Earlier this month, the parliament of the Czech Republic approved a new government. And here’s the surprise: For the first time since the fall of communism in 1989, the governing coalition is depending on support from the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM).
This unlikely scenario unfolded after months of negotiations. Nine parties won seats in the October 2017 election, with the populist ANO (Yes) party claiming the largest share — 78 of 200 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. This left ANO short of the majority needed to approve the prime minister and the governing cabinet.
ANO then had to negotiate with other parties to form a coalition. This proved to be a struggle when many parties refused to cooperate with ANO’s leader, Prime Minister Andrej Babis — who is under investigation for fraud charges. Ultimately, ANO managed to form a minority coalition with the Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD). Together, these two parties hold 93 seats — still short of the 101 needed for a majority.
To ensure a majority parliamentary vote in support of Babis and his cabinet, ANO secured official support from the Communist Party, and its 15 seats. So what does this all mean, and what can we expect?
During the post-communist era, the KSCM has continuously won seats in the national Parliament. However, because of the party’s ideology and the historical legacy of the communist regime, Czech governments in the past 25 years occasionally passed policies with KSCM support, but they didn’t depend on this party’s support.
The party’s “official support” of the current national government is problematic for some Czechs. Could this symbolize the return of the Communists to power, for instance? Other Czechs may worry that their leaders have forgotten the decades of repression and hardship under the communist regime.
Czech membership in international organizations will continue
Historically, the KSCM has supported participation in organizations that promote socialist ideals — and has opposed those that promote cooperation among capitalist economies. In the 2003 referendum on Czech accession to the European Union, the party advised its supporters to vote “no.”
Since then, the party has softened its position. It now supports membership but pushes for E.U. institutional reforms that would secure greater equality across the member states and strengthen the role of the national and European parliaments.
From the military perspective, the KSCM rejects NATO and wants the Czech Republic, which became a NATO member in 1999, to leave the organization. It wants a stronger role for the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The KSCM views Crimea as legitimately belonging to Russia and therefore opposes E.U. sanctions against Russia.
However, it appears that ANO and the CSSD made no concessions concerning foreign policy in the program negotiations with the KSCM. There are no changes in the position toward Czech membership in the E.U. or NATO. The cabinet will continue to support missions under NATO, the E.U. and the United Nations, if they are in accordance with international law.
In addition, the coalition parties refused to permit public referendums on Czech membership in these organizations. This suggests that though the KSCM continues to promote traditional socialist perspectives on foreign affairs, economics and the role of government, the party’s impact on actual policy will probably be limited.
A possible shift to the left in domestic policies?
What about domestic policy, though? The KSCM’s domestic platform emphasizes key tenets of socialist ideology — including the re-nationalization of key utilities such as water, gas, electricity and transportation. In addition, it supports cooperatives (groups of people who work together to meet their collective needs) and communal firms as forms of ownership, which were common during the communist era.
According to the KSCM, everyone has the right to have a job, to get paid based on the demands of the job, and to earn a minimum salary of approximately half the national average. The party also wants a system of nonprofit hospitals and a single state-owned health insurance company.
The KSCM participated in negotiations as the coalition formed its policy positions. In May, the party issued seven general conditions to support the cabinet. Six of these were included in the final government program: regular increases in both the minimum wage and pensions, expanding public ownership of water utilities, natural resources extraction by only domestic companies, construction of public (communal) housing and no patient fees in health care.
On many of these policy issues, the CSSD and the KSCM hold similar positions. However, ANO’s positions are more centrist or even right-wing on the role of the market. As the dominant coalition member, its clout could moderate the actual legislation.
The government’s position on anti-corruption policy has also been affected by negotiations with the KSCM. Previously, ANO had supported two proposed anti-corruption measures. One would amend the Contracts Register Act by requiring contracts of publicly owned companies to be made public.
The other proposal would change the process for nominating representatives to the boards of state-owned companies by introducing an open selection procedure. In a move to appease the KSCM, which opposes these changes — seemingly because they want to reward their most loyal supporters with these positions — ANO has recently pulled the proposals from parliamentary consideration.
Public support for the KSCM
The KSCM has endured throughout the post-communist era by appealing to the older generation and to Czechs who have been economically left behind in the country’s dramatic economic and social transformations. And it has benefited at the polls from its outsider status, which meant it could criticize the government’s policies and offer voters an alternative path forward.
With the KSCM officially supporting the governing coalition, the public will hold the party accountable for policy outcomes at election time. While many Czechs are uneasy with the government officially cooperating with the KSCM, the party’s impact on domestic and international policies seems limited. And this in turn may make it more difficult for the party to garner public support in the future.
Mary Stegmaier is an assistant professor in the Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri. Her research focuses on voting behavior, elections, forecasting and political representation.
Lukáš Linek is a senior researcher in the Institute of Sociology, Czech Academy of Sciences. His research focuses on voting behavior and political attitudes.