Czech populist goes from Dawn to dusk: but do members matter?

Observers of Czech politics have recently been tickled (if not exactly surprised) by the implosion of the small populist party Dawn of Direct Democracy founded by motor-mouthed Czecho-Japanese businessman Tomio Okamura. Most of Mr Okamura’s 14 parliamentary grouping decided to jump ship because, they say, their leader has been neglecting grassroots recruitment.

And you can see what they mean: 15 months on from pulling in 342 339 votes (6.88%) in the October 2013 elections the party has grand total of nine members. Modest by even the low membership figures for Central and Eastern Europe – most of Dawn’s own MPs are not even members of the party they sit, although admittedly some are actually members of another small protest party recycled for the purposes of getting Dawn’s electoral challengeon the road.

It’s not, of course, an oversight but was a deliberate ploy by Okamura to keep tabs on the party he founded and – thanks to the generosity of the Czech taxpayer – its now not immodest resources. Indeed, his hefty consultancy fees charged to the party were a bit much even for the loyalists on the party executive (which officially consists of five people, although only three – including Okamura himself – are identifiable from the party’s website).

There is supposedly a political element to the split beyond just a fallout over power and money: the splitters have finally concluded that Mr Okamura’s over the top anti-Islamic rhetoric (bizarre in a country where there are a grand total of 3352 Muslims according to the 2011 census) including appeal to supporters to boycott kebabs and walk pigs in the vicinity of mosques was too much. Okamura is also known for his virulent rhetoric stigmatising the country’s rather larger Roma minority, but these seem to have passed the dissident MPs by. Perhaps unsurprisingly. The new, more respectable party they apparently planned work would, they hoped, be working with, none other Marine Le Pen (courtesy of the supposed contacts of one of the minor parties in the alliance). Mme Le Pen is no doubt scanning headlines Czech press in anticipation.

In truth both Okamura and his erstwhile supporters seem headed for the political scrapheap, already piled high with debris of umpteen new, would-be and never-were parties, as well as a few more sizeable. But as Dawn turns to dusk, it’s hard not see the Mr Okamura as in some way an impressively modern, if loathsome, political operator: a marginal figure who seems effortlessly to have reinvented as lifestyle guru and purveyor and packager of Japanese culture for the Czech consumer; self-made business tycoon, pontificating on start-ups on the local franchise of Dragon’s Den; a would-be Czech Berlusconi promising to run the state like a business; and finally – when that pitch was taken by a real tycoon in the person of Czecho-Slovak billionaire Andrej Babiš (interestingly another outsider in terms of ethnic identity), as mouthy and aggressive populist laying into minorities and elites with alacrityin a manner reminiscent  of the Czech Republic’s only truly successful far-right politician, Miroslav Sládek and his Republican Party of 1990s.

Mr Okamura is also in the vanguard of party organisation – or, rather non-organisation. The super-low membership ‘personal party’ something of an emerging trend in Europe. Holland’s Geert Wilders is the one and only member of the anti-immigration, anti-Islamic Freedom Party, making Dawn a mass organisation in comparison. Both have worked out that cash, showmanship, a few hired hands and whole lot of publicity can go a long way to substituting for grassroots members and ‘real’ party organisation – at least as far as getting into parliament is concerned. The days of Mr Sládek when a hard-working populist demagogue actually had to go on the stump, endlessly touring small town Czechia to build up a grassroots following are long gone.

And it’s here the real issue lies.

The challenge of ANO

For the same formula in milder and more respectable form has implemented by Andrej Babiš and his ANO party, which plays an ever louder second fiddle in the current Czech coalition government (Babiš is finance minister and deputy prime minister) and – all the polls suggest – is set fair to become the largest party at the next election.

Unlike Dawn, ANO does have membership that cannot easily be counted on the fingers of one hand (2560 to be precise in January 2015 according media reporting – a fourfold increase over two years). ANO has – also from its very inception and early days as a political flop in 2011-12 – been assiduously building up a local grassroots presence and national organisation, often by alliances with blocs of local independents (the Mayors and Independents grouping are reportedly the latest intended target).

But for a governing party with approximately 30 per cent support in the polls, it is a strikingly small figure – and, although perhaps necessary, for decency’s sake in an organisation which is supposedly a bottom-up rallying of citizens responding to Mr Babiš’s 2011 call for 21st century recreation of the 1989 Civic Forum movement – you have to wonder quite what purpose members serve beyond filling candidate lists (and even then 20 of the 47 ANO deputies were non-members when elected to parliament in 2013).

Money, organisation, campaign know-how and even a ready supply of technocrat, celebrity or NGO candidates (choose as required) all seem to be easily on tap through Babiš’s own resources and contacts and the wider structures of his Agrofert conglomerate. The 100% vote to re-elect Babiš as chairman of the party and his preferred first deputy chair looked more akin to the re-election of the CEO at a company AGM, despite the careful efforts to ensure a balance of different regions, ministers and parliamentarian in the wider leadership. The party had, in any, case functioned smoothly without much of a wider executive leadership for the intervening two year: five members of the party executive – including four of five then deputy chairs – having resigned in March 2013 just weeks after their election at the party’s previous congress.

Privatised parties

The received wisdom these days in the study Eastern Europe parties is that new parties, especially those with showbizzy, anti-political, anti-establishment pitch (that’s perhaps most of them), will come and go in dizzying succession as protest voting and electoral outbidding who is the newest, most genuine outsider reduces electoral politics to a series of vortices, cycles or turbulent sub-systems.

Frustrated, angry voters hooked on newness and populist riff of throwing out clapped under-performing out of touch elites queuing to embrace the latest protest party in very much the same way they might might queue round the block for the latest iPhone or the latest release of Call of Duty – only to discover that it is basically, slightly disappointing, if better package and better produced, version of the same.

Hastily thrown together, protest parties get quickly pulled apart by the pressures of real politics – and often real office – and the demands for real accountability and real mechanisms for settling differences even (perhaps especially) in a nine member combo like Dawn. Top-down ‘personal parties’ whose members are in effect franchisees or minority shareholders in a privatised political enterprise, whatever legal and political niceties might say, particularly vulnerable to implosion and splits.

The logic of this analysis is that sooner or later – even assuming that it steers clear of corruption or conflict of interest scandals – ANO 2011 will be pulled apart either by bigger version of the tensions that erupted in March 2013 (growing the membership, mean growing demands leadership) or by the next protest party, as ANO recedes into being simply another dull but competent party of government. Who remembers the days when TOP09 was flavour of the month and Karel Schwarzenberg the consummate aristo anti-politician loved by young and old and journalists alike?

Potemkin organisations?

But as Nicole Bolleyer ’s fine book on new parties (in Western Europe) points out, it ain’t necessarily so. While many top-down ‘entrepreneurial’ formations of all political stripes often come a cropper – in the sense of flashing across the political landscape and disappearing without leaving much behind (except perhaps space for a similar new party) – some persist and endure. The trick – at least in Western Europe – is effective organisation building, and for top-down protest parties find their way to levels of party organisation that can balance professionalised elite-led politics with some degree of grassroots implantation, as well as slotting in to some pre-existing social demand, which go beyond booting out incumbents.

The obvious ground for ANO to occupy, is that of the political right – if Babiš is Czech Berlusconi then this is perhaps one lesson he could learn. But creating real grassroots party (even one shot through with vested interests as Czech grassroots parties tend to be), rather than an appealing façade and well tended patches of astroturf would be a challenging task – especially when the party founder controls the purse strings.

In any case,  Babiš’s recent invective about the pointless of long-winded discussion and ANO’s  flirtation with the US cross-party No Labels movement – whose ‘Stop Fighting, Start Fixing’ slogan and loose anti-political ideology of ‘problem solving’ are a fair translation of ANO’s Czech strap line Nejsme politici, makáme – suggests the movement will keep on riding the anti-political wave and fighting ‘traditional parties’ for some time longer.

While some academic research such as Margit Tavits’s book Post-Communist Democracies and Party Organization confirms the long-held view that more developed organisation gives parties an electoral boost and helps them survive and stay in the political game. Others such as Stephen Whitefield and Robert Rohrschneider conclude in their work that even seemingly solid party organisations in East Central Europe have a dangerously hollow, ineffective Potemkin quality.

Tomio Okamura’s light-weight philosophising and ruminations on direct democracy as a panacea for all political ills are perhaps only for collectors of Czech political ephemera – although he does have a decent Japanese cookbook out – but in some ways he may yet prove more of a political guru than he knows.

Some issues in this post are discussed in greater detail in an academic review essay to be published the May 2015 of Government & Opposition and available online (paywall) here.

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