Where did it all go wrong for traditional Czech left in general elections?

Social Democrats

For the first time since the foundation of the Czech Republic, neither the Social Democrats nor the Communist Party have passed the 5-percent threshold needed to enter the lower house. Many analysts have long said that both parties have been steadily losing voters, mainly to Andrej Babiš’s ANO. I asked Daniela Vašátková, a political scientist from the left-wing Masaryk Democratic Academy, if this is the only reason for the defeat of the traditional left.

Daniela Vašátková | Photo: Fórum 50

“No, there are in fact many reasons and factors which contributed to this result. Some of these factors you can also identify in other countries across Europe as well. Some of them can be dated back as far as the 1980s and 1990s when the ideology of neoliberalism arrived. Social Democrats and socialists in general got into a marriage of convenience with the neoliberals where the main focus was put on economic growth and policies supporting business, a style of policy that is sometimes called the ‘Third Way’. Since then, socialists and social democrats started to lose their own identity, namely, to build for decades, regulate capitalism and protect those who are vulnerable.

“We say that the left is losing their traditional voters, but who is a traditional voter of the Social Democrats and Communists today?”

“Other factors include the general change in society. We say that the left is losing their traditional voters, but who is a traditional voter of the Social Democrats and Communists today? Is it the traditional worker? Well who is the traditional worker nowadays? Due to economic globalisation, technological developments and the pressures of capital which led to more flexibility and pressures in the working environment you do not have the traditional mass of workers to draw from. Who then should the left represent? Is it the middle class, the teachers, doctors and policemen, or workers in factories and assembly plants?

“These two parties started losing once the traditional right-left cleavage began to disappear.”

“Furthermore, in the Czech Republic, we are witnessing the weakening of traditional right-left cleavages. These elections have just proved that. The main issue that the centre-right opposition focused on was being anti-Babiš and on the promise of some sort of abstract change without many actual policies. On the other hand, Babiš’s main communications strategy was the spreading of fear, the promise of leadership and the fight against traditional political elites.  In the middle of this you had the Communists and the Social Democrats who were trying to focus on specific policies, such as taxation, pensions and the working environment. These two parties started losing once the traditional right-left cleavage began to disappear.”

Has the working class really disappeared though? There is a debate in the European left with some arguing that many traditional working class voters have simply joined populist parties, precisely because they oppose globalisation and associated immigration. One of the reasons why I am asking that question is because within the Czech Social Democratic Party, this year, Chairman Jan Hamáček chose to run on a programme that was aimed more at the conservative left rather than the progressive left. Where do you see the Social Democrats heading now after these elections? Will they stick to the conservative left or become more progressive?

Jan Hamáček | Photo: Michaela Říhová,  ČTK

“I did not mean to say that there are no more traditional working class people, just that it is much more difficult for traditional parties to approach them because they are not concentrated in a clearly defined mass any more. There are many specific segments of those who we can consider as traditional working class people. Of course, the populists are much more successful in this regard; because they are saying that the world is difficult, highlighting the many insecurities, and offer, in turn, simple solutions. However, there are no simple solutions to the future that is ahead of us. All of this means that it is quite problematic for traditional left-wing parties to approach those kinds of people.

“There are two segments within the Czech Social Democratic Party, one of which you can call ‘progressive’ and the other ‘traditional’. I think that in the future these two groups will have to cooperate.”

“In the Czech Social Democratic party I think we call this a kind of culture war. There are two segments within the party, one of which you can call ‘progressive’ and the other ‘traditional’, or ‘conservative’. However, I think that in the future these two groups will have to cooperate. You cannot just have a small party which tries to steal voters from extremists, or populists.”

Sorry to jump in, but do you think that this cooperation is a realistic possibility for the Czech Social Democrats?

“Yes. I think it is. In the future, the Social Democrats should first rebrand, because the party brand is quite problematic right now. Second, they should create something like a movement rather than a party which will try to be more open to some NGOs and other much smaller leftist parties. The debate is going to be painful, but it is necessary.”

By integrating smaller parties, are you referring for example to the Green Party as a possible member of this movement?

“Yes. I think that there is a myth that you cannot be progressive and traditional at the same time in one party. You may be traditional on one issue, such as economics, while also being progressive on post-materialistic issues, such as LGBT rights or green policies. First of all, it is necessary to communicate to traditional voters that the left is offering social justice and stability, but that we should also talk about other issues, such as green policy and so on.

“It is much more complicated of course. There is no easy way to do it. However, I think that it is the only way how to survive.”

Communist Party | Photo: Kateřina Šulová,  ČTK

If we shift from the Social Democrats to the Communists, do you think this party’s days in the lower-house are finished altogether? They received just over 3 percent of the vote and people are saying that they have a very old electorate. Or do you think that they have a chance of coming back as well?

“I don’t think so. We, as political scientists have long been saying that their voters are dying out and that there is no one who is replacing them. The question was: When is this going to happen, 2020 or 2030?

“I do not think that the Communists will be able to get back into the Chamber of Deputies.”

“I do not think that the Communists will be able to get back into the Chamber of Deputies, also because I do not think that there is a chance for them to become a part of a wider left movement as I was talking about before. There are many Social Democrats, progressives, and traditional left-wing voters who simply do not want to cooperate with the Communist Party due to its past. They will have to face the future alone and I do not think that it will be a bright one.”