Czech Freefall

Nearly a week and a half ago, parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic ended the four-year tenure of Andrej Babiš, one of Central Europe’s most enigmatic leaders. As polls closed on October 9th, Babiš’s national-populist party ANO achieved 27.1% of the national vote. His main rivals, the conservative Spolu (‘Together’) coalition, squeezed past the incumbent with 27.8% of the popular vote. Despite garnering one less seat in the Chamber of Deputies than ANO’s projected 72, Spolu, headed by the leader of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), Petr Fiala, is now poised to take control of the Czech government. While the Czech President, Miloš Zeman, retains the official duty of inviting party leaders to form a government, his recent hospitalization has prompted the Senate to move ahead in his stead.

Spolu has already come to a provisional coalition agreement with the Pirates and Mayors coalition to put the five parties in their respective blocs behind a new government. This alliance represents 108 out of 200 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, effectively writing off the possibility of another ANO-led minority government. Beyond this, however, the results confirmed two major trends: the continuing decline of the Czech left and a growing fracture in the traditional party landscape leading to unwieldy coalitions. Seven parties representing four broad factions – social-liberal, national-populist, conservative, and far-right – gained enough votes to enter the lower chamber of the Czech Republic’s parliament. Besides ANO and Spolu, the broadly liberal and centrist Pirates and Mayors coalition earned 37 seats. The far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy Party (SPD) of Tomio Okamura, a Czech-Japanese businessman, garnered 10% of the votes.

The campaign by Spolu and the Pirates and Mayors to remove Babiš from power has shaped domestic and international coverage of the Czech elections and reactions on social media. While liberals can celebrate the end of the controversy-laden administration of an abrasive populist billionaire, this misses a far larger shift in the Czech political landscape: a major defeat for progressive forces. While ANO lost just six seats in parliament – an outcome that Babiš rightly recognized as hardly a meaningful loss – two mainstay left-wing parties were evicted from the Chamber of Deputies entirely: the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) and the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM). For the first time in the history of the Czech Republic, both parties fell short of the 5% vote threshold nationally needed to attain any seats.

Both the ČSSD and KSČM had seen a large decline in support in recent months. This is largely the result of attempting to cling to power over the course of the past four years by allying themselves with Babiš. Political fracturing has a long history in the Czech lands. One of Czechoslovakia’s most famous statesmen, Edvard Beneš, created a unique marriage of social-liberal nationalism from breakaway bits of Habsburg liberals and disgruntled social-democratic reformists. The communist government that displaced him in 1948 was aided without a deep rift in the Social Democrats to Beneš’s left. Having absorbed the Social Democrats into their ranks, the Communist Party itself proved far from immune from internal strife. Debates between hardliners and reformists crescendoed in the Alexander Dubček-headed Prague Spring, the most liberal and humanistic strain of Warsaw Pact socialism in the 1960s.

The dissident opposition to Czech state socialism in the 1980s also contained various ideological strains. Its most prominent leader, Václav Havel, could only smooth over these tensions by emphasizing their common opposition to communist rule. But the rapidity of the transition to market capitalism quickly emerged as a contentious issue, alongside the viability of the continued binational union with Slovakia. Two years after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, a group of conservative economists led by Václav Klaus left Havel’s Civic Forum. As the Prime Minister of the Czech part of Czechoslovakia, Klaus, the greatest Milton Friedman acolyte in Central Europe, clashed with his Slovak counterpart, Vladimír Mečiar, leading to the dissolution of the unified state. Once the dissolution of Czechoslovakia was complete in 1993, the modern Czech political system took shape. ODS and the Social Democrats alternated in power for much of the 1990s and 2000s, reaching a modus vivendi in which one party dominated parliament and most of the governmental cabinet while the other acted as the primary opposition. The Social Democrats built their support base by focusing on rural residents who felt spurned by the Klaus-led privatization process, which overlapped in some ways with the communist voter base. By contrast, ODS consolidated around a Thatcherite conservatism which coupled monetarist economics and soft-Euroscepticism. This attracted the support of much of the burgeoning wealthy middle-class in and around cities such as Prague and Brno.

ANO’s victory in the 2017 legislative elections marked the first time since 1993 that a party other than either ODS or the Social Democrats provided the prime minister. Babiš originally rose to prominence and found financial success through his part in the development, and later sole ownership, of the agricultural conglomerate Agrofert. In 2011, Babiš used his wealth to found ANO (‘ano’ meaning ‘yes’ in Czech, while also acting as an acronym for ‘Action of Dissatisfied Citizens’) and the party’s initial popularity stemmed from sapping voters from both ODS and ČSSD among those who began to view traditional parties as outdated and corrupt, in addition to widely mobilizing Czechs over 60. After ANO’s entrance to parliament in the 2013 elections, Babiš was named Minister of Finance in Bohuslav Sobotka’s Social Democratic-headed government, where he continued to develop his public-facing profile while retaining his ownership stake in Agrofert.

Despite ANO’s notable electoral success, Babiš’s time as Prime Minister has been fraught with controversy. Numerous conflicts of interest and EU funding scandals arose related to his stakeholdings in media companies and the Czech agricultural sector. Babiš was also alleged to have kidnapped his own son in 2018, moving him across various locations in Ukraine and Russia in order to block his testimony in an anti-corruption probe investigating his father. Babiš hit another stumbling block in the week prior to the elections, as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists released the Pandora Papers about global tax evasion. The leaks revealed that Babiš has spent approximately 400 million Czech crowns (roughly $18 million) on various chateaux and properties on the French riviera, purchased through shell companies. Babiš’s premiership has been coloured by shady financial dealings and near constant allegations of corruption, which undermined his initial appeal as a man of the people attempting to take on the post-communist establishment.

Given such scandals, ANO found it difficult to sustain its power in the Czech legislature. Despite controlling 78 seats in the Chamber of Deputies after the 2017 election – the second-best electoral showing for any single party in the country’s history – Babiš led an unstable government. Formally his party was supported only by the Social Democrats, though informally they were often joined by the Communist Party in votes of confidence and budgetary matters. This was the first time that the Czech Communists supported a parliamentary government since the end of communist rule, albeit without any active ministers in Babiš’s cabinet. The KSČM has been largely dependent on support from a small constituency of dedicated pensioners, overwhelmingly retired labourers. The communists have long acted as a protest party on the federal level, removed from the levers of power beyond the municipal level.

The newly perceived proximity of the Communist Party to the ANO government led to further public outcry. For the right-wing opposition, the most promising avenue of criticism was to magnify Babiš’s service as an informant for the Communist-era Czechoslovak secret police, the StB, during the early to mid-1980s. The increased profile of the Communist Party in 2018 also led to the formation of a student-led protest movement called Milion chvilek pro demokracii (A Million Moments for Democracy) which set the resignation of Babiš as its goal. In due time, two electoral coalitions emerged around the project of ousting Babiš. The first bloc, Spolu, unites the right-leaning and financially conservative parties in Czech politics. It is led by ODS, which has consistently claimed at least a quarter of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies. ODS’s coalition partners in Spolu are TOP 09 (an acronym that stands for ‘Tradition, Responsibility, Prosperity’), a liberal-conservative party that supports orthodox free-market economics but diverges from the Klausite Euroscepticism of ODS by advocating continued Czech integration in the EU and NATO; and the Christian Democrats (KDU-CŠL). Despite meagre results in most elections – they have never achieved more than 31 seats in the Chamber of Deputies – they often take part in government by amorphously supporting both ODS and Social Democrat led coalitions.

The second anti-Babiš coalition, Pirates and Mayors, is a union between the Czech Pirate Party and the Mayors and Independents Party (STAN), nominally headed by Pirate leader Ivan Bartoš. Largely finding success with younger voters in urban centres, the Pirates promote unregulated internet use, economic modernization through education and labour market reforms, and green energy. The Pirates are also a culturally progressive force in parliament as outspoken supporters of LGBT rights. They overlap with the localist STAN in their shared support for anti-corruption policies, the decentralization of government in favour of Czech regionalism, and a broad pro-EU stance. In spite of their leading position in the electoral coalition, the Pirate Party lost 18 seats compared to 2017. It currently only makes up just four of the Pirates and Mayors’ 37, leaving them the smallest single party in the Chamber of Deputies. In the months leading up to the election, the Pirates’ popularity fell under the force of incessant attacks from both Babiš and Fiala, who castigated its ‘neo-Marxist’ platform. Bartoš himself was a lightning rod for his opponent’s criticisms; a former software engineer and anti-fascist activist sporting dreadlocks, the Pirate leader stands out among the traditional appearance of most Czech politicians. The more inoffensive STAN leader, Vít Rakušan, has therefore taken a more active public role in the coalition, standing in for Bartoš in televised debates.

It remains an open question how far the Pirate and Mayors, the only progressive force in Czech politics, can advance. Their alliance with the conservative Spolu bloc is predicated on the defeat of Babiš in the name of preserving democracy and governmental transparency. But it remains to be seen how long the unwieldy five-party coalition can stay united once Fiala ascends to the premiership. Painting last week’s election as a resounding loss for Babiš misses a more important outcome. The real losers are those parties that were ejected from parliament, the Social Democrats and the Communists, as well as the broader Czech left. Both parties had been trending downward in support, with both seeing their worst election results historically in 2017. An alliance with Babiš’s divisive party was the final nail in the coffin. Only President Zeman, a long-time ČSSD leader who started his own social-democratic splinter party in 2009, remains in national-level political office; yet it hardly inspires hope that the Czech left’s chief representative, ensconced in his official residence in Prague Castle, is now a 77-year-old veteran of the Dubček era in ill health.

Heading into the 2021 elections, the Social Democrats had a seemingly attractive platform. Its main economic plank was shifting tax obligations from middle-class Czechs to individuals and corporations with more than 100 million Czech crowns ($4.5 million) in assets. This wealth tax would have paid for the costs of the ongoing pandemic in the health sector and helped to stave off the privatisation of the country’s hospitals. Yet voters felt that key parts of the Social Democratic platform were betrayed during their recent time in government, citing the lack of support for socialized housing and slow movement on further pension extensions. ANO benefited from these failures, as Babiš has successfully claimed credit for the success of Social Democratic policies such as increased maternity leave benefits and tax cuts for families with children. He was thus able to siphon off a small but electorally significant section of Social Democrat voters.

The Czech Pirates now find themselves the junior partners within their own coalition, supporting a government headed by the most conservative party in the country. While the Pirates retain a decent base of public support and goodwill, their challenge will be to stand out from their electoral allies in STAN. Any attempt to act as a progressive element in the ruling coalition will no doubt be an uphill battle. On the one hand, Bartoš’s role in the growth and increased popularity of the party is undeniable. But its current position – with only four parliamentary seats – means that the Pirates must reassess the merits of remaining tied to a coalition that ultimately depleted their vote share without granting them any substantive influence over policymaking.

The outlook for the Communist Party, meanwhile, is particularly bleak. The KSČM lacks the infrastructure to mobilize supporters and the vast majority of its base is made up of aging rural voters. Recognizing the need for renewal, its leader Vojtěch Filip, who had been at the head of the party since 2005, resigned shortly after the election results came in. The deck of public opinion is now stacked against the party. Mainstream historical narratives have been unforgiving about the country’s communist past. These discussions dominate the public sphere, most recently through a widely publicized exhibition titled ‘The Red Century: One Hundred Years of the Existence of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia’, hosted in the summer at the Museum Kampa, a popular contemporary art museum located near Prague’s Old Town. The exhibit focused on the authoritarianism, corruption and elitism of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, using twentieth-century history to evoke common criticisms of Babiš’s government. Resistance to the ANO was therefore implicitly compared to dissidence from communism. This fit with the dominant narrative that, ever since the inception of Czechoslovakia in 1918, Czechs have been staunch defenders of democracy. Communism and its associated ills, in this account, were largely forced upon the nation by the foreign power of the Soviet Union, with the Czechoslovak Communist Party its dubious puppet. Such tropes fed into this year’s election cycle, as the five parties set to make up the ruling coalition painted their battle against Babiš as the latest chapter in the national epic, whose heroes fight for a free, fair, and democratic Czech Republic. Such romantic idealization of Czech democracy has a history of masking the shortcomings of the state. The evisceration of the country’s left is its latest casualty.  

Read on: Miroslav Hroch, ‘Learning from Small Nations’, NLR 58.