Friday, 20 April 2018

Právo: Former PM Sobotka's story both inspiration and warning

ČTK |
26 March 2018

Prague, March 25 (CTK) - The story of Bohuslav Sobotka, former Czech prime minister and Social Democrat (CSSD) chairman, can serve both as an inspiration and a warning to his successors in the CSSD, Lukas Jelinek writes in the Saturday issue of daily Pravo.

Sobotka, 46, the CSSD chairman in 2011-17, PM in 2014-17 and finance minister in 2002-06, announced this week that he would give up his seat in the lower house of parliament as of April 1 and leave top politics.

Jelinek writes that Sobotka's story shows that politics is a craft as any other crafts and he was trained in it very well. He was able to work hard behind the scenes, he was patient, but also consistent. However, he was unable to show off, which is a serious shortcoming at the times when politics is turning into a reality show.

This would not have been such an strong problem, had he not failed in building his party as well. Sobotka used all his strength to implement the plans of the previous coalition cabinet of the CSSD, ANO and Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL) and proportionately to this effort, the CSSD headquarters were languishing and becoming empty.

The CSSD expert commissions were long complaining about being neglected. Rank-and-file members felt bad about Sobotka not having met them to defend his work after his government's end and the lost autumn 2017 general election, in which the CSSD gained mere 7.3 percent of the vote and its group in the 200-seat Chamber of Deputies shrank from 50 to 15 members. Sobotka did not attend the recent CSSD election congress either.

No wonder that the current CSSD leaders express just a cold respect for Sobotka, though his successor, new CSSD chairman Jan Hamacek, is of the same character - a calm negotiator, no exhibitionist or a rowdy. However, he can understand that one man cannot manage all tasks, and that he must be backed up by the whole party with its varied streams.

Sobotka, too, started his career at the CSSD's helm in a plurality environment. First, Michal Hasek as the party's first deputy chairman covered his back. However, this alliance ended after the 2013 general election with "the Lany coup," a secret meeting between a part of the CSSD elites led by Hasek and President Milos Zeman with the aim to topple Sobotka.

However, Sobotka defended his leadership, being supported by most Social Democrats, and strengthened his position.

Afterwards, the internal peace in the CSSD could hardly be restored. Sobotka surrounded himself with a team on whose loyalty he could rely, but the number of his rivals was rising, including not only the opposition in parliament, but also the unreliable coalition partner Andrej Babis (ANO chairman), Zeman as well as Sobotka's opponents in the CSSD.

Now the CSSD is trying to pull at the same end of the rope again, which is complicated primarily by the talks with ANO on their possible government coalition. Even after Sobotka gave up his MP's mandate, there are many in the CSSD and its deputy group who have definitive lost trust in Babis.

This should not prevent the shaping of the CSSD as a party with one joint goal on which all agree, but with several ideas of the paths to achieve this. Party factions and platforms are no indecent words as they help tune up opinions in politics.

In the era of Zeman, who headed the CSSD in 1993-2001 and brought it to the government in 1998, there were also different voices heard in the party. Despite that or possibly because of that, it attracted various voter groups.

However, the situation was different then. The Social Democrats were in opposition until 1998. They had time to focus on their campaigning among people and to create their trademark thoroughly. Besides, citizens more willingly support a group criticising those in higher places regardless of how much social or anti-social the government is.

To negotiate about a government coalition, revive the party structure, unite members and address voters at the same time, this is an almost impossible task for the current CSSD. This is an even stronger reason why Sobotka's successors should know exactly what lesson they must learn from him and of what they must beware, Jelinek writes in conclusion.

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