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Czech Republic: scepticism without euro-scepticism?

Malé Kyšice, obecní úřad, evropské volby
Photo: Akron/ Wikimedia Commons
CC BY-SA 3.0

As elsewhere in Europe, elections to the European Parliament on 23-24 May in the Czech Republic will be more of a trial of domestic strength, than a contest over EU issues.

 The EP elections come at a time when Czech politics is still in flux following the ‘political earthquake’ unleashed by national parliamentary elections in October 2013. These saw the eclipse of established right-wing parties; sharp electoral setbacks for the Social Democrats (ČSSD), the main party of the Czech left; and a dramatic breakthrough by the new ANO movement of billionaire Andrej Babiš.

The question in the minds of many observers is whether the Euro-elections – the first national poll in a year that will also see crucial Senate and local elections – will confirm this changed political landscape

 Early indications are that they will.

 Projections by Pollwatch 2014 (based largely on general polling data) suggest that ANO and ČSSD, who have governed together in an uneasy centrist coalition since January, will top the polls with around 22 per cent of the vote enabling each to elect 6 MEPs. Polling by SANEP which asked specifically about the European elections broadly echoes this, but gives ANO a clear lead.

European elections SANEP1 This is good news for Babiš’s movement whose strategy of presenting itself a non-ideological reform movement and hand-picking high profile technocrats and businesspeople as candidates seems, for the moment, still to be paying off. The movement’s EP list is headed by the ultra-credible Pavel Telička, a vastly experienced former diplomat who headed the Czech Republic’s EU accession negotiating team in 1998-2002 and briefly served as a European Commissioner.  Read More…

A billionaire populist derails the Czech Social Democrats

On 26 October after two terms in opposition the Social Democrats (ČSSD) emerged as the largest party in early elections in the Czech Republic with the near certainty of the forming the next government. Their political opponents on centre-right whose tottering three-year coalition government finally collapsed amid personal and political scandal in June were routed.

The once dominant Civic Democrats (ODS) founded in 1991 by Václav Klaus to bring British-style Thatcherite conservative to post-communist transformation, was cut down to minor party status with mere 7 per cent of the vote. Its one time partner in government, TOP09, which had championed fiscal austerity slipped to 11 per cent.  The Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL) – staged a modest recovery edging back into parliament with 6 per cent support, but remained – as they had always been in the Czech lands – a niche party.  ‘Heads Up!’, the newly formed conservative eurosceptic bloc endorsed by former president Václav Klaus, scraped a humiliating 0.42 per cent

 But far from prompting celebration on the centre-left, the result provoked only despondency and dissension. Within days the party was consumed by infighting between supporters of party leader Bohuslav Sobotka and internal opponents allied with the Czech president Miloš Zeman.

The gloom and factionalism are easily explicable. Despite ‘winning’ the election, the Social Democrats’ 20.45 per cent was its lowest in the history of the independent Czech Republic, falling disastrously short of its 25 per cent target vote – let alone the 30 per cent that seemed had attainable at the start of the campaign.  Ominously, for the party, this was the second successive election fought in opposition in which the Social Democrat vote has declined. The Social Democrats’ ‘victory’ was very largely an optical illusion caused by the still heavier punishment meted out by voters to its traditional opponents on the centre-right.

 The result has left the Social Democrats having to come to terms – and quite possibly to govern – with new and unusual political force:  the ANO anti-corruption movement led by agro-food billionaire Andrej Babiš, which in the course of the election campaign moved from extra-parliamentary obscurity to centre-stage, taking 18.65 per cent of the vote to become overnight the Czech Republic’s second biggest party.

 The Social Democrats’ poor showing and the success of Babiš’s movement – as well as the more modest breakthrough of the populist Dawn of Direct Democracy (UPD) group – were not only embarrassing for a party, which had hoped to emulate the sweeping victories won centre-parties in Slovakia and Romania last year. They also drastically curtailed its governmental options.

Having finally decided after years of agonising that a pact (but not a coalition) with the Czech Republic’s hardline Communist Party (KSČM) was a price worth paying for a government of the left with a strong parliamentary majority, the Social Democrats now find that this prospect has disappeared. Together the two parties command a mere 83 seats in the 200 member lower house. Although the Christian Democrats are a biddable potential partner, unlike in previous elections the Social Democrats have few coalition-making options in the political centre.  Except to turn to Andrej Babiš. Read More…

Czech Republic: Turning left or melting down?

What do you want ?

Photo: Ondra Soukup [CC BY-NC 2.0]

Czech voters go to the polls in early parliamentary elections on 25-26 October. The elections follow the collapse, amid personal and political scandal, of the centre-right government of Petr Nečas in June, and the subsequent failure of President Zeman’s handpicked caretaker administration to win a vote of confidence.

At one level the election seems set to deliver a simple and straightforward verdict,: established opposition parties on the left will win, while governing right-wing parties will be heavily rejected by an electorate frustrated with austerity, stagnating living standards and sleaze. The main opposition Czech Social Democrats (ČSSD), most polls have suggested, will emerge as the clear winners with around 25-30 per cent of the vote, although the final polls published before voting have suggested that the party’s support is starting to slide. Meanwhile the hardline Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM) is likely to pull in 15-20 per cent.

 The polls also point to a defeat of historic proportions for the right-wing parties of the former coalition. The Civic Democrats (ODS) (formerly led by Nečas) have proved surprisingly deft in trying to pull back from the brink: the party picked Miroslava Němcová, one of its few leaders untainted by corruption – and the first woman to head a major Czech party – as the party’s new public face and have run an inventive (and occasionally witty) Twitter-led election campaign.

But voters have remained largely unimpressed and the ODS seems set to see the 20 per cent support it received in the 2010 elections – then its worst ever performance – halved, relegating it to minor party status. Some polls put the ODS as low as 6.5 per cent, close to the 5 per cent threshold for parliamentary representation. The Chart below gives an indication of the latest polling.

ODS’s main centre-right rival TOP09 has, however, failed to capitalise on the troubles of its former coalition partner. Instead, it has waged a pedestrian election campaign and has no prospect of repeating its success in this year’s presidential election, when TOP09 leader Karel Schwarzenberg united a broad swathe of liberal and centre-right voters against the left-wing challenge of Miloš Zeman. Most polls suggest the party will struggle to match the 16 per cent it polled in 2010

Many voters have turned to new parties and extra-parliamentary groupings. Niche parties such as the Greens and Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL), ‘personal parties’ such as the Civic Rights Party (SPOZ) of President Zeman or the Eurosceptic nationalist ‘Heads Up’ bloc endorsed by Václav Klaus have picked up sufficient support to put them within shouting distance of the five per cent hurdle.

So too has the populist Dawn of Direct Democracy movement of a businessman-turned-politician Tomio Okamura. Okamura, who first came to prominence as a judge on the Czech TV’s version of Dragon’s Den in 2010, has gained profile through his fierce attacks against the political class, socially populist rhetoric and baiting of the Roma minority using his unusual Czecho-Japanese background to deny accusations of racism

The most telling impact, however, has been made by ANO2011 the anti-corruption movement led by the Slovak-born billionaire Andrej Babiš, which has moved in a few weeks from relative obscurity to opinion ratings comfortably in excess of 10 per cent and is now regularly outpolling ODS and TOP09. Read More…

Czech Republic: Zeman tears up the script

Miloš Zeman Praha

Photo: David Sedlecký via Wikimedia Commons

 The collapse of the centre-right government of Czech prime minister Petr Nečas earlier this month came as little surprise. His coalition had struggled on for more than a year without a parliamentary majority trying to push through an unpopular package of reforms and austerity measures that divided even its own MPs.

 Nor, in hindsight, was it surprising that Nečas was forced to resign in a corruption scandal. Although by reputation a geekish Mr Clean, Nečas’s efforts to root out corruption in his own Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and in wider political life proved patchy and ineffectual.

 The main talking points were how close the arrests came to Nečas – the main accused is his former chef de cabinet Jana Nagyová – and why Czech police and prosecutors had only now got their act together after years of suspicious inaction. Commentators speculated that the anti-corruption probe could open out in Central European version of Italy’s Clean Hands operation in the early1990s that brought down the whole party-political establishment.

 Most commentators assumed, however, that in the interim the coalition would limp on until scheduled elections in 2014 under the Civic Democrats’ stopgap leader Miroslava Němcova or that the deadlock would be broken by a cross-party vote to dissolve parliament. Attention shifted to the familiar ritual of party delegations being called in for talks with the president, who constitutionally appoints the prime minister and informally plays a brokering role in government formation.

At this point, however, the country’s recently elected president Miloš Zeman tore up the political script. Read More…

Czech Republic: How to Bale out the Civic Democrats?

Tim Bale of Queen Mary University of London has a 12 point plan for politicians, who’ve hit rock bottom. Not for those who overindulge in the hospitality and get a bit er… tired and emotional in public -  as Czech President Miloš Zeman seems to have done recently – but for major governing parties who’ve fallen off the wagon of electoral success and are recovering from political defeat.

He outlined it in a presentation to last year’s conference of Fianna Fáil, Ireland’s traditional ruling party brutally felled in an electoral meltdown in 2011, reflecting (at Fianna Fáil’s invitation) on the lessons that the experience of the British Conservatives- about whom he is the author of a prize-winning book – might offer for FF and other similarly afflicted parties.

It was delivered with characteristic mix of wit, clarity and academic expertise seasoned with a dose of drama as he told them what they probably didn’t want to hear. But, I wondered, there any other parties that might around that might usefully be advised to follow the Bale Rules?

Perhaps the Civic Democrats (ODS) in the Czech Republic, the once dominant party of the centre-right founded by Václav Klaus in 1991 which bossed things in Czech politics for much of the 1990s and – along with the Social Democrats – were until the ‘earthquake election’ of 2010 one of two dominant players in a once stable party system.

Running through the twelve points, some catch the party’s dilemmas exactly, while others don’t quite catch a situation in which the voters can turn away from you en masse and you still end up running the country. Read More…

Václav Klaus live and unplugged

A few years ago I honestly told myself that I would spend less time academically on Czech right-wing politics and more time on other things. The world really did, after all, need some decent research about Central European interest groups and under-the-radar new parties threatening to break through into Czech politics. Inevitably, things didn’t work out like that.

As the Czech media have noticed rather than sit at home and write his memoirs the former Czech president is embarking on the political equivalent of a European and world tour and – as with 1980s electro pop or – when you’re got all the albums, but didn’t manage to catch the acts live, it’s hard to stay away.

And so it was that I found myself in Pembroke College (Cambridge) listening to Klaus giving the Adam Smith Lecture (transcript including asides faithfully posted by the Václav Klaus Institute here).

In recent years figures on the left, not least fellow Scot Gordon Brown, have tried to reclaim Smith from his totemic status as an icon of the free market right, but – following in the footsteps of previous lecturers Charles Moore and Nigel Lawson – this will be a strictly orthodox interpretation.

 Accordingly, Klaus tells us about the Smithsonian influence over his career, explaining to semi-approved of status of classical pre-Marxian economists in communist Czechoslovakia and his position as a junior researcher attracted to liberal market economics in the 1960s, critical of the market socialist plans of the Prague Spring.

 Adam Smith, the Adam Smith Institute and the politics of Thatcher and Thatcherism were also an inspiration after the fall of communism when he is – he says – promoting the idea of a fully fledged capitalist market economy against residual ideas of a Third Way on the liberal left. Anglo Saxon liberal ideas helped see off the threat of a French – or German inspired social market economy in the Czech Republic.

 This is the classic Klaus back story. Read More…

Václav Klaus: A political phenomenon without political power

Photo: DerHuti  Wikimedia Commons   <a title="Licence" href=" http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en"

Photo: DerHuti Wikimedia Commons

In many ways a medium-sized Central European country like the Czech Republic could hardly have wished for a better president: an experienced, energetic and erudite politician of international standing able to engage both with the big European issues and handle the domestic problems thrown up by fractious politicians and crumbling coalition governments.

 A president tough-minded enough to periodically remind its citizens that they were living not in an impoverished mafia state, but in a tolerably well-administered, reasonably prosperous, if inevitably flawed, European democracy.

 As president during the last ten years Václav Klaus has been all of these things.

 But he has also been a blisteringly controversial head of state, whose views have often been sharply at odds with most of his fellow politicians or fellow citizens. Provocative and unignorable, Klaus has been loved and (more often) loathed both at home and abroad. He leaves office facing an indictment for treason brought by opponents  for alleged constitutional violations. He is, as Czech political scientist Lubomír Kopeček rightly terms him in a recent biography, a political phenomenon.

 But what lasting impacts does Klaus’s ten year period in office really leave? Read More…

Czech democracy in the mirror: What the presidential elections tell us

Prezidentské volby 2013, volba prezidenta

Photo: Juandev via Wikimedia Commons

The first direct elections of the Czech president offered a refreshing contrast to the back room manoeuvring and political horse-trading that accompanied the election in parliament of presidents Havel and (especially) Klaus. Despite the nastiness of the Zeman campaign and vacuousness of the political marketing around Karel Schwarzenberg, voters were offered a clear choice between personalities and priorities and turned out in large numbers to make it.

 Television pictures of voters ranging from ski-suited holiday-makers to prisoners choosing the new head of state send quiet but clear message of a country that takes its democracy seriously and knows how to use it.

 But the elections also hold up a more subtle mirror to Czech democracy, showing a political system still defined by patterns laid down in 1990s, which may nevertheless be on the cusp of change. Read More…

Czech presidential elections: Schwarzenberg comeback sets up close run-off

Few observers, even a matter of weeks beforehand, would have predicted the success of the two candidates who will be contesting the second round run-off to choose the Czech Republic’s first directly elected president, which takes place on 25-26 January.

 Miloš Zeman, who topped the poll in the first round on 11-12 January with 24.2 per cent, is a former Prime Minister who led the Czech Social Democratic Party between 1993 and 2001. However, he acrimoniously split with the party he once led and his return from political retirement in 2009 to lead his own Citizens’ Right Party (SPOZ) was regarded by many as a vanity project. SPOZ failed to enter parliament in the May 2010 parliamentary elections and Zeman’s presidential bid, announced in June last year, seemed set to be similarly unsuccessful.

 Karel Schwarzenberg, the aristocratic Czech foreign minister, who ran Zeman a close second with 23.4 per cent of the vote, was perhaps always a more plausible contender. A scion of the Austro-Hungarian nobility, diplomat and former chief of staff to Václav Havel, Schwarzenberg was one of the Czech Republic’s most popular politicians.  The electoral success in 2010 of TOP09, the newly formed party he led, owed much to Schwarzenberg’s appeal as retro anti-politician. However, although one of the first to announce his candidacy, Schwarzenberg‘s campaign soon flagged badly, damaged by TOP09’s role in the governing centre-right coalition and unwavering commitment to austerity. At 75, Schwarzenberg was the oldest candidate and had not always appeared in robust good health. By December 2012 polls still put his support at under 10 per cent and – while I’d always fancied Zeman (politically I mean) most commentators including me had written Schwarzenberg’s challenge off. Indeed, I thought those who even mentioned him as outsider possibility were well off the mark. Read More…

Why Miloš Zeman is the Czech comeback kid

Milos Zeman

Photo: http://www.prezydent.pl via WikiMedia

 The political return of former Social Democrat leader and leading presidential hopeful Miloš Zeman has been one of the more surprising emerging-from-under-the -radar phenomena in Czech politics over the past couple of years.

 For most observers of Czech politics Zeman was something of a historical figure, linked with the early years of transiton and the political battles of 1990s. Having shifted the Czech Social Democrats from a minor party to one of the big players in early-mid 1990s by making them a robust party of opposition, Zeman won a notable election victory in 1998, did a deal with his erstwhile nemesis Vaclav Klaus to form a minority government and served one term as Prime Minister (1998-2002) and then retired to his cottage in the Vysočina highlands.

Retirement seems not to have suited him and still nursing political ambitions – and much to the horror of many former colleagues – he won a ‘primary’ among Social Democrat supporters to be the party’s presidential candidate in the 2003. Alas as the Czech head of state was still indirectly elected by MPs and senators at the time, enough Social Democrat parliamentarians failed to vote for him that he was humiliatingly eliminated from this contest early on (Vaclav Klaus was finally elected and then re-elected for a second term in 2008).

Zeman then finally parted company with his former party, wrote some splenetic, best-selling memoirs attacking ex-colleagues – memorably described by one academic reviewer as a ‘foul fart of a book’ – and it seemed that that was the last we would hear of him. The cigarette-smoking, beer- and becherovka drinking Zeman, known for his ponderous quotes, not very funny bonmoty and bruisingly effective political personality was set to become just another memory of 1990s.

But come 2013, if the latest and last polls are to be believed, Zeman is the front runner in the Czech Republic’s first direct presidential elections, edging ahead of one-time favourite Jan Fischer, the former prime minister in the 2009-10 technocratic caretaker government. As Klaus steps down, Zeman steps up. We seem set for Fischer-Zeman second round run-off on 25-26 January. And even if Zeman unites a huge swathe of right-wing voters behind Fischer, given the left-leaning inclination of the Czech electorate he must surely be in with a shouting chance of taking over at Prague Castle on 7 March.

How has this happened when so many other would-be comebacks and political vanity projects fail? Just think of the stillborn LEV21 party of Zeman’s one time rival and fellow semi-detached ex-Social Democrat Jiří Paroubek.

Several factors seem to have combined in Zeman’s favour:

1. He is well known

For many voters. as well as being a known quantity. Zeman’s big political personality and experience as Prime Minister makes him a reasonably credible figure for high office. His flaws – the embarrassing off the cuff remarks, off jokes and occasional lack of political energy – are also well known and may therefore be discounted in advance by voters.

Notwithstanding the Opposition Agreement deal with Klaus, from a left-wing point of the point of view Zeman’s time in front-line politics can be seen reasonably  successful. Zeman also left office at a time of his own choosing, rather than because of crisis, scandal or electoral defeat. Almost the only Czech prime minister to do so (caretakers excepted).

2.He is a reasonably plausible outsider

At the same time, having been out of national politics for the best part of a decade and broken his links with the Social Democrats, Zeman can credibly position himself as something of anti-establishment outsider.

His presidential run comes at a time when Czechs are generally disillusioned with established parties and when the Social Democrats could no find no experienced, high profile politician to stand for head of state (or at least none who were acceptable across the party and willing to run – former EU Commissioner Vladimír Špidla might have been an option). (Indeed, the Social Democrats seem rather short of big charismatic leaders generally just now. The current party leader Bohumil Sobotka is articulate and intelligent, but as someone acidly commented at a recent conference I went to comes across more as a spokesman than a leader.)

Lukewarm semi-endorsement by old rival Václav Klaus might even pull in a few voters from the right – although like Klaus such ‘naughty right-wingers’ will probably be expressing their dislike for the various centre-right and centrists candidates more than wanting to propel Zeman to office.

3. His support is well organised and well financed

Although there are questions over where Zeman’s political money comes from, with widely reported links to the Russian oil company Lukoil (denied by Zeman) and other Russian donors (not denied). Whatever the truth, the Zeman campaign has sufficient resources and organisation to be effective – and it started organising early. The Citizen’s Rights Party – Zemanites (of which Zeman is oddly only the honorary leader) was formed in October 2009 and contested the May 2010 parliamentary elections, pulling in a not negligible 4.33% – seemingly all at the expense of the Social Democrats – which was almost enough to cross the 5% threshold to enter parliament.  SPOZ’s origins, in fact, go back some years earlier to the curiously named, Friends of Miloš Zeman association, run by Zeman’s former right-hand man and the ex-communist apparatchik Miroslav Šlouf.

Despite clearly having cash to splash, SPOZ – as its reasonably solid performance in the October 2012 regional elections showed – also has organisation on the ground.  The collection of 50,000 signature petition to nominate Zeman was also a notably quick and efficient operation. Šlouf and various other ex-Social Democrats in SPOZ are not political amateurs.

4. He has potentially broad appeal

While disliked and dismissed on the right, Zeman is acceptable to a range of left-wing voters, including Communist voters who might be put off by a candidate with closer links to the Social Democrats or with associations to Havel or the dissident movement.  The Social Democrats official candidate Jirí Dienstbier jr. – son of the late dissident of the same name – has fought a shrewd campaign positioning himself a moderate, modern politician and actively solicited the support of the Communist Party (KSČM – which for once is not running its own candidate). Despite, this Dienstbier is off the pace and you wonder how many Communist voters might hold his family background against him.

Zeman is less difficult for the party and   has rather cleverly tacked towards some KSČM positions, for example his critical sounding remarks about the EU – he is he says a Euro federalist but against an EU superstate (work that one out) – and demands for additional funding if he flies the EU flag at Prague Castle.

5. He has been underestimated

Finally, that most telling of political assets: Zeman has been underestimated by opponents. Despite the low key but obvious momentum he has had since 2010.  He has been viewed a something of a political has-been or a buffoon. Somehow despite everything, for many it is hard to believe that he could really actually win.

Despite a slow build up media scrutiny about funding and Lukoil connections – Zeman has faced little scrunitny or critical opposition in the campaign. Certainly few questions have been as to one what kind of a president he would be. Until the recent efforts of civic initiatives to boost the campaign of Foreign Minister and TOP09 leader Karel Schwarzenberg, the main political parties (ODS, CSSD, TOP09) seem have written off their chances of their candidates and to be saving their real time, energy and money for parliamentary elections.

What kind of President would Zeman be?

His website offers only a selection of bland, somewhat fence-sitting views. His statements suggest he is still broadly on the mainstream pro-European centre-left and would be considerably less toxic to many abroad than Klaus. He was even one of only three presidential candidates to accept an invitation to a debate organised by Prague Gay Pride (two refused). On the other hand his denouncing of Islam as an ‘anti-civilization’ could have come straight from Geert Wilders.

 Perhaps we will have to wait for 7 March to find out…

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