Another Populist Fight: The Upcoming Czech Parliamentary Elections

A little country in the middle of Europe popularly known as Czechia or “Czechoslovakia”, most famous for its capital city and beer, only comes into focus of the international media when a great scandal happens. Remember when the former Czech president stole a pen or when the current one went to see the national crown jewels drunk?. This time, the Czech Republic might find itself in the spotlight for a more serious reason. In a few days, the nation – or at least a part of it – will go to the voting polls to select a new parliament. And the predictions are petrifying.

If you look at the graph representing an average from the latest public opinion polls, the first thing you notice is the enormous difference between the first two parties, possibly the greatest margin we have seen in any of the major European elections this year. Moreover, the vote is unbelievably fragmented – according to this poll, 8 different parties would cross the 5% threshold and enter the parliament. That is a lot, even for such a pluralist country as the Czech Republic (currently, there are have 7 parties in the Czech parliament, three of them forming the governing coalition).

So far, so good. None of this seems wrong. The problem arises once you look at the different parties in more detail. Let me first introduce you to Andrej Babiš, the leader of the currently most popular party called ANO (the Czech word for “yes”). He is a millionaire, current Minister of Finance and a populist. Since his entry into politics in 2012, Babiš became a very controversial figure. In 2013, he bought the publishing house Mafra which owns several of the biggest newspapers in the country. Since then some recordings were leaked suggesting that Babiš uses the media he owns to discredit his political opponents and promote his own party. This did not stop him from becoming the Minister of Finance in 2013, but that only led to another conflict of interest since he remained the owner of Agrofert, an enormous agricultural conglomerate which profited millions of Euros from European grants. It was Babiš’s ministry which was overseeing the distribution of these grants. After that, several more scandals emerged including two trials against Andrej Babiš: one of them trying to prove that he was cooperating with the secret police (StB) during the communist regime, the other trying to convict him of European grants fraud.

Andrej Babiš giving away free fish soup on Christmas 2014

Yet somehow, his party has gained even more popularity in the recent years and is now predicted to win the elections decisively, with Andrej Babiš very probably becoming the next prime minister. How is it possible that even after all these scandals, he remains the most popular figure of Czech politics? The answer seems to be the typical one these days. He uses most of the same strategies as Donald Trump did during his electoral campaign – he distances himself from the “political elites”, speaks the language of the people and his immense wealth makes him incorruptible in the eyes of the people and proves his hard-working nature as a successful businessman. But most importantly, he successfully builds his image of a man bullied by the media and hated by the elites. This, in turn, renders all the scandals he was ever accused of irrelevant and only helps him to build up his image.

Having introduced the potential next prime minister, let’s look at the rest of the political spectrum. I will not go through every party individually since that would be unnecessarily confusing for an external observer. Let me instead look at three essential trends that can be extracted from the presented public opinion poll.

First, it is clear that the traditionally big parties lose ground. ODS (The right-wing Civic Democratic Party) and ČSSD (Czech Social Democratic Party) are the two moderate big parties which traditionally competed on the left-right scale. Following the same scheme that can be seen in other western countries, in the last years, following a couple of scandals, these parties lost their predominance and freed space for the emergence of new parties. This space was filled by populist (ANO) or even far-right (SPD) parties. The only exception to the decline of traditional big parties is the KSČM (Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia). From an outside perspective, it might seem surprising that in a country that suffered forty years under a totalitarian communist regime, the preferences of the party remain around 12%. Unfortunately, this is neither surprising, nor new. The preferences for the Communist party are holding to the same levels ever since the revolution in 1989, their voters base being founded on the elder part of the population and their nostalgia for the pre-revolution regime.

As I mentioned, the decline of the traditional parties frees space for the emergence of new movements. This further disperses the vote and enables the emergence of far-right parties who copy the general scheme we saw in most European countries in the last years. SPD (Freedom and Direct Democracy) is a new party, created in 2015, which bases its political program upon the proposed policies of a total refusal of refugees, holding a referendum on leaving the European Union and banning Islam in the Czech Republic (arguing that Islam is not a religion but an ideology and thus this would not be unconstitutional). This obviously reminds us of the far-right parties that emerged after the massive influx of refugees in other western countries, but it is important to know that the Czech Republic has so far accepted 12 (twelve) refugees of the approximately 2600 it was supposed to accept according to the quota system. The Czech nation is very homogeneous with a tiny Muslim community (counting only a few thousands of people), most people have never met a Muslim in their life. Paradoxically, this only encourages islamophobia, as the only image that comes to people’s mind when they hear of a Muslim person is the one of a terrorist they know from the media. They have no comparison. The SPD quickly rose from nothing to a very probable electoral success, aiming at receiving more than 10% of the votes.

The last trend we can identify from the public opinion polls, is the development of Czech international policy. The Czech Republic has always been on the verge between the East and the West. Since it joined the European Union, it seemed that it is definitely orienting towards the Western world, but today the Czech Republic is at a crossroads once again. After the election of Emmanuel Macron in France, it seems probable that European Union will adapt a multi-speed integration and if Prague wants to secure a position in the faster group, it at least needs to clearly declare its willingness to accept Euro shortly. Yet, the Czech political scene is very divided on the issue. Only the Social Party (CSSD), the Christians democrats (KDU-CSL) and the strongly pro-European central-right liberal TOP09 (predicted 7% of votes) are firmly in favour of accepting the Euro. While the Pirate party (predicted 7% of votes) remains cautious, Mr. Babiš’s ANO, the traditional right-wing ODS, the far-right SPD and the communists all firmly deny the acceptance of euro, thus breaking the promise the Czech Republic gave when joining the EU. If we count the predicted preferences, all these euro-sceptic parties have in total about 60% of all votes. That is a startling majority of people who are sceptic of the European project. Yet, if the Czech Republic does not join the Eurozone, it might soon find itself on the periphery of the European union, being strongly drawn towards Mr. Putin’s Russia and with ever more loud voices of SPD to leave the Union completely.

The overall image of the Czech political scene is disturbing: Traditional moderate parties lose ground, populist and radical far-right parties take their places and the general international policy is slowly reorienting itself towards the East. Most of the inhabitants of the capital get horrified at the prospect of a potential governing coalition of Mr. Babiš’s ANO, the communist party and the far-right SPD. Christian-democrat and a former prime minister of the Czech Republic, Petr Pithart says that the upcoming parliamentary elections are going to be the most important ones in the last 25 years. It is not a fight between left and right parties anymore. The stakes are much higher. Nobody can tell what the result will be, but it is already clear that it will determine the fate of the Czech nation not just for the next four years.

Krystof Selucky

If you're looking for Krystof, just seek a tall, blond, smiling and friendly Czech guy who defines himself by simply saying "I like debating, I like challenging other people's opinions even if I am not sure about mine." He suggests so many fascinating articles and conversations with him reveal that he is someone open-minded and inspiring. But don't try to flirt with him because he is already in love with his beloved city: Prague. Her modernity, enhanced by her history, have rendered him awestricken. So much so that even after he had just arrived in Menton, he's already thinking about getting back to beautiful and enchanting city that is Prague. But Krystof is also a wild guy whose dream is to travel across New Zealand by foot: From the place where The Hobbit was filmed to the place where Mordor was set.
Krystof Selucky

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