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The Czech Left On the Ropes

Falling support for traditional left-wing parties reflects a transformation of the Czech electorate and politics

Jan Hamáček a Josef Středula; ilustrační foto • Autor: Milan Bureš
Jan Hamáček a Josef Středula; ilustrační foto • Autor: Milan Bureš

This October a situation could arise in the Czech Republic where the political forces defining themselves as left-wing could completely disappear from high-level politics for the first time in 30 years. Both the Communists and Social Democrats are wobbling around the 5 percent threshold needed to enter parliament and their support continues to fall.

Both traditional left-wing parties have been on their way out for some time now: The Social Democrats (CSSD) dominated the scene eight years ago, but lost all their European Parliament seats two years ago and suffered a crushing defeat last autumn in elections to the regional authorities and the Senate. While it is the longest-surviving Czech political party, CSSD was not elected to the regional assemblies of five of the country’s 14 regions and the number of its senators fell to three, which means the CSSD club in the Senate had to join forces with the [ruling] ANO movement out of sheer necessity. That became all the more symbolic when it was revealed that voters who had previously supported CSSD were those who had most frequently switched their support to ANO.

The Czech Communist Party (KSCM) is marking their 100th anniversary this year, although its members have no reason to celebrate – the party, which at the beginning of the millennium won the votes of almost one-fifth of the electorate nationally, has absolutely disappeared from the upper chamber, fallen out of several regional-level councils, and is even having difficulties with its traditional bastions of support in the impoverished border regions. Those who vote for the Communists are dying out and new voters are not joining the party, or are choosing to vote either for ANO or the [far-right] SPD. Those projects, chaired by Prime Minister Andrej Babis and Tomio Okamura, respectively, are playing the main role in the story of the Czech left and the transformation of Czech politics.

The ANO and SPD movements have attracted voters away from both of the left-wing parties not just through clever marketing and anti-immigrant rhetoric, but also because they have more energy, the voters are less familiar with them, and they are unencumbered by past scandals. If the traditional left definitively leaves the lower house, that trend could continue and result in more insecurity and instability. In recent years the divisions between left and right have lost significance, but the desire of the electorate for measures that are typically left-wing – such as bigger pensions, higher salaries for public workers, or more support for families – will not disappear from politics, and the question is which party will meet that demand.

“I’m really afraid because it’s not clear who will take up these social issues and how they will approach them. The ANO movement could make the attempt as it has so far, it’s populist and led by a problematic billionaire, but the nationalist SPD could also,” comments political scientist Jan Rovny of Sciences Po in Paris.

Tomáš Petříček • Autor: ČTK, Jan Handrejch
Tomáš Petříček • Autor: ČTK, Jan Handrejch

There is no democratic, left-wing, modern party here to play that role or to offer new left-wing ideas. Rovny does not consider it very likely that the Pirates will become such a “culturally left-wing” force, even if they have been frequently mentioned as a likely candidate for the role recently. He believes the story of the fall of both traditional representatives of the left wing here is a good illustration of the transformation of the domestic political scene and the electorate’s priorities.

Tried and True Methods

Tomas Petricek, who until recently was the foreign minister and is currently just a rank-and-file CSSD member, has witnessed the party’s descent from the highest of heights. In 2002, as a 20-year-old political science student, he joined the Social Democratic Youth. At that time the party was led by Vladimir Spidla with 30 percent support, ruling the political field as the right-wing Civic Democratic Party (ODS) did on the other side of the spectrum. As a young student, Petricek was attracted by the party’s vision of a more just society, one in which your options would not be predetermined by whether you were born rich or poor, and the idea of a community of people who were not just chasing after profits also resonated with him. “How we actually realized that vision is another matter, of course,” the former foreign minister says today.

How is it possible that the party has fallen from 30 percent to 3 percent support? “There’s not just one answer. There were, of course, the corruption scandals, all the parties have gone through those. We were also damaged by internal disputes and our inability to communicate what social democracy has to offer today. Society is changing completely, but the CSSD has remained stuck in the past,” Petricek says. What he means is the rise of the internet and artificial intelligence, which in his view is a change comparable to the Industrial Revolution. He also considers climate change a challenge of similar dimensions globally: For humanity to survive on this planet, we must transform our patterns of consumption, energy production, and transportation.

“More progressive currents have always existed within the CSSD, and the progressive part has even made it into leadership and been quite visible during debates, but the rank-and-file members hold a more conservative view of politics. Since the CSSD is a democratic party, both of these currents have always tried to find their place in the program. That may have led to the situation that the resulting compromise has not included issues that resonate with younger voters,” Petricek says.

As an example from the time he was in office, Petricek mentions the party’s attitude toward climate change globally. While there are people in the party who propose a radical transition to a carbon-free economy, he believes they are very much in the minority. “The attempt to combat climate change, therefore, ends up with a compromise where just partial measures make it into the program, such as combating drought or the bark beetle,” he says. Other examples are policies to digitalize the Czech Republic or to make housing affordable, which in his view the party has fallen asleep on. “Instead of us, it’s the Pirates who have grown their supporters through those issues by reaching younger voters living in cities. Those are the people who could be voting for the CSSD today,” Petricek believes.

Selling Points

Betting on those tried-and-true approaches was how the Social Democrats won the elections in 2013, but what may have helped them even more was the public’s disgust with Petr Necas and his right-wing government which, during the financial crisis, pushed through unpopular budget cuts. The early departure of the ODS prime minister was sparked by a bizarre affair involving his mistress making improper use of the secret service. That wave of dissatisfaction with the right-wing ODS and TOP 09 parties did not just bring the CSSD to the top, but also the billionaire Andrej Babis and his ANO movement. This new political player resisted categorization along the traditional left-right spectrum: He claimed that the main motivation for his political involvement was to combat corruption in all the established parties.

Andrej Babiš po krajských a senátních volbách, Pruhonice, říjen 2020 • Autor: Milan Jaroš
Andrej Babiš po krajských a senátních volbách, Pruhonice, říjen 2020 • Autor: Milan Jaroš

Prior to the 1989 Velvet Revolution, Babis was a Communist government official tasked with buying phosphates in Morocco, and he then enriched himself fabulously during the privatizations that were administered by those “corrupt parties,” so there was a certain irony to his political rise. He scored points with voters by promising to make his abilities as a rich (and therefore certainly successful) entrepreneur available to the country. “Issues like combating corruption or managerial competence, which he advocated, are not left-wing or right-wing, but draw their power from the general dissatisfaction with the management of the state,” says political scientist Lubomir Kopecek of Masaryk University in Brno.

While the ANO movement has placed itself beyond such traditional dividing lines, what did attract right-wing voters to it in 2013 was dissatisfaction with corruption scandals in “their” parties. “If we look at the results of those elections, ANO vacuumed up the ODS voters,” Kopecek says.

“Babis has always known how to sell issues. He also convinced senior citizens that it was he [as finance minister] who had pushed through the increases to their pensions,” he says. Babis accomplished this through good marketing, according to the political scientist:  He knew how to share his successes with voters by making use of social media and also of the national daily papers he bought when he entered the political scene.

One such voter whom Babis won over was Libor Oslesek of Sumperk, a truck driver. He considers himself to be “slightly left” politically and used to vote for ODS before choosing CSSD and eventually the ANO movement. In contrast to CSSD leaders, he sees Babis as a competent manager who ignores ideology and wants to see results. “The economy in the Czech Republic has grown significantly, people are better off overall, not just the rich entrepreneurs, and Mr. Babis is mainly responsible for that,” the truck driver says, adding that thanks to ANO, the highways he drives on every day are kept in better repair.

New Divisions

Under a Social Democratic administration, a new issue appeared that shook the political scene to its foundations. During the summer of 2015 the migration crisis arrived as more than one million refugees from war-torn Afghanistan, Syria, and other countries headed to Europe. While Babis rejected receiving the refugees and played the role of the person defending the Czech Republic from EU quotas on refugee redistribution, the CSSD was torn in half.

For a long time CSSD lacked any official position whatsoever on the refugee crisis and the party was disunited on the question. “The Social Democrats were unable to abandon their humanist values from one day to the next, 100 years ago their voters embraced international unity among all human beings irrespective of their nationality. At the same time they were unable to immediately ride the liberal wave and welcome the refugees because their more conservative voters would not have liked it. The result was a waffling that tore the party apart and the CSSD lost both its liberal voters and the conservative ones who resonated more with Babis's attitude,” Rovny says. The issue of refugees has now vanished from the political debate but is still alive on social media and among the electorate, functioning as a point of reference for voters to decide whom to support.

During the elections to the lower house in 2017, CSSD's share of the vote fell from 20 percent to 7 percent and it became a small party, while Babis triumphed with almost 30 percent support. According to data from the Kantar agency, 40 percent of former CSSD voters switched to ANO, which also attracted many former Communist voters. “If we were to assess things according to electoral support, then ANO’s billionaire project has been the main left-wing party since 2017,” says political scientist Jakub Lysek of Palacky University in Olomouc.

Tomio Okamura a Andrej Babiš; ilustrační foto • Autor: Milan Jaroš
Tomio Okamura a Andrej Babiš; ilustrační foto • Autor: Milan Jaroš

Besides Babis, those elections had other victors who were less noticeable – the environmentally-conscious, liberal, modern Pirates were elected to the lower house for the first time, as was the nationalist, xenophobic SPD. Rovny believes the 2017 elections demonstrated that political competition in the Czech Republic has essentially changed. “For voters, ‘cultural’ issues have become more important than distinctions based on how a party approaches socioeconomic questions – issues like immigration, globalization, deeper EU integration or climate change,” he says.

Starting Over

According to these new distinctions, suddenly the anti-immigrant, nationally-focused Communist Party and SPD were closer to each other, while neither the ANO movement nor the conservative part of the CSSD were so distant from each other – despite the economic programs of all these parties differing greatly. A welcoming attitude toward receiving refugees, the European Union, environmental issues, or same-sex marriage brought those who vote for the Pirates, the STAN [Mayors and Independents] movement, and even some TOP 09 supporters into one and the same current. According to Rovny, openness to those issues today in the European context defines the cultural left and is embraced more by better educated and younger city dwellers. “The perception of what is considered the left is changing,” he says.

The Pirates, STAN, and TOP 09, in Rovny’s view, are centrist on economics, although TOP 09 is right-wing in its economic policy, but many previous Social Democratic voters have switched to these parties exactly because of their attitudes toward these cultural issues. Because the CSSD has collaborated with Babis in government, it has become an impossible choice for such voters, who are also bothered by some Social Democrats flip-flopping on refugee reception or taking little interest in the environment or in the problems caused by a lack of affordable housing.

The journalist Apolena Rychlikova of the A2larm news site, which espouses left-wing positions, has observed this change in her acquaintances. “Many of the people I know have left CSSD for the Pirates precisely because of such cultural attitudes, but I myself don’t see the Pirates as left-wing. There is no left-wing, modern party here combining economic leftism with those cultural attitudes,” she says.

While the conservative and liberal wings of CSSD have been competing with each other, the Communist Party gives the impression (at least superficially) of an ideologically united front. The leadership of the party, which survived the fall of the previous regime and has adapted to the new order, currently features people who nostalgically long for the days before 1989, who criticize the capitalist West, and who look up to Russia even though today it is no longer the Soviet Union, but an authoritarian state led by a group of oligarchs. “I don’t know if it is even remotely possible to consider that party left-wing. Its socioeconomic program may be left-wing, but it is otherwise a nationalist, anti-immigrant, very conservative party,” Rovny says.

In the last parliamentary elections in 2017, the Communists fell from 15 percent to 7 percent and according to Kantar's polling, most of their voters switched to ANO and SPD. Political scientists believe the party is most likely condemned to extinction because only an aging hard core of adherents votes for it and new voters are not coming to the rescue. “That party is stuck in its own bubble, its members are those who are nostalgic for the previous regime. There is no ambition there to become a left-wing party that has reformed itself like Die Linke in Germany,” says Lukas Linek of the Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

Some Communists do have the ambition to revive the party, though. Member of parliament Hana Aulicka-Jirovcova, who just turned 40 and is one of the party’s young hopes, is one of them. “The people who voted for us previously are telling us that now they’re voting Babis because it was he who got them higher pensions, or voting for Okamura because we are not radical enough,” says the light-haired woman in an elegant suit, who really sticks out at first glance among the older members. She believes Communist voters are leaving for the SPD because of that party’s significantly more vocal resistance to receiving refugees than the Communists have articulated, even though KSCM is also strongly against receiving them. The Communists were also greatly damaged by their tolerance for Babis, a billionaire, in government.

“During the last year people have written me e-mails saying that it bothers them that we’re supporting the government’s lockdowns and that they’ve had enough,” Aulicka-Jirovcova adds.

The Future of the Left

If CSSD and KSCM do not return to the lower house after the October elections, will their left-wing voices be missed? Who might replace them? According to Rovny, it is likely that ANO will keep advocating for social security policies such as increasing pensions or salaries, in combination with a rejection of migration and of “green” measures. ANO is currently a left-wing party as far as its voters are concerned – although this populist party frequently behaves like a right-wing one, such as when it pushed through lower income taxes together with the ODS and SPD, depriving the budget of tens of billions of crowns annually.

Vojtěch Filip • Autor: Milan Bureš
Vojtěch Filip • Autor: Milan Bureš

Political scientists also believe it possible that the nationalist SPD could attempt to fill the vacuum on the left. “In France, Marine Le Pen, the nationalist, is doing this in a similar way, attracting the poorer voters with family policies, support for housing, and simultaneously fighting against migration and Islamism,” Rovny says. “As the left-wing parties fall by the wayside and disappear, the radical right will take up such issues in a way that is not so different from how the National Socialists did this in the 1930s.”

Rovny adds that the Pirates’ voters also more frequently consider themselves centrist, and more right-leaning – which is confirmed by a Median poll according to which 35 percent of them define themselves as on the right and just 19 percent on the left, with the rest in the center. However, such self-classification is complicated to sort out, according to Rovny: In the Czech context, people overall dislike describing themselves as on the left because that concept is associated with the communist era, even though they profess support for policy prescriptions that are fairer socially.

That is confirmed by sociologist Lukas Linek, who argues that Czechs are mostly egalitarian on many socioeconomic subjects. In his recent book Socialni stat, nerovnosti, politika [The Welfare State, Inequality, Politics], he notes that most of the Czech public has long supported progressive taxation – something that is, in the traditional left-right division, a typically leftist measure.

According to the journalist Rychlikova, if CSSD were to fall out of the running this autumn, it could be an opportunity either to renew the party, or for the rise of new groups that have formed in the past year. However, the Future Movement [Hnuti Budoucnost], the Idealists, and the Left party [Levice], in her view, suffer from fragmentation and an inability to reach consensus – the usual afflictions of left-wing movements. The parties are currently negotiating a common approach toward the elections. “That will be a marathon, though. The Pirates have proven that it takes approximately 10 years to make it from the grassroots to high politics here,” Rychlikova says.

This article originally appeared on www. respekt.cz in longer form. Translated by Gwendolyn Albert. Vychází ve spolupráci s TransitionsOnline

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