The populists’ prospects in the Czech election

ZOiS Spotlight 19/2017 by Pavla Homolová (19 July 2017)

Andrej Babiš, founder of the party ANO: according to forecasts, the populists have a good chance of succeeding in this year’s elections. Photo: Martin Nejezchleba/n-ost

After four years of a relatively stable coalition of three dissimilar political parties, the 200 members of the lower chamber of the Czech parliament are up for re-election in October. For the first time in the modern parliament’s history, the Czech Republic may turn neither to the centre-left ČSSD nor to the centre-right ODS, but to the populist ANO. That party is led by the businessman Andrej Babiš, who is the second-richest Czech and wants to manage the state as a company.

The previous parliamentary election in 2013 took place earlier than scheduled due to a government crisis. The crisis was provoked by the revelation of what presumably was a misuse of power by the aide of the then prime minister, including spying with the help of military intelligence agents. Trust in the chamber of deputies was unprecedentedly low at the time.

In the 2013 election, the political spectrum changed. The social democratic ČSSD, which won 20 per cent of the vote, and the ANO, a new political movement that promised to fight corruption and achieved unexpectedly high support of 19 per cent, came to power in coalition with the Christian democrats. Other elected parties in the parliament were the Communist Party; the right-wing and pro-European party TOP 09; the traditional right-wing party ODS; and a new nationalist, Eurosceptic, and anti-Islamic movement called Daybreak.

The period 2013–2017 has been economically successful: the unemployment rate was on average 5.1 per cent, GDP grew more than 2 percent annualy since 2014, the budget deficit dropped (in 2016 even a budget surplus was recorded). There was also certain progress in terms of the democratic environment, thanks to pressure from non-governmental organisations. Five anticorruption laws were passed (though with notable exceptions). Experts note that measures targeting tax avoidance introduced in 2016 by Babiš, who was finance minister at the time, have worked well.

At the same time, Babiš has been accused of having a conflict of interests, avoiding taxes and misusing European funds, and recently influencing the agenda of one of his former mass media outlets. Despite growing criticism in spring 2017, Czech president Miloš Zeman refused prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka’s attempt to dismiss Babiš from the post of finance minister. Therefore, Sobotka decided to ask the whole government to resign. Zeman, contrary to expectations, refused to accept the group dismissal. After that, thousands of people in seven Czech cities took part in demonstrations demanding the removal of Babiš from his ministerial post. In the end, Zeman agreed to his dismissal, and a new finance minister was appointed.

As a result of the crisis, trust in the parliament and government declined and is now the lowest since 2013: in June 2017, 23 per cent of Czechs trusted the legislature. Sobotka later resigned as leader of the ČSSD, after support for him and his party fell sharply. Surprisingly, support for the ANO remained similar to before the crisis: in June, the ANO still had the backing of 34 per cent of potential voters. This gap might be the result of Sobotka’s chaotic and poorly communicated steps compared to the simple message of Babiš who proclaimed that he was the victim of powerful actors. Zeman was trusted by 48 per cent of Czechs.

Compared with his opponents, Babiš invests a lot of time campaigning in person, by handing out copies of a book introducing his vision for the Czech Republic. Among his ideas is a proposal to abolish the senate and city councils because they ‘slow down decision-making processes’. Babiš would also like to replace the system of proportional representation used to elect members of parliament with a majoritarian system.

The ANO promises a lower income tax rate for people who earn less than approximately €4,300 a month (which is most of the population). The movement is against adopting the euro and the European Commission’s refugee quota system, which is unpopular across the political spectrum, despite the threat of sanctions from the commission for failing to adopt the quotas. Eurosceptic, anticorruption, or anti-immigrant rhetoric resonates well with the public: 72 per cent of Czechs are against the euro, 69 per cent think that EU decisions are not in their personal interest, and 60 per cent believe that the Czech Republic should not accept refugees of war under any conditions.

The ČSSD, which now has a new leader and the support of 12 percent of voters, has ambitious plans: to increase the average wage by 44 per cent in five years and introduce progressive taxation, which experts criticise as unnecessary because the current tax system is already indirectly progressive. The party also strongly opposes refugee quotas. The remaining parties that would enter the parliament according to projections from June are the Communist Party (which would receive 14.5 per cent of the vote), the right-wing and fairly Eurosceptic ODS (11 per cent), and the right-wing but pro-European TOP 09 (6.5 per cent).

According to another recent survey, Czechs are most concerned with healthcare, family and social policies, and reform of pension system, priorities that are closer to the agenda of the ČSSD than to that of the ANO. However, after a term of the social democrats, there is a demand for change in the country. This change will probably come in the form of a strengthened ANO, represented by the most visible figure on the Czech political scene.

But in their hope for a charismatic leader, less corruption, and protection from refugees, Czechs may end up with a less democratic and more isolated country. And the controversial plans of the ANO leader may not be that decisive: Czechs say that their choice in the election will be affected more by their experience with the party so far than by the its programme or leaders. A certain potential to dilute the colours on the political map may rest with young people, who generally do not vote for the big parties and have more pro-European attitudes. Nevertheless, the estimated voter turnout of people aged 18–29 is currently just 44 per cent.

The parties’ programmes are set. In the remaining three months, what will be important is how convincing their proponents are in communicating their agendas. Some 52 per cent of likely voters are still not fully sure which party they will choose.

Pavla Homolová is a PhD student of sociology, associate researcher and lecturer at Charles University in Prague. Currently, she is an intern at ZOiS.