Czech communist party set for shake-up

KSČM politician Jiří Dolejš on the crisis facing the Czech left and his party’s renewal after the October regional elections. Dolejš is one of the protagonists in the debate on the party‘s future orientation before the upcoming party congress, which will be held in the runup to next year’s parliamentary elections.

The interview was conducted by Jindra Kolar for neues deutschland (German)

The country’s two left-wing parties – the communist party and the social democrats – suffered bitter blows in recent regional and senate elections. Where do they go from here?

The crisis currently facing the Czech left was not triggered by recent elections; it has been brewing for several years, and both parties – the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM) and the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) – are themselves to blame. Their performance on the political stage was not enough to convince voters. This was aggravated by the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) becoming mired in crisis in 2013, which led to the rise of the ANO, a populist movement that began targeting voters from the middle classes and then from the left. The political axis of Miloš Zeman (ČSSD) and Andrej Babiš (ANO) has caused a deep rift in Czech society and even within the Czech left itself, with neither party in a position to offer an alternative, be it on economic issues or migration. This indecisiveness also marginalised many voters and even pushed them towards Tomio Okamura’s far-right SPD ("Freedom and Direct Democracy").

The current challenges posed by the pandemic and the ensuing economic downturn have only aggravated the situation. We must use our respective party conferences – the communists will hold theirs in November, the ČSSD next January – to decide our future political direction. There will be no easy answers.

Who is going to take responsibility for the recent electoral disaster? Will changes be made to the party’s governing body? 

Recently, the party leadership discussed both the outcome of the elections as well as the overall situation facing the KSČM. Following robust discussions, Vojtěch Filip said that after 15 years as party chairman, he would not run for re-election. A change at the top had already been discussed before the 2017 general election but was pushed back to the next party conference, which should have taken place in April. Then the pandemic hit and we had to delay our decision yet again.

See also: transform! europe Meeting the Left: web interview with Vojtěch Filip, 2 July 2020

The recent announcement that the leader will be stepping down should ease the minds of some in the party ranks, but at every level, we are discussing the future direction the KSČM should take. In my opinion, it is vital that we bring in youth and fresh talent, and avoid falling into nostalgia, a trend which, unfortunately, we are seeing among our older members. Instead they should be combining their experience with the vigour of our younger members and, above all else, stopping the left from becoming even more divided. I think that the most recent discussions held by the executive committee will bring fresh impetus to this process of change.

Do you think the latest results show that voters no longer want to see an ANO–ČSSD coalition government backed by the communist party? After all, Babiš’s movement cannot claim outright victory either, and the opposition is growing … 

In the recent regional elections, voter turnout stood at 37 percent; it was even as low as 17 percent in the second round of the senate elections. The key factor at play here is thus poor turnout. We know that some left-wing voters, primarily those who are elderly, did not vote, perhaps as they were afraid of contracting coronavirus. And we hope that things will be different at next year’s general election.

However, the current trend is concerning, and the five-percent threshold is a nightmare for us. The issue is that older, committed left voters are passing on and it is difficult for us to win over younger voters. But we do hope to be able to gain support from those who cast their vote for ANO simply for pragmatic reasons. If we are successful, we could gain a few hundred thousand votes. If we can convince voters of our ability to offer solutions to the problems and economic consequences caused by the ongoing pandemic, this could provide us with an opportunity. But an abrupt departure from the existing coalition and early elections are likely to be counterproductive: Babiš and his media empire would use it against us to score political points.

As one of the KSČM’s economic experts, what would you say are the most pressing economic and social issues in the Czech Republic? 

Right now, we are facing the worst crisis since 2008, albeit one of a vastly different nature. Our budget deficit in the first half of the year has increased from 40 billion korunas [approx. 1.48 billion euros] to 500 billion korunas [18.5 billion euros]. The country’s deficit has never been so high. Our most pressing task right now should be getting the economy back on its feet after a tough period of lockdown; businesses need saving, especially those in the service sector and export-orientated economy. Equally, social protection measures need to be put in place as well as adequate funding for the healthcare system.

Until now, the government has managed to implement sufficient coronavirus measures to prevent a second lockdown, but the rising number of infections is worrying.
Over the summer we assumed that the budget deficit for 2021 could still be reduced and we could start to see some economic recovery, as was the case in Germany. Now there is a big question mark surrounding the target of 3.5 percent GDP growth. The pension reform planned for the current legislative session will have to be shelved and there are other social issues that parliament is unable to tackle at present. This will also play a role in our election campaign in the coming year.

How are current approval ratings influencing the KSČM’s strategy?

Unless a political crisis triggers an early election, voters will go to the polls next October to pick a new government. That means we have one more year to prepare. We have plans to enter preliminary elections in winter and further guidelines will then be decided at our party conference in Brno. We will primarily aim to mobilise the protest vote but without making the mistake of occupying the same political space as the far-right SPD: our party should never consider proposing xenophobic solutions in order to win votes. And besides, those voting for a fascist party out of protest are more likely to prefer the original than a poor imitation. 

Moreover, our election strategy will also involve sounding out potential coalition partners. In the past, such approaches were successful at the regional level and during the European elections with members of the Czech left and the social democrats. Possible electoral alliances are sure to also play a key role at our conference. And, of course, the selection of a new cohort of candidates, who are not only younger but also full of fresh, innovative ideas, will play a crucial role in our campaign. We must be able to say to our electoral rivals that the communist party is not finished. We may have made a few mistakes and the alarm bells may be ringing, but we are still here and we are still fighting.