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Zeman again?

Zeman 2018

Photo: David Sedlecký via WikimediaCC BY-SA 4.0

Once sedate and dull, Czech politics has recently been serving up non-stop political drama. First, October’s parliamentary elections dealt a shattering, but not fatal, blow to established parties.

Then the election winner, the billionaire-politician and fraud indictee, Andrej Babiš struggled to form a government with any of the other eight parties in parliament opted instead in December to form a minority administration with uncertain prospects (it faces a vote of confidence tomorrow). Now creeping up on us after a low-key campaign come the Czech presidential elections, whose first round takes place on 12-13 January.

The relatively low profile of the election is partly down to the incumbent. Having announced in March that he would run for a second term, president Miloš Zeman has opted for a Czech version of the Rose Garden Strategy by officially not campaigning, refusing to give pre-election interviews or appear in debates with other candidates; and according to his transparent online campaign account spending pretty much zilch.

The reality is that for many months presidential visits to regions and provincial towns, fielding undemanding questions from generally sympathetic crowds, have served as a surrogate, under-the-radar campaign.

Zeman’s non-campaign

Zeman_znovu

Fair use: relevant illustration, low res

Zeman’s non-campaign now also features expensive-looking billboard and newspaper advertising to elect Zeman Again (Zeman znovu) paid for by the Friends of Miloš Zeman – a previously dormant civic association founded in 2008 to relaunch Zeman from political retirement.

To some extent, these tactics seems to reflect Zeman’s state of health. Although rumours of cancer and other life-threatening conditions has been vigorously rebutted, the president suffers diabetes and a nerve condition – possibly arising as a complication – affecting his legs which visibly limits his mobility. The president’s alcohol and tobacco consumption have also long been a source of concern to his doctors.

In other ways, however, Zeman’s semi-visible campaign is a shrewd political move. For supporters Zeman is a flawed, but decent politician, who stands up for the interests of ordinary people outside the better-off world of Prague and big cities and also sticks up for Czech national interests. For his many detractors Zeman is a boorish authoritarian illiberal nationalist and a national embarrassment, tarnishing the Czech Republic’s good name.

As well as lapses of decorum such as appearing drunk at ceremonial occasion and using the c-word in a radio broadcast, Zeman has shared a platform with fringe anti-Islamic extremists and come out as the only EU head of state to publicly endorse Donald Trump before the US elections in 2016.

More worrying still has been his cavalier attitude to the Czech constitution. His appointment in 2013 of a presidential caretaker government of supposed technocrats over the heads of political parties flouted previous constitutional practice. He has at various times, suggested that, creatively interpreted, the constitution could him allow him to dismiss the government; leave ministers in office following a prime minister’s resignation; or leave his ally prime minister Andrej Babiš in office, rather than dissolve parliament if all three constitutionally allowed attempts at forming a government were exhausted.

Polls suggest, however, Zeman, who has been picking up support since the launch of the December billboard, has a solid base of support predominantly among poorer, older, more left-wing, less well-educated Czechs. He is likely to top the first-round poll by a clear margin with 43-44% of the vote, but may face a stiffer contest in the second, run-off round on 26-27 January.

The challengers

As in the first direct presidential elections in 2013, Zeman faces eight challengers. However, this year political parties have taken a back seat. Many have realised that they simply lack a broad enough appeal or any credible enough candidates to have a serious run at the presidency.

The one party that could have done so, Andrej Babiš’s ANO movement – said at one time to have considered running the popular defence minister (now foreign minister) Martin Stropnický for presidency – chose not to do so: for Babiš keeping to his informal pact with Zeman and getting into government were by the important priorities. If, as expected, his new minority administration loses its upcoming parliamentary vote of confidence, Zeman will play a key role by re-nominating Babiš as prime minister for a second, and probably decisive, effort a forming a government.

 All of but two of Zeman’s challengers are thus non-party independents running on vague centrist or centre-right platforms – the two exceptions being the candidate of the tiny, populist Common Sense party Petr Hannig and Jiří Hynek of the Realists, a well-funded but peripheral conservative grouping. Former prime minister Mirek Topolánek, who headed a Civic Democrat-led (ODS) governments of 2006-9, running as independent, also seems to be attracting some backing from parts of his former party, helped by outspoken attacks on Zeman questioning the president’s health.

Polls suggest, however, that Zeman has only two serious challengers: Jiri Drahoš, the former head of the Czech Academy of Sciences, and the journalist, lyricist and music producer turned betting tycoon and philanthropist, Michal Horáček.  Although Horáček has waged a slicker campaign, most polls show him in third place with Drahoš the clear favourite to make it into the run-off against Zeman on 26-27 January.

President Drahoš?

Drahos

Photo: Tomas Masin – via Wikimedia  CC BY-SA 4.0

Although keeping a (for him) low profile, Miloš Zeman has had a good campaign. He has been picking up support following the launch of December’s billboard campaign  with bookmakers’ odds  making him the clear favourite and little sign of his rivals generating much momentum or public excitement.

However, polls still suggest that Zeman will lose by a clear margin in a run-off against Drahoš, who is forecast to gain most of  the first round votes cast for other candidates – emulating a strategy seen in presidential elections in Slovakia and Romania in 2014, when previously little-known independents overhauled seemingly dominant left-wing populists in the second round.

Throughout Drahoš has cultivated a centrist and non-confrontational image, telling interviewers that he had a vision, but no political programme.  He also made clear that – while he wouldn’t have appointed Andrej Babiš prime minister without fraud charges hanging over him breing resolved – he saw as a mainstream politician with a clear electoral mandate whose government deserved the backing of other mainstream parties.

Zeman will, therefore, be hoping that his non-campaign has been well pitched enough to rally his core support among poorer, older, less well-educated Czechs, while leaving diverse groups of voters opposed to him unmobilised. His most likely path to victory would be to get enough votes behind him to narrowly win the election outright in the first round.  The fact that his key challengers are offering only dignified public personas and good CVs, rather than any compelling positive vision of a liberal and outward looking Czechia may turn out to be Zeman’s greatest asset.

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Czechia: a minority administration with big ambitions

On 13 December, Czech President Miloš Zeman formally appointed a minority government led by the billionaire-politician Andrej Babiš, whose ANO movement emerged as the clear winner of parliamentary elections on 20-21 October, gaining 78 seats in the 200-member Chamber of Deputies.

The October elections saw no fewer than nine parties (including ANO) gain representation in the Czech parliament, producing a highly fragmented political landscape with no credible alternative to an ANO-led government: the second largest party, the centre-right Civic Democrats (ODS) held only 25 seats

Given ANO’s broadly centrist position, a range of ideologically coherent coalitions should, in principle, have been possible.

Babiš himself indicated that he preferred a two-party coalition with the Civic Democrats, but would be willing to enter government with his partners from the outgoing coalition, the Social Democrats (ČSSD) and Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL), the small independents grouping STAN or the left-liberal Pirate Party (ČPS), who entered parliament for the first time in October.  He ruled out the Communists, the radical right Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) grouping and the liberal, pro-European TOP09, whose (then) leader Miroslav Kalousek was a persistent and forthright critic.

However, it quickly became apparent, that none of these potential partners were willing to enter a led a Babiš-led government. Read More…

Czech elections: Is Babiš heading for a Pyrrhic victory?

Babis steals (2)

Photo (cropped): Jiří Sedláček  CC BY-SA 4.0

There is only one major issue in the Czech Republic’s upcoming elections on 20-21 October – and his name is Andrej Babiš.

Since bursting onto the political scene – and straight into government – at the 2013 elections, the Slovak-born agri-food billionaire and his ambitions have defined Czech politics in the last five years. Having spent four years as junior partner in acrimonious coalition government with the Czech Social Democrats (ČSSD) and the smaller Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL) and consistently topped every poll since early 2014 – Babiš and ANO his movement now seem set to win next weekend’s election by a considerable margin.

Polls suggest ANO will receive just under 30% of the vote, despite Babiš and several associates from his Agrofert conglomerate being implicated in and then formally charged with embezzling some two million euro in EU subsides intended for SMEs in 2008 for Babiš’s showpiece ‘Stork’s Nest’ eco-farm, by concealing its real ownership. As in 2013 Babiš and ANO are pitching themselves as non-ideological citizens’ movement doing battle with corrupt and ineffective ‘traditional parties’ – who Mr Babiš says have hamstrung him in government,  victimised him with bogus anti-corruption probes and accusations of wrongdoing which led to his ousting as finance minister in May.

ANO thus seems set to become the dominant force in an otherwise fragmented political landscape: none of the seven other parties projected to enter the Chamber of Deputies is likely to exceed 15 per cent support. Read More…

How I jez didn’t make it and lost the general election

Jeremy_Corbyn_2016a_(cropped)

Photo Rwendland CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I am a huge fan of the election simulation game Prime Minister Infinity and, true to form, publishers 270soft have come out with an update just in time for the snap UK 2017 general election.

 Having struggled in the role of Ed Miliband playing 2015 version – though doing better than the real Ed in getting a hung parliament – I again stepped into the shoes of an embattled an Labour leader, this time Jeremy Corbyn.

 I tried to play like the real Jez running a generally positive campaign focusing on policies for health and education with an occasional jab at the Tories for being champions of austerity and enemies of public services.

 As in real life, however, things didn’t go to plan. A couple of weeks in, the polls had Labour stuck under 30% with predictions of Tory landslide of 400 seats –  and the worthy policy speeches of Corbyn-me simply not cutting through in terms of media coverage.

 Having started off optimistically venturing into a few Conservative marginals, I quickly found myself like the real world Corbyn retreating to heartlands the north of England and Wales, visiting places like Hartlepool, Hyndburn and Middlesbrough, trying to stop the possible loss of supposedly safe seats to the Tories. Read More…

Where the EU went wrong in Eastern Europe

One election, it seems, really can change everything.

Once feted for having bucked both the populist trend and the global recession, in early 2017 Poland was facing international condemnation. Moves by the Law and Justice government have come straight out of the playbook shared by the likes of Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán. It’s moved quickly to neuter the constitutional court; to take control of the state media; to defund unfriendly NGOs or regulate them into irrelevance; to put its own people in charge of public institutions; and has given every sign of being prepared to ride out waves of protests and ignore international criticism.

Recent footage of opposition deputies occupying the podium of the Sejm and chaotic and hastily convened parliamentary voting by government deputies in back rooms was more reminiscent of the crisis-hit democracies of southern and southeastern Europe than the democratic trailblazer once hailed by European Union heavyweights.

To be clear, Poland is not yet Hungary, the EU’s other major backsliding headache. Law and Justice has only a small parliamentary majority, not the supermajority needed for a Hungarian-style constitutional rewrite. Protesters have been more assertive and quicker to take to the streets.

Nor does Poland have a powerful far-right party like Hungary’s Jobbik waiting in the wings to claim the role of “real” opposition if the ruling party falters. Poland’s opposition may yet manage to use social movements as a rough-and-ready substitute for weakened constitutional checks and balances — and may perhaps eventually make a winning return at the polls. But even in this (far-from-certain) best-case scenario, the country’s institutions are likely to emerge from this period badly damaged.

But the speed at which Poland’s and Hungary’s apparently successful democracies have unravelled points toward a problem that has tended to be overlooked amid the latest political developments: Contrary to appearances, liberal democracy was never solidly rooted in Eastern Europe. Read More…

From Babiš to Brexit (interview with Eurozpravy.cz)

babis-brexit

Photos in montage: David Sedlecký CC BY-SA 4.0 and The Millennium Report, 2016

You focus on right-wing parties in the Czech Republic – I mean ODS and TOP 09. According to surveys, they are not very popular and they are in opposition at present. Where did Czech right-wing parties make mistakes?  Do you think that they will be able to come back into government soon?

I don’t think right-wing parties will return to government other than as junior partners and TOP09 may not even return to parliament.

Where did Czech right wing parties go wrong? For ODS in not thinking early enough what the right-wing politics would represent in a Czech context once the basic tasks of transformation were over; sticking too long with Václav Klaus, whose idea of free market nationalistic, eurosceptic right-wing politics did not appeal broadly enough; in under-estimating the importance (and politically destructive effects) of corruption; in trying too late to reform its corrupt regional structures.  TOP09 suffered from being anti-ODS, too heavily dependent on the personal appeal of Karel Schwarzenberg.

Do Czech right-wing parties need a strong leader as Václav Klaus used to be?

Parties benefit from having attractive and charismatic leaders, and neither ODS nor TOP09 currently has one. Petr Fiala has done a good job “de-toxifying” ODS and rescuing it from extinction, but is dry and professorial. Miroslav’s Kalousek reputation is well known.   However, I don’t think a dynamic, charismatic leader alone would make the Czech right the political force it previously was.

As I mention above, Klaus’s strength and charisma was a mixed blessing: it gave ODS a clear ‘brand’ but stifled the development of the party longer term. Read More…

Can Andrej Babiš’s ANO movement stay the course?

babis

Photo: Jiří Vítek CC BY-SA-4.0

The spectacular rise and fall of new anti-establishment parties has been one of the constants of Central European politics over the last two decades.   But, despite the headlines, the region’s most successful new protest parties have not been right populists surging in Western Europe. The successes of Hungary’s Jobbik or, more recently (and more modestly) Marian Kotelba’s People’s Party – Our Slovakia (ĽSNS) are more the exceptions than the rule.

 Instead the big winners have often been loose-knit, personality-driven groupings with a vague rhetoric of fighting corruption, speeding up reform and “doing politics differently”.  Variously led by businessmen, journalists, technocrats or celebrities, who had deftly reinvented themselves as anti-politicians, this new breed of anti-establishment party lambasted conventional party politicians as a failed self-serving cartel in the best populist style, but retained sufficient mainstream credibility to appeal to large chunks of the electorate and move straight into government.

One of the most striking examples of such a party is the Czech Republic’s ANO (‘Yes’) movement led by the Slovak-born billionaire Andrej Babiš. Founded in 2011, ANO swept into parliament and into government in elections in 2013 winning 18.7% of the vote with a hastily assembled ticket of technocrats, businesspeople and figures from culture and the media. Mr Babiš is currently Finance minister in an uneasy centre-left coalition and until recently has regularly topped opinion polls.  Read More…

Democracy in Eastern Europe – an institutional bet gone wrong?

poker-742755_1280

Image: rkarkowski CC0 Public Domain

It is now commonplace to observe that democracy in Central and East Europe (ECE) is not in rude health.

But despite a plethora of commentary on ‘democratic backsliding’ and ‘illiberal democracy’ and an uptick of academic interest in topics such as ‘de-democratisation’, ‘de-consolidation’ ‘democratic regression’, this is little agreement on the nature the problem – and still less on its causes.

An interesting light is cast on the issue is cast by Luca Tomini’s book Democratizing Central and Eastern Europe: Successes and failures of the European Union, which is interestingly poised between the optimism of the post-accession period and the pessimism and fearfulness about the region’s democratic development of today.

Tomini’s argues that

democratic consolidation is  best understood as the absence or prevention of authoritarian backsliding rather than the expectation that democracy is here to stay and that the key to the process was so-called horizontal accountability: the extent to which governing elites’ ability to concentrate power or plunder the state is held in check by institutions and norms. Read More…

My summer in Hitler’s Britain

For light summer reading in the Moravian countryside I grabbed an old copy of Len Deighton’s 1970s alternate history thriller SS-GB – a tale of cops and spies set in an alternative 1941, where a Nazi occupation regime is bedding in following a successful invasion in 1940 (warning: spoilers follow) and C.J. Sansom’s variation on  the same theme, Dominion, set in a parallel 1950s Britain where Churchill never made it to number ten and a government headed by Lord Halifax made a fateful peace deal with Hitler after the Fall of France.

To take the history first, the counter-factual premise of Deighton’s SS-GB is clearly the weaker. Most military historians – as well as German military planners of the period – agree that the projected Operation Sea Lion would have been impossible to successfully carry without both RAF and the Royal Navy being decisively knocked out – a task well beyond the Luftwaffe and the Kriegsmarine. A 1974 wargame played between British and West German staff officers suggested that, if attempted in September 1940, Sea Lion would have been a military disaster with German invading forces being forced back from their bridgeheads in little over a week, resulting in a Nazi ‘reverse Dunkirk’. Read More…

Eastern Europe: When and why the radical right cuts through

Jobbik-NewHungarianGuard-May2013

Photo: Michael Thaidiggsmann CC BY-SA 3.0

Radical right parties have firmly established themselves in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) since 1989. However, their support has waxed and waned far more than that of their counterparts in Western Europe.

This paradox  Bartek Pytlas argues in Radical Right Parties in Central and Eastern Europe: Mainstream Party Competition and Electoral Fortune, a new comparative study of Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, can be explained by the fact that ideological boundaries between radical outsiders and mainstream parties are more blurred. Conservative nationalists (Hungary, Poland) and social populists (Slovakia) provide stiff competition for the CEE radical right, but can also legitimise radical right themes and offer it a route into coalition government (Poland, Slovakia).

 Competition between radical right parties and the mainstream ‘near radical right’, Pytlas argues, should be studied not just in spatial or directional terms (as in conventional party competition theory), but also in discursive terms: what matters is how parties frame and interpret radical nationalist narratives already widely resonant in CEE. Read More…