VISEGRAD: The strange death of Social Democratic Czechia

VISEGRAD: The strange death of Social Democratic Czechia
By Robert Anderson in Prague October 19, 2017

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka’s resignation as Social Democrat leader on June 14 reflects the precipitous decline in CSSD support in opinion polls this year.

The party’s vote has sunk from regularly more than 30% in the noughties, to 20% at the 2013 election, to a low of 10%, according to one recent poll.

It now looks all but certain now that the CSSD will be out of power – or at least a leading position – after the next election in October. The expected electoral drubbing would be a body blow to the already heavily indebted party because it gets most of its funding from the state according to its vote. With no charismatic leader waiting in the wings, its future looks bleak.

The Czech Republic was once an island of stability and moderation in Central Europe. Now, with growing voter volatility and the looming collapse of its last strong traditional party, it looks as if will join its neighbours in embracing populism and picking fights with Brussels, with grave risks for its democracy and European unity.

“We face destruction of the whole party system,” Jiri Dienstbier,  a former Social Democrat human rights minister, told bne IntelliNews earlier this year. “The CSSD is now at breaking point. The next general election will decide whether it will survive as a mainstream party.”

Andrej Babis, the agro-chemicals billionaire who launched his own Ano party, is poised to seize power in October, with the open support of President Milos Zeman, a former Social Democrat and longstanding bitter enemy of Sobotka whom he has worked ceaselessly to undermine.

Czech society is sleepwalking towards giving Babis the strongest political power since the restoration of democracy a quarter of a century ago. Voters are ignoring Sobotka’s warnings of the danger this could pose. “I would hate to see how the power pact between Babis and Zeman, and its extension into the future through the election, would start to turn Czechia into an authoritarian society,” the prime minister said in an interview with the Respekt weekly in May.

Potemkin village

Social Democrats have had a leading position in Czech politics for the last 20 years, winning most votes in all but one of the last five elections, and leading governments for more than half that period. The party should by rights have dominated the political scene after the 2013 implosion of its main rival, the rightwing Civic Democrats (ODS), after a series of corruption and spying scandals and a self-inflicted two-year recession caused by its austerity obsession.

To some extent its pre-eminence is a natural reflection of the fact that – unlike its neighbours, where social democrat parties began as rebranded communists – the CSSD dates back to 1878. The party was a significant player throughout the interwar First Republic, and after the return of democracy in 1989 Milos Zeman was able to harness it to ride it back into government in 1998.

But more than that, Czechia always had a strong social democrat ethos, inculcated by its founder-president Tomas Masaryk, and this was never entirely buried, despite 40 years of communism and the free market ideology of Vaclav Klaus, the main architect of the country’s economic transformation in the early 1990s. The welfare state is one of the most generous in the region, university education remains free, the health service is good and still largely state-run, and unions are closely consulted through tripartite discussions.

The Czech Republic – which, unlike its neighbours, had a strong democratic tradition before communism – quickly became the most stable and Western of the new democracies in Central Europe. With the Social Democrats at the helm, the country looked to Germany and Austria as role models, and seemed an obvious candidate to become a member of the Eurozone.

Yet the party’s support base was a Potemkin village. The party’s huge poll ratings from the mid-1990s to the mid-noughties should be credited to its strong leaders – first Zeman, then Jiri Paroubek – who mobilised a wide coalition of protest voters, using a populist style and aggressive campaigns against the ODS, targeting its corruption and the threat it posed to the welfare state.

When the party has been in government under progressive leaders – Vladimir Spidla (2001-2004) or Sobotka (2011+) – it has struggled to combine Western European social democratic values with the socially conservative and nationalistic instincts of its supporters.

The party’s support base remains the poorer, older and less-educated voters in shabby small towns and rust belts who have benefited little from the collapse of communism, rather than the young, educated urban supporters of social democrat parties in Western Europe. These marginalised and increasingly volatile voters cannot be taken for granted, because they are also fought over by the hardline Communist party, the strongest in the region, and an ever-changing assortment of extreme rightwing factions. And without them, the party is lost.

Moreover, many of these voters, together with much of the party’s largely elderly and declining membership, and its strong regional barons, look back with nostalgia to the party’s halcyon days under Zeman, leader from 1993-2001 – something that the president has used to undermine his successors and try to bend the party to his will. By doing so, he looks set to destroy the party he did so much to rebuild.

Twists and turns

Sobotka’s agony over reconciling the party’s values with those of its voters is symbolised by the government’s changing stance on refugee quotas.

Initially, Sobotka successfully maintained a balancing act: he kept in good odour with Brussels and Prague’s liberals by accepting a few token refugees, while at the same time making noises against quotas that kept nationalist supporters on board and kept the Visegrad Group of Central European countries united. The party’s ambiguous stance was epitomised by the liberal Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek on the one side, with the more hardline Interior Minister Milan Chovanec on the other.

But it soon became clear that there was little to be gained electorally by making liberal gestures. The relatively small Prague liberal constituency remained put off by the party’s traditionalist wing, the persistent whiff of municipal corruption, and the CSSD’s failure to embrace modern issues such as environmentalism or gender politics.

Meanwhile, many of the party’s core supporters were being lured away by Babis’ populist sound bites against migration and Brussels, and his promise to root out corruption.

This year Sobotka changed tack, sacking Dienstbier, a leading liberal ally, and backing Chovanec’s populist opposition to receiving migrants, and even his bizarre proposal to loosen gun laws so that citizens could arm themselves against the country’s non-existent Islamic terrorist threat. It appears as if the government deliberately courted the recent EU Commission infringement procedure for not accepting migrants this year, when it could have easily avoided it like Slovakia by making a token gesture.

Sobotka has also tried to shift the party leftwards, criticising multinationals and Brussels, and promising to raise taxes on the rich and big companies, impose a special tax on banks, and hike the minimum wage and benefits. Yet however smart that might have been tactically, these twists and turns still looked unconvincing to voters.

Sobotka's main achievement has been to be the first premier since Zeman in 1998-2002 to complete a full term in office. By Central European standards he is a decent, clean, professional politician, but he is also sorely lacking in vision, leadership or charisma. Whether a Tony Blair or Emmanuel Macron type politician could ever succeed in Central Europe is questionable, but Sobotka, though relatively young (45), is certainly no Macron, and he also makes a pretty poor Jeremy Corbyn.

Ruling in a grand coalition with Babis’ personal party since 2010, the Social Democrats have steered the government programme and presided over a revitalised economy, with record low unemployment, but most of the credit has gone to Babis as finance minister. 

Ano, backed by Babis’ private fortune, his media empire and a slick PR machine, is now 20 points ahead of the CSSD in the opinion polls and seems unassailable, even though it has no real party structure behind it, and no ideology, apart from its leader’s folksy populism.

Like Donald Trump, Babis is an elite, anti-elite populist. Babis grew up as part of the communist nomenklatura, and then after 1989 built an agro-chemical business, funded initially by mysterious foreign partners and boosted by his close links with politicians.

The country’s second richest man makes the classic snake oil promises of the businessman populist: that he will run the country as a business, that he is rich enough not to bother to steal, and that, as he understands financial shenanigans, so he is able to stamp them out.

Last gambit

Whatever manoeuvres Sobotka has tried, they have failed to dent Ano’s poll lead. After attacking Babis’ clear conflicts of interest, his alleged tax evasion, and his dubious receipt of EU aid, in May Sobotka belatedly sacked him as finance minister, but this seems to have rebounded on him rather than the billionaire. Voters remain blasé about Babis’ financial affairs, and the probes by the Czech tax office and EU anti-fraud office OLAF will probably come too late to make a difference, if they are not shelved anyway.

Anointing Zaoralek as election leader and prime ministerial candidate on June 14, and making Chovanec acting party chairman, is the last gambit of a desperate man. But, like Sobotka’s previous moves, it is hard to see how this triumvirate can turn round the party’s fortunes, and it may just end up causing confusion in the election campaign. It looks more like Sobotka’s way of spreading the blame for the fiasco to come.

Zaoralek is a weightier contender than Sobotka. He is old enough (60) to have been involved in the Velvet Revolution, he has a hinterland outside politics – he worked as a philosophy lecturer,  is deeply cultured, and speaks several languages – and he can be an extremely aggressive debater. However, he is also from the party’s liberal wing and his position in the party hierarchy has been shaky in the past. He is also prone to give long rambling philosophical answers, when voters clearly prefer Babis’s pithy PR-tested sound bites.

Zaoralek may just become a stopgap leader who takes the rap for the party’s collapse. This could pave the way for Chovanec to take over and push the party in a more socially conservative and nationalist direction, perhaps as a submissive junior partner in a Babis government, as Zeman seems to want. If this happens, then the fall of Czech Social Democracy would indeed be complete, and the party could be marginalised like its Polish and Hungarian sister parties.

Without any strong political party able to stand up to him, Babis would then be master of all he surveys, and his authoritarian instincts could test the young democracy’s institutional checks and balances.

“We don’t know what he would do if he had that kind of power,” commentator Jiri Pehe told bne IntelliNews recently. “But he is not a democrat one bit.”

First published on June 16, 2017.