European lessons from the Czech elections

, by David Neuwirth

European lessons from the Czech elections

No party with a majority, seven parties passing the hurdle to enter the Parliament’s lower house and voters turning to extra-parliamentary groupings. The results of the Czech early election from October 25th and 26th bear a resemblance to those of 2011 in Slovenia and of 2012 in Greece. Yet in many ways, they provide useful lessons for Europe as a whole.

The downfall of established parties

The election outcome did not come as a surprise for some. The centre-right government of Petr Nečas bowed out in July 2013 with the record of 13 ministers resigning since their appointment in July 2010, the longest-ever economic slump lasting for six quarters, rising unemployment and an eavesdropping scandal that caused the government’s fall. The shy 8% of the vote cast for the right-wing Civic Democrats (ODS), a party that mopped up more than a third of votes in 2006, was predictable. The same cannot be said of the Social Democrats, who after seven years in opposition should have achieved a convincing victory. Instead, the party won with the worst election result since 1992. More to that, it is involved in an internal power struggle as the party’s leadership body attempted to oust its leader right after the election.

The two established parties that have been around for the last 20 years of the country’s existence thus faced a remarkable downfall. Their place was taken by newly formed groupings which together mustered over 25 per cent of the vote. The Dawn of Direct Democracy scored nearly the same as ODS despite the fact that it has 9 members (as opposed to about 21 thousand members of ODS). The same applies to the new protest movement ANO, a political vehicle for the country’s second-richest man Andrej Babiš. With the score of just two per cent less than the Social Democrats, a movement that explicitly refuses to call itself a “party” emerged as the real victor (no government coalition can be formed without its participation).

Ill-targeted EU subsidies

The success story of Andrej Babiš has also brought to light one striking failure of the EU: the Common Agricultural Policy. By virtue of the entry of Babiš into the public sphere, Czechs have come to know that EU subsidies are central to the business model of this 736th richest billionaire of the world. Indeed, exactly those subsidies that should have helped small farmers who rely on traditional methods represent a large part of the profit of the giant agricultural holding owned by Babiš. The “king of subsidies” took it so far that one of his firms (after changing its business name) even received EU subsidies for tourism to construct a luxury commercial complex of hotel, conference and leisure facilities.

Being the primary recipient of the European agricultural fund in the Czech Republic does not prevent Babiš from heavily opposing the euro, “eurocrats” and farther European integration. And while the Czechs are to see what “govern a state as a corporation” means, the European taxpayers’ representatives are invited to draw a lesson about the criteria and control of the allocation of EU funds.

A laboratory for anti-political sentiment

The rise of anti-establishment parties is not limited to the Czech Republic; one can recall Italy’s Five Star Movement. Nonetheless, the Czech case has a number of specifics. The voter turnout in the Czech parliamentary election was 16 per cent below the Italian one (10 % behind the Greeks) at just about 59 %. Furthermore, Czechs have a communist party sitting in their parliament. It is the only party in Europe that sticks to the tenets of the Iron Curtain age and still succeeds in attracting 15 % of voters (as was the case this year). It did not take part in any government since the 1989 Velvet Revolution and therefore makes itself out to be an anti-establishment party of its sort.

Last but not least, Czechs are unique in the low size of the political parties’ membership. In a country of 10 million, the largest political party by membership are the Communists at around 57,000 (with the average age of 71 years) followed by centrist Christian Democrats. This has made it much easier to hire so called “black souls” in order to reach a majority in parties’ internal voting, a common practice which in turn strengthened public disdain for politics at large.

It is therefore of no surprise that Czech political groupings accepted many non-affiliated candidates in the last election, up to the extreme example of the Dawn of Direct Democracy whose 9 out of total 14 newly elected members of parliament do not hold membership in the party. The ANO movement in turn involved entrepreneurs, academics, journalists, or straight away employees of their founder. This is no Positive Slovenia, no new party formed by politicians who have been around for years.

Indeed, the Czech protest groupings demonstrate that election campaign policies can base themselves on the opposition to politics at large. The Dawn of Direct Democracy with their calls for the use of referenda and the introduction of a right to recall politicians before the end of their mandate, together with the billionaire-led movement ANO and their slogan “we are not like politicians, we toil” hold up a mirror to professional politicians Europe-wide. The Czech example shows how politics can end up even when a country’s public debt stands at half of the European Union average.

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