It was a bad weekend for incumbents in central Europe. Austria’s prime minister was forced to resign, and while Czechia’s is still in office, Saturday’s election result has made his departure imminent.
Austria first, where Sebastian Kurz, leader of the centre-right People’s Party, took office at the beginning of last year in coalition with the Greens. The parties seemed to have a good working relationship, but trouble struck last week when it was announced that Kurz was under investigation for alleged participation in a scheme to use public funds to bribe pollsters and journalists.
The Greens made it clear that they could no longer support him, and while the People’s Party at first tried to tough it out, on Sunday Kurz bowed to the inevitable. Although he remains party leader, he announced that he would resign as prime minister and proposed his colleague, foreign minister Alexander Schallenberg, as a replacement. That induced the Greens to stay in the coalition, and Schallenberg was sworn in yesterday.
This, it hardly needs saying, is how things should work in a democracy. If Kurz is cleared in the investigation he may be able to return to the top job, but he clearly can’t continue in the meantime. Parliamentary politics, and especially coalition politics, allows such changes to happen with relatively little fuss. If Kurz had refused to budge, the Greens could have voted with the opposition to remove him and install a caretaker government pending an early election.
In neighboring Czechia, repeated allegations of corrupt dealings have failed to dislodge prime minister Andrej Babiš. Last week’s election, however (see my preview here), has unmistakably paved the way for his exit.
Babiš’s party, ANO, won 27.1% of the vote, down 2.5% on its 2017 result – not of itself a disastrous fall, and very much in line with what the polls had predicted. Its big problem was that the two parties that had voted with it in the last parliament both fell below the 5% threshold and therefore lost all their seats: the Social Democrats with 4.7% (down 2.6%) and the Communists 3.6% (down 4.2%).
That left ANO with just 72 of the 200 seats (down six), and the only even possible ally for it is the far-right SPD, which won 9.6% of the vote (down 1.1%) and 20 seats (down two). Two opposition alliances instead won a majority between them: Spolu (centre-right) with 27.8% and 71 seats (up 5.4% and 29 seats on their combined tally from 2017), and Pirates/STAN with 15.6% (down 0.4%) and 37 seats (up nine).
Leaving aside the rather arbitrary effect of the threshold (another opposition party, Přísaha, fell just short with 4.7%), the reformed electoral system produced a fairer result than last time. ANO and Spolu won about the same share of the vote and about the same number of seats; the others are reasonably proportional as well, although larger parties are still advantaged. There’s no doubt that voters were rejecting ANO and its allies.*
Exactly what happens next is up to the president, Miloš Zeman, who is unfortunately in intensive care in Prague Central Military Hospital. The BBC credits “complications from a known condition” and mentions that the president, who is 77, “is a heavy smoker and former heavy drinker who uses a wheelchair and suffers from diabetes.” His term expires
next March in March 2023 in any case, but his prospects of serving that long don’t seem particularly good.
Even at his peak, however, the most Zeman could do in the face of such a clear result is delay things a bit. There is no doubt that Spolu and Pirates/STAN will govern together, and that Petr Fiala, leader of the Civic Democrats (the largest component in Spolu), will be the new prime minister.
Austria and Czechia have much in common, including a long shared history, but last century found them on opposite sides of the iron curtain. Austria became a stable western democracy, while Czechia emerged from dictatorship only in 1989. From there it developed rapidly, joining the European Union in 2004, and 15 years ago looked to have a very normal two-party system.
As with several countries in the region, progress turned out to be less than fully robust. There has not been the same retreat from democracy as in Hungary and (to a lesser extent) Poland, but the party system has fractured badly and Zeman has done his best to take the country into the Russian orbit.
Now Czech voters have given a clear signal that that’s not the way they want to go.
* Note, however, that within the Pirates/STAN alliance, the system massively favored STAN, or Mayors & Independents, which won 33 seats against just four for the Pirates. The problem is that if enough voters vote for individual candidates then that promotes them in the party list, and this apparently is just the sort of thing that STAN’s voters do.