Czech Republic

The Left should not be an exclusive club for the elites

A2larm’s Jan Bělíček on Czech Elections, Kaczynski and the Future of the Left

After the complete failure of leftist parties in last month’s Parliamentary elections, Czech journalist and co-founder of A2larm, Jan Bělíček, put forward an analysis of this defeat that draws interesting parallels with Poland. ‘One of the reason the Left lost’, he stated in an interview for the major Czech weekly political newsmagazine Respekt, ‘was that they failed to realize that the era of rational political  debate is over. Rational solutions went bust with the economic crisis in 2008’. Leftist parties, he continues, managed to analyze the reasons behind the crisis – global capitalism and so on – but they did not put this knowledge to use politically. This critique, which was not transformed into a programme, created a vacuum that was filled, paradoxically, by the right-wing, both conservative and radical.

A good example would be Kaczynski, according to Bělíček. ‘Four years ago, Kaczynski released a video of himself holding a book; Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. He said he could not stand neo-Marxist left-wingers, but that this book had greatly influenced him and he would base his political programme on it’. The Law and Justice Party in Poland (PiS), according to Bělíček, seized this opportunity to put forward a new agenda, presented by a leftist critique of contemporary society, and filled it with nationalist, conservative ideas. And Kaczynski is not alone – consider the essentially anti-establishment traits in the politics of Trump, Le Pen, Austria’s Freedom Party (FPÖ), and Germany’s Alternative for Germany Party (AfD). ‘The Left has wasted a great opportunity’, he concludes. And what is worse, it has let the opposition appropriate its own arguments and issues.

Kaczynski is not alone – consider the essentially anti-establishment traits in the politics of Trump and Le Pen.

‘Kaczynski and his party took the social agenda and filled it with nationalist, hateful ideology – and suddenly the Left had nothing to offer. The impulse for hatred and nationalism is much stronger than just saying, let’s come up with a better social policy’. But the real problem is that the Left has allowed social issues to be sidelined. It should have engaged the issue of national identity in a way which marked it as different from the ideas of the far Right. It should have cultivated this issue. It remains to be seen whether such a tactic will amount to anything concrete, but some Czech parties actually did manage to reconcile reassuring the public that they were fighting against Islamic terrorism, while also supporting immigrant quotas, emphasizing that immigrants would not threaten people’s way of life, by further lowering the cost of a labour, for instance.

Of course, the Czech Republic has its own would-be totalitarian figure, Andrej Babiš, who also managed to drain away a lot of leftist votes. ‘Babiš relies on the anti-establishment image as well, which is rather paradoxical after four years in the government. But he was actually pushed into some pro-social measures through a coalition with social democrats’, Bělíček explains. Minimum wages have risen, pensions have increased – all things a left-wing voter loves to hear. And Babiš realized this and emphasized it in his campaign, stealing voters from the social democrats and communists.

Jan Bělíček, photo by Matěj Stránský. @Respekt.cz

What does the Czech left need to do, then? ‘The issue is not in the program. The Green party, for example, had a good program that resonated with a lot of people. But the Greens suffered from a different problem; they are an extremely intellectual, elitist party. They had no way of speaking to the voters their program concerns the most. People essentially agreed with the things the Greens said but did not like the party or its presentation’. There is still space for a party with a similar program and a more focused, aggressive campaign, Bělíček believes.

After this, and the similarly disastrous 8% for a formerly influential party, the social democrats, the Czech political Left is in a dire need of a renaissance. ‘Having a leftist leader seemed to be a step in the right direction for the Greens, who focused on cultural liberalism and pro-social politics. But it was a long shot, because the Greens’ electorate is mostly centrist to right-wing – and the party did not convince them that a more social-friendly policy is in their interest too’, says Bělíček. So, they reached out to the middle class and upper middle class instead of those on the lowest ranks of society. And failed.

Is it not, then, the time to start a new leftist political party? ‘Eventually, yes. The elections have shaken the Greens and social democrats a lot and this could result in a lot of people leaving those parties’, he predicts. The leftist faction of the Greens and the more liberal social democrats could easily unite. ‘I just hope that, if this actually happens, the new party will not succumb to the overly intellectual and abstract impulses incomprehensible for anyone not interested in politics or leftist theory’, Bělíček says. ‘That would be the road to Hell’. The impressive result for the Pirate Party, now the third strongest party, shows that there is still a place for progressive politics in the Czech Republic. Any new leftist subject with a good campaign, a charismatic leader and anti-establishment features could get more or less the same number of votes as the Pirate Party. The political situation in the Czech Republic is still far from being as miserable as the current situation in Hungary or Poland.

But Bělíček needs not look far to argue the opposite: ‘In Poland, despite what we like to think, the people who elected Kaczynski actually voted rationally: his party offered social policies. If we take a look at the results, PiS has managed to lower child poverty by 90 per cent. It introduced benefits for having a child under 18  and that improved the situation of Poland’s poorest, who tend to have large families’, Bělíček points out.

In Poland, despite what we like to think, the people who elected Kaczynski actually voted rationally.

According to Bělíček, a modern leftist party would have some pretty daunting tasks ahead of it. ‘It cannot give in on the issue of cultural liberalism, it cannot pander to nationalist and xenophobic tendencies. It also needs to take the structures the old leftist parties have built – strong social state, strong unions and so on – and adapt them to the current situation’, he explains, citing changes in the job market and the upcoming automatization of labor as examples. ‘And of course, there is the matter of basic income, which would have the advantage of preventing the stigmatization of people who are accepting welfare, as is often the case with social security programs as we know them. The ‘old Left’s’ ideal was full employment; the ‘new Left’ should strive to free people from work’.

According to Bělíček, a modern leftist party would have some pretty daunting tasks ahead of it. ‘It cannot give in on the issue of cultural liberalism, it cannot pander to nationalist and xenophobic tendencies. It also needs to take the structures the old leftist parties have built – strong social state, strong unions and so on – and adapt them to the current situation’, he explains, citing changes in the job market and the upcoming automatization of labor as examples. ‘And of course, there is the matter of basic income, which would have the advantage of preventing the stigmatization of people who are accepting welfare, as is often the case with social security programs as we know them. The ‘old Left’s’ ideal was full employment; the ‘new Left’ should strive to free people from work’.

Text: Michal Chmela.

Featured photo: Matěj Stránský, @Respekt.cz.

Bio

Michal Chmela

Michal Chmela is a translator and journalist.