How Can We Think About the Czech Election?
Václav Havel - a great Czech thinker, dissident, and politician - once wrote that “there’s always something suspect about an intellectual on the winning side.”
For those who watched with weary eyes the Czech Republic elect another anti-immigrant populist, these words will offer little consolation. While this election is a good candidate for comparisons and running narratives, there are interesting distinctions beneath the surface.
The Czech Republic is a parliamentary democracy, where the head of Government is the Prime Minister, and the head of state is the President. The President is directly elected, and has duties and powers similar to that of Canada’s Governor General, including the appointment of the Prime Minister.The Parliament is bicameral and multi-party, with its lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, elected based on a system of proportional representation (PR).
The election, held on October 20-21, resulted in Andrej Babiš and his ANO party being asked to form government by the country’s President, Milos Zeman. ANO - meaning ‘yes’ in Czech - was formed by Babiš in 2012 and was based on his 2011 movement ‘Action of Dissatisfied Citizens’. The party received some 29.64% of the vote, almost triple that of the next closest party.
Western journalism often reports with the premise that Babiš is a “Czech Donald Trump,” and on its surface the similarities are obvious.
Similar to Trump, he is a billionaire with a net worth estimated at $4 billion, making him the second-richest man in the Czech Republic. He has been quoted as stating that he aims to run the country “like a business,” and most importantly, he appeals to the same discontent towards mainstream politics which helped fuel Trump’s victory.
The position which most strongly links Trump and Babiš, is Babis’s hardline anti-immigrant stance. He fiercely opposes the notion that EU countries ought to “share the burden” of the migrant crisis via a quota system. He has stated that he has “stopped believing in successful integration and multiculturalism,” and has expressed fear about the destruction of European culture.
It is often too easy to indulge in comparisons and omit the exceptions. Thus, there are some valuable distinctions to note.
One important contrast is that Babiš is not of a stranger to government and politics. His ANO party gained nearly 19% support in 2013, propelling him to the Deputy Prime Minister position in a 3-party coalition led by the centre-left Social Democrats (ČSSD).
Another key difference is how the two politicians rose to power. Trump rose to power on a right-wing Republican platform, while Babiš’ movement-turned-party has generally eschewed left-right classification; reminiscent of a similar sort of “radical centre” found in France’s own movement-turned-party, En Marche.
A member of the centrist European political group Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), alongside parties such as Germany’s FDP or the U.K.’s Liberal Democrats, the policies of ANO and Babiš before he found his keystone in immigration have been at best described as vaguely liberal.
Furthermore, while their shared billionaire businessmen backgrounds are a notable comparison, Trump is not necessarily the innovator in this regard. Babiš has just as often been dubbed ‘Babisconi,’ after the Italian media tycoon turned dominant politician Silvio Berlusconi.
A more impactful trend this election exemplifies is the fall of the establishment left. While the establishment right in Europe hasn’t weathered the populist tide particularly well, the traditional left-wing parties have disintegrated stunningly.
In Germany’s recent election, the Social Democrats suffered their worst result since World War II, while the Labour party in The Netherlands dropped out of the picture with a shocking 29-point drop in support. The most striking was the loss of some 251 seats by the French Socialist party, a cliff-drop from near majority to near obscurity. The Czech election reveals more of the same, with the once-governing Social Democrats now relegated to sixth place.
In some instances, the decline of the establishment left may be attributed to the success of left-wing outsiders; as is the case with Jeremy Corbyn’s triumph over the more centrist faction of his Labour party.
In others, centre-left support has been siphoned off from both sides of the spectrum, as is the case in France. This latter option better characterizes the Czech situation, but nevertheless it remains an oddity.
For example, third-place went to none other than the Pirate Party, accounting for 10.8% of the vote. This party is pro-EU, and emphasizes digital freedom and direct democracy. This is notable because Pirate parties have almost never left the political fringes; with the only other notable success occurring in Iceland, where the Pirates also achieved a third-place position in 2016. They have since fallen to 6th, making the Czech Pirates the most successful Pirate party in terms of parliamentary representation.
This result might imply a greater emphasis on the purely non-establishment character of the parties elected, rather than their particular policies. Narratives such as the Trump comparison, or the fall of the establishment left, have undeniable explanatory power, but ought to be tempered with specifics.
One final narrative to address is the growing gulf between the generally pro-EU Western Europe, and the generally “Eurosceptic” Central Europe.
The worry for many here is two-fold. First, that the Czech Republic will further add its voice in dissent against Brussels to those of Poland and Hungary, who have sharply criticized the EU for its policy of shared asylum-seeker relocation, and have branded EU leaders as elitists attempting to weaken national sovereignty.While clearly this would be true with regard to immigration, Babiš has been murkier elsewhere. For instance, he is not in favour of any sort of “Czexit,” noting the importance of EU funding to the Republic.
The second concern stems from the illiberal turns the two aforementioned states have taken. While Hungary’s Victor Orban has undermined Hungarian press freedom, the Law and Justice Party in Poland has waged a war against the courts, stacking it with loyal appointees and refusing to implement official decisions.
The Czech Republic is often seen as a glowing beacon in this regard, with a history of civic values stretching back to moments of Czech civic dissidence against communism, namely the Prague Spring and Velvet Revolution.
It remains to be seen whether Babiš has any illiberal ambition. His success as a media mogul might spark worry about conflicts of interest, but it is likely that his purview for any serious legal change is limited. This is because Babiš will have to seek either a coalition or a minority government, with a minimum of two additional parties that would need to support him to acquire a majority force.
Until the character of this coalition is determined, the extent of any illiberal threat will be unknown. Nevertheless, any immediate comparisons to the Hungarian or Polish experience seem too hasty.
The Czech election can be usefully framed in the context of a wave of global and European populism. However, as is often the case, the reality does not fully mimic the narrative.