Elections in the Czech Republic - Exciting and Confusing
Anyone who thinks that the German parliamentary elections were particularly exciting and uncertain in their results has not yet dealt with the hot campaign phase in the Czech Republic. There, the new Chamber of Deputies will be elected on Friday and Saturday this week. The polls predict two things above all: that anything is possible, and that forming a government will probably be extremely complicated.
Let's take a look at the latest poll conducted by the renowned opinion research institute STEM at the end of September. It confirms a stable trend that has been observed for a long time. There are three major parties or electoral alliances vying for leadership, but none of them is even close to forming a government on its own.
First, there is the ruling party ANO, which still leads the polls. The word "Ano" means "yes" in Czech, but here it also stands as an abbreviation for Akce nespokojených občanů - "Action of Dissatisfied Citizens." That sounds a bit populist, and it probably is. The party is completely unthinkable without its founder and leader Andrej Babiš, the country's current prime minister. Most people probably associate him with the word "scandal." He has several of those going on. Babiš is a multi-billionaire. He ran an agricultural and food company and over time bought several large newspapers - not only in the Czech Republic, but also in Germany, where he owns the Rheinische Post. Investigations in the Czech Republic and by the EU that there could be a conflict of interest between his companies (some of which grew through subsidies) and politics have accompanied him since the time he was finance minister of the Social Democrat-led government under Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka in 2014. He allegedly handed over his group to a trust whose independence is widely doubted. In addition, there are investigations that he may have skimmed EU subsidies while building a luxury vacation complex. Moreover, Slovak authorities claim that Babis worked as an informer for state security during the communist era.
No new revelation has yet diminished the prime minister's popularity among his supporters. ANO has an extremely stable core voter base - especially because pensioners have been constantly showered with social benefits - which is why ANO has been able to maintain a permanent position between around 25 and 30 % in polls over the years.
Advocate of the "Little Man”
This is also due to the populist talent of Babiš, who, even as a multibillionaire, knows how to present himself as an advocate of the "little man”. Foreign observers like to lump him together with populists like Hungary's Viktor Orbán - as proof that democracy seems to have been more or less undrmined in Central Europe and replaced by right-wing authoritarian tendencies.
But the comparison is flawed. Czech democracy is not in acute danger. Nor is Babiš driven by ideology, but quite pragmatically (or opportunistically?) by polls. If he goes on the offensive, he can rail against migrants and any form of interference by the EU in "his" affairs. On the other hand, ANO is part of the liberal ALDE in the European Parliament and its deputies are widely respected. Under Babiš, there has been a liberalization of the law on names, which previously discriminated against women, and the law introducing same-sex marriage in the Czech Republic, the first Central European country to do so, just passed its first parliamentary hurdles. Contradictions are also apparent in economic policy. On the one hand, the majority of ANO deputies recently voted in favor of a Czech food quota of 78% in the retail sector (which was quickly withdrawn), but at the same time they passed (against the votes of the coalition partner and with those of the opposition) a liberal tax reform that significantly eased the burden on companies after the Corona crisis, something that will probably be a long time coming in Germany. In the end, one never knows where one stands ideologically, but Babiš certainly makes clever use of opportunities as they arise.
However, Babiš's (tactical) lack of principles and his scandals mean that a very stable majority of the population strictly rejects him and would never join the camp of ANO voters, which is only relatively the strongest in the country.
Even after the last election in 2017, in which ANO became the strongest party for the first time, it had taken eight months to form a government. At the time, all parties had vowed never to make Babiš prime minister. But even among themselves, there was no other feasible constellation. In the end, the Social Democrats, who had only just ovrcome the 5 % hurdle, allowed themselves to be included in a coalition with ANO, contrary to their promises. Even that was not enough for a majority, so the Communists stepped in as supporters of a minority government. Since then, the Social Democrats have been in such crisis that most polls predict their parliamentary "out."
And that raises the question of who can govern after this weekend's elections. This brings us to ANO's closest rivals. In the summer, it almost looked in some polls as if an electoral alliance of Pirates and STAN could challenge ANO's rank as the strongest party and Pirate leader Ivan Bartoš could even become prime minister. In contrast to their German counterparts, the Pirates in the Czech Republic have been able to consolidate themselves well. They occupy the "center-left" and "modern" place in the spectrum, somewhere between social liberal and green. They find their voters primarily in the cities, and there among the young people. In Prague, they even have the mayor. The voter milieus that support them seem to lean increasingly to the left and, at the local level, toward anti-property policies, especially in the housing market. Although Bartoš is taking a more moderate line, this could become a not unthreatening tendency for the party, in a country with high and socially broad-based home ownership rates.
Since the Czech party system is very fragmented (nine parties managed to enter parliament in the 2017 elections) and the electoral system slightly favors larger parties, the Pirates have formed an electoral alliance with STAN. This is the party of the mayors, which is actually anchored at the local level and acts completely non-ideologically - just as the Free Voters used to do in Germany. The alliance thus has ideological fractures, which Babiš in particular uses in a fierce negative campaign that warns of a "Piratistan" described as "eco-fanatic" - which sounds a bit like Afghanistan as an example of a "failed state" that would become the Czech Republic if the Pirates (with STAN) came to power.
Great Moments of Parliamentarism
The campaign seems to have worked a bit, because in the meantime the Pirates/STAN alliance has been overtaken by the second democratic opposition alliance, namely SPOLU (Together). No less than three parties have formed an alliance here. The center-right alliance consists of the Civic Democrats (ODS), the Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL) and TOP09. The ODS was long the country's major people's party. Its profile is economically liberal and, under its founder, ex-President Václav Klaus, it was for a long time quite rudely Euroskeptical. Klaus left the party a long time ago in a dispute, and since then the party has adopted a more moderate profile under its chairman Petr Fiala. Then there are the two parties belonging to the European People's Party camp, of which KDU-ČSL is the more socially conservative (the attribute "Christian" still means something there) and TOP09 the somewhat more liberal. Here, too, fault lines have been drawn.
From time to time, there have been polls in recent months in which an alliance of the two alliances could even have won a majority. The fact that this trend does not prevail in the long term, although for most Czechs it might be the most consistent step toward democratic stabilization and cleaning up the political culture, which is perceived as corrupt, may be due to the fact that a government formed in this way and ultimately consisting of five parties is perceived as potentially unstable and torn.
Yet the two alliances have certainly shown in the past year that they can cooperate very well together as an opposition and, above all, constructively. They were able to enforce important concessions from the government coalition, which was unstable due to the unreliable actions of the communists, to pay more attention to civil rights in the fight against the Covid 19 epidemic. If one compares the whole thing with the weakening of the power of the Bundestag in Germany during this period, one could virtually admire some great moments of parliamentarism in the Czech Republic.
Are the Taboos Breaking?
Nevertheless, the polls have been predicting quite consistently for some time that the alliance of Pirates/STAN (last poll 17.4%) and SPOLU (21.4%) will not make it to an absolute majority. Just as consistently, they predict that ANO could lose its social democratic coalition partner (4.5 %). This has since led to speculation that Prime Minister Babiš could do what the country's often quite authoritarian and erratic president, Miloš Zeman, advised him to do back in 2017, namely to form a coalition with the (still orthodox) Communists (who, however, with a 5% poll rating are also trembling for their parliamentary existence) and the radical right-wing Party for Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) led by half-Japanese Tomio Okamura, which thanks to a quite professional campaign is now polling at 12.5%. That would be a terrifying prospect. Whether Babiš has fundamental moral objections to such a coalition is unclear, but it would certainly become a veritable additional burden for him in his conflicts with the EU over his scandals. He will probably want to avoid that. However, since all other parties except the threatened Social Democracy (ČSSD) rigorously rule out an alliance with Babiš, he may initially have difficulty forming a government at all. But so will his opponents. In a rather high-handed act of political interference, President Zeman has announced that he will not appoint anyone other than Babiš to form a government, since Babiš leads the strongest party. As a result, the democratic opposition's scope for taking the reins of government formation into its own hands is likely to be limited. Blockades are predictable. But there are also cracks in the alliances that could - at what price? - could break up. In SPOLU's largest party, the ODS, individual deputies have already indicated that they could imagine a coalition with ANO in an extreme emergency to prevent an extremist coalition of ANO, SPD and Communists. So far, they have always linked this to the condition that ANO must, however, separate from its chairman Babiš. Since ANO is electorally (and also financially) dependent on its bandwagon, this seems a highly unlikely idea. But after the election, the pressure to form a functioning government could grow to such an extent that previously cherished taboos would be broken.
At the moment, Prime Minister Babiš seems to be happy with almost anything that keeps him in power. He seems to have realized that he can no longer win votes from the centrist voter milieus (from which he is objectively not so far removed), because there is a particularly strong anti-sentiment against him here. In the populist and right-wing segments, on the other hand, there is currently a high level of volatility from which he could profit. There have been several splits from the radical right-wing SPD in the course of the legislative period. Like a comet, a new populist (not radical right-wing) party called Přísaha (The Oath) recently shot up in the polls, founded as an anti-party by an ex-police officer named Robert Šlachta, who had made a name for himself as an anti-corruption fighter. According to speculation in the press, he could offer himself to ANO as a coalition partner. In the meantime, however, his star has begun to fall again in the polls.
Babiš has therefore played out his populist talents to the full in the final phase of his election campaign. Opponents are attacked aggressively. Probably addressing "Piratistan" (which he attacks more for tactical reasons than the vaguely potential partner SPOLU), he plays commercials in which he warns that only he can prevent the EU from expropriating grandma's weekly cottage (chata) to house migrants - an absurd demand that really no one in the Czech Republic or the EU has made. A meeting with Viktor Orbán in the Ústí nad Labem constituency, to which he did not invite critical members of the press, further inflamed the mood. Whether this decidedly unpalatable way of campaigning will really catch on with voters on the right fringe is anyone's guess. Nor whether it won't scare away its core voters. The fact that ANO was still leading in the polls with 32.3 % in August, while now only 27.4 % seems possible, speaks for the latter assumption. Moreover, the press and the opposition are hot on his heels, because the recently uncovered Pandora Papers seem to have just brought him a new tax evasion scandal.
Let´s Wait and See...
In the end, there are only a few certainties. Only one thing is certain, and that is that the slightest shifts from the polls can produce radically different constellations. A center-left and center-right coalition (SPOLU/Pirates/STAN)? An extremist coalition (ANO, SPD, Communists)? A strange alliance of previous arch-opponents - ANO/ODS? A coalition of two principled populists - Babiš/Šlachta? A revival of the previous coalition, if the Social Democrats still manage to get over the 5% hurdle? Everything is possible. We will have to wait for the final results in order to at least know what the mathematical possibilities are, which can only be realized in very long negotiations. The Czech Republic is looking forward to an exciting election evening, that much is certain.
Dr. Detmar Doering is Project Director of the Friedrich Nauman Foundation for Freedom for Central Europe and the Baltic States, based in Prague.