Is Europe’s Democracy in Crisis?

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This text was originally published in New Eastern Europe

In the mid-1970s three eminent political scientists – Michel Crozier, Samuel Huntington, and Joji Watanuki – penned a famous report on the crisis of western democracy, which they described as declining and overloaded with societal demands. Paradoxically, their report coincided with the start of a democratisation wave that, in 15 years, swept away dictatorships across the globe, including those in Southern and Eastern Europe.

While roughly 57 per cent of European countries were democratic in 1975, their share reached 77 per cent by 1990. Today, the old continent is more democratic than it ever was in the 20th century. No fewer than 85 per cent of European countries hold regular free and fair elections. Democratic regimes do not massively break down as they did between the 1920s and 1940s, when 12 out of 19 European democracies collapsed or fell prey to the expansion of totalitarian regimes. On the contrary, European democracy has so far proved resilient in the face of major threats such as the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine. Democracy is currently not in crisis and, in fact, we live in one of its best times.

These good times, however, cannot be taken for granted. A century ago, observers may have felt similarly optimistic when democracy emerged triumphant after the First World War and the ensuing flu pandemic. However, they would soon witness the rapid rise of authoritarianism and totalitarianism across the continent. Such developments are unlikely to repeat themselves, but there are reasons for concern. Many European nations have experienced at least a glimpse of democratic erosion. Populist politicians showing little respect for fundamental democratic principles have been increasingly successful at the ballot box. They scapegoat minorities, migrants and Brussels for their countries’ ills. When in power, they attack key democratic institutions, such as free media and independent courts, to carve out an undue electoral advantage for themselves, and eschew public and legal scrutiny of their acts.

Especially in Central and Eastern Europe, the playing field is often tilted in favour of populist incumbents. The Polish public broadcaster has been transformed into a mouthpiece of the ruling cabinet, and its Czech counterpart presumably avoided a similar fate only thanks to an unlikely outcome at the last legislative election. Extreme, but still rare cases such as Hungary and Serbia have seen the emergence of hybrid regimes, which are more autocratic than democratic. Their ruling parties have captured state institutions, eliminated independent media and bullied the opposition. Viktor Orbán and Aleksandar Vučić’s effective coups are the dream for many of their less successful, but equally ambitious and unscrupulous friends both in the East and West.

The causes of the changing political climate are manifold. In Central and Eastern Europe, the accession to the European Union removed a powerful incentive for politicians’ good behaviour, as the EU has so far struggled to bring its members into line. There is also an aspect of (bad) luck: Orbán would have barely been capable of building his dictatorship had not his party unexpectedly achieved a constitutional majority in the 2010 legislative election.

However, globally, the most important cause arguably lies in technological change. In the pre-Web 2.0 era, populist politicians and their inflammatory rhetoric were not given air time in established democracies. Elites had to respect the democratic rules of the game in order to avoid pariah status. Extremist and dissatisfied citizens lacked opportunities to flock together. Web 2.0 and the rise of alternative and social media put an end to the effective gatekeeping against the populist threat. Populists can circumvent cordon sanitaires and gather significant follow ings, with which they can directly communicate through Facebook, Twitter or TikTok. Their influence and early electoral success then open the doors to mainstream media outlets as well.

Technological change enables authoritarian powers to interfere effectively in democratic countries’ political competitions. China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia – until it concentrated most of its resources on the invasion of Ukraine – use social media to spread disinformation and support extremists in the hope that they will destabilise the democratic world. Technological change and its consequencesaffect European politics directly, by providing opportunities and partners to autocratic leaders, but also indirectly. In the era of Web 1.0, Donald Trump would probably never have made it into the White House. His presidency emboldened autocrats and decisively contributed to the weakening of democratic norms worldwide.

The success of populists reveals some of the limits of democratic electorates. Why have many Hungarian and Polish voters accepted their respective incumbents’ illiberal reforms? It is because, like their counterparts elsewhere, many of them have a fairly biased understanding of democracy. Social science research shows that voters typically perceive politics through partisan lenses and, by democracy, they often understand it as a vehicle for their preferred policy outcomes. They are thus frequently unwilling to sanction politicians for breaking abstract democratic principles. This is even less so when these politicians are from voters’ chosen political camp and, simultaneously, deliver desired public policies. Such limits have always existed and, probably, are hardwired into our nature.

Yet, they mattered less a few decades ago when gatekeeping worked better and mainstream politicians held each other in check. Like their predecessors in the 1920s and 1930s, today’s populists understand that by dividing society and denouncing their real or imagined adversaries, they can get away with blatant violations of the democratic rules. They aim to fuel discontent and toxic polarisation, which transform public debate into tribal wars.

Will the 2020s resemble the 1920s? Despite the recent worrisome trends, there is reason for moderate optimism. Fascism, violent coups and outright authoritarianism are historically compromised as concepts. Even authoritarians like Orbán are at pains to preserve the veneer of procedural legality and subsequently turn their countries into autocracies by stealth. They do so to please foreign stakeholders – including the EU, international bodies and the markets – but also domestic audiences. Their popular support does not come from being authoritarian. Quite the opposite, their election victories are possible only because the bulk of their voters do not understand that many of the adopted reforms, while legal on paper and potentially legitimate in isolation, are problematic in practice and undemocratic when combined. While this process illustrates the danger of sneaky “autocratisation” and partisan bias, it also demonstrates the prestige of democracy and its unrivalled popularity as a political system. There is still no credible alternative to the democratic ideal.

While voters are susceptible to partisan bias and populist rhetoric, they tend to be put off by politicians’ incompetence. Britain’s poor economic performance after Brexit; Hungary’s struggle with energy, living costs and food shortages; China’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic; and Russia’s humiliating debacles on the battlefield do not make populist and autocratic solutions look particularly attractive. Brexit and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have highlighted the otherwise diffuse benefits of EU and NATO membership, challenging populists who had often scapegoated these two organisations and, instead, preached closer cooperation with the Kremlin. Even though European democracies will face significant challenges in the months to come, ranging from the continuing energy crisis to migration, they are unlikely to fail this stress test.

It is true that Europe’s democratic future will also hinge on a certain number of critical events. The outcome of the war in Ukraine comes to mind first and foremost. Should Russia prevail this would not only be a disaster for tens of millions of Ukrainians. It would also reduce the prestige of democracy and force Europeans to make ugly compromises, which would empower cynical and populist politicians. Similarly, Europe’s democracy will always be sensitive to the outcomes of the US and French presidential elections. If another Trump-style politician occupied the Oval Office, or a “Lepeniste” candidate took over the Élysée Palace and commanded a majority in the National Assembly, European democrats would be in troubled waters.

Nevertheless, if technological change is the main facilitator of the populist rise, democratic systems may gradually learn how to stand up to this challenge. It is crystal clear that the internet and social media need better regulation. Democratic politicians also need to become more effective at tackling today’s major problems which include growing economic inequality and climate change. From this perspective, especially when it comes to inequality, a certain dose of populism may actually be healthy and help mainstream political forces adopt a more proactive approach. European democrats have a lot on their plate, but their starting position is not at all bad. Overall, there are many reasons to view the democratic glass as nearly full rather than almost empty.


This text can be referred to as Kostelka, Filip. 2023. “Is Europe’s Democracy in Crisis?”, New Eastern Europe 2023/1.

Russia and the Rogue Intellectuals

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

I wrote the original version of this article in response to a lecture on the war in Ukraine by John Mearsheimer, Professor of International Relations at the University of Chicago. Mearshimer delivered the lecture on June 16 at the Robert Schuman Centre of the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence, Italy, and as of this writing in October, it has been viewed nearly 2.2 million times on YouTube. It was also shared by Russian authorities on social media. The EUI issued its invitation to Mearsheimer in late 2021, well before Russia invaded Ukraine. While he would not have been invited once the invasion began, the invitation was not withdrawn. As a matter of principle, the EUI – I believe rightly – does not censor academics.

Mearsheimer’s talk was not a serious academic analysis of the events from a “realist” perspective. Rather, it was a disingenuous defence of the Kremlin’s narrative. As a scholar whose work focuses on central and eastern Europe and who grew up in that region, I felt compelled to respond.

Mearshimer is one of several prominent Western intellectuals who blame the United States and NATO as much as Russia for Ukraine’s suffering, if not more. These include the linguist Noam Chomsky and the economist Jeffrey D. Sachs; Mearsheimer is the most outspoken among them. At a panel during the American Political Science Association convention in Montreal in September, his views were much contested by the audience and the other panellists.

At the EUI, Mearsheimer was given the opportunity to present his argument in full. His lecture was deeply problematic on factual, scientific and moral grounds. Here I address the validity of Mearsheimer’s central claim, the quality of the evidence he presented and the lecture’s broader implications.

Mearshimer’s explanation of the war in Ukraine, like those of Chomsky and Sachs, is intellectually unsatisfactory and rests on shaky empirical foundations. This is no mere “academic” matter. These “rogue” intellectuals legitimize Russia’s propaganda and falsehoods and flout the fundamental values of social responsibility that all intellectuals should respect.

For the rogue intellectuals, the United States and its allies are to blame for Russia’s invasion since they allegedly pushed for Ukraine’s NATO membership, the prospect of which is an existential threat for Russia. According to Jeffrey Sachs, “the Russian invasion in 2022 would likely have been averted had Biden agreed with Putin’s demand to end NATO’s eastward enlargement.” Similarly, Noam Chomsky said in a March interview that the invasion occurred because the “U.S. contemptuously rejected Russian security concerns.”

There are a number of reasons why this account is wanting.

It ignores the fact that Ukrainians – like other eastern Europeans – have been actively seeking NATO membership to protect themselves from the Russian threat. They did not need to be pushed: they desperately wanted to join. They first officially applied for membership in 2008 and repeatedly declared it a policy priority after 2014. Ascribing to them a uniquely passive role turns the blame game on its head, condescendingly writing off central and eastern Europeans as clueless pawns in a geopolitical game played by the “great” powers.

Assuming, as the rogue intellectuals do, that Russia’s invasion was a response to Ukraine’s pursuit of NATO membership, can the current leaders of Ukraine be blamed for the war? In reality, the desire of Ukrainians and other eastern Europeans to join NATO is an expression of their fear of Russian nationalism and imperialism. This fear draws on historical memories and tragic events such as the Holodomor, the Great Famine orchestrated by Soviet authorities in Ukraine in the early 1930s; the Red Army’s criminal behaviour upon “liberation” in many central and eastern European countries; and the interventions by the Soviets and their allies in Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968) and Afghanistan (1979).

Russia’s war against Georgia (2008) and the current invasion of Ukraine are just the recent manifestations of a pattern underlying this fear. Were there any real change in Russia’s foreign policy mindset, it would have taken the form of a profound reform of its political institutions. Only then might the neighbouring nations have reconsidered seeking to join NATO.

In addition, the rogue intellectuals’ account is at least partially incomplete since, in isolation, it cannot satisfactorily explain the timing of the invasion or why other pro-Western countries in Russia’s immediate neighbourhood have avoided a similar fate. When Russia’s invasion started, it still appeared extremely unlikely that Ukraine would join NATO in the foreseeable future. What is more, the prospect that NATO, in the implausible scenario of Ukrainian membership, would launch an attack against a nuclear power is absurd. Indeed, Ukraine joining NATO would hardly be a credible military threat to Russia and, as long as Crimea remained in Russian hands, Russia’s key strategic interests would be largely preserved.

Clearly, any serious explanation of the invasion needs to consider additional factors such as Russia’s domestic political situation, the ideological and symbolic threat a democratic and prosperous Ukraine would represent to Russia’s incumbent political regime, and the potential desire of an aging dictator to achieve immortality through territorial expansion. Without considering these factors and assessing them against solid empirical evidence, we will never understand what triggered the invasion.

This brings us to the underlying logic of the rogue intellectuals’ explanation, which draws more or less explicitly on Mearsheimer’s version of the realist theory of international relations, “offensive realism.” This theory holds that great powers such as Russia cannot tolerate perceived security threats in their neighbourhoods. However, here, as in many other cases, offensive realism fails on empirical grounds. The breakup of the Soviet bloc, the post–Cold War military weakness of Germany and the establishment of lasting peace among major European powers are examples of its failure. Even if Russia really considered the prospect of Ukraine’s accession to NATO an existential threat, which is far from clear despite official Russian rhetoric, there was absolutely no certainty that it would react in the way it did to Ukraine’s seeking to join the alliance.

In fact, as has been reported, the invasion took many members of Russia’s political establishment by surprise. Kremlin officials claimed to be in shock when Russia’s army assaulted Ukraine. Given the variety of alternative scenarios that could unfold, placing the blame for the war on the United States, on NATO or even on Ukraine for its supposed active pursuit of NATO membership is not only morally wrong (wars are started by those who pull the trigger, not those who join a defensive military alliance) but also intellectually dishonest.

While one would expect such a controversial thesis to be supported by strong empirical evidence, the evidence presented largely boils down to an uncritical reading of selected official statements made by the Russian leadership. When asked why one should believe what Russia’s leaders say, Mearsheimer responded, “Because Putin rarely lies to foreign audiences.”

To back up his claim, he referred to a book he had authored on lying in international politics, finding that political leaders lie to other countries much less often than we think. He failed to mention that the book is not based on systematic research and that such lying is rare particularly for democracies – Russia is not a democracy. During his talk, Mearsheimer simply ignored Russia’s numerous lies on the public record, including Putin’s original denial of any involvement in Crimea in 2014, which was followed by his open boasting about the annexation a few months later. The U.S. State Department even went so far as to officially publish two 10-item lists of documented Russian falsehoods on Ukraine in 2014.

Mearsheimer is willing to take at face value selected statements by Putin on the existential threat Russia faces, but not assertions that Russia could have imperial ambitions and that the invasion’s objective could be territorial. This, he asserted, required proof that Putin “thought it was a desirable goal, … a feasible goal, … (and) that he intended to pursue that goal.”

It is hard to imagine what kind of evidence Mearsheimer would like to see, as Putin was quite clear in his repeated preinvasion statements, denying the legitimacy and even the very existence of an independent Ukrainian state. On the eve of the invasion, Putin explicitly argued that Ukraine never had “real statehood,” and said it was an integral part of Russia’s “own history, culture, spiritual space.” After the invasion, he went on to compare himself to the 18th-century Czar Peter the Great and to declare that Russia was simply reclaiming its territory.

In response to criticism, Mearsheimer admitted that Putin’s objectives escalated during the invasion into imperial ambitions, but he insisted that Russia originally did not want to annex territory. This was proven by the fact that “there were only 190,000 soldiers in Russia’s invading army, which is far too small a force to vanquish and occupy Ukraine.” Yet again, this argument does not hold much water when we remember that Russia clearly targeted Kyiv from the first day of the invasion and that it suffered terrible military losses.

A key factor was poor intelligence: all available evidence points to a disastrous miscalculation by the Kremlin of the effectiveness of its military and of the popular support for Russia within Ukraine. Its military operations were supposed to be backed by a network of Ukrainian collaborators, most of whom apparently existed only in reports prepared by Russia’s security officials. A statement by Ukrainian official sources, which certainly needs to be interpreted carefully in wartime, reported that Putin discovered that his secret services may have embezzled $5 billion allocated from the Russian budget for subversive operations in Ukraine between 2014 and 2022.

Moreover, denying the plausibility of Russia’s imperial objectives contradicts the core tenets of Mearsheimer’s own theory and a large amount of circumstantial evidence from central and eastern Europe. Offensive realism argues that great powers aim to maximize their material capabilities. If Russian intelligence reports suggested that Ukrainians would not resist their invaders, why wouldn’t Putin want to annex Ukraine’s territory? And why would his plans escalate from intervention to annexation only when the invasion did not go as planned, as Mearsheimer claims? On the contrary, such escalation would have made much more sense if the invasion had proceeded smoothly.

In questioning Russia’s imperial ambitions, rogue intellectuals turn a blind eye to the nostalgia for the Soviet empire in Russian public opinion, the persistence of a hierarchical and imperial worldview among Russian elites and the Russian media, and Russia’s meddling in the politics of central European countries. We need to remember that in the months leading up to the invasion, in addition to a Ukrainian pledge not to join NATO, Russia insisted on a NATO pledge to withdraw all troops from the territories of its post-1990 members in central and eastern Europe. Clearly, Russia’s ambitions do not stop with Ukraine. This is what one would expect according to offensive realism, but it runs counter to rogue intellectuals’ current thesis, which implies that if the United States did not push for Ukraine’s NATO membership, there would be no “crisis.”

Rogue intellectuals’ determined promotion of their controversial views is hard to understand and probably draws on a variety of motivations. For some of them, it may be a mixture of academic ambition and taste for media attention. For others, it is an ideologically motivated, left-wing opposition to U.S. “imperialist” foreign policy – an opposition amounting to at least indirect support of Russia’s imperialism and crimes. In any case, rogue intellectuals’ account has limited explanatory power and is not supported by empirical evidence.

In Mearsheimer’s sophisticated but theoretically inconsistent version, it relies on cherry-picking from official statements made by a serial liar, sets double standards when assessing available evidence and uses rhetorical gymnastics to disregard unfavourable new realities. Though enrobed in a scientific cloak, it is punditry, except with far too serious real-life consequences. It plays into the hands of Russian propaganda, which the Kremlin does not hesitate to instrumentalize.

While the right to express unpopular ideas needs to be defended, the authors of those ideas are responsible for their consequences. They should always weigh the strength of the evidence supporting those ideas, their potential benefits to society and the likely repercussions of expressing them outside private circles. When the evidence is weak, societal benefits low and possible repercussions disastrous, intellectuals have a duty to think more than twice before legitimizing a criminal invasion.


¹ The Causes and Consequences of the Ukraine War: A Lecture by John J. Mearsheimer, Youtube.

² Jeffrey D. Sachs, The Great Game in Ukraine is Spinning Out of Control, September 28, 2022; C.J. Polychroniou, Noam Chomsky: US Military Escalation Against Russia Would Have No Victors, Truthout, March 1, 2022.

³ See Arthur Milner, Lessons from the Holodomor, elsewhere in this issue.

⁴ Even today, Western countries’ support for Ukraine’s accession to NATO remains lukewarm. Ukraine responded to the recently declared annexation of four of its regions by Russia by announcing a fast-tracked bid to join the alliance. While the bid received support from NATO’s eastern European members, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg and U.S. officials are much less enthusiastic.

⁵ See John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (Updated edition; New York: W W Norton, 2014).

⁶ Bill Bostock, Kremlin Staff Didn’t Expect Putin to Invade Ukraine and Were Shocked by the Severity of Western Sanctions, Report Says, Business Insider, March 4, 2022.

⁷ Carl Schreck, From ‘Not Us’ To ‘Why Hide It?’: How Russia Denied Its Crimea Invasion, Then Admitted It, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Feb 26, 2019.

⁸ Violetta Orlova, $5 mlrd v nikuda: Putin hochet razobratsya pochemu provalilas podryvnaya deyatelnost v Ukraine, Unian, March 7, 2022.

⁹ Jacob Poushter, Many Russians Agree That it is Natural for Them to Have an Empire, Pew Research Center, March 4, 2014; Kevork K. Oskanian, A Very Ambiguous Empire: Russia’s Hybrid Exceptionalism, Europe-Asia Studies, Jan 2, 2018; Filip Kostelka and Eva Krejcova. The Kremlin Strikes Back in Central and Eastern Europe, Inroads, Summer/Fall 2017.

Volby jako každé jiné. A nebo ne?

            Několik českých novinářů označilo v tisku či na sociálních sítích nadcházející legislativní volby za stejně důležité jako jakékoliv předchozí. Domnívám se, že se mýlí. Ještě nikdy hlavní favorit voleb neměl tak silnou pozici, domácí a zahraniční spojence, vhodný mezinárodní kontext, a též prostředky na to, aby významně oslabil demokratické normy a západní směřování České republiky. Řeč je samozřejmě o Andreji Babišovi a jeho hnutí ANO.

Nekteří namítnou, že se během čtyř let Babišova premiérství vlastně nic podstatného nestalo. Parlement nikdo nerozpustil, Česká televize neztratila svoji nezávislost, Milion chvilek demokracie si mohl pořádat demonstrace a naše členství v Evropské Unii a NATO vláda nezpochybňovala. Je pravda, že v těchto zásadních aspektech zatím (viz. níže) ke změně nedošlo. Ale o to větši posun se udál v rovině právního státu a státní správy, bez nichž demokracie nemůže řádně fungovat.

Česku už čtyři roky vládne trestně stíhaný premiér, což je věc nemyslitelná ve vyspělých demokraciích a donedávna i v tuzemsku. Projevuje se to mimo jiné tím, že vrchní statní zástupce Pavel Zeman rezignoval kvůli tlaku ministrině spravedlnosti Marie Benešové a dozorující státní zástupce v kauze Čapí hnízdo Jaroslav Šaroch dělá co může, aby své vyšetřování nemusel dokončit před volbami (viz. pokárání vrchní pražskou státní zástupkyní). Další premiérovy kauzy policie teprve zdlouhavě vyšetřuje. Není divu, není lehké jít proti svému de facto nejvyššímu nadřízenému. A tak ministerstva zuby nehty brání Babišovy dotace, které evropské instituce logicky odmítají proplácet kvůli premiérově střetu zajmů. Co naplat, že to poškozuje ostatní české podniky. Ministrině Benešová neváhá pronést, ze premiérův Agrofert si neopravněně vyplacené peníze zaslouží a má si je ponechat, i když to zaplatí český daňový poplatník.

Zároveň premiér vlastní skrze zástěrku svěřeneckých fondů zhruba třetinu soukromého médiálního prostoru, což odporuje duchu českých zákonů a základním demokratickým principům. Občané se pak často ani nedozví, že tisíce jejich blízkých zemřeli běhém probíhající pandemie zbytečně a že Česká republika má 7. nejhorší bilanci v umrtí na covid-19 na světě. Též se nepozastaví nad tím, že už déle než rok trvá vyšetřování významné ekologické katastrofy na řece Bečva, či že premiérova pravá ruka, Jaroslav Faltýnek, ztratila diář, který inkriminuje premiérovo okoli ze systematických korupčních praktik.    

Toto jsou šokující fakta nynější česká politické reality. Zejména za poslední volební období se její demokratické mantinely posunuly vyrazně na východ. A bohužel je pádný důvod se domnívat, že jestli Andrej Babiš zůstane u moci, tento trend se nezastaví, ale naopak urychlí.

Jedním z katalyzátorů takového vývoje mohou být příští koaliční partneři ANO. Socialní demokracie do poslaneckých lavic po volbách už pravděpodobně nezasedne. Jestli ODS či jiná standardní strana nespáchá politickou sebevraždu, Babiš se pravděpodobně bude muset dohodnout na vládnutí s nějakou z extremistických alternativ: krajně pravicovou SPD nebo krajně levicovou KSČM. A to nebude zadarmo. Jednou z obětí takové koaliční či opoziční dohody mohou být veřejnoprávní média, která už dlouho pijí krev extremistům, ale i prezidentu Zemanovi. Jejich nezávislý žurnalismus je, jak to v demokracii má být, kritický vůči vládním stranám. Přetransformovat hlídací psy demokracie v propagandistický nástroj vlády, podobně jak se to nedávno stalo v Polsku, Babiše učitě osobně mrzet nebude. Zvláště v případě, kdy překročí reputační Rubikon otevřené spolupráce se stigmatizovanými stranami. A že se Babiš spojení s autokraty nebojí ukázal mimo jiné během volební kampaně. Viktora Orbána, který po roce 2010 postupně zadusil maďarskou demokracii, pozval na své mitinky do Ustí nad Labem a nepohodlné novináře na tiskovou konferenci prostě nepustil.  

K iliberalismu bude ale Babiše tlačit i téměr nevyhnutelný konflikt s Evropskou komisí. Její stanovisko je jasné: budťo Babiš vyřeší svůj střet zájmů, nebo všechny dotace pro české přijemce budou pozastaveny. Premiér má tak jen pár možností, jak z této situace ven. Že by se vzdal Agrofertu je nesmírně nepravděpodobné. Případně může předat premiérský post nějakému spolehlivému spolustraníkovi z ANO a pokusit se vyhrát příští prezidentskou volbu. To je ale riskantní strategie. Spolustraník se může ukázat nedostatečně spolehlivý, Babiš nemusí prezidentskou volbu výhrát a jeho vystoupení z vlády ho vystaví většímu riziku ohledně jeho kauz a policejních vyšetřování. Okolnosti tak Babiše můžou dotlačit k šíleně znějícímu plánu, který si možná ani on sám donedávna nedokázal představit.

Možností jak zůstat u moci, vyhnout se vězení a zachránit Agrofert, závislý na dotacích, je vystoupení z Evropské unie a vyvoření čistě domácích dotačních programů. Na cestě k takovému krajnímu řešení by nastolení autoritářského režimu orbánovského typu, s jehož některými aspekty má již teď Babišovo Česko určité společné znaky, bylo vítaným mezistupňem. Czexit by pravěpodobně našel podporu mimo jiné u řady spřízněných agrobaronů, SPD (i když si ho Tomio Okamura v duchu možná vůbec nepřeje), komunistů, Trikolóry, v té době už minulých prezidentů Klause a Zemana, a v Česku extrémně aktivní dezinformační scény. V zahraničí by se pak Babiš mohl opřít o podporu jak Viktora Orbána, tak Jaroslawa Kaczinskeho v Polsku, jejichž autoritářské ambice již dlouho trpí pod kontrolou Bruselu. Nesmirně důležitým faktorem je pak, že zhruba do roku 2030 Česká republika přestane díky svému ekonomickému růstu být čistým přijemcem financí z rozpočtu Evropské unie a stane se naopak čistým přispěvatelem. Jeden z nejvíce popularních argumentů pro členství se tak jednoduše přetaví v argument pro odchod.

Takovým scénářům zatím naštěstí stojí v cestě několik překážek. Tou nejdůležitějsí je Senát. Bez podpory horní komory parlementu a možnosti reformovat ústavu zůstane jakýkoliv pokus o orbanizaci Česka vždy jen částečný. Též se uvidí, kdo bude na Hradě. Babiš by dále musel počítat s odporem velké části občanské společnosti a odrazujícím precedentem Brexitu. Odchod z Evropské unie by také, v rámci katastrofálních dopadů na českou ekonomiku, minimálně v krákodobém horizontu poškodil Babišovo podnikání, a tak určitě není premiérovou první volbou. Bylo by ale bláhové si myslet, že se postupně nemůže stát jeho jedinou možností. A vyprávejtě Maďarům, že demokracie v rozvinutých zemích nezaniká, či Britům, že odchod z Evropské unie je iracionální fantazie pár extremistů. 

Nikdy v porevoluční historii naší země nenabízel mezinárodní kontext více příležitosti pro politiky otevřené autoritářským řešením. Nikdy v naší politice nebyl člověk, který by tak dokázal kumulovat ekonomickou, mediální a politickou moc jako Andrej Babiš. V nadcházejích volbách tak jde o hodně. Nejdůležitější otázkou v nich nebude pravicová či levicová politika, ale obrana demokracie jako takové. 

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,



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,


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,

[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.

[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”,


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.