Analyst: Sobotka may be replaced as Social Democrats chief even before elections if polling numbers stay low

Bohuslav Sobotka, foto: Filip Jandourek, ČRo

While some pundits praised Social Democrats leader Bohuslav Sobotka for his handling of the recent government crisis, it doesn’t seem to have benefited his party, who a recent opinion poll put in fourth place on just 10 percent support. In the meantime, there have been reports that Prime Minister Sobotka could be replaced as party chairman even before October’s elections. So why are the Social Democrats in such poor shape at the moment? That’s a question I put to political scientist Jiří Pehe.

Bohuslav Sobotka, photo: Filip Jandourek
“I think that the Social Democrats are doing badly simply because they have not managed to communicate the essence of the government crisis very well.

“They started an attack on Mr. Babiš [head of government partners ANO], which I think was justified, given Babiš’s problems.

“But at the same time, I don’t think they managed to do it in a very comprehensible way.

“Also Mr. Sobotka changed his strategy several times. At first he just wanted to dismiss Babiš, then he offered the resignation of the entire government, then he changed his mind again.

“That was something that voters certainly saw as a problem – the lack of firm attitudes on the part of Mr. Sobotka.”

Are the party also sending mixed messages? On one hand you have the minister of the interior, Milan Chovanec, projecting a kind of tough guy image, and then on the other you have Sobotka who at least occasionally seems to be trying to appeal to liberal voters?

“Yes, I think Mr. Chovanec and Mr. Sobotka represent two opposite poles of the Social Democratic Party right now, although formally they are allies.

“I think that there is a real problem with Mr. Chovanec, who is trying very hard to appeal to the kind of voter who would probably much more like to vote for one of the strongly anti-migrant, anti-immigration parties.

Milan Chovanec, photo: CTK
“Mr. Chovanec is, I think, appealing to some traditional voters of the Social Democratic Party.

“But those voters who really want strong attitudes towards immigration and let’s say more rigid policies on guns would probably go to another party.”

Do you have the sense that Mr. Chovanec or other senior figures in the party are jockeying for position with a view to eventually trying to replace Mr. Sobotka as leader?

“I think Mr. Chovanec is right now in the best position to replace Mr. Sobotka after the elections, if they turn out badly for the Social Democratic Party.

“But we cannot really rule out the Mr. Sobotka will be replaced before the elections, if opinion polls showing that the party are losing voter support continue.

“Already now with the latest poll, which shows some 10 percent for the Social Democratic Party, there have been voices within the party that Mr. Sobotka should perhaps be replaced before the elections.

“And in that case it probably wouldn’t be Mr. Chovanec but much more likely somebody with broader appeal like [foreign minister] Mr. Zaorálek.”

How likely do you think it is that Mr. Sobotka won’t be the party leader going into the elections in October?

“At this point I think the chances are about 80 percent to 20 percent that Mr. Sobotka will lead the party into the general elections, because we may still see some changes in the polls in June and July and during the summer in general.

“I think that what the polls are showing now still reflects a lot of confusion that was caused by the government crisis.

Lubomír Zaorálek, photo: Filip Jandourek
“But it usually takes one or two months for emotions to settle down and for people to start reflecting in a more rational way.

“And in that case, I would assume that support for Mr. Babiš’s ANO movement would go slightly down and support for the Social Democratic Party may go up.

“So it really depends on opinion polls that we will see towards the end of June and especially in July.

“If they continue to be bad then the likelihood of Mr. Sobotka being replaced by someone like Mr. Zaorálek is pretty high.”