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What next for the Czech Greens after electoral disaster?

By Michal Berg

Newly-installed Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš has slowly started to push his country into a somewhat illiberal direction. While the majority of the population still sees the Czech Republic inside the European Union and opposes ‘Czexit’, progressive forces need to stay alert if they want the Czech Republic to remain as open as it is now. We spoke to Michal Berg from the Czech Greens about the lessons learnt from the last election, the appeal of the Pirate party, and the measures being taken to bring the Greens back to the forefront of Czech politics.

Green European Journal: Several months have passed since the legislative election last October. Looking back, how do you read the results?

Michal Berg: It has become clear that our weak 1.47 per cent result didn’t only hurt us in the general election; it also weakened our position for the future. While negotiating possible partnerships for the senate and the municipal elections to be held in October 2018, other parties have been much less interested in cooperating with us than previously. We are hitting rock bottom and we have to use the upcoming elections to gain our profile back.

What have you learnt from last years campaign?

First of all, we really struggled to find the right campaign manager and having three managers didn’t give voters a very good impression of our campaign – it was perceived as dull and uninteresting. We were unable to generate momentum, failing to mobilise many party members, and we also had internal disputes about the party’s priorities and how best to communicate them. Many members did not support Matěj Stropnický as party leader, a  situation made worse through his portrayal in some media outlets as a radical.

In mid-2016 the Greens still had four per cent in the polls, and even until mid-2017 you were expected to gain three per cent. How do you explain the final result of 1.47 per cent?

Apart from the previously-mentioned problems, we were unable to deliver a compelling story to people during the campaign. Our programme was praised by media outlets and NGOs, but people did not believe we would be able to deliver on our promises and they didn’t expect us to pass the five per cent threshold. As a result, even formerly-loyal voters lost faith in us, and as the election approached and the polls started to show that the Pirates were more likely to pass the threshold, our numbers began to sink even further.

Post-electoral analyses proved that majority of our voters shifted to Pirates. The Pirates’ manifesto was quite close to ours but they didn’t go into as much detail, they used much simpler language, and people thought them less ‘paternalising’ than the Greens. The Pirates say, “we like freedom, we don’t tell people how to live” – and this resonates with voters.

What explains the strong local presence and success of the Greens? And why has it not translated into national success?

We have deputy mayors in some of the biggest cities in the country: Prague, Brno, and Liberec, along with 35 mayors and deputy mayors in other municipalities. In addition to that, we have approximately 250 other members of city councils around the country. That makes us the strongest party of those not represented in parliament. The deputy mayor in Prague is responsible for city planning and is shaping the future of the capital. Holding this office has allowed us to promote sustainable solutions for the capital. The same situation can be seen in Brno, the second biggest Czech city. But people who vote for us on the local level mostly did not believe that we would pass the five per cent threshold. Also, the low-hanging fruit of local councils sometimes seemed more attractive to our politicians than the more challenging field of national politics.

You have mentioned coalitions who are the possible coalition partners of the Greens in upcoming local and senate elections?

We used to be in coalitions with the Pirates but they are much more confident now and prefer to run without any coalitions (they have gained 10.8 per cent in the last election and have 22 seats in parliament). Other parties we used to cooperate with are the Christian Democrats, with whom we had our successful senate candidates, or the centrist Movement of Mayors and Independents. These two now tend to prefer rather conservative partners, such as the liberal-conservative TOP 09 party. We will try to look for possible partnerships elsewhere, such as the Social Democrats, but we have only a very limited experience with them so far and they too are having a hard time these days.

Which topics resonated with voters during the election campaign?
People from marketing often use the term ‘unique selling proposition’ to refer to the aspect of a product that differentiates it from others and makes it desirable to the consumers. Unfortunately, our offering was not unique – at least not in the areas that matter the most. We had unique proposals in some areas, such as same-sex marriage, which people don’t see as crucial when casting their vote, or the climate agenda, which is also addressed by other parties. In terms of migration, we were labelled as the most pro-refugee party of the country – the opposite of what most people wanted.

In the past, we were successful with more general topics such as the quality of education or anti-corruption measures. Currently we lack expertise and credibility in these areas and were unable to stress them sufficiently in the campaign or to make a serious breakthrough in the media.

Why are the Pirates so successful?

The Pirates were able to combine a sense of freshness and an unconventional approach in their communication with a tangible, solution-oriented approach to daily political work. They are less inclined to identify with an ideology, and because Czech society as a whole sees itself as rather practical, ideology is seen as a burden you don’t need in politics. They even had a slogan, “Ecology without ideology”, on some posters during the election campaign – a direct attempt to attract our electorate.

We could see that the lack of these ideological cornerstones, combined with the notion of direct democracy which Pirates promote, can lead to popular topics being turned in their favour by vocal groups of their supporters. For example, the Pirates recently co-sponsored a motion to ease the smoking ban in restaurants, which had been only recently put in place in the Czech Republic as one of the last countries in the European Union.

On the other hand, Pirates in parliament have opened the way for many NGOs to have an impact on policy. For example, they are working on a social housing law that civil society has been advocating for many years. They also decided to create radically-open processes to select nominees for public functions. For example, their delegate to the board of the national public health insurer has been selected by open call, where any interested person was allowed to participate. These practices are much needed in Czech politics.

All in all, do you think that the Pirate Party can become a valuable ally of the Greens on the European level after the next European election in 2019?

I think so, and the cooperation could be mutually beneficial. Greens could learn a bit about the radical transparency and openness advocated by the Pirates and from the straightforward language they use. And Pirates could benefit from more insights about the environmental or human rights issues on which European Greens have decades of expertise, because while Pirates tend to have progressive and liberal stances, their priorities lie elsewhere. And of course, they are a pro-European party which will promote the rule of law, democracy, and freedom – all much needed assets these days, especially in Eastern Europe.

What could other Greens in Central and Eastern Europe learn from your failure?

One lesson learnt is that the Green manifestos and the party communications have to be adapted to the reality of Eastern Europe. The members of the Greens and their current voters are much closer – mentally, ideologically, and in their way of life – to our Western counterparts than to the majority of Central European societies. While there wasn’t much difference between the manifestos of Die Grünen in Germany and the Czech Greens in the last elections, our society is still lagging behind those of Germany, Scandinavia, and the Netherlands, and we have to be aware of that from the very first moment.

Of course, we must not give up on our values but we need to find partners and target audiences among more conservative parts of society as well. There are many people who like to spend time outdoors for example, and who may be responsive to environmental topics, but have much more conservative views on social issues than our core audience. A careful consideration of our potential partners and target groups may work in other countries of the region too.

We need to learn to promote leftist and progressive policies in a way that does not hark back to the Communist era and its symbols. There are unfortunately many people on the Left (and in the Greens as well) who insist on revisiting terms, names, or symbols deeply connected to the Communist regime. This is a dead end from my point of view. It is the task of historians and scholars to debate the symbols of the labour movement, not that of a party. We need to develop our own terms and symbols because attempts to remove the ideological burden of the Communist era are a waste of time and energy.

One of the reasons Hungarians (who have their own Green party in parliament) do better than we do is due to their efforts to unite the various strains of opposition. In the Czech Republic the opposition is fractured. It consists of five parties: the Greens, the Pirates, the Mayors and Independents, the Christian Democrats, and TOP09. All address an educated, mostly urban, pro-European, and non-populist electorate, and thereby limit each other’s options.

What will the new leadership of the Czech Greens look like in the future?

Petr Štěpánek capitalised on his fourth attempt to become chair of the Czech Greens. He is definitely the most experienced among the names on the table as possible candidates. He was a long-time local councilor, is now mayor of Prague’s fourth district and will run for senate this October. If he wins, it will help us increase our visibility in the media. But this is still far off. Petr is capable of forming a working coalition for his candidacy with other parties. On the other hand, there are some unpredictable candidates among those who were unsuccessful in January’s presidential election who will seek to run for senate in the electoral districts of the capital. This could hurt these coalitions and our chances. For example, if Petr Štěpánek has to face Jiří Drahoš, one of the runners-up in the presidential election, that would be a major obstacle for us.

The rest of the party board comprises young people, who are expected to add more drive and energy to the party, and who will put more effort into their work than their predecessors. We now feel that there is a much greater inclination for cooperation between internal factions, but also among external partners, than there was from the previous board. On the other hand, we have lost state financial support after the unsuccessful elections and we have debts to tackle from the failed campaign, so the number of paid staff has been reduced to a minimum, and much more voluntary work will be needed even for daily issues.

On the political side, apart from striving for success in municipal and senate election, the Czech Greens will have to find their story, their raison d’être, in order to exist on the national level. There will still be many local Greens on the municipal level – you don’t need much of a story to promote sustainable policies in your town, but you need a story for your party to succeed on the national level. I hope that with the upcoming European election, we will be able to find answers to these questions.

The winner of the parliamentary election, Andrej Babiš, still hasn’t managed to form a government and reigns as a caretaker. What does this mean for the Czech Republic? Can we expect a similar authoritarian turn to that in Hungary or Poland (especially after the Czech presidential election was won by the eurosceptic Milos Zeman)?

Babiš keeps making small steps to change the country – as seen in his appointments to some committees – with his non-formal coalition with Communists and fascists from the Freedom and Direct Democracy party. He is weakening, for example, the public media oversight bodies and the secret service parliamentary control committee.

The major obstacle which prevents us (for now at least) from the full anti-EU turn of our neighbours is Andrej Babiš himself. His agrobusiness is still too dependent on EU subsidies and he also indirectly owns profitable businesses in Germany and other EU countries. Thus, any shift away from the EU would hurt his business interests. But this will not prevent the Czech Republic from adopting some measures and laws which will shift us in the direction of Poland and Hungary – maybe not to the same extent, but definitely in the same eurosceptic direction. President Zeman will definitely lead many attempts to weaken public media, rule of law, and civil society – he already attacked some media during his recent inaugural speech.

Currently, there are discussions of a new referendum law which might have Babiš’s blessing. Will this open the door for ‘Czexit’?

That is still a long way off, and the majority of Czech society still supports EU membership. But the ratio of those who support the EU to those who reject EU membership is the worst among the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. This is, on the one hand, the result of steps taken by former President Vaclav Klaus and his successor, Milos Zeman, who both fuelled anti-EU sentiments, and on the other hand, the damage done by fake news media outlets and the anti-EU propaganda sponsored by pro-Russian forces. Our industry and our businesses know that we have no economic future outside the EU, so I expect them to be more active in the debate but we all will have to fight for our European future – Greens, Pirates, Conservatives, and Liberals – if we want to prevent the worst from happening.

What next for the Czech Greens after electoral disaster?