On October 20 and 21, Czech voters headed to the polls to choose the members of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of parliament. This ninth lower-house election since the fall of Communism in 1989 confirmed some of the gloomy forecasts for liberal democracy. The Czech Republic is another country in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) that has succumbed to populist appeals. Yet it’s not quite as clearcut as in some other CEE countries, giving us some grounds for optimism.
Over the past four years, the country was ruled by a coalition of three parties. A classic social democratic party (ČSSD) held the majority of cabinet seats including the prime minister’s office. Its partners were the centrist Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL) and Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO), a new Berlusconi-style business party founded in 2011 by the second-richest Czech, Slovak-born Andrej Babiš.1 Running on a populist and anticorruption platform, ANO unexpectedly came second in the 2013 legislative election.
Between 2013 and 2017, the ruling coalition benefited from an extremely favourable economic conjuncture, which allowed it to fulfil many of its election pledges and, in 2016, to end the year with a budgetary surplus, the first since 1995. The GDP growth rate was among the highest in the European Union and unemployment reached a record low. Yet, in the 2017 legislative election (table 1), the leading Social Democrats were decimated: their vote share declined by 13 percentage points and they lost 35 seats in the 200-member Chamber of Deputies. The Christian Democrats also lost ground (one percentage point and four seats). In contrast, ANO clearly won the election, with an increase in vote share of 11 percentage points and 31 seats more than in 2013. At the same time, several new parties, including the far-right SPD, achieved respectable results. In all, parties that had not been in the lower house prior to 2013 won 65 per cent of the seats in 2017.
What can explain this paradoxical outcome in times of economic prosperity, and what are its implications for Czech democracy and European politics?
Causes of the electoral earthquake
A number of factors contributed to the failure of the Social Democrats, including a relatively weak and contested leader in Bohuslav Sobotka. Perhaps the most important factor, however, was that ANO claimed responsibility for all of the government’s achievements. Its leader, who owns a giant conglomerate consisting of hundreds of companies, boasted about applying his business skills in his position as Minister of Finance.2 The good performance of the economy lent credibility to Babiš’s populist claims that the state should be run as a business enterprise and that the traditional “corrupt” political parties only “blather” instead of working for their voters’ well-being.
This claim, and ANO’s electoral performance more generally, was significantly strengthened by Babiš’s media group, which he acquired after he had entered politics and includes the main Czech dailies and most popular radio station. In the 2017 election campaign, these media did little to conceal their pro-ANO bias.
The current economic and international contexts also played an important role in the outcome. Strong economic growth, rapidly rising wages and redistributive social policies enacted by the incumbent coalition shifted the nature of the main conflict from the economic sphere to the cultural one.
At the same time, the refugee crisis in conjunction with Islamic terrorism in Western Europe increased the salience of cultural issues. The combination of refugee quotas adopted at the European level in 2015, despite opposition from the Czech government,3 and graphic pictures of terrorist attacks in large Western cities that received considerable play in the media gave many Czechs the impression that European institutions were imposing on ethnically homogenous Czech society a multicultural model that does not work well in the West. Perceptions of the European Union (EU) quickly deteriorated. Eurobarometers (regular EU public opinion polls) revealed that while in May 2015, 37 per cent of Czech respondents had a positive image of the EU and 20 per cent had a negative image (the rest were neutral), by November of the same year only 27 per cent had a positive image and 31 per cent had a negative image.4
This was fertile ground for nativist and Eurosceptic populists. The competition among several xenophobic groups to capture the issue was won by the SPD (Freedom and Direct Democracy), a typical populist radical party built around an opportunist leader of Czech-Japanese origin, Tomio Okamura. Several mainstream parties, and especially the ČSSD, tried to preempt the SPD’s rise by adopting its antirefugee and authoritarian rhetoric. This strategy backfired and contributed to the mainstream parties’ defeat. As the notorious founding father of the European far right, Jean-Marie Le Pen, once put it, “Voters prefer the original to the copy.”
Finally, the low salience of economic questions also gave prominence to issues such as corruption and direct democracy. This again harmed the established parties with a long record of political scandals and benefited the political newcomers, especially the Pirate Party, whose manifesto emphasizing civil liberties, transparency and direct democracy attracted many young and urban voters.
Why the Czech Republic is unlikely to become the next Poland or Hungary
Although a number of commentators have drawn parallels between the Czech election result and recent developments in Hungary and Poland, there are important differences. ANO, the election winner and likely the leading party in the next government, is not a conservative or nationalistic party. Nor is there the same degree of ideological polarization in the Czech Republic as in Poland or Hungary. Babiš is essentially a businessman or, as some commentators aptly noted, a Berlusconi without bunga bunga. He is chiefly interested in expanding his business empire and, generally, adopts relatively centrist and moderate positions.
A Polish- or Hungarian-style reform of democratic institutions to the detriment of the opposition is not Babiš’s primary goal and is, in any case, virtually impossible in the short term. A potential coalition of ANO with the two most extreme parliamentary parties, the far-right SPD and the communist KSČM, would fall five seats short of the constitutionally required majority (120 seats) in the Chamber of Deputies. Furthermore, any constitutional reform would have to be accepted by the Senate, an upper chamber that is dominated by more traditional and culturally liberal democratic parties. Its electoral system – one third of its members elected every two years, in single-member constituencies by majority vote with a runoff – makes it impossible for ANO to control the Senate any time soon.
In terms of foreign policy and the struggle between the West and Russia over influence in CEE,5 the election did mark a setback for distinctively pro-Western and pro-European forces (in particular TOP 09 and ČSSD). However, the group of increasingly vocal hard-line Eurosceptics also decreased in size (from 47 to 37 seats).6
As regards ANO, its pragmatic attitude toward European integration occasionally leads to opportunistic criticisms of European institutions and policies, specifically EU sanctions against Russia. We can thus expect the incoming cabinet to show more openness to Russia and China.7 Yet unless the international context radically changes, Babiš, whose priority is economic stability and whose companies are major recipients of EU subsidies, has no interest in seriously questioning the country’s EU membership or fundamentally altering its pro-Western political orientation – far less than his Hungarian or Polish counterparts.
The democratic risk associated with ANO’s victory is, at least for now, more subtle. Babiš is clearly in a conflict of interest.8 There are signs that he uses his political clout not only to enrich himself – according to Forbes magazine, his fortune doubled between 2013 and 2017 – but also to force out competing businesses. While in control of the ministry of finance, he was able to do so perfectly legally.
However, Babiš now faces charges for fraudulent use of EU subsidies and tax evasion.9 Moreover, there is evidence that, unsurprisingly, he uses his media empire to discredit his opponents.10 If Babiš (or a member of his party) becomes the next prime minister, he will be under even less constraint. Furthermore, the tycoon’s appetite for political power combined with the growing effectiveness of his party’s political marketing team is worrisome. He was thus able to rise politically despite his troubled Communist past, suspect circumstances in which he acquired his businesses and the abundant evidence of current wrongdoing.11
Of course, the future of Czech politics will depend a lot on the outcome of postelection coalition negotiations. At the time of writing (end of October), no moderate political party is yet willing to govern with ANO and Babiš is publicly contemplating the possibility of a minority government. This could harm ANO’s capacity to push through legislation but, at the same time, would allow Babiš to blame the moderate parties for a dysfunctional government.
The direction of Czech politics will also be affected by the next presidential election, to be held in January 2018. Oddsmakers are betting that current President Miloš Zeman, a populist and pro-Russian Eurosceptic sympathetic to Babiš, will be reelected. This would benefit ANO and, probably, draw the party closer to the extremist forces in the Chamber of Deputies. In contrast, the victory of a pro-Western candidate, which is not impossible, would place an additional constraint on the tycoon’s political ambitions – as would a slowdown in economic growth. The 2017 election result was a triumph for populism, but Czech democracy and pluralism are not dead yet.
1 Pronounced “Babish” in Czech.
2 In May 2017, Prime Minister Sobotka dropped Babiš from the cabinet because of allegations that he evaded taxes and had journalists discredit his coalition partners.
3 In the European Union, policies on asylum (article 78 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union) may be adopted by a qualified majority (votes representing 65% of the EU population and 55% of Member States). A Member State of the European Union may thus be outvoted and be obliged to apply legislation which it opposed. This happened in 2015 when the Council of the European Union decided that refugees would be relocated from the most exposed Member States (Italy and Greece, but also Hungary) to the rest of the European Union, notwithstanding the opposition of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.
4 These figures are derived from responses to the question “In general, does the EU conjure up for a very positive, fairly positive, neutral, fairly negative or very negative image?” in Standard Eurobarometers 83 and 84.
5 See my article with Eva Krejčová, “The Kremlin Strikes Back in Central and Eastern Europe,” Inroads, Summer/Fall 2017, pp. 64–71.
6 In 2013, the hard-line Eurosceptics included the KSČM (33 seats) and the movement Úsvit (14 seats). In 2017, they comprise the KSČM (15 seats) and SPD (22 seats). There are also a few vocal Eurosceptics in other parties (in particular Vaclav Klaus, Jr., in the ODS).
7 See also Anne Applebaum, “Russia’s New Kind of Friends,” Washington Post, October 16, 2015.
8 It should be noted that Babiš placed his conglomerate in a trust fund in February 2017. However, this formal move obviously does not solve the conflict of interest.
9 See “A Scandal in Bohemia,” The Economist, September 21, 2017.
10 Tapes published by an anonymous Twitter account (@skupinasuman) on May 1, 2017, show Babiš instructing a journalist to publish compromising materials on Social Democratic ministers.
11 Sixty-three-year-old Babiš was an agent of the pre-1989 State Security Police (“STB” in Czech), which harassed and prosecuted opponents of the Communist regime. For the origins of his businesses, see Jaroslav Spurný, “The Richest Czech Keeps a Secret,” Respekt, 13 May 2002, retrieved from www.respekt.cz