Elections

Duration: 45 min.

Pedagogic aims:

  • Students will compare and analyse different pictures and forms of elections in the state socialism period.
  • Students will learn that elections could be misused as an instrument of propaganda.
  • Students will be able to identify and characterise the nature of elections under socialism.


This lesson explores the subject of elections under state socialism in a complex manner. The impossibility of how elections in the political sphere — in terms of elections themselves or due to that fact that the Communist Party’s leading role was enshrined in the Constitution — restricted the freedom of citizens is one of the defining characteristics of the previous regime. This is true regardless of how we ultimately describe it: totalitarian, post-totalitarian, repressive, a party dictatorship, etc. For students approaching voting age in particular, it may be interesting to compare how they will vote with how their parents and grandparents once voted. Despite outward similarities when it comes to the act of voting (flags, state symbols, school polling stations, etc.), above all, students should grasp the fact that elections were essentially not elections at all, as it was only possible to vote for a unified National Front candidate list. This was, is in fact, nothing more than another name for the Communist Party’s candidate list. Historically, the name was created during the war to refer to a joint candidate list of all parties, who in this way displayed national unity. The Communist Party was also part of the National Front. For historical reasons, the party entered the elections under that name; people were not only meant to vote for the Communists, but instead for a nationwide candidate list of all groupings.

The central aim of the lesson is to discuss the issue of what purpose these elections actually served. The act of voting was an obligatory display of citizens’ loyalty to the governing regime. The key to this answer lies primarily in uncovering the performative aspect of elections. Therefore, we have based the lesson mainly on materials from different periods; they point to the social exhortation that was connected to elections (imploring election posters from the 1950s) or to elections as a societal ritual (photographic materials and contemporary film footage). 

Analysing materials linked to elections should lead to an increase in students’ media literacy skills, therefore helping to prepare them for their entry into civic life (i.e., their own participation in elections). Discussing the distorted nature of socialist-era elections may also lead to a reinforcement of the fundamental ideas about the democratic principles linked to elections. 

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“Throughout the country on 5 June polling stations opened at which millions of citizens submitted their vote for National Front candidates to be deputies on representative bodies. Residents and staff at a newly opened retirement home in Prague’s Bohnice go to the polls together.” (ČTK, 1981)

Activity 1: Introduction

Duration: 5 min.

Question:

  • What do you think is going on in this photograph?
  • Return to the photo at the end of the class

The introductory photograph opens up the whole issue. An apparently banal starting question – What is happening in the photo? – is actually engaging. If the students are unaware that the lesson is about elections, they might reply that what is taking place in the photo is a funeral, a May Day parade, a demonstration, etc. It should show that during the period of state socialism, elections were accompanied by phenomena that are no longer visible today. It naturally raises a question: Why did those things take place?

“We young people want peace and a nicer life.” (1954)

Activity 2: A historical excursion: 1950s

Duration: 10 min

Questions:

  • What values does the poster highlight? Toward what or whom do you think the figures in the poster might be directing their eyes?
  • Compare this period poster with today’s electoral posters.

This material clearly demands interpretation. It spurs comparisons with today. A question concerning the similarities and differences between the 1954 poster and those of today may be asked. The important thing is that values commonly associated with elections – future orientation and ensuring better living conditions – should be formulated. The motif of the Prague Castle in the background should not be ignored – it places abstract values surrounding elections in a specific time and location, the capital of then socialist Czechoslovakia.

“A vote for the National Front candidate list is a vote for peace, for the welfare of the people, for socialism.” (1957)

Activity 3: A historical excursion: 1950s (2)

Questions:

  • Describe the decorations above the entrance to the polling station. Also describe the poster. What does the slogan above the entrance refer to? Who is depicted as the enemy?
  • Do the decorations leave any room for people not to vote for the National Front?

The totalitarian nature of the elections is fully visible in this photograph. Unlike their democratic counterparts, these elections were conceived as a struggle, as a show of unity. Even though elections are the subject here, there is no room for any choice. This photo from 1957 is an important material in the entire dramaturgy of the lesson, as it clearly demonstrates the deficit of freedom and the entire tone (discourse) of the 1950s.

Election results (1948-1960). “The successes of socialist construction have been reflected in the results of elections.” (History textbook, 1989)

Activity 4: Statistics

Duration: 10 min.

Questions:

  • Look at the percentages in the electoral results. Do you think any party could achieve such high results today?
  • Compare the quotation from the textbook with the statistics. Do you think it is possible for voters to be so satisfied with a party that the party wins four times in a row? 

 This step underlines the overall impression of totalitarian elections. It shows what taking part in elections meant. Elections clearly had an aim other than selecting new representatives in a free competition of ideas. It was, if anything, clearly a symbolic demonstration of force, a certain form of self-confirmation. The table in the picture also raises the issue of freedom of choice and obligation to vote. 

“We’re voting for our children’s happy future”

“ANO (YES) - 23-24 May / toward socialism and peace led by the CPC” (1986 elections)

Activity 5: Normalisation ritual

Duration: 10 min.

Students may divide up into groups.

Questions:

  • Look closely at photos from elections in 1986 from the Czech Press Agency (ČTK).
  • When you look at the photos, what values are emphasised in connection with the elections?
  • In your view, which of the photos:
    • Is most ideologically coloured?
    • Is least artificial (most natural)?
    • Depicts a situation that could commonly occur even during elections today?
    • Depicts a situation that would definitely not occur during elections today?

The collection of photos brings the atmosphere of elections to life. We will ask about their ideological tone and the values that are apparent. The teacher can highlight the fact the elections (at least going by the pictures) involve all social and age groups (also emphasising the presence of the army). Students can focus on an analysis of the individual symbols and signs. They might also ask what the meaning of the elections was, or why the act of voting was highlighted so conspicuously if only one party could run. They might also ask why entire families went to the ballot boxes together — and in their Sunday best, to boot — when people in fact had no freedom of choice. 

It is probable that the pupils will not all agree in their answers to individual questions. Give both sides room to offer arguments and ask why they regard a particular photo as ideological, or on what aspects of the photograph they have based their selection. Deepening their interpretations of the photographs and understanding the period ideological and social practice of elections is more important than reaching a unified response.

Activity 6: Ritual + conclusion

Duration: 10 min.

Questions:

  • Describe what is happening in the scene. What characters appear in it? Notice, for instance, the soldier by the ballot box. Why do you think he stood there? What was his role?
  • Why was it important for the family in the second scene (the Máras) to have voted? Why has the electoral commissioner come to see them and why is he so nervous? What could happen to him or to the Máras?
  • What differences can there be between the elections as shown in the film and those of today?

A recently made film (Pupendo, dir. Jan Hřebejk, 2003) introduces dynamism to the materials. It offers a complex depiction of elections in which most of the previously identified elements appear. It is important to mention that the scene is from a contemporary film that portrays the past (i.e., it is not historical material).

Students can also discuss whether some people may be nostalgic for the elections of the Communist era (perhaps they are drawn to the “retro” atmosphere in general); or whether the second part of the scene (the electoral committee outside the Máras’ apartment) would make any sense to either the students or to somebody from abroad watching it.