The recent parliamentary election in the Czech Republic, in which the centre-right electoral bloc SPOLU toppled the populist ANO, led by the billionaire tycoon Andrej Babiš, attracted enthusiasm in both local and international press. The New York Times, for example, wrote that ‘the populist wave in Eastern and Central Europe is perhaps receding’. And according to the political scientist Jan Rovný, populism had been punished. Yet the story of the Czech elections is more complex than what the simple axis of populism-democracy, deployed by SPOLU as well as the progressive coalition PirSTAN, might suggest.
To understand what happened in the Czech election, and think about what may come next, we need to ditch the Manichean myth of rational, democratic politics unseating a populist-undemocratic would-be tyrant. In fact, the success of SPOLU was due not to its rational proposals but its ability to rhetorically transform the election into a mission for democracy and a plebiscite on Babiš.
‘We have a chance not to be ashamed of the Prime Minister.’ SPOLU election campaign poster featuring Petr Fiala, Prague 2021. Photo by Alois2018 via Wikimedia Commons
Everything will be better?
When it comes to Babiš and ANO, the populist label is accurate. The party is a textbook example of populist anti-politics: the project of a business mogul supposedly tired of incompetent, piffling politicians, proposing to move beyond the pernickety conflicts of everyday life and ‘run the state as a firm’. The exorbitantly rich Babiš managed to cut an affable, quotidian persona, promising that ‘everything will be better’ soon. After the first electoral breakthrough in 2013, when ANO took over 18 per cent of the vote, Babiš – who had previously denied interest in any government position – grudgingly agreed to become vice-PM and finance minister in a government with Social Democracy (ČSSD) and Christian Democracy (KDÚ-ČSL).
Four years later, Babiš won nearly 30 per cent, became the PM and formed a coalition with ČSSD, with the parliamentary support of the Communist Party. During Babiš’s two stints in government, accusations of conflicts of interest abounded. Thanks partly to state aid, the profits of his Agrofert conglomerate grew rapidly. With the publication of Pandora Papers, his personal wealth was put under scrutiny, just days before the 2021 election.
Having swallowed up the Social Democrats’ agenda and electorate during their shared tenure, in 2021 Babiš turned to the far right. ANO drummed up political capital by exploiting the anti-immigration sentiments that have dominated the Czech debate since 2016. Babiš took great pains to emphasize his role in the V4’s rejection of the EU refugee quotas and his personal connections with Viktor Orbán, the lynchpin of the central European right. Babiš travelled to Orbán’s notorious anti-refugee fence and later hosted him in Prague just before the October vote.
On Europe, Babiš touted his opposition to the ‘Brussels Eurocrats’ and, in particular, the ‘multicultural eco-fanaticism’ of the left-leaning Pirate Party, which was long seen as his major contender. His campaign often verged on the bizarre, such as when he travelled the country with an ice cream truck, claiming that the Pirates wanted to ban traditional Czech ice cream by supporting European environmental regulations. But things took a nasty turn towards the end, when Babiš alleged that the Pirates planned to house refugees with Czech citizens and that ‘foreigners’ were no longer welcome in the country.
To sum up the October election as a toppling of the populist magnate Babiš by SPOLU/PirSTAN democratic opposition would nevertheless miss the fundamental question: why were Babiš’s appeals so successful? After all, ANO may not have won the election, but it will still be the largest party in the parliament. Overall ANO lost only about six thousand votes on 2017. That is hardly a ‘punishment’.
Populism for winners
But the narrative that the election result was a defeat for populism is false in another sense as well. It overlooks the fact that the ODS – which forms the core of SPOLU, and from which the new PM will hail – has long been complicit in creating the social and cultural environment in which Babiš could succeed. The luminaries of the ODS – especially the two-time Czech president Vaclav Klaus – were born intellectually out of the eastern European elites’ infatuation with Reagan’s and Thatcher’s alloy of economic liberalism, cultural conservatism and staunch anti-socialism. For decades they have hammered into the public the idea that the EU, with its regulations and progressive politics, is just today’s USSR. In their view, spoiled, rich elites in Brussels have sought economic and cultural hegemony, pushing their supposedly left-wing politics onto the member states.
Petr Fiala, the current party chairman and future PM, has also espoused the declinist narrative. In his academic publications, he has written about the threat of neo-Marxism lurking in European institutions. In recent years, the main objects of neo-conservatives’ hateful cathexis have, unsurprisingly, been gender and climate change. Here lie the origins of a discourse in which it was perfectly plausible for Babiš not only to claim that the Pirates wanted to outlaw Czech ice cream, but also to ‘destroy our economy with green fanaticism’.
Babiš’s courting of Orbán is a pernicious attempt to capitalize on the anti-refugee sentiments of the Czech public. But again, Babiš wasn’t there first. As the refugee crisis was taking off in 2015, Fiala visited Hungary and posed for photos at Orbán’s border fence, praising the country’s role in ensuring the EU’s safety. Two European Parliament members for ODS, Jan Zahradil and Alexandr Vondra, openly endorse Orbán; both are members of the European Conservatives and Reformists group in the EP (which Zahradil used to chair). The group also includes representatives from the Polish Law and Justice party and the far-right Spanish party VOX. In a bizarre yet telling moment in 2016, František Stárek, a 1970s dissident and an ODS candidate in the communal elections, openly called on Europe to create a ‘Guantánamo-like facility’ for refugees. To present ODS as an antidote to Babiš’s supposedly authoritarian sympathies is therefore illusory.
In fact, one struggles to find a controversy in recent years in which the ODS has not played a role in stoking. Take inclusive education. In 2016, ODS members (notably Václav Klaus Jr, the former president’s son), compared the inclusion of children with mild disabilities into regular education with Stalinist collectivization. What began as a relatively innocent issue was then picked up by the far-right SPD and its leader Tomio Okamura, who made rallying against ‘inclusion’ a fulcrum of his rhetoric. Fiala seemed to wholeheartedly agree, arguing that inclusive education was a social experiment – and thus invoking yet again the spectre of communism. Ironically, it was the same Petr Fiala who, during his stint as the Minister of Education, approved the inclusive education project and moved it forward.
What also sometimes seems to be forgotten is that ANO was originally an anti-corruption movement. Its main opponent was the ODS, which until not so long ago epitomized political corruption in the Czech Republic, having been at the centre of scandals throughout all three decades of its existence. Having made no effort at reform thus far, ODS has no intention of starting now, as it signalled by its nomination of Pavel Blažek, a shady figure known by the nickname ‘Don Pablo’, for Minister of Justice.
In other words, the October election was won by an electoral bloc united around a party that, while touting its anti-populism, had done a lot to form a public sphere that was receptive to the populist appeal. Indeed, ODS had itself been populist for quite a long time. This populism, however, is seldom recognized as such, owing to the class-related associations of the term. Often, populism is used to discredit politics that appeals to the working classes or the so-called losers of capitalism. Focused traditionally on the economically liberal middle class, ODS offered something similar, but turned upside down – a populism for the winners.
Politics or sacred war?
What caused the populist dimension of the election winners to go unnoticed was a classic sacralization of politics. While both had no shortages of experts and boasted detailed programs, their main selling point was the struggle against Babiš the autocrat. This suggestion of a Manichean clash between Good and Evil, freedom and authoritarianism, was best embodied by the double billboards of SPOLU: one version, showing the faces of Babiš, Filip (Communists) and Okamura (SPD) was titled ‘Threat’; the other, with the faces of SPOLU leaders (Fiala, Pekarová Adamová, Jurečka), ‘Hope’.
SMOLU election campaign posters in Prague. The poster on the left, depicting Petr Fiala and other opposition politicians, reads ‘Change’. The poster on the Left, depicting Babiš and Okamura, reads ‘Threat’.
Photo by Marie Čcheidzeová, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
This framing meant that there was no need to dwell too much on policy debate – and reasonably so, since a bland technocratic campaign would have been a liability in the struggle against Babiš’s media machinery. By running a crusader campaign, ODS could avoid engaging with actual social problems, which was convenient now that centre-right parties’ usual offer of lean state, low taxes and deregulation has become far from universally appealing. The regicidal mission to dethrone the evil overlord allowed especially the ODS to fall back on what they know best: the anti-authoritarian, anti-communist narrative of a fight for freedom that has, in a variety of ways, been at the forefront of their rhetoric for decades.
Voting was thus re-framed as a pressing moral duty that would decide the country’s fate: it was about ‘all or nothing’, as one SPOLU slogan had it. Such drama made the differences within the electoral blocs more palatable to voters. Or, at least, it recast them as ‘small print’. The vote showed where you – the voter – stood: were you for or against democracy? The actual politics came after. This new order of priorities worked particularly well because there were two blocs, seemingly catering to everyone’s needs: SPOLU for centre-right voters and PirSTAN for centre-left progressives (or those in favour of the regionally anchored Mayors). No excuses – everybody could choose and contribute to the good fight.
Parallels with Slovakia
What happens now? On 9 November, Petr Fiala was tasked with forming a new government by the (currently ill) president Miloš Zeman. SPOLU and PirSTAN had already signed a coalition agreement. But Babiš remains a force to be reckoned with: ANO is still the largest party in parliament, with immense resources at its disposal. Having been pushed out of the government by parties with explicit intentions to prosecute him for economic crimes, Babiš and his top officials have much to fear.
Although one should not overstate the similarities between Czech and Slovak politics, developments in Slovakia after the 2020 elections could repeat themselves here. After a campaign focused on corruption, the Slovakian elections also became a plebiscite on the country’s future. Sure enough, Igor Matovič’s Common People party toppled Robert Fico’s SMER-SD after more than a decade in power. The new government is the most conservative the country has seen in a long time – an outcome that can be expected in the Czech Republic as well. Any hopes that the Pirates might act as a progressive counterweight were dashed after the party gained only four seats in the parliament, having been outdone by their electoral bloc partners, the Mayors, through preferential voting.
The more important parallel, however, lies in the situation of ANO and SMER, both of which remain powerful and well-resourced parties that enjoy strong voter support. After a liminal post-election period, during which a number of SMER officials were arrested for corruption and its more progressive elites broke away and formed HLAS (which now leads the polls), SMER experienced a quick rebound in popularity. The key has been the party’s dramatic turn to the right, the roots of which stretch back to the 2015 refugee crisis. Fico has now remodelled himself as a revolutionary, working tirelessly to undermine the trust in the current government and drumming up support from the anti-vax movement, which is particularly strong in Slovakia. Fico and SMER have turned into a deeply corrosive presence in Slovak politics.
Babiš cannot turn anti-vax. After all, both his party and he himself were heavily invested in the vaccination program and pandemic (mis)management. But he can become a disruptive force. With a looming economic crisis and rising inflation, which will likely hit the working and lower-middle classes, there will be ample opportunities for subversive narratives and protest politics that capitalize on dissatisfaction. Like SMER, ANO is likely to return to full force rather quickly.
The shape of things to come
The toppling of the Babiš government is certainly for the better, and the celebration is justified. But the political process that this narrow, fragile triumph has set in motion is worrying. The eventual outcome might depend not on what the new multi-coalition does or does not do, but who animates the Czech political scene. And the likelihood is it will be Babiš. His first push will probably be for the voters of what remains of the Left. At the same time, he will seek to maintain his own electoral base and cultivate good relations with Tomio Okamura’s far-right SPD, his opposition partner. This means more right-wing populism.
For the parties in power, the momentum of the sacred crusade for democratic renewal began to dissipate in the moment of victory, giving way to a burning crapulence. What will come is both executive responsibility and the renewed concern for electoral support, exacerbated by the fact that the coalition parties are each for themselves again. Moreover, they will need to reckon with Babiš’s moves. For ODS, this will likely mean the return to a staunchly conservative agenda. There are reasons to believe that day-to-day politics might get better, and that there will be less of international fraternizing with powers like Russia or China. But all in all, what we can expect is a continuation of the longer-term rightwing trajectory in the Czech Republic.