Robert Anderson in Prague -
Czech politics currently has an air of unreality. The Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD) and the populist Ano party make a big show of disliking each other and acting more like rivals than coalition partners. Journalists speculate on when Ano’s leader, Finance Minister Andrej Babis, will pull the carpet from under Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, and take advantage of his party’s opinion poll lead to seize the premiership for himself.
And yet there is a distinct lack of substance to the disputes within the government, which seem more like shadow boxing before the next election – not due until late 2017 – than signs of an imminent fracture.
The differences between the country’s two most popular parties were on full display at their respective annual conferences in March.
Babis’ Anofert subsidiary
Ano’s conference was a poorly constructed Potemkin village. The party – only founded in 2011 – masquerades as a populist movement against corruption, but is in reality the personal political project of the country’s second richest man.
It has barely any members (2,500) and Babis runs it like a branch of his agro-chemical conglomerate Agrofert. Leading personalities or experts are hired as ministers or political figureheads after an interview with the leader, and are then fired or sidelined when they are deemed to underperform. “It is not a grassroots movement, it’s astroturfed,” says Sean Hanley, lecturer in politics at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London.
At the party’s March congress Babis’ unanimous re-election as leader was reminiscent of the majorities that Central Asian autocrats like Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan rack up. Even Babis looked embarrassed at the spectacle. The party’s statutes – which were approved without discussion by 164 votes out of 173 – also give him virtually sole authority.
Moreover, many of the party’s key officials come from his company. The gap between Agrofert and Ano is so paper-thin that the deputy party leader, Jaroslav Faltynek – who was also elected unopposed – is able to be both party leader and an Agrofert director at the same time.
The party still lacks a clear ideology, though Babis uses this to differentiate Ano from the discredited traditional parties. Up to now it has struck a pragmatic, centrist stance, and in the absence of anything closer it joined the ALDE liberal group in the European Parliament. But now Babis has realised how few liberal voters there are in the Czech Republic and he is moving the party towards the right, where a huge space has opened up since the implosion of the last Civic Democrats-TOP09 rightwing government in a welter of corruption and spying scandals. Though he currently rules it out, this could eventually pave the way for a future centre-right coalition.
The lack of party democracy, or ideology, or even policies do not seem to harm Ano, which has around a 7-point lead over CSSD in the opinion polls. Babis maintains an image as a strong, successful manager who has reluctantly – and generously – decided to take on the onerous task of cleaning out the Augean stables, besmirched by the country’s squabbling, incompetent and corrupt politicians.
Whether Babis will be able to keep up this act, without some evidence of good management or cleaning up corruption, is questionable. “It is difficult to play the anti-politics card for ever,” notes Hanley.
There is also a growing risk that the personalities he has recruited will demand more say in how the party is run. “It does not have any valves to let off steam,” says Jiri Pehe, who parodies the party as ‘Anofert’. “I can’t see how he can hold this together for a long time.”
The third danger is that Ano will eventually be damaged by the conflict of interest between Babis as finance minister, and Babis as a tycoon who is prospering in the country’s murky business environment. If the conflict does become visible, it could be devastating, as anti-corruption is Ano’s main selling point.
So far Czech journalists have hardly begun to investigate these conflicts of interest – perhaps not surprisingly, given that Babis now owns two out of the four serious national newspapers.
Rotting at the roots
The CSSD congress was also by its standards a very subdued affair, but not because there is any lack of internal opposition to Sobotka’s uncharismatic leadership.
Instead, the traditionally fractious leftish party appears stunned to find itself in such rude health after a deeply disappointing general election, followed by an attempted putsch orchestrated by President Milos Zeman, the party’s estranged former leader.
CSSD – founded in 1878 – has been the strongest Czech political party for nearly two decades, only coming second at a general election once since Zeman led them to power in 1998. The left now is the dominant force from the presidency down to both chambers of parliament and much of local and regional government.
The collapse of the rightwing Civic Democrats (ODS), their traditional rivals since the restoration of democracy, left CSSD without serious opposition. However, Babis’ creation of Ano stole from them the clear victory they should have achieved in October 2013, and gave Zeman his chance to revenge himself on the party’s leaders who had sabotaged his first tilt at the presidency in 2003.
Sobotka played that crisis well, and since then Zeman’s self-destruction, combined with the government’s relative stability and popularity, have kept potential rivals such as Interior Minister Milan Chovanec in check.
At the party's congress, the prime minister ran unopposed and won 85% of the vote. Sobotka also secured the re-election of lieutenants such as Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek, who had been expected to struggle because of his strong backing for sanctions against Russia.
Yet this apparent success also masks the true state of the party. Membership is just 21,000 (though this is eight times Ano’s), and predominantly old and male. Its support is strongest among this same demographic in small towns, rather than among younger, educated voters in large cities, which is the pattern for leftwing parties across Western Europe. This does not bode well for the party’s future vitality.
Unlike most Social Democrat parties in the region, CSSD is not the old Communist party renamed. And yet it is not a modern West European Social Democratic party either. It remains stuck in a defensive crouch, protecting welfare benefits while displaying little vision of the kind of country it wants to build that could attract young, progressive voters. “They project themselves as a kind of trade union for older, socially disadvantaged people,” says Pehe.
True, the party still has by far the strongest base in local and regional government, but this could be an Achilles’ heel, as corruption is rife at this level. Babis’ newspapers have already tried to tar Sobotka with old controversies from the CSSD’s 1998-2007 governments. A fresh scandal here could furnish Babis with a pretext to leave the government, if he needs one.
At his congress, Babis promised to be tougher on CSSD in the future and muttered darkly about how the party was “burdened by a controversial past”.
For their part, Sobotka and other CSSD leaders made noises about how the finance minister was blocking tax increases, and disparaged his democratic credentials. “He is at a permanent risk of conflict of interest," Sobotka said.
Yet the odds are that the coalition will hang together until the next election, but with increasing tension. Both parties are polling higher since the election – with Ano’s percentage in the high 20s and CSSD’s in the low 20s – and economic growth is accelerating.
The coalition has no major planned reforms or looming challenges that look like they could unsettle this picture, though the 2016 budget is bound to provoke more posturing.
Difficult decisions such as when to adopt the euro have been kicked into touch. The coalition appears content to drift on for another two years. “I do not see any progress [on reform] or even indications of preparations,” says Blanka Kolenikova, senior analyst at IHS.
If Ano maintains its support until the election and afterwards can govern with the right, it may decide to do so, as a way of cementing its position as the new alternative to CSSD.
But the votes may not be there, and even if they are, the squabbling rightwing parties may not be so eager to be cannon fodder. The ODS’ Euroscepticism would also be a problem, admits Pavel Telicka, a member of the European Parliament on Ano’s ticket who acts as the party’s foreign policy expert. “There are not that many options,” he admits.
So the Social Democrats and Ano may just be stuck with each other.
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