issues. A search of the BBC website with regards to the Czech elections reveals only a few articles on the current political situation, supplemented with basic (and occasionally incorrect) analysis. With one of the most important elections in years against a backdrop of worsening economic conditions and corruption scandals, I wanted to get an insight into how Czechs on the street regarded the vote, how parties were faring ahead of the weekend's polls and in doing this go deeper than the outsiders -- the BBC, British newspapers and television news -- in really understanding what was going on.
What has been picked up on in the international press has been the latest shock sculpture by maverick artist David Černý, namely a giant middle-finger on a platform in the Vltava pointing at the castle. The timing of it, combined with Černý's disdain for all former communists and political elites such as Miloš Zeman, has added further controversy to what has been a heated few weeks in Czech politics. In my mind this was as good a place as any to start gathering opinion. In my time on the banks of the river I asked around twenty Czechs, the majority who were from Prague, on what they believed the statue represented and whether or not they agreed with it. I expected to be faced with an overall agreement with the sentiment -- after all, Prague was firmly in Schwarzenberg's corner at the Presidential elections -- but some disapproval at the purple, modernist sculpture floating a stone's throw away from Charles Bridge. I was wrong. "I think it's wonderful, a symbol of resistance" said one older woman, "I certainly didn't vote for him". When asked about the sculpture itself, a man of a similar age replied that he didn't mind it, "as it's what a lot of us think". Of course, many of the crowd on the bank saw the humour in Černý's work, posing for photographs in front of it, but only a couple of those questioned felt it to be "unnecessary" or "in bad taste at the president".
Is the resentment at the man in the castle isolated, or does it reflect a further mistrust in all who are considered the political elites in the country? Walking through the streets it is not uncommon to see posters defaced with "liar" and so forth, were campaign teams facing the same opposition? Karel Kunst, part of the ODS's campaign team in Prague and a member of their `Young Conservatives' student wing, was more than happy to answer these questions on their stall in Naměstí republiky. He was the first to bring up the problematic link Miroslava Němcová's has to the prior government and the Nečas scandal. "The campaign has been going well in Prague, and there has been a lot of interest in our policies. We cannot escape from the legacy of the last government, but we want to show we're not about that but about a positive message to citizens for the future". For him, this election is not about winning (despite some murmurs of a Top09/ANO/ODS coalition getting over the line Karel doesn't believe this to be likely) but about rebuilding a base for his party, and crucially, looking to students and young people. From the entire set-up of the ODS marquee/tent/café, this is clear -- free wi-fi, attempts to get the twitter hashtag #volím_pravici trending, even badges of Němcová transformed into a Simpsons-style cartoon character. There is a Young Conservatives leaflet with interviews conducted by Karel himself, in which there is a concerned effort made to address employment, opportunities, and other issues which resonate with future graduates.
The one thing that stuck with me about the ODS campaign from what I saw was the age of those involved -- those manning the stalls were overwhelmingly young, and very professional in dealing with passers-by and interested parties. This was different from the presence of ANO campaigners in Vaclávské náměstí. Millionaire Andrej Babiš's political project, which is strongly anti-corruption, supportive of business and calls for a "better future for our children", is currently third in opinion polls but has hardly been mentioned in any media outside of the Czech Republic. Babiš's money has obviously had an affect here -- a slick stage set-up, music and signs certainly helped to draw a crowd -- yet the activists themselves appeared thin on the ground and noticeably older than those seen beforehand, perhaps reflecting the majority of ANO candidates being in their late thirties and forties. I was able to ask some questions to a member of the campaign team, an older woman who was much more guarded than Karel from the ODS. Despite ANO having a number of policies, and noticeably right-wing ones at that, she was reluctant to go into much detail, preferring to stay on the safe side and talk up the idea of the party being for citizens and a stability which encourages investment. On the subject of coalition government, she said her party would likely attempt to become part of a coalition with either the ČSSD or rightist parties, which was very interesting considering Babiš's interview in Právo on the 22nd in which he rules out any involvement with TOP09 or ODS, and says ANO are not desperate to join a government of any kind:
"Nemusíme být ve vládě, jsme nové hnutí. Rozhodně nezradíme svůj program. Určitě nepůjdeme do koalice se zkorumpovanou ODS a TOP09, protože pravice se stala symbolem korupce v této zemi".
Overall ANO definitely appear to have a slick political outfit on the go, and are certainly going to win support from those on the political right who are unwilling to vote ODS in light of the Nečas affair, yet the activist and supporters I talked to seemed confused in their attempts to attain a populist vote with policies which are not particularly populist, and trying to keep up with what Babiš has been saying to the media and trying to moderate their party program to reflect it. Money has obviously been spent in securing the prime spot of Můstek, and they were again out the next day: this time giving out bananas and holding an open mic for passers-by to ask questions. To me, and perhaps only to me, this reminded me of the images in the satirical West German press on reunification with the East: "meine erste banane" and so forth, and the irony of how these are now being used by Babiš, a devout anti-communist, as tools of attracting attention. When I was walking past one of the candidates was talking about student issues, and how it is necessary to provide adequate stipends for those at university -- the first instance of a policy I'd seen directed at young people. Given the chance to speak to the candidates, I opined that this was all well and good, but was coming from a party whose candidates list was overwhelmingly middle-aged (I only counted one candidate under thirty, the individual in question clocking in at twenty-nine). Wouldn't a young candidate be better placed to convey these issues?
It has appeared so far that the right-wing parties on the campaign trail have been heavy on rhetoric and light on policy. Upon meeting TOP09 in Prague 10, it was interesting to see a mixture of both. Michal Narovec, TOP's candidate for the area, was happy to talk about specific areas of policy and how his party's vote would fare at the weekend. "Three years ago, our party was leading the three worst departments in the government: social affairs, health and education. It was difficult for us, but people understand that the government failed due to Nečas and members of his party. People are understandably unhappy, but our vote is holding up well, and we're looking for over thirty percent here in Strašnická", he said. He was also candid about his thoughts for future coalitions, not ruling out a coalition with rivals ČSSD, but saying this was unlikely due to Schwarzenberg's opposition to it.
As usual, Prince Schwarzenberg has not been far from the news headlines, this week making a public statement decrying Andrej Babiš as a leader similar to Mussolini, and one of his friends and confidantes, Senator and writer Jaromír Štětina, was similar in his attack of both the new parties and the left-wing. "A coalition with the ČSSD would be possible, but only in the sense of keeping out the danger of a ČSSD and Communist coalition. It will be very difficult but could help us debolshevise the country. You must understand, these social democrats are former communists -- not in the sense of former members but in their minds". Helping the TOP09 effort by signing books and surrounded by banners of leader Schwarzenberg as James Bond ("agent Top nula nula devět"), he was adamant that the party he supports is the only one which can provide the stability the country needs. Based on the stall materials and those manning it, again the influence of young party workers could be seen, something rare in British politics but now appears totally normal here.
However, it would be a fallacy to suggest that all young people in Prague are becoming organised with the right-wing. Honza, a former ODS supporter, now heads up the creative campaigns team for the Green Party and when we met was in the middle of setting up an all-hours communication centre not far from the main station. Although he says that the right-wing parties are pushing out to young people in order to build for future elections, he believes the Greens are mobilising to win seats now, despite recent polls having Ondřej Liška's party on only 2.5% - half of what they would need to win any seats. He, and the Greens latest campaign video, points out that the party has voting potential for 8%, which would represent the party's best result to date. "The biggest issue, and an unusual one for the Czech Republic, is that there are a huge amount, some 40% of voters, who are undecided. We have to convince voters that the Green Party is not a lost voice". This attitude is echoed by another smaller party. One of the most vibrant stalls I encountered was that of the Pirate Party, the Czech branch of the international group of parties calling for information privacy, free sharing of knowledge on the internet and a reform of copyright law. Dressed up as (of course) pirates and in Guy Fawkes masks, activists were happy both to talk and hand out their materials in Karlovo náměstí, which included bright coloured badges and cigarette papers with slogans calling for the legalisation of cannabis. I asked Adam Skořepa, a member of the Pirates, about why their party had been routinely ignored by the Czech and foreign media. "It's a classic approach of every media agency. Big corporations and media moguls are afraid of us because we have a different means of organising and we push for direct democracy" he said. Like Honza, he was also optimistic about the campaign's potential, but saw it as being something more than getting seats. "I'm sceptical that we'll win any seats, but 2% or more is a good result for us. We've been a party for four years now, already have a senator (Libor Michálek), and I believe we'll move forward because of this".
Right beside the Pirate stall in the square was a far larger operation, and that was the ČSSD, the Social Democrats widely tipped to lead a new government. In a buoyant mood, established candidates were joined by members of the Youth Wing, such as Tereza, a student at Charles University. She commented on how many young candidates were standing as Social Democrats in the election, and that the campaign in Prague had been "the best for a long time". On policy, she left Jiří Dienstbier, the party's candidate for President in January, to outline his hopes. "We hope the people of Prague have been receiving us well. All we have is our programme and our calls for a strong and stable government, that's the important thing ". Dienstbier is part of a rare breed of politician -- one that is seen as honest and trustworthy -- and it was understandable that he would be out as a public figure of the campaign, yet like many of the other conventional parties, seemed to be very light on speaking policy (though, I would argue, better than what I had seen from ANO and others).
The most willing and open to talk about actual positions, aside from the Greens and the Pirates was, surprisingly, the Communist Party, who the day before polls centred their activity around Anděl. Jiří Dolejš, second on the list in Prague, said that there was much more to play for than just speaking about the Nečas affair, and in his view this is why his party has been polling well in the run-up. "There has been a political smear campaign against us, but we pay no attention to it. What's important is that people are worried about the social situation in the Czech Republic. We need to protect social security, increase wages of ordinary people and have real representatives in parliament, not careerists, but real people. We are the only alternative, and we are the ones who want to talk about how we will change things". The stalls were dominated by what one would imagine to be the `old guard' -- elderly men and women who no doubt remember the previous regime, but fascinatingly the party seemed to be attracting voters of all ages over to talk to them. Is this something new? The KSČM have always had a solid base of support (not particularly in Prague however), but it left me wondering if the influx of support and activity was due to the economic crisis increasingly being felt in Central Europe, or a change in tactic which has left them in such a favourable position. Indeed, if the widely-believed ČSSD-Communist coalition will actually happen, it is certainly a step to rehabilitating the reputation of the communists, who are still widely derided and mistrusted, perhaps for good reason.
On the subject of mistrust, there hasn't been that much attention in this article paid to Zemanovci, who in all their political posters and mailouts have now appeared to have dropped the `Party of Civic Rights' tag, preferring only to be referred to as "Zeman's people". What is clear is that there aren't many of Zeman's people left in Prague. In my trip so far I haven't met an actual supporter of the party besides from the two or three party activists handing out newspapers at Metro Stops, and who were all quite reluctant to talk to anyone about what they were standing for. Unlike every other party on the campaign trail, I couldn't find any actual candidates out and about, and this was unusual considering that much of the city centre is flooded with posters of the President. The Christian Democrats, who appear to be on course to return to Parlament, have similarly been light on the ground, and aside from a meeting in a pub in Dejvická, neither has Tomio Okamura's Dawn party, in spite of opinion polls believing the party may have a chance of seats.
Overall, the impression that I get as an outsider to Czech politics is almost the same as I came in with, but for different reasons. Yes, the BBC and the like have hardly bothered in being on the streets and searching out the real stories of this crucial election. Yes, there has been no talk of what the parties stand for besides from a sentence or two in a short-and-not-so-sweet report. But even being down there, it was surprising how low the level of politics actually was. ODS, despite having genuinely enthusiastic campaigners, seem keen to try and distance themselves from Nečas more than actually provide a programme for governance, much of their former partners in TOP09 are more content with attacking both them and employing Reagan-esque statements against Communism; and Ano, for all their huffing and puffing, are trying to be the party for everyone rather than pushing their clearly rightist agenda. On the other hand, the smaller parties, some of which have no chance of clearing the 5% threshold, are the ones who are out there trying to engage with policy platform, and this comes likely from a sense of passion rather than the pay cheque. The results of the election remain to be seen, and it does look like we are heading for a Social Democratic government, but one worries that it may be some time before a workable agreement for a coalition is reached, and it is probably then that Czechs start hearing much more about which parties have concrete plans for what. However, that certainly didn't bother the Pirates. "There may be more of them, but we'll be more successful in the long run -- after all, we have our hearts in it".