Czech centre-right poised to take power after convincing election win

Czech centre-right poised to take power after convincing election win
President Milos Zeman (left) is set to nominate Prime Minister Andrej Babis (right) to try to form another government, but Babis has little chance of success.
By Robert Anderson in Prague October 10, 2021

The Czech centre-right looks certain to return to power after its defeat of billionaire populist Andrej Babis and his leftwing allies in the general election at the weekend.

The opposition victory will give a boost to the attempts by a coalition of parties to unseat Hungarian premier Viktor Orban in next spring’s general election. It is also another blow to the region’s populists, following the resignation of Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz at the weekend over a corruption scandal. Babis had forged an increasingly close relationship with Orban and Polish ruling party leader Jaroslav Kaczynski. This weekend’s election result will therefore be greeted by a sigh of relief in Brussels.

The near finalised results from Saturday evening show the SPOLU coalition winning 27.8% and 71 seats in the 200-member parliament, just ahead of Babis’ ANO on 27.1%, though the premier’s party had one seat more at 72. It was the closest margin between the top two party formations since the restoration of democracy after the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

SPOLU has pledged to work with the liberal Pirate-STAN coalition, which ran in a disappointing third with 15.6% and 37 seats. Together the two coalitions have 108 seats, a 16-seat majority over ANO and the far-right SPD, the only other party to make it over the 5% threshold to enter parliament.

"Both democratic coalitions have a majority and have a chance to build a majority government, this is a change, we are a change, you are a change," SPOLU leader and likely future premier Petr Fiala told the coalition's cheering supporters, according to news agency CTK.

The two coalitions had pledged before the election to work together to oust Babis and they signed a memorandum on Saturday to carry this out. "The parties declare their will to form a government together and ask the president to instruct Petr Fiala to negotiate the formation of such a government," Fiala said.

Fiala, a former university rector and leader of the rightwing ODS for the past seven years, has said he will this week seek a meeting with President Milos Zeman, a close ally of Babis, to form the party's first government since the collapse of Petr Necas' administration in a corruption scandal in 2013.

Babis congratulated Fiala on Saturday. The premier had an unofficial meeting with the president on Sunday morning before official negotiations are due to begin on Wednesday. However, the president's rushed return to hospital after the meeting has put this schedule in jeopardy and could significantly slow down the process of government formation.

Zeman had said before the elections that he would nominate the leader of the largest single party to form a government, giving rise to speculation that he would try to keep Babis in power for as long as possible and work to break up the SPOLU coalition and create an ANO-ODS government.

Given the opposition’s clear majority, as well as the 77-year-old president’s deteriorating health, this scenario now looks improbable, though Zeman is likely to try to prolong the process of government formation. Babis’s defeat is another blow to the populist president, who has seen his pro-China and pro-Russian foreign policies suffer grave reverses over the past few years.

"The president has the right to entrust the formation of a government to whom he deems appropriate. But the important thing is that in the Czech Republic the government must rely on a majority in the Chamber of Deputies," said Fiala.

Marian Jurecka, leader of the Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL) within the SPOLU coalition, told Denik N: “The president is still a man who respects the constitution, and is a pragmatist who, when he calculates the mathematical combinations, realises that there is no room to play a game. Even though Babiš gets the nomination, he is not able to assemble anything – it is a dead end. I believe that the extreme variant [of Zeman blocking the opposition taking power] will not occur at all.”

The Million Moments protest movement, which rallied a quarter of a million to demonstrate against Babis in 2019, have said they will call more protests if Zeman refuses to appoint an opposition candidate to form the next government.

The opposition coalitions and Million Moments argue that Babis’ government has led to an erosion of democracy and a concentration of power, dividing society, and damaging the country’s standing in Europe.  

Babis’ removal from power will largely end the dispute between Brussels and Czechia over the conflict of interest between the billionaire’s business interests and his political role, though this will depend on whether any new government continues to pursue the funds the EU has refused to send his agro-chemical conglomerate Agrofert (and instead begins to pursue Agrofert to repay them to the Czech state).

However, with the Eurosceptic ODS likely to set the new government’s direction, it would likely continue to pick fights with Brussels and delay adopting the euro.

Future of ANO in question

Babis had previously said he would not take up his seat in parliament if his party was not in power, though there remains speculation that he could stand for president when Zeman comes to the end of his term in January 2023 (or when ill health forces him to resign earlier).

If Babis does step back from politics to concentrate on Agrofert, it would put a question mark over the future of his ANO party, which has remained very much his personal vehicle since its foundation a decade ago.

Babis fought an aggressive campaign, attacking the Pirates in particular for allegedly wanting to bring migrants into the country and for being slaves to Brussels. He also attacked ODS’ record on corruption – its last three premiers have resigned amid corruption scandals – and reminded voters of the austerity programme the party pursued after the global financial crisis, which plunged the country into a deep recession.

He was able to deflect criticism of his government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic (Czechia has one of the worst per capita death rates in the EU, with 30,000 deaths) but voters appeared troubled by the rising cost of living and state debt burden, which the opposition tried to pin on him.

Babis depicted himself as the stability candidate. To his largely older and small town voters, he is the “caring boss” who has given voters higher pensions, social benefits, tax cuts and a higher minimum wage.

His vote in the poorer regions on the country’s northern rim largely held up (though overall his election tally slipped from 29.6% and 78 seats in 2017) but the opposition was boosted by a strong overall turnout, up four points to 65.4%. There was an especially strong showing in opposition-held Prague (at 70%) compared to the deprived north-eastern Ustecky and Karolovarsky regions at under 60%.

Babis’ campaign was rocked by revelations in the closing days of the campaign in the Pandora Papers that he had secretly bought a chateau on the French Riviera through offshore structures, with some surveys indicating that this turned off some former supporters.

Instead, Babis was largely undone by the failure to enter parliament of his Social Democrat (CSSD) allies and the hardline Communists (KSCM) – the largely unreconstructed heirs of the party that ruled the country from 1948-89  – who had often supported his party in parliament. His ANO party sucked up their votes – the CSSD lost a third of their voters and the KSCM half – pushing them under the 5% threshold.

Around 20% of votes in the election were wasted on parties that fell under the 5% threshold – the largest figure ever – enabling the opposition coalitions to hold a majority once those votes were redistributed.

Shift to the right

The election result is a triumph for Fiala, who portrayed himself during the campaign as the undisputed leader of the centre-right bloc after largely struggling to make himself visible in parliament over the last two governments. SPOLU was chosen by voters as the best way to oust Babis.

On the other hand, the election was a disaster for the Pirates, who fought a reactive campaign against Babis’ attacks and presented a confusing picture of what they would do in government, partly because they gave nearly equal coverage to their STAN partners.

Though opinion polls at one point put them in first place, the party plunged from 22 to just four MPs as many of their coalition’s supporters circled preferential votes for STAN representatives, which moved their candidates up the coalition lists. There is now speculation that leader Ivan Bartos will resign.

The poor showing of the Pirates will, however, improve the coherence of the government by strengthening its rightwing orientation.

This is the first time since the restoration of democracy in 1989 that there has been no leftwing party in parliament. This is most the rightwing parliament yet, raising concerns that issues of poverty, inequality and exclusion could be ignored, for a return to the austerity policies of the last ODS government.

The Social Democrats, the country’s oldest party, have taken part in half the governments since the Velvet Revolution but in this election have been punished for co-operating with Babis over the past eight years.

“I am convinced that the bloody tax we are paying now is due to the fact that we entered the government with Andrej Babis,” Roman Onderka, deputy leader of the Social Democrats, told Denik N. “But we wanted to prevent the ANO-KSCM-SPD coalition [after the 2017 election]. But the voters did not perceive it that way, and therefore punished us.”

Jan Hamacek, leader of the Social Democrats, as well as Vojtech Filip of the Communists, have both resigned. Whether there will be a reconstruction of the left – perhaps with elements of ANO and the Green Party – will be one of the behind-the-scenes themes of the next four years.