News | Political Parties / Election Analyses - Eastern Europe - Europe2024 Czech Politics and the European Elections

A fragmented and weak Left faces a Right on the ascent



Martin Šaffek,

ANO chairman Andrej Babiš attends a pre-election debate in Prague, 5 June 2024. Photo: IMAGO / CTK Photo

In the Czech Republic, elections to the European Parliament are among the least popular with voters. In 2014, turnout was 18.2 percent, and in 2019, it was 28.7 percent. Surveys for this year estimate it will be somewhere between 20 and 30 percent.

Martin Šaffek is a Czech political activist and the editor of Socialistické Solidarita.

This means that the European elections are mainly the arena of highly motivated, i.e., ideological voters. Thus, European issues themselves are always partly themes of domestic politics, which is also reflected in the three main issues that dominate the current political debate.

A Growing Cancer

The adoption of the Migration Pact, a set of measures leading to a change in asylum and migration policy at the European level, has stirred a new wave of passions and racist and xenophobic attacks of all kinds. Since the so-called migration crisis of 2014 and 2015, Czech politics has been dominated by a politics of fear, brought in by the far right, but not confronted by the then ruling Social Democrats, let alone the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, both of which are at least formally left-wing forces.

While in Germany, people marched under the banner of Pegida or similar groups, in the Czech Republic the main group was the Bloc against Islam. The latter spread Islamophobic ideas about Syrian refugees who would rape Czech women and receive social benefits. The far-right Strana přímé demokraci (SPD) party established itself and grew by riding this wave. Its name translates to “Party of Direct Democracy”, but instead of “peoples’ power”, we see calls of “Czechia first” at its gatherings.

Arguments about too much “cultural difference” have been accepted by almost the entire political spectrum, with the exception of right-wing liberals and Greens, who find racism culturally unacceptable and associate it with poor people from the countryside. The radical Left, which, true to its notion of internationalism and the unity of the interests of workers wherever they come from, took the lead in the anti-racism movement.

In the current debate, one finds a general rejection of the Green Deal as unrealistic, dysfunctional, and a threat to Europe’s competitiveness.

For the radical Left, which at that time consisted of members of various movements and, to a lesser extent, members of the Social Democrats and Communists, the situation was particularly difficult. Whereas two years earlier, during the period of protests against austerity policies, its activists had become leaders of popular resistance, leading a coalition of initiatives and trade unions that managed to fill several squares in Prague and other cities across the country, they were now up against a number of people who had previously supported them. Even among the trade unionists, there were people who ran for the far-right SPD.

The Social Democrat-led government, which then included ANO, the political party of billionaire Andrej Babiš, blocked quotas at the European level, as did the next government, with the Social Democrats as junior partners and Andrej Babiš as prime minister. When discussing a European solution to migration, government officials repeated that the Czech Republic was ready to help in other ways — materially, by training police officers, etc. This argument is now coming back like a boomerang.

The newly approved package of norms makes it possible, as part of the so-called solidarity between states, to offer material, financial, or technical assistance to states affected by a migration crisis, in addition to receiving people on their territory. However, Andrej Babiš called the migration pact a “cancer”, saying it “is a thousand times worse than the mandatory refugee quotas that my government rejected” during a meeting in the Chamber of Deputies. Rhetorically, he has thus reached the level of the far right.

Stopping the “Green Madness”

Efforts to tackle climate change are also framed with a mix of half-truths and utter nonsense. Climate scepticism has its roots in the ideological founder of the Czech right, Václav Klaus, who became famous in this field with his book Blue Planet in Green Shackles, in which he tried to question climate scientists. His influence intensified, especially when he became President of the Republic and, after leaving office, founded the institute named after him. The latter is still a major producer of “climate-sceptic news”.

As Vojtěch Pecka reveals in his book Fabricating Lies, Klaus’s zeal opened the door to some of the most influential global think tanks funded by the fossil fuel industry — global disinformation hubs such as the Cato Institute and the Heartland Institute. Cato was founded personally by oil mega-magnates the Koch brothers, and has profiled itself as one of the most important players in the spread of climate disinformation. This has retroactively reinforced the role of climate science in Czech politics, not just in Kalus’s Civic Democratic Party (ODS), but across the political spectrum.

Thus, in the current debate, one finds a general rejection of the Green Deal as unrealistic, dysfunctional, and a threat to Europe’s competitiveness. The only exception is the Pirate Party, which would like to support the Green Deal with more money, but which they want to raise by getting the European Investment Bank to open its doors to private pensions for European citizens. In addition, they want to cut taxes on large corporations, which would further undermine the ability of states to invest in social and climate transformation.

The Greens, on the other hand, place great emphasis on the social dimension of climate change, which is undoubtedly due to the fact that the number two on their European ticket is Petr Doubravský, one of the founders of the Czech branch of Fridays for Future. The issue of social justice has always been closely linked to the issue of climate change within the climate movement. Here, we can see how the social movement directly influences political agendas.

The Czech Left is in a very difficult situation ahead of the European elections.

On the other side is the Communist-led “Enough” coalition, which derides “green lunacy” and includes lifting the ban on internal combustion engines in its programme. The main argument remains the defence of national interests, i.e., domestic companies. The Communists thus remain in their position as a conservative party which views European politics through the prism of a unity of national interests between private entrepreneurs and workers, instead of advocating for the common interests of workers across Europe.

The Green Deal has become the great bogeyman that is responsible for almost all of Czech society’s problems. The small Left Party, Levice, advocates for radical social and climate change and a move away from green capitalism, and is thus the only party that consistently links a critical attitude to capitalism with climate change. Unfortunately, its chances of influencing the public debate are slim due to its size and the resources at its disposal. However, it is contributing to the recovery and dissemination of a left-wing consciousness that has almost disappeared and is fragmented between completely contradictory ideas.

Fatal Fragmentation

The Social Democrats are running in this year's European elections together with another small party, Budoucnost (Future). Following their exit from the Chamber of Deputies, they are pushing for more radical rhetoric. Internally, however, they are very divided. The “modernization turn” announced by party chairman Michal Šmarda so far has mainly meant a change in communication on social media, and the recognition of new topics such as platform forms of employment. However, the party still remains the political home of the right wing of Social Democracy, which has stood by the European policy of liberalization and free trade agreements, and now supports Israel’s actions regardless of international law.

The Left is not helped by the dismal state of the trade union movement. After the defeat of Josef Středula, the chairman of the largest trade union confederation, ČMKOS, in the presidential elections, from which he withdrew and called for support for the right-wing economist Danuše Nerudová, he weakened the trade unions once more by having to resign from his post for non-payment of membership fees and then being re-elected to it. He won only 57 percent of the vote at the union's special congress.

To make matters worse, the unions were planning a rally in early May against the government’s policy of raising the retirement age or firing without cause. However, following the assassination of Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, the unions decided to cancel the protest and called on the government to engage in dialogue. The latter thanked them for their “state-building” gesture and continues to ignore them.

It is important to underline that the situation in the Czech Republic is very different from that in Slovakia and there is no danger of excessive polarization. The trade unions’ move has demobilized both their members and the broader Left, which had also been actively preparing for the protest. The Czech Left is therefore in a very difficult situation ahead of the European elections. Its forces are divided both programmatically and organizationally. Apart from essentially propagandist work with ideas, it is left with the task of working on political issues from below, consistently supporting all progressive movements and workers’ struggles and gaining further support in them.

There are no shortcuts, and in the atmosphere of a general shift to the right, the most difficult task will be to maintain at least some organizational structures capable of the practical political work mentioned above.