New parties threaten to rock Czech political boat further

By bne IntelliNews September 13, 2013

Tim Gosling in Prague -

Disillusioned with the major political parties, Czech voters put two new entrants in parliament in 2010. More debutants are likely to enter the lower house following the election in October, which is likely to leave the next government even more unstable than is normal for the Czech Republic.

Czechs head to the polls on October 25 following a vote in August to dissolve parliament. That came after a corruption and spying scandal deposed the previous centre-right coalition of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and TOP 09 over the summer, and the subsequent appointment by President Milos Zeman of a puppet cabinet stuffed full of his cronies.

None of which helped promote the image of politicians to a population weary of corruption scandals and austerity, but only extended debate over the state of democracy in the country. A survey in August revealed that Czechs respect their elected representatives less than cleaners, while the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report 2013-2014 ranked the country 146th out of 148 nations surveyed in terms of public trust in politicians.

The left-leaning Social Democrats (CSSD) are a shoo-in to win the largest share of the 200-seats in parliament, but with polls showing their support around 30% they will likely need support - either in coalition or informally - to govern. The list of major potential partners ranges from the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) to the staunchly conservative TOP 09.

However, a host of new parties are waiting in the wings, hopeful of having a final say in the cabinet. A poll in September suggested Ano 2011, set up by billionaire businessman Andrej Babis; Dawn of Direct Democracy (DoD); Party of Citizens' Rights - the Zemanites (SPOZ); and the Green Party (SZ) could all cross the 5% threshold to enter the house.

Rough and tumble

Yet how these parties will fare in the rough and tumble of the Czech parliament is debatable. Analysts worry the arrival of such new parties will make any Czech government even more unstable and unpredictable than usual. The Czech Republic has had seven prime ministers in the last ten years. "The more parties enter the chamber of deputies, the wilder the lower house of parliament will be, and the more difficult it will be to form a government coalition," Lenka Zlamalova, a political commentator, wrote in Lidove noviny.

Public Affairs (VV), which entered parliament in 2010 on a similar "protest" ticket against corruption, illustrates the issue. "It looks like a potential rerun of VV," says political analyst Jiri Pehe. "Their election promise was to 'fight the dinosaurs;' they immediately joined them instead."

Public Affairs was catapulted into government when it joined the ODS-TOP 09 coalition. However, it soon imploded under that weight, slicing the government's majority to the slimmest of margins as it split.

Vaclav Kopecky of think-tank CEC Government Relations also suggests that any new parties entering parliament will struggle to survive the power of the major parties and the cut and thrust of Czech politics. "VV overestimated their capacity," he says. "If any of the new parties enter parliament, they'll likely go the same way."

Should it cross the threshold, the president's SPOZ is the most likely to join a CSSD-led coalition, given their close left-leaning programmes. However, Zeman's naked fight to expand his power inside the larger party presents perhaps the largest risk to stability.

At the same time, SPOZ's weakness is that it offers few new faces to weary voters. That's a trait it shares with the likes of LES, founded less than two months ahead of the election by Martin Bursik, former head of the Greens, who led that party into a coalition government with the ODS in 2007, with a similarly disastrous result to the VV debacle.

In addition, SPOZ's positioning on the left is in a part of the political spectrum dominated by the CSSD. It's no coincidence that practically all of the new parties contesting the election are on the right, where the collapse of support for the mainstream ODS has created a window of opportunity.

That opportunism, however, is likely to prove the Achilles' heel of the likes of DoD, which is running a somewhat disjointed populist campaign. "VV and the Greens have made voters cynical, despite the fact they're looking for a new political home," Pehe says. "Some of these new parties could get in - but what then, without a solid political structure?"

Nouveau riche

Ano 2011 is widely discussed as the most serious, and freshest, of the new projects. Babis, who controls hundreds of Czech (and Central European) companies through his Agrofert Holding, has been careful to select figures as untainted by politics as possible, although there is certainly some form among his motley collection of celebrity journalists, lawyers and diplomats.

However, just like the other new parties, Ano 2011 - which Babis launched two years ago with the familiar pledge from new political projects to fight corruption - suffers from a distinct lack of wider policy and leadership. "No one knows how serious Babis really is on policy," Kopecky says, pointing out that the current programme is based on focus groups culled from the world of business. His stated aim to run the country like a company is also likely to prove an acquired taste.

The real key for Ano 2011 is Babis' money, estimated to total around $2bn by Forbes. The mainstream parties have been blighted for years by reports of being financed and controlled by shadowy local figures, or perhaps even Moscow. The blocking of new legislation on political funding has done little to help the image of the politicians, but it limits the competition.

Cash is clearly the main challenge for most of the new parties. Tomio Okamura - leader of the somewhat racist DoD despite him being ethnically Japanese - appears to have some serious powers of persuasion; he has apparently persuaded a (unnamed) bank to lend his party CZK10m (€390,000) of the CZK15m costs of his campaign, on the back of the state subsidies available to those attracting over 3% of the vote. "Some are gambling on this election, and the banks are lending, despite the flimsy premise," Pehe says, laughing with astonishment.

TOP of the pile

Kopecky is less convinced that Babis' money will prove so important at the upcoming elections. "I don't think Ano 2011 will go crazy putting up billboards everywhere," he says. "The population has been through so many elections they've become resistant to campaigns."

On top of everything else, that might suggest any attempt to pump new blood into the Czech Republic's listing political scene is doomed. However, TOP 09's rise illustrates the two-party system is not so entrenched. The staunchly conservative TOP 09 may have just finished a stint in one of the most unpopular governments the country has ever seen, but it looks set to finish the October vote as the strongest party on the right.

The secret to that success is manifold, suggests Pehe. It includes the fact that the party was set up by experienced politicians who know how to navigate the system; is led by a charismatic, unique and trusted figure in former foreign minister and presidential candidate Karel Schwarzenberg; has kept its distance - visibly at least - from the unsavoury elements lurking behind the mainstream parties; and recognised that - contrary to the eurosceptic ODS - Czech voters on the right tend to be pro-EU.

The main point, however, is that it has shown clear leadership, even whilst it has watched its approval ratings collapse. "They stick to their guns," says the analyst. "Perhaps the only party to do so, apart from the KCSM. That shows they are principled - even if you don't like the particular form that takes."

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