The clear winner of the Czech general elections, populist Andrej Babiš, is a lonesome man. Despite some ad hoc cooperation with extreme forces, the political class positioned itself united against the new Prime Minister. Now the Chamber of Deputies voted no-confidence for his cabinet. Furthermore, the Czech parliament lifted his immunity to allow the prosecution of PM Babiš in a case of a potential EU subsidy fraud. But the wall of resistance is brittle.
by Vit Dostál
The Czech Republic finds itself trapped between two elections. After October general elections, a minority government has been formed by ANO party of populist billionaire Andrej Babiš, but failed to obtain a vote of confidence this week in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Czech parliament. Moreover, the first round of direct presidential elections was held last weekend. As no candidate won a majority a second round – a duel of the incumbent President Miloš Zeman and his challenger Jiří Drahoš – will take place on January 26 and 27. Czech politics is blocked now, and what makes future months quite unpredictable is the fact that the moral compass of some parties is very fragile. There are several possible future scenarios of how the political deadlock could be overcome. Although domestic politics under Babiš is much less predictable, foreign affairs seem to enjoy continuity, as have the first weeks of his premiership shown.
General elections and its aftermath
After a huge success in October general elections in which his party ANO got nearly 30 percent of the national vote, Babiš was neither able to form a coalition government, nor to get support for his minority cabinet. He is a polarizing figure in Czech politics: A billionaire with assets in agriculture, media and chemical industry who was charged with subsidy fraud and is therefore not acceptable as Prime Minister for nearly every prospective political partner.
Furthermore, the Chamber of Deputies is extremely fragmented and unprecedentedly polarized. Nine parties reached the lower house in the October elections, compared with seven in the previous term and only five in the years 1998 to 2013. This comes along with the rise of protest parties. The Pirate Party focusing on transparency and anti-corruption got almost eleven percent of votes. And the far-right anti-immigration and anti-Islam Freedom and Direct Democracy Party (SPD) of Czech-Japanese businessman Tomio Okamura received also more than ten percent.
The other side of the coin is that the mainstream parties lost. Most dramatic is the Social Democrats’ defeat. They dropped from 20 percent in 2013 to only seven in 2017 and fell from first place to seventh. It is assumed that many of their core voters made a different choice this time and voted for ANO, the Social Democrats’ junior coalition partner in 2013 to 2017. Babiš has been able to capitalize the successes of the coalition government and still kept his appeal to overthrow traditional parties. Against a backdrop of this experience, to form a coalition with Babiš is extremely unattractive for any other party.
Left without potential partners, Babiš turned to extreme forces. He cooperated with the Communist Party and the far-right SPD in the election of the parliamentary.
The latest report of Bertelsmann Stiftung's Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) for the Czech Republic states: „To increase its executive capacity, the government needs to expand its strategic planning capacities, and continue with the modernization of public administration and the de-politicization of the executive branch.“ Nevertheless, the strategic planning is hard to envisage, as Babiš’ minority cabinet governs without the confidence of the Chamber of Deputies and is to be replaced soon. Babiš has also shown that it is not his plan to de-politicize public administration. By reorganising units of ministries he released senior officials, who were close to other parties, despite the existence of a civil service code, which should have defended the state administration from political interventions. Moreover, recently leaked information suggests that Babiš aims at amending the civil service code.
President Zeman already promised Babiš to provide him with a second try to form the government. However, Babiš has to bring Zeman signatures of a majority of the members of parliament in order to get the second nomination. This is expected to happen after the second round of the presidential elections and Babiš will then try to create a majority government. If his second attempt also fails, the most probable scenario would be early elections in fall – an outcome most parties fear and would like to avoid because for the moment only ANO is able to fund a large-scale election campaign. Babiš may also argue that nobody wants to take responsibility and govern with him, so he would need a stronger mandate.
Therefore, the firm rejection of Babiš may not hold. Social Democrats will convene in February and elect a new leadership. Some politicians expected to assume top position in the party already favoured a coalition with ANO. Jan Hamáček, former speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, for example, who has good chances to become a new leader of Social Democrats, already declared that the party should not remain isolated during the second attempt to form a cabinet. A minority government of ANO and Czech Social Democratic Party with the support of the Communist Party would reach the parliamentary majority and it seems to be the most probable scenario for the months to come. Though, other less probable options like a coalition of ANO, Social Democrats and Christian Democrats or a deal between ANO and liberal-conservative Civic Democratic Party should not be excluded as well.
The European Game
A coalition with far-right SPD and Communist Party, however, is hard to imagine. Babiš was open for ad-hoc cooperation and as a businessman with transactional thinking he will always be ready to conclude any deal if it brings him profit. Yet, such coalition would be very unstable and Babiš also wants to better his poor international reputation. An open alliance with xenophobes would not help him in that respect. Since he was often compared to Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński, he tries to get rid of the image of a new Central European semi-autocrat. He has nothing to gain from being coupled with the two European „cultural counter-revolutionaries“, as Orbán and Kaczyński labelled themselves in 2016 public debate.
Unlike in Hungary and Poland, Babiš’ populism lacks comprehensive ideology rooted in culture and history. His protest against the „traditional political class“ contains disrespect to Brussels, but – as he often underlines – he is not per se against the European Union. His statements relating the EU are very vague and the Czech EU policy will in result probably remain broadly pragmatic with two key elements: Firstly, the Czech Republic will protest against any permanent relocation scheme for asylum-seekers and will not accept any refugees voluntarily. Secondly, the Czech Republic will not join the Eurozone, as Babiš will act in accordance to public opinion: 80 percent of Czechs refuse the single currency.
The outcome of the finale of the presidential elections in the end of January may influence the domestic political dynamics much. Zeman promised to appoint Babiš as Prime Minister for a second attempt to form a cabinet in February, when he is still in office. If Zeman loses, Babiš will be in a time pressure to get Social Democrats on board (and to get parliamentary support of Communists), before Drahoš takes over, since he would be a harder opponent for him. The new (or re-elected) President may set the date of early elections if this scenario materializes. The best option for Babiš would be a linkage with the municipal and senatorial elections, which should be held in September or early October 2018. A super election in fall would bring him a true landslide victory.
Vít Dostál is Research Director of the Association for International Affairs (AMO) in Prague, Czech Republic. He wrote and edited many publications dealing with Czech foreign policy and Central Europe.