Online Commentary

October 18, 2021

Czechs and Balances After Surprising Elections

Czechs have voted for change and narrowly defeated the controversial populist premier Andrej Babis. It would be premature to see this as signaling the end of populism in Central Europe. It is a promising opening, which will be tested soon enough in country’s presidential election. Germany should engage with the next government in Prague early and on broader EU issues than the rule of law as tensions with Hungary and Poland are set to escalate further.

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In a surprise result, the populist ANO party of Prime Minister Andrej Babiš was narrowly defeated by the opposition coalition SPOLU (Together) in the Czech Republic’s parliamentary elections on October 8-9. Composed of the conservative ODS party, the liberal conservative TOP09, and the Christian Democrats, SPOLU received 27.8 percent of the votes, ahead of ANO on 27.1 percent. The other opposition grouping of the social-liberal Pirate Party and the center-right Mayors and Independents (STAN) was third with 15.6 percent. The only other party that will be represented in the next parliament will be the far-right SPD (9.5 percent).

The two opposition coalitions won a combined majority of 108 seats in the 200-member Chamber of Deputies. Their leaders have agreed to form a government and aim to have a formal coalition ready by November 8 when the new parliament is set to meet. At that point, the outgoing government should resign and the president should nominate a new prime minister to lead coalition talks and propose a cabinet, a process for which there is no deadline. The SPOLU leader, Petr Fiala, has requested meeting with President Miloš Zeman, who has been in hospital in intensive care since the day after the elections.

The process of government formation might be delayed by Zeman due to his poor health or to his preference to renominate first his ally Babiš as the leader of the largest single party in the next parliament. This would trigger a constitutional crisis that could backfire against the president. The new Chamber of Deputies could pronounce him unfit to perform his duties for health reasons, using Article 66 of the constitution. This requires a simple majority in both houses of parliament, which the center-right camp will have.

One factor making a lengthy transfer of power less likely, though, is the approach of the Czech Republic’s presidency of the Council of the EU in the second half of 2022. Ahead of the elections, Zeman assured some diplomats that a new cabinet with a full mandate would be in place by spring 2022 at the latest. The leaders of SPOLU have demanded a faster process with a parliamentary confidence vote for the next government by January. For its part, ANO has signaled that it will not try to block a transition and that it expects to be in the opposition.

What did the elections show?

The elections could be a turning point for the Czech Republic, creating a new opening after an era dominated by the veteran populist Zeman and the pragmatic opportunist Babiš, who entered politics as an outsider a decade ago. Since 2017, when he became prime minister, their tandem facilitated state capture, clientelism, and the erosion of the rule of law and democratic institutions. In the electoral campaign, Babiš presented himself to his largely older and small-town voters as the “caring boss” who gave them higher pensions, social benefits, tax cuts, and a higher minimum wage while his opponents were plotting to get rid of him. His opponents pointed out his many conflicts of interests, including with the European Commission over EU subsidies received by companies in his Agrofert conglomerate. Increasingly running out of space for maneuver, he was on track to become the EU’s third big headache among its eastern member states besides the governments of Poland and Hungary.

Ultimately, the elections were free and fair, something that is no longer a given in Central and Eastern Europe.

Interpreting Babiš’s electoral defeat as a sign of receding populism in Central and Eastern Europe could be premature. First, it was very narrow, with ANO receiving 1.46 million votes – almost the same level as four years ago – and SPOLU 1.49 million. Second, the populist vote was not weak but fragmented. A record high of 19 percent of votes went to parties, many of which are populist or extremist, finishing below the 5 percent threshold to enter parliament.

Shifts of a couple of thousand votes in favor for the new populist Oath party (which won 4.8 percent) or for the social democrats (4.6 percent), a junior partner of ANO in the outgoing government, would have altered distribution of parliamentary seats and provided Babiš with options for staying in power. Also included in this category are the unreformed communists who provided crucial support for his government but having scored 3.6 percent will now not be in parliament for the first time since 1989.

The role of country’s massive and highly developed, disinformation scene and alternative media, some of them with ties to President Zeman, cannot be overlooked either. For these elections, they focused their negative and dirty campaigns especially on the Pirates Party, which may have driven down its support.

Ultimately, however, the Czech Republic’s parliamentary elections were free and fair, something that is no longer a given in Central and Eastern Europe. Public television and radio have also retained their quality and independence, despite mounting pressure from political nominees in their supervisory boards, in contrast to the situation in Poland. The media market might be distorted by Babiš’s ownership of major outlets but it is still much more open and pluralistic than the one in Hungary.

A chance to regain trust

The big question is whether the outcome of the elections will help to address some of the deeper social and structural factors that enabled populists like Babiš to thrive. These include lack of trust in democratic institutions and elites, the collapse of the political center, the surge in protest votes, and growing resentment in the country’s deprived regions and among the aging population away from big cities.

There is an opening to restore trust in the country's democratic system.

As the center of the political spectrum consolidated and bounced back at the polls, there is an opening to restore trust in the country’s democratic system. In the past two years, various civil protest movements, such Million Moments for Democracy, mobilized people to defend democratic institutions against Babiš’s style of politics and put pressure on the parties of the democratic camp to unite, preparing the ground for change. The turnout at the elections was the highest in the past 25 years at 65.4 percent. In large urban areas it was even higher, especially in Prague (70.1 percent), and also among younger voters.

These are all positive signs that something is moving in Czech society. It remains to be seen how lasting this is and to what extent the next government will be able to repair the damage of the last years, decrease polarization, and deliver solutions, including to deprived regions that feel ignored by mainstream parties

Defeated but not out

Andrej Babiš might be on the way out as prime minister but he should not be underestimated. Even in opposition, he could be a formidable force. With 72 seats, ANO will have the largest parliamentary group, and he retains his business and media empire as well as a high level of support in a deeply polarized society.

On the other hand, Babiš does not like parliamentary work and might decide to step back from daily politics to concentrate on his business affairs. Earlier, he even promised to leave his parliamentary seat if he could not be in government. But Babiš might not have a choice. Since its foundation in 2011, ANO has very much remained his personal vehicle and without him it would most likely soon disintegrate. In addition, he needs to fend off several ongoing police investigations. In a high-profile case involving subsidy fraud in which he was formally charged, Babiš has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, saying that the investigation was a plot by his political adversaries. The police twice recommended his indictment, and the state prosecutor twice returned the case for further investigation (allegedly under pressure from the minister of justice), most recently last summer. Things might change once Babiš is no longer in power.

There are several reasons to assume that Babiš will run in the next presidential election. Scheduled for January 2023, it is likely to take place earlier if Zeman’s health does not improve or if he decides to resign. Acceptable to the president’s entourage, Babiš could run as his natural heir and the candidate for a broad nativist camp. Helped by the disinformation scene and by his media and campaign machine, his candidacy would once again deeply polarize society and could destabilize democratic institutions. Babiš could easily win the first round of the election and then do well in the runoff depending on who is his opponent. If he is elected president, he would remain the dominant figure in Czech politics for another decade.

The next governing coalition would need to find a strong, and perhaps non-partisan, candidate who could unite the broader democratic camp and help the country break away from the populist period. Petr Fiala has already announced that finding such a candidate would be among the priorities of his government.

New EU and Visegrád dynamics?

A new center-right government will focus on good governance and fiscal rebalancing at home, while improving the Czech Republic’s standing in the European Union and building close political contacts with Germany and Western Europe. Compared to Babiš’s government, it will be more pro-European but also internally divided with some Eurosceptic voices, less transactional, fiscally and socially more conservative, and more active on foreign policy, security, energy, and technology issues. It would also advocate stronger transatlantic dialogue.

Germany's new government should engage with its counterpart in Prague on a wide range of dossiers.

Areas of possible tension with Germany and the EU mainstream will include issues such as European strategic sovereignty and energy and climate issues, including the emissions trading system and the pace of the green transition for Czech industry, on which Prague will continue to close ranks with other Visegrád countries.

A more differentiated picture is emerging within the Visegrád group, however. As prime minister, Petr Fiala would be less friendly with Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who cultivated close personal relations with Babiš, but there are people in his ODS party who have affinities with the Hungarian prime minister’s Christian and anti-migration agenda. He would be more interested in repairing the partnership with Poland, starting with a solution to the border dispute in connection with the expansion of the Turow coal mine.

In the European Parliament, Fiala’s ODS is part of the European Conservatives and Reformists group alongside Poland’s Law and Justice party, while three other parties expected to be in the governing coalition are members of the mainstream European People’s Party. The last one, the Pirates Party, is formally part of the Greens-European Free Alliance group, but it will have a weak position in Prague to balance the conservative profile of the governing coalition. The next government is likely to continue close cooperation with Slovakia but it will also develop new issue-based coalitions in the EU beyond the Visegrád group.

Given the political shift to the center-left in Germany in its recent elections, with a coalition government in the making between the Social Democrats, The Greens, and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), there will not be much ideological affinity or party links between Berlin and Prague. There is, however, some programmatic overlap between the Czech center-right parties and the FDP on fiscal and economic policy and on digitalization. On the other hand, tensions can be expected on some cultural issues.  

Germany’s new government would be well advised to seize the opportunity offered by the results of the recent elections in the Czech Republic and engage with its counterpart in Prague at an early stage on a wide range of dossiers to help it prepare for the presidency of Council of the EU and develop the European dimension of Czech national preferences, especially on economic and climate issues. This would help to reinvigorate bilateral dialogue as well as to diffuse the growing east-west tensions in the EU about values and the rule of law.

Bibliographic data

This DGAP Online Commentary was published on October 18, 2021.

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