After the elections in the Czech Republic: The end of liberal democracy in Central Europe?

After the elections in the Czech Republic: The end of liberal democracy in Central Europe?

The Czech election results are a source of considerable concern. Nevertheless, it is worth taking a differentiated look at them and not panicking about warnings that all of Central Europe is bidding farewell to the principles of liberal democracy.

Originally published on 26 October 2017

 

Karlův mostCreator: Roman Boed. Creative Commons License LogoThis image is licensed under Creative Commons License.

Nine parties and movements made their way into the Chamber of Deputies after the 2017 Czech parliamentary elections with 61 per cent voter turnout. [1]  In view of this fragmentation, it will be difficult to form a governing coalition. The elections’ clear winner was business mogul and former Finance Minister Andrej Babiš with his ANO movement, which has only been represented in the parliament since 2013 when it received over 18 per cent of the vote in its electoral debut.[2] Babiš won these elections on a promise to run the state like a company – efficiently, pragmatically and in a profit-oriented manner.

In the European Parliament, ANO is a member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group. The movement’s political profile is more than unclear, and is difficult to situate in the political landscape. In any case, ANO cannot be compared with the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland or the ruling Fidesz party in Hungary – even though Babiš has repeatedly spoken out against accepting refugees. Babiš’s policies pursue no clear ideological or programmatic objectives; they are oriented more towards opinion polls than towards a political vision.

In recent years, Babiš has managed to communicate like an opposition party even though his movement was in a governing coalition with the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) of Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka and the Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL). He complained about “politicians” and “elites”, lamented “disinformation campaigns” directed against him, took credit for the previous government’s putative successes, and explained obvious failures by insinuating that his coalition partners had obstructed his plans to enhance efficiency.

“The only programme you need”

Babiš’s supporters seem unconcerned by the fact that he has been part of this hated class of elites and politicians for a long time. ANO received just under 30 per cent of the vote, and will thus play a dominant role in the Chamber of Deputies with 78 out of 200 seats. The Civic Democrats (ODS) will be the second-strongest force in the new Chamber of Deputies with 25 seats.[3]

Babiš’s overwhelming electoral victory comes as a surprise, as he was recently accused of EU subsidy fraud by police after the Chamber of Deputies lifted his immunity in September 2017. Nevertheless, the elections made ANO the strongest force in all constituencies. ANO’s supporters cited the movement’s programme as well as the leadership skills and credibility of its top candidate as reasons for their choice.

The ANO election programme, entitled “Now or never – The only programme you need”, lists the following priorities: security, an efficient and economically viable state, investment in our country, and investment in our people. ANO seems to have reached the electorate with it. Babiš carried mainly the middle-aged and older demographics, and among over-60-year-olds, he garnered 41 per cent.

These elections have restored Babiš’s immunity. Whether the new Chamber of Deputies will vote to lift it again is at present unknown. This uncertainty will not make coalition talks any easier, however, as ahead of the elections all parties ruled out participation in a government headed by a prime minister facing pending criminal proceedings. President Miloš Zeman will task Babiš with forming a government next week, and announced before the elections that he would appoint Babiš prime minister if ANO were to win.

The Pirates make their entrance

Another election surprise is the fact that for the first time the Pirate Party will be represented in the new Chamber of Deputies with 22 seats after receiving 10.8 per cent of the vote. The Pirates have become the third-strongest force in the lower house of the Czech parliament and were able to garner many protest votes. Among the youngest age group (18-34), the Pirates received the most votes with 22 per cent. In Prague, they received almost 18 per cent. Their slogan “Let us go after them! We’re fighting for you.” resembled the ANO campaign’s “Now or never!”. In their programme, entitled “Black on White”, the Pirates formulated the following priorities: checks on power and the powerful, a simplification of the state with the help of technology, protection of citizens from harassment, defence of freedom.

In their programme, the Pirate Party also formulate their objectives for 15 policy areas, including information technology, culture, education, the environment, social welfare, public finances, transport and international relations. The proportion of women in the new Pirate parliamentary group is particularly low at just under 14 per cent (the proportion of women in the Chamber of Deputies as a whole is 22 per cent).

The Pirate Party was founded eight years ago and has acquired experience at the communal level. The Pirates have a presence in the Senate as well (also through common candidacies with the Christian Democrats and Greens). They have emphasised before and after the vote that they do not conceive of themselves as an anti-system party and do not question the country’s membership in the EU or NATO. One of the Pirates’ priorities, however, is to introduce general and binding referendums in the Czech Republic according to the Swiss model.

This is not without risks for the country’s future, however. In a survey conducted by the Public Opinion Research Center (CVVM) in the summer of 2017, only 56 per cent of respondents said they agreed with the country’s membership in the EU, while 76 per cent said that the Czech Republic did not have sufficient influence on decisions and negotiations in the EU. It is uncertain whether pro-European parties will manage to engage Czech citizens in a substantive debate and persuade them of the obvious advantages of EU membership and of the need not to catapult the Czech Republic into the periphery or out of the EU entirely. In one of the last televised debates before the elections, top Pirate candidate Ivan Bartoš opposed a referendum on leaving the EU.

Right-wing radical movement achieves double-digit result

The success of Tomio Okamura’s new radical right-wing Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) movement is alarming. The SPD calls for a ban on Islam and a referendum on the Czech Republic’s EU membership. “No to Islam, no to the dictates of the EU” and “Money for decent people, not for parasites” are just two examples of the SPD’s dehumanising slogans. This party has become the fourth-strongest political force in the Czech Republic with 10.6 per cent of the vote and 22 seats.

Already in 2013, Okamura entered the Chamber of Deputies with the radical right-wing “Dawn of Tomio Okamura’s Direct Democracy” movement, which later disintegrated amid internal conflicts. Okamura founded the SPD shortly thereafter.

Last weekend, Okamura announced a campaign against the independent media. The SPD did not grant accreditation for Okamura’s post-election celebration to all media on the grounds that journalists who had “lied about, censored or manipulated” the SPD would not receive accreditation and Okamura did not plan to cooperate with these media in the future.

Earlier this week, Okamura declared his intention to nationalise and put checks on the Czech Republic’s public service television and radio broadcasters. Babiš immediately distanced himself from this plan; while the ANO leader has owned the Czech Republic’s largest media group, Mafra, since 2013, and despite scandals over the fact that he had exercised direct influence on reporting, Babiš seems to understand that he cannot take over the public media without losing face.[4]

The losers of these elections are the Social Democrats

The greatest loss in the elections was incurred to the Social Democratic ČSSD, which slipped to 7 per cent and thus finished behind even the Communists, who themselves had their worst showing in history with just under 8 per cent of the vote. In 2013, the ČSSD won the parliamentary elections with 20.5 per cent. The Social Democrats must learn the right lessons from this catastrophic outcome.

The failure of the ČSSD, which lost 35 seats compared to the last elections, is probably due to being punished by voters for its alleged “incompetence”, which Babiš and President Zeman reiterated incessantly. The disaster cannot be attributed solely to the actions of others, however. The ČSSD’s most consequential mistakes were their inability to communicate their own successes and their assumption that they could avoid losing votes by resorting to right-wing populist rhetoric.

At the height of the crisis over the European refugee policy in 2015, the ČSSD was unable to calm the hysterical mood in the country and to dispel irrational fears. Certain Social Democrats seem not to have understood that politicians influence and shape the public discourse. In 2017, the Social Democratic Interior Minister, Milan Chovanec, managed to ground the right to bear arms in the constitution – allegedly in order to improve the security of the Czech citizenry, which in view of the current security situation in the country is quite simply absurd and, moreover, constituted a stepping stone for Tomio Okamura. On social media, Chovanec even posed proudly with weapons. One imagines a Social Democratic interior minister quite differently.

Conservative and pro-European forces are fragmented

Yet another party must come to terms with a bitter defeat. The pro-European and conservative TOP 09, whose honorary chairman is Karel Schwarzenberg, was kept in suspense for a long time on election night. Ultimately, TOP 09 did manage to remain in the Chamber of Deputies, although it lost 19 seats. In Prague, TOP 09 achieved its strongest result with 13 per cent of the vote, but outside the capital its electoral campaign – which was directed primarily against Babiš – was largely ineffective.

Two other parties sharing a number of political goals with TOP 09 overcame the five per cent threshold: the Christian Democrats and STAN (Mayors and Independents). The fragmentation of pro-European conservative forces is an obvious problem. Together, the three parties garnered more than 16 per cent of the vote, but if they continue to compete individually in the future, they could all fall below the five per cent threshold.

Interesting is the success of the Czech Republic’s youngest MP, Dominik Feri, who contested the elections for TOP 09 in Prague and is a star on social media. Feri ran in the last place on the party list, but was elected to the Chamber of Deputies by means of so-called preferential votes.[5] The pro-European parties should understand his success as a reason to give young people more manoeuvring room. This is the only way to appeal to the youth vote in future elections.

A debacle for the Czech Greens

The Czech Greens suffered a devastating electoral defeat as well. After polling at over 3 per cent ahead of the elections, which would have given them access to state funding, the Greens failed to overcome even the 1.5 per cent threshold, which is required for reimbursement of campaign expenditures. On election night, party leader Matěj Stropnický resigned.

According to initial analyses, the Greens lost a large portion of their voters to the Pirates, as well as to TOP 09 and STAN. Potential Green voters apparently feared “wasting” their vote on a party that was not projected to win any seats. The Greens participate in the municipal governments in Prague and Brno, and hold a few mayoralties around the country. They are also represented in the Senate. Attempts to establish joint party lists with the Pirate Party to contest national and European elections have thus far been rejected by the Pirates.

Possible future governments

It is currently impossible to predict the composition of a future government – even though there are many options on the table. A coalition government is conceivable, but so is an ANO minority government tolerated by other parties. A horror scenario would be a government involving participation of the SPD and the Communists, although Babiš ruled out a coalition with Tomio Okamura ahead of the elections. Babiš knows that a coalition with the SPD could harm him. Due to his unpredictability and radical right-wing views, Okamura would constitute a perpetual risk for Babiš.

It would also be possible to continue the previous coalition consisting of ANO, ČSSD and the Christian Democrats, or to form a coalition with the conservative, Euro-sceptic ODS. One thing is clear, however: after these elections, no government can be formed without ANO. But nor is it particularly attractive for any of the democratic parties to participate in a Babiš-led government.

Two central questions were discussed by the country’s media immediately after the elections: whether a government coalition is even possible under the present circumstances, and whether Babiš – not least because of impending criminal proceedings – could really become prime minister. Speculation was voiced that Babiš could appoint another person as prime minister to clear the way for coalition talks.[6] On the other hand, it is conceivable that President Zeman may try to bring about a complete halt to the Babiš investigation. The possibility of a technocratic “government of experts” – which would be nothing new in the Czech Republic – has also been raised.

It is therefore impossible at present to draw any clear conclusions on the Czech government’s future domestic and foreign policy priorities – the policy course of the next government will depend primarily on the other parties participating in or supporting it. In this context, the democratic parties have a responsibility that they will not be able to avoid forever.

After the elections, Babiš emphasised that ANO was a pro-European and democratic force, which did not wish to amend the constitution. This statement puts into perspective his previous plans to weaken the role of the Senate, his repeated attacks on Czech parliamentary democracy, and his assertions that politicians are unable to work efficiently. Nevertheless, it is also clear that Babiš could undermine democratic institutions and further concentrate power in politics and business if he were to form a coalition with the SPD and the Communists.

The end of liberal democracy?

Before the elections, Babiš appealed to the electorate to give him more than 50 per cent of votes – then all their problems would be solved. The desire for a one-party majority government speaks volumes about Babiš’s problematic understanding of democracy, and fortunately this was denied him by the Czech electorate. This is undoubtedly one of the few positive outcomes of the elections, and serves to illustrate why the Czech Republic’s political coordinate system cannot be straightforwardly compared to those of Poland or Hungary.

Moreover, there are good reasons to believe that Babiš has no interest in leading the country out of the EU and into isolation. Along these lines, Babiš explained after the elections that the Czech Republic must also look for partners outside of the Visegrád Group.[7] This statement was clearly aimed Western European governments, including the future German government. 

Last week, the writer and diplomat Tomáš Kafka wrote the following to me: “I hope the elections this weekend will be only a brief chapter in the glorious Czech saga of the long march through the institutions to an inclusive liberal democracy.”

I hope his optimism will not be disappointed, and that he will not lose his sense of humour in the future. As in certain other EU member states, liberal democracy in the Czech Republic is under pressure, but the election result does not mean the end of liberal democracy in the country. T.G. Masaryk, Czechoslovakia’s first president who served from 1918 to 1935, gave his compatriots a piece of advice that still remains topical today: “If our democracy has shortcomings, we must overcome the shortcomings, but not democracy.” Electoral defeats or not, it is the duty of all democratic parties to follow this motto.

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[1] The Czech parliament is a bicameral system. There are 200 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 81 seats in the Senate.

 

[2] The acronym ANO means “Yes” in Czech and stands for “Action of Dissatisfied Citizens”. For an analysis of the 2013 elections, see also the Heinrich Böll Foundation article “Political earthquake in the Czech Republic: Rejection of established parties”.

[3] The ODS has been in government repeatedly. Its best showing was in 2006 when it won 35 per cent of the vote. Its longstanding party chairman was former Czech President Václav Klaus. In the European Parliament, the ODS belongs to the Euro-sceptic European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group.

[4] The Mafra media concern publishes the dailies Mladá fronta Dnes and Lidové noviny.

[5] In the Czech Republic, voters can participate in elections using preferential votes to select the candidates of their choice. The order of party candidate lists can shift based on such votes. There have been repeated cases where this has enabled candidates without clear prospects to win seats.

[6] 54 per cent of respondents to a Median survey indicated after the elections that ANO should nominate a prime minister other than Babiš.

[7] The governments of Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary cooperate within the Visegrád Group.

 

English translation of the German original text: Evan Mellander

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