By Vlastimil Havlik (Masaryk University) and Ivan Jarabinský (Institute for Evaluations and Social Analyses)
It was 263 days after the last general election that a new minority coalition government was formed. The populist ANO and the Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD) came together and the coalition is – for the first time after the fall of the communist regime in November 1989 – openly supported by the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia. The length of governing negotiations was unprecedented in the context of the Czech Republic and has rarely been observed in other countries (the notorious Belgian case is one of the few exceptions). Also, it was the second attempt by the current Prime Minister and the chairman (some may say owner) of ANO to form a government backed by a legislative majority after the last election. Nevertheless, the party composition of the government and what preceded its formation should be taken as confirmation of the recent trends of the rise of populism and the decline of party democracy in the Czech Republic and elsewhere, rather than as an exception.
The first government and the decline of party democracy
Once the final results of the October 2017 general election were announced, it was clear that forming a stable majority government would not be an easy task. One reason for this was that the country saw the greatest fragmentation of the party system since the fall of communism. Nine political parties crossed the relatively high 5% electoral threshold applied in the elections to the lower parliamentary chamber. The second reason was that more than 48% of the vote and 115 seats out of 200 went to populist and/or radical political parties. The third reason was that the winner of the election was the populist ANO, with almost 30% of the vote (the runner-up, the conservative Civic Democratic Party, got less than 12%). The most successful party, led by Slovak-born billionaire Andrej Babiš, was established shortly before the 2013 election. Its technocratic, anti-ideological, populist discourse based on the leader`s proclaimed experience and competence (the key election slogans were “We are not like politicians, we work hard!” and “I will run the state like a firm”) in times of both political and economic crises were translated into unexpected success and the eventual participation of ANO in a government coalition alongside the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats. The subsequent economic recovery along with Babiš`s almost unlimited financial resources and ownership of important media outlets (Babiš is sometimes called the Czech Berlusconi) helped ANO, with Babiš as the Minister of Finance, to gain popularity and win the 2017 election. According to the 2017 post-election survey conducted by the Czech Academy of Science, almost 52% of voters considered ANO to be the most competent party in resolving economic issues.
Nevertheless, the coalition potential of ANO after the last general election was quite limited for several reasons. First, virtually unchanged populist anti-establishment discourse was often combined with aggressive and offensive language and Babiš’s media outlets were used to attack his opponents. This did not make ANO a trusted coalition partner. Second, Babiš had a permanent conflict of political and economic interests, was accused both of embezzling EU-money (Babiš was forced to leave the previous government shortly before the election) and of collaborating with the communist Secret Police. This contributed to the unwillingness of most of the political parties to join a government that would include the leader of ANO. Third, while not quite as openly anti-liberal as Orbán in Hungary or Kaczyński in Poland, Babiš`s highly centralized, strongly majoritarian vision of the Czech polity, with little regard for both horizontal and vertical separation of powers, was criticized by most of the other political parties.
Nevertheless, the President of the Czech Republic and Babiš`s political ally, Miloš Zeman, insisted on the “right” of the winner of the election to form the government. Despite the unwillingness of the other political parties to collaborate with ANO and the consequential lack of a clear parliamentary majority, Babiš was appointed as the new Prime Minister soon after the election. Several rounds of talks on government formation took place but they did not lead to the formation of a majority government. Interestingly enough, the main reasons for this were not policy disagreements but rather Babiš`s prosecution and his insistence on becoming the Prime Minister. Moreover, a series of votes in the Chamber of Deputies indicated the existence of a working majority of ANO, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM) and the populist radical right Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD), which further deterred the other parties from collaborating with ANO.
More interestingly, Babiš’s, as well as ANO’s, general approach towards government talks indicated only a lukewarm willingness to form a coalition and followed the long-term technocratic populist party discourse which criticized the often complicated and slow procedures of parliamentary and (multi)party democracy. One of the most illustrative quotes is the one in which Babiš found the current Slovak situation to be a model to follow: “There are a lot of things we can learn from Slovakia (…) because there was a single party government of Robert Fico. It took a decision on something, called the parliament, they made the law…that was drive”. All in all, the government talks were unsuccessful and the result was an ANO minority single party government that was defeated in a confidence vote. According to the Constitution, what should follow is the second appointment of a Prime Minister by the President and the formation of a government capable of gaining confidence as soon as possible. Instead, Babiš’s stress on technocratic effectiveness served as the main frame for placing – in an unprecedented manner – the necessity of the government to have the confidence of the parliament into doubts. In spite of the fact that constitutional lawyers had pointed out that the role of a defeated government should be restricted to necessary administrative functions, Babiš`s cabinet made important personnel changes, including to the police, and it implemented or planned several important policy changes as well. To put it simply, the government pretended that nothing unusual had happened. To be sure, very few bills were passed by the parliament, but Babiš’s first government managed to symbolically weakened the position of the parliament and the party democracy, while the position of the executive, including President Zeman, became stronger. In January 2018, Zeman once again assigned Babiš the task of forming the new government and claimed that he would appoint him Prime Minister, even without the guarantee of a parliamentary majority. Zeman took this step in order to prevent his rival in the presidential election, Jiří Drahoš, from exercising the right to appoint the new Prime Minister (the third and last Prime Ministerial appointment is constitutionally entrusted to the President of the lower parliamentary chamber, i.e. to Radek Vondráček from ANO in this case) in the event that Zeman was not re-elected president (which he eventually was). In other words, the pragmatic alliance between Zeman and Babiš circumvented the spirit of the Constitution defining the Czech Republic as a parliamentary and party democracy.
The new coalition and the return of the communists
The presidential election resulted in Zeman`s victory and he continued to influence the composition of the new government. During his presidential campaign, Zeman gave a speech at a radical right SPD conference (which may be seen as a strategic move to address SPD’s electorate), and after his reelection, he attended the Communist’s congress as well. These appearances contributed to the legitimacy of the two radical parties, which had been previously been rejected by the rest of the parties as potential coalition partners. As most of the other parties refused to enter a government collaboration with ANO if Babiš remained Prime Minister, and as Babiš was not willing to leave this position, ANO’s cooperation with the radical parties became a rational solution, one that followed an office-seeking rather than a policy-based strategy. As the data from legislative votes show, in most cases ANO has voted in legislative coalition with the Communists and the radical right. Some of these votes, as well as the process of the government formation itself, were the subject of controversy which led to several mass protests (e.g. in reaction to the election of notorious communist MP Ondráček as head of the Standing Commission on Activities of the General Inspections of Security Forces, against the Babiš’s Prime Ministry, and against the Communist Party’s involvement in the government).
In the meantime, the Social Democrats, after their electoral failure (in a slump from 50 to 15 mandates), elected new leadership personally closer to President Zeman and more willing to participate in the government, even with some form of Communist Party involvement. Consequently, serious talks on a coalition government between ANO, the Social Democrats and the Communists were launched.
The Social Democrats decided to hold an intra-party referendum on participation in a government lead by Babiš and supported by the Communists. Although the referendum approved participation in the government, it also confirmed the existence of factions within the Social Democratic Party (liberal and anti-Zeman and more conservative, pro-Zeman and pro-governmental). Even more importantly, it symbolically abolished the so-called “Bohumín resolution” (Bohumínské usnesení) that had prohibited the Social Democrats from cooperating with extremist parties, among which they include the Communists (although the term “cooperation” can be easily spin-doctored).
The inclusion of the non-reformed Communist Party into a government formation is unprecedented. This is not to say that the position of the Communists has remained unchanged since the Velvet Revolution in November 1989. Gradually, the representatives of the Communist Party have been elected to parliamentary bodies, helped to elect Václav Klaus as President of the country, formed regional governments and have been invited to media events alongside the mainstream political parties. Also, the negative perception of the communist regime both among the public and in popular culture is less widespread than in the past. Nevertheless, the Communist Party has never been invited to be part of or to actively support a government (the Christian Democratic Party’s leader’s attempt to form a government supported by the Communists in 2006 was likely a strategic step to prevent the formation of a large coalition of the Civic and Social Democrats).
Rather unclear conditions for communist support of Babiš’s second government further problematize their involvement in the government formation. The so-called Toleration Agreement between the Communists and ANO was signed without the presence of the media. The released document does not explicitly include any of the previously-voiced Communist requirements and, at the same time, the Policy Statement of the Government is missing some of them as well (e.g. the controversial Communist requirement to tax Church restitutions). In the first version of the agreement, the Communists demanded posts in the management of state enterprises. They claimed to give up this provision in order to maintain their image. The chairman of the Communist Party was then inconspicuously chosen by ANO’s chairman of the Chamber of Deputies as its first vice-president. Some opposition politicians, therefore, have raised concerns about some other secret agreement between the Communist Party and ANO.
The government formation itself seemed to be more about office seeking and about individual personalities than about the programme. Apart from the Communist policy requirements, programmatic negotiations between the Social Democrats and ANO had been relatively smooth. On the other hand, Babiš’s prosecution and defeat in the confidence vote motivated the Social Democrats to demand five ministries (which Babiš had previously said was unacceptable) and the control of the Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of Justice, andMinistry of Finance. In the end, the Social Democrats received the Ministry of the Interior and four other ministries, among them the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, President Zeman (whose advisor serves as the new Minister of Agriculture) announced that he was not willing to accept a Social Democratic candidate (Miroslav Poche) to the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Although the President does not have the constitutional power to refuse a PM’s proposal, he is closely allied with Babiš, who was greatly in his debt for being held as the sole candidate for the prime- ministership for exceptionally long period of time. Therefore Babiš used a trick and offered the President two versions of the ministry’s proposal, one with Poche as Minister of Foreign Affairs and another one where Poche was replaced by Jan Hamáček, the chairman of the Social Democrats and also a candidate for the Ministry of the Interior.
Zeman chose the second option.
Another problem for the new government came with ANO’s controversial Minister of Justice Taťána Malá after a scandal surrounding allegations that she plagiarized her university thesis. After her resignation, Babiš briefly suggested to become the Minister of Justice temporarily, but after immediate criticism (he could directly influence his prosecution) a new Minister was appointed only one day short of the confidence vote.
What is next?
Babiš’s second government will go down in history as the first modern Czech government dependent on the support of the Communist Party. This contributes significantly both to the legitimacy of the Communist Party and the communist past. The most obvious evidence for this are the headlines in Babiš’s media a few days after his government won the confidence vote; they claim that “KSČM is a democratic party” (KSČM je demokratická strana) (Mladá Fronta Dnes, 14. 7. 2018; also here).
As for policies, the coalition manifesto, which is just an updated version of the manifesto of the first Babiš government, is a mixture of vague general promises, such as the one on the pension reform, and very detailed clientelistic measures including promises to lower the tax on draft beer and haircut services or to reduce the price of train tickets for seniors and students. In other words, no major reforms can be expected in domestic policy. What is more likely is the implementation of minor policy changes aimed at broadening ANO’s electorate base and – due to both the professional political advising team and media ownership – claim ownership of carefully selected and implemented policy outcomes. As for foreign policy or attitudes towards European integration, it is likely that the government will try to strike a balance depending on the audience. A mildly pro-EU position at the European level is likely, as well as a more critical position focused towards the Eurosceptic electorate and to the Communist leadership. The Czech constitutional system makes constitutional amendments quite difficult to pass (a three-fifths majority in both parliamentary chambers is required). Nevertheless, the ordinary laws leave enough space for a less visible but still effective curbing of the liberal democratic regime (including the independence of the public media and other institutions such as the Supreme Audit Office or the Supreme Prosecutor).
On the whole, Babiš is a Prime Minister with extraordinary conflicts of interest. At first glance, he may appear to be unpredictable in terms of his policies, which are mostly driven by public opinion rather than any ideology. Soon after the elections he favoured a right-wing coalition, but he later turned to consider any other possible coalition formation. He did state, however, that there was a lack of programmatic harmony with the Communist Party, which would therefore make cooperation with them impossible. In the end, he was able to quickly change this position and for the first time allow the Communists to impact the government. Especially for such controversial decisions, Babiš uses his media to legitimate his activities. However, on closer examination one can see a man with an unclear ideological background rationally calculating in order to stay in power and using tools (money, media) his opponents possess less of. In the context of the recent Central European authoritarian tendencies it remains a question whether Babiš will follow the Polish or Hungarian paths, because his centralized vision of the political system and rather authoritarian (business) mentality are not backed by any clear ideology. Consequently, the boundaries of the political system in the Czech Republic may be tested in the near future.
Photo source: https://www.ft.com/content/2f6853fe-839e-11e8-96dd-fa565ec55929