Are the Czechs, 28 years after the fall of Communism, sleepwalking their way into a political alignment that not long from now could have them firmly back in Moscow's orbit?
October 20-21 will see the Czech Republic hold a general election that, if the opinion polls prove correct, will give by far the largest share of the vote to populist movement Ano (“Yes” in Czech), the creation of, and pretty much the trademarked property of, agrochemicals billionaire Andrej Babis, a man frequently criticised for authoritarian tendencies and a habit of over-simplifying government in an attempt at running it like a business. Those anxious to see the country remain a Western-style liberal democracy are, you might say, rather concerned.
For the past year, the Czech security services have been warning that Russian intelligence is waging an “information war” within the Czech Republic, building a network of puppet groups and propaganda agents used to sow the kind of instability and divisiveness within which nationalist, eurosceptic parties such as Ano thrive. But such alerts seem to have made little impression in the country. The latest polls show Slovak-born 'anti-politician' Babis set to garner around a quarter of the electorate's support, the far right Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) party towards 10% and the present-day Communists around 11%.
With the Social Democrats (CSSD) — the senior partner in the current ruling coalition formed with Ano and the Christian Democrats — not thought likely to poll beyond 12-15%, the centre-right ODS poised to pick up around a tenth of the votes cast, the transparency and digital-agenda-driven Pirate Party on course for 8.5% and nobody else making any real inroads with voters, the scene may be set for either another ANO-CSSD ruling partnership or a coalition of ANO and fringe parties, with the silent support of the Communists. And the latter prospect, which would also enjoy the backing of the country's Kremlin-friendly President Milos Zeman — unmistakably relishing the idea of a Babis victory — has liberals swallowing hard.
On election eve, October 19, Czech financial daily Hospodarske noviny reported that there is speculation in the halls of power that a Babis government would be supported by the Communists or the SPD. It added that the uncertainty about what Babis' political direction would be after the voting is over could cause a weakening of the crown, temporarily or otherwise, and reported analyst Michael Skorepa of bank Ceska sporitelna as saying that there could be difficulties if the calling of a referendum on a 'Czexit' starts to seem realistic. Zeman, though claiming that he is for staying in the EU, is determined that the matter is put in the hands of the Czech people (a highly Eurosceptic bunch at the best of times. For instance, a recent survey by Datamar for Pravo recorded 85.2% of respondents as against adopting the euro, even though there is a good case that their relatively wealthy and export-dependent country, with its strong economic fundamentals, might benefit handsomely from core membership of the future European bloc).
The anxiety is palpable. Daniel Herman, the Christian Democrat culture minister, said this week that his party would go to any lengths to block a coalition government of Ano, the Communists and SPD, while Lubomir Zaoralek, foreign minister and CSSD leader since early summer, said that if Babis becomes prime minister Slovakia would be the last remaining “normal” country in Central Europe — both Poland and Hungary have ensconced populist governments, while earlier this week Austria's election saw the main nationalist and far right outfits come in first and second.
Erik Tabery, editor-in-chief of news weekly Respekt, on October 16 questioned whether most Czechs will grasp the gravity of what is at stake as they go to the polls over the next two days. He wrote: “Of every election it is said that it will be decisive, the most important and fateful. This year that is being heard more often than in years gone by. Nevertheless, society is evidently not itself thinking that. It shows up neither in the public opinion surveys nor in the level of support expressed for the parties who address the fatefulness most often.”
It's not for want of trying that Babis's opponents have been unable to bring his longstanding double-digit poll lead to an end (surveys indicate Ano's favourability rating reached a high of around 32% in the early summer before over the course of around four months falling to its current level of around 25%, still streets ahead of any other party).
October 9 brought news that fraud charges had been pressed against Babis in the Capi hnizdo (Stork Nest) case centred on a €2.3mn EU subsidy obtained a decade ago. Babis protested about his opponents fanning the flames of a “pseudo case” and immediately lodged an appeal, but by October 12 he was facing more difficulties from a decision issued by Slovakia's Constitutional Court. Having considered a request from Slovakia’s Institute of the Nation’s Memory, the court announced that it had ordered a lower court to re-examine claims that Babis had collaborated with the Czechoslovak communist-era secret police as an informer while a foreign trade official in the 1980s.
Having once cleared his name after launching a lawsuit, he now faces the prospect of having to fight another court battle to again obtain a favourable verdict. That will clearly take time to arrange, thus in the immediate future he will be relying on the impressive Trump-like Teflon qualities he has shown so far to get him past the finishing post. And it would be a brave pundit that bets against him managing to do just that, whatever is thrown up by the October 19 live TV debates between the party leaders.
Corruption disappears as an issue
What then is driving voters? Well if the NFPK Anticorruption Endowment has it right then it is no longer corruption, which has mostly disappeared as a campaign topic with only the Greens and the Pirates devoting much space to it in their platforms, according to the campaign group.
Ano very much fought the last general election on an anti-corruption ticket and was starting to make quite a noise about it this time around in the weeks before Babis' Stork Nest woes resulted in a charge. Indeed, in late September political analyst Jiri Pehe was moved by Ano's continuing pledges of an anti-graft revolution to say that Babis might want to explain how he took over Agrofert — which since the 1990s he has built into an agrochemicals, foodstuffs and media empire — and became the second-richest person in the country when the Czech “corruption hydra” must have been trying repeatedly to drag him under. Almost all authoritarian leaders have risen to power with such revolutionary language, Pehe cautioned.
CSSD's manifesto does not mention corruption at all, even though the party created the cabinet’s anti-corruption council. That's perhaps largely because the conclusion has been drawn all round that picking fights with Brussels is the true vote-swinger. That most popularly applies to immigration, although the alarmist rhetoric often sounds rather odd in the Czech Republic given that the country has hardly accepted a single migrant from the waves that have washed up on southern Europe's shores in the past few years. Not something that cuts much ice with SPD leader Tomio Okamura, the Czech-Japanese-South Korean 'Mr Zero Tolerance' recently shown bare-chested in a party ad lifting weights (and, if reports coming in from democracy activists in the field are correct, boosted by an incredible amount of bill posters across the country, the funding of which those activists would dearly love to scrutinise).
“Now or never” contract
The week saw Babis mail out a “contract with citizens” to people’s homes, saying that it is “now or never” for what will be his “first and last attempt” to deliver change. Among the promises in his “contract” are a vow to defend the independent prosecution service and judiciary, regularly raise pensions, not adopt the euro over the next four years and halt illegal migration.
CSSD has made some headway in pushing back on Babis' credibility on migration issues — it ran an ad with a pay stub from a Babis-owned chicken plant detailing a monthly wage of CZK13,000 (€480) and claimed that the Agrofert owner wants to bring in 200,000 cheap-pay foreigners to undercut Czechs demanding good pay amid the country's surging economy and record-low unemployment — but one gets the impression the party has failed to get in tune with the mean-spirited times.
The party's leader, Zaoralek, has little more than an ounce more charisma than his duller than dull predecessor, PM Bohuslav Sobotka — “These guys are boring, not corrupted, but rather boring, though at least they have a genuine traditional party programme,” a public relations agency top executive told bne IntelliNews on October 18 — whom he took over from when it became clear the CSSD was becoming a little desperate for an upswing in the polls.
That could prove fatal, along with the fact that to nowadays remember much of living in Communist Czechoslovakia you have to be at least older than 35. Whether the most doom laden warnings concerning the Czech Republic's trajectory over the coming years prove over the top or not, it is worth repeating that tiresome old aphorism from George Santayana one more time: “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”