I share a bias with many political scientists working on political parties: I tend to over-rate new parties with political organisation and some real grassroots presence and under-rate those which are top-down vehicles created for individual politicians.
So I am grateful to Kevin Deegan-Krause over at Pozorblog for taking seriously the Czech Republic’s newest party, namely LEV – the National Socialists founded by ex-Social Democrat Prime Minister Jiří Paroubek, while I caught up . For it is now clear that, as new parties go, the new group is certainly a serious project with serious potential to impact Czech politics over the next 2-3 years.
After last year’s elections Mr Paroubek seemed pretty much politically finished: the simple, in-your-face pro-welfare message that had pulled the Czech Social Democrats (ČSSD) back from the political brink in 2005-6 failed to pull in sufficient numbers of voters – and especially not younger voters – allowing a centre-right coalition to sweep into power. Cold comfort that ČSSD were (narrowly) the largest party so after a brief post-election rant, Mr P stepped down.
But a few months in the political wilderness watching post-election seem to have convinced Paroubek that he has a political role to play after all – and that the party he once led is so awful, inept and corrupt he should found a new one. And, with a 3% rating in the polls, his barely founded new party is not doing too badly.
It’s not altogether an original move. One of the reasons the Social Democrats failed to regain office in 2010 was the inroads made into their vote by new, small left-wing parties, including both the eurosceptic Sovereignty party and the Citizens’ Rights Party (SPOZ) of another former (1998-2002) ČSSD Prime Minister, Miloš Zeman, whose confrontational Mr Paroubek (aka The Bulldozer) emulated.
In other respects too Mr Paroubek has been working straight from the How To Set Up A New Party playbook of Czech politics. In no particular order we have
1. Get A Catchy Acronym Making Feeble Nod Towards Ideological Heritage.
The most successful new centre-right party of 2010 was TOP09 supposedly standing – although I doubt even many party members can still remember it – for Tradice, odpovědnost, prosperita [Tradition, Responsibility and Prosperity] to show that it was a kind of solid and reliable Central European conservative party.
Paroubek’s new outfit is called Národní socialisté – levice 21. století. [National Socialists – 21st Century Left), which can be abbreviated (with a little imagination) to LEV, the Czech word for lion – the lion of Bohemia being a key historic symbol of the Czech nation. Just look at any Czech coin.
Mr Paroubek, has however not gone Nazi. The National Socialists (aka National Socials) were the main historic party of the progressive Czech middle class and intelligentsia preaching a distinct mix of liberalism, democratic socialism and Czech nationalism. They existed in emasculated form satellite party under communism, re-named the Czechoslovak Socialist Party, underwent various name changes in 1990s and, despite considerable resources slowly declined into obscurity and bankruptcy. Others, such as Václav Klaus, could offer the voters all the aspirant middle class liberalism and Czech nationalism they could ask for in far more modern form.
2. Acquire Off-The-Shelf Organisation, Take Over A Minor Party
Even the most ‘instant’. leader dominated new parties need some semblance of organisation to run lists of candidates and have some kind of legitimacy. Besides Czech law explicitly conceives of parties as national membership organisations. The quickest route here is simply to take over the shell of an enfeebled, minor party or small local group. Businessman Vít Bárta showed how this should be done by taking over a tiny local citizens group called Public Affairs in Prague in 2005, pumping it full of money and PR know-how, and achieving surprise breakthrough into parliament in 2010.
Mr Paroubek was a member of the satellite Socialist Party in 1980s. He then jumped ship to the re-founded Social Democrats in 1990, where he was General Secretary until 1993, before being ousted by Zeman who realised that talking moderation and consensus would get ČSSD nowhere (a lesson Paroubek learned well). So it is not totally surprising that Paroubek sought to take over the shell of the old Socialists, now going under the monicker of the Czech National Social Party 2005 (ČSNS2005). This has not gone that smoothly, despite initial overtures, but Mr Paroubek may pull in some ČSNS2005’s couple of hundred members and it hasn’t stopped him using the National Socialist label.
If he plays his cards right, he could also pull in part of the more sizeable Zeman organisation, SPOZ, which seems to be at the end of the road as Zeman lack the energy to campaign consistently. Despite their being no love lost between them, Mr Paroubek has diplomatically said he would back Zeman to become president.
And, of course, he may also win over a few ex-Social Democrats.
He is, however, recruiting just about any politician who needs a political home with some ex-deputies for Public Affairs heading his way. The Czech Republic has an excellent record for recycling.
3. Have A Big Name Celebrity Leader , Preferably An Outsider
Many new parties have had to rely on aristocrats (Karel Schwarzenberg, TOP09) or media profile of ex-TV presenters (Jana Bobišíkova of Sovereignty, Radek John of Public Affairs). This is one area where Paroubek need have no worries. Everyone knows his name and he is a love/hate figure rivalled only by Václav Klaus, although the balance probably tilts a bit more to the latter.
It’s a bit more difficult for Paroubek to fit into the role of outsider, but he seems to be working hard at it and with a little practice he should manage the trick Václav Klaus does so well: being an ‘inside outer’ totally of the establishment, but claiming somehow credibly to be outside it. After all, how did you get to be well known in the first place.
4. Find A Political USP
Even in these post-modern times, it seems in the Czech Republic you do actually need to stand for something and offer the voters something new politically (an least an improvement on the old offering): anti-corruption; nationalism and euroscepticism (perhaps anti-Roma politics); or genuinely red-blooded market reform have all been popular. Being in favour of direct democracy (preferably via the internet) also adds a certain panache.
Here Mr Paroubek is struggling a bit. Taking over the National Socialist brand seemed to suggest he was going to go for left-wing (or at least non-anti-communist) brand of nationalism with potentially broad appeal to many left-wing voting. A sort of Blue Labour strategy, to borrow from the British political lexicon. This seems precisely the card being played by Sovereignty. And, of couse, the Czech Communists also do a statism-and-nationalism cocktail.
The party’s programme is waffly rehash of musings about the historic traditions of the National Socialists, a sustainable social market economy and the need to watch out in a dangerous globalised world whose only very distinct element is it advocacy of a pro-natal policies (as per the Christian Democrats).
Paroubek’s statements on things like the Euro seem to have been either vague or sensible, long-term stuff you would expect an incumbent PM to spout: a stout defence of the long-term viabikity if the Euro is not thing that the next Populist Big Thing should offer, although rehashed social-democratic position did not stop Zeman’s SPOZ from picking up 4% in 2010.
5. Good Timing
The run-in time for a successful new party seems to be about 1-2 years, the time it takes to build up media momentum; a modicim of organisation; and contest (and do unexpectedly well) in some kind of second order election. The idea is then to breakthrough in the months and weeks before the elections: the Czech Greens managed this to perfection in 2006, as did TOP09 and Public Affairs, who benefitted from running Euro-election, in 2010.
LEV seems to be aiming to do use the regional and Senate elections of 2012, as a springboard – demanding organisationally, but probably do-able if it can do well in a reasonable number of regions and scrape a couple of senators by recruiting local independents.
Although momentum goes a long way, few tens of millions of crowns are frankly indispensible, for a least a modest billboard campaign, making wealthy individual supporters (Greens 2005/6); contacts in the business world built up in government (ex-Christian Democrats in TOP09); or other mysterious private sponsor acting as Fairy Godmother (Bárta’s ABL security company in the case of Public Affairs in 2010, persons unknown for Zeman’s SPOZ).
The financial background of LEV is, as yet, as mystery, but as an ex-PM and seasoned political operator, who spend a long period in the murky world of Prague city politics before re-entering national government, I personally would be surprised if Mr Paroubek could not sort out sufficient.
Likely score 8/10
By my reckoning, that is 40 out of a possible 60, or an overall 6.6/10. A credible also ran, I would say , but another source of lost votes for the Social Democrats.
And no sooner do I post on Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg at Chatham House than he decides to make waves in Czech domestic politics by announcing that he will be a candidate for the Czech Presidency, when Václav Klaus steps down from second and final term in 2013.
Media are reporting – in the style of the old Klaus vs. Havel coverage – that it stems from one too many eurosceptic broadside from the current occupant of Prague Castle. I suspect, however, that Mr (I mean Prince) Schwarzenberg is far too canny to make such spur of the moment decisions and that it represents a neat, logical and fitting exit from his unlikely career as party leader: the announcement was made at the second national congress of his TOP09.
If I was a TOPák, however, I wouldn’t be that enthusiastic. Provided age treats him kindly – he will be 75 in 2013 – Schwarzenberg would, undoubtedly be a distinguished and effective head of state. But his exit as party leader would politically destabilising for TOP09, a loose alliance of local politicians, business interests and ex-Christian Democrats, which would look a whole lot less attractive with an aristocratic anti-politician at it helm. And, as the unhappy experience of Havel and Civic Movement shows, on/off presidential parties rarely prosper.
In the bigger picture, President Schwarzenberg would predictable and a safe choice, a re-assuring avuncular figure in times of trouble. But could the Czechs really not find someone younger, and conceivably perhaps – and I know this is a bit shocking – even female? Someone not part of the dissident/technocratic/business/intellectual establishment that has run the CR since 1989? Is there a Czech Mary Robinson in the wings?
It’s interesting that, despite being a media darling, Schwarzenberg’s popular rating with the voters is a mere 14%. In a direct election, legislation for which is chugging along uncertainly, he could quickly become an also-ran.
Knowing Czech politics, though – and if it were to be a direct election – it could easily be a Czech Sarah Palin. Of the establishment candidates mentioned here Přemysl Sobotka, the moderate and independent long-time Civic Democrat Senator, and ex-caretaker PM Jan Fischer would safe, if boring choices. Personally, if we’re doing grey ‘n’ technocratic I would go for ex-Social Democrat PM and former EU Social Affairs Commissioner Vladmir Špidla, whose rather grey public persona belies a more interesting and colourful figure. Špidla I have always felt, is one most under-rated figure in Czech politics.
Two other former Social Democrat PMs, Miloš Zeman and Jiří Paroubek – both populist bruisers of the first order – can also be assumed to have presidential ambitions. Either would be a potentially credible candidate in a popular election capable of pulling in Communist voters any directly elected left-wing president would need, but have too many parliamentary enemies to make it through the current indirect system where only deputies and Senators vote.
Paroubek, however, seems to be more concerned with building up his new LEV21 party and is on the record as urging one-time rival Zeman to run for head of state (probably hoping to hoover up voters and activists from Zeman’s own small vanity party SPOZ party, which pulled in an expected 4% in last year’s elections.