Will the Pirates beat Babiš? Elections in the Czech Republic

Pirates and Mayors, Japanese-led nationalists, communists, police micro-party — the Czech Republic is facing a serious choice, where the question will be whether the Central European state will have a new government. For Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, this year’s election will not be an easy one: a former businessman embroiled in various corruption scandals can easily find himself in a minority in parliament. The election will take place October 8–9.

Election prospects 

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš’ advantage with his ANO party narrowed again ahead of the October elections, polls show. While ANO remains the most likely party to win, no single party or coalition is likely to win a clear majority on Friday. The two most exciting factors could be the SPOLU (“Together”) coalition (which consists of the center-right Social Democrats, TOP 09 and Christian Democrats) and the SPD, the far-right party called Freedom and Direct Democracy. 

The parties

To understand one of the most exciting elections in our region, you need to know the key players. The following is a brief introduction to the parties to look out for. 

ANO 2011: This is the party of Andrej Babiš,  the current prime minister and the third richest man in the Czech Republic. Despite fierce criticism from the opposition, mainly over a suspicious corruption case, ANO continues to enjoy unbroken popularity in the country and is an absolute favorite for winning the election. The party has received the most criticism for its handling of the coronavirus epidemic.

Pirates and Mayors: The coalition of the Pirate Party and STAN (Mayors and Independents) is primarily aimed at young, urban liberals, but the smaller partner can also bring rural votes given we’re talking about a localist alliance.

SPOLU (Together): SPOLU is an association of the Social Democratic Party (ODS), TOP 09 and the Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL). The ODS is not only the largest but also the most historic of the three parties. The ODS and ČSSD have been the two pillars of Czech democratic parties since the 1990s. The ODS has been weakening since 2013 when it was badly defeated in the election due to the Petr Nečas corruption scandal.

Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD): The Social Democrats, who were the most successful political formation in the Czech Republic until the 2010s, are going through a difficult period. In this year’s election, there is a danger that, for the first time since the Velvet Revolution, they will not gain a parliamentary seat.

Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD): Tomio Okamura, a businessman with Japanese roots, leads the SPD, a far-right populist party that operates in a confusing way. The party’s rhetoric most closely resembles that of the AfD in Germany or the League in Italy. The main goals of the SPD are a stricter immigration policy (where they are in line with ANO) and exit from the EU and NATO (where they could not be more different from Babiš). 

Czech and Moravian Communist Party (KSČM): The KSČM is the ideological heir of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ), or the political force that ruled Czechoslovakia between 1948 and 1989. Unlike domestic tendencies, the Communists were able to consistently address a stable constituency along which they almost always entered parliament. The KSČM also became a kind of protest party, voted for by those who did not want to support any of those listed, making the Communists “perpetual opposition” actors. Recently, the KSČM has lost this identity, as it has become a tacit supporter of the Babiš government. Following its surprisingly poor election results in 2017, the Communists may not get into parliament this year either.

Přísaha (Oath): The Oath is a completely new actor in Czech politics. The former police officer Robert Šlachta led a formation that gained support from the fight against organized crime. According to Šlachta, the main goal of the Oath is to eradicate corruption, so they cannot really be placed along the ideological spectrum. Analysts say the Oath could easily be a kingmaker in the election. 

Challenges for Andrej Babiš’s party 

“In the EU, we retain our right of veto and do not support the introduction of majority voting in matters of finance, taxation, the welfare system or foreign and security policy, and migration, as opposed to the Pirate Party. We are not handing over the sovereignty of the Czech Republic to the European Parliament or to the European Commission. We will not exchange the Czech koruna for the euro, as the TOP 09 or the Pirate Party would like,” reads the proclamation on the ANO 2011 website.

Usually declared a populist party, sometimes right-wing and sometimes center-left (it is also a member of Liberal International), ANO has recently fallen from crisis to crisis. 

The first crisis was a matter of corruption. In April this year, an investigation by the European Commission concluded that Babiš had violated the conflict of interest rules in relation to his company, the Agrofert conglomerate, and his position in office. In response, Babiš has repeatedly stated that the investigation of the EU institutions is an attack on the Czech Republic. In addition, the prime minister received another blow in the fall, which could also have consequences for the election. He was also found on an international list called the Pandora Papers, which featured, among other things, his secret fortune, along with other international leaders. Babiš denied that he had committed any wrongdoing and accused the Czech mafia of leaking the information. 

Last spring, however, voters were more likely to punish the government not for suspected corruption but for epidemic mismanagement. According to the majority of Czechs, the government did not provide enough vaccinations to the population. 

“Opinion polls reflected public dissatisfaction with ANO, and the prime minister’s popularity declined,” said Ivana Karaskova, an analyst at the Prague International Affairs Association.

However, Lubomir Kopecek, a professor of political science at Masaryk University, said Babiš’ ANO party had successfully returned to the competition again this year by throwing new topics into the election campaign. With half of the ANO’s voting base made up of senior citizens, the party is focusing on a system to increase pensions. Babiš also played the migration card, according to Kopecek, which is a pronounced problem for the Pirates, who are very friendly toward the subject. The ruling party also accuses the Pirate Party of “a Marxist ideological background” and “intent to change Czech traditions.”

Pirate victory? 

Since January, every bit of international news related to Czech politics was that the Pirates would win this year’s election. The Pirate Party, as one of the strongest opposition alliances, has repeatedly beaten the ANO by 10 percentage points over the past year in polls. In May, for example, the Pirates in a coalition with the Mayors and Independents (Pirates and Mayors) stood at 27%, while Babiš’ ANO party stood at just 21%.

The proportions seem to have been declining since then, and SPOLU has also outperformed the Pirates. Despite the results of recent polls, analysts maintain their position that the ANO will win the election on October 8. 

Communists and Social Democrats

The Social Democrats will have a particularly important role to play this year, but not in the way you’d first think. The center-left party could make a big difference in the Czech political system by not getting into parliament. The party, most recently polled at 3.5% (after a historic low of 7.3% in 2017), could easily leave the ANO without a coalition partner.

The Communist faction also occasionally appears as a tacit support partner, but they are also unlikely to be significant players in the emerging parliament. 

This could easily mean that the ANO has to look for new coalition partners, which will not be an easy task.

So, what will be the outcome? 

Who wins the October election is less interesting than what to expect after the results arrive. According to many, Andrej Babiš may be forced to resign even after an election victory. How would this be possible? For Babiš to remain prime minister, he is expected to enter into an alliance with either SPD or the Communists, both of whom reject both the EU and NATO. Such a coalition is hard to imagine, which could easily drive the prime minister to have to consider resigning. (Some say SPOLU could easily disintegrate after the election, leading to the formation of an ANO-ODS coalition, but this is a less likely scenario.) 

The loss of Babiš could easily mean the end of the ANO.

There is still one option for Babiš. President Milos Zeman has announced that he will entrust the winner of the election with the formation of a government, which could be a serious help to him. This is not the first time Zeman has stood behind Babiš.

Four years ago, when there were not enough coalition partners for ANO, Zeman also gave the green light to put together a minority government. (That’s why Million Moments for Democracy, one of the largest civic movements, took more than a quarter of a million protesters to the streets of Prague in 2019 to protest against Zeman and Babiš.) 

It may also be interesting to note that, according to the last survey published before the election, there may be a stalemate in the number of parliamentary seats. While ANO remains the most likely party to win (with 27.3%) and finding a coalition partner is almost an impossible task, the Pirates and Mayors and SPOLU have also announced no plans to form a grand anti-Babiš coalition. The new government must have 101 MPs in order to form a government, and it is unlikely that Zeman will give an opposition group a chance at a minority coalition. This 101 seats could either come out of ANO teaming up with SPOLU — though this is unlikely with TOP09 — or with ANO teaming up with the SPD and involving the Oath and an independent in the coalition, as the Communists will not cooperate with the nationalists, and together with Šlachta’s party, there would be only 100 seats for the governing parties. 

SPOLU, as well as the Pirates and Mayors, have also promised, however, that they will not enter into an alliance with the ANO, so Babiš should turn to either SPD or the Communists, whichever is more likely. Such a government, however, would stir up a lot of noise at both the domestic and international levels. (Many also talk about a secret agreement between some parties in the ANO and SPOLU, but the formation of such a governing coalition is not very likely due to the conflict between Babiš and TOP09.) It was also interesting that at the debate on CNN Prima News, to which Andrej Babiš, Petr Fiala, Ivan Bartoš and Tomio Okamura were also invited, the SPOLU candidate received the most support (35.4%, one percentage point ahead of Babiš).

A very difficult choice 

The fate of this year’s Czech election will not be revealed either on Friday, but during the subsequent coalition talks. Czechs have no easy task ahead of them; typically the presence of polarized parties and extremists at the expense of traditional parties shows the side effects of a severe political crisis. If Babiš wants to stay in power — which he will need in light of the investigations — he must agree with either SPD or the Communists, which will have great international repercussions. If, on the other hand, the opposition wants to form a government, they must see that the involvement of an extremist party is also inevitable, which raises new issues. In any case, the Czech Republic is facing a difficult choice, the outcome of which is very difficult to predict. 

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