The Czech Presidential Election and Europe’s Populism Crisis

By January 19, 2018Uncategorized

Elisabeth Bakke (University of Oslo) and Nick Sitter (Central European University)

Czech elections – let alone Czech presidential elections – do not always command international attention. Compared to Hungary and Poland – where the radical effects of the victory of populist right-wing parties in parliamentary elections have given new meaning to the term ‘democratic backsliding’ – democracy in the Czech Republic is not under threat. However, the current presidential election (first round January 12–13; run-off on January 26–27) merits attention both on the grounds of the effects it might have on domestic politics and because of its potential wider impact on European Union politics and on European security questions. 

Nine candidates ran in the first round, and as expected, the incumbent president Miloš Zeman finished first with 38.6 percent.  Zeman did not do quite as well as some of the polls suggested. Zeman’s strongest rival, Jiří Drahoš, the former head of the Czech Academy of Sciences, finished second with 26.6 percent. Polls give Drahoš a good chance of winning the run-off. Unlike Schwarzenberg in 2013, he is acceptable in wider circles. Of the seven candidates who did not make it to the second round, three non-partisans won between 8.8 and 10.2 percent each. The only experienced politician besides Zeman, former prime minister Mirek Topolánek, received only 4.3 percent. All four have publicly endorsed Drahoš for the second round, and one of them (Michal Horáček) even offered Drahoš his prepaid billboards. However, much depends on Drahoš’ ability to match Zeman in (two) TV debates and to mobilize (new) voters. Turnout in the first round was 61.9 percent; and highest in Prague, where Drahoš won. It is expected that the campaign will become uglier in the run-up to the second round. 

Why is it important who wins the run-off? The present impasse in Czech politics means that the next president may have more influence on the Czech political scene than his limited formal powers might suggest. This week the minority government of billionaire prime minister Andrej Babiš, in office since December 6th, 2017, lost a vote of confidence in the lower house. Having won the parliamentary election of October 2017, his party, the centrist populist ANO, is the biggest party with 78 seats in the 200-strong lower house. However, the government only received the backing of the ANO, and therefore resigned on January 17th. As if this was not enough, the lower house voted to strip Babiš and his first vice chairman Jaroslav Faltýnek of their parliamentary immunity. 

The two MPs have been under police investigation for subsidy fraud against the EU in the Stork’s Nest case. In 2008 the Stork’s Nest farm and hotel complex received a 50 million crown EU subsidy intended for small and medium-sized companies. Technically it was at the time owned by family members of Babiš (his two grown children and the brother of his current wife), but before and after this the Stork’s Nest was owned by a subsidiary of Agrofert, and therefore not eligible for EU subsidies. The case has also been investigated by OLAF, the European Anti-Fraud Office. Babiš denies any wrongdoing.

This case is part of the reason why it has been difficult for Babiš to form a majority government. To do so, he needs the support of at least one other party. Babiš stated right after the election that he would prefer to govern with the Civic Democrat ODS (25 seats), also because the two parties – in his view – are politically close. The invitation was flatly rejected by ODS chairman Petr Fiala. A second possibility would be to renew the 2013–2017 coalition with the Social Democrat ČSSD (15 seats) and the Christian Democrat KDU-ČSL (10 seats). Both are willing to negotiate, but neither party will accept as a member of the government, let alone prime minister, a person who is under criminal investigation. As for the rest, Babiš declared already before the election that he would not govern with the extreme left (the unreformed Communist Party KSČM, 15 seats) or the extreme right (Tomio Okamura’s SPD, 22 seats). ANO nevertheless made a deal with these two parties to make sure that Radek Vondráček from ANO was elected speaker. The two small parties on the centre-right, the conservative TOP09 and the centrist Mayors (13 seats combined) ruled out future government cooperation with ANO even before the election. Finally, the Pirate Party (22 seats) has decided not to support or tolerate an ANO government. It is difficult to imagine a majority government without ANO, since neither of the parties wants to govern with KSČM and SPD.   

In this complicated parliamentary situation, the outcome of the run-off election on January 26–27 may well make a difference. According to the Czech Constitution, the president appoints the prime minister, and on his proposal, the rest of the ministers. However, if the government does not win a vote of confidence in the lower house within 30 days, it must resign. This is where the Czech Republic is now. President Zeman has promised Babiš a second go, but to put pressure on the parties, Zeman has demanded assurances that a majority of at least 101 MPs will support the new government. In the meantime, the current Babiš government will continue as a caretaker government. If Zeman wins the run-off, this situation can go on for a long time – potentially to the end of the election period. Already in 2013 Zeman showed his willingness to stretch the constitution by keeping a government in office that did not enjoy the confidence of the lower house. Moreover, he is adamant in his rejection of early elections. 

If Drahoš wins, Zeman has to act before his period ends on March 8th. If he decides to give Babiš a second chance, and he succeeds in forming a majority government, there is little Drahoš can do. If this government also fails to win the vote of confidence, the speaker of the lower house (Vondráček from ANO) decides whether Babiš (or somebody else from ANO) will get a third chance. If also the third attempt fails, the initiative goes back to the president. Drahoš has spoken up against appointing a prime minister who is charged with crimes, and in contrast to Zeman, he most likely will call early elections if also the third attempt fails. If all parties but ANO agree, the lower house may theoretically dissolve itself (with a 3/5 majority), but this is not very likely.

But the Czech presidential vote may also have reverberations outside the country. The contest between Miloš Zeman and Jiří Drahoš reflects a political cleavage that runs through many European party systems and has gained salience since the financial crisis. The Economist labelled this a contest between ‘drawbridge-up’ national and populist protectionists on one hand, and liberal ‘drawbridge-down’ parties. Since 2010, the right-populist Fidesz has taken ever-tighter control of Hungarian politics, to the extent that its commitment to liberal democracy is widely questioned. In Poland the PiS lost no time in copying Fidesz’s ‘illiberal democracy’ project after its 2015 electoral victory. In 2016 the nationalist critics of open borders triumphed in the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election, but failed in the Austrian presidential election. In 2017, the French and Dutch elections saw the liberals defeat right-populist challengers, which the German elections weakened Angela Merkel and the Austrian elections brought a populist coalition to power. On 4 March, the Italian election will pit a centre-left liberal alliance against populist Eurosceptic rivals on both the left and the right in a three-way race.  

The first international dimension of the Czech election is therefore that it is one of a series of electoral tests between liberals and populist nationalists. In the Czech, like the Hungarian and American, case this also involves a Russian dimension. If Viktor Orbán is – as a US congressional report on Putins’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe suggests – Vladimir Putin’s closest ally in the EU, Miloš Zeman comes a close second. The Czech president has pushed for the EU to accept the Russian annexation and explore the possibility of some form of compensation for this ‘fait accompli’. Like the Hungarian and Slovak prime ministers, Zeman has repeatedly criticized the EU sanctions on the Russian financial, energy and defence sectors. Although his foreign policy powers are limited, Zeman’s re-election could reduce somewhat the prospects for the renewal of the sanctions when these come up for renewal in the summer. Perhaps more worryingly, the presidential election has already given rise to fears about ‘fake news’ and Russian interference. Regardless of its limited potential effect on foreign policy decisions, this electoral contest is likely to go down in history as another chapter in Russia’s cyber-attacks on the West.

The second international dimension concerns the future of the EU. The Czech presidential election takes place in a political situation where the Central European states are very divided over the Hungarian and Polish governments’ ‘backsliding’ on their countries’ commitments to liberal democracy and the rule of law, and the norms and laws they signed up to as members of the European Union. Again the formal powers of the Czech president are limited. It will be the government that decides on how to vote on any censuring of Poland. So far, only Hungary’s Fidesz has threatened to veto sanctions against Poland under the European Union’s Article 7 over breach of fundamental values of the EU (in this case, the rule of law). Bulgarian prime minister Bouko Borisov (the chair of the EU Council of Ministers for the first half of 2018), said he ‘would lose sleep’ over the question. Some others, such as Austria’s conservative-populist government (which is close to Fidesz) and the Croat government, are playing their cards close to their chests. While Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán had made it clear that he considers action against Poland an attack on all of Central Europe, his Czech and Slovak counterparts have been more careful to avoid too close association with the EU’s ‘backsliding’ black sheep. Under Article 7, a four-fifths majority of member states (i.e. 22 states) is required to determine the ‘clear risk of a serious breach’ (after that, unanimity would be required to determine ‘the existence’ of such a breach, which could then lead to sanctions). Could a strengthened Zeman-Babiš team shift the balance in the Visegrád 4? And tip the balance if the Italian election in March propels right- or left-wing populists to power, and/or the uncertainty around Brexit makes the UK abstain? 

The answer will depend on how the Czech domestic politics game plays out after the election. When the European Parliament voted on a resolution to criticise Fidesz over its government’s democratic backsliding in May 2017, the fault line in the European People’s Party between the parties that protected their errant sister party ran from north-west to south east: the Italians, Spaniards and Germans joined the Czech, Slovak, Hungarian and Balkan conservatives in closing ranks around Fidesz. But both Babiš and Jiří Drahoš are committed to a pro-EU and Atlanticist foreign policy. More to the point, Babiš has explicitly distanced himself from the Polish and Hungarian governments’ efforts to centralise power and limit the rule of law. In the event of a Drahoš-victory, the prospects for the Czechs moving closer to Poland and Hungary in a ‘backsliders alliance’ are therefore weak. But in the event of a Zeman victory – and especially one that is associated with Russian interference – the waters could become muddier. Zeman has already demonstrated a tendency to disregard constitutional convention, notably when he appointed a ‘technocratic’ caretaker government in 2013 and delayed new elections despite its lost vote of confidence. 

Although the Czechs are unlikely to follow the Polish and Hungarian path, a shift closer to their two illiberal regional partners could have a negative effect on the EU’s will to confront democratic backsliding. The Commission can count to 22. With Budapest and Sofia sympathetic to Warsaw, and question-mark hanging over Zagreb, Vienna and London –  and possibly post-election Rome – even a degree of uncertainty about the position in Prague might be enough to prevent the next step toward a censure of Poland. In what promises to be a turbulent year for the EU, political developments in the Czech Republic could become important for Central Europe’s future in the EU.

The authors are writing in a personal capacity and their views do not represent the TransCrisis consortium as a whole.