Czech election offers Europe an anti-populist boost

The recent vote surprised many who expected billionaire Babis to easily win, and there are other hints populism is waning in the region.

Babis drew comparisons with ex-US President Trump, with both leaders attracting voters through populist politics [File: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

Prague, Czech Republic – The victory of the so-called “democratic bloc” parliamentary alliance over Prime Minister Andrej Babis in the recent Czech election offers encouragement to other opposition forces hoping to edge out populist strongmen in Europe, according to analysts.

The twin election coalitions making up the democratic bloc – the centre-right Spolu and liberal PirStan – won 108 of the 200 seats in parliament last week.

It means that although Babis’s ANO party will control 72 seats, the populist billionaire has few options to build a functioning government.

Having cooperated during the campaign to bring Babis down, pointing to the premier’s numerous financial scandals and, they allege, disastrous management of the pandemic, the five democratic bloc parties are already in detailed discussion over forming a government between themselves.

However, the prime minister, whose huge economic and media power and populist policies have helped keep ANO in government for the past eight years, appears set to try to test their unity.

He will depend on the help of his ally, President Milos Zeman, although the head of state’s health is a major question after he was rushed into intensive care due to an undeclared “chronic condition” on October 10, days after the election ended.

Should the president be too unfit to broker government negotiations, the democratic bloc would have a clear road. However, Zeman’s camp says his condition has now stabilised and he is keeping a close eye on the situation from his Prague hospital bed.

Babis claims that just minutes before Zeman was whisked away in an ambulance, he had promised to use his constitutional authority to reappoint the billionaire as prime minister.

It is suspected that the president and the prime minister will then likely try to prolong negotiations in the hope of splitting the democratic bloc.

There are plenty of divisions that might be exploited as the anti-Babis glue that kept the democratic bloc’s unity on course through [though?] the campaign weakens.

The Civic Democrat Party (ODS), the eurosceptic and deeply conservative leader of the Spolu faction, has long been viewed as a potential target. The potential for it to clash with others in the democratic bloc that are keen on adopting the euro, embracing the EU’s climate change policies, or legalising gay marriage, is clear.

“These deep divisions were put on ice during the campaign,” said Sean Hanley, associate professor in Central and Eastern European politics at University College London.

Marketa Adamova, leader of Top09, another of Spolu’s parties, admits that the quintet “pulled our punches” in recent months, but insists that the alliance will persist even without the common enemy.

Most analysts also expect the same; at least until a cabinet is formed.

Turning the populist tide?

One element that helped cement solidarity during the campaign was the high-profile support offered to Babis by Viktor Orban.

The praise that the Hungarian prime minister, and aspiring spiritual leader of Central European illiberal populism, lavished upon the Czech billionaire “scared the living hell out of the opposition camp” said political scientist Vladimira Dvorakova.

“Orban’s appearance mobilised the democratic bloc vote,” said Dvorakova. “People were alarmed that Babis wanted to take Czechia in the same direction that Orban has taken Hungary.”

But Babis’s loss is not the only blow to Orban’s dream of creating a regional hotbed of illiberal populism on October 9.

The same day that the Czech billionaire lost his footing, Sebastian Kurz was forced to step down as Austrian chancellor over a corruption scandal.

The synchronicity only encouraged claims that Central Europe, freed from the influence of ex-United States President Donald Trump, is now headed in a new direction.

The events “suggest that the populist wave in Eastern and Central Europe is receding, stalled by the growing unity of its opponents and a crisis of confidence after the defeat of the former US president”, wrote Andrew Higgins, The New York Times bureau chief for East and Central Europe.

It has been claimed that the process started 18 months ago when Robert Fico, who had dominated Slovak politics for a decade, was replaced by a coalition of centrist and right-wing parties.

The democratic bloc’s success in removing Babis is viewed as another signpost, and even “a manual for the defeat of populists and illiberals” according to Jan Rovny, an associate professor at Sciences Po in Paris.

It is a blueprint that is now being studied by Hungary’s opposition, he said.

After a failed effort to unite ahead of the last election in 2018 resulted in yet another constitutional majority for Orban, six disparate parties from the left, liberals and even the former far right are organising to challenge the strongman in a vote next year.

However, Marton Gyongosi, vice president of Jobbik, a party which says it is no longer far right, says the Hungarian opposition can take little instruction from the Czech election because Orban has entrenched himself in a gerrymandered system.

While Babis controls a significant chunk of the Czech media, he never gathered enough power to change the electoral or judicial systems as his Hungarian counterpart has, analysts said.

“Nonetheless, seeing the fall of any Orban ally offers hope for the cooperation of the Hungarian democratic opposition,” Gyongosi admits.

The embryonic collaboration among Poland’s centre-right opposition, which seeks to depose Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law & Justice (PiS) party, might benefit more from Czech lessons, suggested Hanley.

“Babis was not brought down by modern liberals like the Pirate Party, which flopped in the election, but by conservative mainstream parties,” he said. “The lesson is that the centre-right is key to defeating populism if it can avoid the temptation to move to the right to compete.”

“The unlikely hero in Czechia is ODS leader Petr Fiala, who allowed his strongly conservative social views and Euroscepticism to fade into the background to play the ‘Captain Sensible’ of Czech politics.”

Whether the captain – whom most predict will inevitably become prime minister despite the efforts of Zeman and Babis – and his cohorts will be able to maintain their unity and help the country recover from its bout of populism is yet to be seen.

The lesson from Slovakia, where the governing coalition continues to limp from crisis to crisis, suggests that once the anti-populist zeal is spent, the pressures of power quickly bring divisions bubbling to the surface.

Source: Al Jazeera