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…
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…
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…
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…
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…
Yesterday the Czech media was all aquiver with front page news in the left-wing daily Právo – and its associated news server Novinky.cz – that former Czech president Václav Klaus was ‘seriously considering’ running for the European Parliament. And that he was planning to do for the Civic Democrats (ODS) – the party he founded in 1991 and led for many years before stepping down as leader in 2002 then leaving altogether in 2008 in protest at his successor’s embrace of the Lisbon Treaty.
What’s more, the story runs, as MEP Klaus, given his stature, would more or less automatically lead the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR) group which brings together the British Tories, ODS, Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) in what is intended to be a mainstream conservative anti-federalist bloc.
The newspaper quotes a ‘credible source’ while Klaus himself has said nothing publicly. But the ex-president is a cautious politician who likes to drop hints, fly kites and generally test the waters. So it’s plausible that someone in his entourage or Klaus himself did indeed tip the wink. Indeed, he has already hinted directly in an interview in December that he was thinking about running for the EP for his old party, when I was sceptical)
Could it happen? And could Klaus become a kind of EU-wide Leader of the Eurosceptic Opposition. Read More…
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…
What will Václav Klaus do next? This has been a pertinent question in Czech politics pretty much any time over the last twenty years and, of course, no more so than now: VK steps down from his second and final term as President of the Czech Republic on 7 March with nowhere very obvious to go politically. Klaus himself has been typically sphinx-like about his future plans, telling the Prague news magazine Euro shortly before Christmas that following the end of his presidential term he could
see no reason to signal any immediate political ambitions, but I don’t think it’s the end of the road (nemyslím, že je všem dnům konec) so we’ll se what happens. But I don’t think I’ll be announcing a return to Czech politics tomorrow. I don’t think that’s realistic. But I wouldn’t rule out some kind of attempt to go into European politics (pokus o politiku evropskou).
As the interview was ending he also lobbed in the (not very plausible sounding) revelation that in 2002 – in the wake of a bad defeat in national parliamentary elections which had seen his Civic Democrat party (ODS) finally stir into life and contemplate throwing him out – he had considered running for the European Parliament. They would, he explained, happily have given him the top spot on the party list to get him out of the way. And – if you believe the rest of this rather unlikely sounding story – no doubt they would. Read More…