By Petr Kaniok
In ten days (October 19-20) Czech voters will go to the polling stations. After four years, they will decide once more about the future of Czechia – as the republic in the middle of the Europe is (unsuccessfully) trying to rebrand its name. And once more, these elections are portrayed as “important” or “path-breaking”, not only in the Czech press but also by more than few politicians.
I am saying “once more”, because it is not the first time. Quite the contrary: over the last seven years Czech politics have changed a lot. From stability to instability. From being predictable to being chaotic. And from being quite moderate to being populist. How could this happen?
Once upon a time, there was a small country called Czech Republic in the heart of Europe. Until around 2010, it had been a remarkably stable country since its establishment in January 1993, when a marriage of over eighty years broke up between the Czechs and the Slovaks. While in neighbouring countries like Poland or Slovakia new relevant parties emerged and died often during one term, the Czech party spectrum was pretty boring. With five or at worst six relevant parties, and standard governmental changes from centre left to centre right. Even newcomers – such as for example the Czech Greens in 2006 – were traditional parties in the sense that they represented a set of coherent ideas and goals.
Then everything changed in the 2010 elections and since then, Czech politics have become a different story. Unfortunately for the country, with consequences beyond the purely domestic level.
Well, as in many similar cases, one has to turn to history to find answers to “why” this happened. Even if 2010 may be considered the turning point, the causes explaining the “electoral earthquake” had appeared slowly from the mid-1990s. At this time, the Czech transition – particularly in its economic dimension – appeared to be a successful and achieved process. Already in 1996 electoral campaign, Václav Klaus, one of the symbols of Czech modern politics and at that time acting prime minister, claimed so under his slogan “We proved that we can manage”. However, voters did not seem to be convinced and massively supported the opposition in this election. The very tight result of these elections opened a path to a second coalition government led by Václav Klaus. It was a minority government, a weak one, and had to resign already after being in office for not more than one and a half years. First early elections then resulted in a similar draw as in 1996, but this time the government was formed by the Social Democrats, and Miloš Zeman, another key figure of Czech politics, became prime minister. That would not have been tragic, but his minority cabinet was backed by Klaus’ “Civic Democrats”, its main rival and enemy, in a so called “opposition agreement”. This pseudo-coalition and pseudo-opposition – for which Klaus and Zeman are not to be blamed along, since it was partly a result of the inability of other political parties to find a solution – deeply wounded the trust of Czech voters in traditional parties. These wounds never disappeared.
The second major mistake – decentralisation – can be tracked back to the 1990s as well. The idea to create regions and endow them with some competences – education, regional development, health care – is not bad per se and was supported at the time by the majority of political parties. However, big problems occurred when these regions obtained the power to manage the money from the EU structural funds. Particularly from 2006 on, almost every single Czech region – and its political representatives – faced to a huge corruption scandal. These were usually directly or indirectly linked to the structural funds projects, often connected with regional politicians either from the Civic Democratic Party or from the Social Democrats. The regionalisation of EU funds led to networks of strong regional leaders and their business allies, which were for the parties´ headquarters almost impossible to control. The existence of these people – for whom the term “godfathers” is widely used – and their scandals was another nail in the coffin of traditional Czech parties.
Although there were also international and contextual causes for change in Czech politics – as for example the tragicomic Czech EU Presidency of 2009 or the outbreak of the financial crisis – the main dynamics of the 2010 earthquake are to be found inside the system and explained by mistakes committed by its leading politicians. As a result, the 2010 elections introduced the first populists into the Czech parliament. A party called “Public Affairs” successfully campaigned under the motto “We will wipe out the political dinosaurs” and became a part of the new government. Even though “Public Affairs” performed very badly and broke up after 3 years, their initial success opened a Pandora box of populism as affective tool. In 2013, in the second Czech early elections, it was effectively used by other new parties –Andrej Babiš’s non-ideological “Action of Dissatisfied Citizens” (known as ANO) and the right-wing populist “Dawn of Direct Democracy”. The first movement, led (and owned, one could add) by one of the country’s richest businessmen, used the slogan “We are not like politicians, we are hard workers”, whereas Dawn promoted direct democracy as a universal medicine for everything wrong in the Czech Republic.
Particularly the former appeal was successful, as ANO – following the footsteps of “Public Affairs” (but not repeating the same mistakes) – has been participating in the new government and became the strongest political force in the country. The major question in 2017 is not who will win, but by how much ANO will win and how many partners (if at all) it will need to get a majority in the lower house. According to the most recent polls, traditional parties as the Social Democrats or the Civic Democrats are tottering around 10-12% of votes. At the moment, they fight with other small parties and possible newcomers like the “Pirates” – an emerging star of the Czech party landscape – rather than with ANO.
The Czech electoral system is a proportional one with a 5% threshold for obtaining seats in the House of Deputies. However, as the seats are distributed in 13 plus Prague regions, it has also some majoritarian elements. These are even strengthened by using the d´Hondt formula for calculating mandates. Hence, a party with approximately 30% of the votes can have around 40% or even more of the seats in the House of Deputies depending also on how many votes will fall below the 5% threshold and will thus be distributed among the successful parties.
Apart from the ANO victory the overall result of the elections is hardly to predict. The electoral campaign is not that much intensive and lack strong themes and issues. Traditional parties try to picture Mr. Babiš as dangerous oligarch and possible wannabe dictator, but fail to offer any positive and interesting agenda on their own. There other problem is the lack of charismatic leaders, an obvious must-have in current politics.
Therefore, what is to be expected as main outcome of the 2017 Czech elections is further instability in Czech politics as well as the strengthening of populism within it.