Czechs are voting today (Friday) and tomorrow to elect a new parliament. If you were to sum up the media coverage in one sentence, it would be “Populists set for victory.” Which raises two interesting questions: what do they mean by “populist”, and what do they mean by “victory”?
I’ll try to answer those, but first some background.
The last Czech election, four years ago, returned an unusually fragmented parliament. Seven parties were elected to parliament, and even the leading party, the Social Democrats (centre-left), had only 50 of the 200 seats. After a prolonged period of manoeuvring, a three-party coalition was formed between the Social Democrats, the second placegetter, ANO (more about them shortly), and the Christian Democrats, who with 6.8% of the vote were the seventh-largest party.
Those three had 111 seats between. In opposition were a diverse lot: in descending order of strength, there were the Communists (33 seats), the right-liberal TOP 09 (26), the centre-right Civic Democrats (16) and the anti-immigrant Dawn (14). (Voting is straight d’Hondt proportional representation, with a 5% threshold.)
So having once had a well-developed two-party system, where Social Democrats and Civic Democrats alternated in power and won most of the votes between them, Czech politics seemed to have fractured rather badly.
Despite that, the new government held together well for most of its term, until May of this year, when there was a three-way governmental crisis between prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka, president Miloš Zeman and finance minister and ANO leader Andrej Babiš.
It ended with the dismissal of Babiš, who was accused of tax evasion, but it was a pyrrhic victory for Sobotka; it was the Social Democrats who suffered in the opinion polls, and ANO, already in the lead, moved further ahead.
Which makes it important to understand what ANO is. Babiš is one of Czechia’s richest businesspeople, and ANO is basically his personal vehicle – he is a rather more successful version of Clive Palmer. Like Palmer, his politics are populist but not extremist, targeting the alleged corruption of “the system” but occupying a broadly centrist position.
Until a couple of years ago, one would have said that this was reasonably typical of “populist” movements in Europe, with other examples including Italy’s 5-Star Movement, Austria’s Team Stronach and Palikot’s Movement in Poland. They centred around a prominent (often wealthy) individual, demanded a shakeup of the establishment, and appeared and sometimes disappeared with unusual speed.
More recently, however, the term “populist” has been diverted to a different sort of party: the far-right, anti-European, anti-immigrant parties like UKIP, France’s National Front and Austria’s Freedom Party – not to mention the supporters of Donald Trump.
But I think the switch in usage is unfortunate and should be resisted. We already have a term for these parties – far right – and we shouldn’t be coy about using it. While they do share with the ANO-like parties a conspiracy-theory view of the world and a devotion to a strong leader, they also have an ideology, which provides for continuity and for co-ordination across national borders.
Babiš has played into this shift to some extent, by adding a degree of Euroscepticism to his party’s platform. But it is unlike the flat-out hostility to the European Union found in the likes of Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage (or Hungary’s Viktor Orbán), and he denies the charge of closeness to Vladimir Putin. His party still sits with the liberal group in the European parliament.
Two other factors matter here, one pulling in each direction. First is the president, Zeman, nominally an impartial figurehead but in fact a troublemaker, a supporter of the planned economy but beloved by so-called free-marketeers because of his hatred of Islam. His influence will push a new government towards policies that are hostile to the European mainstream.
But the other factor may be more important, and it brings us back to what “victory” means in this context. The BBC, with more than its usual cluelessness, remarks that “If his party secures a majority, it is not known who Mr Babis will seek to form a government with.” But of course if it were to somehow win a majority, it wouldn’t need allies. (The word it’s probably looking for is “plurality”.)
In reality, ANO is nowhere near majority support. When the media report that its lead has recently increased to something like 15 points, they should point out that this is due to the collapse in Social Democrat support. ANO remains below the 30% mark, and to form government it will need partners, who will of course influence the direction of a new government.
There will be plenty of options: the existing parties all look like making it back (counting Freedom & Direct Democracy as the replacement for Dawn), with the probable addition of the Pirate Party. Another two, Mayors & Independents and the Greens, are within striking distance of the 5% threshold.
There seems little doubt that Babiš will be given the first chance to assemble a majority. How he goes about that task might tell us a lot about his particular version of “populism”.