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The changing of the guard in the Czech Republic

As the traditional parties struggle, unpredictable new movements are reaching for power.

Last Modified: 31 Oct 2013 12:25
Matej Bajgar

Matej Bajgar is a doctoral student in economics and a Weidenfeld Scholar at the University of Oxford. He occasionally writes for Czech media on economic and political issues.
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"The real winner of the elections is the ANO movement, founded only two years ago by Andrej Babis, an owner of an agribusiness empire and the second richest Czech," writes Matej Bajgar [EPA]

Predicting political developments is a tricky affair. In the 2006 Czech parliamentary elections[Cz], the right-wing Civic Democratic Party and the social Democrats together won over three quarters of all seats. Many commentators were predicting the country was on the way to a quasi-majoritarian system with two major parties taking their turns in power and marginalising everyone else.

On October 25 and 26, Czech voters decided on a very different story[Cz]. They gave the Civic Democrats less than eight percent of the votes, a beating unthinkable at any previous parliamentary elections in the party's 22-year history. The social Democrats became the official winners, but they rightly see a gain of 20 percent of votes after seven years in opposition as more of a defeat than a victory. More so as a few months ago polls were still promising them a yield of 30 percent or even higher.

The real winner of the elections is the ANO movement, founded only two years ago by Andrej Babis, an owner of an agribusiness empire and the second richest Czech. Unlimited finances, professionally led campaign and a sufficiently vague programme have brought his party 47 seats in the 200-head parliament, just three seats less than the social Democrats.

Inscrutable Mr Billionaire

It is difficult to know what to expect from Andrej Babis, who was born in Bratislava and still speaks an odd mixture of Czech and Slovak. Although he first became rich in a fishy transaction[Cz] during the wild privatisation era of 1990s, his record is relatively free of corruption scandals. He has also managed to get support not only from celebrity actors and sportspeople, but also surprisingly from renowned personalities such as Jiri Zlatuska, a former rector of the Masaryk University in Brno; Martin Komarek, a well-known writer and journalist; and Radim Jancura, a popular entrepreneur.

In June, just hours after Babis announced his intention to purchase the first and third most read non-tabloid newspapers in the country, he was recorded making a phone call to a reporter, demanding an explanation for why a newspaper did not report on Babis's press conference.

Babis's top policy priority is adoption of nine key anti-corruption laws proposed by an anti-corruption initiative called Reconstructing state[Cz]. Run by a broad coalition of civil society organisations, the initiative asked candidates from all political parties to commit to supporting a list of laws such as a requirement to publish all contracts concluded by public agencies online, a ban on stocks with anonymous owners and rules for transparency in financing of political parties.

On the other hand, there are strong reasons for suspicion. Babis joined[Cz] the Communist Party in 1980, at a time when people had long ceased joining for idealistic motives. There are also documents revealing that he acted as an agent of the communist police[Cz], although he is in the process of challenging them in the court.

In June, just hours after Babis announced his intention to purchase the first and third most read non-tabloid newspapers in the country, he was recorded[Cz] making a phone call to a reporter, demanding an explanation for why a newspaper did not report on Babis's press conference. He finished his call by saying "I hope the guys know what they are doing. It seems they do not know who they are dealing with."

Importantly, Babis's tendency to avoid answering any concrete questions has allowed him to keep sympathies of a disparate group of voters, but it also means that little is known about his views in most key policy areas. Indeed, with ANO's official programme mostly copied from other parties, he often gives impression that he has no views at all, beyond his desire to fight corruption and his aversion to raising taxes.

Crisis of the traditional parties

Widespread disillusion with politicians again and again leads the Czech public to favour apolitical politics, whether in the form of transitory "clerical" governments, or in the form of new parties led by figures from outside the world of politics.

In 2010, a newly established party called Public Affairs gained 11 percent[Cz] of votes and became part of the right-wing government coalition. It gradually became clear that the party had been from the beginning a pragmatic business project[Cz] of its sponsor and unofficial leader, an owner of a major security agency, who started it in the hope to get access to lucrative public deals. He bought loyalty of his MPs by providing them with "loans" in the form of cash envelopes, and he was convicted[Cz] for corruption. Although his appeal eventually led to a cancellation of the conviction, the resulting scandal led to a split in his party and a prolonged government crisis.

Why have the voters not learnt a lesson from the tragicomic fate of the Public Affairs and on 26 October yet again succumbed to the appeal of fresh faces and vaporous pledges to fight corruption?

The most negative piece of news is the seven percent success of a xenophobic party called Dawn.

They are looking for alternatives because they no longer believe the traditional parties will bring a better future. The Civic Democrats and their former coalition partner TOP 09 have paid the price for an overly hawkish fiscal policy and arrogant social policies, when they have not only substantially cut welfare benefits but also called their citizens "wasters" [Cz]. But on a deeper level, the Civic Democrats have become too intertwined[Cz] with the shadow sphere of lobbyists, state-owned enterprises and corruption. Only a prolonged period without power will give the party at least a chance of freeing itself from the grip of the "god-fathers" and return to its former glory.

The social Democratic Party is paralysed by an inner struggle between a liberal fraction led by young senator Jiri Dienstbier and a conservative wing headed by party's vice-chairman Michal Hasek. Bohuslav Sobotka, the party leader, sides with Dienstbier, but he has been repeatedly forced to yield to the opposing side. Hasek has the support of president Milos Zeman, who already before the elections announced that he might ignore the unwritten rule and charge Hasek rather than Sobotka with the task of negotiating a government.

If before the elections the two fractions managed to give a semblance of peace, it took Hasek just one day from the final count of the votes to stage what many call a coup, with the party top leadership voting for a statement to exclude Sobotka from the negotiating team and asking him to resign. Sobotka has refused, and encouraged by an outcry against the coup attempt among the party's rank and file and electorate, he may still proceed to become the prime minister. But whatever its outcome, the conflict will reinforce the perception of the traditional parties as representing primitive power struggles rather than the ideals and well-being of citizens.

The elections have brought some positive news. First, the social Democrats do not have enough seats to pursue their cherished plan for a minority government supported by the largely unreformed Communist Party. They will have to look for support elsewhere, most likely with Babis's ANO and the Christian Democrats. second, the Party of Citizens' Rights - Zemanovci, a shady[Cz] party named after and supported by the president, has suffered a crushing defeat and will not be represented in the parliament. And third, more than 60 percent of new MPs have committed to support the Reconstructing state initiative, promising that after years of excuses and delays, the painfully needed anti-corruption measures will finally be adopted. The most negative piece of news is the seven percent success of a xenophobic party[Cz] called Dawn (yes, like the Greek neo-Nazi organisation).

But how history will evaluate these elections will depend on whether the traditional parties will use their defeat as an opportunity for deep transformation, or they will keep heading in their current course and opening the way for sometimes populist but always unpredictable new parties.

Matej Bajgar is a doctoral student in economics and a Weidenfeld scholar at the University of Oxford. He occasionally writes for Czech media on economic and political issues.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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