Since 2010, Czech politics have repeatedly delivered instability and fragmentation. The elections this past Sunday show this trend persists. With a turnout of 60.4%, a hair higher than the 59.4% in the 2013 election, frontrunner Andrej Babiš swept the elections and will become the Czech Republic’s next Prime Minister. Though his party, ANO (Czech for ‘YES’), gathered nearly 30% of the vote, this election was defined by the collapse of the Social Democrats (ČSSD), a fragmented Parliament with nine parties, and the expected rise in importance of far-right political forces led by Tomio Okamura.
Voting ‘Yes’ for change
To no one’s surprise, ANO netted over 1.5 million votes (29.6%). Born in 1954 in Bratislava, now capital of Slovakia, this is the first time that an ethnic Slovak has become the Czech Prime Minister since the communist era. Babiš, a millionaire populist, is as much a break from the norm in Czech politics as is Austria’s new right-wing Prime Minister, Sebastian Kurz. He has, however, been surrounded by scandal.
Last May, European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) began investigating Babiš for misappropriating EU funds to build a four-star personal resort called Čapí hnízdo, ‘The Stork’s Nest’, under the guise of being public facility. He has also been accused of cooperation with the secret police during communism by a series of Slovak reports. Nonetheless, Babiš, the second-richest man in the Czech Republic, seems invincible.
Babiš ran on an anti-establishment platform despite occupying the post of Czech finance minister for four years, and it paid off. ANO successfully pushed a platform of being “not like the rest”. This outsider narrative makes it hard to pigeonhole the party and Babiš into the left-right political spectrum.
How Prime Minister Babiš will govern is still uncertain. During his tenure as Minister of Finance he introduced a law requiring all small businesses to keep receipts of all transactions, in order to avoid corruption. Babiš may further streamline the Czech economy to increase productivity, although the Czech Republic already enjoys the lowest unemployment rate in the EU-28, and may usher in the conversion to the euro.
The Downfall of the Status Quo
The biggest losers in this year’s elections were the center-left Social Democrats (ČSSD), who fell from being top dog in 2013, with 20.45% (over 1 million votes) to a mere 7.3% (360,000 votes). This is the worst the Social Democrats have performed since free elections were reintroduced in 1990.
However, ČSSD may draw inspiration from the center-right Civic Democrats (ODS)- the party of former Prime Minister and President Václav Klaus – which recovered from past scandals and jumped from 7.7% in 2013 (380,000 votes) to second place, with 11.3% (570,000 votes). ODS may form a ruling coalition alongside ANO.
The Czech desire for an alternative to the political status quo was further echoed by the rise to power of smaller parties entering Parliament for the first time. Ivan Bartoš’s left-leaning, anti-corruption party, Česká pirátská strana, or ‘Pirate Party’, came third with 10.8% of the vote, followed by Tomio Okamura’s ‘Freedom and Direct Democracy’ (SPD). Perhaps one should no longer be surprised, especially after the recent Austrian elections, but when the Czechs turned out to vote, far-right firebrand Okamura netted over 10.6% with 538,000 votes- a better performance than his previous party, Úsvit (‘Dawn’), which won 6.9% in the 2013 elections (over 342,000 votes).
Electoral maps show a clear urban-rural split amongst voters. Pirates performed best in urban Prague and Brno, and SPD excelled in the conservative Moravian countryside and the “rust belt” of northwestern Bohemia. Both Okamura and Bartoš participated in a televised debate before the election which swayed voters in their favor, eventually giving them virtually the same percentage of the vote.
The results of the elections show that the Czech population is thirsty for change, represented in several of the parties elected. Bartoš’s success largely lies on his project to legalize marijuana, which made him especially popular amongst young voters. Okamura’s popularity in response to his virulent anti-immigration and anti-European Union position, even wishing to hold a referendum on the Czech Republic’s EU membership is yet another example of this. Indeed, the prospect of a ‘Czexit’ à l’anglaise would have been unthinkable a year ago, but so also was the prospect of 10% of the electorate going for a mouthy, half-Japanese businessman.
Standing against the anti-establishment millionaire
The SPD will almost certainly be in the opposition to the new Prime Minister; Okamura has spoken out openly and often about Babiš’s corruption. As for where the Pirates will land, they are anyone’s guess. That the ČSSD could fall from being the ruling party to sharing the opposition with upstarts Okamura or Bartoš speaks to the strange times Czech politics are in. This election has proven that the European nation-state is alive and well, and the Czech far right is still a force to be reckoned with.