Are the Czech Social Democrats locked in a death spiral?
Not so long ago, the center-left Social Democratic Party (CSSD) of the Czech Republic was an electoral force to be reckoned with. In the six parliamentary elections that followed the formation of the new state in 1993 and until 2017, it came out on top four times and took second place from the rest.
Despite being the oldest political party still alive on Czech lands, its popularity has plummeted since 2017 and in the upcoming general election on October 8 it may not win a seat in parliament.
According to the latest opinion polls, he currently holds between 4% and 5% of the vote, a slight improvement on polls at the start of the year but still below the 5% threshold required for parties to return candidates to office. the Chamber of Deputies, noted Jiri Pehe. , political analyst and campus director of New York University in Prague.
When times were happier for the Czech Social Democratic Party
As of this writing, there are still two campaign weeks left for the CSSD, which has been the junior member of the coalition government since 2018.
But its current crisis is a far cry from what it was nearly a century ago, when in independent Czechoslovakia’s first general election in 1920, it garnered a quarter of all votes and became the dominant party. over the next two decades.
The CSSD dates back to 1878 when it became the Czech contingent of the Social Democratic Party of Austria under what was then the Habsburg Empire.
The party has seen its fair share of conflict. It was banned after the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in early 1939. And although it regained its importance as part of the National Front which ruled from 1945 to 1948, it was later forcibly incorporated into the Communist Party. from Czechoslovakia.
After the end of communism in 1989 and the break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1993, the Social Democrats returned as one of the two main parties in the Czech Republic, alongside the center-right Civic Democratic Party (ODS).
Since 1993, five of the 12 Czech prime ministers have come from the center-left party and he has generally served in successive coalition governments.
He lost six seats in the 2013 general election, but still finished first and became the dominant member of a tripartite coalition government. However, in the 2017 general election, he came sixth, winning just 15 seats out of 200 members of parliament, down from 50. And he only won 7.3% of the popular vote, up from 20.4% in the vote. 2013 poll.
The CSSD lost its four seats in the European Parliament in the 2019 European elections, in which it won only 3.9% of the vote. It was a similar story in last year’s regional elections in which he lost 88 seats, meaning he now only controls 37 of the 675 local seats.
Free-fall fortunes amid wider European malaise
In part, the declining fortunes of the CSSD are consistent with the collapse of social democratic parties across Europe over the past decade.
In France, the center-left Socialist Party has seen its popularity reach historic lows since the 2017 legislative elections.
In the 2019 British general election, the Labor Party suffered its worst defeat since 1935.
A notable exception is Germany, where the Social Democratic Party currently leads the polls before the federal election on Sunday, September 26.
Theorists attribute many reasons to the fall of the European Social Democrats: the rise of populism; distrust of establishment politicians; post-industrialization; changing views of the classroom; and globalization.
However, while social democratic parties have faded in European polls, social democracy as a concept remains more popular than ever, analysts say.
As the theory goes: new parties have adopted the economic policies of the Social Democrats but have mixed them more successfully with cultural issues, from immigration and Euroscepticism to environmental and progressive politics.
This appears to have been the case in the Czech Republic. The now dominant ANO party – the current coalition partner of the CSSD and a frontrunner in the polls ahead of the October 8 election – started life in 2011 as a center-right party, but turned around 2015 into a “leftist populist movement,” said Pehe, of the Prague campus of New York University.
To inflate its electoral base, Pehe explained, ANO succeeded in converting the CSSD electorate: older and less educated people in small towns and villages.
“The CSSD and the ANO target the same electorate, mainly elderly left-wing voters in the countryside,” agreed Ivana Karaskova, of the Association for International Affairs in Prague.
Ahead of the elections, ANO Prime Minister Andrej Babis has spent the last few months bragging about his government’s social democratic credentials, including increasing pensions and minimum wages, as well as improving other social benefits , all of which are attractive policies to the once-loyal CSSD electoral base.
“Babis presented the achievements in social policy not only as the result of his government led by the ANO, but also as the result of his personal intervention,” said Karaskova. “It easily eclipsed the CSSD, which participated in the government. “
Not only has the CSSD lost supporters to the ANO, but it has also seen its traditional voters hijacked by the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) party, said Lubomir Kopecek, professor of political science at the ‘Masaryk University.
According to the latest opinion polls, the SPD controls around 9-11% of the popular vote.
“The SPD is successfully playing the migration and refugee card, and many left-wing voters are afraid of migrants and refugees,” Kopecek said.
Why are the Czech Social Democrats fighting?
But the Czech Social Democrats are also accused of being the architects of their own misfortune. The party’s attempts to modernize and attract younger voters have been unsuccessful as its members are overwhelmingly older and conservative, Pehe said.
In addition, supporters of former CSSD leader Milos Zeman, now Czech president, have foiled attempts at modernization.
“The CSSD has remained quite nationalist and xenophobic towards foreigners and migrants, but Babis and the far right are better equipped to attract voters with nationalist sentiments,” said Pehe.
The party is also deeply divided. Many divisions still stem from the CSSD’s controversial 2018 decision to strike a coalition deal with Babis, who was pursued by corruption charges. Babis’ first attempt to form a minority government after the general elections the previous year failed to gain parliamentary support.
Jan Hamacek – who became the leader of the CSSD in early 2018 and has since served as Home Secretary – is a controversial topic.
“A lot of party members hate him,” Kopecek commented.
Since 2018, party members have been divided on key issues, from migration to foreign policy, with Hamacek apparently keen to strengthen ties with Russia and China, two explosive topics in Czech politics.
Tensions peaked in April this year when then Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek led a leadership challenge against Hamacek within the CSSD. Although Hamacek won a party poll, it did nothing to allay the party’s internal divisions or improve its damaged image.
As the October 8 parliamentary elections approached, there were internal clashes over the CSSD candidate lists, while personal attacks among the party leadership leaked into the media, which Kopecek described as “fatal for”. the image of the party ”.
Worse, Hamacek was barely visible during the election campaign and there are rumors that he now drinks heavily, Kopecek said.
Czech constitutional crisis?
The CSSD’s declining popularity is a key factor as to why some experts believe the Czech Republic could be heading for a post-election stalemate, or even a constitutional crisis, next month.
Although currently leading the polls, the NOA is unlikely to win enough seats to form a government on its own. If the CSSD does not get enough votes to enter parliament or lose seats, it could derail the current coalition agreement between the two parties, leaving ANO to search for new partners.
But the two new electoral alliances formed by the biggest opposition parties said they would not strike a deal that would dismiss Babis as prime minister and could try to form a government themselves. The far-right SPD has also said it will reject a pact with Babis. It is not yet clear whether the other small parties will win enough votes to win parliamentary seats.
Since coming to power in 2017, Babis has been beset by corruption charges over his Agrofert business empire, one of the country’s largest conglomerates. The biggest protests since the fall of communism took place in 2019 against an alleged corruption of Babis, now considered the richest person in the country.
In April, an audit by the European Commission found that Babis had violated a conflict of interest over his control of trust funds linked to Agrofert, accusations he dismisses. The EU is also investigating allegations of subsidy fraud by its companies. Similar investigations by Czech investigators have stalled but could resume if Babis loses power next month, raising electoral stakes for the current prime minister.
To complicate matters further, President Zeman has previously made it known that he dislikes the two major coalitions that formed earlier this year and has said he will allow the biggest party – not electoral alliances – trying to form a government post. -election.
Even if the Social Democrats win seats in parliament, it is far from clear that another ANO-CSSD coalition could control a majority in the lower house. After 2018, he depended on informal support from Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) deputies to have a slight majority.
As such, the Czech Republic could be heading for months of political instability. The collapse of support for the Social Democrats is not only the result of the fragmentation of Czech politics over the past decade, but also a cause of much of this uncertainty.