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Christian democracy in the Czech lands.

During the past twenty years in which political parties have enjoyed freedom in the Czech Republic, the Christian Democratic Party (KDU-ESL) has struggled to gain significant influence while Christian parties have flourished in neighbouring countries. The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Germany remained dominant in the coalition government after its September elections. The Austrian People's Party, OVP, has maintained support of the vast majority in Austria, and Poland's Law and Justice is the second major political party in the country. In the upcoming Czech elections currently scheduled for June 2010, the KDU-CSL is at serious risk of gaining too few votes to be included in parliament. Why has the Christian democratic movement faired so poorly in the Czech Republic compared to these neighbours?

The only significant role that the KDU-CSL can claim in the last twenty years is its involvement in coalition governments. However, the manner in which it has shifted from an alliance with the centre-left Social Democrats after the 2002 election to an alliance with the centre-right ODS in the mid-nineties and later in 2006, calls into question its core commitments. The inability to pin down the Czech Christian Democratic Party within the traditional left-right spectrum is nothing new for Christian democracy in Europe. Since its origins, the European Christian democracy movement has never demonstrated a consistent stance on the political spectrum, combining commitments as diverse as social welfare on the left with traditional social values from the right. The European People's Party (EPP), a Europarty which unites many Christian parties including the KDU-CSL, is a great example of Christian democracy's reluctance to be labeled in terms of the traditional left-right spectrum. Referring to liberalism, socialism, green politics, and nationalism, "we Christian Democrats see the weaknesses in these ideologies which are bound to mislead us in the end," their basic programme states.

It is not only a challenge to identify the positions of Christian democratic parties vis-a-vis social democratic, liberal, or nationalist parties, but there is also significant diversity within the Christian democratic movement. At the end of the last century, Czech Christian democrats acted as a centre-right political party in opposition to the radical leftist government to the same degree that Western European Christian democrats opposed conservatism and emerging capitalism.

Czech Christian democracy stands in contrast to neighbouring versions of Christian democracy not only in terms of political programme, but also in terms of poll results. The Czech version of Christian democracy, unlike its neighbouring versions, has been losing ground. According to the latest polls, Czech Christian democrats may not gain enough votes to gain seats in the new parliament, as their support has dropped two percent in the last months. Several factors exist which make gains by KDU-CSL highly unlikely--some of which are beyond their control, but most of which are not.


The dominant Czech political parties range narrowly from centre-right to centre-left while only a few stand far to the right or left. Differentiating between the two dominant Czech centrist parties comes down to two primary issues. The first is their view towards the European Union--the centre-right Civic Democrats (ODS) are Eurosceptic and the centre-left Social Democrats (ESSD) are Euro-friendly. The second is their view on the proper scope of government--the ODS supports a more limited government and the ESSD supports a more expansive government.

The KDU-CSL has remained marginally relevant in Czech politics on account of its moderate position in comparison with, for example, the monarchist party Koruna ceska, and far left parties such as the Communists. Since the KDU-CSL is close enough to the center and tentative enough in its positions, it is an attractive potential ally for the ODS and the CSSD. (The only other party that has maintained a similar moderate position is the Green Party.) But while its moderatism makes the party a potential ally, the party's tentative commitments hinder it from sustaining a long-term alliance with either.

The KDU-CSL's most significant disadvantage compared to its Christian democratic neighbours is the demographics of the Czech Republic. In neighbouring Germany, 68 percent of the population identifies itself as either Protestant or Roman Catholic compared with only 29 percent in the Czech Republic. In the September 2009 German national election, the combined CDU/CSU received 39.4 percent of the popular vote, resulting in 239 out of the 622 total seats. The election's outcome allowed the CDU/CSU to forsake their centre-left former coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party, and form a new coalition with the centrist Free Democratic Party. As a result, the new ruling coalition led under the CDU/CSU will shift slightly to the right.

In comparison to the situation in Germany, the KDU-CSL carried only 7.2 percent of the popular vote in the 2006 general elections. The current conditions appear to have worsened even further for the KDU-CSL. In recent polls, their support dropped to 6.5 percent in May 2009 and then to five percent in August. When compared to the demographics of Czech religious identification, the Czech Christian Democrats received 24.8 percent of the Christian population. Of course, it cannot be assumed that all people who identify themselves as Christians vote for the KDU-CSL. However, the comparison with German demographics is interesting to note.

The CDU/CSU's support in the 2009 election was equal to 58 percent of the total population who identify themselves as Christian. Apparently the German Christian Democrats fair better at capturing the votes of Christians and/or people who are friendly toward a political agenda that identifies with Christian political principles. If the KDU-CSL were able to match the CDU/CSU in terms of percentage of the Christian population, it would attain close to 17 percent of the popular vote and surpass the Communist Party (KSCM) to take the third position behind the Civic Democrats and the Social Democrats. If they were to acquire that level of support, they would be able to substantially influence the Czech political scene.

How "K" is the KDU?

The KDU-CSL does not seem to take advantage of its most important distinction--its Christian democratic orientation. In other words, it does not seem to capitalize on support from the Christian population. Its failure to do so is not entirely surprising given that its programme lacks a substantive Christian basis. There is little in the programme that reflects principles drawn from Christian theology or a Judeo-Christian political philosophic tradition. In contrast, the largely Christian democratic European People's Party (EPP) emphasizes principles drawn from Christian political thought. It is founded "on the basis of the Christian view of mankind." Two concepts espoused by both the EPP provide examples of this--personalism and subsidiarity.

The EPP's basic programme states: "Christian Democracy ... seeks to appeal to what is 'best,' to the 'constructive' aspect which exists in each human individual, and to give contemporary expression to the ideals of social Christian personalism." Christian personalism is described by Cormac Burke, a Catholic priest and scholar, as: "a view of man which places emphasis on his dignity as a son of God.... In true personalism there is a natural alliance between the person--the individual human being--and the community. Personalist participation in community implies not a mere adaptation of interests to interests, but of person to person, based on the consciousness of commonly shared dignity and rights."

Subsidiarity is another concept developed and supported within Catholic social teaching. Pius XI clearly articulates this idea in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno: "It is an injustice and at the same time a great evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy or absorb them" (no. 79).

Thus, Christian democracy is an advocate for devolving power as much as possible to the local level as well as advocating an extensive civil society.

The Austrian Christian Democratic Party (OVP), which has gained anywhere from 26-42 percent of the country's popular vote in the last ten years, explicitly reaches out to the Christian population and any who are friendly to Christian values in politics without committing itself to a singular Christian tradition: "We are open to Christians and to all those committed to these values for other reasons. We are not bound to any denomination or church institution."

The support of the Christian population is, however, an issue for the German CDU. A reluctant member of the party and its most vocal critic, Martin Lohmann, believes that Angela Merkel "in hop[ing] to score a few cheap political points did enormous damage among Catholic CDU supporters," Spiegel Online quotes. Lohmann is sure that many bishops will no longer vote for the CDU after Merkel's criticism of the Pope and intentional avoidance of the "C"--or Christian--aspect of the party. Similarly, a Czech Catholic priest and scholar, Tomas Halik, emphasized at last month's Forum 2000 Conference in Prague that a problematic situation exists between religion and democracy in the Czech Republic. He said that the main cause of Czech skepticism towards both is derived from the inability of democratic and religious institutions to communicate with the people. He noted to The New Presence earlier this year that Czech believers do not tend to support the KDU-CSL because of the party's unclear Christian stance.

As aforementioned, European Christian democratic parties have normally taken positions that do not fit one category on the typical left-right political spectrum. "Christian democracy has incorporated many of the views held by liberals, conservatives, and socialists within a wider framework of moral and Christian principles," Zsolt Enyedi, a professor at Open University, notes. On social issues, the KDU-CSL tends to align with conservatives--wary of the propagation of immoral behavior in society. On issues related to governance and rights, they fall in step with liberal democrats supporting individual rights, freedom, and personal responsibility. On issues related to government programs and spending, they promote social democratic policies, advocating programs that provide welfare for the poor and universal services in areas such as education and health care.

As a result, Christian democracy's party platform generally draws voter support from those concerned with the big government of Social democrats and the small government of the liberal democrats. Czech Christian Democrats have not, however, made use of this seeming advantage.

Suggested Reading

Gehler, Michael and Wolfram Kaiser. Christian Democracy in Europe Since 1945. Routledge, 2004.

Lamberts, Emiel, ed. Christian Democracy in the European Union, 1945-1995. Cornell University Press, 1997.

Lewis, Paul. G. and Zdenka Mansfeldova, eds. European Union and Party Politics in Central and Eastern Europe. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Lohmann, Martin. Das Kreuz mit dem C--Wie christlichist die Union? Butzon & Bercker, 2009.

Van Hecke, Steven and Emmanuel Gerard. Christian Democratic Parties in Europe since the End of the Cold War. Cornell University Press, 2004.

Dr. William Miller is a professor of political science and philosophy at Anglo-American University in Prague and a member of the International Institute for Christian Studies.

Alexandra Vedrashko is a study assistant at the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Anglo-American University and a web editor at Human Rights Publishers.
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Title Annotation:CZECH AFFAIRS
Author:Miller, William; Vedrashko, Alexandra
Publication:The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs
Geographic Code:4EXCZ
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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