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How Zeman won – a tale of two populisms?

The opinion polls were right about one thing. The second-round run-off for Czech presidency on 26-27 January were a close contest.

But, contrary to what most polls had forecast, it was sitting president Miloš Zeman who claim a narrow victory, beating his independent opponent Jiří Drahoš, the former head of the Czech Academy of Sciences, by 51.4% – 48.6%.

In their own way, both candidates were signs of the populist times – and proof that populism need not just take the form of outsider parties emerging from the fringes (although, in billionaire prime minister designate Andrej Babiš and his ANO movement, or radical-right Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) grouping of Tomio Okamura, the Czech Republic has these too).

Of the two presidential contenders in the run-off, Zeman was the more textbook populist. Since coming out political retirement in 2009, the former Social Democrat prime minister – who claims to speak for the “bottom 10 million” in a country with a population of 10.56 million –   has combined a penchant for left-wing economics with outspokenly nationalistic and illiberal stances on migration and European affairs. Read More…

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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.

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…

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…

Why Czechs need Jim Hacker as well as Sir Humphrey

The rise of Slovak-born tycoon Andrej Babiš and his anti-corruption movement ANO in the Czech Republic has been greeted more with dismay than delight, as a harbinger of the oligarchisation of politics and the flagging of Czech democracy. But the arrival of a billionaire populist on the scene need not deal a fatal blow to Czech democracy and may be seen, in hindsight to, have provide impetus for change.  But does underlines that any reconstruction of the state needs to run in parallel with the reconstruction of politics and the emergence of a new, more settled form of democratic party politics.

 Democratic politics is a moving target. The long term success of any programme to rein in the corrupt abuse of power arguably depends not only its ability to diagnose and treat current ills, but to anticipate the way democratic politics is moving. The danger is that changing nature of political and party landscape will run ahead of the reforms intended to regulate them, which are, in part,  a response to a political era dominated by ODS and ČSSD that is now receding.

In 1990s the Czech Republic opted for specific form of democracy foregrounding the role of political parties.  The Czech Constitution makes competition between parties the cornerstone of the country’s democracy. Legislation and Constitutional Court rulings  specify in detail some they should organise and operate to play this role. Parties are supposed to be voluntary associations of members open to society, which mobilise, include and educate citizens and transform partial interests into different, competing visions of the public good

The reality of Czech party politics, although oriented towards ‘standard’ Western European parties, has, of course, very differently. Parties have typically been closed rather than open; attractive to limited numbers of citizens; organisations with largely passive paper membership rather hotbeds of political activism; collusive rather than competitive; and deeply vulnerable to capture by corrupt vested interests. With the possible exception of the Communists (KSČM) and Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL)   the country’s political parties seem shell-like bodies, which de facto are loose alliances of elite groups and political professionals, overlapping more with the worlds of business and public administration than with the life of grassroots communities. Although constitutionally and legally privileged, Czech parties are, in many ways, weak organisations. Read More…

Czech Republic: How bad is Babiš?

An article about billionaire Czech politician Andrej Babiš by UK-based think tankers Andrew Foxall and Ola Cichowlas   of the Henry Jackson Society on the website of Foreign Policy has set the cat among the pigeons. Indeed the highly critical portrait  has sufficiently enraged the Slovak-born finance minister and deputy prime minister, whose ANO movement came second in the 2013 election and now tops the polls, that he has threatened to sue.

The broad thrust of the piece on the Czechs’ ‘oligarch problem’ is a familiar one: that Babiš’ has accumulated a dangerous concentration of economic, political and media power, including expanding newspaper and TV holdings and influence he can wield over public broadcasters; that are huge potential conflicts of interests between his business empire political role (shifts in government policy on bio-fuel have been cited as an obvious example); and that his own personal, professional and business background raise questions about his democratic credentials.

With a Communist family background, he made a pre-1989 career as official in communist-era foreign organisation dealing the petro-chemicals, had contacts with communist-era secret police, which registered him as an informer (wrongly a Slovak court has ruled  – although appeals are ongoing).  His post-1989 business career has been criticised for the possibly legally dubious separation of the original (state-owned) Agrofert company from its Slovak parent and left unanswered questions about foreign-registered companies and funds – and political favours -which helped build up business empire.

Veteran Prague-based business analyst James de Candole does an excellent job here summing up this issues and Czech-speaking readers could do worse than read Tomáš Pergler’s meticulously researched biography.

The FP piece, however, does a less good job. Read More…

Czech democracy: the wheel turns full circle

In the immediate aftermath of the fall of communism many Western analysts feared that, far from ‘returning to Europe’, Central and Eastern Europe would slip into a spiral of Latin-American style instability and authoritarianism.

Stanford professor Ken Jowitt predicted that ‘demagogues, priests and colonels more than democrats’ would shape the region’s future, while Polish-American political scientist Adam Przeworski famously wrote that the ‘East has become the South’.

Even as astute an observer of the region as Timothy Garton Ash was moved to conclude in mid-1990 that ‘Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia are the countries where the fate of democracy hangs in the balance today’.

But the region quickly confounded the doomsayers. Central Europe emerged as one the most successful newly democratizing regions in the post-Cold War world. Many states including the Czech Republic made smooth and rapid progress to OECD and EU membership and were soon marked down by Western political scientists as consolidated, if flawed democracies. In the Czech case, the flaws were readily apparent. The democracy that emerged was, for example, far from the optimistic vision of a prosperous, settled Central European state sketched out by Václav Havel when he looked into the country’s future in his 1991 Summer Meditations.

As well as failing to sustain the common state with the Slovaks, Czechs saw overblown claims of a post-communist ‘economic miracle’ disintegrate amid corruption scandals that ended the Klaus government in 1997. And, while the Czech Republic did generate a stable system of ‘standard’ parties of left and right recognizable to West European eyes, Havel’s warnings that party politics would become the preserve of a caste of career politicians seemed, in hindsight, prophetic.

The strong locally-rooted civil society and political decentralization Havel envisaged as the bedrock of Czech democracy were present only in fragments. Local democracy was too often expressed in the murky world of municipal politics and a system of belatedly implemented regional government that become a still greater byword for corruption. Non-ideological consensus politics that Havel and others hoped would be a defining feature of Czech democracy have existed only in bastardised form of Grand Coalitions and power-sharing deals that had more to do with dividing the spoils of office than agreeing inclusive, balanced policies.

To most outside observers, however, the Czech Republic remained one of a belt of successful, stable Central European democracies, scoring well on most indices of governance, reform, and democracy, albeit with a clear lag behind West European democracies. Most would have agreed with the assessment of the Hungarian economist and political scientist Béla Greskovits that CEE states, including the Czech Republic, had created poor quality, but essentially ‘crisis-proof’ democracies where market economics co-existed in ‘low equilibrium’ with democratic politics.

However, following the enlargement of European Union in 2004 and, particularly, the onset of the global economic downturn and the Eurozone crisis, many commentators have started to view the future of Central Europe in much darker terms seeing the onset of ‘democratic backsliding’ or a ‘democratic recession’. Hungary has been at the centre of such concerns. The metamorphosis of Viktor Orbán from pro-Western Christian Democrat to authoritarian populist exploiting an electoral landslide to impose an illiberal constitution, rein in the media and emasculate the judiciary, was particularly shocking.

In 2012 Romania’s Prime Minister Victor Ponta tried similarly to exploit a landslide election victory to overturn of established procedures and strip away constitutional checks and balances to unseat his country’s president Trajan Basescu. Elsewhere voters across CEE have turned not to establishment strongmen but to a range of to protest parties ranging from Poland’s ultra-liberal Palikot Movement to neo-fascists of Jobbik in Hungary.  Where does the Czech Republic fit into this picture? Read More…

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…