The Comeback of the Czech Social Democrats, Party of Spoilers

zaoandparoubek09032010.jpgAfter more than a year of being run by a provisional team of technocrats, the Czech Republic has a new centre-right coalition government, who won a vote of confidence earlier this month. It seems the surprising turn of events continues, following the May election when everyone expected the Social Democrats (ČSSD) to win by a significant margin. What actually happened was a pyrrhic victory: 18 seats lost, a 2% margin win and no chance of cobbling together a government with other parties. The ČSSD leader, Jiří Paroubek, who helped bring down the country’s centre-right government in March 2009, promptly resigned.

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So now contrary to expectation, the Czech Republic is on course for four years of a center-right government with a triumvirate of the Civic Democrats (ODS) and two newcomers: TOP 09 and Věci veřejné (VV). This all means serious budget cuts and a significantly smaller government. It may also mean playing a role in the US missile defense despite the threats – some vocal, some subtler – by Russia to retaliate. The ČSSD, who fought tooth and nail against the original Bush administration project, is pretty much toothless now and can only watch and seethe from the sidelines.

It would be a mistake, though, to completely write off the ČSSD. The party is at a crossroads. However it could still retain a strong level of influence, especially in some parts of Czech society. The party’s fortunes may change for the better if it does well in the upcoming Senate and local elections. And it still might do some serious damage to a three-party coalition especially if it is not as strong as it would like and need to be.Judging by post-election autopsies carried out at Lidový dům, the Social Democrats themselves are worried about their party’s survival. At one of those post-mortems Mr. Špidla and Mr. Zaorálek agreed that the election defeat has put the whole existence of their party into jeopardy. Their only disagreement was on how long the ČSSD can survive if it doesn’t significantly reform: Mr. Špidla’s forecast was 50 years, Mr. Zaorálek shortened the period to one election term!But things could be worse, accordingly to Petr Holub, a well informed political commentator, the ČSSD’s predicament is much more serious. Writing in Lidové noviny, Holub, said it is not inconceivable that the Social Democrats are “already writing the last chapter of their history“. “One wrong step,” Holub warns, “and the ČSSD could die.“Most Czech commentators and voters were unanimous in the view that Paroubek & co. were responsible for the decline of the party. Voters were fed up with his trademark aggressive style and still haven’t forgiven him for sinking the coalition government while the Czech Republic held the EU presidency. Writing in Hospodářské Noviny, Petr Honzejk blamed Paroubek’s “scientific populism” for alienating ČSSD voters: “It’s a principle that can be described in one sentence: I decide what the people want and then promise to give it to them.” Honzejk could have added that people are instinctively aware of the old proverb about promises being like babies: “They are easy to make, but hard to deliver.“Alexandr Mitrofanov, a political commentator with the left-leaning daily Právo, saw Paroubek’s stepping down as an opportunity for the ČSSD to reform: “It wasn’t a pyrrhic victory for the ČSSD as an ideology. The real defeat was an unnatural direction within this ideology, pushed by a man who headed this party for the last five years.“The ČSSD can’t do too much damage in opposition at this point, considering that together with the Communists they have just 82 seats out of 200. But this could change. For one, no one knows yet how strong the freshly minted centre-right coalition really is, and, equally importantly, how stable the two new parties are. VV, in particular, is viewed with a great deal of scepticism. If the ČSSD puts its own house in order – and, sooner or later, it probably will – it could easily use any sign of instability to its advantage. After all, the party has had practice in bringing governments down.The upcoming Senate and local elections will be crucial for the ČSSD’s survival as a major political force. The party’s ambition is to gain a majority in the upper chamber, and thus gain a tool to thwart or at least delay proposals from the centre-right dominated lower house. According to some analysts, this goal maybe feasible. The ČSSD is not defending any of its 29 Senate seats, so it’s at least guaranteed not to lose a seat.Meanwhile, Mr. Paroubek is quietly working in the background on shoring up support to return to a leadership position within the ČSSD. This is not as impossible as it may sound: there is no strong candidate for the new leader; and the ČSSD will vote for a new party leader seven months from now, giving him plenty of time to regain the support he lost.Some commentators even suggest that Mr. Paroubek is eyeing the presidential seat. Mr. Paroubek himself has neither denied nor confirmed these speculations but he has said he’d be pushing for a direct presidential vote to replace the current parliamentary voting system. This may backfire, however, as, according to one recent opinion poll on the ČSSD leadership contest, Mr. Paroubek is enjoying a 14% support among ČSSD voters but almost none among the voters in general.Mr. Paroubek’s initial attempt at a comeback came during his first appearance on Czech TV since his resignation. Talking to Václav Moravec earlier this month, Mr. Paroubek strongly endorsed one of his closest allies, David Rath, as the future party leader triggering an unprecedented public spat inside his own party. Mr. Rath’s colleagues and competitors in the ČSSD leadership publicly denounced him as the “new Haider” and called him a “Kraken“. At the meeting of top social democrats last Friday, their acting leader, Bohuslav Sobotka, took them to task and pleaded with them to stop what the media has labelled the “fratricide struggle” inside the party. Mr. Sobotka was at pains to instil some unity into the ČSSD and he asked the party leaders to create a “dream team”.Interestingly Mr. Zaorálek, another of Mr. Paroubek’s close ex-collaborators and the current deputy party leader, when asked by journalists after the meeting on Friday if he planned to go for the deputy’s job again, was evasive: “Let’s talk about the Senate elections now. We have too many candidates already anyway.“Mr. Zaorálek has been keeping a low profile since his aborted attempt to get elected as the Speaker of the House. The new coalition leaders were unanimous in their opposition against him. The TOP 09 deputy leader, Mr. Kalousek, was famously quoted as saying: “We are not vetting him, we are simply not going to elect him!” Even the ever-so-polite Prime Minister, Mr. Nečas called Mr. Zaorálek untrustworthy, and someone who’s infamous because of his confrontational style, verbal attacks and his incessant doubting of the Czech duties vis-à-vis the NATO alliance.The post-election period has been quite a difficult one for Mr. Zaorálek. Apart from being refused the top parliamentarian position, the press labelled him “Radio Yerevan” for spreading false rumours about the proposed closure of Czech embassies around the world; and when Mr. Zaorálek, sometimes nick-named “Paroubek Mark II“, complained about his loneliness in the opposition in Parliament, the media sniggered and quickly re-called the ex Communist leader Mr. Jakeš’s famous words about being “a lonely fence post”.Yet, it would be dangerous and premature to write an obituary for the ČSSD. The media may talk about a party of quarrelsome old farts and narcissistic hacklers, or about a new round of the ČSSD’s favorite game of self-destruction, or even about a snake eating its own tail, but in reality with or without Mr. Paroubek, the ČSSD is expected to rise from the ashes. The proof is in the pudding: the latest opinion poll published earlier this month sees the ODS, its main rival, dropping to the third position, with TOP 09 second. The ČSSD is suprisingly still on top in spite of its “un-victory” in May 2010, and even despite of the barrage of the mega bad press of recent months. People beware!