A defeat for populism in the Czech Republic
Populist Prime Minister Andrej Babiš is out of office following the Czech Republic’s October election. The billionaire business leader turned politician has been dogged by multiple allegations of corruption and conflicts of interest; reports of offshore tax avoidance days before the election may have been decisive for some voters. Two coalitions of parties put their differences to one side to prevent Babiš capitalising on fragmented opposition, and now they have formed a unified government that promises to be more moderate. The result may have greater significance across Central Europe’s club of populist-led states: a united opposition has succeeded, and Hungary will be the next place this approach is tried.
It could well be the end of an era in the Czech Republic. The parliamentary election held on 8 and 9 October resulted in a shock defeat for Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and his ANO (Yes) party. Despite President Miloš Zeman’s attempts to keep Babiš in power, a deal between the first-placed and third-placed coalitions ensured a comfortable majority for the former opposition. The country has a new government and prime minister.
Babiš, a billionaire oligarch with extensive media interests and one of the Czech Republic’s richest men, came to power in 2017 on a populist, supposedly anti-establishment platform. He worked hand-in-hand with President Zeman, a pro-Russia, pro-Trump populist fond of using his office to make outrageous statements. Unsurprisingly, Babiš cultivates close connections with Central Europe’s club of populist strongmen leaders, particularly Hungary’s authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
During the campaign, Babiš played up his connections to Orbán, who visited in September to offer his endorsement. Babiš hammered home the same anti-European Union (EU), anti-migration and Islamophobic message that had served him well before, opposing any further migration and the EU’s climate plans and calling for the abolition of the European Parliament. But for many, corruption, the government’s poor handling of the pandemic and the pandemic’s economic impacts were more pressing issues.
The key difference this time was that Babiš faced a reorganised opposition. Standing against him was a centre-right political alliance of three parties, Spolu (Together), while a more progressive alliance of two parties, Pirates and Mayors (PirStan), also ran on a joint slate. This was in sharp contrast to the 2017 election, when Babiš became prime minister by capitalising on a divided opposition that resulted in a fragmented Chamber of Deputies.
Despite the more unified approach, going into the election there was not a single opinion poll that placed ANO anything other than first. But days ahead of the vote a new corruption scandal broke, as Babiš was among those implicated in the Pandora Papers investigations into the offshore, tax-avoiding wealth of political and economic elites.
The Pandora Papers indicated that Babiš had bought a string of properties on the French Riviera for US$22 million, transferred through a series of opaque shell companies in the British Virgin Islands tax haven, and kept off the asset declarations he was legally required to file. Babiš tried to brush the allegations off as a political smear, but this seemed to be the tipping point for some voters.
It was far from the first corruption allegation against him. To win power, Babiš had capitalised on public anger about a corrupt governing elite, but it didn’t take long for multiple corruption stories to stick to him.
For all he’d taken a populist anti-EU stance, he faced investigation for alleged fraud in obtaining EU small-business subsidies, in what became known as the Capi hnizdo (Stork’s Nest) affair – the name of a farm and conference centre that Babiš is accused of hiding his ownership of so it would qualify for €2 million (approx. US$2.3 million) in EU small business subsidies. Companies in his vast Agrofert conglomerate are among the biggest recipients of EU farming support. Babiš had to transfer ownership of Agrofert to trust funds in 2017, but a European Commission investigation found he still had direct influence over it.
As a result, in 2019 the police recommended he be indicted on fraud charges. Babiš’ response was to sack the justice minister. Bizarrely, Babiš was even accused of kidnapping his son to prevent him giving evidence about the corruption allegations.
Babiš faced numerous other accusations of conflicts of interest. The growing evidence of corruption triggered mass protests, organised by the Million Moments for Democracy movement, with tens of thousands of people demanding his removal. In the run-up to the 2021 election, members of the movement campaigned for change, encouraging people to vote for either of the main opposition coalitions.
Part of Babiš’ response to the exposure of his corruption was to limit media freedom. As well as having his own extensive media interests, ahead of the election Babiš persistently interfered with the public broadcaster, Česká Televize, seeking to place his supporters in key positions, clearly with the hope of influencing its coverage – see our story.
A change on the cards
When the votes were counted, Babiš had lost 2.5 per cent of his support compared to 2017. This was a small decline, but it was made worse for him by a rise of 5.7 percentage points for Spolu on its component parties’ 2017 performance. At 27.8 per cent compared to 27.1 percent, Spolu inched ahead of ANO on the popular vote. With 72 of the 200 seats, ANO was still the largest party in the Chamber of Deputies, but was left looking short of friends. The parties that had kept ANO in government, the Social Democratic and Communist parties, both lost their representation, having fallen under the five per cent vote threshold.
President Zeman tried to offer his ally a lifeline. Despite ANO’s evident lack of coalition partners, he stated that the party with the most seats should get the first chance to form a government. But then, in a moment of high drama that threatened to throw things into chaos, the day after the election Zeman was hospitalised. He faced accusations that he had concealed his ill health to try to stay in office so that Babiš could cling on as prime minister. There was talk of removing him from the role on the grounds that he was no longer fit to fulfil his duties.
Babiš insisted that Zeman had reassured him he would be given the chance to form a government. He tried to hang onto his job by suggesting a ‘grand coalition’ with Spolu, but Spolu made clear that it would not be part of any coalition that kept Babiš as prime minister. Spolu and PirStan started talks and on 4 November signed an agreement to form a coalition government. Together, they control 108 of the 200 seats.
For Babiš, this was game over. Even Zeman had to accept the outcome: Spolu leader Petr Fiala was sworn in as prime minister on 28 November and the new cabinet was appointed on 17 December, after Zeman failed in an attempt to veto the appointment of the foreign minister. A mainstream, non-populist, more pro-Europe government will take charge. The country now has the chance to turn the page on several years of divisive populism.
Now the new government needs to make it work by figuring out a way to deal with inevitable internal disagreements without jeopardising its ability to govern effectively. There is yet another electoral challenge to come – a presidential election must be held by January 2023, which given Zeman’s poor health may well take place sooner. No one would be surprised if Babiš were to run for the presidency. The new government has until then to show its superiority over the populist alternative.
VOICES FROM THE FRONTLINES
Marie Jahodová is Executive Director of Million Moments for Democracy.
The main topics in the election campaign were the COVID-19 pandemic and related precautions, state capture by Babiš and the ongoing decrease of trust in politics and politicians.
The main narrative used by members of the democratic coalition was that we needed change, that we had had enough of an oligarch as prime minister, and we wanted to see no more billions flowing illegally into politicians’ businesses.
We hope that the new government will defend democratic principles and lead a dialogue with civil society. Dialogue with civil society has in fact already begun, even in a public way. This is definitely a good sign for the future. After many years of rejection, not only our organisation but civil society in general really appreciates that the new Prime Minister, Petr Fiala, seems open to responding to questions and addressing the possible concerns of civil society.
We do realise though that the new government will not have an easy job, as it came to power at a challenging time. It will need to resolve a difficult economic situation – both the public debt and the national deficit are currently at the highest level in our history – and the pandemic crisis and all the problems linked to it.
The new government must get rid of the people connected to Babiš’ company, Agrofert, who are currently employed in public administration. This is an important long-term task.
There are also other big challenges awaiting the new government, such as the Public Prosecutor’s Office law reform, which could strengthen the independence of the judiciary, and the amendment of the law on conflicts of interest. It’s also necessary to replace some of the members of media councils who are still connected to non-democratic political parties that seek to undermine the credibility of public media. Politicians must also promise to fight disinformation effectively.
And let’s not forget the Capi hnizdo affair in relation to which Babiš has been under prosecution for more than four years already. A resolution of this case should not be postponed again. The investigation needs to move forward and the court should deliver its verdict. Otherwise, it will be a very bad signal for Czech civil society, especially in view of the upcoming presidential campaign.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Marie Jahodová. Read the full interview here.
The result of the Czech election carries regional significance. As Orbán’s active role in the campaign indicates, the populist-led EU states work as a team, enabling, encouraging and imitating each other in their targeting of excluded groups such as migrants and LGBTQI+ people, and their attacks on civil society and media freedoms. Babiš is the first to fall. The next to face an electoral test is the leader of the pack, Orbán, up for re-election next year.
This time around, Czech opposition parties focused on ousting a dangerous figure with the aim of restoring the democratic rules so that next time they can compete against each other. Orbán should be worried that the Hungarian opposition is adopting a similar strategy, putting aside their differences to form a coalition to defeat him. Six opposition parties have joined ranks, no longer giving Orbán the opportunity to exploit their division.
So far the agreement is holding; the six parties have held primaries to select a single candidate to run against Orbán’s party in every seat, and have chosen a conservative, middle-of-the-road candidate to challenge Orbán for the office of prime minister. The opposition is currently nudging ahead in the polls.
The challenges that the united opposition will face in Hungary are still steep, with Orbán supporters holding key positions and the media skewed in his favour. But Hungary’s movement to restore democracy can take heart from the experience of the Czech Republic. The strategy worked once, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work again.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The new government should support, enable and partner with civil society.
The new government should respect media freedoms and guarantee the independence of the public broadcaster.
All corruption allegations should be fully investigated and perpetrators prosecuted to help clean up Czech politics.
Cover photo by David W Cerny via Gallo Images