A Muted Triumph for Czech Populism

This text was originally published in Inroads, the Canadian Journal of Opinion

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 clear-cut as in some other CEE countries, giving us some grounds for optimism.

Puzzling Electoral Sanction for Prosperity

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 office of the Premier Minister. Its partners were the centrist Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL) and a new Berlusconi-style business party called “Action of Dissatisfied Citizens” (ANO). The latter was founded in 2011 by the second-richest Czech, Slovak-born Andrej Babiš.[1] Running on a populist and anti-corruption platform, his party unexpectedly came second in the 2013 legislative election.

Table 1 The Result of the 2017 Czech Legislative Election

Party Orientation In the Chamber of Deputies since Vote share Seats in 2017 Seats:

Change 2017/2013

ANO Populist centre 2013 29.6 % 78 +31
ODS Conservative,

Centre-right

1992 11.3 % 25 +9
Pirate Party Centrist, culturally liberal 2017 10.8 % 22 +22
SPD Populist radical right 2017 10.6 % 22 +22
KSČM Communist 1990 7.8 % 15 −18
ČSSD Social Democrats, centre left 1992 7.3 % 15 −35
KDU-ČSL Christian Democrats 1990 5.8 % 10 −4
TOP 09 Liberal/conservative, centre-right 2010 5.3 % 7 −19
STAN Liberal/conservative, centre-right 2017 5.2 % 6 +6

           

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 government budget 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 current legislative elections (see 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 (1 pp and 4 seats). In contrast, ANO clearly won the election having received 11 more points of vote share and 31 seats more than in 2013. Simultaneously, several new parties, including the far right SPD, achieved respectable scores. Parties that had not been in the lower house prior to 2013 won altogether 65% 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 Bohumil Sobotka. Perhaps the most important contribution however, was ANO’s claim of responsibility for every government achievement. Its leader, owner of a giant conglomerate 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’ 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 more generally, ANO’s electoral performance was significantly reinforced by Babiš’ 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 election outcome. Strong economic growth, rapidly rising salaries, and redistributive social policies enacted by the incumbent coalition shifted the nature of the main conflict from the economic sphere to the cultural one. Simultaneously, 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 heavily mediatised graphic pictures of terrorist attacks in Western metropoles gave many Czechs an impression that European institutions were imposing a multicultural model that does not work well in the West on ethnically homogenous Czech society. Perception of the European Union (EU) quickly deteriorated. Eurobarometers (regular EU public opinion polls) revealed that the difference between positive and negative evaluations of the Union among Czech respondents declined from +17 to -4 percentage points between May and November 2015.[4]

This was fertile ground for nativist and euro-sceptic populists. The competition among several xenophobic groups to capture the issue was won by the SPD (“Freedom and Direct Democracy”), which is a typical populist radical party, built around an opportunist leader of Czech-Japanese origins, Tomio Okamura. Several mainstream parties, and in particular the ČSSD, tried to pre-empt the SPD’s rise by taking up its anti-refugee and authoritarian discourse. This strategy backfired and contributed to the mainstream parties’ electoral defeat. As the notorious founding father of the European far right Jean-Marie Le Pen once put it, “voters prefer[red] the original to the copy.”

Finally, the low salience of economic questions also gave prominence issues such as corruption or direct democracy. This again harmed the established parties with a long record of political scandals. It benefited the political newcomers and, 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 next Poland or Hungary

Although a number of commentators draw parallels between the Czech election result and recent developments in Hungary and Poland, there are important differences. First, ANO, the election winner that is likely to lead the future cabinet, is not a conservative or nationalistic party and, in the Czech Republic, there is not the same degree of ideological polarization 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 the democratic institutions to the detriment of the opposition is not Babiš’ primary goal and, in the short term, is even virtually impossible. The potential coalition of ANO with the two most extreme parliamentary parties, the far right SPD and the communist KSČM, falls 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 staggered renewal[5] and majority electoral system make sure that ANO will not be able to control it any time soon.

In terms of foreign policy and the struggle between the West and Russia over influence in CEE,[6] it is true the election marked a setback for distinctively pro-Western and pro-European forces (in particular TOP 09 and ČSSD). However, the group of increasingly vocal hard-line euro-sceptics also decreased in size (from 47 to 37 seats).[7] As regards ANO, its pragmatic attitude towards 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 vis-à-vis Russia and China.[8] 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 the country’s pro-Western political orientation, far less, in fact, 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.[9] There are signs that he uses his political clout not only to enrich himself – according to the 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 in perfect legality; However, Babiš now faces charges for fraudulent use EU subsidies and tax evasion.[10] Moreover, there is also evidence that, unsurprisingly, he uses his media empire to discredit his opponents.[11] If Babiš (or a member of his party) becomes the next prime minister, there will be even less control. 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,[12] suspect circumstances in which he acquired his businesses,[13] and the aforementioned abundant evidence of current wrongdoing.

Of course, the future of Czech politics will depend a lot on the outcome of post-election coalition negotiations. As these lines are being written, no moderate political party is yet willing to govern with ANO and Babiš publicly contemplates the possibility of a minority cabinet. This could harm ANO’s capacity to push through legislation but, simultaneously, 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 soon, in January 2018. Oddsmakers are betting that the current president Miloš Zeman, a populist and pro-Russian Eurosceptic sympathetic to Babiš, will be re-elected. 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. So would a slowdown in economic growth. The 2017 election result was a triumph of populism but Czech democracy and pluralism are not dead, not yet.

Filip Kostelka is Postdoctoral Fellow with the Institutions and Political Economy Research Group (IPERG), University of Barcelona, and Associate Researcher with the Centre d’études européennes (CEE), Sciences Po, Paris

This text can be referred to as: Kostelka, Filip, 2017, “A Muted Triumph for Czech Populism”, Inroads 42, http://inroadsjournal.ca/mu-ted-triumph-czech-populism/.

[1] In Czech, Babiš reads as “Babish“.

[2] In May 2017, Babiš was removed from the cabinet by Prime Minister Sobotka because of allegations that he evaded taxes and had journalists discredit his coalition partners (see below).

[3] In the European Union, policies on asylum (Art. 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, 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 Eurobarometers 83 and 84.

[5] Like in the United States, one third of Czech Senators are elected every two years.

[6] See my and Eva Krejčová’s recent Inroads article on Russia’s penetration of Central and Eastern Europe. http://inroadsjournal.ca/the-kremlin-strikes-back-in-central-and-eastern-europe/.

[7] In 2013, the hard-line Euro-sceptics 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 Euro-sceptics in other parties (in particular Vaclav Klaus Jr. in the ODS).

[8] See also Applebaum, Anne, 16 October 2015. “Russia’s new kind of friends”. The Washington Post.

[9] It should be noted that Babiš placed his conglomerate in a trust fund in February 2017. Nevertheless, this formal move obviouslly does not solve the conflict of interest.

[10] Read The Economist, 21 September 2017, “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

[11] 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.

[12] 63-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.

[13]See Spurný, Jaroslav, 13 May 2002, “The Richest Czech Keeps a Secret”, www.respekt.cz.

 

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