Two initial observations stand out with the first glance at results of the last parliamentary election that took place in the Czech Republic last week. First, confirmation of stability instability dating back to the 2010 “earthquake election”. Second, a clear victory of an anti-establishment party. More astonishingly, ANO of Andrej Babis, a billionaire of Slovak origin, achieved the unprecedented feat of winning in all regions after spending the previous four years in government. The biggest loser of the election is Social Democracy (ČSSD). Once a major pole in the system, ČSSD recorded its worst result since the 1992 election. The election also saw the resuscitation of the right-wing populist Tomio Okamura and the exceptional success of the Pirate Party. The Czech Republic now has the most fragmented parliament since the fall of communism and government formation seems to be more challenging than ever before.
The Czech Republic uses a proportional electoral system, and MPs are elected from 14 multi-member districts that correspond to regional administrative units. A threshold of 5% is applied nationwide (with additional threshold of 10%, 15% and 20% of voters for coalitions of two, three and four parties respectively). The electoral system supports the existence of a multi-party system (seven political parties were represented after the 2013 election), although the combination of the d’Hondt divisor and smaller electoral districts punishes smaller parties without regional electoral strongholds (e.g. the Green Party only got 3% of seats with more than 6% of votes after the 2006 election). The Czech Republic practices positive parliamentarism, i.e. an investiture vote in the Chamber of Deputies (but not in the Senate) is needed after the election. Nevertheless, only a majority of MPs present is required for a government to pass the vote. This low hurdle and a continuous presence of anti-systemic actors (most prominently the unreformed Communist Party) have resulted in several cases of minority and weak governments “tolerated” by the parliament (in exchange for some policy or personnel concessions some political parties or MPs absented themselves for the vote of confidence thereby lowering the threshold of the vote). Nevertheless, an ideologically heterogeneous majority government of the Social Democratic Party, Christian Democrats and ANO was formed after the last election in 2013 and survived the whole electoral term, the first time a government had done that since the Miloš Zeman cabinet in 1998-2002.
Coalition quarrels and populist cleavage in times of economic prosperity
Coalition governing is rarely an easy-going business. It is especially true in case of coalition partners with very different ideological backgrounds. Given the distribution of votes among political parties and the share of seats taken by actors with a very limited coalition potential (the communists and Okamura’s Dawn of Direct Democracy got almost a quarter of seats in the lower chamber), after weeks of negotiations in 2013, a majority and heterogeneous coalition of the Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD), Christian Democratic Party – Czechoslovak People’s Party (KDU-CSL) and ANO with the social democrat Bohuslav Sobotka as the Prime Minister. Both Social Democrats and Christian Democrats may have expected ANO to have become “mainstream” of ANO but the fact is that ANO decided to sustain its anti-establishment appeal. Consequently, the Sobotka government was characterized by never-ending verbal attacks mostly initiated by ANO leader Babis who sought to retain the outsider status of a man fighting the corrupt and incompetent ‘old political parties’. Moreover, several conflicts arose as a result of repeated allegations of Babis abusinghis position as the Minister of Finance for his own business, using the media he had acquired (most notably two prominent dailies) to provide political support for him and attack his rivals, notably after information about – and later a formal charge for – embezzlement of around two million Euro in EU subsides was revealed. A special law was passed in the Parliament to prevent ministers from extensive business activities including media ownership (Babis eventually transferred his assets to a trust fund to comply with the law). In the end, following a government crisis lasting several weeks , Babis was forced to leave the cabinet in May 2017 after tax fraud allegations concerning a legal loophole to buy tax-free bonds and new information about misusing his media for blackening the names of his political opponents. Babis was replaced as the Minister of Finance by Ivan Pilny from his party and ANO remained part of the government.
One of the most important features of Czech politics between the 2013 and 2017 was the presence of a divide between anti-establishment actors (most notably ANO but also Okamura’s party and later the Pirate Party) and the ‘mainstream parties’ in the context of an already existing and further deepening atmosphere of distrust towards traditional parties and “anti-partyism” in general. As an illustration, according to a poll in September 2017, Babis and Okamura were among the three most trustworthy politicians (the most trustworthy was the Minister of Defense from ANO) followed by quite a distance by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and electoral leader of CSSD. Similarly, according to a panel survey from March 2015, less than 50% of respondents considered political parties to be indispensable institutions for the Czech political system.
The results – a wave of anti-party politics
The election brought the most fragmented parliament since the re-introduction of free elections in 1990 with 9 political parties now represented in the lower chamber. Many aspects of the elections would deserve closer attention but one underlying feature prevails: the support for the old parties decreased again while mostly anti-establishment newcomers got upper hand. While in 2006, the four core parties (CSSD, ODS, KSCM and KDU-CSL) recorded 87.7% of votes, it was 53.6% in 2010, 49.9% in 2013 and only 32.15% (!) in the 2017 election.
Table 1: Election results
Votes % votes Seats
ANO 1500113 29.64 78
ODS 572962 11.32 25
PP 546393 10.79 22
SPD 538574 10.64 22
KSCM 393100 7.76 15
CSSD 368347 7.27 15
KDU-CSL 293643 5.80 10
TOP 09 268811 5.31 7
STAN 262157 5.18 6
Data source: volby.cz
ANO, in contrast, managed to increase its support by 11 percentage points to 29.6% of votes which resulted in 78 seats out of 200 and became by far the strongest party in the Parliament. We have already commented on the reasons behind the counterintuitive rise of the anti-establishment ANO in government elsewhere, but some of them deserve to be stressed once again. First, the Czech economy was doing extremely well, as far as macroeconomic indicators show since Sobotka formed his government. Unemployment, for instance, reached a historic low and the Czech Republic had the first surplus budget since the very early 1990s. More importantly, Babis as the Minister of Finance was able present himself in a credible way as responsible for the economic recovery and also took over issues traditionally owned by the left-wing parties (salary increase, pensions etc.). As early post-election analyses show, ANO stole a good share of former Social Democratic and Communist voters. Additionally, unlike other new challenger parties elsewhere in Europe, ANO did not suffer from internal splits that would endanger popularity of the party due to an extremely centralized organization. Last but not least, Babis invested a lot of energy in a mingle withthe people campaign attending public events, a campaign which intensified after he left his ministerial function in May.
The resonance of the immigration issue and anti-European Union mood of the public helped the right wing Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) led by Tomio Okamura to record 10.6%, a historical high for a right wing party using populist appeals in the Czech Republic. The election also brought the rise of other two newcomers. The result of the Pirate Party (10.8% of votes and 22 seats) supported mostly by young voters is best explained by a mixture of its anti-establishment discourse and opening of a niche in the liberal center previously filled by other parties such as the Union of Freedom, the Greens or TOP 09. The Mayors and Independents (STAN) movement, the second newcomer, were already represented in the Parliament as a part of electoral coalition with TOP 09. Although it would not be completely fair to call the party “genuinely new”, it was the first time they stood an an independent list in the election. That a political party consisting of local politician with very loose ideological background succeeded in getting 5.2% of votes (6 seats) is another face of the anti-establishment and perhaps anti-party upsurge the Czech Republic has been experiencing in recent years.
The biggest loser of the election was the Social Democratic Party. Their 7.3% of votes, a drop by 13 percentage points from 2013, amounts to the worst result of CSSD since 1992. As already mentioned, many Social Democratic voters were enticed by ANO’s that move towards the centre-left . Other reasons lie in CSSD’s Prime Minister Sobotka’s mishandling of Babis’s dismissal and the party’s unconvincing stress on anti-immigration that helped to increase the saliency of the issue among the public, but this emphasis only helped other parties that had acquired the ownership of the issue (most notably SPD and to some extent ANO). It is hard to predict the future of CSSD, but the catastrophic electoral setback, divisions within the party, a lack of credible political personnel and huge financial debt (vis-à-vis much lower election reimbursements than expected) makes the recovery of the party to its previous electoral heights in the near future highly improbable.
To the surprise of many, it was for the first time when the unreformed Communist Party attracted fewer than 10% of voters (7.8% of votes and 15 seats). A better economic situation and ANO`s successful takeover of a part of traditional communist constituencies – according to a pre-election survey more than one third of voters older than 65 years opted for Babis – are the main reasons behind the unprecedented drop of KSCM.
The only “old” political party that was able to increase its support (but still recorded the second worst result ever) was ODS with 11.32% of votes and 25 seats. Under the new leadership of the Professor of political science Petr Fiala, the party focused more on its core center-right base. This strategy coupled with the popularity of Vaclav Klaus, Jr., the son of the former Czech President, who was on the party list in Prague, and the move of ANO to the left,enabled a partial recovery of the party. In contrast, the liberal pro-European TOP 09 led by the hugely unpopular Miroslav Kalousek who is burdened with a reputation of dodgy deadling struggled to cross the threshold (5.31% of votes, 7 seats).
The 2017 election was the third consecutive volatile election; memories of the Czech Republic having one of the few relatively stable party systems in Central and Eastern Europe is fading fast. The changes are mainly accounted for the rise of new anti-establishment parties (Public Affairs in 2010, later ANO, both Okamura’s parties and the Pirates) and a drastic drop of support for “old” parties. Unlike most of the 1990s and the early 2000s, this year’s election was not about the conflict between the left and the right but more about the competence to solve the most salient political issues . A managerial, technocratic, anti-liberal vision of the administration of the state, and/or a stress on direct democracy prevailed over ideologically rooted solutions proposed by the “old” political parties.
Nevertheless, both short- and long-term prospects remain unclear just a couple of days after the election when I am writing the commentary. First, the fragmented parliament with the strong position (but still way off a single-party majority) of the anti-establishment ANO leaves only a limited space for formation of working majorities. Following publication of the election results, almost all actors rejected collaboration with ANO referring both to Babis’s authoritarian tendencies and his formal charge of embezzlement. SPD and KSCM might be willing to collaborate with ANO, but Babis has refused to form a coalition with them . Also, the distribution of seats and ideological differences among political parties rule out the formation of an “anti-Babis” coalition. Nevertheless, coalition bargaining is still in its early stages and both policy and personal concessions may create space for the new government. A fragmented Parliament without a clear majority also creates an opportunity for the active involvement of President Milos Zeman who tried to form a “presidential cabinet” after the government crisis in 2013. This scenario is not very likely but it would be naïve to rule out completely an “expert based” coalition stemming from the cooperation between Zeman and Babis who have repeatedly supported each other in the past.
ANO’s electoral victory is often interpreted as a danger for democracy in the Czech Republic. Babis has shown little respect for the deliberative side of liberal democracy with the importance of checks and balances and the role of independent media. He has criticized the Parliament for doing too much talking , bought two main dailies in order to prevent them from “writing lies about him” and an illiberal reform of the political system was introduced in a book written by his spindoctors distributed before the election. The question is whether ANO is able to get enough support for itsproposed reforms. It is not very likely that Babis will find enough votes for his ideas about a “more effective democracy” (constitutional changes require three-fifth majorities in both chambers) but an introduction of referenda (still with the need for qualified majorities in parliament but more difficult to be opposed) remains,opening the way for illiberal reforms proposed by a politician who owns important media and has almost unlimited resources to run effective campaigns.
Photo source: https://www.rte.ie/news/world/2017/1023/914674-andrej-babis/