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Czech extremist parties produce new controversies

The far-right Republican Party and the unreformed Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia are the Czech Republic's two most visible extremist parties. Between them, they won 18% of the popular vote in the parliamentary elections in June 1996, which translated into 40 seats in the 200-member lower chamber of the parliament. Clearly, for a country that is often described as a front runner of democratic reforms in the former Soviet bloc, the political strength of extremist parties is disturbingly high.

The problem of extremism is partly a social one and partly a psychological one. Not all social groups have benefited from radical economic reforms. Some of such disadvantaged people have come to be disenchanted with the new democratic regime in general. While the supporters of the Communist Party are mainly old people, the supportes of the Republicans are typically young, less educated males from economically depressed regions.

On the psychological level, many Czechs have learned the rules of democracy but have not yet learned how to be tolerant. According to various polls, a large majority of Czechs, even those who do not vote for the extremists, dislike Roma and foreign workers and are often intolerant of political views other than their own. Dealing with extremism may, therefore, require a long period of internalizing democratic behavior and a better civic education in schools.

Extremism will also flourish any time the country experiences economic and social problems, as we can see in some Western countries. The Czech Republic is currently going through a period of relative difficulties. Moreover, the recently-signed Czech-German declaration has forced the Czechs to begin reevaluating the nation's past, which is a painful process playing into the hands of demagogues and extremists.

Although in theory the two extremist parties stand on the opposite ends of the political spectrum--one stressing communist values and the other being fiercely anti-communist--they almost always find a common language when reacting to the current government's policies and the new democratic regime in general. Both demand a strong government and both reject the way in which the privatization process in the country has been run. Both are strongly nationalist and xenophobic, in particular in their views of Germany and Germans. The Republicans also frequently express racist views, demanding harsh measures against Roma and foreign workers, especially Vietnamese.

The two parties became stronger after the parliamentary elections not only owing to their relatively good showing in the elections but also because the third opposition party--the Social Democrats (CSSD)--has to rely on them any time it strives for a majority vote in the parliament. This has made the CSSD vulnerable to criticism from the right-of-center parties. CSSD Leader Milos Zeman recently suggested that one solution may be to lure Communist and Republican supporters into his party. However, to be able to do so, the CSSD would have to appropriate some the two parties' rhetoric and programatic goals.

The two parties have been especially vocal in opposing the Czech-German declaration recently signed by the prime ministers of the two countries. They have organized protest actions and petition drives, claiming that the declaration constitutes a betrayal of Czech national interests. During German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's visit to the Czech Republic, the Republicans' supporters burned a German flag, and party leader Miroslav Sladek told demonstrators that not enough Germans were killed during World War II.

Since 1989, the Republicans have caused a number of other scandals. They have regularly managed to cause public disturbances on Czech national holidays. In 1994, they attacked a group of German tourists honoring the victims of the Nazi regime in Theresianstadt. In 1995, they were responsible for distributing a large number of leaflets, carrying a statement alleging a secret agreement between the Czech and German governments over the Sudeten German issue and signed by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl; the statement was a forgery.

In his first speech to the post-election parliamen, Sladek said in front of TV cameras that "Gypsies should be criminally responsible right from their birth because that [the birth] is, in fact, their biggest crime." The statement caused public outrage. The parliament's immunity committee fined Sladek for his remarks; he has refused to pay.

In the latest incident, the police were forced to raid Sladek's office in the parliament's building. Sladek's assistant, who had been charged with assaulting a TV reporter, was hiding in the office for several days. Many deputies from non-extremist parliamentary parties have indicated they would vote to strip Sladek and other Republican leaders of their immunity, should such a vote be held. In the past, deputies resisted such measures, suggesting that any legal action against the Republicans would only give them more publicity.

Some politicians suggest that both the Republican Party and the Communist party should be banned. Others have suggested a change in the electoral law from a proportional system to a majority one, under which the extremist parties tend to disappear from the parliament. Others ask whether a ban or a change of the electoral law be a sign of weakness or strength. Would such steps, in the end, help eradicate the extremists or would they, by driving them underground, strengthen them, making it more difficult to deal with them? Wouldn't such measures make it more difficult to identify and address the social problems that cause extremism? Answers to such questions are difficult to find. What is clear is that as long as the CSSD continues to court the two parties, their political influence will continue to exceed their real standing in society.

Reuters - 7. 2. 1997