Instability is a bigger risk than populism in the Czech Republic

Instability is a bigger risk than populism in the Czech Republic

Much is being made of the Czech Republic’s turn to populism and Euroscepticism, but the immediate risks from the elections are fragmentation, legislative gridlock and instability.

Czech legislative elections in October 2017 resulted in a convincing, 30% victory of ANO (Action of Dissatisfied Citizens; the acronym also doubles as ‘Yes’ in Czech). The party is led by Andrej Babis, a billionaire turned politician. Babis, who owns the country’s largest newspapers, has been compared to Berlusconi as well as Trump. Having been handed the premiership on 6 December, Babis leads a minority government which faces an automatic confidence vote on 10 January, and so he must demonstrate that he can forge a coalition or a minority government capable of ruling until then.

Dramatic social and political fractures

In Czech politics, 30 percent is a large majority. The conservative Civic Democrats (ODS) came second with only 11%. As a result, commentators have been quick to jump to bleak conclusions, predicting an increasingly undemocratic, Eurosceptic and populist Czech Republic. Analysts have raised the alarm, warning against constitutional changes, press gagging and even a potential ‘Czechout’ from the EU.

But to assume that the country will now be steered by anti-establishment populism would be simplistic. Instead, the elections represent a dramatic fracturing of the Czech political scene and wider society, marked by the decline of traditional left and right wing political parties. While ANO has indeed won a large majority, the new parliament reflects a remarkable lack of broad consensus over the country’s direction among the electorate. This seems to indicate a reversion to political instability, after the previous government was the first to complete its full term in the past 15 years.

Coalition-building challenges ahead

In addition to ANO and ODS, the Czech parliament now features seven other political parties, the most in its history. These include anti-establishment “movements” such as the Pirate Party and the anti-immigration Party of Direct Democracy (SPD), both with slightly more than ten percent, as well as the Communists with more than seven percent. The remaining four parties which snuck in over the five percent threshold are the traditional, pro-EU, democratic parties: the socialists, Christian democrats, the liberal TOP 09 and the devolutionist party of mayors.

This fracturing means that coalition building may prove to be Babis’ undoing. ODS, the only single party large enough to form a majority with ANO, has rejected any discussions while Babis, who is currently under investigation for embezzlement of EU subsidies, remains ANO’s leader. TOP 09, the mayors’ party, and the Pirates, soon followed suit.

Having hitherto ruled in a coalition with the socialists and Christian democrats, ANO’s leadership has hinted at a preference to continue in this coalition. But the two traditional parties feel burnt by their past alliance with ANO, which has blamed them for all government failure. Their dismay is justifiable: the socialists, for one, lost the premiership and plummeted from over 20 percent to 7. The Christian democrats are conscious that any further cooperation with ANO will severely harm their crucial educated urban vote.

The only party keen to join ANO in government is therefore the SPD, generally anti-immigrant, but often also labelled as neo-fascist. ANO largely stands and falls with Babis. But while he has said that “aspects of SPD’s programme are interesting”, coalition with SPD is likely to be too difficult to stomach for most ANO MPs. Martin Stropnicky, ANO’s second in command and new foreign minister, was quick to dismiss a coalition with SPD or any party which calls for an exit from the EU or NATO. Significantly, this also rules out the Communists.

After several weeks of negotiations, it is almost certain that Babis will not be able to build a coalition in time for the confidence vote on 10 January. SPD has rules out its support of Babis’ government after his new defence minister called SPD a “modern fascist movement”, while the pro-EU democratic parties continue to reject any negotiations while Babis is under investigation. The Communists remain the only party who has not ruled out supporting Babis’ government, but their seats do not add up to a majority. All other parties have also rejected tolerating a minority government, too.

The next steps are complicated. Babis is certain to embark on a second round of negotiations, but given that the pro-EU parties refuse to cooperate with him personally, and senior ANO figures remain reluctant to work with SPD.

In the end, the outcome of Czech parliamentary elections may come down to the presidential elections. According to the Czech constitution, Babis will be able to remain as prime minister even without a coalition or a vote of confidence, as long as he continues to enjoy the support of President Milos Zeman. Although Babis is a Zeman favourite, Zeman’s mandate expires in March 2018. Should Zeman lose the election, Babis could find himself quickly out of a favour with a new, pro-EU president.

Exaggerated threats

Babis’ first act as Prime Minister has been to pledge that he will fight against “illegal migration”, seen by many as a cipher for nationalist, anti-Muslim sentiment. The presence of populist parties in parliament or government of any democratic nation naturally presents a threat to liberalism and diversity. But like any democracy, the Czech Republic has inbuilt checks and balances, and a civil society  which was robust enough to bring down totalitarian communist rule in 1989. This combination will prove capable of resisting any major shifts.

Even with Babis in charge, little change in the country’s direction should be expected over the medium term. Critically, Babis is a supreme pragmatist. In order to rule, he will be forced to build consensus, which is unlikely to result in any dramatic developments.

Concerns over the country’s EU future, and possible shift towards Russia, are also overstated. Babis has significant business interests in the EU – not least in the form of EU subsidies. He has none in Russia. So far, his entire political raison d’etre has revolved around his business interests, which include some of the country’s largest newspapers and, above all, a large food and beverage holding. He will not turn his back on business for ideology.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Filip Rambousek

Filip is a London-based Russia analyst at a political risk and due diligence firm. He has an MSc in History of International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science, having studied Social Anthropology and Study of Religions for his first degree. Prior to his current position, Filip worked for Jaromir Stetina, a Member of the European Parliament in Brussels, and the Czech embassy in Washington, D.C. He is fluent/high level in Czech, English and Russian.