Over the past few weeks, the Czech Republic got their chance at hearing how the EU institutions can help or harm them with future plans of integration, issues relating to immigration and several spurious stories surrounding the Pro-EU candidate Jiří Drahoš. While the fake news did most likely have some impact, Drahoš was an inexperienced politician who had good luck but also made many mistakes. He lost 25% of his support from the first round of voting, probably due to the fact that he strongly declared he would not back the popular, though controversy-ridden, PM Andrej Babiš which negatively affected his “president-of-all” message.
After the polls closed on Saturday, it became clear that incumbent President Miloš Zeman won a second-term in a selection that could have far-reaching impact across Central Europe.
We asked four experts (Veronika Víchová, Dániel Bartha, Péter Krekó and Martin Ehl) to reflect on the Czech election over the weekend framed around three open-ended questions.
What do you think will most likely happen now that Miloš Zeman has been re-elected as President of the Czech Republic? Will there be any dramatic changes?
Veronika Víchová: It is likely to presume that Miloš Zeman will continue in his attempts to change the geopolitical course of the Czech Republic to the East, but this time without the constraints posed by attempts to be re-elected and possibly also by a pro-Euro-Atlantic government. Our new Prime Minister, Andrej Babiš, is not too interested in foreign policy, and he might not feel the need to limit the influence of the President abroad.
Dániel Bartha: I think the real drama will not be what comes after a next Zeman presidency as he would to a large extent continue his existing anti-western policies. The real drama will be that he could win an election with such a dirty campaign. This is a very bad message for the whole region, and it will contribute to the further (if that is possible) freefall of the public discourse and political communication.
Péter Krekó: I think we could have an impression on how a Miloš Zeman presidency looks like- therefore, I do not expect dramatic changes. Luckily, even if directly elected, the Czech president’s role is rather symbolic and ceremonial. On the other hand, because of the difficulties of the formation of the new government, Zeman’s steps have practically become more important – in virtual tandem with Andrej Babiš. Even in a fragile parliamentary background, their coordination can make both politicians stronger. The likelihood of Babiš will be able to form a government increased.
Martin Ehl: There will not be dramatic changes in policies pursued by President; therefore, we expect to have more populism, more Russian and Chinese influence and more shadowy deals with Andrej Babiš, the communists and other anti-Western elements of the Czech political landscape. The influence of shadow advisers to the President, who are under no democratic control on Czech politics, and business will continue and may even grow since there will be most probably government in which their interests will be taken into consideration.
Last week we published a piece by Vit Dostal, Czech Politics Between General and Presidential Elections: Stalemate and Chaos, do you (dis)agree with his assessment?
Veronika Víchová: I believe Mr. Dostál´s scenarios are fairly realistic. Andrej Babiš has been unpredictable so far in domestic politics, but let’s not forget he changed his foreign policy views as well. He began as a clearly pro-European politician and a leader of a party belonging to the ALDE fraction. Now, he mostly highlights the fact that he does not want any further integration; however, it is not in his interest to lead the country to an exit. Apart from the European Union, we do not know much about his opinions and planned moves.
Dániel Bartha: I largely agree, although I think he is wrong about how ideological the Hungarian system is. I do believe Orban’s opportunism places him to be much closer to Babiš than to Kaczynski. I think the Orban-model is indeed attractive for Babiš, as centralising power could further raise his influence and control. He has indicated that he is ready to eradicate checks and balances. However, currently, he is lightyears away from being able to force such a centralisation. Orban needed a 2/3 majority for that, while Babiš can’t even form a majority government.
I also agree that beyond Babiš, few have interest in early elections. As CSSD’s survival is at risk, they will be one of those going into coalition. Obviously, if ANO would nominate anybody else other than Babiš, forming a government would be super quick.
Péter Krekó: Vit made a very persuasive and detailed picture on Czech political landscape, I absolutely share his assessment. One more thing to add to the picture: the Russia-factor. Miloš Zeman is one of the most pro-Russian politicians in Central Eastern Europe, to the extent of calling for the recognition of Crimea as part of Russia. It seems that during the electoral campaign, the Kremlin even provided him with financial resources and some push from the “alternative”, conspiracy media. Attempts from the Kremlin to expand its influence in the Czech Republic are expected. While Zeman is a politician that can be open to it anyway, they try to persuade Andrej Babiš via good “pragmatic” business deals – in the energy sector and elsewhere. This is definitely an issue to keep an eye on.
Martin Ehl: After the Miloš Zeman’s victory, there is a slightly bigger chance for a new government with the participation of communists, first since the change of the regime, either as part of an ANO and Social Democrats coalition or an ANO, communists, and extremists SPD coalition. The chance of earlier parliamentary elections is a bit lower than it would be in case of Drahos’ victory. It is not so easy to call early elections in the Czech political system and the only party interested is ANO, the others might only lose.
Do you think the current situation surrounding Andrej Babiš will have an effect on the Visegrad region as a whole? Are there any related issues you can see having a ripple effect across Central Europe?
Veronika Víchová: Due to the current uncertainty about which government or government coalition is going to be representing the Czech Republic next month, it is difficult to predict anything. In the Visegrad countries, there is certainly a visible trend of crisis of trust in democratic institutions and mainstream media, which has been often embraced or even encouraged, by leaders like Andrej Babiš.
Dániel Bartha: I rather think the Czech political crisis will keep together at this point the V4, despite the visible splits between the Czech-Slovak and Polish – Hungarian tandems. As long as Czechs won’t articulate their interests due to their internal problems, Hungarians and Poles will be able to dominate the Central European agenda.
Péter Krekó: As Dostal also highlighted in his analysis, Babiš is fighting against the image of the illiberal revolutionary. But the whole spectrum of the Czech politics has shifted to a more illiberal direction- not only with the success of ANO, but also with the rise of Okamura’s party and the re-election of Zeman. And it definitely has an impact on the political and policy outputs as well. Furthermore, increasing fragmentation is also a great asset for political forces that want to capitalise on the chaos, from the inside (Okamura), or outside (Kremlin).
The likely re-election of Viktor Orbán, in April 2018, will just strengthen the appeal of illiberal politics in the region, sending the message that this is the way to political success. It is crucially important that leaders of Western European countries, most importantly Germany and France, are showing an alternative route for politicians in the region, and especially in the Czech Republic.
Martin Ehl: Yes, there will be continuation of policies undermining the EU role in the region, there will be growing scepticism towards the rule of law, towards the liberal order as such.
Veronika Víchová is Kremlin Watch Analyst
Dániel Bartha is Executive Director, Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy (CEID)
Péter Krekó is Director of the Political Capital Institute, a Budapest-based Central European political research, and consultancy firm
Martin Ehl is Czech journalist in Hospodarske noviny (Economic daily), and editor of Visegrad Insight
Interviewed and edited by Galan Dall