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Losing their way

Parties representing the democratic left, most notably socialists and social democrats, are on the defensive in most European countries. Analysts have offered a variety of explanations for this development, ranging from the inability of democratic left parties to adjust to the disappearance of the traditional working class to the imperative of reducing expenditures on the social welfare state in times of global economic crisis.

Whatever may be the specific causes of the current decline in the influence of democratic left parties in Europe, including the Czech Republic, the notion of the social welfare state is clearly crucial for any discussion about the democratic left's future. The biggest question in the political left's battle with the liberal and the conservative right is whether the social welfare state can be modernized and sustained in the changing global context or whether it needs to be significantly reduced or even completely discarded.

Most social democratic and socialist parties in Europe have not found ways to formulate their responses to various pressures that the global economy puts on the social welfare state. Nor have they been able to convince a critical mass of people that the political right is wrong when it asserts that the global economy of the post-industrial age, as opposed to the national economies of the industrial age, nullifies the need for the very existence of the social welfare state.

In other words, the democratic left has not been able to argue effectively that the social welfare state is perhaps needed more than ever before in the context of global capitalism, with its calls for a flexible, mobile and easily recyclable work force. It has not gotten across the message that the social welfare net - provided by nation states - may be the last resort for people who fall on hard times in the ever more competitive global market. The democratic left has also not been able to specify what can be sacrificed in the social welfare system to make it more affordable so that European welfare states are able to stop running up huge deficits.

In general, responses have been very static. While the political right talks about reforms, budget cuts and competitiveness, the political left across Europe has acted in a rather defensive manner, offering the 20th century's answers to new problems. It has not been, for example, able to answer (certainly not better than the political right) the question of how Europe can efficiently compete with countries such as China and India that do not trouble themselves with offering their people extensive social welfare benefits, which gives them huge competitive advantages.

The situation of the Czech Republic's political left is even more complicated because it has been split between the Social Democrats (ČSSD) and the Communists since 1989. The political right has skillfully used this schizophrenic situation on the left to warn the electorate against a possible coalition between the unreformed Communists and the ČSSD, in case the two parties together had achieved a majority.

Moreover, the ČSSD, not unlike socialist parties in other European countries, has been slow in modifying its message. In the recent electoral campaign, it countered the emotional warnings of the political right about the need to save the Czech Republic from the Greek scenario by offering complacency: There was supposedly not much to be worried about; no major reforms of the social welfare system were needed; in fact, the government could supposedly offer a 13th-month pension to retired people.

In particular, the party did not find a way to communicate with the young generation. Not only did it present a nonmodern image of a political grouping speaking mainly on behalf of the working class and the elderly, but it also was unable to formulate what social risks there are for young people in the context of the global economy.

The message of individualism offered by the political right - in particular, reliance on one's own abilities and flexibility - was more successful. Moreover, the ČSSD shot itself in the foot in regard to the young generation when its leaders tried to stop unofficial elections in high schools, which were organized by the NGO People in Need as a civic education project.

Some causes for the failure of the ČSSD to achieve better electoral results were even more specific. Analysts have argued that the arrogant political style of party leader Jiří Paroubek contributed to the electoral failure. Clearly, young people in particular were alienated by Paroubek, and they in fact organized several campaigns against the ČSSD leader on Facebook.

The ČSSD and the conservative Civic Democrats (ODS), the two dominant parties on the Czech political scene in the past 17 years, became targets of an unusual "mutiny" by Czech voters, who punished them, as the principal representatives of the establishment, for the persisting ills of domestic politics, most notably widespread corruption. While the ODS lost about 16 percent of the popular vote in comparison with the elections in 2006, the ČSSD lost 10 percent.

New parties benefited from this trend. Although the ČSSD won the elections, in the end the ODS, which finished second, was able to form a center-right coalition with two new parties: the conservative TOP 09 and the populist-right Public Affairs party (VV). The low coalition potential of the ČSSD was the result of not only the unwillingness of the center-right parties to cooperate with the unreformed Communists whose support any coalition led by the ČSSD would require, but it was also caused by the inability of the ČSSD to offer a reform-oriented program.

Despite the poor showing, the future of the ČSSD is not so bleak.

First, it is clear the party did not do as well as it would have wished due to several tactical mistakes, rather than just general causes. Should it be able to address more efficiently centrist voters and the young generation, it may do much better next time around. Paroubek has resigned his post, and the change of leadership, especially the arrival of younger politicians, may help.

Second, the ČSSD seems to realize it needs to change its message. In particular, it seems to be aware it needs to address the fragile middle class that has emerged since 1989 and is now threatened by the volatile environment of the global market. If the ČSSD managed to convince people working in the service sector (most of whom aspire to a middle-class status) that sustaining a modernized welfare state is in their best interest, it could tap into a potentially large reservoir of new voters.

The party also needs to find more efficient ways of working with modern communication technologies if it wants to attract younger voters. Many of the young voters who in the recent elections overwhelmingly voted for the center-right parties are high-school and university students who will soon be faced with the realities of a tight labor market. Should the ČSSD be able to convince them that having an effective social welfare system, rather than opting for the philosophy of social Darwinism, is the right answer to current challenges, it may do better with young people next time around.

The ČSSD will not find some of the answers to the challenges of the global economy alone, however. It will need to cooperate with other socialist and social democratic parties in Europe much more than it has in the past, as some of the problems it faces are clearly not country-specific. Rather, they have to do with a general crisis of the democratic left's identity in Europe.

Prague Post, 28 July 2010