Czech coalition drifts towards defeat

Czech coalition drifts towards defeat
Not worried? Prime Minister Petr Fiala at commemorations for the 1968 Russian-led invasion of Czechoslovakia last week. / Czech Prime Minister's Office
By Robert Anderson, Albin Sybera August 23, 2023

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala should have been a deeply worried man when he returned to work from his summer holidays last week.

He was greeted by a CVVM opinion poll that showed his five-party coalition government is one of the most unpopular ever, with only 2% of Czechs saying they have a lot of trust in it. Such dire numbers have only been recorded during major political crises in the past.

“The trust in the government is now expressed only by its die-hard fans, who will back anything this government does,” Jan Cervenka of CVVM told bne IntelliNews.

He adds that trust “is nearly zero” outside of the cabinet’s own electorate and that “this is not usual”.

At the same time, support for the opposition ANO party – the personal vehicle of the increasingly far-right populist billionaire Andrej Babis – has hit a recent peak of 35.5%, more than double that of Fiala’s rightwing Civic Democrats (ODS) on 14%. It is almost equal to all of the coalition parties put together.

Some 300,000 Czechs protested against the Babis government in 2019; now Czechs regard Fiala’s government as even worse.

According to some political observers, the government appears to be helplessly drifting onto the electoral rocks with no-one at the helm. Its supporters are drifting away and may not bother turning out to vote at the 2025 general election, while its opponents appear more and more energised.

But rather than panicking at the figures or springing into action, the coalition has all but ignored them and has continued to bumble along complacently just as it has done for the past two years. Ministers have downplayed the numbers as a predictable case of mid-term blues as they clean up the fiscal mess left by Babis’ profligate rule.

Prague bubble

The government’s tone-deaf response has reinforced the impression that it is trapped in a Prague bubble and doesn’t understand how the cost of living crisis, recession and high interest rates have hurt ordinary people around the country.

Czechia’s poverty, inequality and regional divisions may look low by regional or even international standards but the figures fail to take into account the fact that 700,000 Czechs are still trapped in a nightmare of personal debts because of a despicable industry of loan companies, bailiffs and lawyers that exploited other people’s misery for decades.

Many Czechs subsequently have little cushion for bad times and are now suffering deep cuts in real wages because of inflation. The government’s planned austerity package will only make their plight worse and widen social divisions between rich urban centres such as Prague and Brno – already close to the living standards of Western European cities – and marginalised old industrial areas and depressed rural districts.

“Ordinary people need to feel they are communicated with, they are not overlooked,” veteran political commentator Jiri Pehe commented to bne IntelliNews on the poll numbers. “The government’s response was not what ordinary people need to hear. This will certainly not improve the situation.”

Poles apart

Pehe argues that one reason for the government’s blinkered response to its own unpopularity is the deepening polarisation of Czech politics.

Polarisation is something that the country’s Central European neighbours had already been living with for decades but which is relatively new for the region’s richest country.

Populists such as Babis aim to worsen polarisation as it confirms their narrative that they represent ordinary people against out of touch liberal elites.  But polarisation can also make mainstream parties give up on older, poorer, less well educated, rural voters, and just talk to their own urban supporters. By doing so they worsen polarisation and help the populists.

“They are still relying on the assumption that they are elected by a narrow majority and can rely on them, and the rest are Babis’ people,” says Pehe. “They rely too much [on the belief] that their voters will not switch when elections come because they have no alternative.”

The way Czech journalists cover – or rather don’t cover – the government malaise worsens this polarisation and pushes some voters to go to disinformation sites instead. Journalist Sasa Uhlova observes that “the part of the media which is, let’s say, pro-ruling coalition, including public media, is afraid that Babis will return to power and are not keen on criticising the government”.

Cervenka warns that this political polarisation is now so entrenched that it will be very difficult to reverse. “The polarisation is so strong that it is hard to do something about it anymore,” he says.

Pehe points to President Petr Pavel – a former general who was backed by the coalition to defeat Babis in the presidential election in January – as a model of how the government should be reacting to its unpopularity.

Pavel agrees with the need for spending cuts but has criticised the government for failing to communicate this properly.

He has reached out to Babis voters by visiting deprived areas that voted for the billionaire. He has also refused to demonise all those attending demonstrations organised by extremists against the government.

“I wouldn’t put all the people attending these demonstrations and protests into one basket,” Pavel said earlier this year. “Part of them are probably inspired by pro-Russian elements. But many of them are simply not happy with the way the government communicates different measures in the social and economic domains,” he said. “And it’s fair to admit that communication is not the strongest part of [the] current Czech government.”

The disenfranchised million

Right from the start the government got off on the wrong foot. It did not understand let alone acknowledge that Babis’ defeat at the October 2021 elections was really a fluke. Fiala’s ODS were only able to form a centre-right coalition because the Social Democrats and Communists that had supported the billionaire failed to pass the 5% threshold to enter parliament.

The election may have been a vote of no-confidence in Babis but it was hardly a strong mandate for the ODS’s neoliberal zeal. Babis’ ANO remained by far the largest party overall, and the centre-right STAN party had almost the same number of seats as the ODS.

More worryingly, one million people, a record 19% of voters, supported parties that fell below the electoral threshold, deepening the disillusionment with democracy that Babis has been mining since the economic mismanagement and corruption of the last ODS-led government that collapsed in 2013.

Many low-income groups – notably pensioners, rural dwellers and those with less education and skills – already felt they had not benefited from the transition from Communism since 1989 and have long voted for populist politicians.

This lingering discontent with the region’s slowness in catching up with Western living standards, particularly since the global financial crisis, is now exploited by a new generation of populist parties that also use the cultural shock from accession to the EU and its values, especially on issues such as LGBT rights.

The most extreme of these new parties – now boosted by disinformation –  oppose the EU and Nato and regularly demonstrate against the COVID-19 “conspiracy”, sanctions on Russia, government support for Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees, and the phantom threat of migrants. At one demonstration in Prague last September, 70,000 protested against the government, though recent numbers have been much smaller.

The real danger is that if they were mobilised properly these disenfranchised voters could boost Babis and Tomio Okamura’s far-right SPD, putting them in a commanding position to form a government at the 2025 general election.

Babis has now moved his ANO party firmly into this far-right space, and has adopted more and more obstructive tactics in parliament. However, according to pollsters, by doing so he risks losing his more mainstream and leftwing voters.  His support may have already peaked.

Communication breakdown

The government certainly acts as if this is the case. Fiala’s ODS, which controls the finance ministry, is single-mindedly focussed on cutting the yawning budget deficit left by Babis after the pandemic, and making another attempt at pension reform. But it has not been able to convince ordinary people why they should suffer more pain after COVID-19 and the soaring energy and food price spike following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“They really believe the austerity package will improve the situation,” Pehe says, “and that people will come to believe they have done the right thing.”

So far the presentation of the package, however, has been a train crash of mixed messages and infighting since the official announcement in mid May. Finance Minister Zbynek Stanjura has shown a fatal combination of arrogance and ineptitude, and Fiala himself has failed to provide leadership.

“The presentation of the austerity package is a bigger problem than the package itself,” Pehe says. “No-one knows how the package is going to work.”

“If you are a government of five parties you need a strong leadership, a unified communication policy,” he says. “This government comes across more like a confederation of five parties and ministers rather than a unified body.”

Fiala has damped down coalition disputes and has won plaudits for the way he has strongly backed Ukraine against Russian aggression, and for the country’s successful EU rotating presidency in the first half of this year. However, in the domestic arena the Catholic former university rector often appears arrogant and out of touch.

“On the domestic scene Fiala is really invisible,” says Pehe. “It’s not the strong leadership people expect from a prime minister in this situation.”

Out of sync

Adding to the government’s woes is that the economic cycle is out of sync with the electoral cycle. Normally governments try to implement cuts in their first year so they have some money to play with in the year before the election and can engineer a boom or at least afford a few giveaways.

However, against its instincts the government was (belatedly) forced to hand out subsidies to ameliorate the impact of the cost of living crisis last year. Therefore the most significant cuts will only take effect next year, giving the government precious little time to create a feel good factor before the October 2025 general election. On top of this, growth is still anaemic and interest rate cuts seem to have now been postponed until next year.

Next June the European Parliamentary elections should therefore offer the perfect opportunity for disgruntled voters to give the government a kick up the backside. This could finally force some kind of change inside the coalition.

“If the European Parliament elections end up as a big victory for Babis, this may have disintegrative effects,” Pehe warns.

However, given Czechs' lack of interest in Europe (especially among Babis’ voters) they may just decide to stay at home, allowing the government to continue to drift towards a big defeat in 2025.