Social Democracy On the Defensive

With a slew of victories across Europe for the right, the Czech social democrats hold on in a desperate struggle

News | Justin McCauley | June 2010

The first round of parliamentary elections has concluded in the Czech Republic with the social democrats, led by Jiri Paroubek, narrowly taking the lead. They received 22.1 per cent of the vote, while the Civic Democrats, the leading center-right party, trailed closely with 20.2 per cent. While this can be seen as a good sign to social democrats throughout Europe, the marginality of the first round victory is still a cause for concern, both on ideological and practical levels.

In the last five years, many European political analysts have begun discussing the conservative road that most of Europe has tended towards. For many, the social democratic dream is in shambles, with Christian Democrat and center-right parties in power in France, Germany, Italy, and now the U.K. more alarming is the rising popularity of many far-right parties, such as the recent victory – by supermajority – of Viktor Orbán and his right-wing Fidez-Christian Democratic People’s Party alliance in Hungary last month; Fidez has been known for blatant racism and militant tactics.

In the Czech Republic, it seems that the social democrats are still holding on to the population’s favor, but only barely. In addition, the current elections in Slovakia seem to indicate that incumbent Prime Minister Robert Fico and his social democrats will retain power. But with debates over economic strategy – which first arose during the emergence of the economic crisis in 2008, and are now greatly exacerbated by the controversial Greek bailout plan – many across Europe are looking to the right for salvation from what they see as social democratic profligacy. In Slovakia in particular, the idea of massive amounts of Slovak capital being sent to Greece – who has higher wages and wealth than new Eurozone member – is alarming to many Slovaks.

The reality of the results in the Czech Republic is that the social democrats cannot rule without forming a coalition, something less than ideal for any party. This disappointment has resulted in Paroubek’s decision to step down as leader of the party. Coalition politics are cumbersome to say the least, and some systems of government are better-suited than others to employ it effectively. In Czech, the situation will likely force the social democrats into an alliance with the Civic Democrats, something that could result in paralytic governance. The massive increase in support for new, youthful Czech parties – all right-wing – will further complicate things, both for the social democrats and for any prospects of a viable government. Similar issues are likely to arise with the recently created Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in the U.K. (see Hodgshon, page 30).

The right has now been purporting the populist (but not completely baseless) argument that, in light of the recession and the Greek crisis, it is essential to curb spending least the Czech Republic suffer a similar fate. The social democrats (not just in Czech but across Europe) have argued that there are ways to navigate out of the storm without resorting to xenophobia and an abandonment of social welfare. A possible resurgence of neo-liberalism (always possible when money matters are tough) could further put the social democrats on defensive.

As Tony Judt has recently written in The New York Review of Books, "the paradox of the welfare state, and indeed of all the social democratic (and Christian Democratic) states of Europe, was quite simply that their success would over time undermine their appeal." Judt explained that while the post-depression, post-WWII generation (now the elder caretakers of many of Europe’s social democratic parties) fight to preserve taxation, social services and public provision, younger generations have forgotten "why they had sought such security in the first place."

But the economic realities of recent years have made many European populations skeptical of such extensive (albeit necessary) public spending. While many economists in post-recession U.S. and Britain are arguing Keynes, a resurgence of Hayek-Schumpter style free-market macroeconomics in becoming increasingly popular in Central and Eastern Europe, something that has gone in and out of style ever since the end of the Cold War and the liberalization of the East. This, coupled with complex strands of nationalism and jingoism, creates an uphill battle for European social democrats, one which the Czechs (and the Slovaks) are fighting right now.

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