Political earthquake in the Czech Republic: Rejection of established parties

Wenzelsplatz in Prague

The results of early elections in the Czech Republic are tantamount to an earthquake which has re-ordered the political landscape. Seven parties will enter parliament, among which the Social Democrats are the strongest with 20.5 per cent of votes. Yet this is the weakest showing of an election winner in the history of the Czech Republic. Almost all of the established parties recorded losses, and at just under 60 per cent, voter turnout was one of the lowest since 1989.

Table: Election results compared to 2010 in overview (only parties which got more than 1% of the vote in 2013)

Data: Czech Statistical Office, see www.volby.cz
 

A Pyrrhic victory for Social Democrats

After seven years in opposition, for the Social Democrats this electoral victory is anything but a success. A few months ago, they were still polling at over 30 per cent, yet compared to their 2010 showing the ČSSD actually lost 6 seats (out of a total of 200 seats in the Chamber of Deputies). The Civic Democrats (ODS) – the strongest governing party from 2010 to 2013, lost almost two-thirds of its votes compared to the last election and a total of 37 seats. In 2006, the ODS garnered over 35 per cent of votes for itself; in 2013, it only received just under 8 per cent. Even its coalition partner, TOP 09, recorded a loss of almost 5 percentage points. Nevertheless, party chairman Karel Schwarzenberg characterised the result as a success. According to a press release, TOP 09 has the strongest mandate to defend conservative values. Schwarzenberg also received the most preferential votes out of all competing candidates. The former governing party VV (Public Affairs) did not contest these elections in the wake of its own corruption scandals and party-internal conflicts, which led to a schism (10.9 per cent in 2010). The electorate found members of VV on the list of populist senator and entrepreneur Tomio Okamura’s party, founded only in May 2013, which got into parliament in its first contest with 6.9 per cent of votes. The only party represented in the last parliament which gained ground is the Communist Party, which to this day has not reformed itself and has never clearly distanced itself from its past. Its parliamentary group will increase by 7 MPs.

 

Election winner Andrej Babiš: The state as a corporation

For weeks now, it has been apparent who the actual winner of these elections would be. With his only recently established ANO movement, business tycoon Andrej Babiš has managed to become the second-strongest force in the Chamber of Deputies right out of the gate, receiving 18.7 per cent of votes (the abbreviation ANO stands for “Action of Dissatisfied Citizens” and means “yes” in Czech). ANO holds 47 seats in the new Chamber of Deputies; the Social Democrats have only three more. ANO was the strongest force in four out of a total of 14 electoral districts (the Social Democrats won nine districts, and TOP 09 won the capital, Prague). Babiš founded ANO 2011 as a civic initiative, and ANO has been registered as a political movement since 2012. Babiš is its chairman, proprietor of the Czech agriculture and chemical corporation Agrofert, and since 2013 also owner of the Czech Republic’s largest media concern, Mafra, which publishes the dailies Mladá fronta Dnes and Lidové noviny. Since then, the foreign media have liked to describe Babiš as a “Czech Berlusconi”. While his party’s showing is not surprising, as polls had reflected this trend for weeks, no one had expected the gap between ANO and the Social Democrats to be so small. The fact that a brand new political movement without any political experience at the communal level could pull off a success of this magnitude is unusual in Czech politics. And Andrej Babiš is anything but a natural political talent. In the televised debates, he was only scantly persuasive rhetorically and often seemed awkward. His party’s electoral programme is more than sparse, yet his anti-politics campaign seems to have connected with protest voters. With slogans like “We’re not like the politicians. We toil.” and “Clear rules for all”, Babiš appealed to a dissatisfied and disillusioned electorate who no longer believe that politicians of the established parties can lead the country transparently. In the context of increasing mistrust of politics as such, the Czech electorate’s willingness to engage in alternatives with an uncertain course and goal seems extremely high.

 

A billionaire feeds the country

The American PR agency PSB advised Babiš’s party during the campaign. Andrej Babiš had the whole country papered with his campaign posters and eased the ordeal of the election for voters with doughnuts and ice cream. In the middle of the campaign, an advertising spot could be seen on most television stations lauding the meat products of top ANO candidates. It shows Babiš behind a bar in an apron handing national ice hockey hero Jaromír Jagr a grilled chicken wing. The message depicts the successful entrepreneur Babiš feeding happy, juicy and local products to the whole nation in a fatherly and unassuming manner. During the campaign, he often emphasised in front rolling cameras that many influential Czech companies backed his movement and were co-financing his campaign. In the media, a number of businesspeople expressed their hope that Babiš would create the conditions for a lean state. Also audible were voices from corporate circles who wanted to help him make his political appearances more professional. It is astounding that the Czech electorate, in the context of a political crisis which was caused by a series of corruption scandals, are not more sceptical vis-à-vis the person of Babiš, who in his own words wants to run the state like a corporation. Before 1989, he was a member of the Communist Party. And it has not been ruled out that he may have collaborated with the Czechoslovak State Security apparatus, even though Babiš disputes this today and in this connection has filed charges against the Nation's Memory Institute in Slovakia. In fact, many citizens argue that his assets will make him more unassailable than other politicians, as he is not dependent on money. There is no trace of concerns over possible conflicts of interest.

 

The far-right rhetoric of the “Dawn” party

Particularly alarming is the success of Senator Tomio Okamura, whose far-right rhetoric in recent months seems to have impressed many voters. In June 2013, Senator Okamura caused headlines with his text “The gypsies should strive for their own state. Let’s help them do it.” In the introduction to this text, he writes that it is “not the fault of the neo-Nazis, the Czechs or the Turks” that “gypsies” are “perceived pejoratively” today; rather, it is “the gypsies’ disrepute”, he contends. Okamura argues in this text that “gypsies” have the right to their own state and that the Czech Republic should “democratically support the gypsies’ emigration”. Okamura suggests India as a destination, since it is from this region that the “forefathers of the gypsies” would have originated. The fact that the Roma are Czech citizens who have been at home in the Czech lands for hundreds of years does not interest Okamura. He is consciously exploiting rising anti-Roma sentiment in recent months to further his own political ambitions, and fomenting hatred with his racist statements which are published in the Czech media. Human rights organisations are expressing concern over the entry of his party, Dawn of Direct Democracy, into parliament. Okamura must resign his Senate seat.

 

Greens not represented in parliament

After their participation in government between 2007 and 2009, two parties did not manage to get back into parliament: the Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL) and the Greens (SZ). The KDU-ČSL, which has one of the strongest membership bases of any party in the Czech Republic, has managed to cross the five per cent threshold once again. The Czech Greens have not managed this, unfortunately. A small consolation: The Greens have gained ground compared to their 2010 showing, and they reached 6.5 per cent in the Prague electoral district (4.8 per cent in 2010). After this election, they will receive “funds for party activities” from the state (in order to receive this, a party must reach at least three per cent). The SZ is the only non-parliamentary force to have achieved this. Polls in recent weeks have shown that the Greens’ potential is over five per cent. Why it did not succeed in persuading more voters to vote Green, despite clear programme priorities and an electoral campaign that was designated the best campaign by media experts, must and will now be analysed by the Czech Greens. A crucial factor in the electorate’s decision could have been the fact that a considerable number of parties were gathered around the five per cent threshold and the fear of a wasted vote – particularly in the context of a rather confusing party landscape – was especially high. The Greens probably also lost potential votes to the Pirate Party. The renowned political scientist Vladimíra Dvořáková believes that the Greens’ showing in the election is no catastrophe, since state party financing will safeguard the party’s future work. In her view, the result shows that the Greens in the Czech Republic are not an absolutely marginalised force.

 

President Zeman’s washout

The party SPOZ (Party of Civic Rights – Zeman’s people), which carries the name of the president and whose honorary chairman Zeman is, reached numbers in recent polls that made an entry into parliament seem possible. The extremely poor showing by the party which was officially supported by President Zeman is yet another surprise in this election. Five ministers of the transitional government, whom Zeman – who has only been in office since March 2013 – nominated unilaterally, contested seats for this party. The fact that the SPOZ received only 1.5 per cent makes it clear that citizens do not want a party in the Chamber of Deputies which has direct ties to Prague Castle. In 2010, after all, the SPOZ received over 4 per cent. Also the party founded in 2013 supported by former President Klaus (Hlavu vzhůru! – Head high!) with its Eurosceptic slogans finished with an extremely poor showing (0.4 per cent).

 

Crisis in the Social Democratic Party: Manoeuvring room for Zeman

One thing is clear: No government is actually possible without the political newcomer ANO. Exploratory talks will be complicated for the Social Democrats, however. The ČSSD’s hope to form a minority government tolerated by the Communists has gone up in smoke with this election results. Its party chairman, Bohuslav Sobotka, must not only explain and defend the party’s poor showing, he must also now contend with the fact that a majority of the party’s presidium has suggested he step down. According to media reports, a group of ČSSD politicians close to Sobotka’s statutory deputy, Michal Hašek, drove on Saturday evening to a meeting with the president and laid the groundwork for Sobotka’s downfall. Michal Hašek, who is close to Zeman, stressed that after such a showing he would have immediately offered his resignation. On Sunday, a majority of the presidium revoked Sobotka's mandate to hold exploratory talks and coalition negotiations; he was excluded from the negotiating team. President Zeman also called upon Sobotka to give up his party’s chairmanship. For months now, Zeman has interfered in the Social Democrats’ party-internal conflicts. One of the president’s wishes was thus immediately granted: He had severely weakened the ČSSD and in particular its party chairman. On Monday, Social Democratic voters called through Facebook for a demonstration to protest against the latest developments in the ČSSD at the statue of T. G. Masaryk in front of Prague Castle. On 28 October, the Czech Republic celebrates the establishment of Czechoslovakia.

 

Will ANO say “yes” to forming a government?

Before the election, Andrej Babiš emphasised that he actually could not imagine cooperating with the Social Democrats in a government, since the ČSSD is calling for tax rises. Immediately after the vote, however, he signalled that he would not exclude coalition talks with the ČSSD and the KDU-ČSL, emphasising that ANO would behave differently than the “classical parties” and that his movement was not interested in posts. One day after the election, he said self-assuredly that he was watching with concern how the Social Democrats were behaving, that they were destabilising the political situation in the country and that the ČSSD – being one of the “post-1989 parties” – was interested in money and power. In an interview for Aktuálně.cz, Babiš said he would prefer to hold a referendum on whether ANO should participate in the government or go into the opposition – but he knew, of course, that this was not possible. Babiš also took a position on Europe: He opposes adopting the euro, and ANO does not want any deeper integration or any more bureaucracy from Brussels, but to make sure that the “supporting funds from Brussels” are used efficiently – especially for the country’s transport infrastructure. In his last televised debate before the election, Babiš said that in the event of ANO’s participation in a government he would “sacrifice” himself for the post of finance minister. Whether Babiš will manage to establish his 47 MPs in parliament as a political force with a clear political voice and to hold them together as a parliamentary group, however, remains in the stars.

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