Czech Greens plan comeback, but will Ondřej Liška be at the helm?

Liška says its unclear who will stand for the leadership at the Greens’ party convention but welcomes Martin Bursík’s bid

My jsme zelení, a nikoliv automatický partner do počtu jakékoliv koalice, říká šéf strany Ondřej Liška. foto: © ČESKÁ POZICEČeská pozice

My jsme zelení, a nikoliv automatický partner do počtu jakékoliv koalice, říká šéf strany Ondřej Liška.

The Czech Green Party (SZ) see potential allies among parliamentary parties to stage a political comeback and reenter the lower house of parliament. Party chairman Ondřej Liška is troubled by dirty money in Czech politics, the procurement system and ministries that often seem to work solely in their own interests, and says he believes the voters are again ready to trust the Greens to do the right things.

In a wide-ranging interview with Czech Position, Liška talks of the party’s biggest mistakes while it was in parliament, what it learned from that defeat, the direction he wants to take the Greens — and the likely upcoming contest with his predecessor, Martin Bursík, for the party leadership.

Q: The Green Party (Strana Zelených) seems to have vanished from politics. You’re not exactly making your presence felt nowadays, aren't you in the doldrums?

LIŠKA: On the contrary, that three-year period since we left government and the two years since we ceased to be active in the Chamber of Deputies have benefitted the Greens and this is because it enabled us to hold a proper program debate. We could finally sit down and tackle issues that had internally paralyzed us to such an extent that, as a result, we lost the trust of the people and had to leave parliament.

I think that at present the Green Party has a normal political discourse akin to that in other, successful, green parties and we dedicate all our efforts to preparing well for our comeback – and not just when it comes to election campaigns. We want, above all, to focus on the periods in between. The Greens should not just be visible during campaigns but should primarily arouse public attention through their practical achievements, both on a national and on a municipal level.

Q: Overall, however, not much is known about your achievements…

LIŠKA: We have around 350 to 400 local representatives, among them also mayors. In Brno, for example, we have mayors in four city districts. Although the Greens are no longer in the Chamber of Deputies (lower house of parliament) their work at the municipal level is still bearing fruit.

Q: Notwithstanding, following the internal strife in your party quite a few striking personalities in support of you seem to have backed out. Are you looking for new personalities?

LIŠKA: You’ll be hearing more and more from them in the future. Stories about people who left the party or receded into the background like, for example, Karel Schwarzenberg, [now TOP 09 chairman and foreign minister] are common knowledge and I won’t go into that. After [former Greens chairman and environment minister] Martin Bursík’s exit from the party leadership this, naturally, gave rise to some sort of transitional period of self-searching for the party. I think that the upcoming Senate and regional elections this autumn will show that the Greens indeed have interesting personalities.

Bursík back in the game

Q: Martin Bursík unexpectedly announced he wants to stand up for the Green Party chairmanship. Was this also a surprise to you or did you know about his intention before he told the media?

LIŠKA: I was not aware of his intention, but it didn’t surprise me. ‘Martin Bursík is a noted expert on the protection of the environment and his revived interest in the Greens delights me.’

Q: You talk about each other with respect, but as things stand you’ll soon become adversaries. If under your leadership a successful outcome is achieved in the senatorial elections, you’ll be a strong candidate for the party chairmanship. Will it be a clash of political strategies or a friendly joust that should merely provide an answer to who of you it will be?

LIŠKA: It’s still by no means clear who will stand for the Green Party leadership at the autumn party convention. For me there is essentially only one single priority and that's the Green’s success in the senatorial and regional elections because that's what the entire future of the party will depend on. There’s plenty of time after these elections to address any other remaining issues.

But if it comes to a competition, then it will indeed also concern political strategies and the party program since in politics there's simply no other way around it. Under my leadership, the Greens managed to rid themselves of the image of a party torn by internal wrangling, and we developed a sound and cultivated debate underlying the party platform. I can assure you that I'll do anything to preserve this asset for the Greens.

Q: The former chairman [Bursík] has, however, already in advance delineated his stance vis-a-vis Matěj Stropnický's left-leaning positions. He seems to anticipate a clash with Stropnický’s left wing of the party. Can we expect a return to the polarization between groups within the party which was perceived so negatively by the general public at the end of the Greens' tenure in parliament? Does Stropnický present a real danger to your “not to the right, not to the left but straight ahead” policies?

LIŠKA: In the party some may either incline slightly to the right or slightly to the left but our shared identity goes beyond a right-left worldview. The Greens are a party for former voters of both the left and the right who understand that being considerate towards the environment can go hand in hand with prosperity and a modern lifestyle and that justice and solidarity form an integral part of a good quality of life.

On the other hand, we should bid a definite farewell to the unfortunate legacy of our participation in [Mirek] Topolánek’s government which, all in all, in spite of us having accomplished a lot of our objectives, brought ruin to the party and considerably weakened it. I don't think that at present there's anyone in the Greens who advocates a radical deviation from the current course for which I stand. On the contrary, I welcome it that there are also people in the party who not only stress an environmental but also an economic and social dimension to green policies – and I count myself as one of these people. Precisely combining the idea of the modernization of our country with an emphasis on human dignity and justice, in my opinion, constitutes going “straight ahead.”

Q: Would a triumph for Bursík imply a stronger shift towards the ČSSD as he himself said in an interview with the Týden weekly? Or was that just an attempt to compensate for the so much criticized right-leaning positions from the coalition with Topolánek?

LIŠKA: I don’t know but I'm personally not in favor of automatically leaning towards anyone. Indeed, we share some fundamental values with the social democrats such as social justice and the protection of the weak, but, at the same time, I’m far from convinced that the Social Democrats (ČSSD) have always or, for that matter, credibly adhered to those principles. That party’s affinity with the construction and energy lobbies and clientelist structures at the regional level put it on a par with the ODS. We are the Greens and by no means an automatic also-ran partner in just any coalition.

“We are the Greens and by no means an automatic also-ran partner in just any coalition.”

The Greens have cut themselves off from the legacy of Topolánek's government but were we to negotiate at some point in the future a cooperation with the social democrats or with whomever else then, as long as I'm here, I will insist on a much stricter delimitation of the cooperation and much clearer guarantees than was the case in regard to the three-member coalition government with the ODS and the [Christian Democrats] KDU-ČSL. Also in opposition it's possible to help shape the state, nourish democracy and defend green policies. On the other hand, when it comes to the elections to the senate, it has to be said that while on the basis of our manifesto we can imagine a partial cooperation with the ČSSD or the KDU-ČSL, I can completely rule this out with regard to the ODS.

Q: In spite of your declared unwillingness to cooperate with the largest parliamentary parties you've immediately set off with sharing a common candidate for the Czech presidency with the ČSSD.

LIŠKA: This is no blueprint for a close future cooperation. Both parties have merely jointly declared their support for independent candidate Martin Potůček whose academic track record is generally well-known and whose lifelong ideas are well-documented in countless publications.

Turbid coalition pond

Q: With whom would you be willing to enter into a coalition?

LIŠKA: I have quite a clear answer to that for quite some time now. Among the present parliamentary parties I don't see a single one prepared to accede to our principal demands, those we cannot compromise on. I don't see a single potential ally who like us would be willing to push through genuinely principled fundamental changes that would bring back fair competition to Czech politics and give the people a stronger voice. I'll give you an example: one of the most serious reasons for the sorry state of Czech politics is that dirty money is poured into it, that political parties are sponging on public tenders and that nontransparent companies are awarded these orders and that institutions and ministries don't manage their affairs in a transparent manner.

That's why over a year ago we have prepared an amendment proposal on the funding of political parties.

Q: Did someone react to your proposal?

LIŠKA: The communists were the first to react – nothing. Prime Minister Nečas (Civic Democrats, ODS) answered that he wasn't interested in our bill since he had his own bill. The Social Democrats (ČSSD) reacted by adopting just one of the 18 principles contained in our proposal – the introduction of a ceiling on election campaign expenses, which by itself won’t change anything whatsoever. Without an effective system of sanctions in place against political parties with funding flaws the introduction of a ceiling on election expenses doesn't make any sense.

The basic problem at the root of the smothering of Czech democracy is corruption of the political parties which have in effect become enterprises of sorts that parasite on public assets and there's no political will to put a stop to that.

Q: So was your participation in Topolánek’s cabinet a mistake?

LIŠKA: To this day I claim it wasn't such a mistake to enter that government. Not leaving it in time, however, was a mistake – at the moment it became clear that the government was losing its legitimacy, that it was dependent upon one or two people whose political background and views were not legible to the public and when it came out that in the case of Jiří Čunek [Christian Democrat (KDU-ČSL) senator and minister of regional development accused of corruption] it came to manipulation of the state prosecutor’s office. Those were precisely the moments when the Greens should have left the government. The fact we failed to do so is one of the most serious mistakes we’ve made.

Q: Why do you attach so much importance to that – haven’t you any other regrets?

LIŠKA: At the moment that the basic principles of a liberal democratic system, such as the independence of the justice system, are eroded, then I don’t think there is any room for compromise anymore.

‘We have built our financial base on small donors who are prepared to provide us with 100 to 500 crowns every month.’

Another big mistake was that as part of our cooperation within the coalition we acceded to the principle of a flat tax. I think that this unitary tax was not unitary at all in reality – it brought deep inequality in how the economic burden was spread out across society. It puts much more weight on people with low and medium incomes than on the rich. I understand that the richer part of society resists having to pay more money to the Czech state since they lack basic confidence in whether these financial resources will be handled properly. But that is a different matter. Here the fundamental principle of social justice was harmed, and we went along with it in order to push through other priorities in our manifesto.

The third big mistake was our internal discord – the fact that we allowed it to cover over all the good things we had managed to achieve. The fact that to this day quite a few people still associate the Greens with internal strife is in my view something we'll have to continue to grapple with and we will only beat this problem provided truly trustworthy personalities enter politics on behalf of the Greens. Precisely the upcoming elections to the senate present an excellent opportunity for this.

Q: Is it at all possible to take part in elections without powerful sponsors and black funds?

LIŠKA: We voluntarily adhere to all the 18 principles of our election law proposal. In doing so we want to prove that even now it is possible to have clean party funding and this in spite of the fact that already for a second year running we are not receiving any money from the state. We are treading our own path – much more difficult but also much more honest as a result. We are only dependent on the contributions of our members and supporters.

However, membership fees alone won't be enough by far and that is why we are the first party in the Czech Republic which has taken on a systematic approach to ethical fundraising. We have built our financial base on long-term small donors who are prepared to provide the Green Party with 100 to 500 crowns every month. At present there are about 300 of such people. However, in order for the party to fund its activities at a similar level as at the time when it was in parliament it will need twice or up to three times as many people. We're something like the Czech National Revival movement which acquired the money for the National Theatre in a collecting box. This makes our course more authentic and decent.