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Czech Elections: Battles on Shifting Grounds

A victory of xenophobia and Euroscepticism and a turn from the NATO to the East. So, or in like terms, have most foreign media described the re-election of Czech president Miloš Zeman over the former President of the Czech Academy of Sciences Jiří Drahoš in a campaign centered around immigration and the place of the Czech Republic in the European Union.

Zeman, who celebrated his inauguration in 2013 by raising the EU flag above Prague Castle, has since become a fierce critic of European policies from an asylum for Middle Eastern refugees to sanctions on Russia. During the Austrian presidential elections, Zeman endorsed the far-right Freedom Party’s candidate Norbert Hofer, and he has spoken approvingly of both US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Over the course of his presidency, Zeman has championed closer ties with both Moscow and Beijing, and has credited himself with various deals reached in the east. In contrast, Jiří Drahoš styled himself as a thoroughgoing European since the beginning of his candidacy and criticized Zeman for his authoritarian sympathies.      

Despite the evident differences in the two candidates’ worldviews, however, the election was not quite a binary battle between pro-Europeans and anti-Europeans, or a contest between immigration-supporters and its opponents. Nor was it a referendum entirely based on sympathies and antipathies towards Zeman, like some media agencies have asserted. First, it is easy to overstate some of the differences between Zeman and Drahoš that have been emphasized by the foreign press. Drahoš’s support for refugees—and it is no surprise in the current political climate—was lukewarm at best, with most of his energy focused on refuting assertions that he supported unregulated immigration into the European Union. Furthermore, Zeman’s populist support of a potential referendum on the EU was nothing but a shrewd calculation based on the premise that no politician in their right mind would actually go through with it.

Second, just like any candidate entering a presidential race, Zeman’s opponent Jiří Drahoš brought his own baggage to the battle, the heaviest of which was that he is not a politician. Drahoš’s lack of political experience meant that during debates, he was frequently at a loss to deliver his ideas articulately, and had difficulty fending off cheap political attacks. Asked, for example, during the final debate, why he rejects nationwide referendums but presumes to take part in presidential elections (the implication being that presidential elections are akin to referendums), he nervously and somewhat incoherently replied that referendums should not be held about matters of nationwide importance. All it took was an argument for representative democracy, but Drahoš simply did not have the presence of mind to do so, which earned him scornful laughs from the audience. To the undecided voter watching the debate, Drahoš appeared like a bumbling fool, whereas Zeman, for all the half-truths he uttered, maintained an unrattled poise and dominated the stage. What we saw in January was not necessarily the defeat of pro-Europeanism, but the victory of experience and authority. Drahoš was an alternative to Zeman, but one that was not good enough to sway the undecided voter.

With a new head of the Czech state, the question naturally arises: What are the Czech president’s authorities? The European Union can take a sigh of relief because the role of the president is not the most important one in the nation. Much like a monarch, the president goes on state visits, represents Czech interests abroad, hands out amnesties, and looks pretty while shaking the hands of other statesmen and stateswomen. Still, the election will be taken by EU leaders as a statement of disapproval against Brussels, and it will be taken by Moscow and Beijing as an assurance that, for now, their plans for the Czech Republic have not fomented enough public resentment for them to be overthrown. The president does have authority on the national stage, as he determines whom to task with the formation of a new government, names the prime minister, and can also, to the consternation of legal experts, refuse to accept political resignations. The Czech Republic has a parliamentary system and not a presidential one, and with that in mind, it is perhaps more telling, in order to ascertain what attitudes prevail in the Czech Republic right now, to look at last year’s parliamentary elections.    

With regards to the 2017 parliamentary elections, most foreign press coverages focused on the resounding victory of Andrej Babiš’s Action of Dissatisfied Citizens 2011 (ANO) and the success of Tomio Okamura’s Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD), both of which have been received with a good deal of concern abroad. More than a few commentators have drawn comparisons between Andrej Babiš and US President Donald Trump, noting their billionaire status, conflicts of interest, a general disregard for democracy, and altogether miserable communication skills. Despite running on a promise to weed out political corruption, Prime Minister Babiš is currently under investigation for fraud of EU subsidies and has been accused of using his post as the minister of finance under the previous government to harass and destroy business opponents. At times, Babiš has talked of the Senate as a waste of money and a hamper on the efficiency of the legislative process: One of the catchphrases popular among his supporters is the disconcertingly autocratic “run the state like a business.” Taking the populist line on immigration, Babiš opposes accepting refugees according to EU refugee quotas, arguing instead that help should be provided in regions of conflict.

Yet unlike Donald Trump, who commands the largest economy in the world, Andrej Babiš has a much weaker bargaining position on the international stage and must attempt to walk the line between common sense and catering to his Eurosceptic base. While Babiš’s supporters may be by and large critical of the EU, Babiš has gone back and forth between endorsing and refusing the Euro and further European integration, behaving more as an opportunist than as a convinced ideologue. Babiš also attempts to reconcile his lukewarm support of the EU with his base’s knee-jerk Euroscepticism by publicly nurturing the naïve hope that he will be able to persuade his European counterparts of the Czech stance on immigration.  This particular claim emerged after the European Commission launched a case against Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic for their refusal to cooperate on a solution to the refugee crisis. While Babiš has not given any support to call a referendum on membership in the EU, there are concerns that he may lead the Czech Republic on a path towards the fringes of European integration over the immigration crisis by definitively joining Poland and Hungary in a nationalist and authoritarian vision of a new Eastern Bloc.  

The other result of the 2017 elections that has been viewed with concern by centre and left-of-centre media has been the relative success of the largest anti-immigration party, the SPD (not to be confused with the German Social Democratic Party, which is on the very opposite of the political spectrum), which has been compared to other far-right movements on the rise in Europe, such as the FPÖ (the Freedom party of Austria) in Austria and the AfD (the Alternative for Germany) in Germany. Led by a half-Japanese entrepreneur in what can only be called a remarkable feat of cognitive dissonance, the SPD ran on a platform of almost nothing but anti-immigrant and anti-EU rhetoric, which was enough to win 10.64% of the vote and fourth place in the elections. This remarkable result, it is interesting to note, was achieved despite the fact that anti-immigration sentiments are nowadays very much the mainstream among political parties in the Czech Republic, and are an issue that the former government has deemed worthy of risking EU relations over. Of course, while the success of the SPD has undeniably been a source of concern, their support in the 2017 elections was lower than the support for similar parties in many other EU nations: The Austrian FPÖ won 26% of the vote in 2017 and Hungary’s Jobbik won 20.2% in the elections of 2014.      

But the contextualisation of the 2017 parliamentary elections in terms of larger European and worldwide trends tells only half of the story. In covering the landslide victory of a populist movement without much of a program and the relative success of an anti-EU and anti-immigration party, both domestic and international media have glossed over a crucial shift underway in the Czech Republic that is partly to blame for them: the confused and sloppy realignment of the Czech left and right. Shortly after the Czech Republic, then Czechoslovakia, cast off the shackles of Communism in 1989, the urban vote, and with it the vote within the whole of the Czech Republic, swayed towards the right, leading to strong victories for the right-leaning ODS (the Civic Democratic Party) for the next decade. In his emergence from the dark decades of a planned economy, the 1990s urban voter fell under the spell of economic liberalism that led not only to a botched attempt at voucher privatization but also to a sharp turn Westward: The Czech Republic joined the NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004. Until the election year of 2010, the contest for the prime-minister’s seat was solely between the Civic Democrats and the left-wing ČSSD (the Czech Social Democratic Party), with the Communist Party routinely landing a third place but disqualified from ever forming a government coalition with the ČSSD, which renounced the possibility of any political cooperation with the Communists. The ČSSD successfully rivaled the Communists as the party of the countryside, the poorer, the older, and the less educated, while the ODS established itself as the party of the city, the richer, the younger, and the more educated. The ODS won Prague in all four elections from 1996 to 2006 and won Brno, the second biggest city, three times out of four.

By 2010, however, it was clear that the romance between the city and the right had begun to dissolve, and it seems that the year 2017 has seen a similar dissolution of the romance between the country and the left. Brought down by allegations of corruption, political scandals, and the championing of unpopular decisions like fees for visiting doctors and austerity measures in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the ODS government yielded to a caretaker government after a vote of no confidence, and went on to lose almost half of its supporters in Prague in the parliamentary elections of 2010. Many of its voters were siphoned off by the newly founded TOP 09 party, which also ran on a right-leaning platform, but was not tainted by associations with corruption. Furthermore, while the Civic Democrats grew increasingly critical of the EU and plans for further integration, the TOP 09 consciously styled itself as a pro-European party, which appealed to the urban vote. Though the ODS was tasked with forming the government coalition in 2010, which it did with the support of the TOP 09 (Tradition Responsibility Prosperity 09) and the VV (Public Affairs), the verdict was clear: The urban voter was growing more and more alienated from the values of the traditional party of the right, and the city was no longer a bastion of ODS support. The elections of 2010 also heralded the birth of another trend characterized by the short-lived VV party: anti-politics and anti-politicians. Polling at slightly above 10% in both right-wing Prague and left-wing areas such as Karviná and Tachov, the VV fed on the dissatisfaction and disillusionment of voters from both sides of the aisle, promising to combat corruption and to get rid of “political dinosaurs.” The VV was quickly consigned to the dustbin of history after an internal rift and serious corruption allegations against its leader Vít Bárta, but its rhetoric of disgust with political elites was picked up with tremendous success by both ANO and parties on the far right of the political spectrum.    

To turn back to the urban ideological shift: From the elections of 2010 till the most recent elections of 2017, the death of a right-wing urban political-consciousness, partly poisoned by numerous scandals within the ODS, has been becoming more and more apparent. From the 2010 split of what used to be the right between the ODS and the TOP 09, the ODS went on to score yet another historic low with urban voters in 2013, once again declining by a half in Prague and by even more abroad (a bloc of voters who, however small, are even more urban than those in the capital). 2013 also saw the TOP 09 take losses, as the party was tainted by partaking in the coalition of then-Prime Minister Petr Nečas (ODS), who was the subject of a police investigation for yet another corruption-related political scandal. Minor parties on the left or in the centre of the political spectrum, such as the Green Party and the Christian Democrats, fed on the corruption-induced weakness of the right’s heavyweights in the cities, and the populist, anti-politician message was taken up from the VV by ANO, which beat the ODS in Prague and even rivaled it abroad. By the elections of 2017, the uncertain urban turn towards the left, combined with a growing disgust for established politicians, catapulted the Pirate Party into parliament and landed it an unprecedented second place both abroad (behind TOP 09) and in Prague (behind ANO). A hit with the youth, the Pirate Party ran on a platform of increasing government transparency, safeguarding freedom of information, simplifying the existing tax code and decriminalizing drugs. Meanwhile, the TOP 09 continued on a downward trajectory, its pro-European message clearly not enough to distinguish it from the ODS anymore and equally insufficient for winning over increasingly left-leaning voters. As for the ODS, it bounced back somewhat in Prague and abroad with last year’s elections, but its results were a far cry from its former days of glory.  

Though the parliamentary elections of 2017 were confirmation of a left-wing turn underway in the city, they also revealed another shift in rural areas and other traditionally Social Democrat and Communist-voting segments of the populace. In the town of Karviná, which is famous for its traditionally high support of the Social Democrats and Communists, Andrej Babiš’s ANO went from the third most popular party in 2013 to win more votes than the next three parties combined in 2017, including both the Social Democrats and the Communists. The anti-immigrant and anti-EU SPD took second place, relegating the Communists and the Social Democrats to third and fourth place, respectively. What is shocking about this transformation is its sheer magnitude, as the KSČM and ČSSD had, in all parliamentary elections since the creation of the Czech Republic, won a combined majority of over 50% in Karviná, only to sink to less than half thereof within one election cycle. The question begs itself: What change does this shift bespeak?

In the case of the voters who fled to ANO, a vote for Andrej Babiš is a show of disillusionment with the corruption within the established political system coupled with a strong desire for order. The main problem in the country is corruption, and the only thing that can save it is a billionaire businessman who will run the state like a business. Allegations that the same billionaire is himself corrupt are dismissed as politically motivated attempts to discredit him through the media, which is ironic considering Babiš owns the second largest newspaper in the Czech Republic. The shift towards ANO, though, whether a light one in the city or a heavy one in the country, is not an ideological one, but something entirely different. What we observe happening in the Czech Republic is the redirection of the nostalgia vote. In shifting towards ANO, voters who traditionally looked towards the ČSSD or the KSČM as parties capable of bringing back something of the country’s Communist past have shown their understanding of a valuable, if somewhat obvious historical lesson: The main legacy of Soviet-style Communism is not leftist politics, but disdain for democracy. And no one expresses this disdain for democracy better than Andrej Babiš. Perhaps it is not the case that the average ANO-voter, or indeed Babiš himself, wants to do away with democracy as an institution, but he certainly does view the democratic process as tedious and prone to failure, and for that reason believes it would be better for the state to bypass certain democratic customs and to do away with certain democratic safeguards. Viewed in this light, the motto “run the state like a business” is not the product of a new Capitalist age, but an ardent wish for a return to a time when the state was run like the business because the business was run by the state.

In the case of the voters who fled to the SPD, political departure from the traditional left reveals not only a disillusionment with the established political system but also the perceived enemy: the outside world. Whether they come in the guise of migrants from the Middle East or of EU commissioners from Brussels, foreigners are to blame for whatever problems are present in the Czech Republic, and their influence must be minimized by withdrawing from the EU and sealing the country’s borders. Looking at the electoral map, the simplicity of this worldview can only be explained by the desperation of the SPD voter. The SPD performs best in the poorest regions of the country, much like the AfD with its success in the states of the former GDR. But the success of the SPD and ANO in rural regions and among older, poorer, and less-educated sections of the populace is testament to one crucial fact: Support for the traditional left of the 90s and 2000s (that is to say, support for the ČSSD and KSČM) was, or at some pointed turned, ideologically hollow. The main voting issue for the rural voter is not social and economic justice, but the punishment of political elites, whether they be the ones sitting in Brussels or the ones in Prague. On the one hand, their ire is perfectly justified. Within the past decade, the Czech Republic has had two caretaker prime ministers and one early election, all because of various political scandals that have tanked governments, not to mention the numerous scandals that have not. On the other hand, the rural voter seems to have bet on the wrong horse, or rather on the wrong horses. If the choice were up to the country, the Czech Republic would be deciding between quitting the EU and slowly abandoning its representative democracy.

Shortly after the most recent parliamentary elections, voices to the center of the political spectrum have warned before an unofficial union between the populist ANO, the xenophobic SPD, and the Communists. While these concerns may appear outlandish to anyone who sees these parties or their voters as having a strong ideological drive, studies have also shown that precisely the voters of ANO, the SPD, and the KSČM, were also the voters most likely to vote for Zeman in the first round of the presidential elections. Furthermore, the three parties agree on some of the most important topics in current political discourse. They oppose immigration, they are, to various degrees, critical of the European Union, and they all have a deeply conflicted relationship with representative democracy. Thus, the biggest danger facing the Czech Republic now is not what the president will do, but rather what he will not—reign in the terrifying Cerberus that may at any time be unleashed on the country.

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