Left with questions

I’m at conference on the Future of the Left in Central Europe in Prague co-organised by CESTA, one of the Czech Republic’s few centre-left thinktanks, and the German SPD’s Ebert Foundation, having been to an academic workshop on a similar topic the day before. It’s a wide-ranging and interesting event bringing together representatives from various Visegrad socialist parties, Czech anti-capitalist activists and politically engaged academics and the odd non-aligned foreign analyst like me. Shifting through a mass of impressions, notes and tweets at the end of the day, I wasn’t entirely sure where the future of the left in the region, but I did begin to see the political landscape of the region more clearly.

Jiří Pehe’s opening remarks do a good job of putting CEE into broad global context, arguing that as elsewhere the centre-left is faced by the dilemmas of globalisation and global market bearing down upon the limited capacities of the national state. Distinctively though it represents a regional of developed democratic societies without a strong middle class. The political consequences flowing from this were not entirely clear, beyond the fact that the CEE left could not simply follow West European centre-left recipes.  In later contributions the specifics of the region – while surfacing occasionally – were not always obvious. Nor were the somewhat differing political fortunes ofsocial democratic and socialist parties across the Visegrad states.

 In some cases what was unsaid was as interesting as what was.

Anyone listening to the Hungarian and Polish social democrats would not get a picture of the electoral weakness of their parties compared to their stronger Czech and Slovak counterparts. Most of the more interesting points stemmed from questions, but the answers were not particularly satisfactory. If the Hungarian Socialists were languishing on 16% then at least ruling Fidesz was now not much more popular.  Hungary’s new greenish Politics Can Be Different (LMP) were just liberals and not really worth a mention. There was barely a word on newer Hungarian movements like Together 2014, who seem likely to help make the political weather in the opposition camp in the run up to the next elections. Speakers from Poland’s SLD oddly did not seem to recognise – let alone have no clear strategy – for shifting their party from more than a decade position of electoral marginality, which saw it bounced into fourth place by the Johnny-come-lately maverick social liberals of the Palikot Movement.

 There was, perhaps inevitably, a deal of tub-thumping about Neo-Liberalism, the great ideological enemy of the left, but only rather occasional acknowledgement that socialist parties in CEE, particularly in Hungary and Poland, had in the past themselves often been architects and implementors of neo-liberal policies in the region. An unfortunate a tendency – as one person said on Facebook –  to go quickly lump anyone right of a social democrat’ to neo-liberal. It was certainly strange to hear Fidesz apparently being described as vehicle for global neo-liberal capitalism. As Venelin Ganev rather convincingly argued a few years ago Neo-Liberalism seems to serve as an all-purpose ideological Big Bad Wolf, which obscures many of the complexities of politics in the region – and of the dilemmas and challenges the centre-left is likely to face in trying to be both of modernisation and defender of the socially weak.

 The grand narrative of resistance to neo-liberalism seems to push three factors below the political radar screen: the political threat posed by conservative-nationalist parties like Fidesz or Law and Justice able to lay a claim to be defenders of solidarity and social cohesion; corrupt informal power networks able to colonise parties of both left and right at local and (sometimes) national level; and the shrinking of (already low) political participation, especially in political parties, reflecting growth anti-political alienation of CEE electorates. As Lukáš Jelínek commented in left-wing daily Právo that very day, Czech Social Democrats should watch out or in a few years they would find themselves as unelectable, politically exhausted and eaten hollow by corrupt vested interests as the governing centre-right Civic Democrats.

 One interesting, if slightly alarming, response is offered by Smer MP and ideologist,  Luboš Blaha. Blaha is not well regarded by at least one analyst of Slovak politics I know and his arguments, while not particularly sophisticated, were least clear and relevant: social democracy in Central and Eastern Europe could not follow West European models as CEE societies were not (yet?) post-modern, post-materialist or multi-cultural. Instead it needed to find an Old Left focus on bread-and-butter issues and a rapprochement with nationalism to create a ‘national front against neo-liberalism’. In fact, such debates are arguably more widespread on the centre-left in Europe, echoing schools of thought such as the Blue Labour in the UK, reflecting the fragmentation of electorates noted by German Social Democratic thinker, Henning Meyer. Meyer, who is at the centre of a long-term project to rethink European Social Democracy – his book on the Rebuilding The Good Society sits on my bookshelf – made this same point very eloquently in his advocacy of  a values-based ‘transformational’ rather than a ‘transactional’. In the end, however, I was left wondering how this really differed from the classic office-policy-votes trilemma familiar to political scientists working on parties. And I could help thinking that the new social democratic vision he was talking about was more a gap waiting to be filled than a clear set of ideas.

 Czech Social Democrat leader (and likely next Prime Minister) Bohuslav Sobotka, also put in an appearance at the conference, cutting an energetic and competent figure. Despite some party political point scoring he is open enough to admit that his party is not as open or bottom-up at local level. But the idea of opening up party lists to local civil society representatives and independent public figures floated (I think) by him and several others at the conference struck me as sticking plaster that has been tried before on both left and right, which was more likely to be a recipe for blurred accountability, factional fallouts and more trouble with corrupt vested interests.

Such issues – along with the difficulties of electoral coalition building – were well illustrated by an acrimonious but compelling exchange towards the end of the day between senior Czech Social Democrat deputy Lubomír Zaorálek  and Matej Stropnický of the Czech Greens. Zaorálek laid into the Greens for aligning themselves as much with centre-right parties like TOP09 as with the centre-left – forcing the Social Democrats in coalitions with unreconstructed Czech Communists. Stropnický retorted than at local level the Czech Social Democratic party was a closed, clientelist body lukewarm to civil society and interested only in building projects.

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