Wednesday, 27 January 1999

Radical Right Revival

This article originally appeared in The Prague Post on 27 January 1999.

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After a humiliating defeat in last summer's general election, the Czech Republican leader Miroslav Sladek is down and probably out of politics. For the past several months, his party has been splitting along personality lines, and new factions are forming around different leaders with similar ideas. Despite the apparent disarray on the radical Right, the political movement still has strong potential in the Czech Republic due to the current, deteriorating situation in the country. A new radical Right is slowly taking shape, and it will likely find success in being more slick and media-savvy than the crude days of the bumbling Sladek.

The ultra-Right has steadily been abandoning its long-time leader, Miroslav Sladek, and regardless of his support among a few remaining die-hards, Sladek is unlikely to figure in the future developments on the far Right very much. With a series of scandals surrounding Republican Party financing, after several incompetent-looking media appearances and, most importantly, in the wake of the crushing defeat of the Republican Party at the general election last summer, Sladek has been increasingly seen as a liability among supporter of the radical Right agenda. Sladek has become such a national hate figure and the butt of so many jokes that he would probably not be able to woo new voters to the Party and lead the movement over the 5% barrier back into Parliament.

The past six months have seen a confusion on the far Right, as local Republican Party (SPR-RSC) organizations have openly defied the central Party leadership, something almost unheard of before the election defeat. Along with defiance, there have been defections as well, as Republican Reformers have been switching their allegiance to the Patriotic Republican Party (VRS), a party apparently started in 1995 but which did miserably in November's Senate elections. According to Jan Kopal, erstwhile spokesman for reformers in Sladek's SPR-RSC and now a leader in the VRS, the VRS is becoming the new home for many anti-Sladek Republicans who have given up trying to reform the older party.

But whether the VRS will eventually steal the radical Right's banner from Sladek or not, the far Right movement in the Czech Republic is likely to pick up steam in 1999. There are several reasons why the radical Right has strong potential in the Czech Republic at this time.

First, unemployment, currently at about 7.5% nationally, will bring new support for radical political solutions. 7.5% may not seem too high to Europeans elsewhere on the Continent, but in the Czech Republic, where unemployment has remained minimal since 1989, that figure comes as a shock. Of course, one cannot say with certainty that rising unemployment will necessarily bring support for the far Right, but overall economic downturn is normally a bad omen, forecasting the rise of radical activity. In the Czech Republic, radical Right support has always been highest in areas of the country where unemployment was high: Sladek's strongest bastions were in North Bohemia, where unemployment has been in excess of 15% in some towns.

Second, after two and a half years without an elected majority government, the current Czech political scene has been incompetent at solving the young Republic's problems, and this too will drive voters to seek solutions elsewhere. The Czech political establishment is so polarized and so focused on personal rivalries, that no one seems interested in forming a broad consensus to work on the country's problems. Ignoring these problems only exacerbates them and leaves a political vacuum for radicals to fill. The latest poll figures show only 23% of population satisfied with the country's political situation. Almost three fourths are unsatisfied: certainly some of those are looking for new solutions.

Third, the EU persists in its wavering and delays on setting an entry date for the Czech Republic, and this, combined with Brussels's often unfair trading practices towards Prague, will bring more support for the anti-EU sentiment already shared by about 24% of the population (with 19% undecided). Anti-EU rhetoric falls in line with the anti-Western, anti-foreigner politics the Czech radical Right has long espoused.

Fourth, there is a growing backlash against the Roma community within the Czech Republic which can be tapped for radical Right benefit. Many in the majority population are fed up with the oft-mentioned Roma issue and see it as undeserved attention for a small minority of generally disliked people. Although slogans such as "no advantages for Gypsies" did not help Sladek in the last elections, such a sentiment is held widely in the country. If successfully packaged in more politically correct language that doesn't come from a Sladek billboard but essentially means the same thing, such a message will have strong political resonance in the Czech Republic.

But to capture that existing political potential, the radical Right is going to have to change, and many of its reformist leaders seem to realize this. The new radical Right knows it cannot succeed by bringing its bumbling baggage with it: get ready for a slick, media-trained far Right along the lines of Jorg Heider's party in neighboring Austria.

On the one hand, a clean break from Sladek and a new image are necessary because new state organizations designed to combat radical groups, particularly Skinheads, have become more effective in the past few years. Armbands at rallies will be frowned upon. Sharp business suits for the leaders will be in.

The clean break from Sladek, and with it perhaps more subtle language as well, is also necessary to distract public attention from their hate agenda. With the county's ire focused so specifically on one figure, Sladek, the political and media establishment will be rather reluctant to criticize Sladek's enemies, and they may miss the driving force behind the new movement until its too late. The temporary anonymity and seeming innocence of the new group when compared to Sladek will be great cover. Sladekism without Sladek will fool quite a few people at first.

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