Czechs go the polls on Friday and Saturday in a general election in what is set to be the closest contest for more than a decade and one that could have significant implications for Central European politics and relations with the European Union.
Results should be out late on Saturday evening and then President Milos Zeman will invite the leader of the winning party – almost certainly Prime Minister Andrej Babis – to start what are likely to be lengthy negotiations on forming a new coalition.
Earlier this year the billionaire populist’s chances of winning re-election appeared to be slipping away amid criticism of his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic – with his ANO party falling to third place in opinion polls at one point – but he has regained ground as the pandemic eased (though numbers are rising again) and the economy rebounded.
However, the revelation in the Pandora Papers that he arranged a convoluted structure through offshore companies to secretly buy a chateau in France may have changed the picture, though the final opinion polls still indicate that the two opposition coalitions need one other party to achieve a majority together. Both the centre-right SPOLU coalition (which includes the ODS, KDU-CSL and TOP09 parties) and the liberal PIRSTAN coalition (Pirates and STAN parties) have pledged to join together to try to oust Babis from power.
The two final polls published this week showed ANO winning between 25-27%, with SPOLU on around 21% and PIRSTAN on 17-19%, with the opposition slightly short of a majority.
The Pandora bombshell brought to life a campaign that has otherwise been largely low key, with little serious discussion over key topics such as the EU Green Deal, the timetable for the country to adopt the euro, regional inequalities and exclusion, or the government’s missteps in handling the pandemic.
The Pandora scandal has added to Babis’ existing problems with a police investigation into alleged EU fraud and the EU’s freeze on transferring funds to his Agrofert conglomerate over what it says is his continued conflicts of interest in being both premier and the final owner of the holding.
Babis denies any wrongdoing in these cases and has threatened to sue TOP09 leader Markéta Pekarová Adamová, Pirates leader Ivan Bartoš and KDU-CSL leader Marian Jurečka over their statements on the Pandora scandal unless they apologise.
The opposition – which is stronger among younger, wealthier voters and in big cities – has fought a largely defensive campaign focussed on the premier. It has sought to highlight the impact of rising inflation and energy prices on the cost of living, the high cost of housing, and the huge budget deficit caused by the measures to tackle the pandemic.
Babis has depicted himself as the stability candidate. To his largely older and small town voters, he is the “caring boss” who has given voters higher pensions, social benefits, tax cuts and a higher minimum wage. He will also protect them from the threat posed by illegal migration and Brussels’ diktats – he invited Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to the country during the campaign to demonstrate this.
"We do not want more Brussels," he said in an appeal to voters on Facebook. "We will not let in a single illegal migrant."
The fact that the Czech Republic is neither a destination nor a transit country for refugees does not mean that this theme will not work for Babis, argues Vladimira Dvorakova, director of the CTU Masaryk Institute of Advanced Studies in Prague. “Migration was a big issue four years ago even without immigration, but it worked,” she says. “It is not important if there are immigrants or not.”
Babis has attacked the “Marxist” policies of the Pirates, and warned of a return to the ODS corruption scandals of the past, and he has accused the coalitions of being a “mish-mash” that are a “fraud” on the public because they only agree on ousting him.
Against the ODS, Babis issued a video declaring “I will fight against the return of the tunnellers [fraudsters] until my dying breath.”
Dvorakova says many poorer people are afraid of a return of the ODS’ austerity policies, which pushed the country into a severe recession after the global financial crisis.
“The issue of the democratic opposition against Babis only appeals to 10-15% of people,” she says. “People can be afraid of rightwing solutions.”
But Babis’ fiercest attack has been against the Pirate party, who he said would force Czechs to house migrants in their flats and would make them a minority in their own country (the party has sued the premier for slander).
"Let's fight the fanaticism of the immature neo-Marxists in the European Parliament. Until my dying breath," Babis says in a video clip on the Pirates, who he has accused of conspiring with Brussels to launch the EU’s probes against his alleged conflicts of interest.
Online disinformation sites have amplified this campaign by accusing the Pirates of wanting to legalise drugs, make car sharing compulsory and ban traditional ice cream.
The outcome of the election is likely to depend on how many and which smaller parties pass the 5% threshold to enter parliament. If few do, the redistribution of votes to the bigger parties will mean that the opposition coalitions could well have a majority; if many do, Babis would have the best chance of forming a government.
So far the Social Democrats, Babis’ current coalition partners, have indicated that they would continue to work with him, and it is likely that he could also continue to depend on the votes of the hardline Communists. Tomio Okamura, the far-right leader, is unlikely to join any government, though he has voted together with ANO in the past.
Robert Slachta, the former police chief who leads the new populist Oath party, has ruled out working with Babis and is the best hope of the opposition coalitions.
Babis, however, would be reluctant to rely on the KSCM and the SPD as the two extremist parties are demanding the passing of a referendum bill to allow a vote to be taken on the country’s continued EU and Nato memberships. They would also push for mending ties with Moscow.
In the case of a deadlock after the elections, Babis is likely to try to break up the SPOLU coalition by luring the rightwing ODS and perhaps the Christian Democrat KDU-CSL to come over to his side. An ANO-ODS configuration has already been evident in they way the two parties voted together on some key legislation in the past year. These include tax cuts last December and the blocking of more substantial reforms to the insolvency system.
There have been media reports of secret meetings, and speculation that if ODS leader and former university rector Petr Fiala refuses to go along, he could be pushed aside by the regional “barons” of the party. The party, whose last three governments ended in scandals, is desperate to return to power after eight years in opposition.
Such a government could be stable and would focus on spending cuts to reduce the budget deficit, which has soared to an expected 7.7% of GDP this year as a result of the pandemic. With the Eurosceptic ODS likely to set the government’s direction, it would continue to pick fights with Brussels and delay adopting the euro.
Babis will have plenty of time to try to form a government as close ally President Zeman has already said he will nominate him as the next premier, even if one of the two coalitions gets more seats.
Since the constitution puts no deadlines on this process, the populist head of state could allow Babis to rule for many months before he has to win a vote of confidence. Given the country is due to take over the EU’s rotating presidency next July, this would put huge pressure on the ODS to reach a deal with Babis, perhaps in exchange for the premiership.
Babis has also hinted that he could step down and allow another ANO politician to be premier. He also said that he will leave politics if he is not re-elected, though there is continuing speculation that he will stand for president when President Zeman steps down in 2023.
If the opposition coalitions do not have a majority, and Babis cannot form a government – either with small parties or with the ODS – President Zeman could appoint another “technocratic government”, as he did in 2013-14, though it would likely only last until the end of his term in 2023.
Another Babis government – particularly one reliant on extremist parties – or a cabinet appointed by Zeman is certain to arouse controversy and is likely to lead to the revival of huge civic protests led by the Million Moments pro-democracy movement.
The opposition coalitions and Million Moments argue that Babis’ government has led to an erosion of democracy, divided society, and damaged the country’s standing in Europe.
They accuse him of accumulating too much power though his total domination of his party, partly funded through his fortune, as well as his media empire and his alliance with President Zeman and extremist parties. This creates unavoidable conflicts of interest between his political and business power, as the EU has confirmed, they argue.
"Viktor Orban shifted Hungary from democracy to autocracy over the past 10 years," dreadlocked Pirate leader Ivan Bartos said on Facebook on September 29. "He liquidates free media, liquidates the opposition, free enterprise, spies on journalists... Such a policy is the model for Andrej Babis."
Orban has certainly declared his support for Babis and his re-election would give a boost to the ever-closer populist alliance through the Visegrad Group between Hungary, Poland and Czechia. This would create more headaches for the EU.
Conversely, a victory for the opposition could give extra confidence to the Hungarian opposition’s drive to co-operate against Orban in next year’s election. This would add to the momentum from the success of the Slovak protest movement that forced Prime Minister Robert Fico to resign in March 2018 and helped bring the opposition to power in March 2020.