Czechia (sometimes known as the Czech Republic) goes to the polls tomorrow after its last parliament, elected in 2017, rather surprisingly managed to last a full term. Prime minister Andrej Babiš is seeking re-election; the odds seem to be against him, but what might replace him is unclear, to say the least.
The 2017 election revealed a deeply fragmented political landscape. Nine different parties won seats; they can be grouped as follows:
- Babiš’s party, ANO, topped the poll with 29.6% of the vote and 78 of the 200 seats. It has lost support but appears to be still in the lead, polling in the mid-20s.
- Three broadly centre-right parties (Civic Democrats, Christian democrats and TOP 09), who are now running together in an alliance called Spolu (“Together”), won 22.4% and 42 seats in aggregate. They are polling not far behind ANO, in the low 20s.
- The Pirate Party and the rural-based Mayors & Independents, or STAN, who also are now running together, won 16.0% and 28 seats between them – most of it with the Pirates, who went from nothing to become the third largest party, after ANO and the Civic Democrats. Their alliance is polling almost level with Spolu.
- Two parties on the left, the Communists and the Social Democrats, collected 15.0% and 30 seats, split evenly between them. Their vote has continued to fall, and they are both in danger of falling below the 5% threshold required for representation.
- The far-right Freedom & Direct Democracy (SPD) won 10.6% and 22 seats. Its support dropped mid-term but has now recovered to about the same level.
Out of this dog’s breakfast of a parliament, Babiš was appointed prime minister; he failed a vote of confidence at the first attempt, but the second time around he was able to bring the Social Democrats into coalition and secure informal support from the Communists, enough for a majority. Despite regular controversy, most recently with suspicious transactions identified in the Pandora Papers, he has been there ever since.
Babiš’s survival has been helped by his relationship with the Czech president, Trumpist Miloš Zeman. Initially hostile, the two have become allies, although Babiš’s occasionally Trumpy rhetoric does not seem to have been accompanied by any major policy shift. But Zeman, whose term expires in early 2023, may not be a factor for much longer; he is in poor health, to the extent that his office has had to deny rumors that he is already dead.
Babiš is one of the country’s richest men, and ANO is mostly his personal vehicle. The easy description for them both is “populist”: four years ago I described him as “a rather more successful version of Clive Palmer.” He has not drifted subsequently as far to the right as Palmer has, but despite coalition with the centre-left that has clearly been his direction. While as we saw yesterday Italy’s populists are looking for a home on the left, most populist parties seem to gravitate rightwards.
Which raises the question of where Babiš will look for a majority if, as expected, ANO remains the largest party. There is speculation that he will seek to rely on SPD, whose overtures he has rejected in the past, but it is unlikely that that would be enough. If the Communists make it across the line it is possible that they plus ANO plus SPD would constitute a majority; a combination of populists, far right and far left would be a dream come true for Zeman, but it’s hard to imagine it having much stability.
On the opposition side, Spolu and Pirates/STAN both regard the removal of Babiš as number one priority; despite their very different ideological bases, it seems likely they would be able to work together at least for the short term. Another anti-Babiš party, Přísaha (“Oath”), is polling close to the 5% mark and could form part of an opposition majority. Four other parties (one centre-right, two far right, and the Greens) are sitting below the threshold but close enough for a chance that one of them might happen to make it.
Although the 5% threshold is unchanged, other provisions of the electoral law have been reformed following a Constitutional Court decision earlier this year that struck down the old law for unfairly favoring major parties. It seems likely that that will make Babiš’s task a little harder, since ANO was the main beneficiary last time, but changes like this can throw up unpredictable effects.
Czechia is not a big country, but its position in the centre of Europe has often given it a pivotal status at times of historical significance. With the fate of democracy in central Europe currently hanging in the balance, Czechia has the opportunity to throw its weight clearly in the scales one way or the other.