Billionaires, populism and coalition-building: making sense of the 2017 Czech elections

Andrej Babiš. Photo: David Sedlecký

We ought to be getting used to shock election and referendum results by now. Here in the Czech Republic, the people and their newly-elected representatives are adjusting to one of the most surprising general election results since the restoration of democracy over twenty-five years ago. A massive defeat has been doled out to the mainstream parties, outsider parties have capitalised, and the office of prime minister is within touching distance of one Andrej Babiš, a ‘charismatic’ business mogul currently under investigation for fraud by the EU. How very 2017.

The paradoxical thing is that, in many ways, the Czech Republic is in rude health. It has near full employment and a resilient economy outside the Eurozone. It is untroubled by secessionist movements or border disputes. In comparison to neighbouring countries, there remains a liberal framework for citizens, civil society and the media to operate in. And the public transport is a truly wonder to behold.

Nevertheless as the dust settles on last weekend’s polling the immediate result is clear: with almost 30 percent of the vote, the anti-establishment ANO party (or ‘movement’ as it styles itself) under its leader, Mr Babiš, are the major winners and look set to be the dominant force in a new coalition government. This was only ANO’s second electoral contest. Moreover, two other newcomers, the Pirate and the Freedom and Direct Democracy parties – neither of which had gained a seat before now – each scored over 10 percent. Of the mainstream parties the Civic Democrats (the party associated with Václav Klaus and the Czech transition to the market economy in the 1990s) netted 11 percent, but it was truly disastrous for both the Social Democrats and the Communists, who polled 7.3 and 7.8 percent respectively.

In the short-term the election results have presented the politicians with an intricate and thorny challenge of forming an acceptable coalition. Many of the parties had already pledged not to do business with each other. The tainted personality of Babiš is a major stumbling block for several of his counterparts. The negotiations will be fractious, and it may be necessary for Babiš to permit a party colleague to assume the role of prime minister. There seems no chance of an anti-Babiš coalition forming a government.

The triumph of non-mainstream parties testifies to profound voter disaffection with the traditional options: this will be the first time since the Czech split from Slovakia in 1993 that neither the Civic Democrats from the centre-Right nor the Social Democrats from the centre-Left have emerged as the largest party in the house of representatives. Mainstream Czech politics has always been tainted with selfishness at best and outright corruption at worse, but now the major parties have become tarred with inflexibility, over-administration and an inability to offer convincing solutions to perceived political, economic and social problems linked to globalisation, EU membership and multiculturalism.

The Pirates and the Freedom Party have successfully tapped into Czech feelings of anxiety and frustration. The Czech incarnation of the Pirate Party campaigns on a similar agenda to other European manifestations: more direct democracy and civil liberties, less state interference over expression and the media, intolerance of corruption. The Freedom Party is a far-Right nationalist movement which campaigns against EU membership (it seeks an in/out referendum) and immigration. The irony is that the party’s leader is Tomio Okamura, of mixed Czech-Japanese parentage and who has lived in Czech Republic since the age of 6. The Freedom Party’s outspoken denunciations of immigration and Islam has endeared it to many: though the Czech Republic has experienced extremely low numbers of migrants and refugees in recent years, there is anxiety bordering on hysteria among sections of the population about the implications that newcomers pose in terms of employment, ‘national culture’ and national security. The humbling performance of the leading progressive centre Right party, TOP 09, which scored 5.3 percent and lost 19 seats, indicates that the voices of moderation are losing the debate.

But Babiš and ANO is the most striking story. Babiš divides local opinion like no other. A billionaire with massive interests in agriculture and chemicals, Babiš is under investigation by Czech prosecutors and the EU for alleged fraudulent handling of European subsidies. Accusations of collaboration with the Czechoslovak secret police back in Communist days also hang over him. A recent exposé of his business and media dealings has become a national bestseller. Yet he remains a totem for the disaffected and frustrated. His appeal and style are in many ways reminiscent of a Trump or a Berlusconi: a businessman who entered national politics to remedy the bungling stewardship of the professional politicians; criticism and investigations into his affairs are shrugged off as politically-motivated character assassinations. In a Thatcherite moment he compared running a state to managing a family business, and his success in business certainly recommends him to many. Voters also respond favourably to Babiš’s abrasive persona and ‘strong-man’ image. To older generations of voters especially, accustomed to years of unquestionable rule from above, there is comfort in a world of flux and crisis to feel that the state is managed by a man who knows his own mind. But Babiš and ANO have garnered votes from across the spectrum, including from voters previously supportive of the Left. There is now no significant Left-wing force in the lower house. This is unprecedented.

With Babiš and ANO in the driving seat, the old pattern of Czech politics has been broken, perhaps permanently. What this will mean internationally is not easy to predict. Babiš has been inconsistent in his attitudes towards the EU, blending criticism on issues such as the refugee crisis with acceptance of the benefits membership brings the country. But relations with the EU could well be strained given the allegations concerning Babiš, while it is conceivable that he and his party could exploit pervasive Euroscepticism to further distance the Czech Republic from the European project. This would probably mean that Prague would align itself more closely with its so-called Visegrad neighbours (Poland, Hungary and Slovakia). What these countries have in common in recent years is, of course, a turn towards Right-wing, populist, authoritarian and anti-EU administrations.

Then again, ANO itself now seems to be morphing from an outsider ‘movement’ into a mainstream party, and may simply end up replacing the Civic Democrats as the leading liberal-conservative party. The challenge would then be for the Left to come up with a compelling alternative.

Photo credit: Andrej Babiš, by David Sedlecký, published under a Creative Commons License.


Gerald Power

Gerald Power lectures in history at Metropolitan University Prague, and is a former Visiting Fellow at the Moore Institute. He is the co-author of a Czech-language study of the reception of Thatcher and Thatcherism in Czech politics.