PRAGUE, Czech Republic — After a quarter century in the political wilderness, the unreformed Communist Party has a real chance of regaining a measure of political power for the first time since the Velvet Revolution ended its 40-year dictatorship in 1989.
Still widely reviled by many here, the party may nevertheless do well in parliamentary elections on Friday and Saturday thanks to voters’ deep disenchantment with the established political parties.
Their hostility has been fed by a seemingly endless succession of corruption scandals taking place while the economy sputters.
The Communists are the only political mainstay here not tarnished by corruption scandals in the last 25 years, largely by virtue of their political isolation.
Most polls now show them winning 12 to 20 percent of the vote, which could propel them to a second or third-place finish in a crowded political field. The most likely scenario projects the Communist Party supporting a minority government of the Czech Social Democratic Party, the CSSD.
Although the Social Democrats are widely expected to win, their margin of victory is uncertain. Without an outright majority, they’ll need the support of at least one other group or to form a coalition government.
Even if they don't join a coalition with the CSSD, the Communists may gain key posts on parliamentary committees, including parliamentary chairman as well as some ambassadorships and high court appointments, according to journalist Jindrich Sidlo, who covers politics for Hospodarske noviny, the country's leading business newspaper.
“I understand people who hate the Communists because they were harmed by them, but they aren’t dangerous anymore,” he says. “They don't want to send people to jail. They love freedom ... Maybe if we allow them to be partly responsible, it can help to unblock the whole political situation.”
The CSSD is a mainstream social democratic party similar to its Western European counterparts, meaning it would guarantee the country would remain fully committed to its memberships in the European Union and NATO, Sidlo adds.
Nevertheless, cutout figurines were found hanging from bridges in Prague and several other cities on Tuesday adorned with the slogan: "Went against the Communists."
Instability is a hallmark of Czech politics: Only two governments in the post-communist era have succeeded in serving out their four-year mandates, the last one more than a decade ago.
One reason is that most governing coalitions have ruled with razor-thin majorities that made them vulnerable to collapse. That pattern may now be working to the Communists’ advantage.
The conventional wisdom among their critics 20 years ago was that if everyone just ignored them, the party would simply die out in a generation along with its predominantly elderly supporters.
However, the Communists have routinely won 12 to 15 percent of the vote, leaving the rest of the political establishment to try to find a way to exclude them from power.
They are by no means the only potential beneficiaries of voter anger. The political climate is so turbulent that it’s unclear whether as few as five parties or as many as nine will be seated in the next parliament. Two parties from the outgoing parliament aren’t even running.
“I've never seen anything like it,” Sidlo says.
Polls show a third of the electorate is either undecided or hasn’t ruled out switching allegiances before voting, according to Jan Hartl, director of the STEM polling agency.
But one thing is clear, he adds. “A large part of the population is seeking change.”
That appears to be manifesting itself in two ways. One is growing support for the political left, which has been in opposition for seven years. The second is the emergence of an array of new parties on the right and left offering voters alternatives to the status-quo.
Leading the parade of newcomers is entrepreneur Andrej Babis and his ANO Party (Action of Dissatisfied Citizens). ANO (which also means “yes”) is polling 10-15 percent, which could make it the biggest winner on the right.
Babis controls a business conglomerate with a net worth estimated at $2 billion, which makes him the country’s second-wealthiest man.
Earlier this year, he bought one of the country’s top publishing houses, which prints two of the leading newspapers, to howls of protests from media watchdogs that fear he may become a Czech Silvio Berlusconi.
He’s also been dogged by media reports that he once collaborated with the dreaded secret police under communism. He denies the charges, and so far voters seem unconvinced by the allegations.
The Civic Democratic Party (ODS), the most powerful right-wing group in the post-communist era, is in dire straits, seen as wildly corrupt. Some polls suggest it won't win even 10 percent.
The party led the governing coalition until June, when a spectacular corruption scandal, which led to the prime minister's inner circle, forced his resignation and brought down the government.
The ODS’s former coalition partner, the center-right TOP 09 Party, formed in 2010, is also underwhelming voters this time around, polling just 10-12 percent and paving the way for Babis's ascent on the right.
Other hopefuls include the Christian Democrats, who have a long political history here but left parliament in 2010, when they failed to cross the 5 percent threshold of votes needed to win seats. They appear poised to return.
The leftist Party of Citizens Rights — the so-called Zemanites loyal to the mercurial president, Milos Zeman — could change the balance of power in parliament depending on how much support it gets.
Another party, Dawn of Direct Democracy, is led by a bizarre Czech-Japanese nationalist named Tomio Okamura, who is openly hostile toward the Roma minority.
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Jakub Skoda, a 23-year-old geology student at Prague’s Charles University, personifies the dilemma facing Czech voters and the quandary for pollsters trying to divine their pulse.
He says he wants to vote for the little known Zmena (Change) Party. “They're socially sensitive but economically innovative,” he says.
Since the party has virtually no chance of entering parliament, Skoda must decide whether to vote his conscience or cast his vote more pragmatically. So he’s also considering the Green Party, which has a slim chance of returning to parliament after a four-year absence.
But he hasn't ruled out voting for Babis's ANO party and is also keeping the door open to TOP 09 — and isn't bothered about considering parties from both the left and the right.
“I don't care too much for labels,” he said. “I'm more interested in what they say.”