Social Democrats’ election conference overshadowed by rivalry within the governing coalition

Bohuslav Sobotka, photo: CTK

A two-day conference of the ruling Social Democratic Party kicks off on Friday with the election of a new leadership. The conference is expected to confirm Bohuslav Sobotka party leader and outline a strategy which would offset the growing influence of the party’s coalition partner ANO ahead of next year’s regional elections.

Bohuslav Sobotka,  photo: CTK
While just over a year ago Bohuslav Sobotka fought off a putsch to remove him from the top party post, now he is running for party chairman unchallenged and his main rival is not within his own party or in the opposition benches but, paradoxically, in the coalition government where the ANO party of business tycoon Andrej Babiš is not hiding its ambition to take over the helm.

ANO has been riding on a wave of popular support, outstripping the Social Democrats in popularity polls throughout its thirteen months in office. In the past few months ANO has increasingly defined itself as right-of-center and expressed the desire to re-write the coalition deal signed with the Social and Christian Democrats. Addressing the party conference on Friday Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka made clear that this would not happen and that his party would stand firm by its commitment to voters.

“The coalition agreement signed contains our main priorities which have allowed us to introduce social reforms and correct some of the steps implemented by the former right-wing governments. This coalition deal was hard-won and we have no reason to change it. We will continue implementing its goals and expect to see the same fair and decent approach from our coalition partners.”

Enumerating the successes of his government – such as increased pensions, lower VAT on selected products and higher wages for public officials - Prime Minister Sobotka emphasized that it was the Social Democrats who were the driving force behind these changes. He said that despite opposition from ANO the Social Democrat’s priorities would not be put on the back-burner and the party would fight for them every step of the way. Among the controversial issues that Mr. Sobotka reiterated his party’s continued support for is sufficient funding for the education sector and higher taxes for high income groups and big companies which he said was inevitable in order not to deepen the deficit in public finances.

Andrej Babiš,  photo: Filip Jandourek
The Social Democrat leader, who is generally seen as a non-conflicting personality, also uncharacteristically joined the opposition in openly criticizing his coalition partner Andrej Babiš for potential conflict of interests.

“What we see in this case is a concentration of political, economic and media power that is unprecedented in the country’s history and that our laws are totally unprepared for. The Social Democratic Party’s responsibility is all the greater for it.

As a traditional party, based on democratic principles, the Social Democrats provide a guarantee that our coalition government will always serve public interests.”

Bohuslav Sobotka made it clear that while there was little love lost between the Social Democrats and ANO the outcome of elections had afforded no other viable set-up and his party was committed to fulfilling its policy program within this government.

Despite the party leader’s rousing words, the strongest left-wing party on the Czech political scene cannot ignore the fact that in opinion polls it has been consistently trailing behind its coalition rival. And an “enemy” so close to home leaves little room for internal discord. As Mr. Babiš himself joked, his attack on the Social Democrats at ANO’s own party conference a fortnight ago, consolidated the party faster and better that anyone else could have done.