Czech Social Democracy And The Good Society Debate

Patrik EichlerThe Good Society Debate – the most influential intellectual stream in today’s Social Democracy, has gone unnoticed by the Czech Social Democrats and the Czech Republic itself. According to the media database, between January 2012 and March 2013, Czech newspapers used the expression ‘good society’ just once in the context of the social democratic debate. It was an article by Jakub Patočka (editor in chief of the green-left Daily Referendum) on the necessity of cooperation between Social Democracy and civil society.

The term ‘good society’ also doesn’t appear in the resolution of the 37th Congress of the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) (held in Ostrava on the 15-16th March 2013) entitled ‘A New Beginning for Our Country’. With the Czech parliamentary elections coming up in May 2014 (most probably on 22-23 May 2014, in parallel with elections to the European Parliament), this resolution could act as the programmatic outline for a possible Social Democratic government.

Yet, there are some points of intersection between this programme and the Good Society Debate. For example, the resolution calls for an increase in minimum wages in the Czech Republic, which, at the current level of CZK 8000 (EUR 320), have not risen since 2007. In regards to employment policy, the resolution supports the ideas of the Youth Guarantee Programme of the Party of European Socialists, although this programme is not explicitly mentioned as the inspiration. The programme also wants to “promote a Europe which will ensure effective regulation of financial markets and will introduce a financial transaction tax”.

Moreover, the Congress resolution also mentions politics that “serves as an exclusive tool for a small oligarchic group”. According to the Social Democrats, the current government is “getting out of democratic control and is toothless in the fight against corruption and clientelism”. This, of course, is a description of the Czech reality where politicians are linked to businessmen and powerful businessmen control political parties by purpose-driven recruitment of new members.

Judging from the resolution, Social Democrats don’t appear to be aware of the need to tackle problems linked to the influence of global and European capital on European and national policies. Futhermore, although there is an acknowledgement of the lack of active party members and the lack of public trust in politics, these aspects are found in the section dedicated to gender equality. And quite typically, this sentiment will remain just words as it’s not reflected in the age and gender structure of the party leadership. Hence, it’s quite fitting that the Congress was attended by 600 delegates, out of whom exactly 10% were under 35 and just 25% women. After the Congress, there is only one woman in the leadership, and not a single person under 35.

“Gender equality,” reads the resolution, “is not just a precondition of a functioning democratic system, but also of the prosperity of society as a whole. Without the adoption of specific measures voters could hardly believe that we are serious about our promotion of gender equality. The first step towards gaining their trust is enforcement of a sufficient number of female candidates on the candidate lists. We find ourselves in an era, when people are moving away from large parliamentary parties – due to corruption of many of its members and also due to their rigidity and inability to provide candidates that would convince voters through their qualifications. Without consistent enforcement of equality and justice social democracy would lose its identity.”

The rest of the resolution focuses on domestic topics from a national perspective: education, where the Social Democrats are committed to abolish tuition fees if introduced by the current government, old-age pensions, where they undertakes to abolish the opt-out introduced by the current government, and healthcare, where they want to gradually achieve the existence of only one public insurance agency.

What the resolution doesn’t express are the Czech realities that are quite unlike ‘good society’: There is a lack of politicians able to present the social democratic programme and the party itself in a convincing manner. The party is virtually closed to new members — or at least not doing anything to attract them. The party does not have a political education system aimed at its members and people outside the party (like those existing in Germany, Austria and Hungary, and debated in Poland).

As national parliamentary elections and the elections to the European Parliament will likely take place on the same day and hence with campaigns run side-by-side, we can expect that European topics and the Czech Republic’s European identity will not be emphasised.

In the light of the country’s experience with state socialism, most Czech left-wing politicians share the view that the form of ownership is more important than the form and efficiency of regulation (i.e. legislation) or state intervention. With their state socialism experience, the majority of Czech left-wing politicians prefer state ownership. The left-wing civil society is discussing the concept of ‘deprivatization’. This involves defining services of public interest, buying them or expropriating them with some compensation, and transforming them into public corporations or cooperatives, or making them state-owned or local government-owned. The aim of ‘deprivatization’ is not to create state ownership, but to divide property between many different legal forms and many different owners. This, however, is a minority view.

There are two more topics in the ‘good society’ debate that I consider important: minimum wages and a European framework of thinking.

As Thorben Albrecht and Neal Lawson write in their text, “Europe should (…) move towards a continent wide minimum wage, based on the respective average income. (…) In addition a European wide floor on wages would take the pressure off governments to make cash transfers for struggling families and would also reduce incentives for economic migration.”

For the countries of the former Eastern Bloc the most important issue related to minimum wages is how to reach a standard of living comparable to the countries of Western Europe. In the Czech Republic the minimum wage is CZK 8000 (EUR 320); in Slovakia it is EUR 327.2; in Poland PLN 1600 (EUR 383). If a nominal value was determined, then a Europe-wide minimum wage somewhere between EUR 450 and 500 would make sense for the Visegrad countries. Legislation to make business impossible for companies that do not pay taxes and obligatory insurance fees would also likely enjoy large support.

As a percentage, Polish trade unions propose a minimum wage of up to 50% of the average wage. Czech trade unions want a one-off increase to 36% and the Czech Social Democratic Party considers “a minimum wage close to 40% of the average wage” adequate. It will not be easy to find consensus on a Europe-wide proposal. One of the reasons is the fact that European structures are in fact the only communication platform for, say, Czech and Polish Social Democracy, not to mention communication with the conservative Polish trade unions.

In regards to Europe, the success of the last several months has been that the PES flag flown at the seat of the Czech Social Democratic Party. Apart from that, Europe is not a topic in the public debate and people are not aware of the decision-making procedures ‘in Europe’ or the role of national governments in the decision-making. While the campaign of the Social Democratic presidential candidate did include the European Union and the benefits of the Czech Republic’s membership, the media did not pay much attention to it due to a lack of interest among the voters. Their interest is not likely to improve before the 2014 European elections, if anything, it will fall.

A shorter version of this text was presented during roundtable “The Good Society-Debate in Central Europe: Europe and the Good Society – After the Crash” organised by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, office Budapest in April 2013.