Will Babiš take a dramatic bow out of Czech politics? 7 min read
Czechia’s Prime Minister Andrej Babiš has lost his grip on the premiership in an outcome few saw coming in the country’s recent parliamentary elections. On 9 October, the combined forces of a centre-right coalition mustered together enough support to push Babiš’ coalition out of power with a turnout near 65 percent. It is important to note that this is five percent greater than the 2017 election, which made Babiš Prime Minister. By the time of the final results, his allies, the Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD) and the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM) were completely swept out of office, losing all 15 of their seats in parliament.
Babiš, now on his own, is in a position of exiting the scene as dramatically as he came in. The final shape of the new Czech government has not yet emerged, but the defeat of Babiš’ government is already offering insights into the complicated path ahead for Czechia.
Babiš gets an unwanted October surprise
Only days before the elections, the Czech premier made an unscheduled appearance in the Pandora Papers. Local media gave attention in particular to the purchase of a chateau in France, along with questions about the financial practices of Mr Babiš. His past has not made accusations difficult; the current prime minister has been the star of several scandals throughout his time in public life. On a global scale, however, and seeing the sheer size of the Pandora leaks, Mr Babiš’ financial practices seem rather mundane compared to his billionaire peers. However, the ease with which capital moves across borders might have become a special point of interest for voters.
In this case, the latest expose on the actions of the global elite might have tipped the scales in the election – this time against the rich and powerful. While the Czech premier’s brand of populism retained the largest share of support among voters of any single party, two coalitions pulled the carpet from under Mr Babiš, whose race to continue his premiership that started in 2017 is ending in a fittingly dramatic fashion.
New coalitions emerge as ailing partners fade
Together in Czech (SPOLU), a centre-right coalition consisting of the Civic Democrats (ODS), Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL) and the pro-EU TOP 09 party narrowly won the election. Theirs is a coalition of mainstream parties that ran on an explicitly anti-Babiš campaign, and whose success can be attributed to a share of voters whose primary concern was to reject the billionaire. The Pandora Papers were unlikely to move voters of SPOLU, but even so, it would be easy to see the leaks mobilizing undecided voters, who would have been unsure of who to vote for, or whether to do so at all. In this sense, for SPOLU, the leaks were impeccably timed. An earlier financial scandal – in which Mr Babiš is accused of illegally siphoning EU funds to one of his firms – surrounding Mr Babiš hardly would mobilize but the most determined voter with an uncharacteristically long memory. While the premier denies all wrongdoing, the Pandora Papers likely only strengthened the existing polarization that surrounds his character.
Perhaps the most interesting coalition, and certainly the one with the catchiest (unofficial) name, of the elections was the centre-left coalition of the Pirates and the Mayors, PirátiStan. Their share of votes placed them in third place behind Babiš’s ANO party and SPOLU. The Mayors and Independents have been a mainstay in Czech national politics, mostly focusing on local and regional elections and issues, while forming coalitions (often with TOP 09 of SPOLU) in national elections. This time, their coalition partner became the Pirate Party, which continued to ride on the success of the previous legislative elections during which the Pirates surprised many. The Czech Pirates, like other surviving Pirate parties in Europe, have attempted to transform themselves into a more mainstream party, while still maintaining a ‘new generation’ glow. The Pirates in particular has worked hard to become a major political power in the country and branch out from their origins as the recipient of votes from an IT-savvy free marketeer section of urban youth.
Both coalitions have rejected the idea of forming a government with Mr Babiš, and his previous government partners, the CSSD and KSČM, fell out of the parliament completely as a result of the elections. This means that as both SPOLU and PirátiStan keep their promise, Babiš would have found himself facing the prospect of forming a minority government. However, the coalitions have seemed to hold, and ANO is fast becoming the major opposition party in the parliament. Populist power is waning in Czechia.
Zeman’s manoeuvre to appoint Babiš failed
The Czech president, Miloš Zeman, inadvertently sprinkled some salt into the premier’s wounds with his failing health. Mr Zeman was admitted to an intensive care unit in Prague, reportedly after discussing the election results with Mr Babiš. Before the elections, Mr Zeman has played kingmaker for Mr Babiš, promising to appoint the leader of the single party with the most votes (as opposed to a coalition) to begin forming a government. However, the president’s failing health threw a wrench into the plans of the Czech incumbent. Political custom is for the president to appoint the person who will lead negotiations to form a new government – laying in a hospital bed, Mr Zeman was delayed in doing so.
The president’s inability to appoint a new prime minister to begin forming a government over a period of about two weeks presented an unexpected obstacle for Mr Babiš. The period directly after the elections was characterized by uncertainty and speculation, which could have triggered a constitutional crisis between the powers of the president and the parliament. In a hospital bed, Zeman existed in a kind of grey space, unable to fulfil his obligations. Meanwhile, at least one of the president’s aides drew public scrutiny over his silence on the president’s health, prolonging the uncertainty and essentially buying time for both Zeman and Babiš to try to find a way out of the premiers’ political downfall.
A political system dependent on norms, quorum and obscure rules strains under the stress of indecisiveness. If Mr Zeman allowed his protégé, Mr Babiš, to start forming a government, the electoral winners could have brought the president’s capability into question or made noise over his determination to bend rules in his favour. In the end, and only after Babiš failed to break the opposing coalitions and start negotiations with other parties, Petr Fiala of the Civil Democrats was appointed the next prime minister, allowing him to start the negotiations for a new governing coalition.
Is this the end of an era for Czech socialism?
In any case, the recent elections show signs of budding change long sought after in Czech politics. If the coalitions hold, the national party system might suddenly become considerably more consolidated, which on its own could usher in an era of stable post-Communist politics for Czechia. In this sense, the ailing – and perhaps failing – populism of Mr Babiš would have a silver lining. It would have created a strong, united opposition. The problem then would be the unity of the opposition once Mr Babiš is no longer the pre-eminent politician in the country. The coalitions were born out of a rejection of his politics, but differences amid coalition partners surely exist.
A notable result, or lack thereof, was the inglorious fall of the CSSD and KSČM. In previous elections, the CSSD has experienced collapse but never reached a result so far under the bar as to be completely excluded from the halls of the Czech parliament. Similarly, the Czech communists resiliently participated in national politics mostly fueled by, it seems, the nostalgia of generations who experienced an era when they were the only political party allowed. It seems the recent elections were the swan song of socialism in Czechia, and Mr Babiš might yet join the choir. As Zeman is due to step down in a few short years, Mr Babiš has announced his interest in joining the fray in the upcoming presidential elections in 2023. The elections will be a test of his lasting support, and by proxy, of populism in Czechia.