Social Democrats add fresh faces to leadership line-up, but is the orange party really getting redder?

Jan Hamáček, photo: ČTK/David Taneček

At their party congress this weekend, the Social Democrats re-elected Minister of Interior Jan Hamáček chairman and elevated rising political star Minister of Foreign Affairs Tomáš Petříček to deputy chairman. Delegates also endorsed a revised party platform, representing a shift some observers view as more radically left, other towards a mainstream European centre. Regardless, will it be enough to revive the party’s popularity?

Jan Hamáček,  photo: ČTK/David Taneček
The centre-left Social Democrats have suffered devastating back-to-back losses in recent elections. In 2017, only 15 of their candidates were elected to the lower house of Parliament – the worst result in party history. In 2018, the party failed to win a seat in the Prague assembly in municipal elections for the first time since the fall of Communism, and the only Senator to successfully defend his seat was Jan Hamáček.

“I think the worst is behind us. The atmosphere in the congress hall was completely different from what it was a year ago. Today I could sense a self-confident party that knows what it wants and in what direction to head. We have work to do in the government, and our participation in this government has purpose.”

As the junior partner in the current coalition government led by Prime Minister Andrej Babiš’s technocratic-populist ANO party, it’s fair to say that the Social Democrats have been punching above their weight, occupying positions of influence not reflected in their current support at the ballot box.

A February poll by the Centre for Public Opinion Research (CVVM) shows the Social Democrats polling at 11 percent while a survey by the Median Agency put it at just 8 percent. Both have the party in fourth place, barely ahead of the Communists and far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) party.

Tomáš Petříček,  photo: ČTK/David Taneček
In a document approved on Saturday, the Social Democrats define themselves as vanguards against a slide towards illiberalism. Their newly outlined top priorities include boosting citizens’ participation in political decisions and cutting working hours without lowering salaries.

But mainly the Social Democrats appear to be hoping prominent fresh faces in the leadership, chiefly those of Minister of Foreign Affairs Tomáš Petříček and Labour and Social Affairs Minister Jana Maláčová, both under 40, will attract new voters.

Deputy party chairman Roman Onderka, the only other member of the leadership aside from Hamáček to be re-elected to his post, said the party recognised the need to continue in the 21st century with new blood.

“These are people who are clearly steering the Social Democrats towards the EU. And I hope, for the sake of the party, that today truly brings a new beginning.”

In a round table discussion with Czech Radio, political commentator Patrik Eichler of the online forum Deník Referendum downplayed talk of a fundamental shift in the outlook of the Social Democrats, whose party colour is orange, for example towards Communist red or some hybrid.

Roman Onderka,  photo: ČTK/David Taneček
“As for whether one is a ‘pinker’, ‘more orange’, or ‘redder’ Social Democrat – I think we can say the new leadership are absolutely normal Social Democrats. All stand for protecting the rights of employees’ and the working poor, and those in need of help.”

That said, Labour Minister Jana Maláčová has at times been ahead of her party in pushing for more spending on social services and pensions, and upping the dividend tax, which at 15 percent is among the lowest in the EU – a move that would affect mainly individual investors.

As for Tomáš Petříček, foreign minister only since October, he had ruffled some in the old guard saying that if he were not elected to the party leadership, he might resign, though he walked back this comment well ahead of the secret ballot.