The clear winner of the Czech general elections, populist Andrej Babiš, is a lonesome man. Despite some ad hoc cooperation with extreme forces, the political class has positioned itself as a united front against him. Now, the Chamber of Deputies has voted no-confidence for his cabinet. But this wall of resistance is brittle.
The Czech Republic finds itself trapped between two elections. After the October general elections, a minority government was formed by the ANO party of populist billionaire Andrej Babiš, but failed to obtain a vote of confidence last week in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Czech parliament.
Moreover, the first round of direct presidential elections was held last weekend. As no candidate won a majority, a second-round duel between incumbent President Miloš Zeman and his challenger Jiří Drahoš will take place on January 26 and 27. For the moment, Czech politics is blocked, and what makes future months quite unpredictable is the fact that the moral compass of some parties is very fragile. There are several possible future scenarios of how the political deadlock could be overcome. Although domestic politics under Babiš is much less predictable, foreign affairs seem to enjoy continuity as the first weeks of his premiership have shown.
General elections and its aftermath
After a huge success in October where Babiš’ ANO party got nearly 30% of the national vote, he has neither been able to form a coalition government, nor has he received support for his minority cabinet. He is a polarising figure in Czech politics: A billionaire with assets in agriculture, media and the chemical industry who has been charged with subsidy fraud and is, therefore, not acceptable as Prime Minister for nearly every prospective political partner.
Furthermore, the Chamber of Deputies is extremely fragmented and unprecedentedly polarised. Nine parties reached the lower house in the October elections, compared with seven in the previous term and only five in the years 1998 to 2013. This pattern can be traced to the rise of protest parties. The Pirate Party, focusing on transparency and anti-corruption, got almost 11% of the vote. And the far-right anti-immigration and anti-Islam Freedom and Direct Democracy Party (SPD) of Czech-Japanese businessman Tomio Okamura also received more than 10%.
The other side of the coin is that the mainstream parties lost. Most dramatic is the Social Democrats’ defeat. They dropped from 20% in 2013 to only 7% in 2017, falling from first to seventh place. It is assumed that many of their core voters opted for ANO, the Social Democrats’ junior coalition partner from 2013 to 2017. Babiš has been able to capitalise on the successes of the coalition government yet was still able to keep his appeal to overthrow the traditional parties. Against this backdrop, forming a coalition with Babiš is extremely unattractive for any other party.
Left without potential partners, Babiš turned to extreme forces. He cooperated with the Communist Party and the far-right SPD in the election of parliamentary committees.
The latest SGI report for the Czech Republic states: “To increase its executive capacity, the government needs to expand its strategic planning capacities, and continue with the modernization of public administration and the de-politicization of the executive branch.” Nevertheless, this strategic planning is hard to envisage as Babiš’ minority cabinet governs without the confidence of the Chamber of Deputies and is to be replaced soon.
Furthermore, Babiš has also shown that it is not his plan to de-politicise public administration. By reorganising units of ministries, he released senior officials who were close to other parties despite the existence of a civil service code, which should have protected the state administration from political interventions. Moreover, recently leaked information suggests that Babiš aims to amend the civil service code.
President Zeman has already promised Babiš to provide him with a second try to form the government. However, Babiš has to bring Zeman signatures from a majority of MPs in order to get that second nomination. If his second attempt also fails, the most probable scenario would be early elections in fall – an outcome most parties fear and would like to avoid because for the moment only ANO is able to fund a landslide campaign. Babiš may also argue that nobody wants to take responsibility and govern with him, so he would need a stronger mandate.
Subsequently, the firm rejection of Babiš may not hold. The Social Democrats are convening in February to elect new leadership, and some of those politicians expected to assume top positions in the party already favour a coalition with ANO. Jan Hamáček, the former speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, who has good chances to become a new leader of Social Democrats, already declared that the party should not remain isolated during the second attempt to form a cabinet. The most probable scenario in the coming months would be the formation of a minority government of ANO and ČSSD, and with the support of the Communist Party, it would reach the necessary majority in parliament. Though, other less probable options like a coalition of ANO, Social and Christian Democrats or a deal between ANO and liberal-conservative Civic Democratic Party should not be excluded yet.
The European Game
A coalition with far-right SPD and the Communist Party, however, is hard to imagine. Babiš was open for ad-hoc cooperation and, as a businessman with transactional thinking, he will always be ready to conclude any deal if it brings him profit. Yet, such coalition would be very unstable and Babiš also wants to better his poor international reputation. An open alliance with xenophobes would not help him in that respect. Since he was often compared to Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński, he tries to get rid of the image of a new Central European semi-autocrat. He has nothing to gain from being coupled with the two European counter-revolutionaries, as Orbán and Kaczyński labelled themselves in the 2016 public debate.
Unlike in Hungary and Poland, Babiš’ populism lacks comprehensive ideology rooted in culture and history. His protest against the “traditional political class” contains disrespect to Brussels, but – as he often underlines – he is not per se against the European Union. His statements relating to the EU are very vague, and the Czech EU policy will probably remain broadly pragmatic with two key elements: Firstly, the Czech Republic will protest against any permanent relocation scheme for asylum-seekers and will not accept any refugees voluntarily. Secondly, the Czech Republic will not join the Eurozone, as Babiš will act in accordance to public opinion: 80% of Czechs do not want the single currency.
The outcome of the finale of the presidential elections in the end of January may influence the domestic political dynamics. Zeman promised to appoint Babiš as Prime Minister for a second attempt to form a cabinet in February. If Zeman loses, Babiš will be under time constraints to get the Social Democrats on board (and to get parliamentary support of the Communists), since Drahoš would be a harder opponent for him. The new (or re-elected) President would also set the date of early elections if this scenario materialises. The best option for Babiš would be a linkage with the municipal and senatorial elections, which should be held in September or early October 2018. A super election in fall would bring him a true landslide victory.
Vít Dostál is Research Director of the Association for International Affairs (AMO) in Prague, Czech Republic. He wrote and edited many publications dealing with Czech foreign policy and Central Europe.