Seán Hanley explains what’s at stake in the upcoming Czech parliamentary elections on 8-9 October.
Written 5 October.
2021 was supposed to be the year that the Czech Republic’s billionaire populist Prime Minister, Andrej Babiš, finally came a cropper. Dogged by corruption allegations, fending off prosecution and under persistent fire from the EU conflicts-of-interests, the oligarch-turned-politician’s ham-fisted handling of the covid crisis caught up with him. Having bragged that early success controlling the pandemic made Czechs and Central Europeans ‘best in Covid’– and trumpeted his own skills as a political crisis manager – by March this year Babiš was presiding over a country with the worst infection rates in the world, with his government’s record slated by experts and medical professionals.
But just days before parliamentary elections on October 8-9, and despite the bombshell Pandora Papers revelations about his use of offshore companies to buy property on the French Riviera, the populist billionaire seems to have every chance of hanging on – and the outcome of the elections is uncertain.
Pirates all at sea
In December 2020 with Babiš’s ratings sliding, centre-right and liberal opposition parties finally sunk their differences to form two strong electoral coalitions: the centre-right Together bloc and a liberal-centre alliance uniting the small Mayors and Independents (STAN) grouping with the Czech Pirate Party, which broke into the Czech parliament in 2017.
The Pirate-led alliance initially surged ahead in the polls, with many seeing their promised mix of ‘Energy and Experience’ as potential winning formula: while the Pirates would pull in younger, more urban voters, the Mayors and Independents (STAN) would appeal to a more cautious and conservative small-town electorate. Moreover, both local independents and the Pirate Party had the aura of non-ideological political ‘newness’ that often plays well with Czech voters. It even seemed possible that the dreadlocked, harmonica-playing Ivan Bartoš could emerge as Europe’s first Pirate PM.
But a lacklustre and confused campaign quickly saw them slip back in the polls. The bloc’s early campaign posters were widely mocked online as anodyne. Its heavyweight programme, although praised by policy wonks, sent few clear messages to voter; and its slogan of “Give us back our future” lacked bite. Its campaign launch embarrassingly highlighted that only one its 14 lead candidates was female. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many voters struggled to see Ivan Bartoš as a credible prime minister, some finding his trademark dreadlocks a psychological block. Some Pirate supporters missed their party’s old anti-establishment elan.
Battering negative campaign
They also faced a battering negative campaign from Andrej Babiš. Cherry-picking comments from the Pirates’ transparent online discussion forums, Babiš’s PR slated them as left-wing, uber social liberals who would interfere with ordinary Czechs’ lives by taxing residential property, welcoming – and even forcing ordinary citizens to take in – migrants, enforcing car sharing and banning traditional ice cream because of concerns about additives. Such misinformation was amplified by a wave of still more outlandish claims and conspiracy theories from social media users.
A mixed response of threats of legal action; hard-hitting attacks on Babiš as an autocrat in the making; foregrounding Mayors’ leader Vít Rakušan (a more effective media performer and debater than Bartoš); and assurances that they too are concerned with (and opposed to) immigration and refugee quotas appears to stabilised the Pirates and Mayors vote at around 20%.
The three-party, centre-right Together alliance, by contrast, has emerged in many ways as the dark horse of the election. Despite its divisions over Europe and equal marriage and a chequered record in government, its member parties have fought a more disciplined campaign with two clear themes: that Andrej Babiš is a threat to Czech democracy who, if returned to power, would ally (only) with the Communists and far right and that Together the only credible option to bring about change. Polls suggest that the alliance has gained steadily across the campaign and can expect to finish in second place with 20-25% of the vote. However, despite effective political branding, slick events and new (in the Czech context) campaign techniques such as door-to-door canvassing, it appears that Together has gained at mostly or at the expense of the Pirates and Mayors.
From anti-corruption to culture war
ANO’s simple, effective, highly professional campaign – centred almost entirely on Babiš himself – uses much of the same formula from elections of 2013 and 2017. But the billionaire-politician has come a long way since he entered politics ten years ago. Once an anti-corruption movement with a wide electoral base, ANO has gradually morphed into a political grouping predominantly supported by older, poorer, less well-educated voters.
Hikes in public sector wages, pensions, and travel concessions under Babiš, first as finance minister and later premier, won over many traditionally left-wing voters, as corruption and conflict-of-interest scandals –notably the long-running Stork’s Nest affair – turned off more liberal voters and stoked protest movements. Gradually, Babiš’s pitch to voters to ‘run the country like a firm’ has become less about getting good governance done in a business-like way and more about playing the paternalistic boss of Czech Republic Ltd.
But with his reputation for managerial competence shattered by coronavirus– and the possibility that electoral defeat might create a parliamentary majority might strip him of immunity opening the way to prosecution – Babiš has opted to go large on another side of his political persona: that of big spending illiberal nationalist. His campaign has, increasingly histrionically terms, projected him in the role of an embattled defender of decent pensions, domestic industry, and national sovereignty against EU interference, ‘crazy’ ecological activists, and Muslim migration ‘with every fibre in my body’ (až do roztrhání těla). The new, brutally illiberal incarnation even saw a cameo appearance by Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán, who visited the Czech premier in Ústí nad Labem where he leads ANO’s regional list.
The strategy seems to have worked. The Pirates and Mayors have been knocked off course with their potential make inroads with discontented middle-of-the-road stymied. ANO itself has gained support, moving back in the lead in opinion polls. Most polls suggest Babiš’s movement will emerge as the largest party with around 25% of the vote, with a few outliers suggesting a score closer to 30%.
Small parties are key
But it has only worked partially. The gains appear partly to have come at the expense of three smaller parties, all hovering around the 5% threshold, whose support Babiš could be crucial to get back into government – if they make it into parliament: the Social Democrats (ČSSD), his reluctant former coalition partner; the hard-line Communist Party (KSČM) which backed his government in parliament; and the new anti-corruption movement Oath. If some or all these parties failed to (re-)enter the 200-member Chamber of Deputies, putting together a pro-Babiš majority in parliamentary would be hugely complicated.
Despite a near invisible campaign, the Communists’ niche electorate seems likely to turn out in sufficient numbers to push them over the threshold. However, the once powerful Social Democrats appear destined to drop out of parliament. The party’s survival strategy has been to mix bread-and-butter demands about wages and working conditions with conservative positions such as opposition to immigration.
However, many Social Democrats, including party leader Jan Hamáček, appear to have given up on the party’s chances, disappearing on holiday mid-campaign. Instead, ČSSD‘s most visible figures have been its two lead candidates in the Prague region, Labour Minister Jana Maláčová and ex-Green leader Matej Stropnický, the self-styled ‘cool duo’ (hustá dvojka) of Czech politics, whose social media presence and high-profile stunts, seem a last throw of the dice for the Social Democrats, which might just push them over the threshold by boosting their vote in the capital.
The new anti-corruption Oath movement, founded by the charismatic ex-head of the police anti-mafia unit Robert Šlachta, may have a better chance of making it to parliament. Copying much of the playbook once used by Andrej Babiš, Šlachta has focused on demands to audit Covid tenders and his own credibility and profile as a supposedly non-political crime fighter. Despite slowly building support through a well-organised local campaign event across the country, the movement’s ratings appear to have slumped below the threshold in recent weeks. However, the Pandora Papers revelations may push voters back towards Oath, which might, ironically, benefit Andrej Babiš who sees Šlachta as a potential ally.
The explosive Pandora Papers revelations, which reveal that Czech premier bought luxury residences on the French Riviera in 2009 through a chain of opaque shell companies registered in the British Virgin Islands and the US will put Babiš under further pressure. There are questions over the source of the money and why Babiš concealed his use of it to buy property in France, which are likely to trigger investigations by French, US and Czech authorities. The revelations also open Babiš up to accusations of lying to parliament in 2015, when he declared he did not use offshore accounts. As with previous allegations about his business deals, Andrej Babiš has angrily refuted any suggestions that he did anything illegal and claimed that the revelations are a put-up job by opponents to target him politically. The Pandora Papers impact on the elections is, however, likely to minimal. Both opponents and supporters have long known that Babiš will bend or break rules to conceal ownership, gain subsidies, or avoid tax.
Their real impact – and the real political drama–will, however, come in months that follow. There are three basic scenarios. If the two major opposition coalitions gain a narrow majority, President Miloš Zeman has made it clear that he will appoint Babiš as prime minister. As in 2017, an initial ANO-led government would lose a vote of confidence, leaving Babiš as caretaker prime minister, possibly on a very long-term basis.
The Czech Constitution sets no time limit within which the president must make a second prime ministerial nomination, a loophole President Zeman might exploit, calculating that the five parties in the two opposition blocs would fragment, leading some opposition lawmakers to back an ANO-led administration. Some commentators have suggested variants in which, as a quid pro quo, Babiš himself would step aside to allow another ANO politician such as finance minister Alena Schillerová to become premier. However, given Zeman’s mercurial character, other options, such as the appointment over the heads of parties of a government of (supposed) independent technocrats, of the kind Zeman formed in 2013, could not be ruled out.
If, however, Babiš’s potential minor party allies perform well enough to provide the parliamentary numbers, he is likely to recreate the type of administration he currently leads, patching together coalition deals or confidence-and-supply deals with each party individually.
If the parliamentary arithmetic did not work, out a third scenario could see Okamura’s far right Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) gain influence in government. Despite being squeezed by the more radical, anti-vax inclined Free Bloc (VB) and from Babiš’s rampantly illiberal rhetoric, Okamura’s party, which has centred its campaign on food prices and the cost-of-living issues, can expect to pull in around 10% of the vote.
Despite repeating his oft-repeated statement that his price for joining a coalition would be a referendum on Czexit – a demand previously rejected out of hand by ANO – Okamura may in practice prove more flexible. With several ex-Social Democrats and a prominent lay official in the Catholic Church running on its ticket, his party aspires for a degree of respectability – and more serious political influences. Czech political journalists have suggested that an arms-length support arrangement allowing the SPD to nominate some ‘independent experts’ as ministers could work for both Babiš and Okamura. The mere prospect of such a deal would also give Andrej Babiš leverage to pressurise mainstream opposition parties into working with him as the ‘lesser evil’.
In upping the mounting legal and political pressure on Andrej Babiš, the unfolding Pandora Papers revelations will turbocharge all such post-election scenarios, making a protracted, no-holds-barred struggle in some form more likely. They also, indirectly, raise the stakes for the Czech Republic itself, whose democratic institutions have so far buckled but not broken under populist pressures. But one thing seems certain: that whatever result emerges on Saturday, Andrej Babiš will be hard to dislodge – both from government and as the defining issue in Czech politics.
Seán Hanley is Associate Professor in Comparative Central and East European Politics at UCL-SSEES.
This piece was originally published as a SSEES Research Blog.
Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.