Social Democrats opt for “double leadership” strategy – but what impact will it have?

Bohuslav Sobotka, Milan Chovanec, photo: CTK

With only four months to go before general elections, the Social Democrats are taking a most unorthodox step in a bid to try and claw back at least some of the support they have been losing in the opinion polls. Out goes Bohuslav Sobotka as party leader, though he will remain prime minister. And in come Milan Chovanec as new chairman AND Lubomír Zaorálek as electoral leader. I discussed the Social Democrats’ move with political scientist Petr Just.

Bohuslav Sobotka, Milan Chovanec, photo: CTK
“It’s true that the strategy is unusual, given that they just elected a leadership two or three months ago during their national convention and now suddenly they are changing the position of the top leader.

“And the two people who are now taking over some of Bohuslav Sobotka’s role or functions, Milan Chovanec and Lubomír Zaorálek, have been side by side with him for a long period.

“So I wouldn’t be too optimistic about some major changes that could happen based on this leadership reform.

“However, we still have four or five months ahead before the elections and we’ll see how the new leaders, or co-leaders, will act.

“In the end we might say that this could be evaluated as a smart move – or at least a move to minimise the damage that the Social Democrats could be facing in the fall elections.”

It’s a highly unorthodox thing to do. What do you think are the risks of this strategy?

“Well, the risk is that the change will not be reflected in improving opinion polls.

“So far it’s difficult to say whether this will be taken by people as positive or negative.”

Mr. Chovanec and Mr. Zaorálek have rather different public images. Mr. Chovanec projects a kind of tough guy image, whereas Mr. Zaorálek comes across as more liberal. What are voters likely to make of this double-headed party? And if there is to be a leadership vote after the elections, how can the voters be sure what kind of party they are actually voting for?

“I think the fact they’ve decided to divide some of Bohuslav Sobotka’s portfolios between the two quite different representatives was part of the strategy they are trying to apply in order to gain more votes and win some preferences back.

Lubomír Zaorálek, photo: CTK
“They are trying both to address voters who want a little bit of the rule of the firm hand, the rule of the party that wants to, for example, to preserve and defend Czech national interests – that would be represented by Mr. Chovanec.

“But they also have a lot of liberal voters and these are the people that could be attracted by Mr. Zaorálek.

“And it was made clear yesterday that if the party wins, or if the party is going to be charged with forming a new government, then it’s going to be Mr. Zaorálek who is the party’s nominee for prime minister.

“So from this point of view I would say that Mr. Zaorálek’s position is paradoxically a little bit stronger in that new leadership division situation than that of Mr. Chovanec, who has been first vice-chairman, so the second party officer.

“If the Social Democrats enter the government, Mr. Chovanec will probably be in one of the more junior roles in the cabinet, compared to Mr. Zaorálek.”