Andrej Babiš defeated: Is this the end of Czech populism?

    WORLD  30 January 2023 - 22:01

    This weekend's Czech presidential election runoff was a fight between "democracy, respect for the constitution and a pro-Western orientation against populism, lies and leaning towards Russia,” according to Prime Minister Petr Fiala.

    With former military chief Petr Pavel emerging as a strong winner, populist ex-PM Andrej Babiš has suffered his second defeat to an establishment "elite" in as many years, Euronews reports.

    At legislative elections in the autumn of 2021, he lost the prime ministership to Fiala, a former university rector — the archetypal establishment job — and head of the Civic Democrats (ODS), a mainstream party.

    In Pavel, Czechs are gaining a serious and introspective military hero who says he intends to restore dignity to the presidency after a decade of the plain-speaking and meddling Miloš Zeman, another populist who likely now departs the political scene. 

    "Populism is the problem of our time,” Pavel declared on Twitter last June, months before announcing his candidacy.

    But analysts aren’t so confident its time has come to an end in the Czech Republic. Although Pavel has succeeded at the ballot box, it is just one battle won, Filip Kostelka, a professor at the European University Institute, said.

    But the “struggle between the liberal-democratic and populist camps will continue,” he told Euronews.

    The Babiš wave of populism

    Not exactly single-handedly, Babiš was the populist wavefront that broke across the Czech Republic during the 2010s, spurred by public anger towards the European Union following the 2014 migrant crisis and the economic fallout of the Global Financial Crisis.

    In 2013, when his newly-minted ANO party came second at a general election and Babiš was named first deputy prime minister, the economy had 0 per cent growth. The previous year, it contracted by 0.8 per cent, according to World Bank data.

    Babiš vowed to fight corruption (ironic for a man stalked by graft allegations throughout his life) and to rule differently from the typical Prague “elites”.

    “Run the state like a business”, he declared early in his political career. His party ANO, which when read as a word means “yes” in Czech, is an acronym meaning “Action of Dissatisfied Citizens”.

    He had built up his Agrofert conglomerate into one of the largest Czech companies by that time, and his political career was undoubtedly assisted after he bought major newspapers and media outlets.

    Balázs Jarábik, a Europe's Futures Fellow at IWM Vienna, once described Babiš as a “quintessential opportunist”. He courted right-wing voters at the 2013 general election. Still, at the 2017 vote, he solidified on winning left-wing supporters away from the Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) and Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM).

    Both parties collapsed in the polls afterwards (they failed to win seats in parliament for the first time ever in 2021), although they formally and informally, respectively, backed his minority government after 2017.

    Did Babiš go for broke?

    Is Babiš now a spent force? Some optimists claim that his possible two-punch knockout over the past two years suggests populism has diminishing returns, especially amongst Czechs who fear their liberal traditions dating back to the 1920s are under attack. 

    Czechoslovakia was the last remaining democracy in the east before its invasion by Nazi Germany in 1939.

    “Sooner or later, populism will become impossible,” Pavel tweeted in December, shortly after announcing his presidential candidacy.

    Some intellectuals likely agree with the potential next Czech president. Niall Ferguson, a historian, argued this month that populism has an inherently “short half-life”.

    “Six years ago, populism was on a roll. It has since hit a rock,” he wrote in his Bloomberg column.

    AP Photo/Petr David Josek

    That appears to be the case in some parts of Europe, at least. In the UK, support for Brexit is now at a record low, a YouGov poll showed in November, where just 32 per cent of Britons said it was a smart move to leave the European Union.

    In other places, like Sweden or Italy, far-right firebrands have experienced a meteoric rise in popularity over the past few years, ending up winning elections or acting as kingmakers in 2022. And in Central Europe, some populists are still riding high.

    Poland’s governing Law and Justice party (PiS) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán remain in rude health; Orban’s ruling Fidesz party even increased its seat share in parliament at a general election last year. Slovakia could soon see the return of its former populist prime minister Robert Fico as its current government collapses.

    But Babiš “has always been much weaker politically” than Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński, the PiS head, Lubomír Kopeček, a political science professor at Masaryk University, told Euronews.

    Unlike Slovakia and Hungary, which have unicameral parliaments, the Czech Republic has a robust Senate, the upper house, that holds the Chamber of Deputies in line. 

    AP Photo/Petr David Josek

    As prime minister between 2017 and 2021, Babiš led a minority government, and his party didn’t control the Senate or the Constitutional Court.

    But, Kostelka said, much comes down to luck: “The outcome of the last legislative election could have easily been different.”

    Had the Social Democratic Party won just 0.4 percentage points more of the vote in 2021, they would have entered parliament and maybe been able to reconstruct their pre-election minority coalition with Babiš’ ANO. 

    Had a few tens of thousands of votes gone differently, Babiš would have been in a better position to pressure President Zeman, a fellow traveller, to invite him first to try forming a government.

    "Society remains divided"

    Populism is far from over, analysts say.

    ANO took just over 1,458,000 votes (around 27 per cent of the popular vote) at the 2021 general election, while Babiš gained more than a third of votes at the first round of the presidential election earlier this month and41.67 per cent of the vote in this weekend's second round run-off. 

    There are around 510,000 people who voted for the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy party (SPD) in 2021.

    And some one million voters supported a party that didn’t gain any seats in parliament. “All these people will look for representation; and Babiš is the first natural choice,” Otto Eibl, the head of the political science department at Masaryk University, told Euronews.

    The question, then, is whether the populist billionaire will wait it out until the next general election in 2024. Eibl thinks he will. 

    Babiš was no doubt buoyed after a Prague court earlier this month acquitted him of charges of subsidy fraud, just four days before the first-round presidential election.

    His party is the largest opposition group in parliament, and although Babiš infrequently shows up in the chamber, he could become more attentive if he loses the presidency.

    In its latest opinion survey, polling company STEM found that ANO is the most popular party by a few percentage points, while support for the governing coalition is waning. In 2021, he lost out to two new alliances, composed of five parties, that formed an anything-but-Babiš bloc.

    “The current government is certainly not in a good situation,” Kopeček said. “It has a relatively low level of trust and, above all, a huge challenge in the form of a large public deficit or high inflation,”

    Indeed, inflation hovered at 15.8 per cent in December, well above the Eurozone average. Fiala, the prime minister, vowed to run a balanced budget after years of Babiš’ profligate spending, but that has been scuppered by the Ukraine war, inflation and global market problems (the Czech economy could contract by 0.1 per cent this year, the OECD reckons)

    “Society remains very divided,” Vladimira Dvorakova, a political scientist at the Czech Technical University in Prague, told Euronews.

    Perhaps this is fertile ground for Babiš to wait and attempt a third stab at power at the 2024 general election.


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