The Swan Song of Social Democracy in the Czech Republic11 min read
Ahead of the October 2021 elections, the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) is heading into the dustbin of history. ČSSD has been the historic party of the Czech left since the late 19th century. It now finds itself slowly drained of its blood by an alliance with billionaire populist Andrej Babiš and his party, ANO.
“We jumped from the 15th floor and we have little chance of recovering from the fall; that’s why it doesn’t matter who will be our leader for the elections.” This remark, by Social Democratic Senator Petr Vícha at the party congress on April 8 and 9, speaks volumes about the state of his party. As the October parliamentary elections approach, the ČSSD indeed looks like a sinking ship, drawn into the electoral abyss by its collaboration with Prime Minister Andrej Babiš.
Despite harsh criticism from leading ČSSD figures, a slim majority of delegates to the April party congress still expressed confidence in the die-hard strategy of its current leadership. Minister of Interior and party head Jan Hamáček defended his record. He reminded delegates of the difficult task he had inherited in 2018: “Remember the party I took over; a party that had fallen from 20% to 7% (between 2013 and 2017), a party that people had rejected as torn apart by its conflicts, a party that did not defend their interests.”
The Social Democrats’ dangerous friend
Hamáček seems to forget that his party’s electoral blow from 2017 was inflicted by none other than their own coalition partner at the time, the ANO party. ANO, which is both ‘yes’ in Czech and an acronym for the Action of Disgruntled Citizens, was founded in 2011 by billionaire Andrej Babiš. Babiš had built an agro-chemical business empire during the shady privatisation of post-socialist Central Europe. Babiš’s party made its entry into parliament in 2013 on a populist, anti-corruption and anti-politician platform, even promising to ‘run the State like a firm’.
In 2013, ANO stole the thunder from the social democrats. The latter thought they would triumph after the fall of a right-wing government following a corruption scandal. According to the post-1989 logic of Czech politics, which had seen the right-wing ODS and the left-wing ČSSD alternate in power, and even collaborate, it was the social democrats’ turn to rule. But people were hungry for new faces. Andrej Babiš made an entry, coming close to stealing the ČSSD’s victory (taking in 18,7% of votes, just behind the social democrats’ disappointing 20,5%).
The ČSSD took the leadership of a government coalition that included ANO and the Christian-democrats. But this did not stop Babiš’s rise. Quite the contrary. As the coalition government’s Minister of Finance between 2013 and 2017, Babiš succeeded in capitalising on the government’s socio-economic progress, in particular the substantial increase in the minimum wage and other social measures. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka and his Social Democratic colleagues from the Interior and Foreign Affairs were hit on all sensitive issues, including the refugee crisis and culture wars.
The crossroads of 2018
As the 2017 elections approached, the ČSSD tried to correct its course by taking a tougher stance towards its minority coalition partner, especially as Andrej Babiš was embroiled in several ongoing scandals: criminal prosecutions for the embezzlement of EU funds and leaked recordings proved that he manipulated the media outlets he owned for political ends. By pushing Babiš to resign, while seeking not to compromise its alliance with ANO, the ČSSD found itself seated between two chairs, attracting neither supporters nor critics of Andrej Babiš.
“Those who love Babiš, vote for ANO. And those who don’t like him have no reason to vote for us since we keep him in power,” Senator Petr Vícha summed up. This conundrum became even clearer after the October 2017 elections. This round of elections was marked by the exodus of Social Democratic voters to populist leader Andrej Babiš; a clear winner despite all the criminal pots and pans he dragged behind him. Following this electoral blow, the Social Democratic delegates logically endorsed the end of negotiations with ANO and chose the relatively unknown Jan Hamáček as a party leader. After all, leading the party in such a catastrophic situation was a suicidal mission that no strong political figure wanted.
Following this bitter defeat, ČSSD seemed ready to take a break for some soul-searching and to show some integrity in the face of ANO’s demagoguery. And yet, a few months later, in June 2018, the party leadership made a sudden U-turn and yielded to the sirens of power. The party leaders announced a new alliance with Andrej Babiš, while also counting on the Communists’ parliamentary support. Although the decision was subsequently approved by an extraordinary vote of delegates, it nevertheless confirmed to the public the image of a party without real values; a party ready to do anything to cling to power.
The Social Democrats had successfully negotiated their participation in the government, obtaining a third of the ministerial portfolios in spite of their meagre fifteen deputies (out of 200). But, within the Cabinet, they practised their more typical sluggishness and timidity. Their weakness was exposed early on when they were unable to enforce their choice for the Foreign Ministry in the face of President Miloš Zeman’s refusal. In 2019, the story repeated itself: their new candidate for the post of Minister of Culture was rejected by Zeman, and Babiš again refused to pressure the presidency. On this occasion, Hamáček and his people went as far as to threaten to resign en masse and bring down the government, before chickening out and agreeing to a compromise, once again.
These episodes of threat and submission mark the presence of the ČSSD in power over the last three years. They reveal a party that is caught in a masochistic relationship with a prime minister far too aware of the weakness of his minority coalition partners. This submissive behaviour was well summed up by the former Social Democratic Minister of the Interior Milan Chovanec at the last congress: “If I had twenty hands, I wouldn’t have enough fingers to count the number of times we have set boundaries, beyond which we would not go, and then after that we always gave way.”
The ČSSD’s Faustian pact with ANO can find little justification. In addition to being unable to impose its own candidates for cabinet positions, the ČSSD has been unable to pass any significant piece of legislation. From social housing, debt forgiveness, to progressive taxation, the social-democrats did not achieve anything markable on these burning issues during the last three years. Similarly, the Social Democrats were incapable of asserting their ideas and limiting the damage of Andrej Babiš’s catastrophic management of the pandemic. Even worse, ANO recently struck a deal behind the back of the ČSSD, allying with the right-wing ODS and the far-right SPD to pass a tax reform benefitting the richest employees and worsening the budget deficit.
The return of the old guard
Electorally, the ČSSD hit rock bottom during the 2019 European Parliament elections. Their miserable score of 3.9% of votes deprived the party of deputies on the EU level. However, politically, the party visibly wants to continue digging its own grave. Thus, Jan Hamáček currently shows willingness to complete the hara-kiri initiated in 2018 by betting everything on the return of the party’s old guard for a last stand under the aegis of President Miloš Zeman (himself the leader of the ČSSD between 1993 and 2001). The goal is to target half of the country’s voters who twice backed the populist head of state, and attempt to scrape together 5% of votes to save the day in the October parliamentary elections.
Jan Hamáček embarked on this path of attracting Zeman’s electorate immediately after the end of the party congress in April. During the congress, he had weathered a challenge to the party’s strategy launched by his foreign minister, Tomáš Petříček. Petříček had asked delegates to leave the government and campaign on a message of renewal. The defeated Petříček was immediately sacked, his head brought on a silver platter to President Zeman, who saw Petříček as too firm on Russia. Named interim Foreign Minister, Hamáček was preparing to leave for Moscow on a friendly trip to develop the pro-Russian policy promoted by Zeman. But these plans were thwarted at the last minute by the revelations of Russian sabotage acts from 2014.  Even worse, at the moment, Hamáček is suspected of having planned to engage in a backdoor deal with the Kremlin, exchanging Russian vaccines in return for Prague’s silence on Russia’s criminal acts in Czechia.
As the pro-Russian card could not be fully played, Jan Hamáček once again reached out to the party’s old guard: last week, he took Michal Hašek as his right-hand man in the Interior Ministry he leads. Dogged by corruption accusations, Hašek represents the conservative wing of the party, the faction that tried to take over the leadership in the failed 2013 “Lány putsch”.  Hašek’s return to the halls of power, therefore, sends a strong signal to voters that the party has nothing new to offer. On the contrary, the ČSSD now seems rather to pride itself on offering the assurance of an old party, one admittedly corrupt, but at least (leaders seem to argue) firmly anchored in a vaguely left socio-economic vision, accompanied by conservative positions on social issues.
What hope for the left?
Despite of, or perhaps thanks to this risky strategy of providing comforting reassurance, the ČSSD may well manage to avoid the worst scenario and cross the 5% mark in the October elections. But beyond an almost guaranteed stay in the opposition, what is awaiting the party? While it is possible that this umpteenth electoral debacle will allow the progressive wing of the party to gain the upper hand and come up with a new vision, it is more likely that the party will disintegrate, either suddenly or after long agony. It would be the sad end of a party with a rich, 130-year long history, but it would also make way for new alternatives.
How all this unfolds does not only depend on ČSSD, but also on developments in the broader political arena. The October 2021 elections are expected to mark the success of the Pirate Party allied to Mayors and Independents (STAN). If the Pirates represent a liberal centre-left ideology, some of their social-democratic tendencies could be restrained by their STAN allies, or by possible governing partners from the united right – the SPOLU (‘TOGETHER’) coalition, gathering the parties of ODS, TOP09 and KDU-ČSL. Thus, the Pirates may be unable to satisfy their more left-wing voters, who would therefore have to look elsewhere.
In a post-pandemic context where social damage will have to be repaired and a swelling public debt paid off, issues that are central to the left will be at the forefront of debate and provide an opportunity to mobilize voters. If the Pirates-STAN coalition allied to the right chooses austerity, society could mobilize and allow for new players to rise. In 2010, large protests took place against the right-wing government’s austerity policies, but popular discontent at the time benefited ČSSD and the rise of newcomer Andrej Babiš. This time around, with ČSSD and Babiš weakened, there will undoubtedly be more room for a genuine left-wing alternative.
André Kapsas is a Prague-based correspondent for Le Courrier d’Europe Centrale and other media. He is a Central Europe and former Eastern bloc specialist, who studied political science and European affairs at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London, at Charles University in Prague and the College of Europe in Warsaw.