Entering this weekend’s Czech presidential election, the country’s left is in a sorry state. Left-wing parties are absent from parliament and the leading presidential candidates fall between the center and populist right.
Compared to its political highs, the Left’s collapse has been staggering. In the five fair and free Czechoslovakian elections held before one-party rule started in 1948, left-wing parties — ranging from social-democratic to Marxist — averaged 45 percent of the popular vote. By 1946, nearly one in eleven Czechoslovaks was a member of the Communist Party, and it swept that year’s election — a postwar anomaly.
Even after the resumption of democracy in the early 1990s, left-wing parties remained strong. A communist successor party, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM), routinely earned above 10 percent, while the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) led the government from 1998 to 2006 and then again from 2014 to 2017.
Today, the Communist Party is functionally extinct and the Social Democrats poll below 5 percent.
With two years before the next parliamentary election and the country facing a serious cost-of-living crisis, left-wingers — particularly young, urban activists — are trying to answer what comes next.
The decline of the Communist and Social Democratic Parties stems from the ideological positions each movement staked out post-1989.
While ostensibly Marxist, the Communist Party embraced a socially conservative and nationalist platform in the democratic era. Its policies were popular with older voters worried about economic privatization and immigration, but increasingly out of step with younger Czechs on human rights, climate change, social issues, and attitudes toward the West.
The Czech Social Democratic Party — reconstituted by left-wing anti-communists after having been dissolved in 1948 — initially advanced typical social-democratic views, such as support for a strong welfare state and a social market economy. However, under its second chairman (and future president of the Czech Republic), Miloš Zeman, the party began to incorporate a nationalist streak into its program.
By 2017, the Communists’ decision to narrow their appeal to conservative older voters and the Social Democrats’ decision to embrace nationalism were making the parties dangerously vulnerable.
With each passing year, the Communists’ elderly constituency shrank — and the party’s socially conservative core refused to evolve.
As the vanguard for a narrowly defined working class, Communist leaders mostly ignored calls to address issues facing LGBTQ people, the Roma community, women, students, and immigrants. Public support collapsed, and in 2021, the Communists earned 3.6 percent of the vote, 11.3 percent less than eight years earlier.
Conversely, the Social Democrats’ big-tent nationalist program, with only limited left-wing economic programs, constrained its ability to differentiate itself from other parties. In 2012, Czech billionaire Andrej Babiš — a local Donald Trump/Silvio Berlusconi variant — launched his populist ANO 2011 party as a syncretic option for voters dissatisfied with the Social Democrats but opposed to the neoliberal policies of the establishment right.
In its first election, ANO became the second-largest parliamentary bloc and joined the government under the Social Democrats. But by 2017, ANO had siphoned off enough support from the Social Democrats that the roles reversed. With their voters abandoning them for ANO and unable to campaign against a government they were a part of, the Social Democrats registered a measly 4.7 percent in 2021 — three-quarters down from their 2013 result.
The Czech left hasn’t changed much since the disastrous 2021 general election. Internal reform movements have sputtered and even figures formerly held up as the parties’ future no longer feel hopeful. Jana Maláčová, a progressive former deputy chairperson of the ČSSD — highlighted immediately after the election as an example of what the Social Democrats could be — remains unsatisfied with the party’s lack of introspection.
“I don’t see any internal party debate; I don’t see any communication on social networks or in the media,” Maláčová explained via email. “I don’t see any convincing opinions [on how the Social Democrats can address people’s issues by] individuals from ČSSD.”
The situation is even more dire in the Communist Party, according to activists and former members.
“I think there is no path back for the Communist Party,” Arťom Korjagin — a former Communist Party member and youth organizer previously involved in a push to reform the party from within — said. “We tried to change the party’s approach to the public, build a party that would be good in the future, and forget the past. The leadership said no.”
Even those who remain in the party are pessimistic about its electoral viability.
“The Communist Party in its current form cannot play this role . . . due to unclear positions on various historical [and] contemporary topics,” Petra Prokšanová — the chairwoman of the Youth Commission of the Central Committee of the KSČM — said via email. “To become attractive to the left-wing public, KSČM must first work on itself. We must take clear positions, return to the ideas of Marxism, focus on solving the problems of the economic base, and learn to communicate better with the public.”
The collapse of the organized Czech left is especially damning considering the country currently faces a major cost-of-living crisis that left-wing proposals are especially able to address. Inflation has surged to a yearly average of 15 percent and energy prices have skyrocketed since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Housing prices — especially in the capital, Prague — have pushed home ownership out of reach for many while the country faces an aging population and shrinking workforce.
The populations bearing the brunt of the crisis — pensioners, students, and the working class — historically made up a large portion of the Communist and Social Democratic Parties’ bases. But rather than channel popular dissatisfaction into electoral power, established left-wing political forces have continued to decline in relevance.
The bright spots that do remain for the Czech left are concentrated in grassroots movements. Environmental groups, for example, have successfully injected climate justice into mainstream political discourse. Other leftist groups have invested in building parallel social structures such as the Střecha Social Cooperative in Prague, and alternative communities.
Organizers have also sought to build solidarity between socially liberal youth movements and the more conservative trade unions.
“[Supporting unions is] the most important fight now in the Czech Republic,” the former Communist Party member Korjagin — told me. “I think a lot of people now — especially when there is a COVID crisis, prices going up, etc. — are trying to find a way to secure their jobs and to cooperate with coworkers to have a more stable and comfortable life. . . . A lot of working-class people are now cooperating with young progressive students, and discovering that it’s not true that they are all ‘crazy neo-Marxist gender fluid types.’ They are just guys who are trying to help, which indeed includes neo-Marxist gender fluid people. These two worlds are now trying to communicate with each other.”
Meanwhile, the stagnation of the Communists and Social Democrats has allowed new parties to form. Organizations like Levice (The Left) and Budoucnost (The Future) hope to build an inclusive, democratic Czech socialist movement that combines support for human rights and the climate with economic justice and left-wing fiscal policies. Yet, these movements remain underdeveloped.
In 2022, Budoucnost joined the Green Party, the Social Democrats, and another new left-wing party, Idealisté (The Idealists), in a unity list for the Prague City Council elections. Despite initially polling above the entrance threshold, the list won zero seats.
“The attempted . . . campaign for the Prague City Council — obviously, it was just a local council campaign. It was not a national unification project, but it had the ambitions of becoming a project for unifying the left on a national scale. And it failed,” says Hynek Halakuc — a Budoucnost member and party staffer. “It failed in a really embarrassing way. We were polling around 5 or 6 percent, with 5 percent being the boundary to get in, and we ended up getting 2.02 percent. That is still causing a lot of self-reflection on the Czech Left, like, what did we do wrong?”
Outcome aside, these grassroots efforts are important, as they offer opportunities to mobilize the significant — if unorganized — support for leftist ideas that journalists like Apolena Rychlíková argue exists across Czech society.
“Every time we speak about or work on projects connected to poverty, lower wages, working conditions, housing, etc., it is one of the most read topics on our site,” Rychlíková — who works for the popular online newspaper A2larm.CZ — explains. “And we get so many thank you letters from people from around the Czech Republic, but they will probably never vote for the Social Democrats. I’m afraid to ask them who they are voting for.”
By offering these people a possible alternative, left-wing organizers hope to rebuild their movement from the ground up.
Reconstructing a vibrant Czech left will take years, if not decades. Many factors that contributed to its decline remain unaddressed, and others, like Babiš and his media empire, represent new obstacles.
There is hope, however. January 2023’s presidential election might be an opportunity for the Left to rebuild.
Fearing a possible corruption conviction, Babiš is running for president to benefit from the position’s permanent immunity. But in the Czech Republic’s two-stage presidential election, his success is not guaranteed. Despite polling in second place with around 25 percent, Babiš could be prevented from advancing to the second round by voter consolidation.
“For the Left, in the most general terms, [success in the presidential election] would be a defeat for Babiš because he is one of the reasons why there is no new left-of-center party,” Jiří Pehe — a Czech political analyst and former advisor to president Václav Havel — said. “[If the opposition coalesces around one or two candidates] Babiš may not get into the second round, and that would be an ultimate defeat for him. And I think that it will be the end of him in politics.”
Hoping to do just that, trade union leader and left-leaning presidential candidate Josef Středula dropped out of the race on January 8. He subsequently endorsed economist Danuše Nerudová who is currently polling third just behind Babiš and retired general Petr Pavel.
The collapse of Babiš and his ANO movement could create new space for left-wing movements and pave the way for the Left’s return to parliament by 2025.
“The role of left-wing parties was gradually taken over by populist parties that can promise miracles,” Prokšanová explained. “But the proposals for solutions to complex economic problems that they present are not sustainable. They are basically just patches on capitalism, improvements for a doomed system.”
Czech left-wingers hope they can woo back the voters who jumped ship for Babiš over the last decade — and are preparing to seize such a moment if and when it arises. What remains to be seen is whether they can succeed.