Czech Republic: ‘Sovereignty’ a party to watch
Last year’s Czech elections were noticeable for the political breakthrough of two new pro-market centre-right parties, TOP09 and which contributed to large, if now very shaky, majority centre right coalition, TOP09 and Public Affairs (VV). A less well noted feature of the election, however, was the relatively good performance of two new(ish) extra-parliamentary parties of the left: the Citizens’ Rights Party – Zemanites (SPOZ) led by… yes, you guessed it former Social Democrat Prime Minister Miloš Zeman, and the Sovereignty (Suverenita) bloc led by former TV newsreader and ex-MEP Jana Bobošíková.
Although neither made it into parliament, the 8% of votes they pulled in between them arguably contributed as much to the failure of the Social Democrats to win their widely predicted victory as the allure of new pro-reform parties: Sovereignty gained 3.67% , while Zeman’s SPOZ came a bit closer to the 5% threshold with 4.22%. Both gained some modest state funding, although Sovereignty did manage 4.26% in the 2009 European elections.
Both SPOZ and Sovereignty are politically still in business, but for my money of the two Sovereignty , the weaker grouping in 2010, which re-elected Jana Bobošíková as leader last week is the more interesting and potentially the more significant.
Sovereignty’s politics are straightforward: a mix of Czech nationalism, euroscepticism and the anti-elite, outsider rhetoric that many people like to call populism. It is, its website makes clear, a party ‘…defending the interests of citizens of the Czech Republic…’ with the conservatve-nationalist strap-lin “Law, Labour, Order” which sounds like a mixture of Lenin and Marshall Pétain. Its programme stresses the sovereign national state, the need to fight Europeanisation, globalisation and vested interests with a quick nod to the role of Christian roots and the dangers of illegal immigration (never really an issue in the CR – due to so far rather limited scope of immigration into the country, legal and illegal) and Islam (again a non-issue even for nationalistcally minded voters – there are a handful of Muslims in the CR)
As with many strains of historic Czech nationalism, there is clear anti-German dimension, with the Sudeťáci (Sudeten German diaspora and its organisations) and their supposed revanchist claims on Czech territory, sovereignty and property a predictable and familiar target. Overall, however, the language of the programme is conservative-nationalist, more Václav Klaus than Jean Marie Le Pen, although on the other hand Ms Bobošíková’s stinging denunciation of the EU’s ‘pseudo-humanist and so-called politically correct waffle about human rights and minorities’ in launching her party’s election programme last year has overtones of the Czech radical right for whom liberalism and humanism of the Masarykian tradition that still frames mainstream Czech discourse are have always been an anathema. To some extent, the party draws on a trend – visible since the (anti-)EU accession referendum campaign of 2003 – for mainstream social conservatives and right-wing eurosceptics to find common grown with those with backgrounds on the far right and the political fringe, most strikingly seen in the surprisingly Akce DOST initiative/petition, whose conservative-nationalist manifesto is very much in the territory being staked out by Sovereignty. (DOST representatives, including some of its wackier, less salonfähig leaders, were recently received by President Klaus, who is keeping a none too discouraging eye on developments.)
Economically, Sovereignty seems to lean more to left than right, vigorously denouncing members of parliament for living high on the hog at public expense while condemning ordinary people to austerity. Shrewdly aware, that there are more discontented older people than young people in the CR – and that discontented pensioners show up to vote more often – Sovereignty has also been careful to make a lot of noise opposing pension reform. Its programme also contains a dose of economic nationalism of the kind popular even in the mainstream in 1990s: Czech technology, building up Czech (-owned) industry and so on.
Bobošiková’s re-election as leader of her party was not exactly a surprise. Until recently, the part was, after all, called Sovereignty – the Jana Boboíiková Bloc and the one time newsreader, former presidential and ex-MEP is by far the best known figure of the eurosceptic and populist group. Her re-launched, renamed party was officially formed in 2009 an amalgamation of independent groupings and fringe parties, but Ms Bobošíková’s career in politics and public life goes back rather earlier.
A newsreader and presenter for state-owned Czech Television from the mid-1990s, she was one of the few journalists to side with the station’s new management during the ‘Television Crisis’ of 2000-1, which saw strikes, blacked-out screens and mass protests against alleged efforts by the Czech Republic’s two major political parties to emasculate the independence of the country’s main public broadcaster.
The real story of the crisis is perhaps less black and white, but it led Ms B to the private TV Nova controlled by controversial ex-journalist and would-be media mogul, Vladmimír Železný, and into 2004 into the Independent Democrats (NEZ) grouping formed by Železný through an effective takeover of a small long-established local independents’ bloc. To some surprise, amid low turnout and a meltdown at the pools the then governing Social Democrats, NEZ, however, polled sufficient votes(8.08%) to elect two MEPs: Mr Železný and Ms Bobošíková. Despite an expensive campaign, however, NEZ flopped in the 2006 parliamentary elections in 2006 and (while it still exists) faded into obscurity (and financial controversy). Bobošíková and Železný quickly parted company in the EP, where she was an unimportant, though not inactive, non-inscrite
In 2006 Ms Bobošíková formed the Politika 21 party as a personal vehicle, which attracted some media attention when it fielded the estranged wife of Prime Minister Miroslav Topolánek as a Senate candidate, but made little political impact otherwise. She also hit the headlines in 2008 accepting nomination to stand as an independent presidential candidate by the Communist Party, but withdraw before MPs and Senators could throw her out in the first round of voting. Seemingly trying to repeat the model of the 2004, she formed Sovereignty in 2009 as a coalition between her own top-down creation and the long-time fringe grouping, the Common Sense Party (SZR). The grouping was later joined by the Secure Life Party (SŽJ), a grouping claiming to represent socially disadvantaged groups such as pensioners, disabled people and single mothers.
The newly re-launched Sovereignty – Bloc of the Future (SBB) (the Bobošíková bit has been dropped) also appears to have rudimentary, but functional organisation, if we take local elections as a crude proxy. In October 2010 Sovereignty was able to field 1639 candidates , a fraction of the total but respectable by the standards of Czech minor parties, not bad. The faction ridden Czech Greens, for example, a fairly long-established party which represented in parliament between 2006 and 2010 only managed 1, 998 (although the Zemanovci had 2554) (For reference Věci veřejné (VV), the smallest and newest parliamentary party ran 4,500 candidates). Predictably new parties did rather less well in terms of candidates elected – (Suverenita) had a mere 61, the Zeman-ites 81, Public Affairs 267, but – independents’ groupings aside – no one builds a party from the grassroots up in the CR these days, do they?
However, being electorally outshone by the Zeman grouping, as I mentioned, sovereignty has a number of unusual features, that make it a party worth watching – and perhaps a grouping that may spring a surprise in 2014.
1. Despite being regarded by critics as an opportunistic lightweight (‘Bobo’), Ms Bobošíková is a relatively experienced and media savvy figure with immediate recognition, who unlike the semi-retired Zeman is an energetic and active figure. Despite multiple establishment contacts, she is also a credible outsider and as a woman a relatively novel outsider. Prominent women politicians in mainstream Czech parties have generally fared badly, often being brutally marginalised by male colleagues.
Like Public Affairs which used its female leaders to emphasize its novel and anti-establishment credentials (before shunting them aside) Sovereignty – one of whose 2010 slogans was Chcete změnu, volte ženu (Vote For A Woman If You Want Change) clearly knows how to play this card.
2. Despite its harshly old-fashioned sounding nationalism, the party is in the Czech context something of transcender of established divisions. It is not obviously of left or right. It is neither communist or social-social democratic in origin, but neither is it anti-communist.
Consequently, it seems able to draw in a remarkable range of sympathisers from other parties and backgrounds, ranging from ex-Communists like Senator Jaroslava Doubrava (of the regional party Severocesi.cz) to detached eurosceptics of the right linked to the pro-Klaus wing of the Civic Democrats, such as Vlastimil Tlustý and ex-Social Democrats such Jana Volfová, a former General Secretary and close confidante of Miloš Zeman, most recently associated with the Secure Life Party. Two MPs expelled from Public Affairs are also reportedly keen to join.
Ms Bobošiková’s ideological fuzziness and good personal connections with both left and right clearly help here, but at a more underlying level she is helped by the fact that illiberal assertive Czech nationalism of a populist and anti-German stripe has pedigrees – and hence possibly popular appeal – on both left and right.
I say ‘possibly’ because in 2010, according to exit polling, Sovereignty, like Zemanovci, took voters mainly from the Social Democrats and had only slightly wider appeal to former right-wing voters than Zeman and co. Moreover, rather tellingly Sovereignty took an atypically large slice of former Communist voters and the age and educational profile were squarely that of a party of the Czech left: older and less well-educated. Indeed, more so than that of voters for Zeman and his ex-Social Democrat veterans.
3. The third important element is the melting iceberg of Czech party system stability. Two new parties burst on to the political stage on the centre-right in 2010 while the Social Democrat (ČSSD) lost out to Sovereignty and SPOZ, meaning that overall new challengers took around a third of the vote.
The short-term net effect of such instability has, paradoxically, been to consolidate the Czech party system: Public Affairs has, as was widely anticipated, gone into electoral freefall and both SPOZ and Suverenita have faded to 1-2 per cent support in the polls. If an election was held tomorrow, polls suggest, four largish parties would make it into parliament, rather than the 5-6 that have been the case since since the mid-1990s. Three of these (Civic Democrats, Social Democrats and Communists) are, moreover, well established parties that have also been around since 1990s. So much for party system change?
But, as various political scientists have pointed out, once the new party habit has been acquired it is hard to kick and, as 2010 elections in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia shown, come election time challenges can come right. Moreover, Ms Bobošíková claims to have learned the lessons of Public Affairs ill fated efforts to sustain itself as an organisation-lite Facebook party. Whether she can build a ‘mass party’ out of the current modest set up and ragbag of supporters must be questionable, although as a former Social Democrat general secretary with a subsequent track record in minor party politics, Jana Volfová, should know a thing or two about how (not) to go about it.
In 2014 with economic austerity still biting and the EU possibly not looking the healthiest – certainly not the guarantee of economic stability and prosperity it once unfailingly appeared – a eurosceptic, populist party with cross-over appeal, that is relatively immune to anti-communist criticism (although the charge of right-wing extremism and flakiness could stick given the weird and wonderful collection of minor party politicians beating a path to its door) could do well.
SPOZ, I predict, is unlikely to be the the force it was in 2010: its relatively good performance last year was dependent a remarkably high profile (and expensive) national billboard campaign. Some say it was financed by Russian oil company Lukoil, others wonder if right-wing donors saw it as useful spoiler party. In any case, the party may be able to rely on big money again.
Suverentia, by contrast, had minimal billboard visibility. The party is also dependent on the mercurial figure of Zeman, whose has made repeated forays into and out of political retirement over the past few years: characteristically, resigned has leader of the party that bears his name after the election in recognition of its failure, but is still honorary president. Just to erase any lasting impression of greater moderation, Mr Zeman has also recently made his own contribution to emerging new lefrtright conservative-national ideological cocktail with a remarks (later elaborated on for good measure) explaining that Isalm is an enemy ‘anti-civilization’.
Somehow, I don’t see Zeman as a Czech Pim Fortuyn.
Whether Ms Bobošíková will become some kind of Czech Sarah Palin or Pia Kjærsgaard is an altogether more intresting and open question, however.