“Politics is not and actually never has been considered a highly esteemed human activity.”
In this interview for Leaders Magazine, Prime Minister of the Czech Republic Bohuslav Sobotka describes how priorities of the government changed due to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, and the reactions he received after the enforcement of the Czech observations to European sanctions. The Prime Minister also says that it would be very unfortunate if the crisis will grow into a latent Cold War between the EU and Russia, and if in the east of Ukraine we see a new form of the Iron Curtain.
Prime Minister, does the government have enough power to meet the priorities for the upcoming period?
“The government has only been working for eight months, and it would be sad if they already felt exhausted regarding the completion of their program priorities. On the contrary, we are able to fulfill our program priorities in accordance with the legislative plan of government, which only encourages our efforts and our process for the coming years. The first successful phase of government activities is behind us, with the recent adoption of the important Civil Service Law. This should lead to a more professional and better definition of roles between politicians and public officials in the implementation of government policy. In addition, we will be allowed to draw the European Union’s money needed to implement a series of economic, social and environmental projects for the next period. Since its establishment, the government managed to take dozens of important measures in these areas. I consider most important those that promote investments and the creation of jobs. Already the establishment of the new government and subsequent pacification of the political situation in our country has encouraged the activities of domestic and foreign investors. Czech Republic has again started to see economic growth, and government policy further supports this trend. However, everything that the government is doing is in line with 3 main goals: to restore the standard functions of the state, to ensure the “healthy” development of the country, and to ensure a dignified life for its citizens. We must earn back the people’s trust in this state. ”
Have the current priorities of the government actually changed during the summer months? Has an international agenda with subsequent economic consequences become increasingly important?
“Yes, soon after the establishment of the government, significant remarks about the Russian-Ukrainian conflict appeared on the agenda in the area of foreign policy. As a member of the European Union, we are trying, along with others, to find the most appropriate approach to prevent any escalation, and contribute to a solution for this crisis as soon as possible. The policy maintains an effective combination of sanctions against Russia, as Russia certainly bears the greatest responsibility for the outbreak of this conflict. We will also use all possible forms of diplomatic negotiations along with the participation of all relevant actors – Russia, Ukraine, the EU and the USA. The aim must be to preserve the integrity of Ukraine, end all of Russia’s interferences into the internal affairs of the country, and ensure democratic development. ”
What have you observed after the Czech enforcement of anti-Russian sanctions? Will there indeed be a “second round” of sanctions so damaging for the Czech economy, particularly for engineering exports?
“First I want to say that no matter how Czech Republic supported the policy of EU procedures towards Russia, I have always agreed with the Prime Ministers of the Member states who primarily sought diplomatic solutions. Especially when it appears that the sanctions affect the member countries more than Russia itself, and that they don’t weaken Russia, but rather strengthen the national position of the Russian leadership, so its aggressive behaviour towards Ukraine continues. Regarding the selective and cautious attitude of the Czech Republic to the escalation of sanctions against Russia, a similar position has been taken by other member countries – Slovakia, Austria, Hungary, Italy and more. With this perspective we are certainly not alone in the EU, so it is not specifically Czech. It is natural that I, as the Prime Minister, tried to influence the structure of the proposed sanctions in order to minimise damage to the Czech Republic. And I’m glad I succeeded in this effort. In this regard, I reject accusations by the right-wing opposition that our country is not sufficiently loyal to the EU on the issue of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. I smile when these accusations come from those who have recently thwarted our membership of the EU at every turn. It was my government that fine-tuned and confirmed our relationship with the EU. Czech Republic has gained respect in the EU again, which was lost as a result of the policies of previous right-wing governments. As regards the situation in Eastern Europe, it is necessary to assure our allies in NATO that all the safety guarantees are constantly valid, while it would be very unfortunate if the crisis grows into a latent Cold War between the EU and Russia, and in the east of Ukraine we see a new form of the Iron Curtain. “
The first “stress” test of the government parties were the May elections to the European Parliament. In the media you said that you are not satisfied with the results. Have you analysed the causes of a record low voter turnout within the party?
“I am always satisfied with winning, so logically I am satisfied with the results of the last elections to the EP. On the other hand, I cannot say that the Social Democrats lost significantly; the results for the first three parties were close in regards to votes, as all of them – ANO, TOP 09 and the Social Democrats – received an equal four seats. While in 2008-2013 the Social Democrats won all parliamentary, senatorial, regional and municipal elections, in the European elections they have not been so successful yet. Why? Without a doubt the important factors this year were the record low voter turnout, and as always in the case of the European elections, the absence of potential voters for the Social Democrats. These voters are more Eurosceptic than eg. voters for right-wing parties, as they show less interest in European issues, and they are less confident that the political agenda of the EU can somehow significantly improve their personal lives. They definitely prefer domestic political issues. I do not want their Euroscepticism to be solely blamed on the policy of the previous right-wing governments, especially the government ODS that systematically cultivated euroscepticism. It is now up to the government, meaning the governing Social Democrats, to prove to our voters that membership in the EU will benefit our country, and we must make them feel it in their personal lives. But it is not just the responsibility of the Social Democrats. Most essential is the policy of the Social Democratic policy fraction in EP, which has to bring Europe closer to the ordinary people of member countries, which generally means strengthening the European social agenda. In other words, the European Union has to become not only a well-integrated economic union, but also an integrated social union. ”
Do you fear a low voter turnout even in the upcoming municipal elections? How can electoral abstention be prevented? And does it affect efforts to attract voters in your campaign?
“I am not afraid of low participation of our voters in the upcoming municipal elections, and I suppose we will see a significantly higher turnout than in the elections to the EP. Unlike the European issues, domestic issues are in general much closer to voters’ hearts. Domestic issues directly affect the places in which people live and work, and so those people feel that their vote can affect their situation. ”
What are your priorities for the municipal elections?
”Our electoral strategy is based on the successes and election commitments that combine at a municipal and state level. Regarding the municipal level, there are our electoral programs “tailored” to the needs of the citizens of municipalities and cities. Overall, these are questions regarding the management and development of local infrastructure. Commitments in these areas will be given to all parties. As a left-wing party, our priority is the development of towns and cities in terms of public services. We do not agree that there are no left-wing and right-wing municipal politics. The maintenance and development of public space is a sign of left-wing politics not only at the national, but also at the local level. Regarding the state level, there we present the main obligations which we support as a government party. These include the promotion of investment and employment, the fight against usury and the excesses of executors, proving the origins of property, taking measures against drug dealers, expanding the capacity of nurseries and kindergartens, the construction of “starter housing“ for young couples, and consistent support of food safety controls and controlling the behaviour of multinational store chains. In the presentation of our program, we absolutely rely on contact campaigns, with our candidates for Mayors and for municipal councils meeting voters directly, with the support of our Governors and Ministers. Our campaign is in full swing, and I personally have met with hundreds voters and have heard their views on municipal and government policy, and I take it very seriously.”
How do you want to reach voters in the towns where the Social Democrats have failed in the long term? What is your goal for Prague?
”In the medium and large cities, people vote in municipal elections with regard to the status of parties at the national level. For this reason, the recent municipal elections in these cities (except Prague) were the most successful for The Social Democratic Party, who had just won the parliamentary elections. Based on the previous election results, ČSSD won the largest number of mayors (11). In the townships and the villages we traditionally saw the most successful independent candidates. For this year’s election, we want to keep the positions acquired in 2010. In Prague, ČSSD is traditionally not very successful, however in 2010 the party ended up in third place with 18%, which was its best election result yet in the capital city. We will at least try to repeat this result. At the top of our candidate lists for individual local council districts and municipality councils are the politicians who have rich experience in municipal politics. Prague is a sort of state within a state, by far it is the richest region of the Czech Republic, but it has its age-old problems which must now be solved effectively. It’s a question of quality of life in the city, which is also related to the maintenance of green areas, the strengthening of public institutions against the pressure of developers, the development of social services for seniors and handicapped groups, improving the availability of health services, taking measures to increase street safety, public transport development and transport infrastructure, increasing the economic transparency of urban areas and the municipality, etc. Our main goal is to make Prague home, even for those who still do not benefit from its high standard of wealth. Prague is the capital city of Czech Republic and one of Central Europe’s major cities.”
In the Senate, the term of chairman Milan Štěch is coming to an end. Do you want him to repeat this function?
”I consider Milan Štěch a great man, a Social Democrat, Senator and President of the Senate, and therefore I wish very much that he will defend his senatorial seat in the constituency Pelhřimov, and I have no doubt he will succeed. Likewise, I believe in the success of other strong personalities advocating our senatorial seats, whether it is Jiří Dienstbier in the constituency Kladno, Marcel Chládek in the the constituency Louny, or Alena Gajdůšková in the constituency Zlín. And I could continue listing others. In this year’s senate elections our party will defend the most senatorial seats, and it is probably not possible to defend them all. I will be satisfied if the Social Democratic Caucus remains the strongest, if he can continue to significantly influence the politics of the senate and provide strong support for our government’s policy. If we remain the strongest caucus, we will propose Milan Štěch as its leader. ”
You have been in high politics since 1996. At work you observed all the premieres of the independent Czech Republic. Under Vladimir Špidla, Stanislav Gross and Jiří Paroubek you led financial matters. You therefore have no distorted idea of the work that the Prime Minister is doing. Still, has something surprised you in this regard?
”Life is full of surprises. One example is the form of the current government coalition. I had the opportunity as a former Minister to watch the work of a number of Prime Ministers closely, so that becoming Prime Minister was for me not an entirely a new experience. A Minister is responsible primarily for his resort, but the Prime Minister for the whole government. The Prime Minister must therefore be able to have a fairly detailed insight into each departmental agenda, and assess its contribution to the political priorities of the entire government. He has of course his advisers, but for every government decision, including departmental, he goes out on a limb. The strengths of the Prime Minister should therefore be the ability to communicate well, to bring people together, to have the ability to understand them, to listen to them, to look at the people from the bright side and yet critically, but evaluate them fairly. This is difficult. “
The media’s image of Czech’s former Prime Ministers is generally negative. Is this a Czech “speciality”? Do you fear that too?
“I think it is not a Czech specialty, and it has something to do with the prevailing public view of politicians and politics in general. People who have some experiences with politicians do not remember the good about them, rather the opposite. Politics is not and actually never has been considered a highly esteemed human activity. It brings conflicts, so that we have to solve problems and make decisions. In addition, we live in a time when the negative perception of politicians is growing. New faces and new groups in politics are often promoted because they are ostentatiously defined against the politicians, who “have been there”. But even with new faces, it soon shows that they are also politicians, and sometimes with even worse policies than those whom they originally criticized. ”
Who, for you personally, is a true “leader”?
”For a chance to become a leader in politics, a person must take politics very seriously. Rather than as a profession, they must see it as a life mission, in which they demonstrate not only professional qualifications, but also the necessary moral qualities: the ability to lead by example, the courage to take the lead, the courage to take responsibility and go out on a limb. I mean a person who thinks often about political “leadership” in the context of democratic politics. I think that a true democratic leader is one who demonstrates the intention of fulfilling the general human principles in his own life. I imagine him as a politician who experiences public problems, who feels the obligation to publicly engage their solutions, and who is able to involve the public in the solutions. I imagine him as a politician who, when convinced of his truth, does not betray it just because the majority of his colleagues and fellow citizens do not share those same beliefs. On the other hand, it is a politician who in defence of his views does not apply the tactic of “anything goes”, but who relies solely on democratic means such as discussions and arguments, and is able to tolerate criticism and learn from it.”
Author: Jaroslav Kramer