Czech Republic: How to Bale out the Civic Democrats?

Tim Bale of Queen Mary University of London has a 12 point plan for politicians, who’ve hit rock bottom. Not for those who overindulge in the hospitality and get a bit er… tired and emotional in public –  as Czech President Miloš Zeman seems to have done recently – but for major governing parties who’ve fallen off the wagon of electoral success and are recovering from political defeat.

He outlined it in a presentation to last year’s conference of Fianna Fáil, Ireland’s traditional ruling party brutally felled in an electoral meltdown in 2011, reflecting (at Fianna Fáil’s invitation) on the lessons that the experience of the British Conservatives- about whom he is the author of a prize-winning book – might offer for FF and other similarly afflicted parties.

It was delivered with characteristic mix of wit, clarity and academic expertise seasoned with a dose of drama as he told them what they probably didn’t want to hear. But, I wondered, there any other parties that might around that might usefully be advised to follow the Bale Rules?

Perhaps the Civic Democrats (ODS) in the Czech Republic, the once dominant party of the centre-right founded by Václav Klaus in 1991 which bossed things in Czech politics for much of the 1990s and – along with the Social Democrats – were until the ‘earthquake election’ of 2010 one of two dominant players in a once stable party system.

Running through the twelve points, some catch the party’s dilemmas exactly, while others don’t quite catch a situation in which the voters can turn away from you en masse and you still end up running the country.

1.      Accept your failure – you are toxic and despised by voters

Tim Bale’s first point is that a party needs to recognize that it is really is down and out,  despised and toxic for most voters.

The Civic Democrats have arguably certainly become a pretty toxic brand for many voters, saddled mainly with a reputation for corruption and cynical power politics. It is hard to think, however, that ODS politicians can have that many illusions on this point, although they may be banking on their opponents being equally despised and distrusted.

But oddly for a party that polled a historically low vote at the last elections and crashed to below 10% in the polls, it is oddly not quite clear that it has (yet) been defeated.

This is easy enough in situation where there are two major parties and you are slung out on your ear by voters and go into opposition. But in 2010 the Civic Democrats were electorally pole-axed , but still ended up in government as established opposition parties did relatively poorly and the new anti-establishment parties they lost votes to were on the centre-right. The next parliamentary elections (scheduled for 2014) may clarify things.

2.      Do not underestimate your opponents.

 They are, warns, Tim Bale hungrier and more competent than you would like to think. Having lost elections to better organised national exercises in political marketing on the part of the Social Democrats and been struck down to less than 10% in some polls earlier this year, you would think this lesson would have been learned as far as election campaigning. It is possible, however, that the ability of the Social Democrats  in office to work out stable and  viable co-operation arrangements with the Communist and other parties – or manage a minority government –  should not be dismissed too lightly.

3. Spend money on opinion polls, take voters’ criticisms on board.

It’s hard to know if there’s a Czech version of Tory donor and pollster Lord Ashcroft bringing the very painful and unalloyed truth through opinion research and focus groups. But the problem for the Czech centre-right is perhaps a more fundamental one: how it can make the Czech electorate love it in sufficient numbers. There is no obvious modernization strategy beyond the moves to a more pragmatic, socially and ecologically sensitive centre-right grouping half tried under Miroslav Topolánek (a gaffe-prone and unlikely provincial moderniser, who led the party to a Pyrrhic election victory in 2006). In this respect, they are in a similar situation to the British Tories: modernisation has been (half) tried but did not increase electoral support enough to deliver a parliamentary majority

 4. Do not be distracted by organisational reform.

Tim Bale is, you sense, dead right in noting a tendency in defeated parties for the grass roots to blame the leadership and seek a solution in organisational change as a displacement activity. Anna Gryzmala-Busse’s now classic book on the transformation of forming ruling communist parties in Eastern Europe also suggests that too much democratic involvement on the party of members can blunt speedy and effective adaptation.

He is perhaps also right to suggest that defeated politicians should have no illusions that they will renew their parties’ competitive edge by increasing levels of membership and activism through structural reforms.  There is a long-term trend across all parties in Europe for activism and  party membership to decline.

Civic Democrat politicians have been reasonably relaxed in public about falls in their party’s membership, claiming that it shows they are getting rid of careerists and notional paper members controlled by local vested interests.

Still, ODS is enough of a real political party that when finally does meet shattering and unmistakable political defeat in 2014 (as seems almost inevitable), it is likely to fall straight into this trap, probably preoccupied the problem of how to rid itself from the grip of corrupt local/regional interests.

The party could perhaps think twice about Tim Bale’s final bit of advice: to signal change by changing the appearance of their candidates, the party’s ‘sales force’ in the electoral market. Efforts to bring outsiders in the party such as bow-tie wearing surgeon Bohuslav Svoboda the(now ex-) mayor of Prague or ex-Havel advisor Alexandr Vondra in ODS seemed to have had limited effect. Having served a stint as defence minister, become embroiled in all the usual accusations of corrupt dealing and been kicked out by the voters in Senate elections last year – Vondra’s star has risen and fallen. Svoboda never got to grips with the ODS old guard in Prague and his municipal coalition has jus collapsed.

  5. Do not waste time justifying your record and fighting battles of the past.

This will be hard one. Centrist liberals and liberal intellectuals in the Czech Republic are good at political self-flagellation and (having very frequently been politically routed) are very good at it. But the party founded by Václav Klaus – even when moving away from its founder’s views – specialised more in combative self-assertion. It is hard to see any sign of the art of ‘concede and move on’ here – and a small body of Klaus loyalists are indeed obsessed with re-fighting the battles of the 1990s and how well the party did or didn’t lead the country’s transformation into a market economy. If somehow it can decontaminate its brand in the eyes of voters, a similar move may be needed around the issue of corruption.

 6. Do signal change

It’s a little difficult to know what the Czech right’s equivalent of  David Cameron’s hugging a husky might be.  ODS MEP Edvard Kožušník pulled off a nice ecological gesture by cycling to Brussels when elected in 2009 and in the same year Miroslav Topolánek gave an interview to a gay lifestyle magazine. Unfortunately, ex-thinktanker Kožušník is not a big player in the party and Topolánek’s confused off-the-cuff remarks about the characteristics of homosexuals and Jews led to his immediate downfall.

A new logo or a fresh party colour scheme will not do much if the change the party needs is still unclear. Perhaps something as radical as a name change or  even formal dissolution and refoundation of the party into some kind of broader bloc might help – the Scottish Tories recently considered both) –  but that still leaves the pesky old question of quite what direction change should actually take.

7. Keep policy reviews strategic and symbolic.

The Civic Democrats have for many years always tended to agonise a bit over the need for new ideas   and even run a reasonably regular Ideological Conferences, sensing that they are not quite as thoroughly ideological as they should be. But one should be easy for a party,  which is probably actually closer than itwould like to imagine to Ireland’s Fianna Fáil – a loosely nationalist party held together by coalitions of local business interests – than the more ideologically well defined British Conservatives.

Tim Bale also recommends using policy reviews for a big of ‘brand signalling’ by inclusively bringing in some unlikely allies: Bob Geldorf advised the Tories on development policy, for example. If ODS could bring themselves to, no doubt a few hated NGOs and civil society actors could be brought on board for an exercise of this kind.

 8. Oppose the government, but avoid opportunistic headline chasing.

Opposition parties need to oppose – but not anyhow. Even on issues where they agree with you, Tim Bale warns, voters can detect opportunism or lack of credibility. The main Czech parties need no encouragement to lay into each, but this point suggests should fight shy of attacking each other for corruption and abuse of power, which they all tend to indulge in, unless they can present themselves to voters as not being tarred by the same brush.

 9. Do not be fooled by ‘success’ in second order elections in opposition.

 Sound advice for any party – in the Czech Republic as elsewhere. ODS’s sweeping success regional and Senate elections in 2004 did not lead to similarly crushing wins in parliamentary elections  in 2006; the Czech Social Democrats similarly emphatic performance in the 2008 regional and Senate elections did not presage victory in 2010.

For the moment, however, as a governing party ODS – which took an electoral beating in the regions last year –  and experience an even worse meltdown in the first direct presidential elections can probably take a few crumbs of comfort here.

10. The key to renewal is leadership not membership.

Defeated parties, Tim Bale told Fianna Fáil delegates, have to ask if they have a leader up to the job. If the polls show the public does not think so, brutal decisions may have to be taken.  These comments reportedly left FF’s leader Micheál Martin, elected as a  new face in 2011 to lead the party to electoral disaster,  squirming in his seat. ODS leader and Czech PM Petr Nečas took over in 2010 in very similar circumstances. Despite keeping things together in the short-term, both would seem sooner or later to be for the political chopping block.

Quite where ODS would find a more credible leader, let alone one who – as recommended by the  Bale Plan – can embody and symbolise change is, however, anyone’s guess. Maybe, as the British Tories did, they could experiment with the seemingly unlikely possibility of a woman leader. The party has the country’s most prominent female politician in parliamentary speaker Miroslava Němcová, who was tipped to be its presidential candidate, but dropped out of the race.

11. Accept that political recovery will take two or three terms.

Good advice for the Czech context, I would say, although the situation is complicated by the fact that even moderate recovery can put you back into government if the electoral cards fall right for smaller parties. On the other hand, ODS’s time out of office for almost a decade after 1997 did not lead to modernization bearing electoral fruit (indeed, the same can perhaps be said of the British Tories). And even with fairly generous state funding, being cut off from the resources and donations that incumbency brings for long periods may be risky.

 12. Take comfort that well established parties usually bounce back.

 Or do they? There is cold comfort here for ODS – or indeed many other major parties in Central and Eastern Europe looking down the barrel of electoral annihilation.  While historic West European parties like the Tories or Fianna Fáil have the wherewithal to bounce back – a core electorate, traditions, a cadre of loyal activists and well rooted (if shrinking) national organisation –  major parties in CEE lack all of these and are much more brittle. While examples of major party collapse in Western democracies – the Canadian Conservatives or the Italian Christian Democrats – can be found, they are the exceptions not the rule. In CEE the collapse or rapidly decline of once major parties to minor party status is all too common.

However, this does suggest that ODS’s prospects of making a comeback – and winning the struggle for supremacy on the Czech right with newer rival TOP09 – are better than many commentators reckon. ODS never had the votes or the history of Fianna Fáil or the British Conservatives, but one oldest and best established of ‘new’ parties formed after 1989 without any historical or communist-era predecessors, and ‘bouncing back’ is partly a matter of hanging on and getting your act together.

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