The Greens - The new force on the Czech political scene?

One year ago, the Green Party was a small and relatively obscure political party that had some success at the municipal level, but its national poll numbers were well below the threshold necessary for participation in parliament. Today, the party has as much as ten percent in some polls two months before the general election. Who are the Greens and what is behind their meteoric rise in the polls?

Less than a year a go, the Czech Green Party had little hope of succeeding in this year's elections. Their preferences hovered at some two to three percent. At the same time, the party, made up mostly of NGO activists and environmentalists, was rife with internal squabbling and accusations.

But today the party is nearing ten percent in opinion polls and is being both lauded and attacked by the two leading Czech political parties: the conservative Civic Democrats, and the ruling Social Democrats

So who are the Czech Greens and how have they gained popularity so fast? The Green Party was originally formed shortly after the 1989 Velvet Revolution. However, throughout the 1990s, it was battered badly by financial scandals, personnel defections and a lack of direction. This changed in 2003, when a wave of new members, mostly from the ranks of environmental and other NGOs, joined the party. The new members also voted in new leadership headed by Jan Beranek and Jakub Patocka, two well-known leaders of environmental groups. This is when Ondrej Velek joined the party and Mr. Velek says that this was a time of great upheaval.

"I don't want to pretend that there were no conflicts. The party, because it was partly created by older members and the new radical NGOs, needed to have some natural conflicts or tensions. Also, the leadership of Honza Beranek and Jakub Patocka was a little bit more like NGO leadership. So it was more based on not fully democratic principles."

In the summer of 2005, with the party even more divided, a new candidate, Martin Bursík, who had been the environment minister in the caretaker government of Josef Tosovsky in 1997-1998, announced his intention to run for party chairman. Bursík's reputation and his background in professional politics, something that had been lacking in the Green Party up to this point, was the impetus for a new group of people to join the party. One of them was Zuzana Králová.

"When I was studying at university, I was working in a non-governmental organization. Through this I came to the Greens. My close friends were active in the Greens since, let's say 2002. And I was in doubt for a long time on whether to join a political party or not. But then, in June 2005, I felt that some change in the future can be made because I knew Martin Bursík would be a candidate for chairman in the Greens. I decided that this was a reason to join the Greens and work towards a new future."

Martin Bursik
It was with the election of Bursík as party chairman that the preferences of the Green Party started to grow so dramatically. Also, the new chairman helped shape an eclectic list of candidates that range from human rights activists and leftist newspaper columnists to folk singers and former liberal government officials. How does this strange amalgam of candidates focused around the electoral slogan "Quality of Life" manage to gain the lofty numbers it has? Political scientist Jiri Pehe has this explanation:

"I think the Greens appeal to several different constituencies in Czech politics. First, for a long time there was a vacuum in Czech politics with many voters saying that they had no one to vote for. They were looking for a respectable new party to fill the gap. Second, there is a large group of liberal voters, many of them left-leaning liberals, who also had no one to vote for because the Czech Social Democratic Party is really not doing much for those voters. And finally, I think Green politics in the Czech Republic is a natural thing."

Pehe is also quick to remark that the party can benefit from its mix of candidates and offering of fresh faces, but it could pose serious problems after the elections.

"This may be something that will ultimately damage the Green Party once it has entered Parliament because then it will be closely watched. Under this scrutiny it's quite possible that people will realize that many of these civic activists are not suited for politics. But at this point, I think it plays into the hands of the Green Party."

The lack of experience of Green Party candidates and the problems this could pose is something that Chairman Martin Bursík is well aware of. When asked if the party is prepared for the responsibility that electoral success would bring, Bursík admitted that though this task is daunting, the party is preparing for this situation.

"It's been very fast, especially for some people. Just imagine that you become the election leader in a region. So far, you've been the director of a zoo and the chief of some international association of zoos, but you are not a politician. You only have four years of experience at the municipal level. Suddenly you're thrown into a televised political debate with the Prime Minister, so it's not easy. My answer is that the Green Party has been professionalizing and this will continue. We cover the entire country and the parliamentary election is the first step in the process."

It is this type of call for professionalizing the party that has energized the base. Core members, like Ondrej Velek, who up to now have stayed out of elections, might even consider standing for office in order to help further the party.

"Maybe some people like me feel the temptation to enter politics at the municipal level and to influence issues around our homes and our families."

The Green Party is still the outsider looking in, which can be something that can be attractive to voters and at the same time turn voters weary of an untested entity away. Martin Bursík is also counting on this factor as something that will mobilize the party itself for the upcoming elections.

"So far there is a huge difference. If you look at the headquarters of the main parties, all of the parliamentary parties own their own buildings. We have a small office in Prague 10 which is on the level of their district offices. Ninety-eight percent of the work done for the party comes from volunteers. But this is also positive. This is a factor that provides increased motivation for the members of our party."

Currently, the party is well above the five percent needed for participation in parliament. This can all change in the two months to come before the polls. In the end, the voters will decide if the Greens will be a new force in Czech politics, or if Green politics will remain outside the main stream.