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.

 Such an alliance is politically less unlikely that it might seem.  The Slovak-born billionaire is –to judge from his public statements and his movement’s programme – far  from a stereotypical free marketeer. While his views on privatising the state pension system and scrapping the minimum wage come straight from central casting, he also backs progressive taxation, cuts in VAT on essential goods, the abolition of healthcare charges and the instigation of compulsory property declarations for officials and politicians.

Both Babiš and the Social Democrats –  influenced by the Czech Republic’s growing community of pro-transparency NGOs –  talk a similar language of a ‘functioning’ or ‘reconstructed’ state. As a fixture in the country’s post-communist business elite, Babiš is also well acquainted with many political elite having had close contacts with Social Democrat politicians when the party was last in office.

 However, even if the Social Democrats can settle their factional differences, the prospects of any viable government emerging are uncertain.  ANO wished originally do no more than act as an external support party enabling a minority Social Democrat-Christian Democrat administration to assume office. However, such a government would have lacked legitimacy and credibility commanding barely a third of seats in the legislature and depending on external influence of a party dominated by the vested interests of a single firm. The alternative – a formal coalition where Babiš might want to claim the post of finance minister – would make ANO2011 more directly accountable, but would still raise sharp conflict of interest issues, given the wide-ranging commercial interests of Babiš’s Agrofert conglomerate.

 A ‘centrist populist’ threat

The travails of the Czech Social Democrats are in part a product of local circumstances. ČSSD has for years shifted awkwardly between social populism and efforts to formulate a distinct centre-left project of modernisation centring on ‘fair reforms’. The party’s electoral and political options have also always complicated by the enduring strength of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM), which has maintained an electoral base of 10-15 per cent. The political rise of former Social Democrat leader Miloš Zeman, who won the first direct Czech presidential elections in February 2013 – dumping the official ČSSD candidate into fourth place – has also aggravated the party’s deeply factional politics

 But the electoral debacle suffered by the party and the rise of a movement like ANO2011 when polling had for months predicted shift to the left reflects a wider pattern making itself felt across Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) – and may have implications beyond the region.  In CEE, as across Europe, social democratic parties have struggled both to (re)build broad electoral coalitions and stem the rise of new populist challengers. But these challengers are now rarely the illiberal extremists and neo-fascists that haunt journalistic leader writers. Indeed, as Cas Mudde notes, beyond a few well-covered cases in both Western and Eastern Europe the radical right has fared poorly in the current crisis. In the Czech elections the principal far-right party’s (already tiny) vote slipped below one percent.

Instead voters are turning to a new generation of protest parties which, like Babiš’s ANO2011 combine a classically populist rhetoric lambasting established elites as corrupt, ineffective and mutually indistinguishable with policies on socio-economic and socio-cultural issues which are essentially moderate and mainstream.  Such parties, fronted by an array of anti-politicians ranging from aristocrats, academics and artists to bankers, technocrats and (of course) businesspeople, have been a feature of the political landscape across Central and Eastern Europe for some years. Examples elsewhere can be found in Bulgaria, Lithuania, Poland or Slovenia.

 The rise of such parties matters politically. As the eruption of Babiš’s movement illustrates, they can achieve spectacular overnight success racking up levels of support in excess of ideologically more extreme outsider parties. And, unlike populists of the radical right (or left) such, for want of a better term, ‘centrist populists’ are often seen as credible (or at least acceptable) partners for other parties and head straight into government.

 The record of ‘centrist populists’ in government is mixed.  Many are too unstable or politically ill-defined to stay the course and rapidly disintegrate, contributing to a cycle of weak and ineffective government, which feeds voter demand for new protest parties. The emergence of ANO follows the earlier success in the 2010 election of another previously unknown anti-corruption party, Public Affairs, whose post-election implosion left the Czech Republic without any viable majority government.

 The politics of post-communist Central Europe are in many ways still far removed from those of more established West European democracies:  societies are less mobilised; economies smaller and more open; and institutions appreciably weaker and more corrupt. But the same angry disconnect with the established democratic players can also found in older EU democracies. The eruption of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star movement in Italy looks like political catch-up when viewed from Sofia or Vilnius, while Andrej Babiš’s break into Czech politics has echoes of the project party launched by fellow billionaire Frank Stronach to contest this year’s election in neighbouring Austria.

 The Czech experience is perhaps a reminder to parties of the social-democratic left that they need to think seriously about the deep undercurrents of anti-political anger bubbling up in European electorates – as well as distributional conflicts and coalitions – if they too are not in the end to be overtaken by electoral insurgencies of the populist centre.

Originally written for Policy Network

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