The general election that took place in the Czech Republic last weekend deserves attention for several reasons. The major surprise is the electoral defeat of the incumbent technocratic populist party ANO (Action of Dissatisfied Citizens) led by Andrej Babiš and the victory of the right-wing coalition Together (Spolu). Joined by another electoral coalition of the Pirate Party and Mayors and Independents (STAN), the anti-populist opposition gained a comfortable majority of 108 seats out of 200 in the lower chamber of the Czech parliament and will likely form the new government. The majority of the two coalitions was facilitated by the electoral defeat of social democrats and communists who were part of the governing coalition with ANO or supported it for most of the election term respectively. It also means that there will be no traditional leftist party in the parliament after the election. With 10% of votes, the populist radical right Freedom and Democracy (SPD) remains a relevant actor in Czech politics. With 65.4% of registered voters participating, turnout was slightly higher compared to the last election in 2017 (60.8%) and the highest since 1998. Despite the favorable attitude of President Zeman towards ANO, the formation of a broad coalition between Together and Pirates and Mayors (Pirstan) is a likely outcome of the election.
Andrej Babiš’s Defeat
Andrej Babiš and his party are thus arguably the (somewhat) surprising losers of the election and the Czech oligarch will, after four tumultuous years, most likely leave the prime minister post. ANO went to this election with a very questionable record in terms of managing the COVID-19 crisis and its campaign was certainly influenced by it. From the party’s overall emphasis, easily readable from many billboards around the country and very aggressive spots in tv and social media, it was clear that one of the main aims was indeed to divert the attention of the public from the health crisis. The main issues of this campaign were national sovereignty and immigration, pensions and investments into the “post-covid” economics, and protection of national healthcare, environment, and industry. Babiš’s nativist-populist shift, and thus its further approaching likes of Viktor Orbán, was evident almost in every slogan in ANO’s (as usual) short and simple program, in which every key point started with an emphasis on protecting something “Ours” that “They” try to take from “Us”. This shift was also in line with the selection of the main “foe” in the campaign, the (nominally) progressive Pirate party that, for a long time, seemed to be the biggest ANO’s challenger in polls. Indeed, Pirates were directly targeted by Babiš and his team, accusing them of trying to take away peoples’ pensions and give their houses to illegal immigrants. This (over)emphasis on only one competing coalition (Pirstan), while not truly targeting the second large center-right coalition (Together), was a strategic decision that will likely cost Babiš his second term. Already during coalition talks after the 2017 election, it was fairly clear that Babiš would not mind having the center-right Civic Democrats (ODS)–the main party in the Together coalition–as a junior coalition partner. In this election, it was arguably one of his (mis)calculations that Together will simply not receive enough support to form the government with Pirstan, the coalition will potentially split up, and ODS, hungry for power, will join him as a coalition partner. A truly ideal scenario for pragmatic Babiš, who never truly wanted to cooperate with the far right (SPD) or the far left (KSČM), unless he absolutely had to. Concentrating on only one of his two main “enemies”, Babiš (with the help of the far right) successfully managed to discredit the Pirate Party (see below), however, at the same time, unify the “anti-Babiš” vote under Together. Consequently, his national-populist shift has worked only partially. While he, by and large, maintained the same level of support for his party (ANO only lost some 50 000 votes compared to 2017, and turnout was higher in 2021), he underestimated what unification of the vote against him, strengthen by poor management of the COVID-19 crisis, and a solid Together’s campaign (calling for a change–see below) can do.
The formation of the anti-populist divide
A series of electoral defeats both on the national and subnational level as well as stagnating electoral preferences in public opinion surveys with ANO well ahead of other parties and the electoral system disadvantageous for small parties led to a major change in the strategy of the opposition. Two electoral coalitions were formed before the election to increase the chances to challenge the populist ANO. First, the coalition Together of three rather smaller right-wing parties (the Civic Democratic Party, Christian Democratic Party – the Czechoslovak People`s party and TOP 09) was first to form and did very well already in the regional elections last year. Second, the Pirate Party agreed on cooperation with Mayors and Independents (Pirstan). The major campaign issue for both parties was strong criticism of Babiš, however, the support for both coalitions had completely different trajectories throughout the campaign.
The Czech mainstream right has always been fragmented alongside the liberal/conservative axis and around the European issue. At the same time, there have always been discussions about closer collaboration, but it did not come into reality until the common populist enemy emerged. Indeed, the leitmotif of the coalition campaign was the stress on “change” including eventually the slogan “The Change You Can Believe In” copied from Barack Obama`s campaign. At first, Together framed themselves as a right-centre alternative to the populist and socialist government”. Nevertheless, the support for the coalition was at a standstill for some time scoring just below 18% and well behind the coalition of Pirates and Mayors. Just a couple of months before the election, Together decided to change the strategy and almost completely stopped describing themselves as a right-centre coalition. Instead, they strengthened the negative campaign, polarizing the campaign and presenting themselves as the major alternative to “populism and extremism” pointing to a prospective coalition of ANO, communists and the far-right and aiming at (former) non-voters and lukewarm supporters of Pirates and Mayors. The strategy worked in the end, fed by Pirates, weakened by the negative campaign, and the Pandora Papers scandal. The support of Together started to rise just a couple of weeks before the election leading to its victory with 27.79% of votes and 71 seats.
The story of the other democratic coalition is different. After the initial leap in support attacking according to some polls even 30%, Pirates and Mayors experienced hard times. Besides the aforementioned negative campaign hitting Pirates heavily, the coalition struggled to find a common credible ground. Collaboration with Mayors weakened the protest appeal of Pirates (so successful in the 2017 election), which was not replaced by any appealing message. The campaign of the coalition pointed to the threat and impact of Babiš`s populist government (and to the need to protect democracy), but otherwise looked confused and indecisive balancing between vague valence technocratic promises (such as data-based governance) and selective progressivist agenda (same-sex marriage). Moreover, unlike Together, Pirstan were not able to suppress internal ideological disputes and its representatives gave contradictory or controversial policy statements. Pirstan also struggled to present the Pirate leader Bartoš, with his characteristic dreadlocks, as a clear Prime Ministerial candidate. Consequently, the preferences of the coalition started to decrease during summer which lead to defensive and confusing reactions by Pirstan including denying pro-immigration stances by Bartoš himself or sending Vít Rakušan, instead of Bartoš, to TV and radio debates of leaders. The final result of the coalition did not meet expectations: Pirstan received 15.62% of votes and 37 seats. Preferential voting (voters can cast up to 4 preferential votes while a candidate needs to receive at least 5% of preferential votes for a party/coalition to move up on the list) struck distribution of seats among the two parties. Pirates got massacred with only 4 seats (18 less than four years ago) while 33 seats for Mayors made them the third biggest single party in the parliament.
Nevertheless, what was more important was the fact that Together and Pirstan received 108 seats out of 200 and secured a safe majority in the lower chamber. Both coalitions repeatedly declared during the campaign their willingness to form a government as the “only democratic alternative” to populism despite their sometimes deep ideological differences (between Pirates and the Civic Democrats in particular). In other words, the 2017 election campaign was structured and dominated by populist – anti-populist division.
Far right here to stay
The election also proved that the Czech far right has, now for some time, been and remains stable. First, after its “true” electoral breakdown in 2017, largely riding the anti-immigration sentiments’ wave in the country, Tomio Okamura’s SPD managed to maintain its support in 2021, losing 2 seats in the parliament and only approximately 20 000 votes compared to 2017. While not remarkable in a wider (East) European context, this is a solid result, especially considering the typically short lifespan of Czech far right parties, the high turnout rate, the COVID-19 crisis’ impact, and ANO’s taking over on many SPD’s core issues. The party thus seems to be firmly established in the Czech party system. Second, given the solid position of SPD and ANO’s full nativist shift, the space on the far right is (almost) fully occupied. The two “new” far-right subjects that had some hopes to enter the parliament failed completely. Neoliberal far-right Trikolóra (Tricolor), in coalition with Svobodní (Party of Free Citizens–SSO) and Soukromníci (Freeholder Party), run a subpar campaign, never truly overcoming stepping down from politics of its founder, Václav Klaus Jr., and obtained only 2.8% of vote shares. The extreme right COVID-skeptic Volny Blok fared even worse with 1.3 %. Consequentially, the far right is likely here to stay. It has its core electorate that is very disciplined and votes for the far right even when the far-right issues do not truly dominate the public discourse and non-far-right (at least nominally) larger parties emphasize these issues as well. However, the defeat of ANO also means that the impact on policies of the far right will be minimal, given that both “liberal/democratic” coalitions, designed to create the next government, practice cordon sanitaire around SPD. Okamura, per his own statements, indeed had ambitions to enter the government with Babiš. Consequently, while firmly established in the system, the far-right’s impact on politics, with ANO’s defeat, will likely diminish. However, this may not be overly detrimental for SPD and Okamura in the long term. The potential dissatisfaction with the expected SPOLU and Piratstan government will also mean more breeding ground for the far right that directly opposes both coalitions. Finally, if ANO dissolves, which fully depends on Andrej Babiš’s plans after the defeat, it could arguably lead to a migration of its former voters towards SPD, and hence a considerable boost in the far-right’s support. Consequently, this election was hardly a defeat for the far right, but rather a consolidation of its position with a “promise” of an (even) brighter future.
The traditional left outside the parliament
One of the most remarkable outcomes of the election is the electoral defeat of the two traditional leftist parties. Both social democrats and communists – continuously represented in the parliament since the establishment of the Czech Republic – did not cross the 5% electoral threshold. Both parties clearly paid the price for their participation or support for the government with ANO. Social democrats, traditionally strong in economic and social issues, lost the issue ownership to ANO occupying the Minister of Finance (already in 2017, ANO was considered to be most competent in economy even among social democratic voters and quite competent among the communist voters). Moreover, the party suffered from internal disputes among traditionalists and liberals and its representatives developed a very hesitating approach to numerous Babiš`s scandals so that they started to be mocked for repeated statements about setting new “uncrossable red lines”. Formal support of a billionaire Prime Minister and his party (although terminated in April 2021) could hardly be seen as an understandable strategy for voters of a supposedly radical left protest party. Moreover, the “natural” decrease of communist voters has continued which, all in all, eventually resulted in less than 4% of votes. In sum, no traditional left party left in the current Czech parliament whose composition is the most right-wing in its history.
Although the election resulted in (surprisingly) clear majority for the two anti-populist coalitions, some degree of uncertainty surrounds the government formation. One of the most formative features of Czech politics since 2013 was a close political alliance of Babiš and President Miloš Zeman. Zeman, twice directly elected, has been stretching presidential powers including appointment of government (he had appointed a technocratic cabinet and left it in the office even after it lost the vote of confidence). Before the election, Zeman repeatedly labeled both coalitions as a “fraud” and declared his willingness to appoint the leader of the biggest party (based on seats for single parties, not coalitions) as the formateur. On another occasion, he said that he would be ready to give the formateur a lot of time for government talks (basically saying that he is ready to keep Babiš`s government in power even without the confidence of the parliament as he did after the last election in 2017). Nevertheless, the majority of the two coalitions is very safe and their leaders refused to lead government talks with ANO right after the election, leaving Babiš with practically no chance to form a majority government. In turn, it would be challenging for Zeman to keep Babiš in power for a long time. Moreover, Zeman had to be taken into hospital just a couple of weeks before the election. He was eventually released but was hospitalized again and taken to intensive care only one day after the election. There is no official information about the diagnosis, only some indications that Zeman’s condition is very serious (suffering from ascites usually associated with cirrhosis of the liver). That being said, if Zeman is incapable of performing his duties including appointment of a new Prime Minister, the majority in both parliamentary chambers can decide about transfer of presidential powers to the President of the lower parliamentary chamber (i.e. very likely a representative of one of the anti-populist coalitions). Consequently, it is very likely that the new government will be composed of both coalitions with Petr Fiala, the chairman of the Civic Democratic Party as the Prime Minister. Although campaigning on the common anti-populist appeal, the coalition of five parties might face difficult times, however, not just because of the number of its members, but also because of ideological differences between Pirates and the rest. There are indeed some indications of a discontent of some members of the Party party and a certain hesitancy in finally joining the government. Nevertheless, to form the government, Fiala does not need the four Pirates’ MPs.
As for the party system, the biggest question relates to the parliamentary absence of the left and unclear future of ANO (Babiš repeatedly said that he as “executive manager” would not do parliamentary politics typical just by “blathering”, although two days after elections he confirmed that he would retains his seat). Also, one fifth of votes was “wasted” and thus creates a fairly large group of unrepresented voters which could eventually translate into greater opportunities for already existing smaller or new parties in the future. In particular, if the right-wing government chooses the way of austerity policies vis-a-vis the huge deficit of public finance. Several scenarios are more likely than others: ANO can try to copy the strategy of Smer in Slovakia and rebrand itself as a social democratic party. The party implemented social and economic policy measures typical for leftist parties. The social democratic party may want to renew itself – some former major figures of the party expressed their willingness to rebuild the party. The party still has a solid organizational structure on the ground, however, it also faces big debts. As already mentioned, it can be an opportunity for more radical actors including Okamura`s SPD. Given the low demand for progressive policies, an establishment of a new successful new-leftist party is not very likely. What is more important, fascinating times are ahead.
Photo source: https://www.kdu.cz/aktualne/zpravy/spolu-vlada-populistu-a-extremistu-by-byla-devastu?fbclid=IwAR3iaFCbF-UCPBxUOPEkxG5e4FRanhnv7DsMG8mi3ID1QasZ8rzfEtUUvbw