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Commentariat: Courting the communists

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The Communists are keeping everyone in suspense. Especially Jan Švejnar. Many are beginning to resent that.

Czech-American economics professor Švejnar officially announced last weekend his intent to run against President Václav Klaus next February. The left-leaning opposition ČSSD, who will do everying in their power to prevent Klaus from getting reelected, already promised Švejnar their support. But without the support of the Communists, Švejnar stands almost no chance of ousting Klaus (founder and honorary chairman of the right-leaning ruling ODS) from the Castle, according to analysts.

Although Švejnar can probably count on the full support of the Klaus-hating Greens, the votes of the KDU-ČSL are anything but guaranteed, since Klaus has some strong supporters within that party.

Since the fall of the communist regime, any top politician willing to negotiate with the Communists is entering risky territory. For a long time, the motto for presidential and prime-ministerial hopefuls has been, “don’t talk to the Communists”.

Many will note that communist votes must have helped Klaus attain the presidential post in 2003, but since the election happens through a secret ballot, no one can know for sure – even if it’s mathematically nearly impossible that Klaus would have received enough votes without communist support.

Švejnar, it seems, is willing to court the Communists out in the open, without the proverbial veil of secrecy. He already met with top communist politicians in November, shortly after annoucing he’s considering entering the presidential race.

For now, the Communists are holding out on their decision. Chairman Vojtěch Filip said last Saturday, that the party will continue discussing its options, but noted that the consesus seems to be that the Communists don’t want Klaus reelected. At the same time Filip criticised ČSSD Chairman Jiří Paroubek’s open letter, in which he urged the Communists to support Švejanr and called on Švejnar to give up his US passport.

“Black and white vision”

Several commentators noted bitterly this week that, even 18 years after the fall of the totalitarian regime, the Communists are still playing a key role in the fate of this country.

In an online commentary for Respekt Tuesday, Jan Brabec criticised Švejnar’s apparent benevolence toward the Communists in his candidacy speech. Švejnar had said that “it’s time to turn a new leaf and do away with a black and white world vision, where anyone with a different opinion is considered an enemy”. He was referring to the communists, of course, and Brabec questioned Švejnar’s belief that the party was on the way to completely severing its ties with the totalitarian-era Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.

“Only a few weeks ago, [the Communists], along with their chairman – registered collaborator with the StB – celebrated the bloody Bolshevik revolution and called for reinstating a socialist system here,” Brabec wrote. “Political analysts might say that the party has lost its strength, but we’re still grappling with the legacy of the “black and white world vision” that the Communists introduced here – and this doesn’t apply just to the 1990s.”

Brabec also noted it’s ironic that the Communists are only willing to support Švejnar – who fled totalitarian Czechoslovakia because of the Communist regime – if he promises not to discriminate against the Communists Party.

“A lesser evil”

Lidové noviny’s Martin Weiss said yesterday it was painful to watch “an intelligent Czech-American embarrass himself by courting the communists.” Weiss called Švejnar’s comment that the Communists aren’t yet fully integrated into Czech society “unfortunate”.

“Švejnar would become the first Czech president to name a cabinet with the participation of the Communists,” he wrote. “In that case he could hardly hope to be remembered as ‘unifying, not a polarising’ president.”

In yesterday’s Mladá fronta Dnes, Reflex commentator Bohumil Pečinka downplayed the role of the Communists in the upcoming election. “The media reaction has been that Jan Švenar represents a lesser evil for the Communists than his rival Václav Klaus,” he wrote. “This might be true when it comes to external politics, but it goes against the Communists’ long-term goals.”

Pečinka noted that with Klaus, the Communists know what they will get and they can count on getting rid of him in another five years, since the Czech president can’t serve more than two terms. With Švejnar, who could theoretically end up serving as president for the next ten years, the future is more uncertain for the Communists. “In times of democracy, the Communist Party has always favoured negotiating with established, predictable politicians,” he wrote, citing Klaus’s election as an example.

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