Czechia: opposition stays weak amid government setbacks

Despite huge protests against him, the Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš’ party, ANO, still won the largest vote share of any party in the country’s European Elections. This is part one of a series of articles and reports looking at the political situations playing out in various European states in the light of the recent European election results.

Protests against Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš in September 2018 | Martin Strachoň / Wikimedia Commons

Despite weekly protests of 30,000-50,000 people against him, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš’ party, ANO, still won the largest vote share of any party in the country’s European Elections (21% of votes and 6 MEPs). Still, this was a substantial fall from the 30% of the vote he won in the 2017 general election. Five weeks ago, Babiš summarily appointed a close ally, Marie Benešová, as justice minister just one day after the police announced they would be investigating charges of misuse of EU subsidies in the agricultural empire that made him one of the richest men in the country. Benešová has yet to rule on anything, but the result has been weekly protests in Prague calling for her resignation, growing week on week; following the European elections, a fresh surge of protest brought over 100,000 out onto the streets. It is a mark of Babiš’ enduring popularity that his party still came out on top, but the protests have clearly had an impact, if only in mobilising the vote against him: Prague, and its surroundings, where Babiš’ support has always been weakest, saw a significantly higher turnout than the rest of the country (38% in Prague compared to 27% countrywide). Turnout overall increased substantially from the last European elections, but was still low, reflecting the lack of importance Czech voters place in European elections (only 54% of people believe them to be either ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ important). This apathy-cum-distaste towards the EU among the general population feeds periodic panics about the possibility of ‘Czexit’ among the political class (though polls suggest majority opposition both to having a referendum and to leaving), but these elections appear to have been much more about national politics than about Europe.

The divide between Prague and the rest of the country is an increasingly prominent feature of Czech politics, and it is often mapped on to a division between the ‘populist’ new and the ‘decent’ old – embodied in Babiš and in his opponents, respectively. This involves a degree of historical amnesia – as if populist appeals only appeared in Czech politics in 2011, when Babiš (an agriculture and media tycoon with an estimated fortune of $4 billion) spearheaded the foundation of the nominally apolitical, ‘anti-corruption’ movement Action of Disaffected Citizens (Akce nespokojených občanů), a political vehicle which eventually propelled him to power in late 2017. The ‘decent’ opposition remains split between 4 different varieties of centre-right party, which combined received nearly 37% of the vote. The largest of these is the former ruling party the Civic Democrats, who saw a slight increase in vote share from 2017, suggesting they are slowly clawing their way back into contention. Their claims to be a bulwark of ‘decency’ against the far right were somewhat undermined recently when their leader in the Czech Senate chose the occasion of a memorial event on the site of the Terezin concentration camp to denounce political correctness as totalitarianism and elsewhere celebrated the supposed absence of feminism in Czech women. Meanwhile, the far-right, anti-migrant SPD (Freedom and Direct Democracy) similarly saw their vote stall (9% and 2 MEPs), although they still represent a significant influence in Czech politics, and the myriad of small nationalist parties on the ballot paper – receiving a few thousand votes – each show that various strains of the far right remain organised and active.

Babiš governs in a coalition with the Social Democrats and a confidence and with a supply arrangement with the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia. As has been the trend ever since their first coalition with Babiš from 2013-2017, in which ANO was the smaller party, this has been nothing but bad news for the Social Democrats, who dropped to a nadir of 3% in this election, winning no seats. There is every chance that if this trend continues they will disappear from parliament altogether. The Communists fared better (winning 1 MEP) but their trajectory is also downwards. This leaves the most likely source of radical criticism in the Pirate Party, who came third, with 14% of the vote and 3 MEPs. They represent a significant alternative voice in national politics, in particular when it comes to anti-racism and opposition to elements of neoliberalism, but much of this will be undermined if they choose, as has been suggested, to join the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats group in the European Parliament. All of which points to the urgency, and difficulty, of renewing the left within Czech politics. This can’t be done by accepting a debate in terms either of Europhilia vs. Euroscepticism – or ‘populists’ vs ‘decents’. The only way forward is a renewal of class politics.

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