After 4 years of stable and successful government, the Czech Social Democrats (ČSSD) suffered record losses in October’s general election.
The ANO movement, led by liberal-populist billionaire Andrej Babiš topped the polls with 29.6% – almost three times the vote share of any other party. The Social Democrats, who have led the country with ANO since 2013, failed to capitalise on the social and economic progress the country has seen under their administration, including achieving the lowest unemployment rate in the EU. Rather than a thank you note, the public delivered the Social Democrats a historically low result, down almost 13 points from the last election.
Meanwhile, two relatively new protest movements managed to enter the parliament, as the liberal anti-establishment Pirate party and the anti-EU far-right SPD both surged to almost 11%.
The Czech situation reflects an annus horribilis for social democrats across Europe. Following losses in the Netherlands, France, Germany and Austria, the ČSSD is the latest in a long list of European centre-left parties in crisis. Good governance doesn’t seem to be rewarded – or at least our leaders are failing to capitalise electorally on their successes.
So, can the Czech Social Democrats survive the crisis? As I wrote before the election, the ČSSD has long faced a grave crisis of identity, and the perennial conflict between three factions within the party contributed to a muddled message to the Czech public. Divisions marred the election campaign, primarily between the idealistic leftwing group centred around the party’s candidate for prime minister Lubomír Zaorálek, the more socially conservative followers of party chairman Milan Chovanec, and the older members who maintain loyalty to the former party chairman and current president Miloš Zeman, who officially left the party a decade ago.
Such a divided party struggled to present a solid alternative to Babiš and other populist and anti-establishment insurgents. Meanwhile, attempts to unite the party around a campaign for higher wages failed to engage voters, who traditionally see the Czech trade unions, led by the popular Josef Středula, as their advocate for better pay and working conditions. This, on top of a general consensus in favour of better pay among the main political actors, failed to galvanise the issue as a real right-left conflict and, as a result, over a quarter of a million former ČSSD voters failed to turn out to the polls.
Looking ahead to the party’s future, major change at the top is unlikely this year. The current leadership did not resign in the wake of the election and wants to hold a congress in April to elect an entirely new team. Zaorálek has already decided not to take part in this race and party members in key local regions like Prague Ostrava are pushing for the leadership to stand down as soon as possible to start a process of renewal.
It seems clear that the leadeship battle will be yet another fight between these three established power centres, but members are keen to find a consensus-building leader, capable of bringing the party back together. Efforts have already been made to do so in the wake of the vote as members throughout the country launched an online platform to discuss the party’s future in a discursive and open process. Time is of the essence though. With the presidential and local elections to come in 2018, members are concerned that failure to reset the party quickly will mean decline only continues and that October’s result could spell the beginning of the end of a strong social democratic tradition in the Czech Republic.
As the ČSSD tries to pull itself together, the election winner, Andrej Babiš, resorts to trying to form a minority government, having been shunned by the other parties in the lower chamber. Holding only 78 of 200 seats, he will need the support of other parties to govern and so far only the Communists have said they could tolerate minority ANO rule.
This instability potentially offers a way back for the social democrats. To capitalise on it, they will need unity as well as fresh faces and fresh thinking. But as seen by progressive parties elsewhere, that is easier said than done.