A Giant Purple Middle Finger

With the parliamentary elections coming up (this Friday and Saturday), for the longest time it’s looked as though there will be a left-wing majority and as though the nightmare of many Czechs is actually going to come true: communists in the government. Or, more likely, a minority government of social democrats supported by communists. Although the Czech communists sit snugly behind a cordon sanitaire and have been solidly reviled by other parties in the Czech party system, there’s been many times when parties (both on the left and on the right) have had to rely on them for votes. As an example, when Klaus was elected president in 2003, he needed communist votes for it (this was when it was still the houses of parliament that elected the president). So in a way, for the communists to enter the government at a time when parties on the right are suffering the wrath of the voters seems like something that’s been a long time coming. Then again, the hatred that people feel for this party is powerful, and for communists to even be an unofficial government partner without cabinet seats would be a major thing.

An arresting testimony to that hatred floated down the Vltava in the middle of Prague this week: a giant extended purple middle finger, defiantly facing the heart of the Czech political world. The one giving politicians the finger is David Černý, celebrated and infamous artist known (amongst many other things, such as the time in 1991 when he painted a tank pink) for his controversial piece that he created for the occasion of the Czech EU presidency. A large set-piece, it contained stylized depictions of all the EU member states that made zero effort to avoid insulting people or touching on sensitive issues. Bulgaria was depicted as a toilet, for instance; The Netherlands was a flooded landscape with only minarets sticking out above the water.

A photo of the purple finger (c) Tomáš Krist, LN

A photo of the purple finger (c) Tomáš Krist, LN

Černý and his supporters organized a concert under the (Russian) slogan ‘nikagda nezabudem’ – we will never forget, a slogan pointing back to the 1968 invasion. With the concert, the organizers are trying to warn voters against the ‘bolshevization’ that the Czechs might face if the communists actually do really well. Although not directly involved in the elections, president Zeman is also being held responsible for this perceived trend of increased communist influence in politics. Many of Zeman’s advisors are associated with the former regime and the president has long advocated left-wing collaboration with the communists.

While politicians on the right (as well as these artists) struggle to give voice to their worries about the communists, many voters don’t seem to really care. The communists already hold office in a number of regions after doing well there in elections in the Fall of 2012, and none of what you might ungenerously classify as fear mongering seems to have put a dent in the communists’ predicted vote share (although Lidové Noviny did report that for the first time in a long time, communists and social democrats no longer have a majority – but so many votes are likely to be cast for parties that will not clear the 5 per cent threshold, that it is not really possible to say such a thing with any certainty).

In addition to the communists doing well, Andrej Babiš’s ANO (it means ‘yes’) party is also doing well in the polls, surpassing all parties other than the social democrats (ČSSD) now. Here’s another example of people not really caring about how politicians treat the communist past: Babiš was allegedly an informer for the communist secret service – his file has been published by the Slovakian Institute for National Memory (Ústav Pamäti Národa, ÚPN) and although he has started legal proceedings against them, many people take their word for it. Politicians on the right have emphasized Babiš’s past (most recently former finance minister Kalousek, who is now being sued for slander by Babiš) but this, too, does not seem to affect Babiš’s prospects a whole lot. This is remarkable, because informers are despised far more than rank-and-file party members, and a political career for an StB informer has been described to me by many as completely unthinkable, only a few months ago.

It’ll be interesting to see what will happen after this weekend. The outcome of the elections is likely to enrage a lot of people, but it also reflects that a lot of people have already been enraged to the point where they don’t even care about voting communist anymore. Incorporating the communists into the system might have an upside, though: Czech voters have had a way of saddling their leaders with uncomfortable situations, like in 2006 when the left and the right were divided right down the middle, both getting 100 seats in the 200 seat parliament. The fact that the communist seats in parliament have been blocked off for coalition formation made matters even more difficult. Although it comes at the cost of a lot of angry people especially on the right, potentially breaking the taboo on communist government support might make coalition building a bit easier.

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