The Czech Republic’s Crisis of Liberal Democracy Escalates

Letna_2019_panorama4mThis text was originally published in Inroads, the Canadian Journal of Opinion. 

 

On June 23 hundreds of thousands of Czechs assembled at one of the iconic places in Prague, Letná plain, to demonstrate against the country’s Prime Minister, Andrej Babiš, and recent personnel changes in his cabinet. With more than 250,000 participants, this was the largest political protest since the Velvet Revolution in 1989. The demonstrators demanded the resignation of both Babiš and Justice Minister Marie Benešová.

This event marked yet another episode in a wider struggle between the defenders of liberal democracy and their populist foes in central and eastern Europe. Readers are most likely aware of developments in Hungary, where the battle for liberal democracy has apparently been lost, and in Poland, where skirmishes continue. But the progressive escalation in the Czech Republic deserves their attention too.

The Extremist Back Door into Government

As I wrote two years ago in Inroads, Prime Minister Babiš is a billionaire of Slovak origin whose Berlusconi-style political party ANO, founded in 2011, won the last Czech legislative election in 2017.1 Babiš owns a large conglomerate, Agrofert, which has extensive agricultural, chemical and energy interests and controls a large share of the Czech media market after having acquired leading newspapers and the most popular radio station.

In the aftermath of the 2017 election, Babiš struggled to build a parliamentary majority. Populist as he was, he did not want to openly collaborate with the two extremist parties in the Czech Chamber of Deputies – the far-right SPD and the Communist KSČM – as that would tarnish his image in western Europe, where many of his businesses operate. But the mainstream parties refused to enter a coalition with ANO given Babiš’s controversial reputation, his previous record of conflict of interest in office as Finance Minister (2013–17) and, in particular, charges he was facing for fraudulent use of European Union subsidies and tax evasion.

In January 2018 Babiš’s position significantly improved when pro-Russian President Miloš Zeman was reelected. Both for electoral purposes (to mobilize Babiš’s supporters) and strategic ones (to get leverage over Babiš), Zeman had promised to give Babiš enough time to form a cabinet. This strategy was predicated on Zeman’s securing a second presidential term, which is what happened.

In June 2018, after protracted negotiations, the Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) agreed to form a minority coalition with ANO (93 of the 200 lower-house seats), tacitly supported by the Communist KSČM (which holds 15 seats). This de facto revived the ruling coalition from the previous legislature, which at that time commanded a majority. This coalition had proved poisonous for the Social Democrats. Back then, ANO capitalized on positive coverage in Babiš’s media and was able to successfully claim credit for strong economic growth and the ČSSD-ANO coalition’s generous welfare policies. While ANO’s vote share sharply increased (from 18.7 per cent in 2013 to 29.6 per cent in 2017), the ČSSD suffered an electoral debacle (falling from 20.5 per cent in 2013 to 7.3 per cent in 2017). Should this trend continue – and there are signs of further decline in the ČSSD’s support – this mainstream left-wing party could possibly fall short of the threshold for representation in the Chamber of Deputies in the next election, a first in the history of the independent Czech Republic. The beneficiary would likely be the populist ANO and possibly even the two extremist parties.

But for those committed to the principles of liberal democracy, the current situation is bad enough. The new role of the KSČM means that, for the first time since 1989, an unreformed Communist party has indirectly gained access to executive power. Moreover, the far-right SPD has become de facto another ally of the governing ANO as, according to some analyses, the SPD deputies have voted with the ANO more often than its coalition partner ČSSD.2 Thanks to their role in supporting the cabinet (or just ANO), the two extremist parties, notorious critics of Western institutions and the European Union, secured senior positions in parliamentary committees and state control bodies, and exercise undue influence over policy. One example is January 2019 legislation, initiated by the KSČM, that taxes the compensation paid to Czech churches for property that was stolen by the Communist dictatorship before 1989.

No wonder then that many Czechs are worried that their country will follow the Hungarian and Polish path toward taming the media. The shadow coalition of ANO, SPD and KSČM may gradually take over the commissions that oversee public television and radio stations through successive appointments by the Chamber of Deputies. So far, public television and radio have provided high-quality independent journalism in a media landscape increasingly dismembered by Czech oligarchs. Recent controversial appointments to the oversight commissions give substance to fears for the future of independent journalism, along with the lack of restraint exercised by Babiš’s own media group and criticism of the public broadcasters by the leadership of the SPD and KSČM.

Babiš’s Scandals and the Attack on the Rule of Law

The criminal charges Babiš faces pose a profound democratic challenge. They inevitably lead to conflicts of interest that could undermine the independence of the justice system and the integrity of the country’s rule of law. This is why so many people came to demonstrate in June.

The catalyst came from revelations about Babiš’s Stork’s Nest resort in southern Bohemia. To receive European Union subsidies for small and medium-sized enterprises, in 2007 Babiš transferred the ownership of the future Stork’s Nest’s site from his conglomerate Agrofert to his children and wife. When the subsidies were exhausted and the resort completed, Babiš reincorporated the Stork’s Nest into Agrofert in 2014.

The public first learned about the case from the media in 2015 and the police began to investigate Babiš, his family and his partners for damaging the financial interests of the European Union, which could result in a prison sentence of up to 10 years. The European Union’s Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) also investigated the case and, in late 2017, concluded that several national and European laws had been broken. Lacking judicial powers, OLAF sent its conclusions to the Czech authorities carrying on their own investigation. In November 2018, independent journalists broadcast a recording suggesting that Andrej Babiš may have had his son “kidnapped” and taken to Russian-occupied Crimea to avoid his being interrogated by the Czech police over the Stork’s Nest. The broadcast led to small-scale civil society demonstrations and an unsuccessful no-confidence motion in the Chamber of Deputies.

An impetus for renewed protests came in April 2019 when the police finally referred the investigation to the public prosecutor and recommended that the Prime Minister be charged with fraud. The next day, the Minister of Justice, Jan Kněžínek (an independent appointed by ANO) resigned for allegedly unrelated personal reasons. Babiš immediately replaced him with Marie Benešová, an old and controversial ally of President Zeman, a move that raised doubts about the way the Stork’s Nest case would be handled as well as fears for the independence of the judicial system. These developments triggered weekly demonstrations in Prague and, to a lesser extent, other cities across the country.

These protests intensified when the European Commission issued a preliminary report accusing Babiš, in a separate case from the Stork’s Nest, of violating conflict of interest rules. The new charge implied that the Czech Republic would have to reimburse all subsidies Babiš’s companies had received and that Babiš could face yet another criminal investigation. This gave rise to the huge June 23 protest in Prague, but given his power base, the Prime Minister easily survived a parliamentary vote of confidence initiated by the centre-right opposition.

After a summer political hiatus, the supervising public prosecutor, Jaroslav Šaroch, decided in early September to halt the investigation and not refer the Stork’s Nest case to court, abruptly ending four years of intensive police work and ignoring OLAF’s recommendation. Šaroch’s unexpected decision, which looks curious both to legal experts and to the general public, has thus further contributed to fears about the independence of the judiciary, as have the Minister of Justice’s recent plans for a reform of the system of state prosecution. For their part, Babiš, ANO, the ČSSD and most in the illiberal camp have already voiced relief that the case was over. Civil society organizations have scheduled new massive protests in November, in preparation for the verdict by the Supreme Public Prosecutor, who has three months to review the decision of the supervising public prosecutor.

Whatever the outcome of the Stork’s Nest affair, it is increasingly clear that Babiš’s dominant role in Czech politics constitutes a possible threat to the country’s democratic institutions and the rule of law. An economic conflict of interest – Babiš influencing public decisions in favour of his businesses – has gradually given way to a judicial one, where Babiš sits at the apex of the system charged with investigating his alleged wrongdoing. Not only can he replace the Justice Minister, but he could also dismiss the Supreme Public Prosecutor through a vote of his cabinet. It is already clear that he was able to head off any police investigation into the alleged kidnapping of his son and, at least temporarily, into tax evasion accusations related to the Stork’s Nest case.3

The Illiberal Triangle

In their efforts to weaken liberal democratic institutions, the populist ANO and extremist SPD and KSČM can count on the support of President Zeman, forming an illiberal triangle that operates in mutually beneficial symbiosis. Zeman’s illiberal stance and pro-Russian and pro-Chinese foreign policy orientation make him a natural ideological ally of the two extremist parties, which he increasingly openly supports and thus legitimizes. The reciprocal backing of these parties not only helped Zeman’s reelection but also means that Zeman cannot be held responsible for his maverick behaviour as President. When a liberal democratic majority in the Senate (the upper chamber) voted in June to bring charges before the Constitutional Court against the President for violating the constitution, the KSČM and SPD’s votes helped bury this initiative in the Chamber of Deputies.

As another side of the triangle, Zeman can also count on Babiš’s nearly unconditional support. A case in point is the Prime Minister’s refusal to file a constitutional complaint when Zeman clearly went beyond his legal authority and refused to appoint a new Minister of Culture from the ČSSD. Similarly, when Zeman erratically criticized Kosovo’s independence on his recent visit to Serbia, the Prime Minister, acting against the country’s long-term foreign policy, said that his cabinet would consider whether the Czech Republic should revoke its recognition of Kosovo. In return, the Czech President insinuated not only that he would back Babiš as Prime Minister no matter what but also, shockingly, that he would give him a presidential pardon should the Supreme Public Prosecutor reverse the decision in the Stork’s Nest case.

Note that the illiberal triangle is something of an alliance of circumstance. President Zeman, the far-right SPD and the far-left KSČM, from what we know, dream of withdrawing the country from the European Union and NATO and bringing it back into the Russian (or, perhaps, now the Chinese) orbit. With his business interests firmly in the European Union, Babiš is wary of following the others’ foreign policy orientations. Where all three sides of the triangle line up, though, is their desire to weaken key institutions of Czech liberal democracy, in particular the justice system and independent public sector media, which stand in the way of their aspirations. As noted, Babiš’s new Justice Minister’s actions suggest an effort to eliminate the first of these obstacles. As for the second obstacle, Zeman recently talked about stripping the public sector media of their financial independence by scrapping the broadcast receiving licence, which is currently paid by all Czech media consumers.

Such illiberal developments are likely to spark a new wave of massive protests, which could potentially deter Babiš, who remains eager to cultivate a good image in the West. However, he may choose instead to follow the example of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. A dose of illiberal reforms may cause relatively little tangible damage in Czech-EU relations in areas that matter to him while strengthening his political position at home. The 250,000 who demonstrated on June 23 were mostly liberal voters, who represent a minority in the country. At this point, the favourable economic conjuncture, generous (and, according to critics, irresponsible) redistributive policies and anti-immigration positions keep ANO well above 30 per cent in the polls despite all of Babiš’s scandals.

In the months to come, the crucial question will be the attitude of Babiš’s supporters. If the liberal camp is able to present a positive vision (not solely based on opposition to the incumbent’s populism), some could be won over, especially if Babiš’s pending cases are properly handled by the European institutions as well as the national police and public prosecutors.

Finally, an economic recession, which is considered imminent by some forecasters, would also hurt Babiš. But this could have the perverse effect of playing into the hands of the extreme parties, which would then be in a position to capitalize on any illiberal reforms. Indeed, some fear the emergence of a new far-right party, Trikolóra, around Václav Klaus, Jr., the son of the former populist president. This party has already received backing from pro-Russian disinformation media. Clearly, while this battle over liberal democracy remains largely hidden from international public view, it is gathering momentum, and the stakes are high.

 

 

This text can be referred to as: Kostelka, Filip, 2019, “The Czech Republic’s Crisis of Liberal Democracy Escalates”, Inroads 46, http://inroadsjournal.ca/the-czech-republics-crisis-of-liberal-democracy-escalates/.

 

Notes

1 Filip Kostelka, A Muted Triumph for Czech Populism, Inroads, Winter/Spring 2018

2 See Data ukazují, že ANO má při hlasováních blíže ke komunistům a SPD než ke koaliční ČSSD, Česka televize

3 In 2014, the German tax office found that Agrofert may have evaded taxes by paying large sums of money through its German branch for advertising at the Stork’s Nest resort, saving tens of millions of euros. The Germans transferred the information to the Czech tax office, even though it was under the direct authority of the Czech Minister of Finance of the time – Andrej Babiš. Unsurprisingly, the Czech tax office did not contact the Czech police, which thus did not start the investigation into this tax evasion until 2019, four years later, when it received information from European authorities (including OLAF).

Le vote à l’étranger et le vote des étrangers: une avancée démocratique à encadrer

[External Voting & Alien Suffrage: Democratic Innovation in Need of Regulation]

Ce texte a été publié dans la revue France Forum. [This text was originaly published in the journal France Forum.] 

 

Le progrès technique, la globalisation des échanges et les processus d’intégration régionale contribuent à l’accroissement de la mobilité transnationale des individus. De plus en plus de personnes résident en dehors de leur pays d’origine. En 2016, selon l’Onu, leur proportion a atteint 3,3 % de la population mondiale et plus de 10 % de la population en Europe, en Amérique du Nord et en Océanie. Les flux migratoires ne sont pas seulement plus forts, mais également plus temporaires et moins définitifs. L’une des conséquences est le nombre croissant d’individus qui, tout en vivant dans des pays démocratiques, perdent de fait leur droit de participer à la vie de la cité. Il n’est pas rare que les migrants ne puissent voter ni dans leur pays d’accueil ni dans leur pays d’origine. Deux solutions sont envisageables. D’abord, que les migrants puissent voter aux élections de leur pays d’origine depuis leur pays d’accueil. Un tel dispositif s’est répandu, notamment à partir des années 1990, à travers le globe et il est désormais proposé aux émigrés dans plus d’une centaine de pays[1]. L’autre solution consiste à accorder le droit de vote aux migrants dans leur pays d’accueil. Si l’idée de donner le droit de vote aux étrangers peut paraître controversée, plus de 60 pays permettent à des étrangers de participer aux élections au début du xxie siècle[2].

Le vote à l’étranger et le vote des étrangers représentent-ils des mesures souhaitables d’approfondissement démocratique ? Apporter une réponse claire et univoque à cette question n’est pas aisé. Les mesures concernées peuvent répondre aux défis que la mobilité transnationale pose à la démocratie autant qu’elles peuvent éroder certains des principes démocratiques fondamentaux.

Concernant le vote depuis l’étranger, si les émigrés sont très nombreux, leurs voix peuvent décider de l’issue des scrutins. Ceux qui n’auront pas à subir les conséquences du résultat électoral – puisqu’ils résident à l’étranger – peuvent ainsi imposer leur choix politique à ceux qui en seront pleinement affectés. Il n’est pas étonnant que l’Irlande refuse d’élargir le droit de vote à sa diaspora numériquement presque aussi importante que la population qui réside dans le pays.

De façon analogue, le vote des étrangers peut, dans certaines circonstances, déstabiliser les équilibres politiques dans les pays d’accueil. Si les étrangers pèsent lourd dans le résultat électoral et n’envisagent pas de lier leur destin à celui du pays (ou de l’entité politique infranationale) où ils résident, ils peuvent faire des choix politiques dont ils n’auront pas à assumer pleinement les conséquences, en particulier sur le long terme. Dans la même veine, une concentration géographique des populations d’origine immigrée peut changer rapidement le paysage politique dans une commune sans que l’électorat original soit consulté sur l’élargissement du corps électoral[3].

Si les migrants bénéficient à la fois du vote à l’étranger et du droit de vote des étrangers, ils peuvent, en théorie, participer à la désignation du gouvernement dans deux pays différents. Ils se retrouvent alors dans une situation injustement privilégiée par rapport aux citoyens qui n’ont pas migré. Situation qui viole la règle démocratique fondatrice « un homme, une voix ».

Pour autant, ces éventuelles conséquences indésirables ne sont pas des obstacles insurmontables à la démocratie électorale transnationale. Elles peuvent être évitées grâce à un certain nombre de compromis institutionnels. Le premier consiste à accorder le droit de vote selon les niveaux de gouvernance. Il paraît judicieux, et la législation dans de nombreux pays reflète déjà cette logique, de permettre le vote à l’étranger seulement aux élections nationales et d’accorder le droit de vote aux étrangers exclusivement au niveau local. Ainsi, la question d’un avantage démocratiquement illégitime des migrants ne se pose pas car ils ne pourront participer aux élections nationales que dans leur pays d’origine et aux élections locales que dans leur pays d’accueil.

En ce qui concerne le poids politique des migrants, une solution universelle – quel que soit le nombre des migrants concernés – est réalisable. Au niveau national, il est possible de créer des circonscriptions réservées aux électeurs à l’étranger, à l’instar des pays tels que la France ou l’Italie. Au niveau local, les communes devraient choisir, par un référendum local, entre deux options. Soit elles peuvent adopter un dispositif similaire à celui du niveau national : des mandats locaux réservés aux électeurs étrangers. Soit elles peuvent accorder le droit de vote à tous ceux qui résident dans la commune depuis une période donnée, indépendamment de leur nationalité.

Ces choix institutionnels sont évidemment des compromis qui ne cherchent pas à établir une égalité politique parfaite entre les migrants et les non-migrants. Et, avant d’être adoptés, ils peuvent se heurter à des contraintes constitutionnelles dans certains pays. Néanmoins, ils représentent probablement la meilleure manière de résoudre la question des droits politiques des migrants en préservant la légitimité démocratique aux yeux des populations qui vivent de façon stable dans les pays d’origine et dans les pays d’accueil.

[1] Voir de l’auteur 2017. “Distant Souls: Post-Communist Emigration and Voter Turnout.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 43 (7), pp. 1071-1072.

[2] Andres, Hervé, “Le droit de vote des étrangers: une utopie déjà réalisée sur les cinq continents.” Migration Société, 2007, 19 (114), pp. 65-81.

[3] Pour un exemple empirique, lire Vernby, Kare. 2013. « Inclusion and Public Policy : Evidence from Sweden’s Introduction of Noncitizen Suffrage », American Journal of Political Science 57 (1), pp. 15-29.

Cet article peut être cité comme suit : 

Kostelka, Filip, 2017, “Le vote à l’étranger et le vote des étrangers: une avancée démocratique à encadrer” [External Voting & Alien Suffrage: Democratic Innovation in Need of Regulation], France Forum 67. 

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.

 

The 2017 French Legislative Election: Why Was Voter Turnout So Low and What Can Be Done About It?

Note: This post was originally published on the Making Electoral Democracy Work website. It was also published in French as an op-ed in the newspaper Le Monde. 

 

The most striking outcome of the first round of the 2017 election to the French National Assembly is that less than half of the registered voters came to the polls. The participation rate of 48.7 %, down by 8.5 percentage points from the last election in 2012, is the lowest in the history of the French legislative contests since 1945. Two factors are likely to have contributed to this particularly weak participation rate. The first and obvious factor is the recent transformation of the French party system: the collapse of the traditional parties on the centre left and centre right; the far right’s loss of credibility in the preceding presidential election; and the centrist profile of the anticipated winner, unlikely to generate strong positive or negative mobilization in the electorate.

Yet, there is another important culprit: high election frequency. Sunday’s election was the third round of voting in 2017 after two rounds of presidential elections. More generally, in the last three years, a French citizen could vote – depending on party competition in his or her electoral district – in up to 9 contests: municipal elections (2014, 2 rounds), European Parliament elections (2014), departmental elections (2015, 2 rounds), regional elections (2015, 2 rounds), and presidential elections (2017, 2 rounds). On top of that, French voters could also participate in two rounds of open presidential primaries organized in the run-up to the 2017 presidential elections by the main centre-right and centre-left parties as well as the Greens. This proliferation of elections is unprecedented in the French electoral history. Just a few decades ago, the number of participatory demands on French citizens was substantially lower. For instance, in the three years preceding the legislative election of 1978, there were at maximum 4 opportunities to vote: departmental elections (1976, 2 rounds but only half of the electorate was eligible to vote) and municipal elections (1977, 2 rounds).

Figure 1: Voter Turnout in the First Round of the French Legislative Elections since 1958

As a matter of fact, election frequency in France has strongly increased since the late 1970s. This is due to a host of institutional reforms: the introduction of direct elections to the European Parliament (1979), decentralization and the introduction of regional elections (1986), and the reduction of the presidential mandate from 7 to 5 years (2002). In addition, before last Sunday’s election, new territorial reforms (of 2010 and 2013) resulted in a temporary reduction of the term of the regional and some departmental representatives from 6 to 5 and 4 years respectively. Finally, mainstream French political parties have newly held open primaries before presidential elections: the centre left since 2012 and the centre right since 2017. This steep rise in election frequency coincides with the decline in voter turnout in the French legislative elections, which started in the early 1980s and reached its peak on Sunday (see Figure 1).

Political science literature shows that high election frequency depresses voter turnout through several channels, affecting both citizens’ attitudes and political parties’ mobilization capacities. In my research, I found support for the negative effect of election frequency on voter turnout in two very different contexts. First, in my PhD dissertation defended at Sciences Po, Paris in 2015, I demonstrate that election frequency substantively contributes to the strong decline in voter turnout that has been observed in post-communist democracies since the 1990s. Second, in a paper presented at the 2017 Canadian Political Science Association meeting, my co-author Alexander Wüttke (University of Manheim) and I observe a robust relationship between election frequency and voter turnout in Canada and Germany. The more frequent elections are the lower voter turnout in every single election, particularly in less important elections.

As low voter tumour is normatively undesirable, French policy-makers should take lessons from other countries that record (much) higher voting rates. The best example is Sweden, one of the rare Western democracies in which voter turnout even increased since the early 1990s. Swedes typically vote twice every four years as all elections but those to the European parliament are held simultaneously. Of course, the simultaneity of different election types entails the risk of contamination (i.e. the political developments in one electoral arena may affect the results in another arena). Nonetheless, an abstention rate of more than 50 % is perhaps worse than any realistic degree of contamination.

Combining various types of electoral contests could achieve a Pareto-optimum number of elections in terms of high turnout and low contamination effects across different electoral arenas. In the French context, it seems logical to combine presidential and legislative elections on the one hand; and municipal, departmental, and regional elections on the other. This would boost voter turnout not only because of lower election frequency but also because the less important election type (e.g. legislative elections) would benefit from the mobilization effect of the more important type (e.g. presidential elections). Such a measure would probably not solve the issue of the decline in voter turnout altogether but it could largely offset the negative trend.